Jorden Gemuend – Week 2 – Turner and Shirky

As we examine the history of the world, it is easy to see how societies have always gravitated towards toward structure and hierarchy. Governments and institutions are normal facets of society that hold influence and power to shape outcomes. The introduction of computers, and particularly the internet, however, has shifted this structure.  However, while some would claim that the counterculture ideals have succeeded in the development of the internet, these are simply new ways of doing the same things.

Turner outlines how the development of computers was intertwined and constructed using countercultural ideals in chapter 4 of his book “From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.” Turner explains how the values of the counterculture were information sharing, individual empowerment, and collective growth, and that computers were capturing a sense of “personal.” Through a series of complex and not always successful endeavors, Stewart Brand played a key role in bringing the two communities of computer engineering and the counterculture together. Although many of the countercultural ideas ended up in failure and dissolution, these ideas were captured in the advancement of computer technologies. Communities of hackers and computer engineers were forming with these countercultural ideals at their core.

Returning to the present, Shirky examines the current internet and how it organizes people without the institutional organization. In chapters 1, 3, and 4 of his book “Here Comes Everybody,” he essentially discusses how the internet has provided us with new tools to organize into groups, which has affected our societal structure in a number of ways. At the core of this discussion is the way in which people are able to organize easily and cheaply, without the normal institutional structures that were needed in the past. The internet has thus redefined the roles of the average person and empowered them individually.

Where Turner and Shirky collide is at the countercultural ideals that have been realized through the internet. Information sharing, individual empowerment, and collective growth are clearly present in the online community. However, where these things are often attributed to the internet as new and finally realized, Shirky does a good job at explaining that the internet is a new tool for the same processes. The radio has been used to organize people outside of institutional structures, just as the fax machine and printing press have done. The internet does manage to once again take these counterculture ideas and improve them, make them easier to access and achieve, but it is not the first to reach for these things. The internet and computers are new tools for working on the same goals.


My Question: Is history forgotten when discussing the achievements and possibilities of the internet?

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3 Responses to Jorden Gemuend – Week 2 – Turner and Shirky

  1. rosewu13 says:

    I think that you pose an interesting question in regards to history and the development of computers and the Internet. Turner’s prose explains in detail, at least in the chapter we read, how the history of computer development was linked to various social upheavals of the era; it seems that the development of such a tool arose as a product of the era of countercultural ideology. With the widespread and almost ubiquitous use of the world-wide-web and the Internet nowadays, I feel that I can validly vouch the youth generation of today, and say that rarely does anyone ever consider the history of the Internet. If we were to look at the Internet as a tool (for communication, for learning, for leisure), how often do we consider the “history” of a tool? For example, never have I considered the history of a tool such as a hammer, or the history of a tool such as a pair of scissors, or a bicycle (a tool for transportation). So, yes, I do think that history is very often forgotten in considering the development and usage of the Internet, a tool that, I believe, many take for granted for its omnipotence. Thus I believe it was rather enlightening to read about the history of something that is so relevant in everyday life, yet something that I previously did not know much about.

    • ariellme says:

      I agree with this comment, in that rarely do individuals consider the history and development of commonly used tools in today’s society. Therefore, how can we expect Internet users to understand the foundations of this rather complex system of interconnected computer networks? The Internet and the world-wide-web have developed at a rapid pace and have proffered an onslaught of programs and devices with which to mobilize and connect millions of individuals at a global level. It is remarkable how far the Internet has taken society. That being said, I also believe that the lack of historical knowledge, with regard to the Internet, among common individuals can be a challenge to society. These individuals have been given far greater power and it is important to understand where this power comes from and how to adequately wield it, for individuals may soon manipulate it.

  2. stephmfarr says:

    I understood your question in a slightly different way, and I think that Shirky is correct when he mentions that radio and earlier forms of technology have much of the same power to connect people and share information, yet are not associated with counterculture ideals. The history of many technologies reveals that they were a way to organize people outside of institutions in their time, yet we don’t study such technologies in terms of the social movements occurring during their development like Turner does in the case of the Internet. I certainly couldn’t say what social movements were occurring when Morse invented the telegraph, and I would argue that it is largely inconsequential in terms of history. I wonder if sometime in the future the development of computers and Internet will meet similar fates, and be remembered as names and dates rather than the effects of a counterculture movement.

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