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Serfs up!

Social critics, particularly on the political and academic left, may disapprove of the dream of transcending ordinary humanness that has been unleashed by technoculture and the cyberpunk trope, but they also manifest a perverse attraction - even an atavistic hunger - for it. Pomo French philosophers like Deleuze and Virilio (keep in mind that these guys blur into a singularly overwrought point of view to cyberpop dilettantes such as myself) can at least be credited with putting their lustings to valid use, cobbling together a bitter theory of seduction aimed at the television viewer, or, arguably, the nethead, whose "body becomes a pole of inertia." J. G. Ballard similarly observed a "flattening of affect" among mediated citizens way back in the mid '60s.

Unfortunately, this essentially existential discourse has been buttressed by more populist effusions of political rectitude, which I like to refer to as the "Do I dare to eat a peach if the under-class cannot?" argument. Deep inside this emotionally satisfying if intellectually silly position, one finds the view (given expression in Mark Dery's book Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century) that technological "utopianism" emerges almost inevitably from the essentially primitivistic untutored brow of the children of privilege and colonialism - and is therefore axiomatically dismissable. This view gains credence in light of the current romance between cyberculture's vaguely countercultural "A" list - as represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) - and Newt Gingrich's Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF), both with visions of the devolution of the centralized state dancing in their heads. And a dominator's insensitivity to the impact of that event on real people's lives undoubtedly adds an unconscious erotic frisson to the sordid affair.

Logic dictates that class will infect point of view, whether the position be one of privilege, destitution, or any point between. This is not interesting. What is interesting, and indeed sad, is that in the apparent absence of a cybercultural libertarian left, the "utopian" ground has been ceded to the forces of reaction and the ad copy writers at AT&T.

This has not always been the case. Indeed, the last moments during which revolutionary movements were in ascendance in the West were energized by "utopian" demands and even by longings for transcendence. "Be realistic. Demand the Impossible!" read the popular slogan of France's near-revolution in 1968. America's New Left/hippie marriage spawned similar utopian demands for a "postscarcity" anarchism "watched over by the machines of loving grace," as Richard Brautigan wrote. Influential writers like Norman O. Brown challenged Freud's reality principle and proposed a new society governed by eros. Radical theorists took Marshall McLuhan's notion of the West's retribalization into the realm of the transcendent by proposing that an eroticized, communalized body politic, liberated not only from the dictates of the State but also from the reality principle itself, would dance its way into a new utopian order. Rimbaud imagined a similar possibility in the Paris Commune of 1871 and, from there, set himself the impossible task of conjuring this transmutation of the human condition through his words alone.

In the 1970s, Ilya Prigogine's theory of dissipating structures would begin to show how entropic or chaotic systems tend to reorganize at a higher level of coherence. Chaos theory might have lent some vague scientific credence to notions of collective revolutionary transcendence, but it appeared too late: the distinguishing feature of the revolutionary moment of 1968-71, a willingness to abandon, challenge, and perhaps even transcend private property, had dissipated. The political corollary to the theory of dissipating structures would be captured instead by an ideology that advocated devolution of the social welfare state combined with a defense of corporate metaproperty under the fable of "free enterprise." This relationship was made explicit in August 1995 at a PFF-sponsored conference in Aspen, Colorado, at which cyberhippie John Perry Barlow and Wired editor Kevin Kelly used chaos theory to buttress the notion that capitalism, liberated from state structures, would bring about a greater good.

Two primary tendencies emerged from the retreat from spontaneous revolutionary/transcendent utopianism. One of these - toward long-term, serious, earnest, realistic political progressivism - proved anemic when not informed and energized by more atavistic utopian urges. The other, a culture of rebelliousness and irreverence within - and frequently sponsored by - consumer capitalism, its former spontaneity swathed in layers of self-conscious irony, would thrive.

By the time we arrived at technoculture or cyberculture in the late '80s, hip irony, or rebellion-without-revolution, was absolutely emblematic of the culture at large. This tendency has by now occasioned several generations of atomized, affectless citizens. That it would dominate even over McLuhan's techno-retribalization in retrospect seems inevitable; after all, both mediation and cybernetics are self-reflexive by nature.

This was the essentially flaccid cultural context into which the novel notion of a return of possibility - revolution, mutation, or at least change - via digital technology was inserted. My own Mondo 2000 was instrumental in serving up this compound of self-reflexive cool with a reemergent transcendental hope for a radical shift in what it is to be a human being, driving cultural critics on the left to react like horny Catholics in a striptease club. And while having assisted in granting a hip bohemian cachet to the emergent digital engines of capitalism's last hurrah occasionally renders me abject with guilt, I find it more interesting to stay astride this technological behemoth, and for reasons aside from a total lack of alternatives.

The immediate impact of the digitalization of the human economic is to increase the wealth and power of the realigning media/computer industrial fiefdoms, rendering the "power of the people" obsolete via a strategy of replacement and globalization. Still, it is the nature of the information economic - that is, the economic of self-replicating systems (e.g., cybernetics) implied by computer information flow and promised by bio- and nanotechnology (the manipulation of matter as patterns of information on the molecular level) - to render property and ownership trivial and uncontrollable. The current panics over copyright, privacy, piracy, appropriation, information inflation, and attention deficit are only tips of the iceberg: it is increasingly difficult to contain privately and corporately held media properties, and even more difficult to guarantee that a mass consumer audience will (a) continue to care about the fenced-off media properties inside the turnstiles and (b) continue to exist. It's in this context that Barlow labels all the recent media corporate megamergers as "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

It's a great line, but too sanguine - and in that sense emblematic of the comfortable, privileged vision of cyberculture "anarchism." It also evokes passivity, suggesting that the fall of the massive multinational corporate organism is inevitable, a by-product of technical evolution. Our only role, then, is to kick back and watch it fall, whether at our fully electronic desks, basking in irony from our corporation-sponsored perch on the wired edge, or huddled around the fires of our homeless encampment comparing nipple rings. It would be more realistic to credit this multinational organism with the flexibility to shift with the prevailing winds, find novel ways of maintaining and expanding its grip on ownership of all things, and - as a last option - foreclose the masses' mortgage on the planet Earth, of which it is virtually the owner.

And this is where we come full circle. Because the only conceivable alternative to a world of human refuse, of serfs and slaves abandoned by an increasingly self-sufficient corporate cyber-media oligarchy, is a revolution of the lumpenproletariat (the formerly working class) based not in neo-Luddite refusal but in desire. A revolution that rises up and simply demands the fruits of technological development, unconditionally, not because it's ennobling but because it's fun, not because we deserve it but because they don't deserve to have it to themselves, and because we want it. Liberated from alienated work and want, perhaps the eroticized, communalized body politic imagined by '60s utopians would reemerge. (It would undoubtedly become chic - we wouldn't leave self-reflexive complexity behind completely, would we?) Ordinary lives might become "deregulated," permitted the same experimental spontaneity now being granted the so-called free market under the pseudoscientific cover of chaos theory. All this watched over by the machines of loving grace? Yeah. And probably AT&T.
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Title Annotation:information technology and society
Author:Sirus, R.U.
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Feb 1, 1996
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