Tonight I attended a talk by Fred Turner, author and Stanford professor, that was hosted by the Berkeley Center for New Media. Turner gave a synopsis of the narrative of ideas set forth in his new book, The Democratic Surround. In it he tells the story of how the fear of fascism in the 40's compelled the US government to adopt Bauhaus design theory to develop propaganda techniques that would ostensibly impart a certain idea of democracy to the viewers. In contrast to the fascist mode of media in which a singular message is imparted to the viewer, the novel democratic media techniques involved creating an immersive, non-hierarchical approach that would insist the viewer to make a choice as to where to place attention. In addition, artistic developments (such as the Happenings) spurred on by John Cage and others at the Black Mountain College helped to advance the notion that the subjective experience of the viewer and chance upheld progressive ideals and opposed authorial control. He cites the MOMA exhibition The Family of Man and the American National Exhibition in Moscow, among others, as examples of exhibitions that used these all-encompassing, everything-at-once media techniques to shore-up American political power in the world. Turner argues that this is the era is when we begin to see the beginnings of the democratic rhetoric of the corporately-controlled, screen-dominated digital landscape we inhabit today.
It was a fascinating talk and many interesting questions were raised. Is it possible to have democracy without capitalism? Why has the ubiquity of social media failed to deliver a truly democratic and civically engaged polity? What are our hopes for addressing the terms of our conversation now that we are both the producers and consumers of media that is controlled by a few?
Coincidentally, I found out about the talk shortly after reading an essay by Turner in the catalog for the German exhibition The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside, which also includes beautiful visual essays and engaging writing by many others.