July 2007


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Michael H Goldhaber <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 9 Jul 2007 12:24:59 -0700
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By Richard Barbrook

Begin forwarded message:

> From: [log in to unmask]
> Date: July 9, 2007 8:01:54 AM PDT
> To: [log in to unmask]
> Subject: <nettime> Virtual Dreams, Real Politics
> Reply-To: [log in to unmask]
> Virtual Dreams, Real Politics
> virtual_politics
> ?What are we fighting Communism for? We are the most Communist people
> in world history.?
> - Marshall McLuhan, 1969.
> In 1961, at its 22nd Congress, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
> formally adopted the goal of spreading the benefits of computerisation
> across the whole economy. Over the next two decades, the information
> technologies being developed within the Russia?s research laboratories
> were going to create a socialist paradise. Ever since the 1917
> Revolution, totalitarian Communists with a big C had drawn ideological
> sustenance from their self-proclaimed role as the vanguard of
> proletarian communism with a small c. Under Stalin, the horrors of
> forced industrialisation were sold to the Russian population as
> premonitions of the promised land of socialism. Ironically, it was the
> successful completion of this task which posed a potentially fatal
> existential dilemma for the totalitarian system. Having successfully
> identified communism with the factory, the Communist Party was now
> making itself obsolete. According to its reformist faction, the
> vanguard had to move on to tackling the tasks of the next stage of its
> world-historical mission: building the ?Unified Information Network?.
> Computers should be placed in every factory, office, shop and
> educational institution. In this Russian vision of the Net, two-way
> feedback between producers and consumers would calculate the correct
> distribution of labour and resources which most efficiently satisfied
> all of the different needs of society. Even better, this technological
> revolution also promised to democratise an undemocratic society. In
> his leader?s speech at the 22nd Congress, Khrushchev assured his
> audience that - after decades of purges, wars, corruption and
> austerity - the promised land was within sight. By the 1980s at the
> latest, the inhabitants of the Russian empire would be enjoying all
> the wonders of cybernetic communism.
> Across the Atlantic, the CIA had watched the rise to power of the
> post-industrial reformers in the East with growing concern. Embracing
> their opponents? analysis, its analysts warned the US government that
> the technological race to develop the Net was becoming the key contest
> which would decide which superpower would lead humanity into the
> future. Back in 1957, America had suffered a major setback in the
> propaganda struggle when its Cold War enemy succeeded in launching the
> first satellite into space. Determined to prevent any repetition of
> this humiliation, the US government had quickly set up ARPA: the
> Advanced Research Projects Agency. Next time, America was going to win
> the hi-tech race. Responding to the CIA?s briefings, the Kennedy
> administration sent ARPA into battle against the cybernetic Communist
> enemy. Bringing together the top scientists in the field, the agency
> coordinated and funded an ambitious programme of research into
> computer-mediated-communications. In 1969, overtaking the Russian
> opposition, its team created the appropriately-named first-ever
> iteration of the Net: ARPANET.
>  From the outset, the US government was convinced that this contest
> was much more than a test of scientific virility. The two superpowers
> were competing not only to develop new technologies, but also, more
> importantly, to decide which side had the most advanced social system.
> In 1964, a multi-disciplinary team of intellectuals led by Daniel Bell
> was given a large grant to invent the Anti-Communist vision of the
> non-communist future: The Commission on the Year 2000. Luckily, these
> experts were able to find exactly what they were looking for in
> Marshall McLuhan?s bestselling book Understanding Media. Just like
> Marx, this prophet had also foreseen that the next stage of modernity
> would sweep away the most disagreeable manifestations of capitalism:
> national rivalries, industrial exploitation and social alienation. As
> in proletarian communism with a small c, peace, prosperity and harmony
> would reign in the global village. What made McLuhan so much more
> attractive than Marx was that the knowledge elite ? not the
> proletariat - was the maker of history.
> In 1966, three years before its first hosts were connected, the Bell
> commission persuaded itself that the arrival of the Net utopia was
> imminent. Just as McLuhan had foreseen, the limitations of
> industrialism were about to be overcome by the wondrous technologies
> of the information society. Best of all, 1960s America was already
> entering into this post-capitalist future. J.C.R. Licklider ? the
> founder of ARPA?s project to build the Net - had long been arguing
> that the primary purpose of computer-mediated-communications was
> facilitating the idiosyncratic working methods of the scientific
> community. Instead of trading information with each other like the
> overwhelming majority of cultural producers, academics collaborate by
> sharing knowledge. Promotion and prestige depends upon contributing
> articles to journals, presenting papers at conferences and
> distributing findings for peer review. Although deeply enmeshed with
> the state and corporate hierarchies of the USA, this communistic
> method of advancing knowledge had proved its worth in both the natural
> and social sciences. Thanks to the American taxpayer, Licklider now
> had the money to sponsor the emergence of a virtual social space
> emancipated from both the market and the factory. Inside this hi-tech
> gift economy, proprietary hardware and software were technical
> obstacles to the most efficient ways of working. The people who built
> the Net were the ones who ran it. In a bizarre twist, at the height of
> the Cold War, the US military was funding the invention of cybernetic
> communism.
> Even more ironically, it was the Russian elite which lacked the
> self-confidence to sponsor even ARPA-style small-scale experiments in
> networked socialism. The reformers had offered a rejuvenation of the
> world-historic mission of the vanguard party. However, for their
> conservative opponents, the advantages of owning the imaginary future
> were by far outweighed by the threat which the Net posed to their
> power and authority. When the Czechoslovak reformers? theoretical
> manifesto Civilisation at the Crossroads celebrated the Unified
> Information Network as the demiurge of participatory democracy, the
> subversive image of this cybernetic technology was confirmed for these
> conservative bureaucrats. In 1968, the Russian government sent in its
> tanks to put an end to the Prague Spring. The perpetuation of
> totalitarian Communism depended upon the prevention of cybernetic
> communism.
> Back in the 1930s, Stalinist state planning had been at the
> cutting-edge of economic modernity. But, by holding on to its
> ideological monopoly, the Communist Party had deprived itself of the
> information which it needed to deliver the goods. In 1980, the Polish
> workers rebelled when they were once again called upon to pay for the
> mistakes of the economic planners. The disintegration of
> totalitarianism in one country started a chain-reaction of events
> which within a decade brought down the entire Russian empire.
> Communism with a big C was the future which had failed. In his 1992
> neo-conservative bestseller The End of History and the Last Man,
> Francis Fukuyama proudly announced that the whole world had become
> American. With all alternatives now discredited, there was only one
> path to modernity.
> .
> Back in the mid-1960s, McLuhanism had been invented as a credo of the
> mildly reformist Democratic Party. Over the next four decades, its
> meaning had moved steadily rightwards. In 1983, Ithiel de Sola Pool ?
> a Bell commission member ? codified this neo-liberal appropriation of
> McLuhanism in his masterpiece: Technologies of Freedom. From software
> to soap operas, all forms of information would soon be traded as
> commodities over the Net. For the first time, everybody could be a
> media entrepreneur. By the end of the 1980s, this conservative remix
> had become the dominant form of American McLuhanism. George Gilder ? a
> Republican Party activist ? proclaimed the computer companies of
> northern California as the harbingers of a free market paradise. Not
> only Stalinist central planning, but also Social Democratic welfare
> provision were relics from the Fordist past. Looking at Silicon
> Valley, the neo-liberal prophets were convinced that the factory and
> the campus were synergising into a superior entity: the hi-tech
> entrepreneurial firm.
> By the time that the 1990s dotcom boom took off, McLuhanist
> technological determinism had become an unapologetic celebration of
> ?out of control? capitalism. In his New Rules for the New Economy,
> Kevin Kelly explained how technologies which were prototyped within
> the hi-tech gift economy could be successfully spun off into
> commercial products. Like the Stalinist elite, the music majors had
> found out to their cost that it was futile trying to resist the onrush
> of the McLuhanist future. In contrast, dotcom companies had shown how
> to transform user generated content and on-line communities into
> profitable enterprises. The phenomenal growth of MySpace, Bebo and
> YouTube demonstrates that successful businesses can be built upon
> Kelly?s dictum of following the free. Clever managers know how to make
> cybernetic communism serve establishment goals.
> Like their Stalinist predecessors, these 1990s proponents of
> McLuhanism saw themselves as the vanguard of the hi-tech utopia. As
> the early-adopters and beta-testers of the dotcom future, this
> privileged group was prefiguring today what the general public would
> be doing tomorrow. When everyone had access to the Net, participatory
> democracy and cooperative creativity would be the order of the day.
> But, until this happy moment arrived, humanity required the guidance
> of the cybernetic elite to reach the promised land. Ironically, in the
> 2000s, the boosters of the information society - like the Stalinists
> before them - are unexpectedly faced with the problem of living within
> their own future. Confounding the McLuhanist credo, the advent of the
> Net hasn?t marked the birth of a new humanistic and equalitarian
> civilisation. For more than four decades, the knowledge elite have
> asserted its control over space through ownership of time. Now, in the
> early-twenty-first century, the imaginary future of the information
> society is materialising in the present. What the McLuhanists have to
> explain is why utopia has been delayed.
> When the users of the Net are both consumers and producers of media,
> the vanguard has lost its ideological monopoly. Yet, at the same time,
> the arrival of the information society hasn?t precipitated a wider
> social transformation. Cybernetic communism is quite compatible with
> dotcom capitalism. Contrary to the tenets of McLuhanism, the
> convergence of media, telecommunications and computing has not ? and
> never will ? liberate humanity. The Net is a useful tool not a
> mechanical saviour. In the 2000s, ordinary people have taken control
> of sophisticated information technologies to improve their everyday
> lives and their social conditions. Freed from the preordained futures
> of McLuhanism, this emancipatory achievement can provide inspiration
> for new anticipations of the shape of things to come. Cooperative
> creativity and participatory democracy need to be extended from the
> virtual world into all areas of life. Rather than disciplining the
> present, our futurist visions should be open-ended and flexible. We
> are the inventors of our own technologies. We can intervene in history
> to realise our own interests. Our utopias provide the direction for
> the path of human progress. Let?s be hopeful and courageous when we
> imagine the better futures of libertarian social democracy.
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