Geert Lovink on Thu, 5 Jun 1997 23:18:52 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> interview with David Brown

Digital Accountability
An Interview with David Brown
By Geert Lovink

David Brown, Cybertrends, Viking Press, London, 1997

There is a new figure, the moderate net critic. David Brown is one of
those. They come with very official, worrying reports about the
impact of new technologies. Brown is one of those distinguished
intellectual journalists, focussing on economics. He has seen the
corporate world from the inside while keeping a cool, professional
distance. He does not have to sell an attitude or meme. I had a strong
sense that he was speaking to another, distant audience, an audience very
different from the cybercultural workers. Since he is more or less outside
of the fancy world of theory production, he can come up with hard-boiled
facts and doom-laden anecdotes.
His style is very different from cultural theorists and academics. In
his function as a business reporter, Brown is formulating his analysis of
the digital world very carefully, avoiding all kinds of radical
'Cybertrends' is his  first book. He is a US writer, now
living in Western Europe, a correspondent for the Financial Times,
the International Herald Tribune and a European contributing editor of
Business magazine.
'Cybertrends' warns against the short-sightedness of the 'cyberdeck
elite' or the 'Masters of Code'. They are creating a 'wired' world of
economic growth without jobs or security, 'a realm of 'connections'
without communication, a frontier without citizens - only consumers.' This
sober, alternative perspective states that there are not only 'cyber
rights' but also 'cyber responsibilities'. In this appeal to the senior
business world, Brown is pointing at an 'absence of frank dialogue.' Is
there even such a thing a 'accountable codemasters'? The Net seems more
like an empire than a civilization, heading for a clash between the real
and the virtual, with the Mexican monetary crisis as a first sign and
There is no longer a growth in accumulated economic wealth, despite
all the commercial promises. This seems to be the key point that
current economic analysis is making - as does Brown. Digital efficiency
makes people work harder for less money. The result might be a 'Great
Depression with a digital twist.' Instead of a 'cybernetic Renaissance'
the technology is only destroying jobs. And the digirati are refusing to
speak about this economic reality. Perhaps they might listen. Or will 'the
train roll off its rails'? 
The interview took place in Amsterdam, in the foyer of the filmmuseum, on
a mild and friendly spring day.

GL: You are neither an optimist, nor a pessimist when it comes to
emerging cybertechnologies. Instead, you warn against the imminent
dangers of job cuts and crashing stock markets. What is wrong with the
current views that we tend not see those developments?

DB: Who knows? Maybe we are living under a tyranny of relentless optimism!
That’s certainly the American way. Plus, over the years, we have developed
an almost mystical belief that technology can solve problems that are
basically human at root. This optimism has strong economic and political
overtones too. It helps to advantageously condition the legal and social
framework under which commercial interests pursue their specific
interests. The problem is, if we accept this myth that technology is
really the solution to all of our woes, then it becomes a kind of heresy
to express what might otherwise be considered healthy skepticism. The
whole thing strikes me as a kind of black comedy. It is as if we were
thrown back to the days of the old American West - with wagon trains 
rolling towards the golden frontier. It’s also reminiscent of the Cold 
War. Either you are with us or you are not - that sort of idea. It's an
atmosphere where reasonable skeptics are transformed in Luddite
'reactionaries' - 'bugs' that threaten the system. 

GL: A few years ago we had to study program languages. Now we have to
focus our attention on economics in order to understand new media. In
what way can be benefit from this?

DB: Well, for one thing, we can acquire an antidote to the prevailing myth
of technological 'determinism.'  This idea that 'the machine is out of
control'. It is easy to forget that technology is an important but
nevertheless subsidiary part of a much a wider social and economic
continuum. Bringing economics into the equation gives a more holistic and
pragmatic perspective. The uptake and implementation of technology is
powerfully conditioned by commercial considerations, by regulation, and by 
basic human nature. To varying degrees, all of these can be adjusted. We
can still direct our collective destiny. For instance, it's clear that
education is the key to preserving democracy - and equally clear that our
education systems are in a sorry state and that populations have been
‘dumbed down’ by TV. We have the technology to change this. We could
educate vast numbers of people to a much higher standard with the
political will and a commitment of resources. But is there money in
those hills? Most investment dollars are chasing a completely different
dream: there’s an effort to hard-wire everybody into a kind of Panopticon
consumer society where there are electronic devices embedded in our
clothes, telescreens on our walls. 
Gibson is right: cyberspace is being transformed into a great big electronic 
supermarket - a place where products and spectacles can be profitably 
delivered to audiences of one. Now, if we buy into this vision, then this 
is the brave new world we can look forward to. But there’s nothing
inevitable about it. First, people will have to buy hardware. They’ll have 
to subscribe to software and services. People’s buying decisions will partly
determine the shape of the future we get. So I think we need to pay more
attention to these commercial considerations and leave the rhetoric
behind. But the rhetoric is ready-made and it gives journalists the stuff
of easy stories. And besides, many  of us - I mean reporters and pundits
and media critics - tend to think ourselves as being on the cutting edge.
We have an inflated sense of our own importance and often an insufficient
regard to the decisive influence of money and markets.  We're in love with
Chaos Theory, which tells us that small cadres of enlightened souls like 
ourselves, armed with modems and PC’s, are capable of using technology to 
trigger a far-reaching and even revolutionary change. I think we
overestimate our strength. When you look at the way computing power,
networking resources, and informational content are increasingly
concentrated into a handful of very large networked enterprises, then you
have to ask yourself whether the relative power balance has really

GL: It is said that the size of the Internet is irrelevant compared to the
vast, closed computer networks of the financial world. Is this a correct
description? Is it really a small net in a big world which is
occupying us so much?

DB: Well, the so-called ‘culture’ that's often associated with the
Internet exists in a pretty miniscule portion of a much wider information
space. And that portion is diminishing. Nine-point-eight out of ten people
on this planet don’t have modems and PC’s. The information space that
they inhabit - at least in the industrial world - is still most visibly
shaped by TV - and invisibly by the less visible networks on which world
financial transactions take place. So even if the Net is a terrific thing,
I think those of us who are interested in promoting cultural vitality, 
and who believe in a diversity of information sources, need keep a sense 
of perspective. We need to acknowledge that, however important our
newsgroups, they still play a very limited role in the wider information
space. We have limited influence in the corridors of real financial and
political power. We could do more by lobbying for a strong financial
commitment to independent national public broadcasting networks that we
could achieve on any number of global newsgroups alone. This is one of
many instances where the low-tech solution is arguably the best.

There’s another important point. The configuration of the Internet is 
changing. It's being transformed into a series of intranets - in other
words a collection of closed loops that are primarily designed to
facilitate commercial interaction. So, even if it's comforting to lay
back like a child in a baby carriage, and imagine ourselves lying in some
benign technical embrace, a wonderland of newsgroups and chat sessions
and MUDs, we should not be overly distracted by all these bright lights
and colored toys. What’s qualitatively new about quote-unquote networks?
Networking has been an feature of human society since Adam and Eve. The
only thing that’s changing is the speed and the context in which
interactions take place. Electronic connections are overtaking the
physical ones. For instance, many of us organize our finances on-screen 
- not at the bank. 'Connections' like these are qualitatively different.
Obviously, they are more impersonal. They’re also a lot more
discontinuous. Easier to throw up and pull down. The shops and cafes of
the French village square give way, literally and metaphorically, to a
kind of supermarket-style electronic monoculture. Another thing that
distinguishes electronic networks is that they are potentially a lot more
opaque.  Business relationships and anti-competitive agglomerations of
power are harder to identify - even as they reshape our lives.

If technology becomes the means whereby markets are allowed to operate
according to opaque and self-imposed rules, and not the transparent
disciplines imposed by social consensus, then we are setting themselves up
for a big fall. We can't allow some vaguely-defined notion of economic
freedom to become the only workable default parameter in a networked
world. Without corresponding networks of accountability, which in turn
generate trust, then our advanced economies and democratic systems will
grow vulnerable indeed.

GL: Do you think it is possible to address computer professionals
and point out their accountability to them?

DB: A sense of accountability can be discovered or imposed at many
different levels in society. Debates over which levels of restraint are
appropriate to which problems are obviously some of the most explosive
confronting us today. One persons' anti-pornography law is another
persons’ idea of narrow-minded censorship. But to approach these kinds of
dialog in a constructive way, I think we have to jettison this fashionable
doctrine that anarchic individualism should always prevail on the Net. No
society, electronic or otherwise, is totally 'free.'  You can’t escape
the need for choice - balance - a statement of priorities. A lot of
people who talk about 'freedom' and 'empowerment' in connection with the
so-called ‘digital revolution’ really have much more commercial
motivations in mind. They’re adherents of a very specific species of 
neo-liberal, deregulatory economic dogma. They’re born-again Marxists, in
an ironic kind of way: they prophesy the ultimate end to government
itself.  This is fairly amusing since markets would never function
without public policy restraints.  But this tendency to equate ‘the
government’  with 'the enemy' is dangerous and anti-democratic.  One of
the interesting debates that is going on right now revolves around the
implementation of digital TV and the allocation of spectrum. Should there
be a public service responsibility attached to owning a chunk of the
public information space? How should be expressed? This issue will 
never be solved by the 'invisible hand' of technology. The regulatory
framework will be decisive. So we ought to be a lot more skeptical about
this anti-government message - and a lot more positive about the kinds of
change that can be achieved if public policy can truly be recaptured from
the special interests that dominate its formulation today.

GL: The most worrying effect you describe in your book is the 'jobless
economy'. So far, the visionaries have always claimed that technology
is only creating new jobs. In the past, a term like 'automation' still
had that connotation of rationalization. Will people in the future
associate the Internet with mass unemployment?

DB: In the short term there is a great deal of hope and optimism
attached to the implementation of technology vis a vis economic growth.
But if you look at the numbers, a different picture comes clear. The 
reorganization of  corporate structures along logical, computational lines 
is certainly creating a much more 'efficient' economy and higher growth.
But it is also accompanied by a more polarized distribution of incomes
and, in many cases, a drastic reduction of jobs.  This is not just on the
factory floor. A lot of the 'functions'  now being performed by lawyers,
doctors and other professionals can just as well be executed by software.
So you have this irony: the wiring of society creates initial growth and
short-term profits. The question of whether the cost of this transition is
sustainable in the longer term is one the market does not address. The
visionaries tell us to have faith - the Industrial Age destruction of
agricultural modes of life eventually delivered new opportunities. But in
many ways the new style of life was inferior to the old. It was
characterized by noise, pollution, drudgery and urban alienation. Will the
life of the consumer in  cyberspace be more desirable than the relativities 
that prevail today? Like many, I’m concerned that we may be heading
towards a future in which people earn their livelihoods by surfing a
radically commercialized Web. Real communication will be replaced by
message exchange.
E.M. Forster’s story - The Machine Stops - where everyone lives in a 
self-referential little cocoon without connection to the physical world, 
may yet prove prescient. Is that going to create a sustainable economy and
culture? I do not mean to sound like an eco-romanticist. The point is
that walking up a hill as supposed to driving up a hill is teaching you a
lot about the space. We've sure got a short term problem. There are more
unemployed people in Europe now than during the great depression. Even if
you accept the optimistic line that new jobs will be created, you have the
question of whether an economy can be organized along those lines.

GL: It seems that the process of globalization is now taking off. Or is
this just another buzzword or even a myth?

DB: Globalization is a boogyman. The world is not more global that 100 or
150 years ago under the British mercantilism. What has changed is the
internal organisation of the global corporations. The fact that
globalization is entering culture is a sensitive issue and it is one
that lends itself to exploitation by ideologues and reactionaries.
Anytime people's sense of identity is under rapid assult and there is a
sense of humiliation of the human spirit; there are radical and volatile
energies in the atmosphere. You can't hold influences out in a
networked economy and you don't necessarily want to.
A strong culture can engage in a dialogue. For example: French films
fascinate me even though they might go on for about three hours and
nothing really seems to take place. There are a lot of lifted eyebrows
and ladies turn their necks. Their conversation refers to cultural memes
that are only partially meaningful to me as an outsider. But I know
they are very meaningful to the people who watch them. But what if a
guy like Micky Kantor goes to Paris and says: 'Films are like
hamburgers.' I think that's both culturally and economically a very
narrow statement. We have to develop a much more subtle, careful view,
a self-limiting attitude about the way in which we enter other people's
cultural temples. We should take our shoes off. By forcing the French
to compete on our terms, the French 'industry' will be strengthened to
produce more commercially viable products. But that's not necessarily a
desirable outcome. They divert resources from other, more creative
products. The American cultural arrogance is not sustainable in a
networked world. There should be more cultural sensibility.
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