Democratic Surround

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* Book: The Democratic Surround. Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties. By Fred Turner. University Of Chicago Press, 2013



Jathan Sadowsky:

"For many early to mid-century American social scientists and artists, the idea of democratic practices wasting away, unexercised, was particularly frightening. The rising threat of fascism (and later, and differently, Communism) made strengthening democracy seem increasingly urgent. Fred Turner, a professor of communications at Stanford, charts the history of these thinkers in The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties. While not ultimately as rich a political history as one might want, The Democratic Surround offers meaningful insight into a crucial period of media transformation. This era, Turner convincingly shows, is not dissimilar from — and has repercussions for how we understand — our own multimedia culture. The book details how the construction of “multi-image, multi-sound-source media environments,” which he calls “surrounds,” were developed in order to push back at the perceived dangers of World War II–era totalitarian media use." (!)


Jathan Sadowsky:

"The Democratic Surround, however, despite its interest in tying technology to ideological culture, is surprisingly — and unfortunately — lightweight on politics. There are scarcely even musings, let alone explication and analysis, on the political concepts, practices, and events occupying Turner’s book. His treatment of these subjects is disappointingly thin; it lacks both critical commentary and essential explanations that might clarify concepts for the reader (like what does “American liberalism” really mean in this context and how does that change over time?). The endeavors and ideas of Turner’s subjects are presented through rose-colored lens, which it’s not clear they always deserve. The book would have done well with a bridging chapter that steps back and gives the reader a solid, meta-reflective perspective. There’s plenty of room — and much need — for a more critical stance towards the politics, discourse, ideologies, and influence of the theories and practices described within.

For instance, Turner writes, “from the distance of our own time, the surround clearly represented the rise of a managerial mode of a control: a mode in which people might be free to choose their experiences, but only from a menu written by experts.” This aspect of the surround is ripe for further inquiry, especially considering that the time period also saw the rise of technocratic movements. But Turner doesn’t address this connection. How did or did not the expert-driven characteristics of surrounds fit into the context of these ideologies? Are the surrounds a version of technocracy? We don’t get much of a sense of these, or other, political questions.

Certainly Turner is a communications professor interested in tracing the history of a specific set of democratic uses for multimedia, and it’s reasonable that he focus on his sphere of expertise rather than writing a more political history. Yet Turner has set himself up to do politics-of-technology; the book title at least is indicative of such a project. And it’s primarily here where the book falters. His ample and interesting historical research usefully grounds the book, but it also raises more complex conceptual questions he would do well to answer with more critical attention.

Further, Turner hints in the book’s beginning that understanding these past visions of multimedia contributes to a contemporary understanding of media technologies’ political roles. But he doesn’t actually extrapolate to the present. That’s apparently a job left up to the reader. There are obvious connections to be made with the all too common exhortations of digital diplomacy via apps and social media like Twitter and Facebook—modern surrounds are wired and mobile. However, unlike the fears of authoritarianism accompanying early multimedia technologies, contemporary “new media” are laden with ideals of mass democratization. (Perhaps this is evidence of the persistent success of the democratic surrounds’ concepts in technological culture?)

Finally, then, The Democratic Surround’s greatest frustrations come from its greatest strengths: unlike many historical studies, it offers a meaningful platform for building new and applicable ideas. But often, rather than providing these ideas itself, it strays into long presentations of unneeded detail leaving me feeling alternatively overfed and hungry for more. But if read primarily as an informational starting point, Turner’s book offers an important look at how our technologies might, or might not, resonate with the democratic politics many of us hope to better exercise." (!)

Another review: [1]