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Capitalism and the Internet (2): The Internet and Ideology

The Internet is being hailed as a saviour by both capitalists and anti-capitalists alike. Rarely has any technology been so universally viewed as a holy grail by sworn mutual enemies. Who is right? Will it destroy capitalism or rejuvenate it?

At the Christopher Columbus school in Union City, New Jersey, a dustbin school with a dropout rate as high as its pass rate was low, an experiment was conducted in 1993. Each student was given a home PC and taught online, with both teacher and parent training to assist. The dropout rate fell to near zero, the daytime attendance rate rose to near perfect, and test scores rose 10 points higher than the NJ state average, in every subject. (http://www.gip.com).

Though schooling is unlikely ever to be entirely online, for social reasons, the possibilities of education in general via the Internet are nevertheless enormous. Traditional education—in real time—relies on too many ingredients being present in the right order, amount and quality. Virtual schools can tailor classes to individuals to a far higher degree of precision. Night school does not have to be at night, or local, or regular, or in one place, or reliant on one teacher. Educators have literally a world of resources to draw upon, while self-educators have the best access to knowledge of any generation that has existed. The establishment of the global knowledge network which we are now seeing has been aptly described by Douglas Rushkoff as "the hard-wiring of the global brain" (Cyberia 1994). Education, once the province of the rich and jealously guarded by them, is being democratised at an unprecedented rate. And ideology cannot change without a change in education.

Education is also about debate, and the lack of a public domain or sphere in which to discuss ideas has been held to be a key factor in late 20th Century ideological stagnation (Habermas, Schneider, Rheingold, quoted in Alinta Thornton's Masters thesis, University of Sydney, (http://www.wr.com.au/democracy/thesis1). Now, however, Usenet, the global network of mailing lists and newsgroups, is becoming an organic encyclopaedia and coffee house which permits debate on every issue 24 hours a day. As the Romans had the Forum, so we have Usenet. It is the new theatre in the war of ideologies now heating up. Good ideas will spread there. Bad ones will die there. Usenet is where theorists become activists, and where activists learn their theory. Capitalist ideologues are going to have to work harder in future, for educated populations cannot be fobbed off with fairy tales. They start to expect things their forebears didn't even imagine. They start to make demands.

The DD Digerati
The first demand is more democracy. Capitalism in its advanced form relies on a model of liberal democracy to get the best out of workers, but it has to take a chance on them asking for too much. Now, governments from Britain to Malaysia to Costa Rica are "enthusiastically" experimenting with virtual council meetings and online voting in an effort to keep abreast of the public expectation of more open government. That this enthusiasm is ambivalent is shown by the fact that many of these same governments are also trying to legislate controls into the Internet—unsuccessfully as it happens. The cybergeek contingent—the "digerati"—are excitedly lyricising about running society with Direct Democracy instead of representative government, which they somewhat naively imagine was a democratic expedient imposed by geographical and other practical limitations.


Astonishing technical advance

Nobody who comprehends the class struggle will believe for an instant that the rich will allow Direct Democracy—except where it can't do any harm and where it might bore us stupid with trivial decision-making. However, the expectation of more democracy is an important and empowering development nonetheless, for it represents a line of convergence with socialist thinking and away from the leadership mentality which plagues radical thinking. When it becomes loud enough, it will be a sign that the working class is gaining a little self-respect at last.

The second demand is a new agenda. As the organisational ability of "wired" protesters is now increasingly on a par with that of governments, as we saw with J18 and N30 and may see again with Mayday 2000, a new sense of potency seems to be sweeping through the radical mind. We don't have to take it lying down. Corporations are not invulnerable. Individuals can be held to account. Even an entire social system can be challenged, as disparate and sometimes frankly deluded single-issue activists coalesce under the gravitational pull of common experience into what may yet become an embryonic anti-capitalism movement. Instead of being a passive consumerist mass, we can learn to think of ourselves as a proactive team of individuals. The Internet is creating a climate of new possibilities that cuts away at the dead growth of apathy and spawns a new idea: the network consciousness, a concept of interactive, interlinked human nodes in a vast, decentralised and co-operative process, a foretaste of working class consciousness.

Custodes custodiamus
Schooled however in the old thinking, we might conclude that the state will take over the Internet and use it as a new and terrible weapon of control over the working class. Accepting that they have always won in the past, we can only imagine that they will always win in the future. Is there not now a CCTV camera on every street corner? Do they not have their satellites, listening stations and Cray computers monitoring every move, purchase and phone call we make? Well, they may do, and those dedicated to underground criminal or insurrectionary activities may indeed worry about this, but there is something here for the monitors to worry about too—we can also watch them.

The near-level playing field of the cybersociety means that whatever they can do to us, we can do right back to them. This mutual integrated surveillance is already taking place, as US state governors now find themselves and their domestic affairs interrogated by an international brigade, and the government of Mexico finds its attempts to quietly crush the Zapatistas constantly harried and hamstrung by the unwelcome attention of the global online community. Amateur video of Rodney King helping police with their enquiries started the LA riots, and protesters now typically tool up with camcorders, laptops and mobile phones. Anything one protester discovers, all soon know. Governments, like the burglars they are, hate to work in the spotlight, and now it isn't only the news media which are directing the beams. This is a game we can all play. Quis custodes custodiat? Answer: we do.

Bomb damage
Much is made of government censorship, and governments can certainly close down any website they don't like. But only temporarily. Just as the forerunner of the Internet, ARPANET, was devised by the military to route around bomb damage to any node, so the Internet can equally route around censorship damage. Besides, the Net is global, whereas governments are local, and what one government dislikes another will frequently allow or ignore. China, so keen to imprison radical Internet users, is nevertheless in a minority of one where censorship is concerned, and its control of internal information flows is haemorrhaging at a thousand different points.

Monitoring of users worldwide is easily countered by the rapid growth of "anonymiser" sites (e.g. www.anonymiser.com), which strip out your personal details and let you roam without fear of identification. Autocensorship software is notoriously unreliable and it is easily outmanoeuvred. Besides, the rich themselves are not keen on government control. A book called Friendly Spies quotes the IBM office in Paris as having done a set of experiments to demonstrate the fact that the code keys they were required to share with the French government were being used for industrial espionage purposes (quoted in GIP).

It may not be states we have to worry about. The omniscient state may be an obsolescent dinosaur in any case, as capitalism militantly embraces the 'free' market and multinationals grow so powerful that “an estimated one quarter of all world trade now consists of sales between subsidiaries of the same firm” (Alvin & Heidi Toffler, War and Anti-War, 1993).

"The flow of information into or out of a nation can no longer be effectively controlled by the state; information is everywhere and accessible. To participate in the burgeoning economic benefits of world commerce means adopting practices that undermine state control . . ." (Carl Builder, Strategy analyst, RAND Corporation).

Riccardo Petrella, a former science and technology director at the European Commission, predicts the collapse of the nation state and the rise of a 'hi-tech archipelago' of city-states in conjunction with multinational companies, while Warren Christopher, former US Secretary of State, predicts “5000 countries rather than the hundred-plus we have now” and George Yao, Singapore deputy PM, foresees the disintegration of China into hundreds of city-states. (Quoted in Toffler).


Today, cutting edge; tomorrow, garbage

Were this to occur, it must be a disaster for fascist ideology, since it gives the nationalists just what they think they want, and lets them choke on it. People might fight for the right to be called Basques, Latvians or Chechens, but it is hard to imagine them fighting over Coke or Pepsi in the same way. In any case, war is likely to become increasingly hard to justify when the global working class is just that, global. Much of the hate propaganda necessary to stoke public sympathy for a war will be impossible to foist on an internationalised class which works together, online, every day of the week.

The String Vest of Secrecy
Even secrecy is on the wane in the future, if one believes the former science adviser to President Reagan, G. A. Keyworth. Pointing to the fact that traditional intelligence gathering has been on the monumental scale (the US Government produced 6.3 million classified documents in 1992 alone) and involves a huge industry of chaff sorting and "analysis paralysis", he says: “The price of protecting information is so high that classification becomes a handicap”. Meanwhile Robert Steele of US Intelligence, a critic of the secrecy industry, says: “The hidden costs of secrecy are so immense they often outweigh the benefits by a wide margin.”

Steele and others argue for an open system, with very little secrecy. It is surprising what is already in the public domain. Larry Seaquist of US Naval Intelligence reports that they get more useful information from one Internet PC than all their private and highly secret SPARC workstations put together. There are already few things which are really secret, even if we might wish they were. An underground nuclear cookbook called Basement Nukes prompts Michael Golay, professor of nuclear engineering at MIT, to say: “What's classified today is how to build a good weapon, not how to build a weapon.” In a wider sense, the Internet will by its nature militate against the holding of secrets, for risk-free disclosure is a button-press away for any individual and information sharing has long been the accepted mode of transaction online. The global brain, one might say, will steadily illuminate its own dark areas. Capitalist ideology, insofar as it depends on secrecy, is due for a hammering.

PADDY SHANNON

(Next month: we continue the discussion of the impact of the Internet on capitalist ideology.)

GLITCH
As if to prove that computer technology is not infallible, in Part I of this series the first two paragraphs on page 9 of the January Socialist Standard , were garbled as a result of the unexplained introduction of material from another article. The garbled passage should have read:

Yet talk of "boxes" is itself an obsolescent concept, as Xerox have perfected "e-paper" (Observer, 22 August) and research continues towards wristwatch computers and even brain implants, giving rise to talk of "synthetic telepathy" in the more distant future. And as science revolutionises the Internet, so the Internet is revolutionising science. With the spatial decoupling of the scientist from the task, the so-called "collaboratory" is born, enabling multiple users to share a singe physical resource, enhanced productivity with no travel time, and participation by experimenters in multiple, geographically-distributed projects.

Our apologies to readers and the writers—Editors.