Don't be evil: Fred Turner on utopias, frontiers, and brogrammers

Don't be evil: Fred Turner on utopias, frontiers, and brogrammers Anton Novoselov, CC licence https://www.flickr.com/photos/antonnovoselov/5370150359

Fred Turner is one of the world’s leading authorities on Silicon Valley. A professor at Stanford and a former journalist, he has written extensively on the politics and culture of tech. We sat down with him to discuss how Silicon Valley sees itself, and what it means when the tech industry says it wants to save the world.

Let’s start with the idea that technology is always a force for good. This strain of thought is pervasive in Silicon Valley. Where does it come from? What are its origins?

It owes its origins to 1960s communalism. A brief primer on the counterculture: there were actually two countercultures. One, the New Left, did politics to change politics. It was very much focused on institutions, and not really afraid of hierarchy.

The other—and this is where the tech world gets its mojo—is what I've called the New Communalists. Between 1966 and 1973, we had the largest wave of commune building in American history. These people were involved in turning away from politics, away from bureaucracy, and toward a world in which they could change their consciousness. They believed small-scale technologies would help them do that. They wanted to change the world by creating new tools for consciousness transformation.

This is the tradition that drives claims by companies like Google and Facebook that they are making the world a better place by connecting people. It's a kind of connectionist politics. Like the New Communalists, they are imagining a world that’s completely leveled, in which hierarchy has been dissolved. They’re imagining a world that’s fundamentally without politics.

It's worth pointing out that this tradition, at least in the communes, has a terrible legacy. The communes were, ironically, extraordinarily conservative.

When you take away bureaucracy and hierarchy and politics, you take away the ability to negotiate the distribution of resources on explicit terms. And you replace it with charisma, with cool, with shared but unspoken perceptions of power. You replace it with the cultural forces that guide our behavior in the absence of rules.

So suddenly you get these charismatic men running communes—and women in the back having babies and putting bleach in the water to keep people from getting sick. Many of the communes of the 1960s were among the most racially segregated, heteronormative, and authoritarian spaces I've ever looked at.

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