The Democratic Surround: An Interview with Fred Turner (Part Three)

Henry: At a time when schools are also closing their arts programs, it is striking to read about how much importance were placed on children’s arts education during the Cold War era. Can you share with us what the rationale for such programs would have been?

Fred: It goes back to the notion that the personality of the individual mirrored and could actually shape the nation to which they belonged. The adults of the 1950s had seen a generation of Germans fall into line behind Hitler and many thought they were seeing the same thing in Russia with Stalin. Social scientists often explained these trends by arguing that these nations had inculcated authoritarian personality styles in their children. Authoritarian children were rigid, obedient, unable to reason or create independently, and above all, intolerant of those who were different from themselves. Democratic children were meant to be flexible, independent, reasoning, creative and collaborative.

In this context, the arts offered an ideal venue for producing the kinds of children who would grow up to be democratic citizens. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for instance, not only created arts programs for local children, but took those programs to trade shows and fairs around Europe – particularly in formerly fascist Italy. They built these odd, aquarium-like rooms into which only children and a teacher or two could enter. Parents waited outside, watching their children make art together, through portholes. Foreign and American journalists who saw these environments thought they were marvelous examples of the ways that the next generation could escape the authoritarianism that haunted their parents’ childhood.
Henry: You close the book with the line, “the children of the 1960s did not only overthrow their parent’s expectations. They also fulfilled them.” Explain. What did they overthrow? What did they fulfill? Are there some senses in which the 1960s counterculture was less radical than its parent’s generation?

Fred: For a long time, I think we’ve imagined the years after World War II as a single, long episode of Leave It To Beaver – a colorless world, racially segregated, emotionally repressed, blind to the myriad differences between people, cultures, nations. And we’ve imagined that it was only in the 1960s that Americans freed themselves from its shackles.

As I hope this book shows, that story is at best half-true. The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s had an extraordinary impact on American life. But they could not have happened I think without earlier calls for sexual liberation from Margaret Mead, or for aesthetic democracy from John Cage and Herbert Bayer, or racial diversity from Ruth Benedict. These figures called for the very society that the counterculturalists of the 1960s tried to create: a creative, collaborative, individual-centered polity, designed to help every member achieve personal fulfillment. They also called for kinds of media that would help create that society. The New Communalists in particular knew these calls well and took them to the communes with them. So did the makers of Happenings and Be-Ins.

Along the way though, they also lost track of the radical political vision that animated so many in their parents’ generation. For the members of the Committee for National Morale, the Bauhaus refugees, and even key figures in the Cold War USIA, the goal was not simply to increase individual self-fulfillment. It was to build an America and a world that celebrated its diversity – racial, sexual, religious, political. And it was to do it by bringing together the power of the state, the power of the university, and the power of the corporation.

 

Fig 4 Human Be In Hippie

Hippie at the Human Be-In, January 14, 1967, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Photograph by Gene Anthony©www.wolfgangsvault.com. Used by permission.

 

Within the New Communalist movement at least, the children of the 1960s turned away from embracing racial, sexual, and political difference. And they turned away from the state and to some extent, the university, as well. They turned toward personal style, a politics of expression, and to the world of business. There, I’m afraid, far too many pursued self-fulfillment as if self-fulfillment alone constituted social change. In that sense, the most expressively radical movements of the 1960s helped set the stage for the conservative neoliberal society we inhabit today.

Henry: What could today’s intellectuals learn from their counterparts during this post-war period? Are there virtues we as scholars have lost that are worth reclaiming?

Fred: Courage! And faith in the power of ideas.

I think that one of the legacies of the Vietnam era for our generation has been a fear that engaging with state policy or trying to directly influence public life will somehow harm either our ideas or the state itself. Having seen what happened at CENIS in the 1960s, I very much understand that fear. But I think we’ve taken it too far.

Our ideas, even our most academic ideas, can have a far wider influence that we think. In the 1940s, professional anthropologists’ belief that cultures had modal personality styles became the basis of very popular campaigns for creativity and democracy across the United States and Europe. The idea itself emerged within the research world; it travelled beyond thanks to the determined efforts of figures like Margaret Mead to speak to the wider world in a public idiom.

But it also travelled because Mead and others like her were not afraid to mix it up with people in power. Today we need to do two things I think: first, campus-based writers like you and I need to keep trying to speak outward, to the world beyond the walls, in plain English. Second, we need to work with and if necessary build new kinds of institutions to support the kind of society we want. New social networks, new peer-to-peer collaborations are nowhere near enough. What we need are places where people who are unlike one another can gather and work together, slowly, over time. We are far too entranced with the power of networks today. What we need are not better ways to contact others like ourselves, but better ways to work across our differences. What we need are not better networks, but better institutions.

With that said though, I’m hopeful. If the kind of civic imagination I’ve chronicled in The Democratic Surround could have flourished at the height of the Cold War, it can certainly come back to life today.

 

Fred Turner is an associate professor of communication at Stanford University. He has written several books about media, technology, and American cultural history, including the widely acclaimed From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.

The Democratic Surround: An Interview with Fred Turner (Part Two)

Henry: I was struck as I read your description of the aesthetic practices of the surround that you are evoking many categories that also shaped the aesthetics of new media — including notions of interactivity, nonlinearity, immersion, multimodality, and transmedia. These links are implicit in the book, but I know you think about new media, so I wanted to see if you might be willing to speak about the similarities and differences in how these ideas operated in these two periods.

 

Fred: Happy to. In many ways, the book is an effort to write a genealogical history of the categories you’ve named. In the time I’m writing about, the essential distinction was between immersing audiences and surrounding them. Walt Disney and his team, for instance, designed media to be like carnival rides. They tried to immerse their viewers not only in narrative, but in kinesthetic experiences that would cause them to disengage their critical faculties and just go with the flow. In 1958 they sent a movie about the United States to the World’s Fair in Brussels. It was shown in what they called “Circarama” – eleven film projectors showing the moving in 360 degrees just over the viewers’ heads. Journalists who saw the show were thrilled to see the bodies of the spectators all swaying in time together. To the Committee for National Morale or Herbert Bayer and his Bauhaus colleagues, people swaying together would have smacked of hypnotic fascism. The whole point of aesthetic experience in their view was to awaken the reason, to individuate citizens by creating aesthetic conditions under which they could have unique individual experiences, but together, as an egalitarian group. In that context, it wasn’t just what was on the screen that mattered; it was how viewers moved between the screens. In the propaganda exhibitions that Bayer designed for the Museum of Modern Art in World War II, visitors could see pictures overhead, at their feet, and at various heights along the wall. They came in all sizes and interspersed with text. They were quintessentially multi-modal media – and that was key. Bayer and his team wanted viewers to practice doing the linking work themselves. They were to engage, even interact with the whole pattern of images and not just any one message they might contain.   Fig 2 Cage Prepping Piano John Cage preparing a piano, circa 1960. Photograph by Ross Welser. Courtesy of the John Cage Trust.     The same thing was true later with John Cage’s soundscapes. You’ll remember that his most famous piece, 4’33”, features a piano player who sits down at the keyboard but never plays a note. Cage is asking his audience to see that they are surrounded by the sounds of their environment. He’s asking them to knit those sounds together in the way that would be most meaningful for them. No piano player, no conductor, no musical dictator demands their attention. The audience, like the sounds themselves, are meant to be free, interacting with one another on equal terms. In that sense, practices of interactivity, multimedia display and design, non-linear aesthetics – they were all tools meant to liberate and democratize the senses. They were meant to be alternatives not simply to commercial entertainment, but to the kind of media immersion that many – though not Walt Disney – still feared could produce authoritarians. The trouble is, these new modes for making liberated citizens also meant a new mode of management. In each case I’ve studied, a team of experts built an environment and selected an array – an often very rich array – of media for audiences to engage. Audience members moved freely, selected what mattered to them, congregated, dispersed – and based on all the archival records I’ve seen, many really did experience themselves as free in these spaces. But of course they weren’t. Or not completely. They may have had more control of their bodies and their senses and their reasoning faculties than, say, the swaying viewers of Disney’s Circarama, but the visitors to surrounds inhabited a thoroughly curated world. They could interact, but the terms of their interaction had been set for them, before they even entered the rooms. Even in Cage’s 4’33”, a designer hovered behind the experience – Cage himself. Today we’re surrounded by digital media and I think we’re just waking up to the quandary these experiences represent. On the one hand, we want the kind of individualized agency that surrounds seem to offer; on the other, simply entering those spaces opens us up to management and surveillance. Some of those modes are top-down – curators really can and do shape what we see, and some of those curators come from states and corporations with agendas that have little to do with democratizing our lives. Other modes are more psychological. If anything defines our historical moment, it’s the off-loading of the labor of production and self-management onto the individual citizen. You can see this in free-lancing and internships and any number of other places. But you can also see it in media. The modes of interactivity and multi-media storytelling that empower audiences to make their own unique sense of the media around them usually invite them to make sense of that media specifically – media which have often been pre-selected and pre-digested for them.   Fig 3 Moviedrome Interior of Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome, Gate Hill Cooperative, Stony Point New York, circa 1963-65. Photograph by Stan VanDerBeek. Courtesy of the Estate of Stan VanDerBeek.         You can see this to some degree online. But you can see it much more clearly in the ways that so many material environments are becoming multi-media experience machines. Think of airplanes, with TVs on every seatback. Or think of sports bars, with all the games on at once. Or think of the apps on your cell phone. We’ve entered a world in which the interactivity and multi-modality that once promised to free us from fascism has in fact brought us into ever closer relationships with large institutional forces. Now, just to be clear: I’m not at all arguing that corporations or states are necessarily authoritarian. I am arguing that we need to see that the terms of our media freedom these days are a lot more constrained than we may think.

 

Henry: The Democratic Surround explicitly seeks to push beyond some of the encrusted ideological critiques of the Cold War and the idea of domestic containment. You want us to understand that in many ways, the leading thinkers and artists of this period were pursuing a progressive, even multicultural agenda, for whatever blind spots or complicities they might seem to display. What do you see as some of the most significant misperceptions about American thought during the 1950s? What do you see as the value of rethinking this period?

Fred: The history of the Cold War that we’ve inherited has largely been written by a generation of scholars who grew up in the 1960s and came of professional age in the 1980s. They witnessed the Vietnam War, the recession of the 1970s, the rise of Reagan and Thatcher. Out of those times, their generation has carried a deep fear of the government, a faith in the power of self-organized networks, and a belief that personal expression, properly organized, represents the highest form of politics. These beliefs have made it harder for them to see the complexity of the 1940s and the 1950s and much harder for all of us to deal with the complexities of our own time. The canonical story runs something like this: After World War II, America settled into a pattern of ubiquitous repression in its foreign policy, its domestic race relations, and its family life. When a new generation realized how personal politics could be, they took to the streets, and only once they got there did political change begin. This story contains some large grains of truth, but it misses crucial distinctions. World War II, for instance, gave rise to the military-industrial establishment, but it also sparked a radical critique of American racism. That critique flourished not only among disenfranchised bohemians, but among elite intellectuals and public officials. By 1948 or so, large numbers of Americans supported a very radical vision of world government. It wasn’t the Communism of the 1930s, but it was a deeply collectivist vision of global unity. That vision has been read in recent years as an oppressive universal humanism, an effort to turn the entire world American, white and middle-class. In the 1950s, the United States would certainly leverage that vision in an effort to contain Communism abroad. But the vision itself, then and now, contained within it the seeds of our own celebration of human diversity. A second belief: that the personal only became political in the 1960s. This claim seems to have been born out by the host of identity-based political movements that emerged in the 1970s. But it’s not true. The effort to distinguish America from Germany at the start of World War II set loose a critique of racism, anti-Semitism, and even gender conformity – in the late 1940s and early 1950s – that has largely been forgotten. Figures like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict believed that the personalities of a given culture made that culture what it was. Democracy in their view was always simultaneously a political and a psychological phenomenon. Freedom consisted in the ability to be oneself; a free society empowered individuals to fulfill their potential, together. What matters here is not only that the personalization of politics that we associate with the 1960s began a generation earlier. What matters is that it lived in the epicenter of American intellectual and political life. Writers who grew up during the Vietnam War, as I did, remain deeply suspicious of the state, for very good reasons. Yet governments are not monoliths. As I dug into the archives of America’s premier Cold War propaganda agency, the United States Information Agency (USIA), I found extraordinary arguments going on about the nature of democracy, about the degree to which Americans should impose their agendas on others, and the like. During World War II, members of the Committee for National Morale advised President Roosevelt and his cabinet; at the height of the Cold War, John Cage lectured at the same 1958 World’s Fair at which the USIA was promoting our national goals – and he spoke in terms that would have been entirely familiar and congenial to the most ardent American propagandists. I point this out to show that during the 1940s and 1950s, the American intellectual landscape had not yet been cordoned off into countries of ardent Cold Warriors confronted by equally ardent strivers after civil and human rights. Nor had the state as a whole become an exclusively oppressive force, internally or even internationally. I don’t mean to downplay the tensions of the time. I’m well schooled in McCarthy’s witch trials, the race riots of the 1940s, the very real gender re-segregation that took place after World War II, and the darkness of the Cold War closet. But I believe that if we can jettison the notion that only bohemian, expressive politics lead to social change of a personal kind, we can begin to see our own lives in a new light. In our moment, it isn’t our personal expression that’s under attack. On the contrary, we live in an era in which the mainstream mass media celebrate our array of sexual and racial identities. Think of the TV show Modern Family, for instance. Right now, it’s our institutions that are suffering. Have you looked up at a highway bridge lately? Have you popped into a public school and counted the number of kids in an average classroom? Have you looked at more than a decade of war and wondered how it is that the government has been able to keep troops in the field so long with nary a peep from the American public? And how has the left responded to these events? Well, we had Occupy – a movement organized around the collective expression of identity in public places and the building of mostly temporary networks. Meantime, the right has had the Tea Party – a movement anchored in already existing institutions, often churches, aimed at building new institutions, and it has already had an extraordinary effect on our government. Occupy has certainly framed the debate – it’s important know who’s part of the 99% and who isn’t. But it’s the Tea Party that has actually changed – or really, paralyzed – government policy. I’m hoping that if we can look back into the 1940s and the 1950s, we can see a world in which it is possible to work for radical political transformation within and around the most powerful institutions of our day – including the media and the government.

Henry: Anthropologists, Sociologists, and Psychologists (not to mention early Communication scholars) play key roles in shaping policies in the United States during this period. Why were these disciplines so central to the thinking of the American government during the war and post-war years? What factors have shaped a shift in the status of these humanistic fields in the subsequent decades? Today, many universities are closing down their anthropology programs, for example, and our educational policies are very much driven by a STEM agenda.

Fred: These are pretty tough questions! I’ll do my best. I think the answer to the first question has to do with the kind of country America was at the time. In the 1930s and 1940s, the United States was not yet a global hegemon. In a lot of ways, it was a somewhat backward place – largely rural, racially divided, and not yet even fully unified geographically the way it is today by the highway system. Within this world, anthropologists especially, but also psychologists and sociologists, seemed to offer a window on the world beyond our shores. They seemed to understand how things really worked – in far away Asia and Africa, in the urban jungles of our own cities, in the tropics of our minds. They also shared an understanding that individual personalities and cultures mirrored one another and that communication – mediated and interpersonal – shaped both. When World War II began, scholars in these fields seemed to have a uniquely sharp-eyed view of the international field in which the United States now felt compelled to play. They also seemed to understand how to motivate the American people to go to war. But that’s not quite enough to explain their appeal over time I think. For that, we need to acknowledge the technicist character of some of their analyses. Mead, Bateson, Allport, Fromm – they were humanists. But many of their colleagues committed acts of highly technicized social science – field and laboratory experiments for instance, quantitative content analysis, and the like. These sorts of scientistic activity produced the actionable results that government leaders needed. And even where they didn’t, they produced the image of social scientists as men of action (and yes, they were almost all men). How did such scholars lose their place at the table? Vietnam. One of the most painful moments I had researching this book came as I read through the history of the Center for International Studies (CENIS) at MIT. CENIS was a social science think tank funded partly by the CIA. In its papers, you can see social scientists like Walt Rostow and Ithiel de Sola Pool turning the pro-democratic tools of the 1940s into instruments for crushing Asian communism. It’s horrifying. I don’t think American intellectuals have quite forgotten what happened there. Some of the best and brightest social scientists of the 1950s and 1960s, working with the very best of intentions, helped mastermind a national atrocity. This is part of the reason that the historiography of this period remains so stark. The generation of scholars who grew up during Vietnam identified with personal liberation movements here and with post-colonial liberation abroad. Some even tended to conflate the two. This has created a slow-burning identity crises within several fields. If a field is designed to map more or less universal rules of social engagement and if the application of universal rules is an essentially oppressive, colonizing endeavor, then what is the proper job of a social scientist? You can see the legacy of Vietnam in the anxiety for scholars of culture, and particularly anthropologists of the 1980s and 1990s, to be “reflexive” in their work – that is, to so thoroughly disclose the biases of their own social position as to inoculate themselves against charges of intellectually colonizing the Other. For what it’s worth, I don’t agree that the social sciences have faded from view. I do see that the lion’s share of funding from the government now goes to STEM disciplines. I think that happens because the outcomes of training in those areas can be so clearly linked to things Congressman care about – jobs, profits, economic growth. But the power of STEM per se isn’t new. The space race and the Cold War drove research in that area to a level of funding and creative abandon that would be hard to imagine today except perhaps in the privately funded stratospheres of Google and Apple and Microsoft. Even with government funding down, the social sciences remain intellectually pretty hardy. Psychology in particular remains very strong. Communication has been reinvigorated by the rise of digital media. Anthropology’s role has certainly shifted — partly I think because America has changed. After World War II, we became a much more cosmopolitan nation, and as we did, we no longer needed anthropologists to manage our first contacts with foreign peoples. Sociology has split I think into a more technicist, campus-bound wing, and a more public-facing style. Just think of the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell – not a social scientist, but certainly a purveyor of sociology.

 

Fred Turner is an associate professor of communication at Stanford University. He has written several books about media, technology, and American cultural history, including the widely acclaimed From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.

The Democratic Surround: An Interview with Fred Turner (Part One)

I was lucky enough to have gotten to know the social-cultural-technological historian Fred Turner during some time he spent at MIT at the start of his academic career, and we have stayed in touch off and on ever since. I have lost count of the number of times I have taught chapters from his landmark book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, or the number of times that I have ended up citing this book in my own research on participatory culture and politics. It came out in a moment when there was so much focus on new media that it was as if the world had developed amnesia — discussing everything as if it had been invented yesterday rather than understanding the ideologies and cultures that had led up to the digital revolution. Turner’s book helped to place the utopian rhetoric I was hearing at MIT around “new media” in a richer, more nuanced, and more historically grounded perspective. It quickly became essential reading in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, which I headed at the time, and indeed, it has been core reading at programs all over the world.

Turner’s new book, The Democratic Surround:Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties expands the terrain even further, showing us how the counterculture itself emerged from the theories of media, culture, psychology, and political persuasion that took shape during World War II and achieved their greatest impact during the Cold War Period. As with the first book, Turner offers what might once have been considered intellectual history — a focus on key thinkers, who in this case, include anthropologists, psychologists, artists and art critics, musicians, communication scholars, photographers, curators, policy makers, and many others — but combines it with social, technological, political and cultural history. The book is full of fascinating people — from Margaret Mead, John Cage, Buckmeister Fuller, to Andy Warhol and Marshall Mcluhan — and he not only reminds us of their own contributions to society, but shows the strong connections across their work.

He shows us how the media (and especially museum and World’s Fair installations of the period) reflected larger aesthetic theories about the forms of perception required to foster a democratic personality, which were in turn shaped by new models of psychology and anthropology, all of which were put in the service of the Cold War. Beyond that, through, he transforms how we think about the politics of the period, pushing through the encrusted critique of the Cold War and the domestic containment of the 1950s, to identify the liberal/progressive impulses that inspired these thinkers, showing how they were more open to diversity, equality, and freedom than had been acknowledge by many recent writers. He doesn’t ignore the blindspots and complicity in their thinking, but he does help us to appreciate why Family of Man, say, was seen as such a transformative work at the time that it commanded the attention of audiences around the world. He challenges assumptions about the propagandistic use of media during the Cold War to focus on what people at the time understood as a more “democratic” approach to spectatorship and in the process, implicitly at least, he suggests some of the roots of the focus on interactivity, nonlinearity, multimodality, immersion, and transmedia in our own times.

Because of his journalistic background, he is an engaging, vivid writer, one who tells compelling stories, but he is also a first rate archival historian and a world class theorist and critic of media practices. His work is at once programatic — in that he now takes us on a history of media and politics from the World War II to the present — and also boldly original — constantly forcing us to look again at things we thought we already knew. I have no doubts that The Democratic Surround is going to be as important a book as From Counterculture to Cyberculture.  Everywhere I have traveled this summer, people have been reading and talking about this book, but if you have missed it so far, you are in for a treat.

I am proud to be presenting the following interview with Turner about the book and its implications for those of us interested in the contemporary media environment.

Henry: Let’s start with the title, The Democratic Surround. Can you explain this concept? In particular, can you speak to the connections your book makes between a political concept — democracy — and an aesthetic approach — the surround? How did these two concepts come together during the period your book documents?

Fred: Well, the book stretches from the late 1930s to the late 1960s and across that time, the thing I’m calling the “surround” took three forms: It was an actual, existing genre of mediated communication; a tool for producing more democratic citizens; and a model of how to organize a well-run democracy. To their promoters, surrounds could help Americans experience a deeply liberating alternative to totalitarian systems. Fifty years later, we can see that surrounds also gave rise to a new mode of management, a mode of self-regulation through media that dramatically shapes our lives today.
To see how the aesthetic and political came together the way they did, we have to go back to World War II. The story takes a bit to tell, but it’s worth it.

In the late 1930s, many Americans were terrified – and baffled – by the rise of fascism. Hitler had taken over Germany, Mussolini had grabbed Italy, Franco had overrun Spain, and Imperial Japan had invaded China. Everyone wondered: How had so many sophisticated nations fallen under the sway of dictators? And particularly Germany – despite World War I, Germany remained a beacon of culture for American intellectuals and artists. How had the home of Goethe and Beethoven fallen for Adolf Hitler?

A surprising number of Americans argued that it must have been mass media that had brought Hitler to power. First, Hitler had taken control of the German media and dramatically restricted what his citizens could see and hear. Second, many believed that the one-to-many dynamics of broadcasting and the print press themselves could turn people into authoritarians: Just being one of the many, tuned in to a single leader, forced you to practice being part of a faceless crowd.

If the problem was mass media itself, many feared could America go the way of Germany – especially because by the time Hitler invaded Poland, fascism had visibly metastasized in the United States. To take just one example, in February, 1939, twenty-two thousand Americans rallied in Madison Square Garden to support German-style fascism here. They cheered under a giant banner that read “Stop Jewish Domination of Christian America.”

Fig 1 Bund Parade 10 30 39

German-American Bundists parade swastikas and American flags down East 86th Street, New York, October 30, 1939. Photograph from the New York World-Telegram. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, NWT&S Collection, LC-USZ62-117148.

All of this left American leaders with a dilemma at the start of World War II: How could they use media to stir their citizens to take arms against fascism without turning them into fascists?

Two groups actually set out to answer this question, starting about 1941. The first consisted of about 60 social scientists who called themselves the Committee for National Morale. They were really a Who’s Who of American social science at the time — Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Gordon Allport, the list went on and on. Together they believed that every country drew its strength from the individual personalities of its citizens. And if mass media had produced authoritarian personalities in Germany, Americans would need to develop a kind of media that would that would produce a democratic personalities here.

In the Committee’s view, authoritarians were psychologically fractured, unable to reason, bigoted and obedient. Democrats, they argued, should be highly individuated and highly collaborative. They should reason and choose, and above all, embrace the diversity of American society.

To produce such personalities members of the Committee proposed creating exhibitions at museums and in other public halls, surrounding individuals with images and sounds, and freeing them to move among them. These aesthetic environments would give Americans a chance to practice doing the individual work of making meaning of the world around them, but they would do these things in person, together. Surrounded by images, they would collaborate in forming their own democratic personalities and at the same time, a mode of being together that was unified, not massified, American not German.

The members of the Committee didn’t know how to build these environments. But in the late 1930s, a generation of Bauhaus artists had just fled to the United States from Germany. They carried with them very sophisticated designs for multi-screen displays and immersive theaters, and they were more than happy to apply their skills to promoting American democracy. Throughout World War II people like Herbert Bayer and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy designed museum exhibitions and media to promote the war effort. They created the spaces that the American social scientists had dreamed of – spaces in which Americans could practice moving their bodies individually together, looking high and low at the world around them, and arriving at a new mode of political unity in the process.

Once the Cold War began, the exhibition designs they created became cornerstones of two seemingly contradictory developments: American anti-Communist propaganda abroad and avant-garde art here at home. In the 1950s, America built a series of multi-media exhibition spaces abroad with the explicit intent of turning the psyches of potential allies and enemies in more democratic (meaning, pro-American) directions. The most famous of these was probably the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, where Nixon and Khrushchev had their Kitchen Debate. At the same time, artists such as John Cage opened up the soundscape and the world of performance, with an equally explicit desire to engage their audiences in a world of aesthetic democracy – a place in which every sound, no matter how lowly, would be equal to every other, a world in which the European hierarchies of the symphony no longer held sway. By the late 1960s, Cage’s experiments in particular had helped transform the pro-democratic propaganda aesthetics of the 1940s into the Happenings and the Be-Ins of the counterculture.

Henry: Many of my readers will know your groundbreaking work, From Counterculture to Cyberculture. In many ways, this new book represents that infinite regress that historians are prone to do. In many ways, you could have called it From the Cold War to the Counterculture. How do you explain the relationship between the two projects?

Fred: I hope the historical regress here won’t be quite infinite!
I began The Democratic Surround as a way to solve a puzzle I first saw when I was writing From Counterculture to Cyberculture. I’d always been told that the generation of 1968 had rejected the culture of the 1940s and the 1950s. But when I was researching the Whole Earth Catalog crew, I saw that they were steeped in ideas and books from those periods. When they headed out to build their communes, the New Communalists of the 1960s tucked books by their parents’ generation into their backpacks. They read Norbert Weiner, Buckminster Fuller, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson – and I wondered why. When I went back to those books, I saw the appeal. These thinkers were far more radical than we remember. They and other leading liberal intellectuals of the period challenged the prejudice that ran through American society. They called for the United States to become much more egalitarian, diverse and accepting than it was. Some, like Mead’s teacher and friend, anthropologist Ruth Benedict, called loudly and publicly for racial equality in America more than a decade before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Mead herself gained national renown in part by urging American women to become sexually liberated. And all of these figures saw the personal as political in a way would suffuse the countercultural movements of the 1960s.

By going back to these figures, I’ve been trying to do a few things. On the historical front, I want to de-mythologize the sixties. We’ve labored for too long under the illusion that hippies represented a break in American history and an alternative to mainstream American life. As I hope my last book showed, the New Communalists were in many ways an opening wedge for the hyper-individualized, tech-centered ways many of us live and work today. On the contemporary front, I want to decouple our claims about the social impact of digital media from the dreams to which they’ve become attached. Those dreams flowered in the 1940s, and not only in the technical worlds that brought us computers. They flowered in social science, politics, propaganda – all across public life. Today, we inhabit a multi-screen world in which we manage our lives in terms set by any number of organizations that remain invisible behind the screens. We often imagine that it is somehow digital media that have brought us this world. But they didn’t, or at least, they didn’t do it alone.

Fred Turner is an associate professor of communication at Stanford University. He has written several books about media, technology, and American cultural history, including the widely acclaimed From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.

Welcome Back From Where-Ever Your Summer Journeys Took You

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The above image was shared with me by a reader, Robert Spadoni, who spotted this mural outside Gap, Arizona, while driving with his family across the American west. Robert shared the following story:

We hadn’t seen a business or residence for a couple of hours at least, and hardly any cars. We pulled over to change drivers, and for no reason, just to be goofy, I pulled way in to the edge of this gigantic deserted turnout on the side of the road, right up to this empty structure. I’m a huge fan of the Original Series of Star Trek, and my 12 year old exclaimed, “The Star Trek symbol!” I was getting ready to say something like, “Yeah, It DOES kinda look like that,” when I looked up. Apparently, from my searches, this mural is below the radar even of Google—I didn’t think there was anything left that was.

 

Robert asked me to share a few thoughts. For me, this is a great example of the ways that each of us construct our own personal mythology from the culture around us, increasingly mixing and matching elements that have very distinctive histories and meanings. I suppose you could call this “postmodern,” since it reflects the breaking down of traditional kinds of fixed social identities and coherent cultural narratives, in favor of a process of continuous self-fashioning and ongoing appropriation and remixing. The result can be surprising juxtapositions of images and meanings. And on one level, what we see here — without knowing anything beyond what Robert shares — can seem idiosyncratic, highly personal, perhaps undecipherable to someone not on the same wave length with the artist. Someone like Frederic Jameson might talk about this in terms of the flattening of affect and the implosion of meaning, but I don’t think either is what is going on here — certainly not for the original artist and not to Robert, his family, or myself. We recognize the icons being deployed here; we understand some possible meanings for them, and if anything, there is too much meaning here for us to put easily into words.

At a most basic level, the image bridges between “Space, the final frontier” and the kinds of frontier imagery we associate with the American west. Yet, what is striking to me is the way that the Star Trek images are mapped not onto the rootless cowboy moving endlessly across the western badlands, but rather onto images associated with native Americans. Just as we’ve seen the emergence of Afro-Futurism which uses the juxtaposition of science fiction imagery with historic experiences of race, we have seen First Nation people all over the planet embrace images from science fiction as a means of inserting themselves into our imaginings of the future, as a way of signaling that their culture may be traditional but that it is not stuck in the past, that they will carry their traditions with them into the future. I have no way of knowing here whether the artist is native American or appropriating native American images for his or her own purposes, opening up some tensions around what we see as appropriate or inappropriate forms of appropriation. Even in an era of remix culture, as we discuss in my Reading in a Participatory Culture book, there are power relations such that the appropriation of minority identities and expressions by dominant groups have different political meanings than the appropriation of majority cultures by minority communities. (We might think about this image in relation to the character of Chakotay in Star Trek: Voyager, a character who was variously read in terms of expanding representations within a multicultural narrative or in terms of the exploitation of stereotypes about tribal communities in ways that did not necessarily speak to how First Nation peoples understand themselves and their own cultural experiences.)

And part of what I find compelling about Robert’s image and story is that we don’t have any answers about who the author is, what motivated them to produce this mural, and in what ways they are seeking to make meaning of the relationship between Star Trek and Native American cultural traditions.

I am sharing this image (and my speculations about it) today as a signal that the blog is back up after my typical summer hiatus. I’ve had a very productive summer, which has included so far, the completion of my next book, By Any Media Necessary: Mapping Youth and Participatory Politics, which we sent off to be peer reviewed a few weeks ago and which we hope will come out in the not-too-distant future. I’ve also made significant progress on several other fronts, including a new essay on the current state of fandom studies, which will be published in the Journal of Fandom Studies; an essay on the history of aesthetic experimentation that has surrounded Daredevil in the Marvel universe; a collaborative essay on the many different political uses that have been made of the Superhero in recent years;  and some early work on a new project — a series of critical essays on 9 different contemporary graphic novelists. So, I may not be coming back from the break rested, but I do come back with a strong sense of accomplishment and a determination to hit the deck running as we move into the new academic year.

We have a great line-up of interviews for the coming term, which I will start sharing in just a few days.

The World is Yours: A Film About Hip Hop and the Internet

Marguerite de Bourgoing was among the first students I got to know when I arrived at USC, and she has been blessed with the entrepreneurial spirit. In 2010, I featured on the blog her grassroots media franchise, LAstereo.tv, which deploys YouTube and social network sites to showcase the Los Angeles hip hop scene.  At the time, I wrote, “de Bourgoing represents the Trojan spirit at its best — a social and cultural entrepreneur who is taking what she’s learned as a media maker and deploying it to serve her larger community.” SInce then, she’s taken this work much further, producing a documentary exploring the roles which new media has played in building and promoting contemporary hip hop culture, and she asked if I’d be willing to share a progress report with my readers, since she’s currently running a Kickstarter campaign to push this project even further. So what follows is her account of what she’s trying to do and why it matters. Full disclosure: I am one of the talking heads included in the film (even though I know less about hip hop than the average bear). She is collaborating on the film with my colleague, Taj Frazier,  from USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, a gifted scholar whose work touches on the politics of race, globalization, sports, and popular music.

The World is Yours: A Film About Hip Hop and the Internet
by Marguerite de Bourgoing

The World Is Yours  looks at the web 2.0 revolution by following the rise of hip-hop artists. In these times of disruption, we face both angst and great opportunities–depending on your viewpoint and how you address it. Hip hop has always been ahead of the curve in technology, and its underground culture is bypassing the mainstream again. The words “the world is yours” were first immortalized by Shakespeare: “Why, then, the world’s mine oyster, which I with a sword will open.” Hip hop’s take echoes the engrained DIY ethos that has made it the most influential culture of the last 40 years and taken it from rags to riches.

Thanks to social media, today these words make even more sense: one can now access the world through one’s own perspective and interests and eschew the uniform vision constructed by the media. Spheres of influences are spreading and multiplying. Young hip-hop artists are creating their own movements and communicating directly to their fans without taking the traditional PR route. These young artists have re-appropriated the idea that it is better to make yourself discoverable than to be discovered.

The World is Yours probes the most innovative and enterprising of these artists. It focuses in particular on three different movements that have each been seminal in the recent changes that occurred in hip-hop and what those changes mean for the music industry.

Shooting star Wiz Khalifa went from being dropped by major label Warner Bros to becoming the biggest hip-hop breakthrough artist of 2011 with the massive international hit “Black & Yellow” — all thanks to the support of his fans, the “Taylor Gang.” He shows us why radio isn’t the be all end all for a rising artist, and how it’s essential to build a buzz on your own. Today he is one of America’s biggest stars.

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​Wiz Khalifa Pic: Kasey Stokes/ LA Stereo TV

Lil Bs bizarre creativity set a new precedent in the amount of music released by one artist in a short timespan. A marketing genius who does it all on his own, Lil B has been setting trends in style, fashion, music, and new producers ever since his first viral hit “Vans” in 2007 with Bay Area group The Pack. Since going solo, he has developed a strong cult following around his alter-ego, the BasedGod, which is cultivated through social media twenty-two hours a day. (see clip below)

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Lil B Pic: Kasey Stokes/ LA Stereo TV

Finally, media darlings Odd Future took the music industry by storm becoming the first DIY evangelists of this hip-hop generation, doing all production,  graphics and videos by themselves. We focus on their sound mixing engineer/dj/producer/singer Syd the Kyd, the only woman of the collective and one of the group’s pillars, whose homemade studio enabled the artists to created a cohesive sound before catching everyone else’s attention.

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​Odd Future Pic: Julian Berman

The Internet is giving birth to a new face of hip-hop, introducing artists who less than five years ago would have never been given a chance of making it as a rap artist. There is more diversity than ever in the new hip-hop landscape. Queens born Albanian chef Action Bronson raps about foodChildish Gambino is stand-up comedian Donald Glover, Iggy Azalea is a white Australian woman, Detroit’s Danny Brown was turned down by 50 Cent for wearing skinny jeans,  and Harlem-born rapper Asap Rocky takes inspiration from Houston. These are just a few examples of new artists who all owe their careers to the internet. New models are being created: Chance the Rapper collaborated with Justin Bieber on the strength of his free album Mac Miller has his own series on MTV, Macklemore was the first independent act in years to have several hit songs on the radio.

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​Thank you Based God or #TYBG – an ode to Lil B- is one of the biggest long running internet memes

In the film, we talk with the people who have identified those cultural shifts along the way (like Henry Jenkins!) as well as people who contributed to those changes. We focus on key moments like the closing of hip-hop record store Fat Beats, or the making of multi-million dollar rap lyrics website Rap Genius. We look at how this movement fits in the history of hip-hop and the recording music industry.  From the fans’ perspective on some of their favorite artists, to the camaraderie of The Foreign Exchange, the multimedia vision of a QD3 and the birth of a new music group The Internet composed of Odd Future’s Syd the Kyd and Matt Martians, the film offers offers unique point of views documented over several years.

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​The closing of Fat Beats Pic: Kasey Stokes/ LA Stereo TV

The World Is yours is the ultimate guide on how to navigate the digital era today.  One tweet, Vine, and Instagram post at a time, these artists and their communities are redefining the media landscape and pointing to the opportunities brought by these changes. This film is a reminder to think outside the box and cut new paths made possible by technology. The World Is Yours and everything in it if you get up and get it.
To find out how you can help and be in the film, check out our Kickstarter campaign.
The following clip is a excerpt of an abridged version of the film that just aired in France on France O that features artists rapper Lil B. We are working on getting the film out in the US.

Transforming Television: An Interview with Denise Mann (Part Three)

We both agree that the Writer’s Strike represented a key battle in the struggle to define digital extensions as part of creative content and not simply as part of the promotion of a series. Some years out from the strike, what do you see as its lasting impact on the way the industry operates? What won what in these struggles?

The honeymoon period during which creators were given carte-blanche to experiment with the media corporations’ IP was short-lived. In the period leading up to the strike, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) stubbornly refused to acknowledge the creative labor involved in these short-form, content-promotional hybrids. The WGA strike of 2007-8 signaled an important response by the exploited members of the writing community that their creative digital labor needed to be rewarded with credit and income.

Disney launched the first volley across the bow of the WGA’s minimum basic agreements by engineering a deal with Apple iTunes to stream its TV series online; however, they failed to arrange an appropriate compensation package for the writers whose original work was being replayed on a new distribution platform. To make matters worse, the networks placed ads inside this digital content, which allowed them to earn additional revenues, thereby undermining their claim that this content constituted promotions.

In the period leading up to the strike, Cuse and Lindelof were able to use their considerable leverage during the making of Lost to negotiate on behalf of not just the WGA members, but also the other talent guilds to ensure that all creators received payment for their work on derivative content such as “The Lost Diaries” webseries. This precedent helped the WGA negotiate terms for all digital content created by guild-represented writers; however, the sanction lacked teeth, as more and more studios formed their own in-house social media marketing groups to oversee these “content-promotion hybrids” going forward.

While the WGA achieved a symbolic victory—an agreement to pay writers for their creative labor regarding digital content, they have lost out in two ways:  first, writers are still earning “digital pennies” for creating derivative content given the uneven measurement system associated with online entertainment; secondly, the big media companies are shoring up the infrastructural walls surrounding digital content by creating in-house social media marketing divisions and limiting creator involvement.

In many ways, transmedia is playing a secondary role in the industry’s current thinking to the idea of second screen content. What do you think is motivating this obsession with the Second Screen? What functions does the second screen perform for the industry? for audiences? Why is the second screen easier to comprehend and implement than the more ambitious ideas about wired television so many industry leaders have been promoting?

As Jennifer Holt and Kevin Samson explain in the introduction to Connected Viewing: Selling, Streaming, and Sharing (2014)  “connected viewing” practices eschew the top-down, bottom-up binary that has governed so much media industry scholarship around digital, in favor of what Michael Curtin has called “a matrix era”—namely, “a transition from the one-to-many distribution strategies of the broadcast networks to a moment ‘characterized by interactive exchanges, multiple sites of productivity, and diverse modes of interpretation and use.”  While one could argue that these interactive systems and multiple sites of productivity engender enhanced creative exchanges between production cultures and audiences, the industry’s current focus on “second screen” over “transmedia storytelling” experiences seems designed to help studios manage consumer data more efficiently via their infrastructural strengths: marketing and distribution.

Furthermore, by controlling marketing and distribution, the media companies are able to facilitate a disturbing trend—developing sophisticated analytics designed to harvest consumer preferences via algorithms and other, digital measurement strategies. In the last decade, Hollywood has fallen far behind their Silicon Valley counterparts—Google, Facebook, and Netflix—when it comes to managing the sale of big data to advertisers through products such as Adsense and Adwords. The latter, in combination with tools like Google Analytics, provided publishers with access to a composite portrait of consumer behavior designed to help advertisers deliver targeted online ads.

In contrast, transmedia storytelling strategies were creator-dependent activities designed to empower creators and audiences via “multiple sites of productivity” and “diverse modes of interpretation and use.” Teasers, trailers, and interstitial video already circulate between broadcast TV series; now, via second screen experiences, all of these new forms of online promotions and branded entertainment can be enlisted to access a composite of consumer information. By bringing these digital production activities in-house—hiring low-paid creative labor to execute all this digital, promotional churn—big media companies will be able to navigate the online advertising space more effectively, unimpeded by talent guild restrictions.

Denise Mann has been the head of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Producers Program since 1996 and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media. In that capacity, she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on contemporary entertainment industry practices as well as critical studies seminars on film and television history and theory. She is the editor of Wired TV: Laboring Over an Interactive Future (Rutgers University Press, 2014) and the author of Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover (University of Minnesota Press, 2008). Previously, Professor Mann co-edited Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer (University of Minnesota Press, 1992).

Transforming Television: An Interview with Denise Mann (Part Two)

Your dust cover frames the book in terms of the development of the “post-network” television era in relation to “the introduction of broadband into the majority of homes and the proliferation of popular, participatory Web 2.0 companies.” What role has technological change played in shaking up established modes of production and distribution or arrangements of labor?

In the early days of broadband and Web 2.0, the networks tolerated an exceptional degree of collaboration with thought leaders and cutting-edge companies outside of Hollywood proper; these outsiders included executives from Silicon Valley, entrepreneurial writer-producers and digital producers, among others. The result of this momentary largess was a vast array of transmedia storytelling experiments associated with the networks’ most valuable media franchises, including Smallville, Lost, Heroes, Ghost Whisperer, among others.

Furthermore, the networks jumped into the digital distribution waters headfirst by making broadcast content available via Apple iTunes, Hulu, and the CBS Digital Audience initiative, as well as their own network websites. During previous periods of upheaval—economic, cultural, and technological—the Hollywood studios have tolerated the cultural experiments of creative insiders who embraced these new technologies, such as sound, radio, television, cable, and most recently, digital; however, these shifts cannot be reduced to technological developments alone; instead, we’ve seen a history of cultural convergence as Hollywood embraces alternative creative models during periods of social-economic change in the U.S.

As seen in your book, What Made Pistachio Nuts, the beginning of sound had a damaging effect on Hollywood’s traditional operations, as did the social-economic crisis prompted by the Depression; the studios responded to these combined threats by looking to alternative aesthetic forms, such as Vaudeville, to enhance their own offerings. In other words, Hollywood’s earliest days demonstrated this tendency–the “emergence of convergence”—best seen in the studios efforts to import Vaudeville’s stars by integrating their performance strategies into Hollywood’s traditional narrative system. This history of convergence was also amply on display during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, as Hollywood embraced, emulated, or assimilated other cultural outsiders, such as the German Expressionists, the Italian Neo-realists, and the French New Wave.

Furthermore, Hollywood has always demonstrated a willingness to advance the business logic of key cultural-industrial entrepreneurs, such as Walt Disney, George Lucas, and more recently, Apple’s Steve Jobs and Pixar’s John Lasseter, among countless others. The big media corporations’ internalization of these epochal changes tends to take place slowly, in incremental steps, over several decades; however, the studios responded rather quickly to Lucas’ game-changing creation, Star Wars, by making sure their boiler-plate contracts with talent granted the studios 100% ownership of all licensed merchandise.

Most agree that Walt Disney’s introduction of the multi-platform, cross-promotable, media franchise in the 1950s is one of the key drivers of today’s modern media corporation. Disney has continued to inspire imitators, as other studios try to replicate its use of Marvel to generate a “shared universe” of characters across their film, television, theme park, and other formats.

In contrast, the networks appear to be more risk-adverse organizations, unwilling to invest too much of their intellectual or infrastructural capital to overhaul their aging system without concrete evidence that online advertising will soon outpace their analog revenues. Even though the early experiments in transmedia storytelling  proved popular with millennial audiences, the networks disbanded them, preferring to bring these interactive content-promotional campaigns in-house via their newly created social marketing divisions; notably, this retrenchment is also evident in the networks current emphasis on tech-driven “connected audience” strategies over cultural experimentation via creator-driven transmedia storytelling initiatives.

As we think about what I call transmedia, do you see some tensions between the desire for coherence and continuity within an expanded story world and challenges to creative autonomy within a dispersed production sphere strongly governed by licensing agreements? 

Transmedia storytelling was embraced by a variety of independent-minded production personnel who were eager to disrupt the rigid storytelling conventions of most Hollywood big media franchises; furthermore, it was an effort to bypass the usual gatekeepers—agents, managers, attorneys, and the battery of studio executives overseeing development, marketing, business affairs, and consumer products divisions.

As you point out in your Wired TV essay, “The Reign of the Mothership,” the term “transmedia” originated around major media franchises targeting children; Marsha Kinder demonstrated how characters from key franchises, such as Super Mario Brothers and Teenage Mutant Ninga Turtles, became part of a “transmedia supersystem” and revenue generator for the media companies. It wasn’t until later that you used the Matrix example to expand the definition to include the various stakeholders in the creative authorship of the storytelling associated with various platforms linked to a particular media franchise.

Derek Johnson’s essay in Wired TV sheds light on the history of film and television licensing, focusing on the period from the 1950s to the present when studios mimicked the structured business models used by fast-food restaurants and gas stations to organize their management of licensed properties. In particular, Derek Johnson, as well as media scholar M.J. Clarke, Transmedia Television (2012), describe network and studio licensing divisions engagement of  independent vendors—comic book writers, game designers, and novelization authors—in “work-for-hire” agreements that allow these creative personnel to earn revenue and deliver profits to the studios by creating stories for additional platforms linked to media corporation-owned media franchises. In this scenario, licensed vendors are often made to feel like second-class citizens in comparison to the studios’ highly valued above-the-line creative personnel—showrunners, directors, and producers, and so forth.

Notably, the latter are protected by the talent guilds, whereas licensed vendors must cover production costs, insurance, and other major expenditures themselves, placing them in a high-risk, low satisfaction segment of the creative labor force. Johnson explains the paradoxical lengths that NBC-Universal went to in order to limit fan engagement with their Battlestar Galactica Videomaker contest; they forced this unpaid labor force to sign contracts analogous to the onerous “work-for-hire” arrangements with licensed vendors rather than reward this advance guard of fans for their loyalty and commitment to keeping their series active in the Zeitgeist.  Johnson’s case-study underscores the themes running throughout Wired TV—that media corporations have been over-zealous in their management of their IP, preventing them from benefiting fully from the spreadable nature of media in the digital ecosystem.

Denise Mann has been the head of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Producers Program since 1996 and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media. In that capacity, she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on contemporary entertainment industry practices as well as critical studies seminars on film and television history and theory. She is the editor of Wired TV: Laboring Over an Interactive Future (Rutgers University Press, 2014) and the author of Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover (University of Minnesota Press, 2008). Previously, Professor Mann co-edited Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer (University of Minnesota Press, 1992).

Transforming Television: An Interview with Denise Mann (Part One)

Ever since I came to Los Angeles five years ago, I have been collaborating with Denise Mann in producing the Transmedia Hollywood, now Transforming Hollywood, conferences — events which bring together industry leaders, creative artists, activists, journalists, and academics to reflect on the trends which are reshaping the entertainment industry. Mann has been the director of the Producers Program at UCLA since 1996 and brings to our collaboration a solid network of industry contacts,a front line perspective on the production process, and above all, a deep grasp of current theoretical and conceptual models within industry studies.

Mann has brought all of these things together with her new book, Wired TV: Laboring Over an Interactive Future, which brings together some of the top thinkers working on production studies, media audiences and fandom studies, transmedia and franchise entertainment, branding and labor practices. Her goal is to understanding the ways that the television industry has — and for her, more importantly, has not — changed in response to the shifting possibilities for audience engagement, alternative systems of distribution, and new creative practices made possible in the new media environment. As this interview suggests, much of her work centers around the ways that the American broadcast and cable industries have resisted change, have stuck to old imperatives and business models, even as they are confronting disruptive and potentially transformative forces in the culture around them. The focus here on creative labor is an important intervention, both in the ways it complicates sometimes reductive models based on free and precarious labor, but also because of the ways that it cautions us about being too optimistic about the creative possibilities of transmedia storytelling.

At the same time, in this interview and in the book, she’s also flagging for us alternative systems of production, financing, distribution, and consumption/reception that have emerged as new players are taking advantage of the opportunities posed by digital media to enter the industry from unexpected directions and demonstrate that things could be different. The past year or so has seen ample examples that such strategies are destabilizing television as we know it, though it is too soon to tell which of these innovations will have a lasting impact. I was struck at this year’s Transforming Hollywood conference by how many of the so-called independent media producers still measured success in terms of getting picked up by a broadcast or cable network and the ways that this desire for mainstream embrace could act as a conservative force on their alternative visions for television content or production practices.

All of this is to say that Wired TV is an important and timely book. So, I was eager to get Denise Mann to share her vision for this project and some core insights that emerged from it with my readers.

Let’s start with the title of the book. First, what do you mean by “Wired TV”? Does this refer to transmedia, multimedia, second screen, cross-platform delivery, twitter flows, or all of the above? Second, what significance do you attach to the concepts of “Labor” or “Laboring” to our understanding of these new forms of television as compared to what is now a more common emphasis on fandom or consumption or reception? And finally, what do you mean by an “interactive future”? What changes do you envision happening from here in terms of how we — producers and consumers — interact with television?

The title of the book, Wired TV, references all of the above—transmedia, multimedia, second screen, cross-platform delivery, twitter flows, and more. The theoretical hunch underlying the collection is that the traditional network television industry’s failure to adapt to the digital economy is a function of its over-reliance on an intractable system of workplace bureaucracies and rigid affiliations.

In Wikinomics (2006), Don Talbott and Anthony Williams argued that corporations must learn to open their doors to the global mind hive as a means to generate innovative solutions to otherwise unanswerable questions. While their conclusion is a bit simplistic overall, the central thesis is nonetheless compelling: visionary experiments, such as Wikipedia and the Human Genome Project, offer undeniable proof of the potential of mass collaborative activities undertaken on a global scale. According to the authors, even staunchly conservative U.S. organizations, such as Proctor and Gamble, IBM, and Lego,  have been able to reboot their waning industries by loosening their grip on proprietary intellectual capital—the intangible knowledge amassed by corporations to generate value.

The networks, I argue, have been notoriously “closed door” about sharing both their financial assets (their IP) and their intellectual capital (as evidenced by their over-reliance on aging, unreliable divisions, such as development, marketing, and licensing). The book’s focus on labor assumes that production studies and audience studies cannot be understood in isolation—that Stuart Hall’s notion of coders and encoders as two sides of the same coin has become even more relevant in the Web 2.0 era.

Key creative personnel associated with specific network series—Smallville, Lost, Heroes, The Ghost Whisperer, etc.—understood their primary obligation  to deliver broad audiences to advertisers; however, they were eager to embrace the creative opportunities of transmedia storytelling, even as they acknowledged its commercial upside—the fact that fans were seeding grassroots social media marketing campaigns. The economic value of these interactive campaigns has not been lost on advertisers, many of which are actively seeking to cut out the Hollywood middlemen by hiring production personnel to create interactive forms of branded entertainment (e.g., Asylum 626, and so forth).

While the creative industries scholarship generally aligns itself with a Marxist critique of the knowing exploitation of unpaid fan labor by industry, this collection offers a more nuanced view, juxtaposing essays that critique the media companies’ calculated misuse of fan labor (Levin Russo, Kozinets) with essays (Johnson, Brooker, Mann) that invoke the social value of these content-promotional hybrids. The paradox exposed across the collection as a whole is that the networks would have benefited in the long term by showing a greater tolerance for these experimental systems of exchange between creators and fans; however, the industry’s refusal to “let go” of their bureaucratic grip on their IP has undermined their ability to engage audiences as they continue to migrate online.

In the title of our recent conference, we talk about “Transforming Hollywood,” which implies that some key things are changing about the nature of this medium. How does Hollywood need to be transformed to make way for the possibilities your book considers?  What changes have already happened? In what ways has Hollywood resisted those changes?

In the latest edition of Transforming Hollywood, you and I focused less on the networks proper and more on the various innovators and thought leaders emerging in competing industries—in particular, the streaming video-on-demand companies or SVODS (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Studios), as well as progressive and cutting edge cable companies (BET, PIVOT), web-based production companies (Geek and Sundry, Nerdists), and scholars analyzing the consequences of this vast, cultural-industrial revolution. Aymar Jean Christian focused on a different type of revolution taking place among independent web-creators, who see themselves as artists first and foremost (although a number are seeing their work being turned into professional-length series by the cable companies and SVODS).

While the networks initially perceived YouTube’s user-generated mash-ups and illegal downloads as a flagrant violation of their IP rights, with time, the media companies embraced YouTube’s amateur aesthetic and its one billion a month user-base as a viable means of expanding their promotional reach and a way to redirect viewers back to their broadcast series.

Notably, the cable networks have been more expansive in their use of a second layer of innovative outsider—namely the transmedia producers, such as Starlight Runner Entertainment, and digital marketers, such as Campfire—who share expertise in crafting story-driven promotions. The cable networks have been more tolerant of these affiliations in large part because of their more targeted approach to audience and the positive impact of these campaigns on their subscriber base. In contrast, the networks are still reliant on delivering broad audiences to advertisers and affiliates. As a result of these age-old affiliations, the networks’ infrastructural rigidity has made them less agile in terms of accommodating the new, algorithm-curated, video-on-demand capabilities of their latest competitors: the video streaming-on-demand companies.

The growing number of programmers in the digital space has been a boon for talent, prompting the current expansion or “renaissance” in the television space—many seeing this growth as an outgrowth of the decline of independent filmmaking in the theatrical space. As Fox and other networks struggle to dismantle the highly dysfunctional and wasteful pilot system, they have been outpaced by the rapid growth of cable networks and SVODs. The latter have demonstrated a willingness to commit to full series without forcing creators to go through the typical gauntlet of development notes and arduous pilot production schedules; instead, more and more creators are able to secure deals based solely on promising pilot scripts, graphic novels, international formats, web-series, and other less expensive alternatives. In one telling instance, fans were able to exert their considerable influence on the marketplace by using Kickstarter to fund the adaptation of a favorite TV series, Veronica Mars, into a feature film. BET has benefited from its core audiences’ fascination with Twitter to expand its reach to a wider audience.

Broadcasters have watched in dismay as Netflix enlisted high-priced Hollywood creators to create House of Cards without regard to production costs as a way to strengthen their core revenue source–subscribers. At the other end of the budgetary spectrum, the multi-channel networks or MCNs (e.g., Maker Studios, Machinima, and Fullscreen) have aggregated thousands of YouTube creators in order to amass tens of thousands of online users.

In my panel, I focused on this relatively new trend—the formation of a new business model around the proliferation of YouTube content creators. Most MCNs pursued this new business model shortly after YouTube started investing $100 million to augment the production budgets of a hundred or so YouTube talent partners. To serve this growing group of YouTubers with significant user counts, the MCNs inserted themselves as business allies, taking a percentage of the advertising dollars offered by YouTube and up to 50% of the IP, in exchange for providing amateur creators with these added services.

The results have been controversial, as thousands of YouTube creators have signed contracts with most earning little or no profits for their considerable efforts; in contrast, the small handful of creators, who have been able to secure a living despite YouTube’s restrictive terms, are resentful of the MCNs for profiting from their creative labor.  The MCNs—considered by many critics to be a blatant power-grab by a handful of business-savvy digital industry leaders—has raised the ire of the once democratic YouTube community by exploiting a wide swath of user-generated content creators to increase leverage with online advertisers.  At the same time, the MCNs have commanded the attention of several Hollywood media companies, which recognize their inability to access YouTube’s growing audience of online users. Notably, Disney recently acquired Maker Studios for $500 million, while Warner Bros. continues to kick the tires at Machinima.

Denise Mann has been the head of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Producers Program since 1996 and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media. In that capacity, she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on contemporary entertainment industry practices as well as critical studies seminars on film and television history and theory. She is the editor of Wired TV: Laboring Over an Interactive Future (Rutgers University Press, 2014) and the author of Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover (University of Minnesota Press, 2008). Previously, Professor Mann co-edited Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer (University of Minnesota Press, 1992).

Critical Making, Social Media, and DIY Citizenship: An Interview with Matt Ratto and Megan Boler (Part Two)


And finally, the last part of your title, “Social Media,” implies some model of how media change — and the availability of new technological resources — may be shaping what counts as citizenship and political discourse right now. So, what assumptions does your book make about the relationship between new media technologies and political empowerment?

 

MR: We think the book actually calls up both the possibilities and the problems with social media as a site for political action. The ‘problems’ of course include private ownership of platforms, popularity echo-chamber (filter bubble), lack of public accountability – any of these factors can change at any moment, of course. But in terms of possibilities, one examines increased freedom for connectivity, ‘routing around’ traditional media outlets and systems–all of which poses some challenge to government control and censorship and makes for complex terrain. Readers will find in the collection examples of both good and ill without being either socially or technologically determinist.

 

While we were motivated to organize the conference and edit this book based on our significantly optimistic or politically hopeful trajectories, promises, and accomplishments already achieved through creative social media uses, the chapters aptly capture what can rightly be termed “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.” Readers will note Ron Deibert’s Foreword, marked by his serious warnings about the end of the free and open internet as we know it.  Further, essays such as Jenson’s on the limits of creative production in school contexts, essays on surveillance practices as outlined by McPhail et al, and Bissonette’s critique of TV news formats such as iReport represent, on this continuum, the more pessimistic view.

 

Some of the examples discussed throughout the work probably would be most often described as “citizen journalism.”  What roles do you see citizens playing in shaping the informational resources available to their communities? 

 

MB: Part IV of our book, “DIY Media: Redistributing Authority and Sources in News Media” includes a diverse array of perspectives on the roles citizens play in shaping and distributing information in new media landscapes.  Having been researching for over ten years the motivations and practices of those who produce what I term “digital dissent” or alternative media for the web 2.0 environment, it is clear that people are hungry for trusted sources, for interlocutors who can help “filter” or “make sense of” information produced by traditional authorities. People’s hunger for trusted sources runs parallel to the increased capacities and possibilities to produce alternative interpretations given the new media landscapes and modes of access to expression and dissemination.

 

Citizens, people, users of the world wide web, increasingly make it part of their daily lives and work to create, shape and share information with their communities.  It is now widely recognized that news is consumed predominantly via mediated platforms like FB where “friends” have pre-selected, in a sense vetted and culled, news or information believed worthy of recommending and spreading.  Given the information saturation and inundation of the information economy, understandably people require signposts and directions for making choices regarding sources.

 

Frustrations with traditional news media coverage after September 11, 2001 catalyzed everyday citizens to become media makers and producers of digital dissent.  I term ‘digital dissent producers’ those who elected to produce blogs, videos, or engage in public expression specifically to contest corporate-owned media and its often predictable agenda-setting, point of view, choice of content, and use of sources. The shifting understandings of truth or what we have come to identify as “sense making” is especially apparent in the challenges to the authority of traditional news sources and the rise in citizen journalism that has corresponded with crises of public faith in traditional news authorities. The crises of faith with respect to news institutions is closely related to the quite real crises and public skepticism towards electoral political sphere and traditional social and state institutions ranging from news to schools, government to democracy.

 

Regarding alternative media, Chris Atton emphasizes the importance of alternative media reflecting the  “practices of decentralized, directly-democratic, self-managed, and reflexive ‘networks in the everyday’.” The Chapters included in this section outline diverse kinds of alternative news-making or interventions , ranging from the production of feminist ‘zines (which pre-date so-called Web 2.0 capacities; Reitsamer and Zobl), to DIY experimentation with technologies and “vox pop” rituals aptly illustrating critical making (McVeigh-Schultz).  With a bit less optimism, other chapters analyse the blurry lines between amateur/professional “alternative” interventions such as the controversy sparked by KONY 2012 Campaign (Meikle), the ongoing agenda-setting influence of powerful media institutions (Ananny) and in his chapter on CNN’s iReport, Bissonette argues that “Citizen journalism remains tilted towards commercial gain, not democratic discourse.”

We are witnessing a seachange in how information is currated through what might be called a ‘remix’ traditional/institutional sources and filters, intermixed with personal/networked sources and filters. The effect is a (still inudating) number of differing entry points, pathways of information, be those a combination of platforms (from Reddit to Facebook to Twitter) that facilitate information, crowd-sourced or other “trusted filter”significantly determining directions and pathways. And of course, all of his moves alongside the invisible politics of ranking performed by the algorithms of Google, for example.

Indeed, the whistleblowing events brought about by Assange, Manning, and Snowden are not only related to the technological crises surrounding surveillance and privacy, but truth and propaganda and their function within the information economy.  And it’s crucial to point out that in both instances, Assange and Snowden partnered with and used traditional, established news organizations (the Guardian and the New York Times).

 

 

For the past decade, it’s been a cliché that young people learn more about contemporary social concerns through entertainment sources, including “fake news” programs, than through traditional journalism. Megan, you’ve done extensive research into this space. So, what is your current sense of the ways people use the Daily Show and other such programs in relation to more traditional forms of journalism? What do you see as the strengths and limits of the kind of civic knowledge that emerges from these sources?

 

MB: The October, 2010 Rally for Sanity and/or Fear organized by Stewart and Colbert  in Washington D.C. drew nearly half a million people from all across North America, (“Woodstock with the Clothes on”, as one attendee described it to us), demonstrating that those long accused of being slacktivists and couch potatoes are in essence a standing reserve of political and cultural criticality.  Following years of questionable scholarship asserting such claims as the “cynicism effect”–that viewing The Daily Show may result in decreased civic engagement such as electoral voting–this monumental rally demonstrated indubitably that viewers of so-called “fake news” are at the ready to be mobilized and called into action.

 

A recent and ongoing sign of the power of satire as a news format are the increasing number of popular “fake news” shows found even in some of the most repressive governmental regimes, such as Egyptian political satirist Bassem Youssef’s show Al Bernameg, now in Season 3 following the events of 2011.

 

There can be little doubt that satirists, bloggers, citizen journalists, and independent video producers around the world are taking action daily and dissenting from mainstream media agendas.  What matters is that dissenting voices are being aired through increasingly broad and multiformat channels. Corporate-owned news and papers of record are being forced to watch their step by the 24/7 surveillance of a vibrant public demanding accountability. 

All of this raises interesting points regarding the ways in which “fake news” can be conflated with entertainment, and then — as noted in your question — is turned into a cliche, about young people as disengaged — of course there are distinctions to be made between different forms of popular cultural entertainment and how they do or don’t cultivate a critical sensibility towards political institutions and practices.  The comedians may claim to be only interested in the laugh. But those who watch, think critically, and take numerous forms of action do come away each night with renewed political convictions–not least of which is to question a news media that too often fails in its responsibility to speak truth to power

 


Megan Boler
 is Professor of media and education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Her books include Feeling Power: Emotions and Education (Routledge 1999); Democratic Dialogue in Education (Peter Lang 2004); Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times (MIT Press, 2008); and DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media (eds. Ratto and Boler, MIT Press, 2014). Funded by Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council for the last ten years, her previous research “Rethinking Media Democracy and Citizenship” examined the motivations of producers of web-based challenges to traditional news.  Her current funded research “Social Media in the Hands of Young Citizens” is a mixed-methods study of women participants’ experience in the Occupy Wall Street movement, including interviews with women in seven North American cities. Her web-based productions include the official study guide to the documentary The Corporation (dirs. Achbar and Abbott 2003), and the multimedia website Critical Media Literacy in Times of War. More at: www.meganboler.net

Matt Ratto is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto and directs the Semaphore Research cluster on Inclusive Design, Mobile and Pervasive Computing and, as part of Semaphore, the Critical Making lab. His work explores the intersections between digital technologies and the human life world, with a particular focus on new developments that trouble the divide between online and offline modes of production. He coined the term ‘critical making” in 2007 to describe work that combines humanities insights and engineering practices, and has published extensively on this concept. A current project involves the development of a cost-effective software and hardware toolchain for the scanning, design, and 3D printing of lower-limb prostheses for use in the developing world.

Critical Making, Social Media, and DIY Citizenship: An Interview with Matt Ratto and Megan Boler (Part One)

In 2010, a group of forward thinking scholars, activists, media-makers, and citizen journalists gathered at the University of Toronto to participate in a conference which sought to explore the ways that the emergence of new media platforms and practices was impacting our civic and political lives. I was lucky enough to be asked to be one of the key note speakers at this event, which was organized by Matt Ratto and Megan Boler, and several of my USC colleagues (past or future) Anne Balsamo and Mike Ananny as well as a number of my USC graduate students Kevin Driscoll, Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, and Lana Swartz, among them, participated.

In some ways, the discussions at that conference anticipated some of the top political stories of the past few years, from Occupy Wall Street to the “Arab Spring,” from “Binders of Women” to KONY 2012, as we grappled to come up with frameworks for thinking about how the public sphere was shifting in response to the emergence of social media, the ways that community based hacker and maker spaces were allowing people to envision new kinds of civic media technologies and rituals, and the ways that the “digital divide” and “participation gap” threatened the democratic potentials that many of us see within this new media landscape. The conversations at the event were critical — both in the sense that they asked hard questions and refused to accept simple solutions and in the sense that these exchanges were urgently needed if we were to hammer out together some frameworks for understanding how political life operates in the digital age.And the conference also provided hacker and maker space tools where people could work on projects together, putting their ideas into action.

Some years later, Ratto and Boler have released an important new book, DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media, published earlier this spring, by The MIT Press, whose contributors are drawn from the conference participants, though in many cases, their arguments were updated to reflect the many ground-breaking stories of social media and political change we’ve seen in the past few years. The essays here could not be more timely; they represent a range of important theoretical and conceptual models, but they are also deeply grounded in concrete case studies and practical experiences. And the result is a book that should matter to anyone who cares about the future of democracy around the world.

I had asked the editors if they could share with us some core insights, specifically helping us to understand the central concepts of the book, and what they see as some of the most important developments to occur since the conference. I am happy to share this interview over the next two installments of my blog.

 

Let’s start by mapping out some of the keywords from your title. DIY citizenship, as developed by you and your contributors, seems to be an especially expansive concept. So, can you share with us a working definition. What relationship does it have to what I and others like to call participatory culture? 

 

Matt Ratto (MR): The concept of DIY Citizenship was originally used by Hartley to extend traditional notions of citizenship associated with civil, political, and social rights.  To these, Hartley added ‘DIY citizenship’ generally meaning the right to self-determine one’s own identity through engagements with the concepts and ideas on offer within the media. According to Hartley, the DIY citizen is one who creates their identity and individuality through a process of choosing from the semiotic material on offer.

While this was the starting place for the book and for the conference that preceded it, we also highlight issues with this definition. In the introduction, we note linkages between Hartley’s notion and the atomistic sense of self that is assumed within liberalism – this is most easily revealed in the obvious connections between Hartley’s ‘DIY citizen’ and the self that is typically assumed by marketing departments. This is namely a fluid, consumerist model of the self that presupposes that we are all equally free to choose from a set of options (nicely provided for us by social institutions) what kind of being that we want to be. It is increasingly obvious that this is not at all true and even, to take it one step further, that the various discourses of semiotic self-determination is often leveraged to hide or underplay structural restrictions that impinge on our ability to choose for ourselves our own identities.

Here we can see one connection to the simplistic notions of participatory culture that were previously to be found in early work on Free Libre Open Source Software that emphasized open participation by all. While the rhetoric was about freedom and openness, the communities themselves were often anything but – and for sometimes good reasons since the work involved often required very specific forms of expertise (e.g. the writing of Linux device drivers.) This is one connection we might draw between DIY Citizenship and Participatory Culture –both are manifested and driven forward by a central contradiction that exists between openness and closedness, between a reliance on a sovereign, DIY self and the self that is imposed upon us.

 

Megan Boler (MB): More specifically, examining the characteristics of participatory culture (Jenkins 2006), it becomes apparent that indeed many of the projects described in this edited collection exemplify quite precisely ‘participatory culture’ at work:

‘1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement 2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others 3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices 4. Where members believe that their contributions matter 5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).’ 

We suggest that beyond its reiteration of the practices of participatory culture, the notion of DIY citizenship pushes us to ask questions about self- and collectively-determined political affinities, coalitions, and aims – and how we work to construct both them and ourselves. One can conceivably have all sorts of DIY activities that are not explicitly seeking political voice or membership or effect.

 

MR: Exactly, Megan, and many of these activities do seek to intervene in the semiosphere and in this sense can be understood as political activity. This aspect of participatory culture is emphasized in our use of “DIY citizenship” but equally in the development of “critical making” that occurs within the collection. Whereas DIY citizenship emphasizes the dialectic between sovereign and structured self, the term critical making emphasizes the reflexive, praxis oriented engagements and interventions that emerge from diverse indy or collective energies. Critical making is about reflecting on how we build ourselves, our cultures, and our institutions through processes of material engagement. Thus the ‘critical making’ is key to distinguishing the “politics” of culture as well as an extension of participatory culture.

 

One of the challenges that have historically clung to the word, DIY, is the focus on individualism. You in English is especially slippery since it can be both singular and plural. So, the you in YouTube and its slogan, “Broadcast Yourself,” has often been read in terms of personal expression, where-as most notions of the civic start with the idea of shared interests and collective action.  Some have suggested a shift to talk about “doing it ourselves.” How have you and the other contributors to the volume addressed this issue? 

 

MB: Yes, the very term “DIY” ideally provokes debate of this sort.  “DIY” was chosen for the title and the common referent because of its more common usage, but the underlying question is not of small consequence.  As suggested increasingly in diverse scholarly works about social media and networks, there are genuine questions about how best to describe the contemporary experiences of “self” and “individual,” — whether a coherent notion of the individual is indeed even possible any longer;  whether and how this individual is distinct from the liberal individual — all questions that poses  a persistent challenge to many critical scholars. Yet–at the same time–the notion of ‘yourself’ cannot be avoided, and will always be overdetermined. To substitute DIO or DIT loses a signifier that has much broader connotations in our contemporary culture.  In our Introduction we address this fraught question, and outline alternative conceptions such as  “DIT” (Do it together), DIY as in the plural, DIO (do it ourselves). My own research suggests that we may need to develop a new concept like “collective individualism,” to try and capture the  collectivity of the You so distinctively featured in this mediated era of pluralistic self-expression.  I come to this having been intensively studying the recent shifts from “collective” to “connective” action, a shift which arguably is closely tied to the growing  role of networked connectivities that increasingly constitute our globalized collective identities. Social media and networks encourage new forms of connectivity, which are distinct from a collective identity but not solely an aggregation of individuals.

 

One of the striking features of the original conference you hosted and now of this collection was the ways you were exploring a way to bridge between new forms of activism and the emergence of Maker culture, which has not always been understood in political terms. What might this collection teach us about the political and civic dimensions of the Maker movement? Another way to ask this would be what is “critical” about “critical making.” 

 

MR: Yes,  this bridging is definitely an important part of the overall project – and to explore the bridge between maker culture and academic practices as well! This occurred more at the conference where we supplemented more standard academic talks and plenaries with a HackSpace where other kinds of projects could be encountered. (The academy still need to work on incorporating such forms within our larger scholastic practices – but this is a longer term project…). More importantly, an obvious aspect of maker culture today is that it increasingly follows a larger social trope of innovation and entrepreneurship. While there is nothing wrong with this, this move does de-emphasize some of the more overtly political maker actions of the past. In some ways, the move from ‘hackers’ to ‘makers’ mirrors the move from Free Software to Open Source. Both discursive developments are about depoliticizing the processes while maintaining their pragmatic effects – a sort of stripping away of the value-laden aspects while keeping the utilitarian. Despite this, there are still makers who remain focused on moving beyond the linguistic to other forms of political activity. Understanding making as critical – whether the making of gardens, of new forms of media– is a key focus of the collection.  As we note in the Introduction, “Critical making signals the ways in which productions–whether of video, web-based communications, gardens, radio transmitters, or robots–are understood as politically transformative activities….Critical making invites reflection on the relationship  of the maker” to processes of production.

 

Megan Boler is Professor of media and education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Her books include Feeling Power: Emotions and Education (Routledge 1999); Democratic Dialogue in Education (Peter Lang 2004); Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times (MIT Press, 2008); and DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media (eds. Ratto and Boler, MIT Press, 2014). Funded by Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council for the last ten years, her previous research “Rethinking Media Democracy and Citizenship” examined the motivations of producers of web-based challenges to traditional news.  Her current funded research “Social Media in the Hands of Young Citizens” is a mixed-methods study of women participants’ experience in the Occupy Wall Street movement, including interviews with women in seven North American cities. Her web-based productions include the official study guide to the documentary The Corporation (dirs. Achbar and Abbott 2003), and the multimedia website Critical Media Literacy in Times of War. More at: www.meganboler.net

Matt Ratto is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto and directs the Semaphore Research cluster on Inclusive Design, Mobile and Pervasive Computing and, as part of Semaphore, the Critical Making lab. His work explores the intersections between digital technologies and the human life world, with a particular focus on new developments that trouble the divide between online and offline modes of production. He coined the term ‘critical making” in 2007 to describe work that combines humanities insights and engineering practices, and has published extensively on this concept. A current project involves the development of a cost-effective software and hardware toolchain for the scanning, design, and 3D printing of lower-limb prostheses for use in the developing world.