Two great presentation – art + games; cyberculture as counterculture

Last week’s BayCHI program featured two exciting (if poorly attended) presentations. First, From Counterculture To Cyberculture: How The Whole Earth Catalog Brought Us Virtual Community by Fred Turner of the Stanford Department of Communication, and Be the Ball by Greg Niemeyer and Joe McKay of UC Berkeley.

Fred Turner gave one of those presentations that lulls me into thinking (for a mere moment) that it’d be fun to go back to school and be exposed to fast-moving big-thinking folks who can stream ideas at my head. His talk was a lot of fun and there’s no way to capture much of it. Maybe the associated book (note comments by Stewart Brand) would be the best suggestion? I haven’t read it but will be curious to hear from anyone who has.

Turner provides a highly synthesized historical/social/cultural perspective on the shift in computer technology (and Silicon Valley as the home for said technology) from a military, hierarchical technology to a green, revolutionary, participatory movement. He focuses on a specific set of folks like Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, John Perry Barlow and the connections between them, as well as the connections they had to other parts of culture (i.e., Barlow and the Dead scene). He referred to Ronald Burt‘s notion of a network entrepreneur as a better model for thinking about how these people all interacted.

With the Whole Earth Catalog going back to the 60s (basically a large format print publication that would catalog many items that would be useful to those living in a commune, from tractors, to tools, to how-to books, to fiction, and much more – interestingly picked up in Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools) setting some sort of foundation, a catalyzing event was a retreat that Brand convened right after the 1984 “Hackers” conference, spawned in part by Stephen Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (another point was the inclusion of journalists in these networks was very effective in growing them in just the right way), helped transform the public perception of hackers from destructive geeks to techno-revolutionaries.

He continued to described the creation of The Well, an early online forum that attracted much of this same culture – DeadHeads, Burning Man people, artists, hackers, and so on.

Underlying this great story was some interesting points about social forms of power versus rule forms of power. In other words, granting access or opportunity through merit versus who you know that is like you (and likes you). It was interesting to see what this group could build through those connections, but Turner himself acknowledged that he preferred the rules over the social power. All of which raises some big issues for me; that our culture claims to be merit-based, but clearly is hugely dominated by social power. How could children of presidents end up so prominently in politics if that were not true?

A final quote from Turner: “To be cool in America is to be granted the power to speak.”

For more academic seduction, check out the interesting course taught by Greg Niemeyer at Berkeley, including podcasts.

Along with Joe McKay (who seemed to play an engaged-but-thinks-before-he-speaks-slow-talking Paul Shaffer to Neimeyer’s fast-talking-can’t-slow-down-yet-collaborative David Letterman), they talked about games, but not as game designers, rather as artists. They showed a variety of interactive environments that were playful in nature and maybe illustrative of some point (i.e., the container filled with bamboo that monitors the oxygen flow in the space and generates jazz music where the energy level corresponds to the breathing pace of whoever is ihe space). It was a refreshing way to think about games and seemed to dovetail with John Seabrook’s recent profile of Will Wright in the New Yorker.

I enjoyed their quick personal history of the games they played throughout their life (no mention of Hotel Room Olympics, however, let alone the Ungame) and especially the demo they set up of a simple game where one stands on a platform and simply shifts weight (subtly) to move an on-screen paddle and shoot a ball into hoops that encircle it (hence the talk’s title Be The Ball). We got to try the game (something I’ve never seen at a BayCHI presentation).

Joe made a reference to Snakes and Ladders which was gratifying since I had recently been discussing the Chutes and Ladders title (more common with the Americans I know) versus the Snakes and Ladders that I encountered as a kid in Canada (where Joe also grew up). Wikipedia confirms that this is a US vs. UK difference.

And finally, Joe mentioned that his mother discovered “The Google” but is disappointed not to see new hits for him when she looks up, so hopefully Joe’s mom will find this!


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