"Burning Man is the very model of the Puritan ideal."
January 3, 2018 6:54 PM   Subscribe

Logic Magazine interviews Fred Turner about Silicon Valley and techno-utopianism. (Turner previously on metafilter)
posted by moonmilk (17 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
Where does that canard about technical solutions to social problems come from?

I remember everyone loved to spout it back when we were angry about DRM
posted by grobstein at 8:29 PM on January 3, 2018


That was an excellent interview.
posted by daq at 9:31 PM on January 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


Israel wasn't a desert. Jews wandered in a desert until they got to the land of milk and honey.

Hopefully, the author knows more about Silicon Valley than he does about the Bible. I'm not going to trust him about Puritans.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 10:49 PM on January 3, 2018 [5 favorites]


That was an excellent interview.

I agree. This is wisdom:

Any utopianism tends to be a totalizing system. It promises a total solution to problems that are always piecemeal. So the problem from my perspective isn’t the technological part of technological utopianism but the utopianism part.

Any whole-system approach doesn't work. What I would recommend is not that we abandon technology, but that we deal with it as an integrated part of our world, and that we engage it the same way that we engage the highway system, the architecture that supports our buildings, or the way we organize hospitals.


Beware of Utopians! They tend to fall into totalitopianism.
posted by philip-random at 11:32 PM on January 3, 2018 [4 favorites]


Well, it's better than Totalitopiary
posted by Pinback at 1:23 AM on January 4, 2018 [1 favorite]


I suppose this meshes well with He died for our debts, not our sins.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:45 AM on January 4, 2018 [3 favorites]


Design is the process by which the politics of one world become the constraints on another.

Love that.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:16 AM on January 4, 2018 [1 favorite]


Hopefully, the author knows more about Silicon Valley than he does about the Bible. I'm not going to trust him about Puritans.

Yes. I found it interesting and he is an astute observer, but more of a philosopher of contemporary technology than a historian. His knowledge of the past seems pretty light - I am especially surprised at his notion of dating tech utopianism only to the 60s/70s counterculture, when in fact it has a very long history, and how do you overlook the postwar/midcentury corporate fascination with Tomorrowland and progress toward a perfect future - notions the countercultural activists were literally weaned on - let alone the history of modernity stretching back through the breakthroughs of the early 20th century, the industrial revolution, the Modern era in general? The est/human potential types didn't spring out of nowhere. Also, I'm a little uncomfortable with casting Puritans as utopians in a contemporary sense - they definitely thought of their project as exemplary, but not necessary as a place that would be good in the sense of fair and free for all with minimal suffering and maximal thriving. In the earliest generations of Puritanism, the human condition on earth was just not the central concern.

Still though, he's write about the delusional and naive dreams of the people who brought us a lot of this stuff, and their roots in privilege that skewed how they viewed the world and what they were creating.
posted by Miko at 6:48 AM on January 4, 2018 [6 favorites]


Lots of clever quotes and his observations jibe with my thoughts, only much better worded. Thanks for posting.

Anyone read his book and wants to give a recommendation?
posted by monocultured at 7:03 AM on January 4, 2018


The writer also kind of misses the fact that one of the major philosophical elements of 60's counterculture and culture in general was a major skepticism about technology. The anti-technological dystopias of the 60s and 70s reflect that.

Massively pro-tech attitudes are more of an 80's thing, reflecting trends like the anti-feminist, anti-environmentalist cyberpunk movement.
posted by happyroach at 1:20 PM on January 4, 2018 [1 favorite]


The writer also kind of misses the fact that one of the major philosophical elements of 60's counterculture and culture in general was a major skepticism about technology.

He sort of tries to gesture to the "New Left" as the people who thought like that, but I agree the analysis is too simple. Of course back-to-the-landism, neo-Luddism, etc were enormous movements at the time.
posted by Miko at 3:36 PM on January 4, 2018


Massively pro-tech attitudes are more of an 80's thing, reflecting trends like the anti-feminist, anti-environmentalist cyberpunk movement.

I was with you up until this sentence, but hrm. I don't exactly think of cyberpunk, at least in writing, as a thing extolling the fucked up futures it described. I guess I also didn't engage with it super heavily at the time because I was a kid and didn't know it existed until we were already talking about things as post-cyberpunk.

At any rate, it's a good interview, with some really interesting thoughts, but I also think it's pretty narrow and a little blind to history in places. And, like, his description of Burning Man and its functions in SV culture is an interesting one, but I also think it's situated in one person's experience of a pretty overwhelming scene where what you find has a lot to do with what you carry into it.
posted by brennen at 8:55 PM on January 4, 2018 [4 favorites]


Loved these two quotes:

The technologies that we've developed are infrastructures. We don't have a language yet for infrastructure as politics. And enough magic still clings to the devices that people are very reluctant to start thinking about them as ordinary as tarmac.

[...]

At Burning Man, what you’re rehearsing is project-based collaborative labor. Engineers flowing in from the Valley are literally acting out the social structures on which Valley engineering depends. But they can do something at Burning Man that they can't do in the Valley: they can own the project. They can experience total “flow” with a team of their own choosing. In the desert, in weirdly perfect conditions, they can do what the firm promises them but can’t quite deliver.

The Valley's utopian promise is: Come here and build the future with other like-minded folks. Dissolve yourself into the project and emerge having saved the future. Well, at Burning Man, you can actually do that. You pick your team, you make a work of art, people admire your art, and you are in a self-described utopian community that, at least for that moment, models an alternative future.

posted by gold-in-green at 9:59 PM on January 4, 2018


Israel wasn't a desert. Jews wandered in a desert until they got to the land of milk and honey

Israel, quite famously, has deserts in it, where the prophets went to connect with God.
posted by eustacescrubb at 6:14 AM on January 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


I was with you up until this sentence, but hrm. I don't exactly think of cyberpunk, at least in writing, as a thing extolling the fucked up futures it described

Sure it did. Not necessarily in the politics (though those mainly existed to allow the Man of Action to do his stuff), but the technology? That was very much depicted with an "isn't this cool?" attitude, where it wasn't directly eroticized (see Hardwired).

It was also very much a reaction to the feminist and political elements of New Wave SF, hence Sterling flat out calling it "making science fiction fun again". Replacing real world issues like pollution and overpopulation with Megacorporations, vat ninjas and cyborg prostitute assassins.
posted by happyroach at 12:43 PM on January 5, 2018


the anti-feminist, anti-environmentalist cyberpunk movement. [...]

It was also very much a reaction to the feminist and political elements of New Wave SF, hence Sterling flat out calling it "making science fiction fun again". Replacing real world issues like pollution and overpopulation with Megacorporations, vat ninjas and cyborg prostitute assassins.


This also struck me as a strange thing to say, but on reflection I don't necessarily disagree. The thing is, many of the big cyberpunk works are fairly political and engaged with the politics of their time. Interviews with the authors tend to confirm this. And the politics tends to be left-ish. Reasonably often there is explicit environmentalist messaging too. New Wave writers were clear influences on cyberpunk, especially Gibson. Wikipedia simply says, "Much of cyberpunk is rooted in the New Wave science fiction movement."

All of this seems to say cyberpunk can't be an anti-political, anti-New Wave reaction. But, maybe, the later inheritors of cyberpunk simply embraced what the original writers held at a critical distance. Maybe the aesthetics were so powerful they took over the politics. Or, I don't know, that's just one thought. If you think cyberpunk was, like, reactionary, I'm curious how you square that with all of the signs that seem to say it was, like, progressive.

Gibson, when he lit the fuse on the cyberpunk thing, was writing basically as a critic of the '80s world and its politics. He says as much in interviews. His books were not escapism and were definitely not techno-futurist optimism -- even if there is necessarily some mixed-message because he makes everything sound cool. (They are also not simply dystopias, inasmuch as the world continues to support life, the economy grows, etc.)

Megacorporations which use private mercenaries to kill defecting employees, telecoms that blow up your house if you do unapproved activities over your phone line -- these are almost parables of what Gibson saw as the loss of a public space, a common wealth. It is a working out of stuff like Thatcher saying "there is no such thing as society."

In the dialectic of "waves" of science fiction, Gibson was not reacting against the New Wave, but more reacting against the same kinda stuff the New Wave was reacting against (this is part of why Alfred Bester could write the very Gibsonian The Stars My Destination in 1956). Here's Gibson with the Paris Review:
I didn’t have a manifesto. I had some discontent. It seemed to me that midcentury mainstream American science fiction had often been triumphalist and militaristic, a sort of folk propaganda for American exceptionalism. I was tired of America-as-the-future, the world as a white monoculture, the protagonist as a good guy from the middle class or above. I wanted there to be more elbow room. I wanted to make room for antiheroes.

I also wanted science fiction to be more naturalistic. There had been a poverty of description in much of it. The technology depicted was so slick and clean that it was practically invisible. What would any given SF favorite look like if we could crank up the resolution? As it was then, much of it was like video games before the invention of fractal dirt. I wanted to see dirt in the corners.


Back to Bruce Sterling. Now, he seems to kind of rove around politically, I don't have him pinned down. But he did co-write The Difference Engine with Gibson, which among other things is a cyberpunk (or ehhhhh steampunk) parable of '80s retro-Victorianism that casts it in a rather negative light (see this interview with both authors).

Neal Stephenson, another cyberpunk icon, wrote a novel-length environmental whodunit / activist romance (Zodiac). In Snow Crash, he satirizes the right-wing fantasy of privatizing public life -- gated communities are independent "burbclaves", and between them order has retreated (compare Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, which is more explicitly environmentalist and feminist). One scene takes place in a designated ecological "Sacrifice Zone."

Surveying the (to me-)most familiar and celebrated cyberpunk, it seems that it tended to be politically engaged rather than escapist, left-ish, and more aligned with the New Wave than reacting against it.

But back to that mixed message thing from above. I don't think Gibson thinks cyborg corporate assassins are good. I think it is pretty safe to say he thought they exemplified bad trends. But by telling stories about them, glossy alluring stories, did he make them cool? Does the critique have some perhaps-unintended harmonics, that made people want to be a street samurai or whatever? People evidently want to imaginatively travel from our world into Gibson's dead television world; it's fun there, somehow. Maybe the aesthetics managed to get away from what the biggest authors thought was going on.
posted by grobstein at 3:26 PM on January 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


I do not recall any megacorporation being presented in a positive light in any cyberpunk book I read. In fact, I think cyberpunk books I've read exposed the inequality in society in such a way that corporate characters looked slightly slave like. Johnny Mnemonic pretty blatantly criticizes supporting excess consumption through corporate work, along with corporate greed.

Anyways, there are only so many ways to tell the assassin, spy, etc. story, either you emphasize the banality of evil, or else you emphasize the romance that brought the character into that life. Rarely, you might manage to do both simultaneously like Martin Blank, or stories about Edward Snowden, but if you do not go full Brazil then you'll wind up making them "cool".
posted by jeffburdges at 3:01 AM on January 6, 2018


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