Special Issues: Global Algorithm
Wired intends to profit from the Internet. And so do a lot of others. “People are going to have to realize that the Net is another medium, and it has to be sponsored commercially and it has to play by the rules of the marketplace,” says John Battelle, Wired‘s 28-year old managing editor. “You’re still going to have sponsorship, advertising, the rules of the game, because it’s just necessary to make commerce work.” “I think that a lot of what some of the original Net god-utopians were thinking,” continued Battelle, “is that there was just going to be this sort of huge anarchist, utopian, bliss medium, where there are no rules and everything is just sort of open. That’s a great thought, but it’s not going to work. And when the Time Warners get on the Net in a hard fashion it’s going to be the people who first create the commerce and the environment, like Wired, that will be the market leaders.”
– Andrew Leonard, “Hot-Wired”, The Bay Guardian.
The twentieth-century ends with the growth of cyber-authoritarianism, a stridently pro-technotopia movement, particularly in the mass media, typified by an obsession to the point of hysteria with emergent technologies, and with a consistent and very deliberate attempt to shut down, silence, and exclude any perspectives critical of technotopia. Not a wired culture, but a virtual culture that is wired shut: compulsively fixated on digital technology as a source of salvation from the reality of a lonely culture and radical social disconnection from everyday life, and determined to exclude from public debate any perspective that is not a cheerleader for the coming-to-be of the fully realized technological society. The virtual class is populated by would-be astronauts who never got the chance to go to the moon, and they do not easily accept criticism of this new Apollo project for the body telematic.
This is unfortunate since it is less a matter of being pro- or anti-technology, but of developing a critical perspective on the ethics of virtuality. When technology mutates into virtuality, the direction of political debate becomes clarified. If we cannot escape the hard-wiring of (our) bodies into wireless culture, then how can we inscribe primary ethical concerns onto the will to virtuality? How can we turn the virtual horizon in the direction of substantive human values: aesthetic creativity, social solidarity, democratic discourse, and economic justice? To link the relentless drive to cyberspace with ethical concerns is, of course, to give the lie to technological liberalism. To insist, that is, that the coming-to-be of the will to virtuality, and with it the emergence of our doubled fate as either body dumps or hyper-texted bodies, virtualizers or data trash, does not relax the traditional human injunction to give primacy to the ethical ends of the technological purposes we choose (or the will to virtuality that chooses us).
Privileging the question of ethics via virtuality lays bare the impulse to nihilism that is central to the virtual class. For it, the drive to planetary mastery represented by the will to virtuality relegates the ethical suasion to the electronic trashbin. Claiming with monumental hubris to be already beyond good and evil, it assumes perfect equivalency between the will to virtuality and the will to the (virtual) good. If the good is equivalent to the disintegration of experience into cybernetic interactivity or to the disappearance of memory and solitary reflection into massive Sunstations of archived information, then the virtual class is the leading exponent of the era of telematic ethics. Far from having abandoned ethical concerns, the virtual class has patched a coherent, dynamic, and comprehensive system of ethics onto the hard-line processors of the will to virtuality. Against economic justice, the virtual class practices a mixture of predatory capitalism and gung-ho technocratic rationalizations for laying waste to social concerns for employment, with insistent demands for “restructuring economies,” “public policies of labor adjustment,” and “deficit cutting,” all aimed at maximal profitability. Against democratic discourse, the virtual class institutes anew the authoritarian mind, projecting its class interests onto cyberspace from which vantage point it crushes any and all dissent to the prevailing orthodoxies of technotopia. For the virtual class, politics is about absolute control over intellectual property by means of war-like strategies of communication, control, and command. Against social solidarity, the virtual class promotes a grisly form of raw social materialism, whereby social experience is reduced to its prosthetic after-effects: the body becomes a passive archive to be processed, entertained, and stockpiled by the seduction apertures of the virtual reality complex. And finally, against aesthetic creativity, the virtual class promotes the value of pattern-maintenance (of its own choosing), whereby human intelligence is reduced to a circulating medium of cybernetic exchange floating in the interfaces of the cultural animation machines. Key to the success of the virtual class is its promotion of a radically diminished vision of human experience and of a disintegrated conception of the human good: for virtualizers, the good is ultimately that which disappears human subjectivity, substituting the war-machine of cyberspace for the data trash of experience. Beyond this, the virtual class can achieve dominance today because its reduced vision of human experience consists of a digital superhighway, a fatal scene of circulation and gridlock, which corresponds to how the late twentieth-century mind likes to see itself. Reverse nihilism: not the nihilistic will as projected outwards onto an external object, but the nihilistic will turned inwards, decomposing subjectivity, reducing the self to an object of conscience- and body vivisectioning. What does it mean when the body is virtualized without a sustaining ethical vision? Can anyone be strong enough for this? What results is rage against the body: a hatred of existence that can only be satisfied by an abandonment of flesh and subjectivity and, with it, a flight into virtuality. Virtuality without ethics is a primal scene of social suicide: a site of mass cryogenics where bodies are quick-frozen for future resequencing by the archived data networks. The virtual class can be this dynamic because it is already the after-shock of the living dead: body vivisectionists and early (mind) abandoners surfing the Net on a road trip to the virtual Inferno.
Adapt or You’re Toast
The virtual class has driven to global power along the digital superhighway. Representing perfectly the expansionary interests of the recombinant commodity-form, the virtual class has seized the imagination of contemporary culture by conceiving a techno-utopian high-speed cybernetic grid for travelling across the electronic frontier. In this mythology of the new technological frontier, contemporary society is either equipped for fast travel down the main arterial lanes of the information highway, or it simply ceases to exist as a functioning member of technotopia. As the CEO’s and the specialist consultants of the virtual class triumphantly proclaim: “Adapt or you’re toast.”
We now live in the age of dead information, dead (electronic) space, and dead (cybernetic) rhetoric. Dead information? That’s our co-optation as servomechanisms of the cybernetic grid (the digital superhighway) that swallows bodies, and even whole societies, into the dynamic momentum of its telematic logic. Always working on the basis of the illusion of enhanced interactivity, the digital superhighway is really about the full immersion of the flesh into its virtual double. As dead (electronic) space, the digital superhighway is a big real estate venture in cybernetic form, where competing claims to intellectual property rights in an array of multi-media technologies of communication are at stake. No longer capitalism under the doubled sign of consumer and production models, the digital superhighway represents the disappearance of capitalism into colonized virtual space. And dead (cybernetic) rhetoric? That’s the Internet’s subordination to the predatory business interests of a virtual class, which might pay virtual lip service to the growth of electronic communities on a global basis, but which is devoted in actuality to shutting down the anarchy of the Net in favor of virtualized (commercial) exchange. Like a mirror image, the digital superhighway always means its opposite: not an open telematic autoroute for fast circulation across the electronic galaxy, but an immensely seductive harvesting machine for delivering bodies, culture, and labor to virtualization. The information highway is paved with (our) flesh. So consequently, the theory of the virtual class: cultural accommodation to technotopia is its goal, political consolidation (around the aims of the virtual class) its method, multi-media nervous systems its relay, and (our) disappearance into pure virtualities its ecstatic destiny.
That there is an inherent political contradiction between the attempt by the virtual class to liquidate the sprawling web of the Internet in favor of the smooth telematic vision of the digital superhighway is apparent. The information highway is the antithesis of the Net, in much the same way as the virtual class must destroy the public dimension of the Internet for its own survival. The informational technology of the lnternet as a new force of virtual production provides the social conditions necessary for instituting fundamentally new relations of electronic creation. Spontaneously and certainly against the long-range interests of the virtual class, the Internet has been swamped by demands for meaning. Newly screen-radiated scholars dream up visions of a Virtual University, the population of Amsterdam goes on-line as Digital City, environmentalists become web weavers as they form a global Green cybernetic informational grid, and a new generation of fiction writers develops forms of telematic writing that mirror the crystalline structures and multi-phasal connections of hypertext.
But, of course, for the virtual class, content slows the speed of virtualized exchange, and meaning becomes the antagonistic contradiction of data. Accordingly, demands for meaning must be immediately denied as just another road-kill along the virtual highway. As such, the virtual class exercises its intense obsessive-compulsive drive to subordinate society to the telematic mythology of the digital superhighway. The democratic possibilities of the Internet, with its immanent appeal to new forms of global communication, might have been the seduction-strategy appropriate for the construction of the digital superhighway, but now that the cybernetic grid is firmly in control, the virtual class must move to liquidate the Internet. It is an old scenario, repeated this time in virtual form. Marx understood this first: every technology releases opposing possibilities towards emancipation and domination. Like its early bourgeois predecessors at the birth of capitalism, the virtual class christens the birth of technotopia by suppressing the potentially emancipatory relations of production released by the Internet in favor of the traditionally predatory force of production signified by the digital superhighway. Data is the anti-virus of meaning – telematic information refuses to be slowed down by the drag-weight of content. And the virtual class seeks to exterminate the social possibilities of the Internet. These are the first lessons of the theory of the virtual class.
Information Highway/Media Net: Virtual Pastoral Power
The “information highway” has become the key route into virtuality.
The “information highway” is another term for what we call the “media-net.” It’s a question of whether we’re cruising on a highway or being caught up in a Net, always already available for (further) processing. The “highway” is definitely an answer to “Star Wars”: the communications complex takes over from the “military-industrial complex.” Unlike “Star Wars,” however, the “highway” has already (de-)materialized in the world behind the monitors: cyber-space. For crash theory there is an irony: the highway is a trompe l’oeil of possessive individualism covering the individual possessed by the net, sucked into the imploded, impossible world behind the screen – related to the dubious world of ordinary perception through cyber-space.
Information Highway vs. Media-Net
The prophet-hypesters of the information highway, from President Bill Clinton, U.S.A., to President Bill Gates, Microsoft, proclaim a revolution to a higher level of bourgeois consciousness. The highway is the utopia of the possessive individual: the possessive individual now resides in technotopia.
This is how the higher level of bourgeois consciousness comes to be in grades of perfection. Firstly, we enter an information highway which promises the “individual” access to “information” from the universal archive instantly and about anything. The capacity of the Net to hold information is virtually infinite and, with the inevitable advances in microprocessors, its capacities to gather, combine, and relay information will be equal to any demand for access. Are you curious about anything? The answer is right at your fingertips. More seriously, do you need to know something? A touch of a button will get you what you need and eventually your brain waves alone (telekinesis fantasy) will do it. Here is the world as information completely at the beck and call of the possessive individual (the individual, that is, who is possessed by information). Here, everyone is a god who, if they are not omniscient all at once, can at least entertain whatever information that they wish to have at any time they wish to have it. Information is not the kind of thing that has to be shared. If everyone all at once wanted to know who won the Stanley Cup in 1968 they could have the information simultaneously: cyberspace as the site of Unamuno’s panarchy, where each one is king.
At the next grade of perfection, the highway not only provides access to that which is already given, but allows the “individual” to “interact” with other “individuals,” to create a society in cyber-space. The freedom to access information will be matched by the freedom to access individuals anywhere and at any time, since eventually everyone will be wired. The hybridization of television, telephone, and computer will produce every possible refinement of mediated presence, allowing interactors an unprecedented range of options for finely adjusting the distance of their relations. Through the use of profiles, data banks, and bulletin boards people will be able to connect with exactly those who will give them the most satisfaction, with whom they share interests, opinions, projects, and sexual preferences, and for whom they have need. Just as “individuals” will be able to access the realm of “information” (anything from their financial and insurance records to any movie ever made), they will also be able to access the domain of “human” communicators to find the ones who are best suited to them. As Bill Gates of Microsoft puts it: “The opportunity for people to reach out and share is amazing.”‘
The information highway as technotopia is the place where “individuals” command information for whatever purposes they entertain and find others with whom to combine to pursue those purposes. As Gates puts it, it is “empowering stuff.” Technotopia is the seduction by which the flesh is drawn into the Net. What seduces is the fantasy of “empowerment,” the center of the contemporary possessive individualist complex. By having whatever information one wants instantly and without effort, and by being linked to appropriate associates one saves an immense amount of time and energy, and is more likely to make better decisions for oneself. Who can complain about having more information, especially if it can be accessed easily and appropriately by a system of selectors that gives you what you ask for and nothing else, or even better, that knows you so well that it gives you what you really want (need?) (is good for you?), but did not even realize that you wanted?
The information highway means the death of the (human) agent and the triumph of the expert program, the wisdom that the greatest specialist would give you. Expert programs to diagnose you. Medical tests performed at home while you are hooked up to a computer that are interpreted by an expert program. In order to serve you, the “highway” will demand information from you. The selector systems will have to get to know you, scan you, monitor you, give you periodic tests. The expert program will be the new center for pastoral power. This is, of course, still enacted under capitalism. You will have to pay for information with money and there will be plenty of restrictions on its accessibility. Leave that as a contradiction of the virtual class between the capitalist organization of the highway and its technotopian vision: a contradiction within possessive individualism. More importantly, you will pay for information with information; indeed, you will be information.
The highway becomes the Net. What appears as “empowerment” is a trompe l’oeil, a seduction, an entrapment in a Baudrillardian loop in which the Net elicits information from the “user” and gives it back in what the selectors say is an appropriate form for that user. The great agent of possibility becomes the master tool of normalization, now a micro-normalization with high specificity … perhaps uniqueness! Each “individual” has a unique disciplinary solution to hold them fast to the Net, where they are dumped for image processing and image reception. The information highway is the way by which bodies are drawn into cyber-space through the seduction of empowerment.
Bourgeois masculinity has always been pre-pubescent: the thoughts of little boys thinking about what they would do if they controlled the world, but now the world is cyber-space. The dream of being the god of cyber-space – public ideology as the fantasy of pre-pubescent males: a regression from sex to an autistic power drive.
Against the Virtual Class
The virtual class holds on to its worldview with cynicism or with vicious naivete. It is a compound of late nineteenth-century Darwinian capitalism (retro-industrial Darwinism) and tech-hype. After what has happened so far in the twentieth-century and is still going on in the way of technological carnage, it is amusing to realize that there are still technofetishists filled with enthusiasm about how technology is going to fulfill their pre-pubescent dream, which they assume unthinkingly that everyone inevitably shares with them. Why? Is it so clear that technology cannot serve anything else than the last man as the pre pubescent boy who would like nothing else but to play video games forever?
The retro-child. The virtual class is in its utopian visionary phase, filled with cyber-worlds to conquer. What will it be in its consolidation phase when we are fully entrapped in the Net and it starts tightening around us? Normalization will come here too. Radically empowering computer land is the utopia of a rising class identifying its peculiar occupational psychosis with (a wired) “humanity.” When we are immersed in the Net the fiction of the “possessive individual” will be discarded from the virtual class’s ideology in favor of some sort of defense of cyber-slavery, in which the virtual class affirms its own slavery, along with that of all the rest, to the Net. This will be the culminating moment of the ascetic priests (Nietzsche) . One can only think of Jonestown. The virtual class ushers itself and everyone else into the Net to serve it as image/information resources and as image/information receptors. Wired into the command functions at work and wired into the sensibility functions when off work: the body as a function of cyber-space.
Panic Information Highway
Organizations are in a panic stampede to get on the “information highway,” to be players in cyber-space. Everyone wants in on the exploitation of the new frontier and even more they don’t want to be killed in the real world, which will be managed ever-increasingly from cyber-space; not to mention the efficiencies of the Net. For the moment the advantages of the Net are not that obvious once you get on, but that is only a temporary situation. The Net is filling up fast with everything imaginable and it’s indefinitely expandable.
There is another kind of panic in process about the “information highway.” This one from the concerned liberals who are afraid of the power of those who will determine the configuration of the highway. In his report on Bill Gates, John Seabrook provides an enlightening glimpse of Gates’s character along with cautionary warnings. We are concerned with the latter, with a specimen of the liberal ideology which counts as the major ideological resistance to cyber tech-hype.
Seabrook frames his warnings within a bit of short-range futurology. There is a new kind of computer on the way that will change our lives in incalculable ways: “The new machine will be a communications device that connects people to the information highway. It will penetrate far beyond the fifteen per cent of American households that now own a computer, and it will control, or absorb, other communications machines now in people’s homes – the phone, the fax, the television. It will sit in the living room, not in the study.”2 The cyber command-machine: the entrance to the highway: the lip of the Net.
Seabrook notes that Bill Gates’s current ambition is to have Microsoft be the source of “the standard operating-system software for the information-highway machine, just as it now supplies the standard operating system software, called Windows, for the personal computer.”3 The standard operating-system will be the program that makes possible specific uses of the Net, all across the Net. Seabrook believes that by supplying the standard operating-system software for the “information highway machine” Gates would gain great power: “If Gates does succeed in providing the operating system for the new machine, he will have tremendous influence over the way people communicate with one another: he, more than anyone else, will determine what it is like to use the information highway.”4
Seabrook shows a misunderstanding here of the “influence” of the virtual class. What is the “influence” of a standard operating-system? Would there be major differences among possible alternative competing operating-systems for the information-highway machine that would alter significantly “the way people communicate with each other?” Or, as with the phone system, is the object simply to facilitate entry into the Net? If the latter is so, no power in any conventional sense accrues to the organizational leader who wins the competition to supply the system. Gates understands this. He wrote to Seabrook that “the digital revolution is all about facilitation-creating tools to make things easy.”5 This is the gospel of the last man, not of the “technology-oriented dictator” that one of his competitors is afraid that Gates might become . There is greater power, of a wholly different kind than the conventional power to order people around, in ushering people into the Net, in being the agent of technological dependency. This is the power of silent seduction, of giving accessibility to cyber-space. Bill Gates is not Zeus, casting thunderbolts, but Charon, taking us across the electronic Styx into virtuality. Seabrook, the techno-humanist liberal on a diversionary mission, is concerned with what goes into cyber-space. He accepts the techno-hype and is afraid of a techno-fascism that he refuses to acknowledge has already been instituted. Gates only cares that we all get into cyber-space: the seducer as great facilitator.
Gates, indeed, has no interest in the conventional politics of the communication revolution. As much as Seabrook tried to get him to acknowledge the question of power, Gates would resist. He made his position plain in commenting that the highway would have some “secondary effects that people will worry about.” That is not his problem, however: “We are involved in creating a new media but it is not up to us to be the censors or referees of this media – it is up to public policy to make those decisions.”6
“Public policy” is what goes on to get the flesh to adjust to the Net. The greater project is beyond policy, transcendent to it – that is the project of wiring bodies to the Net. That everyone will be wired to the information-highway machine is an historical inevitability that puts politics in its place as a local clean-up activity around the Net. This is technotopianism in its purest and most cynical form. Compare it to that other computer entrepreneur, the retro-fascist Ross Perot, who uses the wealth he has gained from the information industry to finance his appeal to a nationalistic policy. The technotopian has no such leanings, but with vicious naivete depends on liberal-fascist allies in government to protect the Net. Gates has identified himself with Technology, the greater power, the one that will finally be decisive. Through the silent seduction of the operating system.
The Virtual Class and Capitalism
The computer industry is in an intensive phase of “creative destruction,” the term coined by Schumpeter and used by the neo-Darwinian macho apologists for capitalism to refer to the economic killing fields produced by rapid technological change. The Net is being brought into actuality through the offices of ruthless capitalist competition, in which vast empires fall and rise within a single decade (Big Blue/Microsoft). Under the disciplinary liberal night watchman’s protection of “private” property-rights, capitalist freebooters destroy one another as they race to be the ones who actualize the Net, just like the railroads of the nineteenth-century racing across the continent. This means that the virtual class retains a strict capitalist determination and that its representative social type must be a capitalist, someone who is installing the highway to win a financial competition, if nothing else. If one is not so minded in today’s computer industry they will be eaten alive. You will only be able to get personal kicks and pursue your (ressentiment-laden) idealistic views of computer democracy in this industry if you sell. So you hype your ideas and your ideals become hype – that is the twisted psychology of the virtual class: not hyped ideology, but something of, by, and for the Net: ideological hype.
There are pure capitalists in the cyber industry and there are capitalists who are also visionary computer specialists. The latter, in a spirit of vicious naivete, generate the ideological hype, a messianic element, that the former take up cynically. It’s the old story of the good cop and the bad cop. How come the good cop tolerates the bad cop? So much for the computer democracy of cyber possessive-individualists. The economic base of the virtual class is the entire communications industry – everywhere it reaches. As a whole, this industry processes ideological hype for capitalist ends. It is most significantly constituted by cynicism, not viciously naive vision. Yet, though a small group in numerical proportion to the whole virtual class, the visionaries are essential to cyber-capitalism because they provide the ideological mediation to seduce the flesh into the Net. In this sense the cynical capitalists and the well-provided techies are merely drones, clearing the way for the Pied Piper’s parade.
A frontier mentality rules the drive into cyber-space. It is one of the supreme ironies that a primitive form of capitalism, a retro-capitalism, is actualizing virtuality. The visionary cyber-capitalist is a hybrid monster of social Darwinism and techno-populist individualism. It is just such an imminently reversible figure that can provide the switching mechanism back and forth between cyber-space and the collapsing space of (crashed) perception.
The most complete representative of the virtual class is the visionary capitalist who is constituted by all of its contradictions and who, therefore, secretes its ideological hype. The rest of the class tends to split the contradictions: the visionless-cynical-business capitalists and the perhaps visionary, perhaps skill-oriented, perhaps indifferent technointelligentsia of cognitive scientists, engineers, computer scientists, videogame developers, and all the other communication specialists, ranged in hierarchies, but all dependent for their economic support on the drive to virtualization. Whatever contradictions there are within the virtual class – that is, the contradictions stemming from the confrontation of bourgeois and proletarian – the class as a whole supports the drive into cyber-space through the wired world. This is the way it works in post late capitalism, where the communication complex is repeating the pattern of class collaborationism that marked the old military-industrial complex. The drive into the Net is one of those great capitalist techno-projects that depends upon a concert of interests to sustain it, as it sucks social energy into itself. The phenomenon of a collaborationist complex harboring a retro-Darwinian competition is something new, but is stabilized, in the final analysis, by a broad consensus among the capitalist components of the virtual class that the liberal-fascist state structure is deserving of support. Indeed, in the U.S.A. in the 1990s the state is the greatest producer of the ideological hype of the “information highway.” The virtual class has its administration in the White House. The concerted drive into cyber-space proceeds, all in the name of economic development and a utopian imaginary of possessive individualists.
1. John Seabrook, “E-mail from Bill,” The New Yorker, LXIX, 45 (January 10, 1994): 54.
2. Ibid., 49.
3. Ibid., 49-50.
5. Ibid., 52.
6. Ibid., 54.