HTNM Lecture — Fred Turner, “The Democratic Surround”

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You can now watch Fred Turner’s standing-room only lecture “Cold War Multimedia: The Democratic Surround” from November 13th, 2014 online! This fascinating talk had guests spilling outdoors as they learned how in the face of rising fascism in Europe the government deliberately set out to create out a “democratic persona” through multimedia art. Turner traces the government’s attempts at building this new American democratic personality and its effects through to the present day. The question and answer session following the talk featured a range of critical responses to Turner’s work, directly taking up the role of new media — and in particular our increasing social media presence — today.

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Megan Hoetger, a graduate student from TDPS, revisits Fred Turner’s recent History and Theory of New Media Lecture.


Last Thursday, November 13th, Professor Fred Turner of Stanford University’s Department of Communication took us into media histories with his talk “The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from WWII to the Psychedelic Sixties.”

Professor Turner’s talk drew on a wealth of carefully researched archive materials, ranging from installation images of US propaganda expos like the 1959 American Exhibition in Moscow or the 1942 MoMA exhibition “Road to Victory,” to distribution and exhibition documents of art world experiments from figures like John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, and others. In so doing, he compellingly charted the infrastructural, political, and aesthetic construction of an environmental surround in the mid-twentieth century, which was believed to be capable of promoting democratic choice. As the talk outlined, understanding and promoting a certain experience of environment became a key focus in the working out of a democratic (read: empathetic, collaborative, anti-racist) personality in the mid-twentieth century, in the face of fascism and the authoritarian framework. Turner’s talk made clear, as he put it, the “long history of new media” and its entanglements with the political sphere.

It also made clear that things were changing rapidly even then: consumer choice and political choice had begun to merge already by 1959. Tracing up from there in the Q+A, Turner suggested a model in which social media platforms operate as “careful attempts to market ourselves back to the surround.” The questions and anxieties around the limits of choice that emerged were rather powerful ones. As the best kinds of history-making projects can do, Turner’s talk reminded us of the potentiality of the past’s not yet realized hopes of a future. Accessing this potentiality—there remains our challenge.

If you couldn’t make it out last Thursday, make sure to join us for the final talk of the fall semester on Tuesday, December 2nd at 5:00pm in 370 Dwinelle Hall when Professor Chris Goto-Jones from Leiden University, the Netherlands will give a talk on “Gamic Orientalism.”

Check out the slideshow below for photos from the event, and stay tuned for video and audio podcasts!

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Today we find ourselves surrounded by screens – on our iPhones, our tablets, our desktop computers. Little do we know that we are living out the multimedia dreams of several dozen Cold War social scientists and propagandists, a handful of Bauhaus artists, and the musician John Cage. Stanford professor Fred Turner tracks those dreams from World War II to the psychedelic sixties and lays bare the long-buried cultural roots of an American media revolution.

Turner is an Associate Professor of Communication at Stanford University. He is the author of several books, including the widely acclaimed From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, and most recently, The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties. His essays have tackled topics ranging from the rise of reality television to the role of the Burning Man festival at Google.


The History and Theory of New Media Lecture Series brings to campus leading humanities scholars working on issues of media transition and technological emergence. The series promotes new, interdisciplinary approaches to questions about the uses, meanings, causes, and effects of rapid or dramatic shifts in techno-infrastructure, information management, and forms of mediated expression. Presented by the Berkeley Center for New Media, this event is free and open to the public.