The Biological Computer Laboratory

Social Innovations: Educational Reform and Activism

“Deviant” hypotheses and research programs became increasingly characteristic for the BCL style, or the research style of its protagonists. 

Albert Müller, A Brief History of the BCL (2000)

The political climate of Illinois college campuses while the BCL was in operation is critical toward understanding the dissent and activism of BCL students. Brian Clardy's The Management of Dissent: Responses to the Post Kent State Protests at Seven Public Universities in Illinois recounts long stretches of marches, encounters with law enforcement, and looting occurring in early 1970. A Chicago Circle student group sued the Board of Trustees for infringements of student rights related to the chain of events as violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

These efforts proved successful, and ultimately struck down the Clabaugh Act. The act was a 1947 state law named after Charles Clabaugh, the Champaign representative who sponsored it, that prohibited "un-American" activity on campus property and was used to curb free speech on campus. It was a McCarthy-era provision that only received one no vote as it was passed into law.

The lack of recognition for the DuBois Club at Illinois in 1966, a national organization accused of having communist leanings, was a hot-button issue within this era. From January 1, 1966 to January 1, 1969, the Daily Illini wrote about the club 329 times. As the controversy started brimming, Dean Millet stated that he wanted to know more about the national organization’s stance before reaching a decision on whether the organization should or should not be recognized. The implication that dissent would not be welcome on campus – especially given that recognition by definition would not even imply university approval - outraged members of the group and others in the broader student population.

The controversy was at its apex in March 1967. The Students for Free Speech (SFS) group planned campus demonstrations toward promoting a “uni”versity, a signal to unify the diversity of opinions such an institution may inhabit. On March 3, they also issued public invitations inviting Henry to finally make a statement on the matter and inviting students to hear it. Henry does not show up, but on March 4, he does pen a statement on why he refuses to make a statement either way, saying it is a matter for the Trustees to decide. Shortly thereafter, on March 14, the trustees deny recognition to the DuBois Club.

Additionally, the University announced it would send letters to all parents from University Committee Secretary Robert Wells to chronicle the protests on campus and the main actors involved. It also included what it purported to be evidence that the DuBois Club was a communist group and a call for concerned parents to write their representatives in endorsement of the Clabaugh Act.

But the real test came on March 20, when the SFS declared that “Louis Diskin, a member of the U.S. Communist Party, will speak on campus, Thursday at noon,” and that they will resist any attempts from UIUC trustees and administrators to detract from their rights. They cite the first amendment, include a legal brief on the Clabaugh Act, and write about the implications for the modern university. Afterward, the SFS continues to protest the lack of recognition of the DuBois Club, which goes on to continue to plan meetings regardless of it being recognized or not. Such occurrences reinforced that enforcement of the Clabaugh Act was flimsy at best.

Though the SFS shortly fell through, the Committee to End the War in Vietnam carried its legacy, organizing student protest in 1968 over Dow recruitment on campus. As was the case with Dow Chemical, General Electric’s on-campus recruiting efforts were quite controversial with its manufacturing of supplies toward the war effort. Around the same time as Kent State, the killing of Edgar Hoults, a local young black man, by a cop also raised tensions. 

Students firebombed buildings both on and off campus following Kent State and gathered around the car of the Chancellor, who Clardy says “was nearly injured.” Students also protested at a police station and at the Union. It affected campus operations considerably; over a third of classes were cancelled the next day, and the Governor of Illinois sent in the Guard to diffuse tension.

Local law enforcement was agitated at student demands for flags to be at half-mast in Kent State’s wake, and President Henry and Chancellor Peltason soon released statements condemning the war and the Kent State escalation. But both refused to close the campus, with mixed student reactions. Clardy, however, credits the decision with calming the campus environment, as Peltason instead suggested faculty take up these issues head-on in their classrooms in constructive dialogue with students. While this curbed the protests, the damage was significant, as Clardy cites a property damage estimate of nearly $40,000.

BCL students faced this context of campus unrest on an everyday basis. Many of them took the lead in reform movements. One such student within the education reform movement was Paul Schroeder. von Foerster and Schroeder first met within the student committee behind the Centennial celebration events. Paul was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and during the two years of “limbo” in which he applied for this status, he audited several von Foerster seminars. Schroeder's work following his graduation has encompassed a great deal of activist efforts, stemming from hospital reform to prison reform to community GIS efforts.

Before this legacy of activism, Schroeder was notably elected as the student speaker of the Centennial convocation event, and von Foerster insists that “most of the 16,000 participants remember well his honest sober [sic], critical and very courageous speech.” Schroeder's convocation speech was front and center in the debates surrounding student culture at the time. Following a student walk-out at the convocation, Schroeder emphasized how the university failed him and how he in turn failed the university.

He identifies two crises - a "crisis of criticism" and a "crisis of direction" - to indicate how much more could be done technologically at the time, but that there needed to be an added sense of responsibility to what could be produced accordingly. He then speaks of a need to "humanize the university" - to resist a copy-and-paste model to classroom instruction and to give students more of a position to question authority. This clearly connects to BCL sentiments on dissent and the university. Paul concludes his speech by asking students to unite to incite change and transform educational models, initiating a campus wide conversation that would lead to the LAS 199 course designation that von Foerster would later use for his innovative student-centered seminars. 

Similar to Schroeder's later activist work, Valerie Lamont and Stuart Umpleby's collaborative work on PLATO was equally concerned with community-centered transformations in knowledge production. Like Umpleby, Lamont had ties to the BCL; she co-wrote with von Foerster the grant for the last of the four student-produced seminar publications, Cybernetics of Cybernetics. This hefty volume, at 494 pages long, was very collage-like in form, reminiscent of Marshall McLuhan's The Medium is the Message. Students took responsibility of their own pages to illustrate different concepts pertinent to second-order cybernetics, and these pages weaved through reprints of selected publications from scholars in the field. Umpleby was not only involved with writing Cybernetics of Cybernetics, but also invited readers in a dedicated section of the collection to continue the conversations that the volume fosters via PLATO, again testing PLATO's potential as a platform for dialogue.

Their creation of a Creek PLATO lesson on Boneyard Creek was an experiment in the utility of "the teaching computer" that PLATO manifested toward enhanced citizen participation. Boneyard Creek runs through campus, had a notorious legacy for overflowing and causing damage, and at the time of the Creek lesson suffered from corporate pollution and sheetpiled banks as the result of increased human activity. The Creek lesson is arguably the first environmental advocacy website of its kind, according to Brian Dear, author of The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture.

In 1973, Lamont wrote about the Creek lesson for the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change in an article entitled "New Directions Toward the Teaching Computer: Citizen Participation in Community Planning." In gathering local government figures, community activists, and citizens around such aims, Lamont argues such community engagement via PLATO could establish clarity over an issue, collaborative efforts to address the issue, information that engages those who do not have an opinion on an issue yet, and dialogue on an issue via a platform where users feel comfortable asking and responding to questions. Lamont situates these efforts within a rampant call in the mid-1960s for increased opportunities for citizen intervention. In this broader call, emerging communications media are seen as a potential catalyst for participation.

In thinking through how to apply the teaching computer’s utility, the students decided to select a locally salient issue, one that would be familiar to local residents. Lamont conveys that the planning stage occurred in “the months immediately preceding the first Earth Day,” when the environmental movement was burgeoning nationwide and when local activists were focusing on local pollution of Boneyard Creek. Local companies and residents alike had polluted the river, and building construction was closing in on the edge of the stream from its banks being sheet-piled. The creek was a site of contention between city planners (who aimed to cover the creek for use as a storm sewer) and environmental activists (who wanted to rid the creek of pollutants and maintain it).

The students thus agreed that Boneyard Creek would make for an ideal case study, especially since it was a prominent issue but not a particularly volatile one within the broader community. They designed a computer program of diagrams and maps meant to introduce the issue, historicize it, overview competing plans, and present unconsidered options and citizen actions. They incorporated a glossary of important terms for quick reference and question sections in between to ensure participants were retaining information they were presented. They enabled comments throughout the program so that participants could speak back to what they were being presented and how it was being presented.

Out of the over 100 invitations the students issued in the latter half of 1970 to view demonstrations of the program, over one-third accepted. 65 more people would attend demonstrations in early 1971, with the actual experiment occurring mid-1971 with 77 subjects. Lamont indicates that roughly one-third of participants changed their opinion on the issue after taking the program. Nine out of 10 participants indicated that they would like to see more issue-based programming on PLATO like that of the graduate students, conveying that CREEK did in fact show potential for digital advocacy projects.

While the Technological Innovations section of this book began to unravel some of the interdisciplinary intersections of the BCL's work as it was put to work on a technological front, BCL student-produced publications like Cybernetics of Cybernetics equally exemplify the lab's interdisciplinary output. They relied heavily on the inspirations, concerns, and backgrounds of the undergraduate students who took von Foerster's seminars, which attracted technologists and activists alike as students. The next section narrates the interdisciplinary nature of such courses and publications. They are arguably the most charismatic examples of the BCL's concerns but certainly the most controversial, and further demonstrate the caliber of pedagogical and social critique noted in other sections.

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