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Internet Culture Review

A reply to Thomas Frank's One Market Under God. A quick explanation of how Cyberculture transformed into the New Economy, and then into - poof! “TV news can be safely ignored forever.”

I recently read Thomas Frank's book One Market Under God , an analysis of “Market Populism,” and while the book is accurate in its criticisms of John Perry Barlow, Kevin Kelly and their ilk, it's important to remember that Barlow and Kelly really thought they had the big answers; they thought that the social structures we know today - corporations, media conglomerates, government - would go away and die and hive-minds would emerge from networks, and we would all be watched over by Richard Brautigan's "machines of loving grace." Representative quote:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

John Perry Barlow

John Perry Barlow

It's good to mock this bombast. But what Frank doesn't cover - and maybe he wasn't there for it - was the initial excitement of the “networked world,” and how the ideas of Barlow and Kelly, and the emerging networked market made sense to people who shared in the experience of early online “culture,” including young people on the left. And Frank doesn't cover the transformation, in the early 1990's, when the futuristic, sci-fi informed “Cyberculture” of Barlow and Kelly gave way to the “New Economy,” which later turned into the glut of trite maxims we know today.

The New Economy, as we're finding out, was a kind of Frankenstein entity, claiming that by plugging the Internet into moribund social organizations like corporations, we would bring them to vivid life and they would be our finest servants. As we know, they ran wild and rampaged the economic countryside, and now the population is there with torches, holding their pink slips, or spewing at Fucked Company and the like, ready to punish the monsters for their masters' hubris.

I remember, as a progressive, far-on-the-left college student, when vol 1, issue 1 of Wired came out. A geeky friend showed it to me, and it didn't feel like we were being co-opted, that our “culture” of cutting and pasting was being stolen for a marketing drive; it felt like we were being listened to, taken seriously, and understood. We had a voice, we lonesome dorks evangelizing the Internet to our peers and betters, trying to explain how gopher, FTP, and the nascent WWW was a radical reinvention of all knowledge.

“It'll never happen,” the head of computing services at my college said to me, “the Web isn't secure. No one wants that stuff. The future is in programs like WordPerfect.” I knew better. I ran Linux on a campus computer and was nearly fired from my work-study job for insubordination. My revolution against the narrowminded was on! I was a living, breathing member of the Cyberculture, making information free, publishing e-zines, creating new interfaces.

I downloaded e-texts over FTP in the early 90's, then built my first, rough Web pages around 1994, and debated over browser differences and the merits of SGML in 1995. I came to New York and found work in the New Economy, the laws of which made perfect sense to my ignorant mind. Much later, when I read a few papers on classical economics, I began to see that I had been surfing on an ocean of pure and deep bullshit, but then I was 22, and my bosses were ex-socialists from Harvard, and they would never sell out (they did). We were crafting the future (by building Web sites to sell jewelry). We were bringing the revolution to the people (who were white and wore suits and worked for companies that performed functions like “executive gifting” and “fund analysis”).

I knew something was wrong, but at the time it was more fun to be a hypocrite. I read a great deal of Internet-oriented social criticism in 1995 and 1996, when the flood of New Economy thought began, and I remember thinking that's right, we are going to merge with the machines, and all will be fine, just you wait. All value on earth was now in information and knowledge. Networks would have the ultimate power, governments would crumble, gender differences would vanish, Africa and India would rise, no one would know if you were a dog or a skink. The poor would be rich with knowledge. Books, music, and video would become as flexible as clay in our hands.

In New York, we all talked about the inevitability of the market. People drew charts with circles and arrows and put words like “synergy” into the space where circles overlapped. We winked with irony over our “selling-out,” without realizing that we had long since sold out, that we bowed to corporate masters. The little company I worked was bought, went public, and we had to come in at 9am - but then we had pensions and good health insurance, too.

Frank's "market populism" was in full effect. I worked for New Economy companies, at New Economy cubicles, doing New Economy tasks over and over again, with a vague, compensating belief that the market was a kind of pure, socially good force for all society. Yes, the weird Libertarianism philosophy of anti-regulation that seemed to underline much thinking about the Internet reeked of selfish pettiness. (Get your filthy hands off my network!) But, hey, I was getting paid $54,000 a year on my English degree. That was nice.

After a year or two, my friends starting leaving for Business School, or to start their own New Economy companies, and while I wished them well, I had to get out, hit pause, stop the bullshit, and get well. When the boom was at its boomiest I quit my third New Economy job, ostensibly to be a freelancer, but more accurately to just stop, be done with it, calm down for a while, stop sleeping under desks, stop having to spew charts-and-bullets nonsense. That was the end of my sympathy for anything Wired, anything which promised great gains for the many through utter rhetorical nonsense. I gave up my vesting stock options and holed up in my apartment; I'm only now beginning to venture out. It seems that many people, judging from NASDAQ, are making similar choices about where to invest their energies and capital.

So...what happened?

First, it seems that the thinkers like Kelly and Barlow, very reasonably, extrapolated a nature for the networks from the social goals of the early adopters of the Internet, and those ideas became very pervasive without anyone acknowledging the exclusive demographic of the early days. The early Internet was nearly free of a distinct set of social forces: women, government, industrial regulation, advertising, people without technical savvy, poor people. It was a smart-male utopia - an incomplete place, but always fascinating, and fun to write about, because anything could happen there - people could merge with machines, poor people could become cyberrevolutionaries, class systems explode and dictatorships fall. Just like science fiction.

The etext archives at UMich were filled with essays on politics and machines, describing “temporary autonomous zones.” New ideas, free of grounding in reality, were free to spin around the network, discussed on news spools, placed in carefully sorted FTP sites. Very often the power of the "network" was seen to have a built-in social order that would topple governments, destroy churches, and “revolutionize” business. This was wishful thinking, as when TV's early apologists insisted the medium would transform education. Sure, TV could have changed education, but it's become clear in the last 50 years that the basic culture of advertiser-supported pablum and “open” stock markets, especially in the U.S., is entrenched, and gets first dibs on any new technology long before the “people” get to it. It was inevitable that the powerful social structures which already existed would simply co-opt the network, rather than the other way around. This was a major mistake in the Barlow school of thought.

Instead of acknowledging this reality, we all came up with Cyberculture, and then, as a further compromise, when the world wanted into the networks, we came up with the New Economy. Now that the old economy has figured out how to get what they need out of the new technologies, we're left with nothing to call our own. Alas.

Early on, we of Barlow's Cyber-revolution hated advertising, and thought it would muddy the pure waters of knowledge now flowing over the fiber-optic pipes. Our resolute anti-commercialism meant that commercial culture couldn't flow in any natural way through the medium, but it had to knock down the doors and trudge through the Internet, boots muddy, bringing the idiot baggage of print advertising and TV advertising with it, ignoring the intelligent possibilities of networks. Spamming began, and there was no way to regulate it. Banner ads popped up everywhere. The ads spoke louder than the critics. After all, there had to be some way to make money from all this. The dot-com address began to dominate and the dot-edu was subsumed. That was Cyberculture. Then, we rolled over. We accepted the state of things. Online advertising became a new paradigm, better than any advertising ever before, worth more that TV or print advertising, a potential zillion-dollar industry. That was the New Economy.

We didn't want any government regulation of our networks. The Internet had to stay open and inexpensive to all. This thing was bigger than any government! That was Cyberculture. Then the Internet became highly privatized, owned by huge corporations, with no guaranteed access for anyone. These corporations' commitment to free speech stops when free speech is unprofitable; ISPs pull the plug on "controversial" sites at the first sign of discord. That's the New Economy.

We insisted that “information wanted to be free,” no matter what kind, that copyright laws were antiquated and wouldn't survive in the digital age. That was Cyberculture. Now, small-scale information providers, like me, have no recourse to making any money online, aside from hacks like PayPal, while corporations with large marketing budgets can shill e-commerce products on the Superbowl. That's the New Economy. And now, as part of the post-New Economy, huge record companies can sue Napster into destruction and publishing houses can extend copyright another 25 years. Notice how quickly Napster began to “compromise” with record companies? Sure, you can spin it as “the record companies, they're quaking in their boots.” But that's bullshit. They weren't quaking. They just picked up their phones and called their hoplite squadrons of lawyers, who hit Napster and MP3.com with Nagasaki-sized lawsuits. They needed to maximize shareholder value. “Quaking.” Jesus. Sony doesn't quake.

In general, we ignored social reality, basing our networked cosmos on the intellectual meanderings of a certain kind of white male psyche. We thought that Metcalfe's law on networks and Moore's law on processor power would change everything. But people don't change every 18 months; cultures don't start moving faster than processors. People don't increase their value with the increase in processor/cycle value. Whoops. Based on the idea that culture and technological capabilities ran parallel, the “New Economy” is crashing into flames as a new reality sets in - that people use computers, not the inverse, and all the technology in the world won't push people into buying enough gizmos to justify a stock price at 20,000 times earnings. Recession is over the horizon, apparently. And yet all is not lost.

First, I can publish this to thousands of readers worldwide.

Second, the sources for solid leftist news have never been better. The fights against the WTO and the IMF would never have registered without this new technologies. Nader's campaign wouldn't have had the awareness it did. I know more about third-world economies, about the U.S.'s imperialist horror-show, about the war on drugs, about ecological problems, than I could have at any time before. TV news can be safely ignored forever.

Third, the Web is a way to "opt out." I don't watch TV anymore; I check the New York Times on the Web, and then research the stories to get a more complete picture. I read Dean Baker's economic analysis of the Times and the Washington Post. I read books and walk around. I get my news about the New Economy from Fucked Company. I'm less connected to commercial culture than I was. I feel free to make more decisions. I buy things used. I have less brand loyalty.

Fourth, this stuff is still great. There is still enormous opportunity for anyone who wants to create a truly great text editor, a truly great network publishing tool, artificial intelligence, genomic analysis, media, etc. There is lots of good work for smart people out there. Maybe they can't cash in in 6 months with an unproven, stupid idea, having learned nothing but how the SEC works, but life is tough.

Fifth, and last, physiologist and ecologist Jared Diamond, who wrote the book Guns, Germs, and Steel which both Bill Clinton and Bill Gates adored, predicts in a recent interview in Skeptic Magazines that, if we leave our current use of resources unchecked, we will have destroyed the earth in 50 years. Maxed it out. No more. Earth goes to Earth heaven.

If he's right, it makes a lot of the current arguments, cyber or not, moot. All the hive-minds in the world won't make a difference if we hit the limit of photosynthetic production. I'm sure there are lots of counter-arguments. He's probably wrong about something. But Jared Diamond's a smart man. He could be right. Since we have all this technology, and since individuals do have power to communicate and meet one another with Internet technology, maybe we could try to use it to save the planet, rather than to become even more selfish e-consumers. That would be a good application of the TCP/IP protocol, I think.

Certainly we have tools to begin spreading the word, with all this Internet tomfoolery, and the tools we have will make a difference. We may be owned by corporations, and our hopes of a cyber-utopia may have been complete bullshit, but maybe - now that the schlock-thought and bar graphs seem irrelevant as Silicon V/alley companies burst into flames - we can sell back in, get our hands dirty again, and start doing neat things with networks, in our spare time, even if we can't buy helicopters on the proceeds. Maybe we could even come up with a strategy to not destroy and overutilize the earth. I doubt it, but it'll be more interesting to give it a try.

Discussion, criticism, and feedback at Metafilter.com


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