From Counterculture to Cyberculture I

From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism intends to present a history of thought from the 1960’s into the new institutions and ideologies of the networks that rose to prominence in the 90’s. The “prequel” book traced American countercultural thought from the ’60’s back into the 1930’s [the Digital Surround, notes here and here].

[In the mid 1990’s] ubiquitous networked computing had arrived, and in its shiny array of interlinked devices, pundits, scholars, and investors alike saw the image of an ideal society: decentralized, egalitarian, harmonious, and free.

The Internet would bring about the rise of a new “digital generation”- playful, self-sufficient, psychologically whole- and it would see that generation gather, like the Net itself, into collaborative networks of independent peers. States too would melt away, their citizens lured back from archaic party-based politics to the “natural” agora of the digitized marketplace.

Thirty years before, computerization was seen by the same class of folk as a dehumanizing, centralizing, bureaucratic force. “How did the cultural meaning of information technology shift so drastically?”

Partly, it must be technological. By the ’90’s, computers could afford new interactions- they were cheaper, smaller, and more personalizable, in contrast to the expensive, protected behemoths that only select few could use in the 60’s. There were more obvious uses for them than directly controlling the masses- they can produce personal spreadsheets or act as communication devices.

Turner does not think that physical technological innovation accounts for the complete change of heart, the attachment of utopian visions to the computer. “Personal” technologies are not just technologies that any individual can have- there is more social/ideological baggage there.

“For all the utopian claims surrounding the emergence of the Internet, there is nothing about a computer or a computer network that necessarily requires that it level organizational structures, render the individual more psychologically whole, or drive the establishment of intimate, though geographically distributed, communities”.

Turner intends, as I’ve noted, to trace these ideas to Stewart Brand and the culture around the Whole Earth network in the San Francisco Bay area: important milestones in this line include the 1968 Whole Earth Catalog, the establishment in 1985 of the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), and the establishment of Wired in 1993. I would also add that his involvement with the Merry Pranksters would also spin off a movement called New Games in the ’70’s that I might talk about some time. It may also go without saying that he is also the founder of the Long Now Foundation (est. “02003”), which played a role in the breaking of my mind some years ago.

“By recounting their history, this book reveals and helps to explain a complex intertwining of two legacies: that of the military-industrial research culture, which first appeared during World War II and flourished across the cold war era, and that of the American counterculture.” The common myth is of a failed social revolution, in staunch opposition to the military-industry complex, corporate capitalism and consumer culture. “This version of the past has obscured the fact the same military-industrial research world that brought forth nuclear weapons- and computers- also gave rise to a free-wheeling, interdisciplinary, and highly entrepreneurial style of work. The workers in this system tinkered with these technologies and ideas, beginning to “imagine institutions as organisms, social networks as webs of information, and the gathering and interpretation of information as keys to understanding not only the technical but also the natural and social worlds.” Swaths of the counterculture did, too, and the Whole Earth Catalog was for them. For these particular counterculturalists, (Turner will call them “New Communalists”) the political system was bankrupt and so they resolved to turn their backs on politics “and toward technology and the transformation of consciousness as the primary sources of social change.” The hippies rejected the military-industrial complex but still consumed academic literatures: Norbert Wiener, Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan. Cybernetic thought yielded a kind of broad ecological ideology- the whole earth is a single information system. Human material reality was an information system.

The rhetoric and framework of cybernetics were one set of tools in Stewart Brand’s toolbox- after graduating from Stanford he traveled “into the bohemian art worlds of San Francisco and New York”, networking and rhetorically knitting disparate social networks together. “In the Whole Earth Catalog era, these networks spanned the worlds of scientific research, hippie homesteading, ecology, and mainstream consumer culture. By the 1990’s they would include representatives of the Defense Department, the US Congress, global corporations such as Shell Oil, and makers of all sorts of digital software and equipment.”

Brand’s various publications would blend rhetorics and concepts from different groups and refactor them, they would create communities around them and disseminate the ideas into the broader culture. “Again and again, Brand, and later Kevin Kelly, Howard Rheingold, John Perry Barlow, and others, gave voice to the techno-social visions that emerged in these discussions.”

In short, the 1960’s were not a bizarre break from history. Political agnosticism was dropped, and technology, consciousness, and entrepreneurship were treated as the “principles of a new society.”

The Shifting Politics of the Computational Metaphor

Clark Kerr, 1963: The University is a “mechanism- a series of processes producing a series of results- a mechanism held together by administrative rules and power by money”, a mechanism serving two purposes:

  1. Generating new knowledge and workers for an emerging “information society” (citing Fritz Machlup)
  2. Cold War pressure to weaponize intellect: “Intellect has… become an instrument of national purpose, a component part of the ‘military-industrial complex’ … In the war of ideological worlds, a great deal depends on the use of this instrument.”

In this era, the university was often cast by student protesters as a microcosm of the military-industrial complex itself. “At the time, no machine more commonly represented this stratified, depersonalized social order than the computer.”

Hal Draper (librarian at Berkeley, 1964): [For a student,] “the mass university of today is an overpowering, over-towering, impersonal, alien machine in which he is nothing but a cog going through pre-programmed motions- the IBM syndrome.”

The machine metaphor was used to describe and compare a variety of authoritarian social systems: the corporate world, the military, the university. In all of these, there are assigned organizational roles, forcing participants to be limited in their expression. And so, by sitting in and laying themselves at the entrance of the University/KnowledgeMachine, they meant to stop the machine.

Mario Savio, 1964 [Free Speech Movement, Berkeley]: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even tacitly take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

Contrast with:

John Perry Barlow, 1996 [“Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace”, in response to recent  Communications Decency Act]: “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice according to race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. […] [The industrial world’s Governments’] legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here. […] Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge.”

Barlow is not isolated. Esther Dyson’s popular 1997 Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age also predicted that the Internet would melt bureaucracy, distributing information to allow any two entities (humans and corporations) to negotiate as equals.

Kevin Kelly, New Rules for the New Economy: “The principles governing the world of the soft- the world of intangibles, of media, of software, and of services- will soon command the world of the hard- the world of reality, of atoms, of objects, of steel and oil, and of the hard work done by the sweat of brows. […] Those who obey the logic of the net, and who understand that we are entering into a realm with new rules will have a keen advantage in the new economy.” Kelly argued that a new understanding of information systems was developing- “the computational metaphor”, in which people began to realize that “the universe is a computer”. By then [1998], many computational metaphors were common enough: thinking as computation, DNA as software, evolution as algorithmic process. “[This metaphor] has more juice in it than previous metaphors: Freud’s dream state, Darwin’s variety, Marx’s progress, or the Age of Aquarius. And it has more power than anything else in science at the moment. In fact the computational metaphor may eclipse mathematics as a form of universal notation.”

Returning to the wartime science culture within the nascent “Military-Industrial Complex: “Scientists, engineers, and administrators in the wartime laboratories worked not so much as members of a single culture, but rather as members of different professional subcultures bound together by common purpose and a set of linguistic tools they had invented to achieve it.” The interdisciplinary Rad Lab at MIT was described as a “trading zone”, a metaphor taken after the place where distinct tribes would gather to trade, forced to communicate in “contact languages” and shared tools, “creoles” that both communicating parties could understand.

Nobert Wiener: “We [Wiener and Vannevar Bush] dreamed for years of an institution of independent scientists, working together in one of these backwoods of science, not as subordinates of some great executive officer, but joined by the desire, indeed by the spiritual necessity, to understand the region as a whole, and to lend one another the strength of that understanding. […] We had agreed on these matters long before we had chosen the field of our joint investigations and our respective parts in them. The deciding factor in this new step was war.”

Wiener and Julian Bigelow began to work on war projects where they would occasionally need to model humans as mechanisms inside of a technical system or other.

Wiener [1956 memoir I am a Mathematician]: “In order to obtain as complete a mathematical treatment as possible of the over-all control problem, it is necessary to assimilate the different parts of the system to a single basis, either human or mechanical. Since our understanding of the mechanical elements of gun pointing appeared to us to be far ahead of our psychological understanding, we chose to find a mechanical analogue of the gun pointer and the airplane pilot.”

Within a year, Wiener began to imagine duplicating the human brain with electrical circuits. By 1948 he had transformed the computational metaphor into the basis of a new discipline. In his book Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, he defined cybernetics as a field focused on the “study of messages as a means of controlling machinery and society,” with machinery seeming to include, by analogy at least biological orgnaisms.

Later, Wiener would produce the more sweeping, accessible volume The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, where he argued that society (and its constituent organizational parts) functioned much like an organism or a machine.

These books, in this era, spoke to two concerns: the “sudden importance of science and its ambiguous social potential.”

Embedded in Wiener’s theory of society as an information system was a deep longing for and even a model of an egalitarian, democratic social order. To the readers of Cybernetics, computers may have threatened automation from above, but they also offered metaphors for the democratic creation of order from below.


The power of cybernetics and systems theory to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration emerged in large part thanks to the entrepreneurship of Norbert Wiener and the research climate of World War II. Wiener did not create the discipline of cybernetics out of thin air; rather, he pulled its analytical terms together by bridging multiple, if formerly segregated, scientific communities. Wiener borrowed the word homeostasis from the field of physiology and applied it to social systems; he picked up the word feedback from control engineering; and from the study of human behavior, he drew the concepts of learning, memory, flexibility, and purpose. Wiener could assemble pieces from such diverse sources because he was in steady collaborative contact with representatives from each of these domains at the Rad Lab, in his famous hallway wanderings at MIT, and in his sojourns to the Harvard Medical School.

“Legitimacy Exchange”: Wherein “experts in one area draw on the authority of experts in another area to justify their activities.”

Even though it grew out of and facilitated interdisciplinary forms of cooperation, the computational metaphor did not yet carry with it the visions of a disembodied, egalitarian polis and the postinstitutional, peer-to-peer marketplace with which it would be associated in the mid-1990’s. On the contrary, those social ideals emerged as key features of a nationwide youth movement that rose up in the 1960’s in large part against the institutions within which cybernetics served as a lingua franca.


Under the shadow of nuclear war, the often freewheeling, collaborative practices of cold war research and development almost disappeared from public view. What remained was a vision of expertise and hierarchy and, for critics on the left, of a society dominated by pyramidal organizations run by buttoned-down, psychologically fragmented men. “As the means of information and of power are centralized,” wrote sociologist C. Wright Mills in 1956, “some men come to occupy positions in American society from which they can look upon […] and by their decisions mightily affect, the everyday worlds of ordinary men and women.


Mills’s critique [of “Cheerful Robots”, of people with “rationality but no reason”] could be heard echoing throughout the 1960s in works as varied as Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society (1964), John Kenneth Galbraith’s The New Industrial State (1967), Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964), Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine (1967), Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counterculture (1969), and Charles Reich’s The Greening of America (1970). Like Mills, these authors suggested that society was undergoing a rapid process of centralization and rationalization, a process both supported by new technologies and designed to help build them.

[In response to the broken models of adult life] and to the threat of technological bureaucracy more broadly, the youth of the 1960’s developed two somewhat overlapping but ultimately distinct social movements: the fighting New Left and the countercultural New Communalists. The two are often merged in our flattened, sanitized conception of the era, but they are very distinct and lend different elements to common contemporary thought.

More soon.

March 02014

I’m debating whether these meta-posts serve enough of a purpose to keep them up. It *is* only once per month, but I feel that my normal posts are self-referential enough.

I rediscovered a few hours a week by cutting down on my writing toward the end of this month. 9 posts, 15k words, this month. Maybe a meaningless metric, but I’ve been tracking it so why stop now. Most of the content was very explicitly summarizations of quotations of other people’s work.


Other Notes

  • Upcoming: From Counterculture to Cyberculture, maybe Gamification (which has been mostly put off for seven months now)
  • I’m done with the “Five Week Plans” because I never referred to them in my day-to-day life, and so their completion was purely incidental
  • I want to further categorize my posts for easier navigation. At this point I’m pretty much willfully making my blog difficult to pick up.
  • “Games Studies” podcast series idea: Got some good writing done, but we can’t converge on editing/recording. Mostly because everyone involved shelves it when other things come up, which is all the time. May have to consider pulling the plug until we can collectively prioritize it.
  • I and two former college dormmates are thinking pretty seriously about a product to take to market. We’ve prototyped some stuff up, done some validation work, and got some guidance by more experienced folk. We applied to an incubator but we’ll see how things go on that front.

Mulling: Doctorow’s Wars, Estrada’s Organisms

I’ve started to clean and update my “cowpaths” page of reasonable-sounding connections/themes for 2014 so far. The reflection probably could’ve been saved for my March meta-post, but I had a little time. My current constellations of posts are: Ecological Thinking, Stories and Decision Making, Modern/Centralized Systems, and Games/Game Studies. I have half a mind to try to compact these ideas until I can talk about them much more succinctly. I found myself rambling like a madman trying to explain myself in person just last week.

Below, some more related material from others, in list form.

I. Doctorow’s Wars on General Purpose Computing

(When you own something, should you have to ask it for permission?)

Every time he makes this argument, he crafts it together even more tightly. Summarizing it briefly here because I was thinking about it during my Against Smart Cities reading.

  1. Everything is becoming a computer (or at least computer-mediated)
  2. Computers, by their nature, can run any functional program. There are no “Runs-everything-but-this” computers.
  3. There is a want to disallow computers from running certain programs eg. harmful/illicit/competitor’s stuff, but (2)
  4. The only way to disallow a computer from doing something, effectively, is to install spyware on the computer to regulate what can and cannot run on it. “In other words, DRM: Digital Rights Management.”
  5. In order to be secure, DRM must be hidden from the user, and difficult to override.
  6. This is a heavy-handed approach, and also an ineffective one- smart bad guys will find them and manipulate them.
  7. Further, the possibility of hidden programs inherently weakens the security of the computer- any malware that can manipulate DRM can mask itself. Because of DRMs, there is already a class of hidden files in the computer, without the user’s knowledge or permission.
  8. Also, if DRM is accepted by governments, there is a perverse incentive to protect DRM by legally silencing knowledge of DRM. This is politically dangerous.
  9. We should be concerned about “Human Rights” implications of future technologies, computers in and around people.
  10. We should be more stringent about the “Property Rights” angle- if you own a product, why can’t you do what you want with it?
    That’s not all.
  11. Let’s assume a clean (and, frankly, improbable) victory in the “War on General Purpose Computing”. The next step is a “Civil War”, between Owners and Users. Many people use computers they don’t own. Many more situations like these will develop in the future. There will be hairy situations with implants, self-driving cars, etc that involve questions of liability, security, freedom, etc: “This isn’t a problem I know how to solve. Unlike the War on General Purpose Computers, the Civil War over them presents a series of conundra without (to me) any obvious solutions. These problems are a way off, and they only arise if we win the war over general purpose computing first. But come victory day, when we start planning the constitutional congress for a world where regulating computers is acknowledged as the wrong way to solve problems, let’s not paper over the division between property rights and human rights. This is the sort of division that, while it festers, puts the most vulnerable people in our society in harm’s way. Agreeing to disagree on this one isn’t good enough. We need to start thinking now about the principles we’ll apply when the day comes. If we don’t start now, it’ll be too late.”


 II. Daniel Estrada’s “Field Guide from the Present on Organisms of the Future”

It’s difficult not to just “excerpt” the entire post. I will just paste the first part of three and leave it to the reader to investigate the rest of the article.

1. On Organisms

a. Organisms are persistent complex systems with functionally differentiated components engaged in a cooperative, dynamic pattern of activity.

b. Organisms typically[1] play a role as components of other organisms. Similarly, the components of organisms are typically themselves organisms. Organisms may have components at many different scales relative to other organisms.

c. The components of organisms can be widely distributed in space and time. Each component will typically play multiple, cascading roles for many different organisms at many different scales.

d. There are no general rules for identifying the components of an organism. It may be easier to identify the persistent organism itself than to identify its components or the roles they play.

e. The persistence of an organism consists in the persistent cooperation of its components. The organism just is this pattern of cooperation among components. This pattern may be observed without full knowledge of its components or the particular role they play. This resolves the apparent paradoxes in 1d.

f. Organisms develop over time, which is to say that the components of an organism may change radically in number and role over its lifetime. This development is sensitive to initial conditions and is subject to a potentially large number of constraints. Among these constraints are the frictions introduced by the cooperative activity itself.

g. The cooperation of the components of an organism is also constrained by components that are common to many of the organism’s other components. It is against the background of these common components that cooperation takes place. Common components typically constrain the cooperation of the components of many other organisms, and provide anchors for identifying the cooperative relationships among organisms as a community. For this reason, common components may be thought of as the environment in which a community of organisms develop[2]. A component is more central in a community as more organisms within the community have that component as a common constraint on cooperation.

h. Space and time are central components that constrain the development of all organisms.

i. The lifetime of all organisms is finite, but may be irregular or even discontinuous in both space and time.

I like the format but it seems to take a lot of preemptive thought to get a satisfyingly dense post this way. I am more prone to idling on an idea for barely long enough to capture it (I abuse words like “sketching” or “mulling” to describe my pathological lack of focus). This is something that a blog has really helped me with.

Against the Smart City III

Between my new learning regimen and a big sprint on one of my projects (which will probably continue into another week), I haven’t been keeping up with my usual reading/writing pace. I’ll make for lost time starting next week, I think.

Anyway, more of Greenfield’s Against the Smart City. Very light run-through this time.

Part I (reviews/interpretations)

Part II (“Generic Time and Space”)


Proprietary platforms: “At every turn, [these materials suggest] that in the minds of its designers, the smart city is a place where the technical platforms on which everyday life is built are privately “owned and monetized,” and information is reserved exclusively for the use of those willing and able to pay for it.”

Overspecification: “Overspecification is hubris and brittleness. It is to imply that the designer can anticipate at inception all the potential uses to which the things they create might be put, down through the long future. And it is to set in concrete (in some cases, quite literally) relations that ought to remain supple and fluid.”

The discredited notion of “seamlessness”: Obscuring the meaningful distinctions between “public and private services” makes it hard to people to navigate systems and find the levers they need. Artist James Bridle: “Those who cannot perceive the network cannot act effectively within it and are powerless”

“Inappropriate model of optimization”: Again, missing the logic of the tradeoff, and the concern that “what” is being optimized is important. There are rarely globally optimized solutions. Also, a whole class of behaviors are meant to be disruptive *and vital*, (eg. strikes).

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Against the Smart City II: Generic Time and Space

Note: Greenfield’s arguments are also easily applicable to any political ideology.

Discussion about this pamphlet started here.



Against the Smart City is the first pamphlet in an unfolding series, The City is Here For You To Use. 

The pamphlet is not long, but I’ve been reading it sporadically alongside some other things, so these notes are only for roughly the first third of the work.

Adam Greenfield argues that there are two views of the Smart City:

  • the ex nihilo cities of Songdo, Masdar, or PlanIT valley;
  • the evolutionary view of adaptations to existing cities, the view that will clearly more directly affect hundreds of millions of people in the coming years, and the view of IBM, Siemens, and Cisco.

Interestingly, Greenfield opts to “focus analysis primarily on the sites where the ideology of the smart city finds its purest expression”.

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The Last Psychiatrist

The Last Psychiatrist is reliably fun to read. But is there a consistent method/view to the whirlwind soliloquy? I was thinking about this again during my note-taking on the “psychotherapy of nations” theme in The Democratic Surround.

This is a short back-of-napkin exercise at approximating the line of thought of The Last Psychiatrist. I think I might trail off a bit at the end, but it’s what I had at publishing time.

I started by scribbling up consistent themes I thought of when I recall TLP’s (I’ll call the main writer “Alone”, as (s)he does) writing, based on what I’d consider to be his Greatest Hits:

  • You always think it’s about you, don’t you?
  • If your view of your partner is as a fulfillment of the checklist of needs for you, you will probably find failure in every human you attempt to find a connection with. Doubly so if they hold the same view of you. But you are consistently told that it is okay to view other people as instruments for your own fulfillment. Presumably because you want to hear it and someone wants your money (though there’s more to it than that, ultimately we can’t blame you. More on that later.)
  • Comparably, if your view of work is as a deep personal fulfillment, a product of your passion, you are ignoring the reality that the engine of commerce is driven by addressing (and shaping) other people’s passions. You will probably fail to find work as satisfying as you feel you deserve, ever. But, you will keep working hard, you will keep from “checking out”, which is the important part. Those who collectively sell this “passion” vision to you are succeeding because they are addressing/shaping someone else’s passion- yours- and are extracting resources from you. In Gervais Principle terms, the System benefits when you stay Clueless. Aspirationalism and Narcissicism are elevated virtues in order to accomplish this.

But what is Alone’s view of “The System”? We can’t just make agents up out of thin air.

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The Democratic Surround II

This book was wonderful, very illuminating, and I scratched as much of it as I could to share but there is a lot of very interesting trivia. Here are my notes and quotes on the second half of The Democratic Surround. 


World War II and the Cold War

Post-War America is misremembered as a time of great unity. More than 14000 wildcat strikes broke out in factories and mines in the US, 1941-1945. Race riots erupted in Detroit (’42), Harlem (’43), Los Angeles (’43).

The psychological damage done to millions of soldiers was acutely felt in the United States intelligentsia and the public at large (both very popular books on dealing with “combat nerves” and damaged soldier psyches).

Essayist Mary McCarthy (1947): “The movies, the radio, the super-highway have softened us up for the atom bomb.”

President Eisenhower, 1954: “The world, once divided by oceans and mountain ranges, is now split by hostile concepts of man’s character and nature… two world camps… life farther apart in motivation and conduct than the poles in space.”

Charles Morris was a philosopher and semiotician who taught at the University of Chicago and also with John Cage at Moholy’s New Bauhaus. Like Bayer and Moholy, Morris believed that “individual psyches had been fractured by the pressures of industrial life and, now, by war”. In his 1948 book The Open Self he claims that “we need new selves. And new relationships between selves.” He posited a “flexible, highly interactive society, united in its heterogeneity”. “Science is a miniature example of the open society.” The book claims that he “favored a constant conversation among highly individuated, spontaneously acting citizens” over the idea of mass media.

Cybernetics father and human-machine interaction theorist Norbert Wiener was also involved in these intellectual circles. His frameworks clearly demonstrate an alternative to the dominance/submission dynamics of fascism: that of the feedback loop, the machine as an extension of the human’s will and senses, the conversation and learning between the biological, the mechanical, and the electronic. From his book The Human Use of Human Beings: “Our view of society differs from the ideal of society which is held by many Fascists, Strong Men in Business, and Government… such people prefer an organization in which the orders come down from above, and none return.”

An entire chapter is dedicated to the massively influential installation, The Family of Man at the Museum of Modern Art and later around the world. This installation will come up again, further down.

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Against the Smart City I

In this post, I strategically deploy strawmen. 

Now also on my to-read list: “Against the Smart City (The City is Here For You to Use)” by Adam Greenfield. I’ve read some reviews of the pamphlet and it looks very worth the read.

The “Smart City” is a proposition forwarded by my employer and other large enterprise technology firms. I don’t mean to shill for my employer, and obviously all of this stuff reflects my own thoughts and not those of […]


The arguments I expect to find in the pamplet are absolutely considerable, and I’ve outlined them below. But the bastardization of these points that I’ve seen in reviews ought to be divorced from the clean claims I’m making below.

Found via Zhan Li: “A Review of Adam Greenfields Against the Smart City

A sketch of the grievances:

  • Efficacy: Building cities ex nihilo is incredibly difficult and generally should not be expected to be a worthwhile endeavor. True.
  • Policy: Many concept Cities are de facto authoritarian and intrusive, with massive amounts of information collection and processing. True.
  • Policy: Information platforms are expected to be privately owned. No social or organizational innovations factored in. True.
  • Logical: Cities don’t have “goals”. True (in the sense that they mean).
  • Normal Accidents: Massive system integration create large, single points of failure. Very true, and very scary.
  • Flexibility: Much of a city’s vibrancy takes place in the cracks between systems and regulations, where humans are making special spaces or artifacts of some kind or other. Sure.
  • Amateur Urban Planning: Technology firms have failed to properly amass the insights of mid-century High Modernism/Urban Planning and are retreading awkward, inorganic city layouts. Okay.

Before obfuscating, let me be clear that I agree with every single one of these grievances.

In fact, most of you could stop reading here.

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The Democratic Surround I

On the theories of the Committee of National Morale and the Bauhaus movement in the United States.

I apologize if I was too over-broad in my notes in part iv, my sense of art history is weak.




“How can we prevent Fascism from growing in the United States?”

This was a central question in many American intellectual circles in the 20’s and 30’s. Their concern is more complicated because they doubted their own toolset – mass media propaganda, they suspected, was inherently authoritarian, a one-to-many system requiring its victims to passively absorb a singular message en masse.

Are there alternative tools for spreading liberal democratic thought?

And, importantly, what is the nature Fascism, and what’s so seductive about it?

The Democratic Surround is full of interesting sketches of the concerns and theories of the early 20th century. For example, I liked the Less Wrong ancestor, General Semantics, which tried to hack language to make listeners aware of the emotive power of language to flout proper reasoning. But I’m most interested in Turner’s broad thesis, about the effects of early 20th century authoritarian modernism on our modern culture.

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My girlfriend has been a bit weirded out by my sudden interest in Fascism over the past few weeks.

Let me explain.

I have been convinced that Fascism is far more misunderstood as a pathology than I previously thought (even very recently). Of course nobody really learns about the policies of other regimes in any depth except as a lever for some mythologized historical event, but the propagation of the word as a “snarl word” (as Greer calls it) and the continuous fear of its resurgence demands a cursory knowledge of what it is that we are denigrating, why it’s worthy of denigration (and of course I hold that it is), and how to avoid the return of such a movement.

Authoritarian regimes are roughly as old as agrarian society is. Totalitarian regimes, though, are a relatively recent invention, requiring technologies (both mechanical and social) that we might consider modern. (Chart credit to Wikipedia)

Totalitarianism Authoritarianism
Charisma High Low
Role conception Leader as function Leader as individual
Ends of power Public Private
Corruption Low High
Official ideology Yes No
Limited pluralism No Yes
Legitimacy Yes No

Authoritarian systems are generally cynical, conservative, and kleptocratic, operating within the limits that their brute power allows, and usually incidentally yielding a private sphere for citizens to live within. Totalitarian systems by contrast have a mandate, a popular vision- their leaders tend to rely on some concomitant concept of legitimacy, they act as ‘puppets of the national will’. Their understanding of the national purview is total- there is not private sphere, the entire system must be rebuilt to the New Vision. This requires centralization, mass mobilization, surveillance, messaging and media control, popular civil service, etc. Totalitarian thought is guided by the idea that the future is knowable and inevitable. By contrast, all that authoritarianism generally requires is a big stick and an improvising spirit. Totalitarianism’s champions in the early 20th century did embrace the phrase and the idea explicitly- and I’m considering reading some of them, out of curiosity.

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