Writing of the past, reading into the future

Dec. 1, 2010, 3:03 a.m.

Fred Turner reflects on cultural history, discusses creative destruction in journalism

Writing of the past, reading into the future
Courtesy of Fred Turner

Inside a fourth-floor room on the Quad, bookshelves overflow to the floor, where literature mingles with black boxes from archives around the country. Above the hodgepodge is a corkboard with nametags, photos and its most precious item: a handmade award for “Best Dad.” Communication professor Fred Turner sat behind a desk next to the window, gazing through the window at Memorial Church, his “favorite place on campus, without question.”

Turner’s shelves are stacked with books from graduate school, books he has taught from and others he is referencing for the book he is writing. The topics in his collection range from social psychology to 1930s Germany to World War II and the Cold War–and then move into the 1950s and 1960s, where there “was a lot of art oriented around perception, and about changing your perception so as to free your soul,” he said.

A handful of colorful books from the 1940s to 1960s stand out from the others. They help inspire Turner during the six hours every day he spends writing about history.

“The thing about doing historical writing and research is that everyone you are writing about is dead and so it feels a little bit like writing about ghosts,” he said. “Except when you keep things like this around, you remember those ghosts once walked the earth, and they make them more real for you.”

At one point, he stopped and picked out a book from the shelf, Charles Morris’ “The Open Self.”

“[This is] one of my favorite books, about trying to free people to live in a much more…racially, gender-wise, religiously, diverse society–in 1948, which is a time we associate with kind of being closed down,” he said.

Also in his collection is Turner’s latest book, “From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism,” which explores how the computer, associated with the terrors of war, was frightening in the 1960s, but became a tool for the creation of Utopian ideas in the 1990s. The book he is currently writing is a prequel to this one, focusing on how “the rebellion against mass media technologies and the fears that mass media would make us fascists in the 1930s…[evolved] into the psychedelia of the 1960s.”

A Journalist in a Sea of Change

Turner earned his bachelor’s degree in English and American literature from Brown University and his master’s in English from Columbia. Shortly after graduating from Columbia, he took off for Berlin, where he worked as a lighting technician at a punk theatre and gave English lessons. Not particularly satisfied with that occupation, he returned to the United States to work as a freelance journalist in Boston from 1986 to 1996. He wrote for The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Providence Business News and The Boston Phoenix, among other publications.

In 1989, while covering a story about an American support movement for the Chinese students in Tiananmen Square, he felt that the story he was covering concerned a big cultural event in China that he could not touch on in his 750 words of daily reporting.

“As a journalist, I got to be a really good sailor,” Turner said, offering a metaphor for his early career. “I got to watch the chop on the water really well, I could always see where the little waves were coming, little trend here, little movement there, but I always had the feeling that there were these lower, slower, deeper, cultural currents way down below and I slowly began to realize that I kind of wanted to be an oceanographer, not a sailor.”

The self-insight led him to slow down his news-writing career and write a book, “Echoes of Combat: Trauma, Memory, and the Vietnam War” chronicling how Americans remember the Vietnam War. After watching it sell relatively lethargically, “like an academic book,” Turner concluded he had a more academic mind than a journalistic one and decided to pursue a doctorate in communication at UC-San Diego. Before joining Stanford as a faculty member in 2003, he taught communication at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Today, Turner dips his toes in many fields: He is the Department of Communication’s director of undergraduate studies and an associate professor in the Department of Art and Art History, by courtesy, and affiliated faculty in the Departments of American Studies, Modern Thought and Literature, Science, Technology and Society (STS), Symbolic Systems and Urban Studies.

He is set to take on a new role starting next fall as the director of the STS program. His most immediate plans for the department are “to build on the intersection of cultural and social thought with science and engineering thought that’s been the hallmark of [STS] for 20 years.”

“Think about where we’re living,” Turner said. “We’re in the middle of Silicon Valley. This region right now is changing culture around the world in a way that maybe London changed it in the 18th century or New York changed it in the 19th century. The things that are being built around us are changing the way we interact…I mean, we are sitting 100 yards from where the first Google algorithms were written.”

“That’s an intersection that students need to know about to be liberally educated in the 21st century,” he added.

Turner described examples like the website eHarmony.com, which “transform the process of falling in love into a process of applying, creating yourself as a brand…turning yourself literally into a product. That’s a really interesting phenomena and that’s something that we need to be studying here.”

Turner believes that different disciplines have much to learn from one another. He emphasized “thinking about what it means to be human in a highly technological era.”

“There are modes of teaching and learning that are deployed in each context that are rarely deployed in others,” he said.

Overall, Turner wants to “see technology and science taken more seriously as agents of cultural change by humanists” while having the “rich humanistic tradition of thinking about what it means to be a person brought into discussions about how we design things and what we design things for.”

Turner on Technology

One effect of the interactions between humans and technology is especially close to Turner’s heart: how digital media is transforming the newspaper.

“When I was working as a journalist, I wrote many of my stories…on a typewriter,” Turner said. “You had to bring your work into the office or use a telephone to call it in.”

Turner expressed some hope for the technological transformation of journalism because it allows news to be gathered, produced and distributed “almost simultaneously” by any individual. He believes that this allows more people to speak about important public issues, but that at the same time established brick-and-mortar newspapers are suffering to the detriment of society.

The Boston Phoenix, one of the papers Turner wrote for in the 1980s and 1990s, used to have 120 pages. Today, it has 33. For Turner, large print newspapers withering away means “highly qualified public discourse by expert social critics, expert artistic critics, critics of film, of the arts, of music, tends to disappear from public discourse.”

“If you called a source and said, ‘Hi, this is Fred Turner from The Boston Phoenix,’ they actually paid attention to you,” he said.

Thinking back to Watergate, Turner said that the current trend in news–moving away from strong media institutions that once had resources to monitor the government and big businesses–causes journalism to lose some of its power.

“If [Woodward and Bernstein] hadn’t had The Washington Post’s money and prestige and ability to publicize their case behind them, if they hadn’t had The Washington Post’s lawyers, Nixon could have run them out of town.”

“If you’re going to do journalism that is watchdog work, if your job is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, then you need to be able to cover large institutions with big resources, like the Pentagon, like big businesses,” he added. “Single people can’t do that.”

And as a single individual pondering the fate of print media, even Turner needs a break.

Around 10 a.m., Turner pushes back from his keyboard and walks to Memorial Church, occasionally stepping in to listen to the organist practicing. While leaving, he likes to take a look at the four words inscribed on the facade’s mural: love, faith, hope and charity.

“It’s a nice counterpoint to some of the other things in Silicon Valley, which might include ambition, greed,” he said. “‘Love, faith, hope and charity’ strikes me as a pretty good motto, and I like to go read it about once a day.”

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