Fred Turner talks about his “Democratic Surround”

Fred Turner (STS Assoc. Prof. at Stanford), author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture, has written another book examining the development of theories of what Turner calls ‘the democratic personality’ by Margaret MeadGregory Bateson and others into an alternative form of propaganda to encourage opposition to fascism, described as the Democractic Surround, which serves as the title of the book. Turner describes some of the important themes of the book in conversation with Howard Rheingold (who is, incidentally, one of the people that appears in From Counterculture to Cyberculture). Charting movements between American anthropology (through Mead et al.), European avant grade arts (the Bauhaus refugees) and their subsequent absorption into the American cultural milieu in the form of the Black Mountain College (and so John Cage), Turner skilfully weaves an interesting narrative.

For those interested, there is a review essay by Fred Turner of Peter Mandler’s Return From the Natives, on Public Books, which examines the influence of Boas’ ‘school’ of anthropology on war-time (WWII) propaganda.

You can also see Stanford’s form of ‘propaganda’ in the shape of the promotional video they created for Turner’s book…

ESRC benchmarking review places UK Human Geography at the top

Over on his blog Pop Theory, Clive Barnett points out that the ESRC have completed an international benchmarking exercise that argues strongly that British Human Geography is world-leading. As Clive says: ‘say it loud, say it proud’, heh. This news has also featured heavily in my twitter stream this morning…

Clive suggests this is the take-home paragraph:

“Our unanimous conclusion from the evidence presented to us is that human geography in the UK is innovative, vibrant, and in most sub-fields is the world leader. Its students and staff are gifted and committed, its research outputs are disproportionately influential, read and referenced throughout the English-reading world – and, in translation, beyond. It is radically interdisciplinary and with the spatial turn in the humanities and social sciences has become an exporter of ideas and faculty to other disciplines. In the 1960s and 1970s the overseas export of geographers was substantial, and though slower today and more likely to be two-way, this trade in academic knowledge continues. UK geographers have an art not only for innovation but also for synthesis and a large number of the seminal publications (books as well as articles) continue to have a UK origin. So too among the major disciplinary journals – the UK publishes more than its share. Bibliometric indicators reveal that both in volume and in citation impact UK human geography exceeds the scores of other countries and almost all UK comparator social sciences. Cumulatively, this evidence supports the conclusion that human geography as a whole in the UK ranks first in the world.”

William Gibson: The Zero History of waiting for the Great Dismal

[Originally posted on the DCRC website:]

Last night I attended William Gibson’s Bristol Festival Ideas talk.  This blog post represents some reflections on Gibson’s relationship with futurity as it came through in the question and answer session.

William Gibson’s appearance at his Bristol Festival of Ideas talk was delayed by an unanticipated train incident, an apparent ‘anomoly’, as Gibson quipped, for trains are ‘never’ delayed in the UK. This was a fittingly unanticipated eventuality – for the evening proved to focus on the characterisation of the future. Launching straight into a reading of an entire chapter from Zero History. In an unexpectedly high pitched and quite raspy voice, Gibson recounts a section of the character Milgrim’s story. Expressing his witty and insightful eye for detail, in the world crafted by Gibson for Zero History, Cafe Nero is ‘a tasty alternate reality Starbucks’. Gibson’s protagonist is investigating military fashion on behalf of global marketing company, ‘Blue Ant’, not least because ‘military contracting is essentially recession proof’. Indeed, the author proclaimed, the bulk of the 21st century street fashion for men is the fashion of the middle of previous century’s military. This forms a part of the basis for the book’s narrative.
Continue reading “William Gibson: The Zero History of waiting for the Great Dismal”

Remembering the future: PARC 1987 & Microsoft 2006

I was checking out the very engaging ‘Milestones‘ timeline on the PARC website and came across an image that evoked a sense of deja vu. The other place I had seen something very similar was in a Microsoft ‘Future Vision of Manufacturing‘ video. Here are the images:

Xerox PARC CoLab circa 1987


Microsoft Future Vision of Manufacturing collaborative screen circa 2006

The first image depicts the Xerox PARC ‘CoLab‘ collaborative workspace and tools research conducted in the late 1980s. Two people are working on the same sketch from different sides of the screen, which are actually located in different places. The second comes from the aforementioned Microsoft video. Two business men on different sides of the world discuss a wireframe of a proposed car seat, to be manufactured. Interestingly the Microsoft video came about 20 years after the PARC project documented in the first image.

Technology futures are not always novel, what is envisaged can have a significant heritage. Yesterday’s tomorrows can easily become today’s tomorrows with some deft recycling. As Picasso said: ‘good artists copy…’

links for 2008-12-02

Productive reductive computing

Google's first production server

Towards the end of a recent meeting with my supervisors I was asked a question that went something along the lines of: “do you buy the argument that if something is computational, that it is then necessarily reductive?” An excellent question I think. I suggested at the time, and still believe, there are two answers to this question that go together. First, by virtue of what computing ‘is’, as a machine-enabled set of processes that rely by and large on languages based in a formal logic, we must answer ‘yes’. Second, ‘computing’ as an activity and ‘computers’ as devices do not exist in a vacuum they are a part of our lives. I am writing a blog post using my laptop, connected to a network of other computers, run and maintained by people, allowing me to ‘publish’ my thoughts on a web site held on yet another computer, and hopefully some other people are reading this! Therefore, computing is definitely a part of the ‘politics of things‘, as suggested by Latour, with and by which we and others socialise.

My two answers are not mutually exclusive, “either/or”, they go together such that, I argue, we must increasingly see ‘computing’ as a connective capacity. Computing connects people with other people, people with ideas, information with things, etc etc. In this way, I have some sympathy for those, like Adam Greenfield, that suggest that “ubiquitous computing”, or something like it, was somewhat inevitable. However, I think hindsight definitely smoothes out the errors and stumblings along the way. If we think about ubiquitous computing as “the application of computational tools to human activity regardless of the shape and form of those tools”, following Scott Carter (whom I interviewed this summer), I think we can see computing as an ‘affordance’, the capacity to enable possible actions, which is innately connective. Here we might start looking to Gregory Bateson or Deleuze and Guattari to theorise such a connective capacity.

Why do I blog this? It is useful to keep probing concepts central to, and perhaps assumed, in one’s arguments, and I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that the idea of ‘computing’ is not neccesarily fixed.

Image: Google’s first server, held in the Computer History Museum, CA, taken by me.