Capitalism and the Internet (3)
Despite a clear tendency towards enlightening social relations, the Internet does not promise to give revolutionaries their socialist society on a plate. In fact, it offers us the parallel “disinformation revolution” as well. Unlike misinformation, disinformation is deliberate.
Although mass propaganda can be expected to decrease quantitatively, customised propaganda may increase qualitatively. Propaganda and spin could become more, not less, powerful, as mass media gives way to “mess media” and a proliferation of micro-channels, micro-markets and perhaps micro-cultures makes the targeting of disinformation against selected individuals more feasible. It’s as if the ultimate dream of the free-marketeers is of six billion separate Earths, a doppelganger for each of us, and consensus or revolution impossible in any of them. But humans aren’t so easy to control, nor communication so easy to stop. The right-wing utopians forget about our critical faculties and our propensity to gossip amongst ourselves:
“The hypnotic spell of years of television and its intense public relations is broken as people learn to deconstruct and recombine the images intended to persuade them. The result is that the population at large gains the freedom to re-examine previously accepted policies and prejudices” (Rushkoff, Cyberia, p.55-6).
Micro-propaganda just isn’t going to cut it unless we collectively agree to brick up our windows and doors and never go out. Realistically, the ideology of capitalism will not be able to rely on permanent, large-scale disinformation. The best it can expect is to muddy the waters.
“The danger of participation is that there are . . . thousands of potentially critical eyes watching every entry. A faulty fact will be challenged, a lie will be uncovered, plagiarism will be discovered. Cyberspace is a truth serum” (Rushkoff, p.18).
As global monoculture advances upon us in the real world of Wal-Mart and McDonalds, cyberspace , in contradistinction, is going the opposite way by reinventing diversity. There is a double irony at work. First, the right-wing free marketeers parade their hypocritical “cult of the individual” as a justification for a sociopathic mentality of self-centred consumerism, while at the same time making every effort to destroy cultures and reduce individuals to a grinding uniformity of alienated clones. Second, their own system is producing an atomised multicultural cybersociety which may yet undo their work. Where capitalism tried to keep us apart while making us the same, cyber-capitalism will have the effect of bringing us all together while making us different.
Trouble at’ McMill
Yet if this view of capitalism’s future seems to have a rosy tint, it’s probably a bloodstain. There is likely to be a ferocious and global scramble for the ever-decreasing number of real jobs in the hi-tech labour market. The “digerati” may get excited about their hi-tech utopias but the future looks grim for workers. The former proletariat may become the future sophisticated “cognitariat” (Toffler), but they are going to be mostly underemployed part-timers battling each other for short contracts. Meanwhile the rest of the population will presumably be fighting for work in leisure malls, call centres and other dispiriting and low-paid McJobs. And when things get really bad, workers tend to wake up from the American Dream and smell a rat. Carl Davidson, editor of Cy Rev, a “Journal of Cybernetic Revolution, Sustainable Socialism & Radical Democracy”, sounds a warning:
“In 1992 the size of the world labor force was something like 1.76 billion people; by 2025, if current trends stay more or less what they are, the world labor force is going to be 3.1 billion people. That means every year for the next thirty years the world economy needs to create 38 to 40 million new jobs. And it’s got to do that at a time when the main technological trend is going in the opposite direction of net job liquidation” (http://www.eff.org/pub/Publications/E-journals/CyRev).
What then of free-market philosophy, this wonderful doctrine from two centuries ago which thinks capitalism would work fine and dandy if the stupid politicians would just go away? Free-market capitalists think the poor don’t matter and will obligingly roll over and die, but when the first riots start, these same capitalists will remember pretty quick what they were paying the state for in the first place. Civil unrest may be most cheaply staved off by bread and circuses, and excuses, as it once was in ancient Rome, but for these angry modern workers the bread will have to be good and the circuses had better be terrific, since the excuses, as usual, will be lousy.
Of course, the entertainment will be awesome, if nasty, after capitalism’s tastes. Frighteningly convincing graphics and sensory experiences will create seamless mirages, a virtual unreality that might forever close the door to political change. Certainly it is curious to note that technology has brought the “circus” ever closer, from arena to stage to screen to TV to PC monitor. Ultimately we will watch our little mirages on “drop-down” corneal displays, a final triumph of the circus as it climbs right inside our heads. Better still, with full-body virtual reality, the viewer gets to climb right into the ring. But for all that, the charade, however mindbending, has to stop sometime. Circuses pall, just ask any overworked clown. Humans will never really lose sight of the distinction between real and virtual, unless they can be made to forget that they are rational animals. Besides, so much of their reality is patently bullshit that nothing short of mass lobotomy could disguise it.
And bullshit is what lies at the heart of capitalist ideology. Even capitalists themselves believe it. On Page One of every school economics textbook it says that resources are limited but wants are unlimited. As wants are satisfied, new wants always appear. Now if this were true, socialism would be impossible. Relying on this anti-human and quite unsubstantiated prejudice the capitalists, knowing the extremely short shelf-life of information commodities, expect to be able to produce new commodities indefinitely, to replace old ones that have become free or nearly so. Yet here is their mistake, for wants are not infinite. As more things become free (for example, MS Explorer, Netscape, Winzip, Apache, Acrobat, Linux and a thousand other useful programs) they expect us to keep paying for upgrades, assuming we will always want more, but we won’t. Instead, we will reach a satisfaction threshold. And then, we’ll just start expecting everything else to be free too. And why not? With modern robotised manufacturing, costs are falling in all sectors of commodity production. If they cost next to nothing to produce, why should we pay at all? Kevin Kelly, founder editor of Wired, doesn’t see a problem for capitalism in this, and argues that businesses should give their products away for free, in order to reap later returns:
“Ubiquity drives increasing returns in the network economy. The question becomes: what is the most cost-effective way to achieve ubiquity? And the answer is: give things away. Make them free” (New Rules for the New Economy, Fourth Estate, 1998).
One can only hope that all capitalists, convinced of our insatiable natures, are daft enough to follow Kelly’s advice, and indeed many companies are doing just this, and not just with software, (free mobile phones, free calls, free satellite decoders). Even if this loss-leader strategy just makes a loss, it plants another expectation in the public mind, and subtly undermines its own creators. Things can be free. There is such a thing as enough. Abundance does exist.
It may be that the sacred cows of capitalism and property society will be sent to the slaughterhouse one by one. Even that feared and revered symbol of ultimate power, the coin, may lose its lustre, its relevance reduced to a meaningless abstraction. Where once we bartered real things like sheep or sacks of salt, then paid with iron bars, gold ingots or copper coins, then latterly with decorated scraps of paper, now we will be held to ransom by mere electronic digits. The case for abolishing digits may not seem so far fetched in the future when nobody handles real cash anymore and the fetishised idol no longer has even a visible face.
The Socialist Virus
As well as the notion of insatiable greed, the ideology of capitalism also rests on the notion of natural inequality, the cult of the leader and of the expert. The better educated workers become, the more this cult suffers. As contempt for our politicians rides as high as voting figures sink low, the idea that we must rely on the unique expertise of superior individuals is beginning already to look decidedly comical. But in the wired network consciousness, where “no-one is as smart as everyone” (Kelly, p.14) the expert and the leader may become positively antiquated concepts. The days may be dying when the “ignorant masses” can be led, misled and mystified by some “social elite” who know better. Instead, the wired world may experience a new renaissance of democratised creative thinking, as good ideas begin to spread through the ports and wires of a billion terminals, the electronic synapses of a revolution: “You don’t attack the monster. You infect him, like a virus.” (Rushkoff, p142). And small ideas can grow big in cyberspace, as Kelly, in a backhanded paraphrase of William Morris, makes clear:
“The network economy has set into motion the power of hobby tribes and informed peers . . . The law of increasing returns can feed a small interest into a mid-sized interest. Whereas once there was a lone fanatic for every notion, now there is a devoted website for every fanatic notion; soon there can be 10,000 fellow enthusiasts for every fascination” (Kelly, p.105).
Yet disinformation remains for the time being the best weapon against workers. When the truth can no longer hide in the dark, the logical thing is to dazzle us with data. It doesn’t even have to be false data, just so long as it’s irrelevant and it wastes precious time. And as the Nobel economist Herbert Simon points out: “What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of knowledge creates a poverty of attention.” (Kelly, p.59). The grim truth is that this crude strategy will probably work, for a while at least. According to the Critical Art Ensemble, who may be perhaps thinking primarily in the short term, the vast majority of Internet users will be passive consumers, rather than active participants:
“They will be playing computer games, watching interactive TV, and shopping in virtual malls. The stratified distribution of education will act as the guardian of the virtual border between the passive and the active user, and prevent those populations participating in multi-directional interactivity from increasing in any significant numbers” (Alinta Thornton, Ch.5, http://www.wr.com.au/democracy/thesis1).
If this sounds depressing, one has to remember that it is a conservative estimation of human behaviour as it is now, schooled into a passive consumption of goods, news, ideas and entertainment. If there is one key hallmark of pre-internet mass society it is probably this conditioned passivity. Our pre-internet generation cannot in all fairness be expected to adapt thoroughly to such a major cultural innovation, and will certainly fail to exploit its real long-term potential. A second-generation wired society is likely to be very different, more individualistic yet better integrated, more critical and proactive, and with higher expectations. The longer capitalism lasts, the more bolshie the workers are likely to become.
For now, like everything else in capitalism, any attempt at disinformation overload will work only partially and unreliably, if it works at all, and cannot depend on any conscious or systematic conspiracy by the owning class. Conversely, we as workers have no free ticket to easy victory through the Internet. When all is said and done, it is an instrument only, an “enabling technology”. The printed word didn’t liberate us either, but it made a huge difference, and so will this, if we learn how to use it properly. With the means of knowledge—the key to the means of production—now out of the private bag and in the public domain, it is fair to say that the working class has never been in a stronger position to take control of its own future.
Revolutions are made by people, not machines, people working together, people in communities. Much is made of supposed “online communities”, but it is precisely in the real physical world of community, rather than its ersatz virtual counterparts, that the revolutionary potential of the Internet may be storing up its greatest surprise.
(Next month, in the concluding article, we examine the Internet and Community.)