- Toward Liberal Histories of ComputingFred Turner, The Democratic Surround
From John von Neumann to Donna Haraway, the circumstances of wartime mobilization and the prospects of open-ended military conflict framed initial speculations about computers and their epistemic prospects.1 In the 1990s the tapering off of the cold war funding alongside the exponential growth of private investment in computer innovation interrupted the industrial and historiographic momentum around “Manichean computing.”2 Private industry—from the myth of the garage-based start-up to the reality of corporate software monopolies—came to the fore of industrial and popular thinking about informatics. In the face of these changes, many cultural historians of computing turned their attention from globalizing histories of command and control to pragmatic histories of nomadic computational communities (e.g., Brazilian free software programmers, Chilean Marxists, British cyberneticians) whose amalgamations of electronics and ideology suggested alternative backstories and futures for computing industries built on decentralized private initiatives.3
Fred Turner’s The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Pp. 376. $32.50) contributes to these expanded [End Page 745] histories of computing by examining how refugee artists affiliated with interwar Germany’s Bauhaus School of Design shaped scientific and artistic theories of multimedia design in postwar America. The focus here is less on hardware or software than the logics and ideologies of multimedia experiences. Turner argues that the practices associated with postwar multimedia design developed out of artists’ and intellectuals’ efforts to cultivate nonfascist, multilateral styles of communication that fostered politically liberal mentalities. This approach found its origin in progressively minded intellectuals’ fear that the unidirectional flows of mass media cultivated brittle and fascist mind-sets. According to Turner, the Bauhaus designers of the interwar period sought out design-based solutions to this psychosocial dilemma. After these artists fled to the United States to escape fascist persecution, their design techniques shaped reformist experiments advanced by American intellectuals and artists who mobilized in antifascist and anti-communist efforts. Turner makes it clear that much in the affect and ideology of postwar computing—especially its aspirations toward a utopic world of information flows and user-responsive feedback mechanisms—embodied the inspirations of these prewar and wartime antifascist crusaders.4
In the first half of the book, Turner examines how European designers such as László Moholy-Nagy and Herbert Bayer, as well as American artists including John Cage, developed methods of instruction and design that combatted audience passivity. These efforts loosely informed the efforts of intellectuals such as Gregory Bateson to countermand fascist styles of thought. Institutions such as the Bauhaus School of Design, the Museum of Modern Art, and Black Mountain College refined and distributed this emerging aesthetic of interactive communications. Turner’s abundant archival and primary sources anchor the more intellectual aspects of this history in experimental media practice. For example, Turner considers how anthropologist Margaret Mead and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer reworked their cerebral reflections on fascist mind-sets through experiments with exhibitions and propaganda.
The second half of the book focuses on how blockbuster exhibitions such as The Family of Man (1955) and American pavilions at the world’s fairs repackaged modernist design practices into dynamic, interactive displays showcasing the United States as an ostensibly freedom-loving, multi-cultural, liberal society. Turner recovers the political, scientific, and technological meaning of spectacles that were much later dismissed as cold war kitsch. Turner suggests that this period’s multimedia exhibition techniques spun off in three directions: (1) cultural and propaganda campaigns mounted by agencies of the American government (e.g., MoMA and the USIA); (2) artistic experiementation advocated by the likes of Stan Van-DerBeek and associates of Andy Warhol’s Factory; and (3), somewhat implicitly, [End Page 746] the multimedia desires and spectacles characteristic of early-twenty-first-century digital cultures.
Turner’s most far-reaching conceptual claim is that multimedia interactivity reproduces the communicative logic of American liberalism. The title “the democratic surround” denotes this mirroring of multichannel interactivity with liberal pluralist ideals. For example, he characterizes philosopher Charles Morris’s belief in “a flexible, highly interactive society, united in...