March 7, STS Colloquium Talk: Fred Turner



The Bohemian Factory: Art and Labor inside Facebook

by Fred Turner

In May, 2012, Wired magazine announced that Facebook had created a “Secret Propaganda Arm” inside the company: the Analog Research Lab. Despite its high-tech name, the Lab is a screen-printing shop. It prints ‘60s-style posters with slogans to inspire workers to improve themselves and the firm. This presentation asks why.

Drawing on published accounts, first-hand visits to the Lab, and interviews with former Facebook employees, the talk first outlines the history of the Lab. It then explores the aesthetics of its products. In both cases, it shows, Facebook managers have carefully configured the Lab as a bottom-up enterprise, an act of artistic expression born of the creativity of Facebook workers.

The presentation then turns to recent work in the critical sociology of capitalism to explain why. It argues that under conditions of rapid technological change and employment insecurity, corporate culture – as distinct from bureaucracy – has become a key mechanism of organizational control. Turning to Facebook’s Annual Reports and other financial documents, it then shows how that internal mechanism mirrors and supports the profit-seeking techniques of the firm as a whole. Both inside and outside the firm, it argues, Facebook has established a culture of individual expression whose creators can be closely surveilled and whose products can be monetized.

In this context, the talk concludes, the Analog Research Lab’s neo-countercultural aesthetics are uniquely suited to helping produce the expressive individualism on which the profitability of social media depends.

Brief Bio:

Fred Turner is the Harry and Norman Chandler Professor in Communication at Stanford University. His research explores the coevolution of media and American culture since World War II. He is the author of three books, including most recently The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties (Chicago, 2013). He has held visiting fellowships at New York University, McGill University, and Leuphana University, and has twice been a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Before coming to Stanford he worked for ten years as a journalist. He has written for newspapers and magazines ranging from the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine to Nature.