Geert Lovink on Thu, 14 Dec 95 22:07 MET

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The Californian Ideology

Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron

"Not to lie about the future is impossible and
one can lie about it at will" - Naum Gabo 1

As the Dam Bursts...

At the end of the twentieth century, the long predicted convergence of
the media, computing and telecommunications into hypermedia is finally
happening. 2 Once again, capitalism's relentless drive to diversify and
intensify the creative powers of human labour is on the verge of
qualitatively transforming the way in which we work, play and live
together. By integrating different technologies around common protocols,
something is being created which is more than the sum of its parts. When
the ability to produce and receive unlimited amounts of information in
any form is combined with the reach of the global telephone networks,
existing forms of work and leisure can be fundamentally transformed. New
industries will be born and current stock market favourites will swept
away. At such moments of profound social change, anyone who can offer a
simple explanation of what is happening will be listened to with great
interest. At this crucial juncture, a loose alliance of writers,
hackers, capitalists and artists from the West Coast of the USA have
succeeded in defining a heterogeneous orthodoxy for the coming
information age: the Californian Ideology.

This new faith has emerged from a bizarre fusion of the cultural
bohemianism of San Francisco with the hi-tech industries of Silicon
Valley. Promoted in magazines, books, tv programmes, Web sites,
newsgroups and Net conferences, the Californian Ideology promiscuously
combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial
zeal of the yuppies. This amalgamation of opposites has been achieved
through a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new
information technologies. In the digital utopia, everybody will be both
hip and rich. Not surprisingly, this optimistic vision of the future has
been enthusiastically embraced by computer nerds, slacker students,
innovative capitalists, social activists, trendy academics, futurist
bureaucrats and opportunistic politicians across the USA. As usual,
Europeans have not been slow in copying the latest fad from America.
While a recent EU Commission report recommends following the Californian
'free market' model for building the 'information superhighway',
cutting-edge artists and academics eagerly imitate the 'post-human'
philosophers of the West Coast's Extropian cult. 3 With no obvious
rivals, the triumph of the Californian Ideology appears to be complete.

The widespread appeal of these West Coast ideologues isn't simply the
result of their infectious optimism. Above all, they are passionate
advocates of what appears to be an impeccably libertarian form of
politics - they want information technologies to be used to create a new
'Jeffersonian democracy' where all individuals will be able to express
themselves freely within cyberspace. 4  However, by championing this
seemingly admirable ideal, these techno-boosters are at the same time
reproducing some of the most atavistic features of American society,
especially those derived from the bitter legacy of slavery. Their
utopian vision of California depends upon a wilful blindness towards the
other - much less positive - features of life on the West Coast: racism,
poverty and environmental degradation. 5 Ironically, in the not too
distant past, the intellectuals and artists of the Bay Area were
passionately concerned about these issues.

Ronald Reagan v. the hippies

On 15 May 1969, Governor Ronald Reagan ordered armed police to carry out
a dawn raid against hippie protesters who had occupied People's Park
near the Berkeley campus of the University of California. During the
subsequent battle, one man was shot dead and 128 other people needed
hospital treatment. 6 On that day, the 'straight' world and the
counter-culture appeared to be implacably opposed. On one side of the
barricades, Governor Reagan and his followers advocated unfettered
private enterprise and supported the invasion of Vietnam. On the other
side, the hippies championed a social revolution at home and opposed
imperial expansion abroad. In the year of the raid on People's Park, it
seemed that the historical choice between these two opposing visions of
America's future could only be settled through violent conflict. As
Jerry Rubin, one of the Yippie leaders, said at the time: 'Our search
for adventure and heroism takes us outside America, to a life of
self-creation and rebellion. In response, America is ready to destroy
us...' 7

During in the '60s, radicals from the Bay Area pioneered the political
outlook and cultural style of New Left movements across the world.
Breaking with the narrow politics of the post-war era, they launched
campaigns against militarism, racism, sexual discrimination, homophobia,
mindless consumerism and pollution. In place of the traditional left's
rigid hierarchies, they created collective and democratic structures
which supposedly prefigured the libertarian society of the future. Above
all, the Californian New Left combined political struggle with cultural
rebellion. Unlike their parents, the hippies refused to conform to the
rigid social conventions imposed on organisation men by the military,
the universities, the corporations and even left-wing political parties.
Instead they openly declared their rejection of the straight world
through their casual dress, sexual promiscuity, loud music and
recreational drugs.  8 The radical hippies were liberals in the social
sense of the word. They championed universalist, rational and
progressive ideals, such as democracy, tolerance, self-fulfillment and
social justice. Emboldened by over twenty years of economic growth, they
believed that history was on their side. In sci-fi novels, they dreamt
of 'ecotopia': a future California where cars had disappeared,
industrial production was ecologically viable, sexual relationships were
egalitarian and daily life was lived in community groups. 9 For some
hippies, this vision could only be realised by rejecting scientific
progress as a false God and returning to nature. Others, in contrast,
believed that technological progress would inevitably turn their
libertarian principles into social fact. Crucially, influenced by the
theories of Marshall McLuhan, these technophiliacs thought that the
convergence of media, computing and telecommunications would inevitably
create the electronic agora - a virtual place where everyone would be
able to express their opinions without fear of censorship. Despite being
a middle-aged English professor, McLuhan preached the radical message
that the power of big business and big government would be imminently
overthrown by the intrinsically empowering effects of new technology on

'Electronic media...abolish the spatial dimension... By electricity, we
everywhere resume person-to-person relations as if on the smallest
village scale. It is a relation in depth, and without delegation of
functions or powers... Dialogue supersedes the lecture.' 10

Encouraged by McLuhan's predictions, West Coast radicals became involved
in developing new information technologies for the alternative press,
community radio stations, home-brew computer clubs and video
collectives. These community media activists believed that they were in
the forefront of the fight to build a new America. The creation of the
electronic agora was the first step towards the implementation of direct
democracy within all social institutions. 11 The struggle might be hard,
but 'ecotopia' was almost at hand.

The Rise of the 'Virtual Class'

Who would have predicted that, in less than 30 years after the battle
for People's Park, squares and hippies would together create the
Californian Ideology? Who would have thought that such a contradictory
mix of technological determinism and libertarian individualism would
becoming the hybrid orthodoxy of the information age? And who would have
suspected that as technology and freedom were worshipped more and more,
it would become less and less possible to say anything sensible about
the society in which they were applied?

The Californian Ideology derives its popularity from the very ambiguity
of its precepts. Over the last few decades, the pioneering work of the
community media activists has been largely recuperated by the hi-tech
and media industries. Although companies in these sectors can mechanise
and sub-contract much of their labour needs, they remain dependent on
key people who can research and create original products, from software
programs and computer chips to books and tv programmes. Along with some
hi-tech entrepreneurs, these skilled workers form the so-called 'virtual
class': '...the techno-intelligentsia of cognitive scientists,
engineers, computer scientists, video-game developers, and all the other
communications specialists...'  Unable to subject them to the discipline
of the assembly-line or replace them by machines, managers have
organised such intellectual workers through fixed-term contracts. Like
the 'labour aristocracy' of the last century, core personnel in the
media, computing and telecoms industries experience the rewards and
insecurities of the marketplace. On the one hand, these hi-tech artisans
not only tend to be well-paid, but also have considerable autonomy over
their pace of work and place of employment. As a result, the cultural
divide between the hippie and the organisation man has now become rather
fuzzy. Yet, on the other hand, these workers are tied by the terms of
their contracts and have no guarantee of continued employment. Lacking
the free time of the hippies, work itself has become the main route to
self-fulfillment for much of the 'virtual class'. 13

The Californian Ideology offers a way of understanding the lived reality
of these hi-tech artisans. On the one hand, these core workers are a
privileged part of the labour force. On the other hand, they are the
heirs of the radical ideas of the community media activists. The
Californian Ideology, therefore, simultaneously reflects the disciplines
of market economics and the freedoms of hippie artisanship. This bizarre
hybrid is only made possible through a nearly universal belief in
technological determinism. Ever since the '60s, liberals - in the social
sense of the word - have hoped that the new information technologies
would realise their ideals. Responding to the challenge of the New Left,
the New Right has resurrected an older form of liberalism: economic
liberalism. In place of the collective freedom sought by the hippie
radicals, they have championed the liberty of individuals within the
marketplace. Yet even these conservatives couldn't resist the romance of
the new information technologies. Back in the '60s, McLuhan's
predictions were reinterpreted as an advertisement for new forms of
media, computers and telecommunications being developed by the private
sector. From the '70s onwards, Toffler, de Sola Pool and other gurus
attempted to prove that the advent of hypermedia would paradoxically
involve a return to the economic liberalism of the past. 14 This
retro-utopia echoed the predictions of Asimov, Heinlein and other macho
sci-fi novelists whose future worlds were always filled with space
traders, superslick salesmen, genius scientists, pirate captains and
other rugged individualists. 15 The path of technological progress
didn't always lead to 'ecotopia' - it could instead lead back to the
America of the Founding Fathers.

Electronic Agora or Electronic Marketplace?

The ambiguity of the Californian Ideology is most pronounced in its
contradictory visions of the digital future. The development of
hypermedia is a key component of the next stage of capitalism. As Zuboff
points out, the introduction of media, computing and telecommunications
technologies directly into the factory and the office is the culmination
of a long process of separation of the workforce from direct involvement
in production. 16 If only for competitive reasons, all major industrial
economies will eventually be forced to wire up their populations to
obtain the productivity gains of digital working. What is unknown is the
social and cultural impact of allowing people to produce and exchange
almost unlimited quantities of information on a global scale. Above all,
will the advent of hypermedia will realise the utopias of either the New
Left or the New Right? As a hybrid faith, the Californian Ideology
happily answers this conundrum by believing in both visions at the same
time - and by not criticising either of them.

On the one hand, the anti-corporate purity of the New Left has been
preserved by the advocates of the 'virtual community'. According to
their guru, Howard Rheingold, the values of the  counterDculture baby
boomers are shaping the development of new information technologies. As
a consequence, community activists will be able to use hypermedia to
replace corporate capitalism and big government with a hi-tech 'gift
economy'. Already bulletin board systems, Net real-time conferences and
chat facilities rely on the voluntary exchange of information and
knowledge between their participants. In Rheingold's view, the members
of the 'virtual class' are still in the forefront of the struggle for
social liberation. Despite the frenzied commercial and political
involvement in building the 'information superhighway', the electronic
agora will inevitably triumph over its corporate and bureaucratic
enemies.  17

On the other hand, other West Coast ideologues have embraced the laissez
faire ideology of their erstwhile conservative enemy. For example, Wired
- the monthly bible of the 'virtual class' - has uncritically reproduced
the views of Newt Gingrich, the extreme-right Republican leader of the
House of Representatives, and the Tofflers, who are his close advisors.
18 Ignoring their policies for welfare cutbacks, the magazine is instead
mesmerised by their enthusiasm for the libertarian possibilities offered
by new information technologies. However, although they borrow McLuhan's
technological determinism, Gingrich and the Tofflers aren't advocates of
the electronic agora. On the contrary, they claim that the convergence
of the media, computing and telecommunications will produce an
electronic marketplace: 'In cyberspace..., market after market is being
transformed by technological progress from a "natural monopoly" to one
in which competition is the rule.' 19

In this version of the Californian Ideology, each member of the 'virtual
class' is promised the opportunity to become a successful hi-tech
entrepreneur. Information technologies, so the argument goes, empower
the individual, enhance personal freedom, and radically reduce the power
of the nation-state. Existing social, political and legal power
structures will wither away to be replaced by unfettered interactions
between autonomous individuals and their software. These restyled
McLuhanites vigorously argue that big government should stay off the
backs of resourceful entrepreneurs who are the only people cool and
courageous enough to take risks. In place of counter-productive
regulations, visionary engineers are inventing the tools needed to
create a 'free market' within cyberspace, such as encryption, digital
money and verification procedures. Indeed, attempts to interfere with
the emergent properties of these technological and economic forces,
particularly by the government, merely rebound on those who are foolish
enough to defy the primary laws of nature. According to the executive
editor of Wired, the 'invisible hand' of the marketplace and the blind
forces of Darwinian evolution are actually one and the same thing. 20 As
in Heinlein's and Asimov's sci-fi novels, the path forwards to the
future seems to lead back to the past. The twenty-first century
information age will be the realisation of the eighteenth century
liberal ideals of Thomas Jefferson: '...the...creation of a new
civilisation, founded in the eternal truths of the American Idea.'  21

The Myth of the 'Free Market'

Following the victory of Gingrich's party in the 1994 legislative
elections, this right-wing version of the Californian Ideology is now in
the ascendant. Yet, the sacred tenets of economic liberalism are
contradicted by the actual history of hypermedia. For instance, the
iconic technologies of the computer and the Net could only have been
invented with the aid of massive state subsidies and the enthusiastic
involvement of amateurs. Private enterprise has played an important
role, but only as one part of a mixed economy.

For example, the first computer - the Difference Engine - was designed
and built by private companies, but its development was only made
possible through a British Government grant of 17,470, which was a
small fortune in 1834. 22 From Colossus to EDVAC, from flight simulators
to virtual reality, the development of computing has depended at key
moments on public research handouts or fat contracts with public
agencies. The IBM corporation only built the first programmable digital
computer after it was requested to do so by the US Defense Department
during the Korean War. 23 Ever since, the development of successive
generations of computers has been directly or indirectly subsidised by
the American defence budget. As well as state aid, the evolution of
computing has also depended upon the involvement of d.i.y. culture. For
instance, the personal computer was invented by amateur techies who
wanted to construct their own cheap machines. The existence of a 'gift
economy' amongst hobbyists was a necessary precondition for the
subsequent success of products made by Apple and Microsoft. Even now,
shareware programs still play a vital role in advancing software design.

The history of the Internet also contradicts the tenets of the 'free
market' ideologues. For the first twenty years of its existence, the
Net's development was almost completely dependent on the much reviled
American federal government. Whether via the US military or through the
universities, large amounts of tax payers' dollars went into building
the Net infrastructure and subsidising the cost of using its services.
At the same time, many of the key Net programs and applications were
invented either by hobbyists or by professionals working in their
spare-time. For instance, the MUD program which allows real-time Net
conferencing was invented by a group of students who wanted to play
fantasy games over a computer network.  24

One of the weirdest things about the rightwards drift of the Californian
Ideology is that the West Coast itself is a creation of the mixed
economy. Government dollars were used to build the irrigation systems,
highways, schools, universities and other infrastructural projects which
makes the good life possible in California. On top of these public
subsidies, the West Coast hi-tech industrial complex has been feasting
off the fattest pork barrel in history for decades. The US government
has poured billions of tax dollars into buying planes, missiles,
electronics and nuclear bombs from Californian companies. For those not
blinded by 'free market' dogmas, it was obvious that the Americans have