Totalitarianism is latent in technology. It was not merely Hitler or Mussolini who were totalitarian, or the Pharaohs as far as I am concerned. Totalitarianism is already present in the technical object.
– Paul Virilio 1
Such penetrating assessments of technology are increasingly exceptional: nearly all the political, economic, and cultural texts that surround us suggest that we are entering a truly new technological and democratic age. Indeed, modern day pharaohs, such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates constantly assert that the world is on the brink of a “technological revolution”. 2 Meanwhile, neoliberal politicians, like American Vice President Al Gore, see the “Global Information Infrastructure” as nothing less than the basis of a new Athenian age of electronic democracy. 3
The Neoliberal Discourse of Technology
Contemporary neoliberalism is the pan-capitalist theory and practice of explicitly technologized, or “telematic”, societies. 4 Neoliberalism is of course a political philosophy which originated in the advanced countries in the 1980s. It is associated with the idea of “liberal fascism”: free enterprise, economic globalization and national corporatism as the institutional and ideological grounds for the civil disciplining of subaltern individuals, “aliens” and groups. However, while pan-capitalism appears largely impregnable to various oppositional political forces and survives broadly uncontested, it nonetheless relies extensively on a specifically neoliberal discourse of technology. What is more, this discourse is principally concerned with legitimating the political and cultural control of individuals, groups, and new social movements through the material and ideological production, promotion, distribution, and consumption of self-styled “virtual” technologies like virtual reality (VR) and cyberspace.
These contentions about pan-capitalism, telematics, and the neoliberal discourse of virtual technologies derive from the fact that human labour is no longer central to market-driven conceptions of business and political activities. Actually, as far as some neoliberals are concerned, technology is now the only factor of production. 5 Artefacts like VR, cyberspace, and the Internet thus embody not “use value” but what Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein term “abuse value”:
The primary category of the political economy of virtual reality is abuse value. Things are valued for the injury that can be done to them or that they can do. Abuse value is the certain outcome of the politics of suicidal nihilism. The transformation, that is, of the weak and the powerless into objects with one last value: to provide pleasure to the privileged beneficiaries of the will to purity in their sacrificial bleeding, sometimes actual (Branch Davidians) and sometimes specular (Bosnia). 6
The neoliberal analysis of production under the conditions of pan-capitalism and telemetry accordingly focuses not on the outmoded Marxian conception of the “labor process”, but on the technological and scientific processing of labour. 7 The result is that surplus labor is transformed by relentless technological activity, and the means of virtual production produce abuse value.
Technology and the Politics of Cyberculture
The technological fixations of the neoliberals are, of course, presently extending themselves from virtual production to virtual culture; to technoscience and to cyberculture, including the culture of cyborgs, cyberfeminism, cyberspace, cyberwarfare, and cyberart. 8 Nietzsche emphasizes, in The Wanderer and His Shadow, that technologies and machines are “…premises whose thousand year conclusion no one has yet dared to draw.” 9 Yet, in scarcely over one hundred years, it has become clear that technology is not only voraciously consuming what is left of “nature,” but is also busily constructing it anew. Nanotechnology, for example, brings together the basic atomic building blocks of nature effortlessly, cheaply, and in just about any molecular arrangement we ask. 10 Information and communications technologies evoke the virtual architecture and circuitry of fiber-optics, computer networks, cybernetic systems, and so on.
These technologies, these assemblages, though, need to be appreciated for what they are: synthetic materials transformed into instruments of “the will to virtuality,” or of human incorporation – even “disappearance” – into cybernetic machinery. Cybercultural technologies are agents of physical colonization, imperialists of the human sensorium, created, like Frankenstein, by our own raw desire. They represent what Virilio calls “the third revolution”, the impending bodily internalization of science and technology. As Virilio recently defined the third revolution:
By this term I mean that technology is becoming something physically assimilable, it is a kind of nourishment for the human race, through dynamic inserts, implants and so on. Here, I am not talking about implants such as silicon breasts, but dynamic implants like additional memory storage. What we see here is that science and technology aim for miniaturisation in order to invade the human body. 11
As a result, the division between living bodies and technology is increasingly difficult to maintain; both are now so hopelessly entwined in the “cyborgian” sociotechnical imagination. 12 We are well on our way to “becoming machinic”. As Deleuze and Guattari comment: “This is not animism, any more than it is mechanism; rather it is universal machinism: a plane of consistency occupied by an immense abstract machine comprising an infinite number of assemblages.” 13
Nevertheless, the technologically determinist assemblages of sundry neoliberal computer mystics, like Jaron Lanier and John Perry Barlow, are questionable because cybercultural technologies, like all technologies, are innately political. Technologies like VR do not appear – like rainfall – as heavenly gifts. They have to be willed into existence, they have to be produced by real human beings. Information and communications technologies, for instance, both contain and signify the cultural and political values of particular human societies. Accordingly, these technologies are always expressions of socioeconomic, geographical, and political interests, partialities, alignments and commitments. In brief, the will to technical knowledge is the will to technical power.
It is crucial, then, to redefine, and to develop a fully conscious and wholly critical account of the neoliberal discourse of technology at work in the realm of cyberculture; one that exposes not only the economic and social interests embodied within cultural technologies, but also their underlying authoritarianism. Maybe Marshall McLuhan was right? The medium is the message. The question is, what does it say? Moreover, how does it manage to say it so eloquently, so perfectly, that some among us are more than “willing” to trade corporeality for virtuality? And all for what? A chance to dance to the (pre-programmed) rhythms of technologized bodies? Indeed, it is hard to disagree with Hakim Bey when he writes:
Physical separateness can never be overcome by electronics, but only by “conviviality”, by “living together” in the most literal physical sense. The physically divided are also the conquered and the Controlled. “True desires” – erotic, gustatory, olfactory, musical, aesthetic, psychic, & spiritual – are best attained in a context of freedom of self and other in physical proximity & mutual aid. Everything else is at best a sort of representation. 14
Technology and the Virtual Class
What are the central political dynamics at work in the neoliberal discourse of technology? Today, the development of this discourse is also the development of the shifting determinations of the virtual class. For it is this, “…social strata in contemporary pan-capitalism that have material and ideological interest in speeding up and intensifying the process of virtualization and heightening the will to virtuality.” 15
Resisting the unconstrained development of the neoliberal discourse of technology is vital because such resistance impedes the contemporary development of the virtual class. To some of its members, like Douglas Coupland, the reigning technological discourse constitutes the narcissistic flowering of long-held personal ambitions, while to others, like Wired‘s neoliberal evangelist Nicholas Negroponte, it represents the beginning of a new techno-religion. To Alvin & Heidi Toffler, the neoliberal discourse heralds the emergence of a whole new civilization while to Bill Gates and Kevin Kelly it means material wealth and political influence beyond measure. 16
Certainly, it is possible to characterise the present period of self-consciously “spectacular” technological innovation as being driven primarily by pan-capitalism’s need to arm itself against the onset of virtual class warfare. 17 Without doubt, the virtual class must, at some stage – and probably with the acquiescence, if not the full participation of global technocratic, political and military elites – confront living labour, actual communities, tangible spaces, material environments, and physical, breathing, bodies. The neoliberal discourse of technology therefore represents an attempt by the virtual class to open up a new period in the cybernetic carnival that is pan-capitalism. The unfolding of the neoliberal discourse of technology is thus the unfolding of virtual class relations. This is the true nature of social communications in the contemporary era.
For these reasons it is essential to advance unorthodox, bottom-up, explanations of the evolution of the neoliberal discourse of technology. The chief aim ought to be the equipping of the digitally dispossessed with counter arguments and active political strategies that will work against what the late Christopher Lasch might have called “the revolt of the (virtual) elites and the betrayal of (electronic) democracy.” 18
Make no mistake, VR and cyberspace have not simply opened up new wealth generating possibilities for the virtual elites. They have also opened up new political prospects for those who wish to see the spectacular representational systems of crash culture disappear. What is important in the interim, then, is to challenge the pronouncements of the virtual class wherever they appear and join with others in a comprehensive and detailed critique of the neoliberal discourse of technology in a variety of fields ranging from VR to cyberwarfare and beyond. 19 Further, such challenges need to involve a multiplicity of individuals and groups. These might range from school kids and students disenchanted with the increasing replacement of education by mere technocratic information, to disaffected computer industry workers, or simply local communities seeking control over their own technological environments.
Virtual politics, therefore, should be founded on defying the neoliberal discourse of technology currently being fashioned by the virtual class. It is crucial to ensure that the political genealogy of technology, of virtual reality, of the reality of virtuality, is uncovered by numerous individuals, groups, classes, and new social movements. Indeed, without such excavations, the increasingly institutionalised neoliberal discourse of technology currently being promoted by the virtual class will rapidly become a source of immense social power. This is why concrete, corporeal, and ideological struggles over the nature and meaning of technology are so important in the realm of virtual politics. It is also why the specifically neoliberal discourse of the virtual class needs to be countered.
The pan-capitalist revolution and the development from industrial to virtual production have generated the neoliberal discourse of technology. It provides the virtual class with an ideological rationale for the ever increasing manufacture of virtual distractions (e.g., movies, VR, and interactive video games). Consequently, many human activities are no longer simply mediated through technology. Indeed, they are so utterly “possessed” by technology that the distinction between virtual activities and actual activities borders on the incomprehensible. 20 The ambitions of the neoliberal discourse of technology are not only unremitting but also potentially infinite.
Totalitarianism is latent in technology. It is not simply the virtual class that is totalitarian. Totalitarianism is always present in technology itself.
Virilio’s acute observations on technology are therefore essentially correct: his theoretical analysis indicates that while we are indeed in the midst of some kind of technological transition, it is improbable that such a transition will usher in a new era of digital democracy. 21 On this view, then, humanity is not on the verge of the kind of technological and democratic revolution envisaged by the neoliberals.
What separates a critical interpretation of technology from that of global technological entrepreneurs and leading politicians is a determination to forge a radical understanding of technology’s consequences. The advantage of this kind of analysis is that it focuses on key aspects of technology that are rarely, if ever, voiced by computer manufacturers and political pundits. Indeed, the general absence of a critical understanding of technology is one of the chief reasons why so many people seem to be so baffled by the “mysteries” of technology.
Thus, it is vital to resist both the neoliberal discourse of technology and the contemporary development of pan-capitalism. In the specific context of the political debates over the discourse of cyberculture, then, it is important to question the uncritical and antidemocratic conception of technology presently being elaborated and disseminated by the virtual class in its quest for actual wealth and power.
While technology is obviously an extremely important and determining force, it is crucial to remember that it is not the only force or agent of change. The virtual class is not simply an assortment of technological and visual representations. In fact, it is all too real. It is the class that at this moment is rewriting the history of virtual and other technologies while simultaneously controlling their organized production, distribution and consumption.
As a result of it’s monopolistic control of technology, the virtual class is presently being courted by the newly ascendant virtual political class (of which Newt Gingrich in the US and Tony Blair in the UK are examples). This class opposes all those who resist the neoliberal discourse of technology in whatever form it takes (e.g., anti-road building and animal rights protests by young people). It is time, then, to radically rethink, redefine and reinterpret the very meaning of technology, politics, and cyberculture in the age of the virtual class.
1. Paul Virilio and Carlos Oliveira. “The Silence of the Lambs: Paul Virilio in Conversation”. In CTHEORY. Vol 19. No 1-2. 1996. p.3.
2. Bill Gates. The Road Ahead. , New York: Viking Press, 1995.
3. See, for example, Al Gore. “Forging a New Athenian Age of Democracy”. In Intermedia. Vol 22. 1994. p.14-16.
4. Much of my argument in the following pages draws on Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein’s Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class. , Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1994, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
5. See, for instance, Jeremy Rifkin. The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995; Kevin Kelly. New Rules for the New Economy: 10 Ways the Network Economy is Changing Everything. London: Fourth Estate, 1998.
6. Kroker and Weinstein. Data Trash. p.64.
7. See, for example, William Di Fazio. “Technoscience and the labor process”. In Technoscience and Cyberculture. Edited by Stanley Aronowitz, Barbara Martinson and Michael Menser. London: Routledge, 1996. p.195-204.
8. On the phenomenon of cyberculture and cyborgs see, for example, Stanley Aronowitz, Barbara Martinson and Michael Menser. Eds. Technoscience and Cyberculture. London: Routledge, 1996; Chris Hables Gray. Ed. The Cyborg Handbook. London: Routledge, 1995.
9. Friedrich Nietzsche. The Wanderer and His Shadow. New York: Gordon Press, 1974. p.176.
10. The most obvious reference here is, Eric Drexler. Engines of Creation. New York: Anchor, 1986.
11. Paul Virilio and John Armitage. “From Modernism to Hypermodernism and Beyond: An Interview with Paul Virilio”. Translated by Patrice Riemens. Forthcoming in Paul Virilio, a Special Issue of Theory Culture & Society on the Work of Paul Virilio. Vol 16. 1999.
12. See, Donna Haraway. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”. In her Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Associations Books, 1991. p.149-181.
13. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. p.256.
14. Hakim Bey. “The Lemonade Ocean & Modern Times: A Position Paper by Hakim Bey”. (http://www.tO.or.at/hakimbey/hakimbey.htm, Internet, 1991). p.3.
15. Kroker and Weinstein. Data Trash. p.163.
16. See, for instance, Douglas Coupland. Microserfs. Northampton: Harper Collins, 1995; Nicholas Negroponte. Being Digital. New York: Knof, 1995; Alvin Toffler and Heidi Toffler. Creating A New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave. New York: Turner Publishing, 1995; Bill Gates. The Road Ahead. New York: Viking Press, 1995; Kevin Kelly. Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines. London: Fourth Estate, 1994, and Kelly’s New Rules for the New Economy: 10 Ways the Network Economy is Changing Everything. London: Fourth Estate, 1998.
17. Guy Debord. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black and Red, 1983.
18. Christopher Lasch. The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.
19. See, for example, Chris Chesher. “Colonizing Virtual Reality. Construction of the Discourse of Virtual Reality, 1984-1992”. In Cultronix. Vol 1. No 1. 1994; Manuel De Landa. War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. New York: Zone Books, 1991; Paul Virilio. War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. London: Verso, 1989.
20. This argument can be found in Arthur Kroker. The Possessed Individual: Technology and Postmodernity. Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1992.
21. Paul Virilio. “The Third Interval: A Critical Transition”. In Verena Andermatt Conley. Ed. Rethinking Technologies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. p.3-12; Paul Virilio. The Art of the Motor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.