The Center for Advanced Study has a new lecture series for the spring of 2010 called "Interpreting Technoscience: Explorations in Identity, Culture and Democracy" at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The kickoff lecture was "Designing for Democracy in the American Counterculture" by Stanford associate professor Ted Turner. A once business professor, Turner delivered a glossy and animated history of the counterculture movement in the late 1960's early 70's. He began his talk with an agenda, and a central focus that the counterculture movement offered insight into how "design has become a substitute for politics." Turner believes that the counterculture movement is two-fold, led by the formation of the New Left and what he calls the New Communalists. The New Left being individuals who pursued a broader social activism beyond traditional Marxist concerns about class-based oppression with a focus on demonstration and protest. Turner advocates that a secondary movement happened, the New Communalists, who put the interests of the community above the interests of the individual. The goal of these communes was to head back-to-the-land and the design of a new society.
Turner then focused on the external influences of these two movements: Buckminster Fuller's idea of Comprehensive Design and the Whole Earth Catalogue. Many of the New Communalists identified with Buckminster Fuller's idea of Comprehensive Design, which was to identify existing industrial resources and repurpose them for the usefulness of the everyday. In other words, converting the industrial and scientific technological tools of post-world war America into tools for living. Fuller's geodesic dome first flourished as a military shelter in the Cold War, later to be repurposed for the communes of the new radical youth.
Image: Buckminster Fuller, 1962.
Image: Drop City commune in Colorado, 1965.
An unlikely pairing occurred: Buckminster Fuller, a then 70-years-old-bow-tie-wearing-ex-WW1-vet, and the DIY-anarchist New Communalists. However, they both had one thing in common: the desire to do more with less. Many of the communes used recycled and scavenged materials to construct the complex geodesic dome structures and furnished them with items found in Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog. As most know, the catalog is seen as a pre-cursor to the Internet, indexing various clothing, books, machines, and seeds as an "access to tools."
Turner's lecture begged the question: if these communes had dependable shelter and access to all of these technological tools, why did most, if not all, die out? If the design of these new communities and societies had the architectural genius of Fuller and the resources of the Whole Earth Catalog, where did they go wrong?
Turner gave a few answers to these questions, most dealing with the underlying, what he calls, design flaws of the New Communalists. First, the communities were overwhelmingly white and gendered. Second, that the technology used within these communities "strengthened the hands of those who are already culturally endowed." In other words, the New Communalists bought a bunch of stuff and then subsequently asked the technology to solve all the problems for them. The communities did find a way to quickly exit the society they stood against, however the tools they used to build this new society really only strengthened their demise. I believe that Turner's questioning of "design [as] a substitute for politics" really begs to ask how and why technology holds power as a fabrication resource.