Friday, April 8, 2011

Cultural histories of the computer: The Closed World, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, and The Net Effect

The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America by Paul Edwards
From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism by Fred Turner
The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet by Thomas Streeter

One of my intellectual bugaboos is the frequency with which books about the internet are written without regard to the history of the computer as a cultural artifact. Reading about about online communication without knowing about what computers have represented throughout the past century feels like jumping into a movie during the last ten minutes -- exciting things might be happening, but it's really difficult to piece out exact what's going on. Fortunately, there are three books out there that, when read in tandem, provide a fairly comprehensive overview of the major threads that make up the cultural history of computing in the United States.

The first is Paul Edwards' engaging and influential (both Turner and Streeter cite Edwards in their own books) The Closed World. Eschewing the traditional methods of the history of technology, Edwards' work emphasizes the ways in which computers functioned as both cultural metaphors and political icons. Moving beyond the question of what computers have actually accomplished as devices -- questions well-covered in other books -- he instead focuses on the influence of the rise of computing on our understanding of human subjectivity, in the context of the American political imagination during the Cold War.

Divided into two parts, Edwards takes up the notion that computers as metaphors, as well as artifacts, to draw together two apparently unconnected histories: that of military computing during the Cold War (his exploration of the SAGE computerized air defense system is particularly compelling), and that of cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence. Making use of the notions of cyborg discourse and closed-wold discourses, he argues that:
...just as political theory has played a crucial part in constructing political subjects, cognitive theories and computing machines assisted in constructing the subjects who inhabited the electronic battlefields of global cold war. Interpreting human minds as information processing machines, cyborg discourse created subject positions within a political world enclosed by computer simulation and control...It collaborated in the creation of powerful closed world metaphors, analyzing the mind as a closed control system subject to technical manipulation.
This language of the closed world and technical control and manipulation provides the central topic of The Closed World. Here we have a vision of the development of computing technology and computational metaphors directed toward the command-and-control mentality of Cold War America. The sensation described by the members of the Berkeley Free Speech movement -- one of the transformation of the self into data on an IBM card -- was, in part, a reaction to this vision of closed world ideology of computing.

It is here where Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture picks up the narrative. Rather than focusing on the large-scale computing done by the military-industrial complex, Turner turns his gaze on Stewart Brand and the first wave of digital utopians -- those individuals who looked at computers and saw not only opportunities for more precise control, but also expansive possibilities for a more democratic society.

Turner’s book provides a narrative that winds from Sproul Plaza at a radicalized 1968 Berkeley through Silicon Valley in the networked nineties, stopping briefly to examine a host of socio-cultural events that provide the backdrop to the emergence of the Information Age. Exploring the evolution of the computer as a metaphor simultaneously with the emergence of information networks both on- and offline, Turner provides a meticulous account of the way computers and culture work to co-constitute one another. Furthermore, From Counterculture to Cyberculture contributes a unique and, up to this point, unparalleled, history of digital utopianism as a cultural philosophy. While there are many books available -- Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital is probably the flagship work of the particular genre -- that provide excellent examples of what digital utopianism looks like (in both its positive and negative forms), Turner’s is one of the first to actually take this movement seriously as a historical subject.

Drawing a line from Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters to the rise of the personal computer is a daunting task, but one Turner manages with aplomb. Working against Cold War visions of massive computers doing command-and-control work, countercultural technologists re-imagined computers as tools for personal liberation, locations for virtual alternative communities, and the site of exploration of both social and technological frontiers. That this movement culminated in the founding of Wired magazine is no surprise.

In the end, Turner writes:
Thanks in no small part to Brand's work at the Whole Earth Catalog and later at Rolling Stone, desktop computers had come to be seen as 'personal' technology. In keeping with the New Communalist ethos of tool use, they promised to transform individual consciousness and society at large. Thanks to the citizens of the WELL, computer-mediated communication had been reimagined in terms of disembodied, communal harmony and renamed virtual community. Cyberspace itself had been reconfigured as an electronic frontier.
 But Turner goes on:
Even as they decoupled computers from their dark, early 1960s association with bureaucracy, then, Brand and the Whole Earth community turned them into emblems not only of New Communalist social ideals, but of a networked mode of technocratic organization that continues to spread today. In that way, they helped transform both the cultural meanings of information and information technology and the nature of technocracy itself.
So where, ultimately, do these counter-narratives of the emergence of computers and computational metaphors leave us? This is where Thomas Streeter's The Net Effect begins. Published just this past December, Streeter's work carries the cultural history of computers into the Internet age. Where The Closed World ends with only a general nod toward the Internet, and From Counterculture to Cyberculture devotes a chapter to 'the triumph of the network mode', The Net Effect takes up the Internet as its primary subject of analysis.

Streeter embeds his discussion of the cultural history of the Internet squarely between the closed world logic embraced by Edwards' military-industrial complex and the new communalist utopianism engaged in by Turner's techno-hippies. The Internet, he argues, is best understood as a negotiation between our cultural tendency to romanticize 21st century technologies, and the requirements of neoliberalism in a global economy. Here is a story in which neither the virtual world is neither a virtual paradise nor an electronic battleground -- it is instead a social site, like many others, where individuals and communities struggle over meaning when confronted with situations previously unimaginable.

The time spent by Streeter on the development of cyberlaw and the open source movement are particularly enlightening. With the advent of the microchip -- previous to the widespread use of the internet -- capitalism enters the narrative for the first time. By the time the internet is a household name, neoliberal ideology had crept into the digital utopianism of the Steward Brand era. Open source programmers, hackers, moving away from the countercultural ethos of the new left, embraced a romantic individualism that could just as easily work in service of capitalist economic projects as against them. But Streeter's book is not a polemic against the integration of the market and the net. Rather, it is a skillful exploration of the ways in which the narrative threads picked up by Edwards and Turner have been entangled in recent decades. Taken on it's own, The Net Effect is an interesting book about American cultural ideologies of romantic individualism, applied to the net. Taken as a contribution to a historical-theoretical tradition that begins with The Closed World, however, and Streeter's work becomes an important piece of the cultural history of computing puzzle.

For anyone with the time and the inclination to think about what computers mean for culture (and what culture means for computers) in contemporary American life, I highly recommend adding these three books to your summer reading list. If you're a geek for cultural studies, technological history, and, of course, computers, you won't regret it.

1 comment:

Tom Streeter said...

Thanks for your kind and thoughtful words.
Tom Streeter

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