Special Issues: Global Algorithm
Deena: Logging on. Weinstein and
Michael: Weinstein – Old Liberals
Deena: With a Postmodern Twist. What is (likely to be) the transformative effect of the computer network (“internet” with a small “i” to refer to the totality of communication between computers) on social relations and the self?
The computer is the material basis of cyberspace, the interface between the internet and the flesh, the extension of the senses – to use the term of the theorist (guru) of the silicon hippie net-hypesters, Marshall McLuhan, into (cyber)space.
Cyberspace is the transactions between computers, not a place or a where, but an electronic event of “information flows,” “symbolic exchanges” (“displacements of signifiers”) that collapses communicative distance. That is, there can be instantaneous communication between computers located any place the net has penetrated: time abolishes space. Also, in principle there can be full availability (within the limits of processing capability) of any information stored in any computer to any other computer. (In practice, there can be any degree of political-legal restrictions – for example, censorship, as we all know – on information access).
In abolishing communicative distance, the computer network does in a different way what telephone, telegraph, radio, and television had already done in their particular ways. The difference with the computer network is the ability of computers to process, retain, and quickly tap and disseminate information. The density, potential accessibility, range, and heterogeneity of information that computer networks instantaneously transmit grounds distinctive structures of social relations and self.
Michael: Logging on. The Net(-Hype) Hater. Just a minute. That’s the way it looks to Weinstein and Weinstein’s elegant (Simmelian) old liberalism with a postmodern twist. The old liberals. We’ll hear from them later if they haven’t choked on their forms. They’re the old liberals telling us that the internet makes any difference in the way we live.
Internet discourse, internet philosophy, internet “spirituality” – it’s all hype. This is the first time in “history” that philosophy has become so completely enmeshed in promotion that the two are indeterminate partners in a single discourse. The Bill Gateses, Steve Jobses, Mitch Kapors are the hypesters and philosophers all rolled up into one. Gates sells a “vision” with his software, now also in book form with a CD-ROM, and simply by taking the net seriously Weinstein and Weinstein buy into technotopia.
As if the net makes a difference. I’m the net hater, plaguing this discussion with the simple truth that we’re animals. It disgusts me when I read in Net Guide M. Strata Rose’s dismissive contempt for “primate/cultural baggage” as she prepares to dwell in the “Virtual City” straight out of Walt Disney that she’s planning. Fuck you!
I’m for the flesh. I’ll use the net for whatever acts it allows me to perform more efficiently and effectively and pleasurably than I could do otherwise, but I’d rather be on the streets, baby, in the open air, than hunched over a window into cyberspace. The net is a facility. I don’t hate the net as a facility any more than I hate the telephone. I even tend to like technologies once I get familiar with them, like an animal. I find e-mail to be a set of genres that can be perfected, just like the traditional letter. It’s got its own informal precision – just as there is good speech and good writing, of which good e-mail is a middle term. There is good e-mail. There’s a lot of drivel, but then think of speech.
So, I don’t hate the net. What’s wrong with an enormous archive of every sort of information of every grade from worthless to priceless, with no inherent standard to grade it like Alfred North Whitehead’s God provided to the cosmos? What’s wrong with new kinds of conversations that have some of the informality and rapid response of a telephone conversation and some of the reflective permanence of writing? Believe me, the telephone’s better for making love and flesh-to-flesh is far better.
What I hate is net-hype. The net is a tool and nothing more. Hey, what am I saying? What I hate is the seduction of net-hype. I hate the seduction of the net. I hate the virtual community as a substitute for the streets and the flesh. I hate the repudiation of primate/cultural baggage in whatever form it comes.
What it is is that I’m not afraid of the net. I hate the technotopian discourse of net-hype. I choke on the idea of “empowering” the underclass with computers. A generation of hackers!
The fact is that the net is an emerging complex of communications media that has not yet reached its full rank among communications media and is, therefore, still “full of promise,” breeding utopia and dystopia about it, and endless hype and vision: it can still be promoted like land in Florida or nuclear power in the 1950s. We’re used to television as a wasteland (Bruce Springsteen’s “57 Channels and Nothing On”), but the net promises COMMUNITY, according to the hypesters, an absolutely free and uninhibited community – since it’s all symbolic – for its anarcho-hippie-libertarian hardcore.
Do I even care if humanity goes bug-eyed in front of screens, communing with perpetual e-mail support groups, often masquerading as newsgroups, as they wait – as in a universal hospice – to be replaced by androids who’ll truly be fit to dwell in M. Strata Rose’s cybercity?
I’m the Nietzschian animal. I say pass them by! As more and more get lost to the net, the streets become more like open country, better for animals. The electronic hospice world. That’s the net I hate, baby. That’s the hell to which the Pied Pipers of Net-Topia are leading the poor in spirit. For me, the net is a facility. Cyberspace is a spook. For my foes, the net is a social environment. My foes? I salute them for devoting themselves to the cause of a communications medium and hate them whenever their hype leads them to the viciously acquired naivete (or is it the cynicism?) of a Newt Gingrich or an Al Gore. Hey, by the way, isn’t it amazing how both the Clintonian New Democrats and the Gingrichist Republican Revolutionaries have both bought into net-hype? There ain’t a chip’s worth of difference between them.
As for distance learning, I’m a damned teacher. Do you wanna put me out of work? Get off my case!
(Are you finished?)
Gimme a break! There was a great feature on CBS news one night last winter on internet gambling. Big-time gambling is going on on the internet and it can only get bigger. I was astonished to learn that $500,000,000,000 a year is gambled in the United States. I still don’t believe it. Despiser of the masses that I might be, I can’t believe that my fellow countrymen are that uncivilized. But they are. The liberal game is up. Make way for internet gambling.
It’s against the law in the USA to use the phone lines for gambling, so the cyber-casinos have set up in Belize, Lichtenstein, Grand Cayman, and assorted other vest-pocket havens that only survive because the capitalists are in control. Just like Robert Reich and Pat Buchanan say, they’re sucking their own countries dry and are getting away with it under our noses. If we could do Grenada and Panama, we could do Grand Cayman, thank you. Just the other day I heard on NPR about how rich people in this country move vast sums of money overseas and avoid paying taxes on them. The point was that the austerity we’re in might be eased somewhat if we restored the damn tax base by making parasitism on your own country a bit more expensive and less attractive.
Anyway, back to cyber-gambling. One of the cyber-casino owners had been convicted for fraud in the past and thought that this was actually an advantage for his business. I couldn’t quite follow his explanation, which didn’t seem to address the issue, but I think the gist of it was that he knew his way around and that should give confidence to people. I don’t doubt that he’s right that a lot of people would find that plausible – the same ones who spend $500,000,000,000 a year on gambling; I still can’t believe it, but it probably doesn’t mean that people lose $500,000,000,000 a year on gambling – I don’t know how much they lose; the figure’s still amazing.
Gambling on the internet. Everything on the internet. Don’t the technotopians see? The internet as anarchy, that is, the internet as a vehicle of academic freedom – the old ARPAnet that the Defense Department created to expedite cold-war military research and was captured by the academic side of the military-academic complex – that is, a totally elite-utopian moment of history; the internet as anarchy is about to cede to the internet as pan-capitalist facility. We are going through a doubling process, the internet is being absorbed into the environing retro-modern, pan-capitalist scene – the post-post-modern. Welcome to the retro-modern. Darwinian capitalism rides again on the net. The net is passing from libertarian utopia to techno-capitalism.
What’s the net going to be? I saw another story on TV in December – how people are spending more money on Christmas gifts for their pets than on the rest of their family; again, I couldn’t believe it, but I figure that whatever the numerical truth is, gifting pets in a big-time serious way is a growing practice in the country. The net has no autonomy – it will not shape life in such a way as to change it for the better in the direction of some libertarian utopia or some consumer paradise or some vehicle of community (world-wide no less), but will duplicate present life. It will duplicate the mentality that lavishes gifts on pets at Christmas. Narcissism or what? A pathetic narcissism, I agree, and whatever gets you through the night.
The American upper-middle class public which falls for capitalist government-bashing behaves like a corrupt aristocrat – a degenerate aristocrat gambling and buying gifts for pets. You ask what the net will be? It will be continuous spamming. The net will duplicate the fallen creation in cyber-space. From the net salvation doth not come.
Not that I doubt that information and opinion hackers will find ways of keeping the anarchy and the electronic communities and support/information/conversation groups going. The difference from the past will be that libertarian anarchy and participatory community will be marginal happenings in the pan-capitalist event-scene of the net. The myth that the net liberates will very soon be proven to be baseless. The information super-highway will soon be as full of signs and of enforcers lurking behind the signs as the nation’s roads. Property, if not public safety, needs protection.
Don’t tell me about distance education! All that kind of thing is also going to go on. The net is a facility for retro-modern life – all the discursive disciplinary practices will be practiced on the net: education, therapy, social work, surveillance. On the education side the net mediates between face-to-face teaching and learning, and the correspondence course; it has elements of both, just like e-mail mediates between speech and letter. It’s just another medium with its own advantages and disadvantages. Will it supplant face-to-face teaching and learning? Who the hell knows? The old liberals desperately hope that higher education is intrinsically an experience of social maturation, so that the physical campus and its inhabitants will remain. Who knows and who cares? The elite will demand and get face-to-face attention; others will get more mediated forms in any number of mixes. Big deal except that I detest the elites. It’s just like “having your own doctor” versus managed care. The future is managed care. I won’t say that the future is distance learning, but that is certainly going to grow. It’s got to be cheaper than what colleges and universities are now charging. Anyway the need for things like libraries is going away as everything goes on-line. Labs? We won’t abolish space-based learning altogether, but simulators can go a long way. (Frog-dissection on-line is less gory and students won’t miss the stench of formaldehyde). Why can’t you pour some cyber-chemicals into a cyber test-tube by moving and clicking your mouse and then see if the concoction explodes or turns into a wonder drug? Let me tell you, it’s safer than crisping your arm in an explosion the way my high school chemistry teacher did when he tossed some potassium into water or was it the other way around? We called him “The Black Hand.”
The net gives me a big yawn. My Lord! Shopping by computer. Spare me. Catalogue sales have been around forever. I have a reprinted souvenir Sears catalogue from the turn of the century that somebody, or some organization, gave me, for some reason, to prove it.
Tell me that net-topia isn’t already a has-been utopia? I read an article in Net Guide quoting some people as saying that they couldn’t wait until you could see your net-mates on the video screen because they felt they were at a disadvantage in the current situation, where verbal skills are at a premium, where how well and often how rapidly you write counts too much for their taste. (The scary thing about this is that the net isn’t quite famous for good writing.) It’s like what MTV does to music. There will be great e-mail conversation-letters on the net, but the net won’t be a privileged site of great interchanges. Everything we have already will be in cyber-space in pretty much the same proportion as we have it through the media-scape. Basically, whatever you can make a buck on will have its cyber-equivalent. A certain number of people will be sucked into cyber-space and become dependent on it for self-maintenance. Others will use it, among other media and relations, for practical purposes, for its intrinsic pleasures, and for supporting the self. Others will opt out at the price of some exclusion from valuable practical and social connection.
Newt Gingrich was Time Magazine’s 1995 Man of the Year. Newsweek’s competing issue declared 1995 the Year of the Internet and featured on its cover a cartoon of Microsoft’s Bill Gates dressed as Santa Claus. There ain’t a dime’s worth of difference. Two tech hypesters. (Two tech hype-stars.) Is there a message here about hegemonic media and the future of the net? I’ve seen the future and it’s Newtergates.
It’s pathetic to think that anyone who would not visit or call Joe Blow anyway is going to hit his personal home page. It’s like Joe tacked a newsletter to his mailbox so that everyone would know about him and his oh-so-interesting interests. On the web his newsletter is potentially available to anyone in the world who’s wired into the net, not just those randomly passing by his house. So what? Who’s going to read it?! Just because it’s out there doesn’t mean that anyone’s going to “hit” it, and if they do so by accident, they’ll probably get out real quickly after they have a laugh at Joe’s expense. Hundreds of millions of monologues. Do-it-yourself vanity publishing. Everyone expressing and nobody reading. Work on your own home page and then go to the cyber-casino. Hundreds of millions of home pages yearning to be hit. A revolution of expression and human potential!
I am the anti-McLuhan. The medium is not the message; media provide functional alternatives for messages, shaping them, even constituting them and the way they are received to some extent, but not to the extent that the technotopians seem to believe. Gambling at the cyber-casino at least allows you to avoid other depressives and addicts. But so does phoning your bookie. You know, nothing can take the place of a real casino where real people furiously pull away at slot-machine levers and you can share in their grim desperation. An intrinsically socially formative aspect of the gambling experience. No. Real casinos – I mean, for example, actual simulated riverboats in the Midwest won’t go away – it’s where you go for a get-away vacation with your family and friends.
Deena: Logging On. Net Defender. Would you finally let me speak? I respect you for being a basically reasonable person. I hate net-hype as much as you do. I also realize the possibly bad consequences of the net. But I don’t blame them on the net, and, I admit, neither do you… exactly. Indeed, you’re no net-hater, as you say – you’ll use it as a facility. But you won’t give to it in return for what it’s given you, which is more than just utility. What gives? You won’t even praise the good of the net, it’s best possibilities. Why? What’s wrong with you?
Are you going to tell me that you believe that it’s inevitable that the net becomes an enormous hospice where we wait for the androids? That’s as bad as the silicon-hippie-new-agers who say that the net is a self-healing organism. I can’t stand that kind of rhetoric. It makes me gag. It is the “Nature of the Net,” they say, to work around any obstacle: like the organism that it is, it “sees” every obstacle as a problem to be circumvented.
I say, of course, that there is no such “organism” – the net offers the possibility of voluntary communities on a scale and workability completely unknown until now. Networking on the net, and sustaining the net as as free and pure a medium for all messages as possible, consistent with the perpetuation of voluntary community, is the beach head of the New Left in cyber-space. I haven’t, like you, given up yet on libertarian community. The point between us, I think, is that for one reason or another – I’d have to include wimping out in any explanation – you adopt an extreme pose of cultural pessimism and go about your precious civil savagery, now as the net-hype hater and anti-McLuhan. Did you ever think that there might be a position between McLuhanite optimism and your George Grantian pessimism, between the dogmatic optimism of the “global village” (the “self- healing net”) and the dogmatic pessimism of the hospice society, between what turn out to be two dogmas of human nature: [PAUSE] perfectible through technology versus post-lapsarian existence? Why not be a Kant or especially a William James and leave the issue open, and simply follow the consequences; and, of course, throw yourself in – as James would commend – on the side of the good, of the expansion of freely collaborative experience by individuals: the pluralistic universe.
But, I’ll say this much, Net-hype Hater, even if you’re not part of the solution, you’re also not part of the problem; maybe you’re even part of the solution. But what I’ll never understand is why you refuse to fight the good fight and enjoy its enormous rewards, even in the face of what you think will be ultimate defeat. You’re a disillusioned idealist of the ’60s. I’ve given up on naive idealism, but I haven’t become disillusioned – I’ve just become what John Dewey recommended, an “experimental idealist,” promoting the good things in the world through intelligence.
Santayana for you, James-Dewey for me. I’m certainly not going to force you to play, though I wish you would. You might have more fun than you think. I can’t help but engage in some hype – it goes along with the territory. I’m the Net Defender, the Defender in exactly the sense that Kant was when he sought the answer to the question about what makes such social constructions as science, morals, and taste possible in terms of the principles that make those constructions as intelligible as critical thinking can make them. Kant ennobled and defended human culture by crowning each branch of it with intelligibility, making sure never to leave it without limitation in scope and certitude. I am the Kant of the net and a Jamesian radical anarcho-democrat. Pardon me, but I’m not yet post-civilized and I intend to keep up the standards of modern civilization in new contexts, like the net. I seek the possibility of the net, its form.
Let me nod in the direction of Howard Rheingold, an eminently sane and eminent net-defender. Rheingold bases his perspective on the net on a denial of two denials that is also an affirmation. He would agree with you that there is a danger that people will use the net as a means of escaping the demands of physically proximate human contact, that they will learn to deny their very embodiment. The notion that “primate/cultural baggage” is something to be despised is the worst sort of idealism and optimism. Permit me to opine that I find that optimism more disgusting than you do, because I’ve allowed myself to remain close to it rather than erecting a counter-ideology/fantasy like you have done to keep yourself uncontaminated by it.
So, the first denial – the one made by the technotopians – is the denial of corporeal relations in favor of cyber-relations. The second denial is the one that you make: you deny the positivity of both the epistemic and moral senses of the social relations constituted on the net; you deny cyber-relations in favor of corporeal relations. Now, I am no idealist. I’m not saying that corporeal relations and cyber-relations are equiprimordial; corporeal relations are primordial: my Kant is the one who limited reason to its operations on experience. But can you deny that the net is made possible by the ability of human beings to constitute relations to it and through it? I defend the relative autonomy and the value of a moral relation to and through the net that is based on the objective possibilities for relations among individuals that the net permits and, indeed, encourages.
The cyber-relation, when morally constituted, is both an end-in-itself and a means to a greater end. That greater end is face-to-face friendship, love, and colleagueship. As Dewey had it, the best consummations are those in which valued experience is directly shared. The net makes possible and is made morally intelligible by – gains its moral possibility from – a specific relation.
The positivity of the net is its possibility of creating voluntary community through mediated conversation. In a negative sense (in the Hegelian sense of “negative” as abstract), the net abolishes physical distance between communicators, making everyone who’s wired accessible to everyone else. In a positive sense, the net provides a field for experimentation and play that by virtue of its mediated character becomes free from the demands of face-to-face or even telephonic relations, and, therefore, liberates expression and encourages play with self-definition. In return for the fullness of a close face-to-face relation, we must sacrifice our ability to vary ourselves and give vent to our reactions. It is a notorious fact that many shy people are transformed on the net into communicators, sometimes showing themselves off as brash bullies. That’s an extreme case of a pervasive characteristic of the net – its particular form of indirect mediation encourages variation and experimentation in expression and conversation. That is why the endogenous theorists of the net are nearly always both libertarian and communitarian. There should be no formal restraint on expression, but there should be informal sanctions by members of cyber-communities against abusive individuals – that is, “Netiquette” should be upheld and enforced by “Netizens.” The fundamental principle of Netiquette is that one should act so as to preserve and enhance the net as a site of free conversation and mutual aid. As it works out, often the most important practical application of this principle is not to bother other communicators with unwanted messages. Otherwise, as Rheingold notes, the normal standards of decency cultivated in corporeal society apply with some different emphases.
At its best, the net is an array of voluntary communities of inquiry and comradeship sustained by the free commitment of their members. There’s nothing mysterious or marvelous about this. It boils down to people around the country, or the world, who are caring for someone with a degenerative disease forming a community of support and information outside the aegis of any medical organization. It amounts to people who share all sorts of common interests pursuing them and also exposing themselves to disturbing interlopers bringing the bad news.
At its best, cyber-community nurtures relations that extend beyond cyber-space, but that needn’t happen for it to be affirmed as an end. The pointed play of cyber-conversation can be a great satisfaction in-itself. People don’t feel as much as though they have to honor the other person’s feelings when it comes to giving criticism or expressing their opinions. It may be rougher in certain ways, but at least one is getting a more realistic view of how one’s own views are received by others. Cyber-conversation can also, on the other hand, be more caring than face-to-face conversation often is. How often do we fail to help those in our proximity or fail to accept their help because we are afraid that expectations that we don’t want to meet might get set up? The expectations are lower in cyber-communities, which means giving can be freer.
The key virtue of the netizen is, negatively, a greater tolerance of expression than is called for in corporeal society and, positively, a readiness to sanction abuses of expression and invasions of privacy. The heroes of the net are those who initiate and voluntarily operate informative home pages, bulletin boards, usenet interest groups, and cyber-communities. As long as real human beings are using the net to pursue moral relations with other real human beings in voluntary endeavors, there is something worth committing oneself to in cyber-space, and the notion that the net is a hospice is given the lie. As a moral possibility, the net is an anarcho-democratic community. It is a mistake to conceive of it as a model for corporeal community, and an abomination to consider it a substitute for corporeal community. Think of it as a zone of freer communication than is social-psychologically possible in other contexts, something like – though not the same as – academic freedom in the context of higher education: a special opportunity to explore, experiment, learn and appreciate: a special opportunity for people to help and enjoy each other apart from the disciplinary discourses and practices of hierarchical organizations. Have you ever thought, Net-Hype Hater, that the net might help renew the ideal of voluntary community in general by its successful cultivation in cyber-space?
Michael: Logging On. New-Age Cyber-Hippie. Get off, traitor. Eat my chips! Defender of the net, you call yourself. “Reasonable” defender. Radical-liberal scum! American left-leaning, cheap-optimist, constipated-Kantian pragmatist. Peirce is worse! James, for shame! I also claim my share of Prince William the cyber-space conqueror, as the new-age cyber-hippie. Give it a try!
I can also philosophize, dirt mouth. Your touching nostalgia. Your touching loyalty to the earth, to the flesh, to the animal. Why must cyber-relations necessarily consummate in your cherished, dogmatized, romanticized, oh-so-touching, face-to-face-interaction relations. The oh-so-hallowed and holy primary group.
We are spirits and we are free. The net is our body and we – the authentic netizens – are the next stage of evolution – beyond the all-too-human, to the true and the spiritual. We give our bodies to our spirits as our bodies give the earth, air, fire, and water to themselves. We take the better portion. Our bodies serve the souls that emerge through the interaction of souls on the net. It is a new level of being. Not more “real” in some unknowable sense than the so-called material or perceptual world, but, rather, its present perfection – some day in the future itself to be surpassed but now the frontier.
We come to birth as true persons within the freedom the net gives to invent and experiment with our personalities. Here truly we can be everything and still get responses from stubbornly autonomous souls. The body, believe me, is moved by cyber-sex. Meanwhile – call it sublimation if you will – libido flows into our imaginations, creating ever more incitements to enhance the cyber-relation. The net is a genuine mediator of genuinely social interaction – the interaction of net personae who could not exist anywhere but on the net. And each of them is even more autonomous than the freest body in corporeal society. Sticks and stones can break my bones, but flaming never burns me.
The net is not an end-in-itself and a means to a greater end; it’s the greater end, Ms. Kant-Simmel. I’ll take my share of Simmel – real individual selves emerge through interaction on the net, in cyber-space – and they exist nowhere else but in cyber-space. This, my dear, is evolution, something new and better, something that has emerged in our lifetimes, like a once-in-a-million year’s occurrence, man! Alternative worlds are forming throughout cyber-space, where personalities with a wealth and richness of imagination that has never been known before are growing.
Our future is the MUSH – the Multiple-User Shared Hallucination – in which people enter a cyber-environment and live out lives there as pure selves that are constituted only by their interaction on the net. In the purest case, they will never be able to find out who their fellow netizens actually are in the corporeal world. The worst punishment that can be meted out is exclusion from the community, which is, of course, cyber-death. But then you could get a new account and log on again, and take up a new life, even in the community that just excluded you, if not one of the scads of others that are always popping up. Short of banishment there is only flaming and unresponsiveness. Your precious flesh remains unscathed.
Yes. That’s right. Cyber-relations are not totally free. Cyber-souls do not have to respond and are able to chastise. This is genuine society, mutual limitation through interaction. What makes it different, and better, is that it can leave at least some of the primate/cultural baggage behind and soar into imaginative play.
M. Rose Strata is designing a “virtual city” that she hopes will become part of the structure of the internet. As she envisions it, people will continually add on to the core so that a real metropolis of conversation and appreciation will emerge, a true alternative to the primate/cultural environment. She puts it very well when she says that “there is nothing so addicting as true communication with real people.” I’d like to agree with her that, in cyber-space, “the more you talk to people the more they become worth talking to,” but you don’t have to go that far to realize that, from the spiritual point of view, new and rich selves grow on the net. Think of it this way: in the modern period you had a split between fact and fiction, between history and literature, between experience and imagination. Now, on the net, what once might have been fragments of my personal literary imagination become participants in social relations and change in ways they never could without the interaction. Imagination becomes genuinely social in cyber-space. The Marcusian dream of transcending the realm of necessity into a realm of artistic play is coming true.
Deena: Logging on. Marxist Theoretician. I see where this leads. Are you willing to go the next step and say that research in bio-engineering and artificial intelligence should be conducted with the aim of creating bodies that are most efficiently engineered to remain the best and most durable and most sustainable and most economical bodies for the purpose of enriching cyber-community?
Michael: I had never thought of that, but it follows from my idea that in the New Age, the corporeal self serves the cyber-self.
Deena: Would you look forward to a time when what any of us could ever acknowledge as flesh would have disappeared and in its place would be machines attached to computer terminals generating text and images in response to one another’s messages, and experiencing the process?
Michael: I have no prejudice in favor of carbon over silicon. What the so-called material support of the spirit happens to be, I don’t care. The important thing to me is that I’ve grasped the next great epoch of evolution at its inception and will be able to experience at least its beginnings. You, Marxist Theoretician, are the reactionary. You’ve chosen the flesh and with it a modern imaginary, which you then impose on the world as a grand narrative. By choosing the spirit I have liberated my imagination to enter into relations with other imaginations and thereby to be transformed. Evolution would dictate that all of the previous phases of itself be concentrated to nurture and support its highest phase. I intend to be part of that concentrating movement by building alternative communities on the net, right in M. Rose Strata’s spirit of heterogeneous zones of sociality where the multiple possibilities of self-expression and growth are given play.
At first, alternative cyber-communities will function in some part as havens where the corporeal self, harassed by the corporeal world and corporeal society will be able to release its imagination for compensatory fantasies and wish and need fulfillments. As time goes on more and more participants will realize the adventure and excitement of experimenting with the self in cyber-space for its own sake and of forming cyber-relations. At some point, compensatory pleasure will become secondary to the joy of cyber-interaction – of ongoing relations among cyber-personae doing exciting and thrilling and profound things – and cyber-community will be acknowledged by its members as their end. It will not be treated by them as a means; everything else will be a means to it.
I can see a time in which the day will be divided into three parts. One part will be sleeping, another part will be working, much of which will be done over the net, and caring for the body, and the final and most important part of the day will be cyber-relations. If automation proceeds to the point at which the work day can be shortened, the surplus time will be apportioned to cyber-space and to conventional corporeal non-occupational activities only to the extent that they are instrumental to the enhancement of cyber-relations. We will sleep and dream and work and love corporeally and care for ourselves as preparation for the time we spend in our cyber-communities where our better and best selves grow. It is not too much to say that the net is the nervous system of heaven.
Deena: I need to interrupt. We need to retreat a bit from the wild-eyed, infantilist if I might say so, idealism of the so-called New-Age Cyber-Hippie. This collective solipsism of the net is merely the fantasies of the technical intelligentsia of the computer-communications complex. A case of organizational psychosis (Dewey) and trained incapacity (Veblen) – trained incapacity in the ability to think scientifically in this case – a superb irony for an operative in highly rationalized technical networks. Technically, the networks are rationalized. Ideologically they index the contradictions of late capitalism, which is destroying society to such an extent that people flee to computer screens for compensation and breed a crowd of ideologists who tell them that they are pioneers in a new stage of cosmic evolution! Rather, they are waste products of capitalism, which is pleased to have them in their “alternative worlds” when they are not at work. These are high-maintenance kids put out to pasture on the net. Sooner or just a bit later capitalism will find a way of taking those worlds of self-experimentation over. Until then a decadent and despairing youth intelligentsia finds its own devices of pathetic amusement.
Let us get closer to reality, to material conditions, by going back to the Net Defender, who correctly places the net and its sociality into the sensuous experience of human society. But the Net Defender remains a bourgeois individualist by directing net community to fuller personal relations rather than to revolutionary praxis that transforms actual social relations. Revolution is the only way to guarantee personal relations, which are imperiled under the autistic consumer behavior fostered by late capitalism. This, indeed, is what lurks beneath the desperate veneer of New-Age Cyber-Hippie rhetoric, the incarceration of the consumer into an electronic cocoon: the utopia of cyber-capitalism. The Wired World!
The wired world of electronically entrapped consumers is the logical end of late capitalism. This is the negativity of the net. We know, however, as dialecticians, that there must also be a positive, progressive aspect of the net. Like all modern technologies, the net is not inherently destructive of human development. Indeed, it promises to enhance it greatly – specifically through social experimentation with new forms of relation – in a socialist society. There is nothing inherently wrong with building cyber-communities right now – some of that is needed to have experience in this form of mediation available to a future socialist society. The point is that our relation to the net as socialists must be based primarily on its use as a means of revolutionary praxis.
This is not to establish a vulgar means-ends dichotomy between technology and praxis. Technology shapes social organization and individual consciousness, but one single technology does not decisively alter consciousness. The relations are far more complex and mediated, including factors of inherited culture, race, gender, and, of course, class.
Our task as Marxists who are involved in the internet is to devise ways of using its distinctive characteristics to best effect to further revolutionary praxis. We might begin by learning some lessons from the right-wing extremists who use the net effectively to spread their doctrines to newsgroups that might be favorable recruiting grounds for their cadres. We need to infiltrate cyber-space and learn to turn its conversations into opportunities for political education. We need to get members of oppressed communities linked by computer to better further their struggles against the system. We need to have clearing houses of activist experience in all quarters of the struggle and our own computer discussion groups on strategy and tactics. We need to link activists around the world to be resource persons for each other, to share their experience and knowledge. We also need to learn from the militia movement, which has used networking to spread warnings and rumors instantaneously to widely dispersed groups. The instantaneous communication made possible by the net can be used to rapidly mobilize mass actions, perhaps on a worldwide scale. Objectively, the highest potentials of the net point to transnationalism, but only revolution will fully actualize those potentials.
As we engage in revolutionary praxis on the net, we will learn to appreciate, through our concrete transformative activity, the new turns in human relations that the medium imposes and permits. We will learn to make them ever more serve our solidarity. But that solidarity will come as a reflective by-product of revolutionary praxis, not as its direct aim.
Michael: Logging On. Net Promoter. We have a very bright future ahead of us in America if we have the wisdom and foresight and fortitude to do what’s necessary to bring it about. I’m the Net Promoter for what my Marxist friend there would call the communications complex. Or, in Louis Althusser’s terms, for the ideological state apparatus. I’d prefer to call it the industry-government partnership in the information super-highway. We who proudly represent the complex are very pleased that we have both the Clinton administration, through Vice President Al Gore, and the Republican leadership, through Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, in our corner. We tend, on the whole, to favor the Gore approach, though we share much of the Tofflers’ vision, appropriated by Gingrich, of a third-wave society based on individual empowerment. The basic point is that empowerment will only come through the institutions that we depend upon to sustain our life on earth: business enterprises, schools, hospitals, government agencies. They will develop the discussion groups, support groups, and clientele groups that will sustain individuals in their quest for individuality. We believe that it is imprudent, perhaps even dangerous, to – if I might put it bluntly – deliver the emerging National Information Infrastructure – NII – into the hands of unregulated capitalism.
On the other hand, we are certainly on the side of Speaker Gingrich when it comes to all of the preceding speakers, except Weinstein and Weinstein, who might help us assess the socio-psychological impact of the information super-highway. We say to the Marxist theoretician: Haven’t you heard? Communism is dead. Capitalism won! Capiche? Go play with your bulletin boards in cyber-space.
We certainly want to release businesses from needless regulations, but we don’t believe, as Gingrich claims, that centralized government is in itself a barrier to the realization of a society of opportunity through electronic empowerment. We need careful planning as we open up the highway to competition between all communication providers. We need interconnectivity, maximum access, and maximum protection of privacy and security of transactions and information-property across the information super-highway. These requisites are not always consistent with one another and will demand sober and considered policymaking emerging out of the cooperative effort of the industry-government partnership on the information super-highway.
On the other hand, when it comes to the Net Defender, Net(-hype) Hater, and New-Age Cyber-Hippie: You, my dear friends, are the cyber-incarnations of the sixties’ counterculture, whose ethic of self-indulgence has endangered our country severely. We’ll give you the cyber-space to play your games. Who knows? You might even come up with – indeed, there’s a good chance that you will come up with – things that we can sell or apply. We’ll definitely make some of you rich in the entertainment industry. We actually love New-Age Cyber-Hippies – they are designers whose notions have possible commercial and public application. Doesn’t matter if they’re a little ditsy!
Empowerment for individuals and groups is what the information super-highway is all about. Empowerment is both a means and an end. To empower individuals and groups by allowing them to access and process information relevant to their legitimate purposes is the key to our country’s winning the international trade wars. We’re poised to take off on the third-wave information age and America will either be the leader or come out a second-rate power – and you all know what that’s going to mean for our standard of living. It’s a crime that we spend so little on our Information Infrastructure.
The counterculturalists talk about the net like it’s something abstract and separate from the rest of the world or from the world itself. The net is one of the key communications media on the information super-highway, but not the only one. It has a significant role to play in the overall mix of technologies. This is the way we see the net unfolding: EMPOWERMENT THROUGH CONNECTIVITY.
As a functional element of the information super-highway the net will be dominated by commercial enterprises and other institutions and organizations offering a vast array of products and information services to clientele groups. I will not speak here of the wonderful things that the net is already making possible – a prime example is the Fielding Institute. Give yourselves a hand for participating in this noble experiment that is the face of graduate education in the future. [CLAP]
You know better than I what the information super-highway can do to transform old ways of doing things and to create new opportunities to do things even better.
Take the Fielding Institute and start thinking of analogies for it in any other of the great branches of human activity – medicine, government, business – and you’ll get an idea of the profound changes, mostly for the better, the net is creating.
The important thing is that everybody be connected and that there be interconnectivity among media. The goal is to give individuals, groups, and organizations maximum access to what they need to satisfy their legitimate purposes. EMPOWERMENT THROUGH CONNECTIVITY – ETC.
There is a series of problems that will have to be worked through to achieve empowerment through connectivity. There is the question of the limits of hate speech and obscenity. As you probably know, we’re on our way to solving the obscenity problem with new technology – the V-Chip – which will give parents the ability to protect their children from material that they deem unwholesome while allowing maximum free expression for adults; that is, we will be able to take a reasonable path between those who would censor the net and those who would foment cyber-anarchy. There are also questions of information haves and have-nots and of security of information and of financial transactions. They are to my mind the interesting and important questions – far more real than depressive fantasies of people being sucked into the net or manic fantasies of cyber-heaven.
To address, however, the concerns that have developed in the comments of the speakers thus far, on the character of the social relations engendered in cyber-space, I’ll go along with the Net Defender that cyber-relations have particular positive characteristics that are beneficial to participants – specifically, the experimental freedom which seems to have been acknowledged by all speakers except the Net(-hype) Hater. What we think is going to happen is that cyber-populism will give way to an institutional phase of the net as organizations learn to use the net in sophisticated ways for outreach and servicing.
One of the major problems in sustaining the cyber-communities that the Net Defender cares so much for is lack of human and financial resources. Cyber-communities like Usenet groups now exist only by virtue of the volunteer efforts of selfless people who often have to give up because they’re too hard pressed. Eventually, organized players will offer management of an incredible diversity of socialization situations and scenarios on the net, narrow-casted to the point that specific people, whose characteristics have been logged in data banks, anywhere in the world, whom one could benefit from the most, will be at your beck and call as King and Queen Consumer. Sorry, just a joke!
Deena: All you’re saying is that the capitalist rationalization of the net will turn the parts of the highway that are still freeways into toll roads.
Michael: Sometimes, but not always. Some organizations will find it advantageous to facilitate connectivity as a free service. Support groups, common interest groups, chat groups will flourish under professional support. For example, a garden-supply business has started a gardening discussion group on the net. This is the wave of the future: organizations facilitating socialization and therefore enhancing empowerment. Empowerment through connectivity. Hey, you people are getting Ph.D’s! Congratulations!
Deena: Logging On. Cyber-Punk Provo-Geek Techno-Luddite. Excuse me, but you’re all full of (cyber-)crap. The net is more technology to master in order to bring it down from its innards! I’m the Unabomber, hacking code. I’m spreading viruses everywhere – the AIDS of cyber-space. I’m the cyber-punk provo-geek techno-luddite.
I’ll use the fuckin’ net as a lonely-heart’s club where I’ll prey on whomever I please. My mother told me a great story recently about an elderly Jewish gentleman who disagreed with a Nazi skinhead on the net. The Nazi skinhead, knowing no fetishism of the net, no taboos and sacred spaces, tracked down his critic in perceptual space and threatened the Jewish gentleman with physical death, which led to said Jewish gentleman having to relocate to another region of the country. Let them talk about cyber-space as something special – it’s just another scam.
I’ll hack you and jack you and smack you and whack you in every cyber way and will hold you physically accountable for your cyber-personalities.
I am the provo nihilist. Bring it all down from the inside. Eliminate all boundaries between the net and perceptual life. Destroy the net. Threaten security of private information, medical records and financial transactions in any way you can. Break into data banks and mess them up. Falsify records. Use cyber-communities to draw the poor souls in them into humiliating and exploitative relations. Perpetuate misinformation, disinformation, rumor, and hate speech on the net. Intimidate and humiliate with your flames. Bring world and net together at every opportunity in calamitous and degrading encounters. Commit financial fraud on the net and become a martyr to our cause if you get caught. Cause information overload in the system at social crisis points.
We are avowed terrorists. Some day we might go to work for a fascist leader. Hey! We’re in training. Our aim is to cause feelings of insecurity and danger about the net so that people and organizations are as scared to go on it as suburbanites are to walk the streets of an inner-city housing project.
We infiltrate the net as techno-geeks and then become the cyber-parasites that destroy it.
We’re going to make life as tough as we can for as many people on the net as we can. The best way to show that something’s a utopia is to bring it down. We’ll violate your e-mail and use it against you. Some day we might work for large organizations as enforcers and disciplinarians – cyber-torturers.
Get a life! We intend to throw you off the fuckin’ net by making it unattractive to you by any means necessary. We hate technology and we have mastered it – the ultimate cyber-punk horror story: the enemy within.
Michael: Logging On. Weinstein and
Michael: The internet has two broad effects on social relations and mentality. Firstly, it provides ready and potentially universal access to information and, far more importantly from the sociological viewpoint, to communicators. Both of these expansions of access improve technical rationality in significant, perhaps breathtaking proportions. (We will see about that.) The net is a continuous help line, a grand facility: it is a super-highway in the best sense – it gets you where you want to go quickly, safely, and economically.
In its universality, the net does tend, as the Tofflerites and Newtygates assert, to break down hierarchies of information. But there is no reason to assume that even if the central idea of our era is Information, that if hierarchies of information are weakened that all hierarchies of power will fall. Information is not some magic substance that changes things by itself, but mostly a resource and, at its best, an incitement to satisfaction or consummation. Information is one element in the mix of experience, not the master control and total patterning function. The net is a nervous system; the human being is more than that, simply considered biologically. Even on the margins of the real, where the New-Age Cyber-Hippie hangs out, there is imagination, something unknown to the net itself.
Along with universalizing communication and exercising some leveling influences on hierarchies of information, the net also pluralizes, allowing, again as the Tofflerites correctly assert, narrow-casted servicing, and, as the New Leftists would have it, endless affinity groups. Here the coin flips from the technical-practical to spiritual culture. The ultimate in narrow-casted servicing is to be enslaved to the net as the place where you work and where you take your leisure. Toffler predicts that the “marketing particle” will ultimately be, as mass industrial society gives way to information society, be not any demographic group, but the particular individual. From one side, the servicing agencies (marketers) will know so much about each individual that they will be able to (try to) anticipate desires (and shape them). From the other side, individuals will be empowered to roam the net in search of connectivity, opportunity, products, and services.
Insofar as they get sucked into the net and devote themselves to participating in imaginary relations, individuals will tend to lose the savvy and skills and patience to conduct social relations in the corporeal world. Television has already had this effect and the net will only intensify it.
In addition to the decline of social skills and speeding it along, individuals will tend to become solipsistic. They will give vent to a completely particularized life-experience that does not depend upon social forms to mediate it. Social interaction will be lost and the other person will recede from view. The (Freudian) executive ego will also recede, and, at the limit, the self will lose its boundaries.
The seduction of the net is its technical-practical capacity to make information and communication ready-to-hand. As one result of those very capacities, the net tends to undermine its own social infra-structure. The kind of stuff Simmelian tragedy is made of. On the other hand, the net engenders the possibility for a particular form of genuine social interaction that has been admirably described by the Net Defender and filled out in various ways by her interlocutors.
Along the line of individuality, then, the net has the possibility both to make the individual technologically dependent and to enhance the self with a richer repertoire of personae.