Internet hype?

Dear Editors,
I’m not sure what Paddy Shannon has been trying to tell us in his articles on the internet and capitalism over the last four months (Socialist Standard, January to April). In January we learned that “the world is still largely unprepared for the scale of the communications revolution overtaking it”. In February we were invited to ponder whether the internet will destroy capitalism or rejuvenate it (the possibility that it will do neither was overlooked). In March we were warned that “the internet does not promise to give revolutionaries their socialist society on a plate”.

April saw the end of Paddy’s sustained hype for the internet (notice that I don’t capitalise it as if it were a god). He examined its possible effect on community. Much of what Paddy writes about the loss of community has the ring of reality: the strangers who live next door, our scattered and distant friends, the isolating and alienating TV.

Paddy recognises that “revolutions are made by people, not machines . . .[but] the revolutionary potential of the internet may be storing up its greatest surprise” (March). In April we had a clue to this surprise: “The real revolution of the internet isn’t online, it’s offline, in the world of the ‘homeworker’.” There are now about one million home or teleworkers, and it’s predicted that “52 percent of the working population will be homeworking by 2010”. Take that with a hefty pinch of salt. In the 1960s it was predicted that by 2000 most of us would be working 20-30 hours a week, with long holidays, sabbaticals and early retirement. We aren’t.

More importantly, what has the way we are employed got to do with working for socialism? Paddy seems to think it will be a good thing if “local people will once again be able to work together locally”. Apparently, half of us will “walk the five minutes to their local telecentre . . . sign on to their individual company” and this will be called “the communalisation of working”. It still sounds like capitalist employment to me. Global it may be, networking it may include, but I can’t see it’s any overall improvement on the non-telecentre, away-from-home employment that the other half of us face the prospect of continuing to have.

In a things-will-get-worse-before-they-get-better vein, Paddy foresees that “the internet may finally precipitate a wholesale flight out of [terminal retreat into virtual reality]”. In other words, our old friend increasing misery. The internet and associated new technology will prove so unsatisfying (calamitous?) that we’ll react against it and experience “a new flowering of community working and activity”. Forgive me for wanting to dodge the misery and go straight for the new flowering.

I’m glad that Socialist Party members are being recruited via the internet and I do believe we should use every available and effective technology to build the socialist movement. But let’s keep a sense of proportion. The work required to meet the needs of billions of the world’s population for food, shelter and health services is not just looking at screens, tapping keys and moving mice. Computers transmit information very fast but they embody all those aspects of our thinking that are automatic, deterministic, algorithmic. Against the people Paddy quotes, I’d like to endorse what S.L. Talbott says about education in The Future Does Not Compute:

    “The teachers we remember for changing our lives did not convey some decisive fact. Rather, we saw in them a stance we could emulate, a way of knowing and being we could desire for ourselves . . . This is why computers have so little to offer either teacher or student. If the student’s greatest hope is to learn from his teacher what it can mean to be a human being facing a particular aspect of life, then the implications of wholesale reliance upon computer-mediated instruction are very grave indeed.”


Paddy Shannon replies: What the articles set out to do was not “hype” the internet, nor suggest it would do our work for us, but to discuss even-handedly a new significant development in capitalism which socialists ought to know about. We don’t think it’s a god, (current word-processing software doesn’t agree, since it tries to capitalise it for you!) nor is it the nemesis or salvation of capitalism. It’s what we make of it. It is not suggested that homeworking is somehow a liberating development. It’s still capitalist employment, of course. But the way we are employed has, we think, got a lot to do with working for socialism—just ask any overworked socialist who doesn’t have time to do Party work because of pressures of employment and commuting. To say that we would derive no benefit from being able to work locally is to respond to perceived hype with anti-hype, an equally indefensible extreme.

The “wholesale flight out of virtual reality” quote seems to have caused confusion. This was intended to counter those pundits who see computer-based virtual communities as somehow a step forward. There is no disagreement with Stan here. Indeed, the article argues that present Western society is already largely virtual (a bad thing) and that teleworking will encourage more physical community (a good thing) and thus precipitate a change from an alienated social environment into a more human and humane environment. Not increasing misery, then, rather the opposite.

The idea that the work of running the world can be reduced to “looking at screens, tapping keys and moving mice” is a caricature. For one thing, mobile phone technology is swiftly disposing of the old desktop geek image of the internet. The future of the computer is not in the foreground, giving us all eyestrain and sleepless nights, but in the background, in your clothes, your house and even your wallpaper, just as presently you are surrounded by microchips you know nothing about. There is no reason at all why a hi-tech socialist society couldn’t look for all the world like the quaint medieval society William Morris described in News From Nowhere, if that’s what humans really wanted. Technology tends to be at its most intrusive only when it is new. Stan presumably isn’t bothered by the presence of telephones, TVs, stereo hi-fi’s, fridges and a host of other useful tools we rely on but otherwise ignore as incidental accessories.

Finally, on the socialising and humanising role of teachers. We should no more expect this sort of thing from a computer as we should expect to ask a washing machine for advice on fashion. It would be a big mistake if humans ever proposed to replace human interaction with computer interfaces, but it seems highly unlikely that humans need to be told this, given their social and gregarious characteristics. The fear that computers will somehow dehumanise society has as little basis in fact as the once common view that the phonograph would lead to the destruction of social communication.

An ex-hippie confesses

Dear Editors,
What are we going to do about drugs? Illegal ones, that is. To legalise or not to legalise? Big stick or kid gloves? The hang-’em-and-flog-’em brigade, having learned nothing from all the years of experience and statistics, insist on heavier penalties for drug-takers and pushers, despite the known fact that, in the face of all punitive measures taken in recent decades, the overall incidence of drug-taking has gone on increasing in the UK and USA at a rapid rate.

Speaking from my own experience as someone who, way back in the Swingin’ Sixties, was once a very stubborn, determined pot-smoker and LSD “tripper”, I am convinced of several things: (a) so-called “soft” drugs such as cannabis and Ecstasy do not lead on to narcotics in the vast majority of cases; (b) no amount of harsh treatment by police, and stiffer sentencing by courts, actually stops or prevents people using drugs; and (c) drugs of all kinds have been used all over the world since time immemorial, and it was never seen as a social problem until relatively recently.

In reality, it is not the drugs themselves which are the real social problem, but the hysterical neurotic, knee-jerk reaction to them in the conditioned mind-set of society.

During my years as a “hippie”, travelling around from one commune or squat to another, I lived among many hundreds of dope-smokers, pill-heads, speed-freaks and heroin addicts: they were, on the whole, quite harmless and touchingly naïve. They did no harm, posed no threat to other people (aside from petty thieving and shoplifting that is).

We would do well to look carefully at the legal drug-peddlers in society—the pharmaceuticals companies and chemists in every High Street. What about them? Aside from the tiny minority of narcotics addicts in Britain, there are several million perfectly legal junkies: “respectable” housewives who walk around stoned on tranquillisers like Valium (now known to be highly addictive and fatal in many cases). Plus the hordes of businessmen and professional people who use both sleeping pills (i.e. barbiturates) and stimulants in their daily routine. But they aren’t criminals, are they?

So what’s the difference between one junkie and another? One gets his “fix” on prescription, the other doesn’t.

As for the legalisation of cannabis, I can vouch for the fact that this substance is not at all addictive or harmful: its worst effects are to make you lazy and unable to concentrate your thoughts for a while. LSD and Ecstasy are another matter: both are very harmful indeed and can result in death. But then, so can alcohol and cigarettes.

In a socialist society, the drug problem will not exist. Its cause will have been eradicated—the chronic alienation, isolation and loneliness created by capitalist conditions of life, plus social deprivation, poverty and dissatisfaction among the young. Once these factors are removed, the symptoms they produce will disappear along with them.

This is the real answer to the hangers-and-floggers, and to the wet liberal reformists as well: a sane and healthy social environment will produce sane and healthy individuals.

David FINLAY, Brighton

Reply: Shoplifting may be a victimless crime, but “petty thieving” by drug addicts isn’t—it’s one of the additional problems workers have to face under capitalism-Editors.

Reformist NGOs

Dear Editors,
I am currently a student at the University of Southampton studying for a BA in politics and philosophy. I have subscribed to the Socialist Standard for a couple of years now so I am familiar with the distinctions you make from other “socialist” parties. My reason for writing is that I am faced with a question on the effectiveness of NGOs on international organisations such as the World Bank and the WTO. The question asks whether NGOs are transforming or reforming international organisations as regards environment/sustainable development values. My essay will argue that NGOs can neither transform or reform because of the nature of capitalism be it global or otherwise. I would be very interested to hear what you have to say on the matter as I could use your examples to illustrate my argument. I have read Marx for the philosophy side of my course, and from this have come to the conclusion that unless capitalism is abolished any kind of civil action will, unless geared towards ending the system, only at best delay the destruction of the Earth.

Daniel Lawrence (by email)

Reply: It sounds as if you’ve worked out things for yourself and don’t need our help-Editors.

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