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Stanford Professor Fred Turner to Class of '14: Embrace technology and politics to improve society

In the 2014 Class Day Lecture, Fred Turner, associate professor of communication, encouraged students to transform society with exciting new technologies, but also to heed the shortcomings of the '60s counterculture movement.

Fred Turner, associate professor of communication, offered graduating seniors some last lessons about living in a time when new technologies are transforming society.

"We're living at a time and in a place where thousands of people once again believe that new technologies have the power to transform our psyches and with them, the structure of our society," Fred Turner, associate professor of communication, told a packed Maples Pavilion during Saturday's 2014 Class Day Lecture.

This promising offer was paired with a word of caution: Heed the mistakes of previous generations who squandered similar opportunities.

Turner, who is the director of the Program in Science, Technology and Society, researches culture and technology and the social visions that have bubbled up around emerging technologies. Over the last 150 years, each time a major new technology has come into the world here in the United States – be it the airplane, television, computers or the Internet – it has significantly altered society while also offering the chance to set a new course for American democracy.

In particular, he drew a parallel between this year's graduates and what he calls the generation of 1968. The Stanford graduates of that era came of age in a time full of new technologies – the atom bomb, the birth control pill, the rise of the electric guitar, portable stereos and LSD. Technology, however, was only one side of life on campus.

Earlier in the decade, Stanford had begun incubating a strong countercultural movement. Ken Kesey, who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, began his psychedelic adventures as a graduate student in creative writing at Stanford. And Stewart Brand, who graduated in 1960, created and edited the flagship publication of the counterculture, the Whole Earth Catalog.

"Like you, the generation of 1968 faced a series of choices about how to live their lives in relation to technology," Turner said. "I believe their choices offer some powerful lessons for your generation."

The counterculture spurred two distinct movements, Turner said, called the New Left and the New Communalists. The New Left tried to work within politics to change the policies of the day – in particular arguing for increased civil rights and vocalizing against the Vietnam War. The New Communalists took a different approach.

"They didn't think that politics was the solution to the problem," he said. "They thought it was the problem."

Starting in 1965, the New Communalists started a back-to-the-land movement, building hundreds of off-the-grid communes across the country. The idea was to incubate idyllic societies of like-minded people, unpoisoned by the shortcomings they saw in conventional society and bolstered by the leading technologies and scientific ideas of the day.

Instead of creating psychological and social harmony promised by removing themselves from the social constraints of the middle-American suburbs, however, these communities replicated the racism and sexism of mainstream America they had hoped to escape, Turner said. By 1973, all but a handful of these communities had collapsed.

The Class of '14, Turner said, faces a very similar situation as the generation of 1968. Graduates are coming of age in a world in which millions of their fellow citizens distrust politics, and in which digital technologies offer powerful opportunities to impact society. He urged the seniors to embrace the entrepreneurial zeal of the New Communalists, but to not trust technology to replace the hard work of politics. He urged them to remember to reach across lines of race and class, religion and geography, much as they had during their time at Stanford.

"As we sit here together, we are a community of extraordinary diversity," Turner said. "We come in every color. We come from every state and several dozen countries, too. One in every six of you graduating today is the first in your family to go to college.

"I urge you to bring into the world both of the visions that animate what will very soon be your alma mater," he said. "I urge you to embrace the energy, the commitment and the raw creativity of this entrepreneurial valley. And I urge you to harness it to help build the kind of diverse, egalitarian and mutually supportive community we share in this room today. Only then, I think, can you have the kind of truly countercultural impact for which you have been trained."