Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Search Engine on the Other Side of Black Rock

Fred Turner's talk today, "What Burning Man does for Google" shows that he has developed his thesis about what he sees as an "anti-intuitive" confluence of Protestant ethic and California ideology that represents a possible "utopianist vision of work and play," since I last heard him speak about "Burning Man at Google: How Art Worlds Help Sustain New Media Industries" in 2007. (This paper of Turner's provides citations for many of his main points.)

Turner opened by noting that his academic perspective was also informed by his ten years as journalist and by ironically observing how the UC Irvine campus itself represents the "intense integration of interpersonal and personal growth and commercial activity" in its franchised consumer architecture that he would end up arguing is analogous to "the ethos of new media manufacturing" that would be the subject of his talk.

Turner described himself as currently a scholar of "large-scale bureaucratic organizations, distributed social networks, and remnants of collaborative military culture," economic systems whose interests were not necessarily opposed to "commons-based peer production." Taking Paul DiMaggio's argument from "Cultural Entrepeneurship in Nineteenth-Century Boston" about the function of the Protestant cathedral in Boston to industrial firms in Lowell Massachusetts, Turner argued that the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock desert of Nevada served a similar cultural function for Google. To set the stage, he went back to cultural infrastructure and Marx and how aesthetic formations emerged out of need to live life in relation to mode of production. However, he also insisted that "we’ve entered a period in which culture is becoming the base of production."

Much as he did in a recent Annenberg talk, Turner used the Burning Man photographs in the lobby of Building 43 in Google's Mountain View headquarters as his first piece of evidence of the status of art installations in the desert as "factory sites." Although Google's lobby presents a fundamentally different appearance than the headquarters of IBM in the fifties, which was furnished with blond wood, wool-suited receptionists, and imposing THINK signs, the Google decor similarly establishes a distinctive corporate style. He rehearsed the history of the company's allegiances to Burning man, including the time that Larry Page and Sergey Brin shut down much of the firm in 1999 to allow employees to attend and the narrative that credits Eric Schmidt's attendance at the festival to his hiring in 2001 as CEO. Furthermore, Turner registered the uncanniness of having those on the Google payroll attend company events in their Burning Mans costumes, so that they mixed with colleagues improbably clad in chaps or fake fur. Their corporate education program actually extended to making how-to videos for cooking and camping at the Playa and conversely offering internal seminars for co-workers in the remote site.

Based on his "two summers of running with the crowd," which included ecstatic experiences riding a bicycle around at night, Turner claimed that the "festival serves as an infrastructure." He argued that "we tend to think in voluntary contexts" with Wikipedia as the model when considering "commons-based peer production," however he sketched out a more complex structure to characterize such arrangements. He listed the following ingredients as essential: a notion of the commons, a leveled management structures, interpersonal visibility that allows one to be seen by others, subsidy, and a communal ethos. For example, as some companies would allow their programmers a day off to “play” with Linux, Google had workers use 20% of their time for pet projects that could be developed into lucrative consumer products. However, Turner asserted that this "rhetoric of community" does not mean that resources are distributed equitably. Much like George Orwell's line about how "some animals are more equal than others," Turner wryly observed that some people make money but some people don’t, so this system actually constitutes a "mode of manufacturing" rather than just volunteering.

Turner claimed that this mode of production enables a number of effects: the fusion of personal and professional “growth,” the use of financial AND social numeration, and the transformation of the worksite into home and home into worksite. The openness at Google isn't always divorced from coersion, Turner noted, since people were jammed into offices with three people in systems of forced collaboration that also included open e-mail lists to facilitate talking to one another and developing ideas for goods. He pointed out that Marissa Mayer, who was project manager for 20% time, acknowledged that it was profitable for the company, since more than 50% of new products were developed on 20% times, but insisted that the key to this productivity wasn’t the 20% but rather being employed “a company that really trusts them” in ways that were not strictly contractual. Turner argued that executives like Mayer were harnessing the individual’s desire to create and to grow for the earnings of the firm in ways that make a global appeal for the greater good in Google's "don't be evil" dictum, which Turner compared to the motto "what’s good for the world is good for GM."

As an illustration of the effectiveness of the Google gift economy he told the story of Krishna Bharat who had been searching for 9/11 news items after the attack on the World Trade Center by Al Qaeda. Bharat wrote a script for finding related articles and then circulated the script on a company listserv as a "gift" the the "community." From this exchange, Google managers spotted a product and developed it into what would later become Google News.

In explaining the principles that govern the "peer theater" that is Burning Man, Turner listed its statement of fundamental principles: 1) radical inclusion, 2) gifting, 3) decommodification, 4) radical self-reliance, 5) radical self-expression , 6) communal effort, 7) civic responsibility, 8) leave no trace, 9) participation, 10) immediacy

He noted how this version of self-reliance actually mirrored the state of many technology workers who labor with no pension packages, experience rapid turnover with 2.5 year average stints, and a nomadic ethic about "not working for the company but for the valley." He also claimed that the stated aim of radical inclusion was in practice limited to white, rave-oriented hipsters who were less diverse than the acid generation, despite a landscape defined by the public transportation dictated by art cars. Moreover, he observed that "leave no trace" still required a team to stay behind for six weeks and clean up. Even though the limitations on commerce could be starkly summed up ("you can buy coffee, and you can buy ice"), and people were instructed to cover up all logos, Turner argued that many of the practices of corporate capitalism were still maintained and that he found himself "gifted with more business card than a conference." As he put it, "there was money everywhere" even though "there was no cash," because the money was in the trailers, in the amenities, and in the privileged few who flew in and the fact that even the many who drove paid a $300 basic admission.

Citing his mentor Bennett Berger, Turner insisted that Burning Man facilitates "ideological work" that responds to pressures that might otherwise result in bending or breaking of common cultural myths, so the attendees must do reparative work through their collective stories. He also alluded to the work of Emile Durkheim about "aboriginal effervescence" that results from shared happy feelings of being together in the outback, which can serve as a "persistent symbolic resevoir" long after the event that may be commemorated by necklaces that mark tribal occasion. In this way the dominant narratives about "engineers first" and "mad scientists" can be sustained to cope with supplying "what new media promises but does not deliver." Turner credited his own field work as well, which he described as interviewing leaders and founders of the event, among others in a pool of about a hundred informants (including about fifty on-site interviewees) .

To illustrate how some Google products directly relate to this nostalgic attachment, Turner showed a rendering of the Virtual Playa that combines a Microsoft flight simulator with Google's mapping features for a future avatar-based Google Earth application that would allow a participant to fly back down into camp from an aerial view high above the planet.

He closed by describing a "persistent cultural infrastructure" for "ideological work by employees, users and others" that is based on "distributed, peer-based modes of product development" that serves as its material setting. He finished by suggesting that it may "also model a new relationship between culture and industry," since "in the nineteenth-century industrialists went to church and built museums," but with the Google/Burning Man synergy "church, museum, and factory are one."

Respondent Jeanne Scheper expressed appreciation for Turner's talk, but also pointed to a number of possible loose ends, such as relationship of the festival to contemporary aesthetics or to postmodern urbanism. The examples she cited included the Art in America piece "In defense of Burning Man: the controversial, anarchic arts festival, held every summer in the Nevada desert, is now in its 20th year" and the ways that "deindustrialized cities" were hoping that bohemians will save them. She also looked to Alan Liu's work on the uses of cool as a way to provide another reading of the event.

Turner answered that there were even more threads to be followed that he hadn't addressed. For example, in looking back to his prior work on the Whole Earth Catalog and the role of Stewart Brand in countercultural entepreneurship, he argued that the story he was telling wasn't about a cooptation by commerce but an embrace of the military, which included affections for Norbert Wiener, Buckminister Fuller, and military whole systems theory. He also argued that the "new communalism" represented by Burning Man not only "embraced commerce, collaboration, research, and lab style" but also "turned away from politics" and retreated from the civil rights and free speech movements of the sixties that effected more fundamental change. Not only does the Burning Man culture represent a crypto-military and anti-political form of organization, Turner argued that although not "not officially racially exclusive," the absence of hip hop music and the loneliness of the protesting presence of the "soul tent" attested to the color-coding of "cultural things that are cool and uncool," "apportioning resources," and "knowing symbolic codes." In answer to a comment from Jerome Christensen about the Heidelberg art project's status as art, Turner also argued that at Burning Man art could function "as a category like religion that can disclaim its connection to the material world."

There also were two significant defenders of Burning Man in the crowd who resisted Turner's corporate reading and claimed their own authority to speak as long-time participant-observers with over a decade of perspective apiece. Tom Jennings argued that the event did facilitate forms of significant social action and consciousness raising, as evidenced by the existence of charitable actions in places like Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans by groups like Burners without Borders, despite what he called the "corruption" of a profit-making structure with thousands of volunteers and what Turner had called "rule-based sexuality" built around the self in sites like the bondage-oriented Camp Arachnid. Speaking as an ethnographer, Jenny Cool argued that people were attracted by the promise of a "temporary autonomous zone," like the one theorized by Hakim Bey, even if it what can and can’t take place was tacitly and not so tacitly regulated so that nudity and drugs could be sanctioned but not liability producing guns.

Turner responded with an extended criticism of the "T.A.Z." explanation. As he said, "One thing utopia isn’t is a temporary autonomous zone." For Turner, utopian visions are about "reaching out to those who are different in fundamental ways rather than just tolerating those with different personal predilections ( ecstacy vs. acid, men vs. women). As proof, he pointed to the absense of immigrants at Burning Man, despite its position in relation to a nation of immigrants. Although he said that he treasured his own "personal sexual drug-doing freedom," he also wanted to "live with people unlike myself" and accept "maybe a character flaw" in his "intellectual attachment to the Puritans."

Turner's T.A.Z. rebuttal also involved the current events issue of piracy, which has made headlines of late both because of the Swedish pirate party of copyright scofflaws and because of the Somali pirates terrifying merchant ships off the African coast. Turner pointed to the ways that discourses about pirates could be connected to temporary autonomous zones. He also observed that Buckminster Fuller celebrated pirates as ideal citizens who built their own societies in in-between spaces and functioned as network entrepreneurs. Turner questioned this ideology of individual empowerment and freedom by recalling his how his students in his Digital Media and Society class responded to his opening day question "What’s a computer?" by saying "a thing that let’s me do anything I want."

Catherine Liu echoed many of Turner's concerns about "new media money’s relationship to culture" and the ways that it supported "artistic" self-expression rather than "art" in the sense of Marcuse’s semi-autonomous sphere. As an example, she mentioned Paul Allen's narcissistic philanthropy and the way technologists pride themselves on not taking art as a fetish to the extent that they may laud the kitsch of a Norman Rockwell Museum. She argued that Alan Liu’s vision of the ethical humane is too weak an abandonment of critique and that it cedes to much to the "very libertarian" Silicon Valley set. She also argued that the Burning Man enthusiasts actually exemplified Protestant ideology by praising "enjoyment in moderation" and the idea of the "reasonable" individual.

There were also those in the business contingent who questioned how deep the Burning Man roots really were in high-tech companies or how exemplary a case study Google really was. In response, Turner reminded the audience of his business communications credentials as a veteran of the Sloan school who considered himself well-versed in "the sociology of the firm" and "the affective part of the worker." However, he qualified his claims somewhat by conceding that this was not just "a digital world story," because it connected to a "deeper shift toward a knowledge-based economy" bent on "harnessing the individual in the life of the firm," much as corporations in the 1980s embraced team-building to "push back against the Japanese and Toyotaism." Notheless, some took issue with how he was defining "manufacturing" and materiality, given the models of "China, Brazil, and Mexico," which Turner described as representative of the fact that he wasn't talking about "one regime replacing another" but a "layering." Still, Turner insisted that it was hard to ignore that big companies sent employees to Burning Man for "creativity training" in nice trailers.

As Paul Dourish noted, "a lot of Apple people go," but he suspected that they do so "differently." To this Turner commented that there were ironies to the Apple company's hierarchical structure and locked down code, given the countercultural ethos the firm projects ever since casting itself as a rebel to a 1984-style regime. (He described Steve Jobs as having only "thin connections to counterculture" despite Jobs' claim at Stanford that the Whole Earth Catalog was his bible.) Given that this connection to counterculture was "more ideological and less organizational," he agreed that it was "not fair to let Google stand in." Turner also indulged in some Apple mockery by mentioning the "complex announcement of showing an iPhone" or how he was once booed by an audience that saw he had a PC.

He also offered a critique of the STS (Science and Technology Studies) perspective about "values built into design" and "how users matter," although he acknowledged that this might have been the case for the bicycle and the laptop in that users' interaction with designers helped produce a stable technology. But he counterargued that structures of capital and commodity also shape technological design, as Alan Kay's reading of the Whole Earth Catalog as a "guide to interface design" might represent. For Turner, ingrained collective practices of "engineers tweaking stuff in relations to things already made" in cultures supported by their own highly specific cultural myths might be more significant. Turner claimed that the focus should be on "what things are meaningful" and how "suppliers of meanings and frameworks meet machines" rather than just intellectually "hunkering down with users and machines" alone.

He described his own viewpoint as "inside/outside" and "in love with both." To explain his attitude he described being a reporter in Providence, RI who covered a man who "bilked widows out of houses" that he nonetheless found "charming." The man's enemies loved that he "busted the bastard" in the story, and the man's friends liked how Turner showed what an accomplished businessman he was.

Although he warned that like the Puritan's City on the Hill, we may be creating new exclusionary narratives that are "white" and "separate and maybe equal," he also held out hope for other kinds of contemporary sociality that were more inclusive, such as the culture around bike shops in San Francisco or "the White House recently." In his criticism of Burning Man, Turner insisted that he was defending the "40s ideal of universalism" that included incorporating the poor in ways that often only churches were willing to do now. As a final anecdote, he described how his costume at Burning Man of "khakis and button-down shirt" irritated a man who was wearing a dress who was highly offended by Turner's seeming lack of freedom in dress, a freedom that Turner characterized as really operating under another set of constraints.

(For those who want to have a newsreel to illustrate this post, you can check out films about Burning Man like Beyond Black Rock and Dust and Illustions.)

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