I had the pleasure of hanging out with Dutch anthropologist Dorien Zandbergen (PhD, Anthropology, Leiden University) in Sweden in October at an ESF Research Conference and learning about her fascinating research into the convergence of new age spirituality and new media discourses in and around Silicon Valley. I loved the idea of a Dutch anthropologist studying me and my friends in the eco-chic Burning Man hipster scene so I asked her to riff off of a few questions for this blog. Zandbergen talked about liminality, technoscience, the California ideology, ‘multiplicit style,’ secularization, studying sideways, liberalism, internet culture, ‘pronoia’, open-endedness, emergence, the neoliberal ideal of the autonomous self, the confluence of hackers and hippies in San Francisco, the usual…
(AF) What is New Edge and how did you conduct your fieldwork?
(DZ) The term New Edge fuses the notions ‘New Age’ and ‘edgy’, as in ‘edgy technologies’. In the late 1980s, founder of the ‘cyberpunk’ magazine Mondo 2000, Ken Goffman, used the term to refer both to the overlaps and the incompatibilities between the spiritual worldview of ‘New Agers’ and the ‘geeky’ worldview of the scientists and hackers of the San Francisco Bay Area. Such interactions were articulated in the overlapping scenes of Virtual Reality development, electronic dance, computer hacking and cyberpunk fiction. I borrowed the term New Edge to study the genealogy of cultural cross-overs between – simply put – the ‘hippies’ and the ‘hackers’ of the Bay Area, beginning with the 1960s and tracing it to the current (2008) moment.
The overlaps that I traced are related to one general idea popular within New Age as well as within hacker circles and relating to current transhumanist notions. This is the idea that humanity is involved in a process of ‘self-evolution’, leading to a future moment when all ‘intelligence’ in the world fuses into one holistic entity. Among others, this notion translates into practices whereby people seek to sensitize their bodies, making it ‘all-sensing’ and ‘all-knowing’ by means of high-tech and/or by practices such as meditation or ecstatic-dance. This idea is also married to a neoliberal image of the autonomous, individual self, who needs to ‘realize’ its true natural self by escaping social conditioning.
There are quite a few moments and places constituted both by hippies and hackers, where they celebrate a kind of common adherence to these ideas and practices. Examples are Virtual Worlds conferences, the Mondo 2000 magazine, the electronic dance scene of the late 1980s/early 1990s, psychedelic events such as the Mindstates conferences and the contemporary Burning Man festival. These ‘New Edge environments’ are perfect places where it can be studied how secular thinking is both a modern ideology as well as a social fact: here we can see how the secularist idea that technology and science are inherently incompatible with spirituality, mysticism or magic is contested. At the same time we can witness here how notions of secularization are still informing modes of distinction-making: the very ways in which hippies and hackers identify themselves to be different from each other, occurs in large part in reference to the alleged incompatibility between the spheres of ‘religion’ and ‘technoscience’. While enchanted by the open-ended ways of thinking of New Age, geeks here are just as much distancing themselves from the “wishy-washyness”, the alleged vagueness of New Age. Similarly, those identifying with the New Age discourse, distance themselves from the images of disembodiment, celebration of technological superiority and over-rationality attached to geek-hood.
In my dissertation, I explore such kinds of compatibilities and tensions at various levels. My research for this comprised a period of 12 months, spent in between 2005 and 2008, in the San Francisco Bay Area, while going from scene to scene, place to place and tracing overlaps in people, metaphors, ideas, practices, objects and styles in between the ‘hippie’ and the ‘hacker’ spheres that I here identified.
So, why is New Edge so prevalent in California?
This is a kind of question that has bugged me for a long time and I am open to all kinds of suggestions into the answer. What I am finding the most plausible answer at the moment – and this turns your question a bit on its head – is that New Edge may in fact be a celebration of California.
I can only say this granting that what makes New Edge unique is not necessarily the fact that it allies the ‘rational’ world of science and technology development with the mystical spheres of spirituality and religion. Such alliances can be found all over the globe. Instead, what is characteristic about New Edge, I believe, is the way that it manifests this alliance through its radical performative style and this may be what makes New Edge characteristically Californian. If you have been to Burning Man, and if we take Burning Man as one of the homelands of New Edge, you probably understand what I mean. The clothes, the art-cars, the music, the buildings, the rituals at Burning Man are all aspects of a performance of a way of being that is ‘authentic’, ‘flexible’, deliberately confusing and unconcerned with hegemonic cultural norms. In a larger sense, we can here see the performance of a radical notion of ‘open-endedness’ in terms of what we can do with our bodies, with our minds, with other people, with our material environment and with technology. In my dissertation there are some examples of this celebration of ‘multiplicit style’. Ironic language; the deliberate contrasting of colors, ideas and ways of being; and the celebration of confusion and chaos are all part of it.
In terms of ideas, this performance associates with neoliberalism, which is prevalent in many other places of the world. Yet, in terms of style, it self-consciously identifies, I believe, with (the image of) California. This observation is partially informed by the fact that my New Edge interviewees were manifesting a strong self-consciousness about being Californian, or being located in California, and particularly about knowing what this means in terms of lifestyle, aesthetics and ‘ways of being’ – cacophonous, optimistic, stylistically ‘loose’ – which was often juxtaposed against ways of being in other parts of the world and of the USA in particular. For instance, Jane Metcalfe, co-founder of Wired Magazine, when she arrived in California in the early 1990s, read the alleged open-mindedness of Californians into the colorful, bright, and crazy style of the buildings and the clothes of the people. And so did Mitch Kapor – developer of Lotus 1-2-3 and associated with many other organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation – explain to me the difference between the corporate worlds on the East and the West Coast by pointing to people in Californian offices wearing Hawaiian shirts. I believe that New Edge culture is firmly rooting itself in, and celebrating as such, California by exploiting this association between California and stylistic cacophony to its extremes. Just as the 1960s hippies of California used a particular style of being, of building, of dressing and talking to distinguish themselves from their notion of mainstream America, so are New Edge Californians embracing this style still to distinguish themselves from the ‘conditioned rest of the world’. Of course, this style is also strongly global in its aspirations and has gone global in many ways, which complicates your question yet again.
Your anthropological project is about the confluence of technological and spiritual imaginations. There is little discussion of political and economic power as part of the equation. Why is that and what would your theory look like if you had included power?
I see New Edge as a discourse that travels through and across different kinds of socio-economic and political niches. And being a discourse, New Edge is not something that defines, in any fixed sense, someone’s identity. Just bringing this back to Burning Man, for instance, people go there from different kinds of backgrounds. This is so in economic sense: some participants are millionaires and are funding for entire camps while others save up all year to be able to “come home”. For one camp leader that I met, going to Burning Man was a tremendous financial sacrifice – that she was more than happy to make – since she was in such debt that she had started living in a shed in her backyard while renting out her own house. Within the larger New Edge sphere, there is also relative diversity in terms of political philosophy. Some of my interviewees were quite outspokenly libertarians, others were very much opposed to libertarianism and celebrating social democratic values. The New Edge discourse has the capacity to unite such differences. It does so in its explicit rejection of political debate and its outward refusal to validate formal status roles and in its emphasis on the body, on style and on human consciousness. As such – just as the 1960s hippies did – New Edge quite deliberately manifests itself in non-political terms.
Perhaps because the core of my dissertation is concerned with a discussion of New Edge contested understandings of consciousness, nature, evolution, style, and the body, it may seem not to involve a discussion of politics and socio-economics. It would be good to make this more explicit in further work, but there is quite a lot of implicit attention in my work for the power-politics underneath this New Edge negation of politics. For instance, I give the a-historical self-imaginary of New Edge a history; I root the transcendental aspirations of New Edge in actual physical bodies; I show the material conditions that enable a place like Burning Man to be experienced in non-political, naturalistic ways and I am critical of self-narratives that are explicitly dismissing discussions of socio-economics. For instance, in a newspaper article published after Burning Man 2005, when Hurricane Katrina had hit and some burners had set off to the East Coast to help clear up the mess, the writer was arguing that burners were specifically predisposed to being able to do this work, where official government failed. This was so, he wrote, because burners had understood the “bedrock value of water, diesel, and serviceable tools.” He argued that Burning Man was all about learning such values and becoming self-reliant beings, making burners predisposed to “lead” when the larger socio-economic system collapses. Of course, “water, diesel and serviceable tools” are not values but material goods. Along with the free time that these burners had at their disposal to go to the disaster area, and with the technologies and kinds of jobs that allowed them to work from a distance, these material goods are quite characteristic of the privileged position that these burners are having within the socio-economic system they seek to replace. I have been similarly critical towards the New Edge ideology of radical open-endedness, its celebration of fluidity and of boundary-crossing, arguing how these notions of flexibility are quite gendered and exclusive of people who are socio-economically ‘stuck’ in the bodies and in their material circumstances.
So, in these ways I did bring in discussions of power into the equation, yet, I didn’t feel the need to extend this into a critique of New Edge. This is so in the first place because I have been mainly concerned with understanding New Edge living, and secondly because there is much of this type of self-criticism within New Edge circles as well. To draw a parallel, there is much critique, both from the political right and the left, regarding the alleged ‘hypocrisy’ of Occupy protesters since the system they are trying to transcend is simultaneously giving them the resources to protest. Occupiers are often aware of this paradox themselves, yet it is not stopping them to try and change the system. Similarly, there is a lot of such ‘double-consciousness’ going on within New Edge circles and rather than critique it, I see it as something that is so characteristic of reflexive societies today that it is extremely worth-while to study it ethnographically – in non-normative ways.
Some of your key interviewees are cultural writers just like you. Some anthropologists have discussed the lateral, horizontal, or interface ethnography when the anthropologist and informant share an equal power-field, discursive community, and skill set. What do your methods or research tell us about the ethnographic project not studying up or down but sideways?
Yes, all my interviewees were in fact habitually thinking with me, interested in meta-perspectives, in connections between different kinds of ideas, and some of them – Erik Davis and Ken Goffman most notably – are, indeed professional writers. Furthermore, most of my interviewees had also formally studied, read or been implicitly informed by anthropological literature and anthropological concepts. This was testified by the off-hand way in which the notion of ‘liminality’, or the concept of the ‘homo ludens’ was used to describe the nature of the Burning Man festival and of how people were here behaving. Also, documentaries and books were constantly produced within this cultural environment that dealt with the exact same convergences that I was seeking to study. At one point, I began to take photographs of the many impressively filled bookshelves of my interviewees as a way of visualizing this self-reflexivity.
One of the ways that I dealt with my ‘schizophrenic position’ being a researcher in a highly self-reflexive field, was by becoming alert to the differences in the ways that we handled theoretic, reflexive concepts. I saw it as one of my tasks to make these distinctions explicit. For instance, I noticed that when using the idea of liminality when talking about a place like Burning Man, my interviewees did not so much use it in the Turnerian sense of going through a period of chaos to become part of the structures of society afterwards. Instead, they were striving for a sense of permanent liminality, for a permanent detachment from structure. Anthropology, in this way, in fact became a kind of ‘New Age science’ (Hanegraaff 1996) – i.e. a scientific legitimation for quite mystical ideas.
In general, what my research tells me about the ethnographic project of ‘studying sideways’, first, is that the types of questions one asks as an ethnographer, as well as the types of relationships one builds and the type of insights one gains are quite different from what ‘classical anthropology’ is generally considered to be. Secondly, I believe that there is by far not enough attention to this in the larger academic anthropological sphere, nor for the ethnographic phenomenon of self-reflexivity in general. Most anthropological studies still take for granted that it is the anthropologist who is reflective and that the ‘respondents’ are not at all aware of what they do. This implicit notion, for instance, has led some ethnographers to conceptualize Burning Man as a religious space, where people experience true authenticity – through dance for instance – and where they are genuinely free from the consumer-oriented, artificial, rationalistic larger western society. Yet, what is not accounted for in such studies is not only that there is much consumption, artificiality and rationalistic ideology going on in and around Burning Man, but also that many burners are quite self-conscious about this. For instance, burners generally realize quite well that Burning Man is an artificial environment that may quite well enable the experience of extraordinary things that have a mystical, natural feel to it. This ‘double consciousness’, I believe, requires not so much a “willing suspense of disbelief”, but as Michael Saler (2004) recently wrote about the ironic imagination, a habit of mind that allows people to “willingly believe with the double-minded awareness that they are engaging in pretence.” When, as a researcher, you take into account also such kinds of reflexivity, and the ironic imagination in particular, you ask different – and in my opinion more interesting – questions about the cultural complexity of today’s post-industrial societies – about how people negotiate different kinds of frameworks and perspectives that are logically and knowingly incompatible.
A final comment I would like to make about ‘studying sideways’ is that this notion runs the risk of covering up the cultural complexity of today’s world. The notion suggests that there is some kind of plane that is shared by particular kinds of people, who can move ‘sideways’ to have a peek into each other’s affairs. Yet, much of my research in reflexive communities – both in California as well as in the hacker scenes of the Netherlands – still felt like treading on unfamiliar territory. At times it was clear that I shared much socio-economic and intellectual background with my interviewees. At other moments such similarities appeared only superficial and much interpretative and translative work needed to be done to bridge the many subtle ways in which we experienced and conceptualized the world differently.
A number of anthropologists studying digital culture, Biella Coleman and Chris Kelty among them, argue that many manifestations of computer culture can be traced back to classical liberal theory and an emphasis on individuality, freedom of expression, etc. Can you square your research with this ontogenesis?
Yes certainly. In fact, I believe it is this liberal aspect through which computer culture and New Age are related. The emphasis on ‘freedom’ and particularly on ‘liberation’, as well as on the expressive self and the self-evolving and self-realizing human individual, are themes that account in large part for the sympathies between the ‘hippies’ and ‘hackers’ of the Bay Area. These notions translate, for instance, into the celebration of technology as art, of technology creators as artists and into rituals that seek to ‘decondition’ human beings (as well as technology).
Yet, this understanding that New Edge has liberal grounding is only anthropologically meaningful if we understand liberalism here in a broad sense, as similarly understood also by Coleman (and no doubt also by Kelty). Whereas Steven Levy’s notion of the Hacker Ethic, as defined in his 1984 book Hackers, suggests for instance that hacker culture is liberal, this ethic rarely translates into one uniform mode of behavior or political attitude among hackers. As I learned from my research, and as Peter Samson, one of the hackers that Levy wrote about, told me, some hackers translate the notion of freedom into a radical libertarian ideology, whereas for others their engagement with computer technology ties in with their sense of social responsibility. This may be related to the experience of being the creator of a system that users don’t understand the technicalities of. Or it may come from having to agree, socially, on a set of ethics and rules of conduct within computer systems. I think ‘computer culture’, if there is such a thing, is characterized by an interesting tension between these two aspects – a sense of individual freedom and expression and of social responsibility. Such tensions most certainly characterize debates within this New Edge cultural sphere.
One of my observations, for instance, regarded the implementation of the ideal of Doing It Yourself at Burning Man. In self-reflective narratives, Burning Man seems to be all about Doing It Yourself, about creating your own reality ‘from scratch’, quite independent from the cultural notions and social constraints of the larger society. Yet, alongside this fantasy of individual autonomy, both in hacker culture and in New Age scenes, there is also a kind of opposite longing – a longing to fuse, to become one with some kind of larger environment. To put it bluntly, for hackers this is the intelligence of computer networks and for New Agers this is the wisdom of the universe. Yet, this longing for self-transcendence and fusion is often frustrated in the context of everyday life: the people I studied don’t generally find themselves living in systems that they trust. This may be due to the understanding that computer networks are controlled by (opaque) corporations and government agencies and that corporate and ideological hegemonic interests conspire with contemporary media technologies to ‘distort’ people’s ideas about reality and about who is to be trusted. This is why and how an environment such as Burning Man is important for my interviewees. It offers an environment of trust. Here one can give oneself over to a larger environment – to the hallucinogenic substances, the artworks, the food offered, the dances, the light-shows – that is created by people that are known or that can be known potentially. A sense of paranoia, experienced in the context of everyday life, is here transformed into a sense of ‘pronoia’. This term was first coined in the context of raves and refers to the notion that the universe conspires to give you exactly that what you need. Both paranoia and pronoia are rooted in the awareness of being part of and controlled by a larger system, yet, paranoia comes from having to depend on a system that cannot be trusted and pronoia comes from giving oneself over to a system that is trusted. This divide informs much of the social embeddedness of the liberal belief in individual autonomy. This is the case at least in the context of New Edge but I think also in the context of hacker culture more generally.
Your work is mainly about a period of time between 2005-2008. This culture moves fast. If you were to continue this specific project where would you go and what would you do?
While you are right in the sense that technocultural development moves fast, I am quite interested in studying certain continuities within the technocultural landscape of post-industrial societies since the 1960s. What I’d love to continue doing, for instance, is to focus on the historically developed cultural tensions that I observed in this New Edge environment, and to see how these tensions intersect with the kind of technocultural negotiations that are taking place in the Netherlands today – and probably in other places as well.
For instance, one tension that I find characteristic of the New Edge environment is what I just discussed: on the one hand, there is a lot of commentary and experiential testimony of the notion that people today are becoming more and more part of opaque, complex, incomprehensible corporate and technological networks. At the same time, what remains firmly standing in this environment is the ideal of the autonomous self-possessed human individual – expressed in the ideologies of Doing It Yourself, Creating Your Own Reality and the notion that it is possible to use these otherwise complex technologies to have some kind of transparent access to Reality. I think you could say that two different notions of what technology is, are here converging: on the one hand technology is conceived of as an enveloping system. On the other hand it is seen as a tool that one can use to realize one’s individual desires.
This is one tension that I am now seeking to study in the context of technocultural negotiations in the Netherlands today: within New Edge, as well as in the larger context of technology innovation in the Netherlands, the artistic sphere has played a large role in fostering the notion of technology being inherently and ultimately flexible, complex and unexpected in its outcomes. Various tech-art institutions in the Netherlands have been wedded to this notion, and have co-operated with hackers and artists to study the flexibility of technology, to push it to its limits and to solicit unexpected results – the ideals of multiplicity, open-endedness and emergence, are quite important here, and wedded also to the idea that, ultimately, what it means to be human is open-ended. Some of these artistic institutions have received government subsidies for their explorations, sometimes in combination with corporate or private investment. Yet, recently in the Netherlands, a cultural atmosphere has emerged that is extremely hostile towards art, and towards any kind of practice that does not straightforwardly produce a tangible profit-making product. This negative atmosphere is intensified by parties now in parliament that have successfully pushed for extreme budget-cuts, targeting specifically art institutions. So, currently, only institutions that are capable of producing concrete, profit-making products as part of their technological explorations, paradoxically, remain eligible for subsidy.
In this context, the institutions that I am seeking to study are having to intensify their negotiation of two technological frameworks that are different and conflicting in the ontological sense: on the one hand, the notion that technology is open-ended, and on the other hand, the notion that technology is a tool, used to solve identifiable problems, catering to the demands of the markets and able, in this way, to generate profit and to justify its own existence. An overarching question that I have, while seeking to study these ontological and institutional negotiations between different understandings of technology, is regarding the political, material and socio-economic bases for the neoliberal ideal of the autonomous, DIY individual – since I believe it is this ideal that is present in both ontological frameworks and that may reveal their common basis – and that may reveal what both accounts leave out of the equation.
And yes, this research does not involve a study of Virtual Reality software but addresses any kind of technology that is now attracting the attention of artists, hackers and corporations – most significantly being new forms of energy-generation tools, new kinds of sensor-based mobile technologies, and bio-nanotechnologies.
In December 2010 Zandbergen finished her PhD dissertation, “New Edge: Technology and Spirituality in the San Francisco Bay Area,” on the dynamic relationship between new forms of spirituality and politics on the one hand, and digital technologies on the other, as shaped in the past 30 years in Silicon Valley, California. A book chapter was recently published, “Silicon Valley New Age: the co-constitution of the digital and the sacred” in Religions of Modernity: Relocating the Sacred to the Self and the Digital. She elaborated on her dissertation in a recent post, “Combining Extreme Distrust and Spastic Bursts of Blind Faith… What New Edge Culture has to say about Today’s Schizophrenic Information Society.” Previously she has taught the course “Anthropology of the Information Society” at the University of Leiden. She is presently a Postdoctoral scholar at the University of Leiden in “The Future is Elsewhere” program.