in conversation with Clay Shirky
The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties (University of Chicago Press, 2013) reveals how the decades that brought us the Korean War and communist witch hunts also witnessed an extraordinary turn toward explicitly democratic, open, and inclusive ideas of communication and with them new, flexible models of social order. Surprisingly, Turner shows, it was this turn that brought us the revolutionary multimedia and the wild-eyed individualism of the 1960s counterculture.
In this prequel to his celebrated book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Turner rewrites the history of postwar America, showing how in the 1940s and ’50s American liberalism offered a far more radical social vision than we now remember. He tracks the influential midcentury entwining of Bauhaus aesthetics with American social science and psychology. From the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the New Bauhaus in Chicago and Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Turner shows how some of the most well-known artists and intellectuals of the ’40s developed new models of media, new theories of interpersonal and international collaboration, and new visions of an open, tolerant, and democratic self in direct contrast to the repression and conformity associated with the fascist and communist movements. He then shows how their work shaped some of the most significant media events of the Cold War, including Edward Steichen’s Family of Manexhibition, the multimedia performances of John Cage, and, ultimately, the psychedelic Be-Ins of the sixties.
Overturning common misconceptions of these transformational years, The Democratic Surround shows that the artistic and social radicalism of the ’60s grew out of the liberal ideas of Cold War America, a democratic vision that still underlies our hopes for digital media today.
Fred Turner is associate professor of communication at Stanford University and a senior editor of Public Culture. He is the author of Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War in American Memory and From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. He lives in California.
Clay Shirky is an Arts Professor in the Telecommunications Program in the Tisch School of the Arts, as well as a Distinguished Writer in Residence at the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. He is the author of two recent books on social media, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, and Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He has written extensively about the internet since 1996 and his columns and writings have appeared in Business 2.0, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review, and Wired.