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Californian Ideology
 
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Richard Barbrook
Andy Cameron
Wired
Californian Ideology
neo-liberalism
John Perry Barlow
Louis Rossetto


Agora or Marketplace?
part 4

The ambiguity of the Californian Ideology is most pronounced in its contradictory visions of the digital future. The development of hypermedia is a key component of the next stage of capitalism. As Zuboff points out, the introduction of media, computing and telecommunications technologies into the factory and the office is the culmination of a long process of separation of the workforce from direct involvement in production [18]. If only for competitive reasons, all major industrial economies will eventually be forced to wire up their populations to obtain the productivity gains of digital working. What is unknown is the social and cultural impact of allowing people to produce and exchange almost unlimited quantities of information on a global scale. Above all, will the advent of hypermedia will realise the utopias of either the New Left or the New Right? As a hybrid faith, the Californian Ideology happily answers this conundrum by believing in both visions at the same time - and by not criticising either of them.

On the one hand, the anti-corporate purity of the New Left has been preserved by the advocates of the 'virtual community'. According to their guru, Howard Rheingold, the values of the counter-culture baby boomers are shaping the development of new information technologies. As a consequence, community activists will be able to use hypermedia to replace corporate capitalism and big government with a hi-tech 'gift economy'. Already bulletin board systems, Net real-time conferences and chat facilities rely on the voluntary exchange of information and knowledge between their participants. In Rheingold's view, the members of the 'virtual class' are still in the forefront of the struggle for social liberation. Despite the frenzied commercial and political involvement in building the 'information superhighway', the electronic agora will inevitably triumph over its corporate and bureaucratic enemies [19].

On the other hand, other West Coast ideologues have embraced the laissez-faire ideology of their erstwhile conservative enemy. For example, Wired - the monthly bible of the 'virtual class' - has uncritically reproduced the views of Newt Gingrich, the extreme-right Republican leader of the House of Representatives, and the Tofflers, who are his close advisors [20]. Ignoring their policies for welfare cutbacks, the magazine is instead mesmerised by their enthusiasm for the libertarian possibilities offered by new information technologies. However, although they borrow McLuhan's technological determinism, Gingrich and the Tofflers aren't advocates of the electronic agora. On the contrary, they claim that the convergence of the media, computing and telecommunications will produce an electronic marketplace:

'In cyberspace..., market after market is being transformed by technological progress from a "natural monopoly" to one in which competition is the rule.' [21]

In this version of the Californian Ideology, each member of the 'virtual class' is promised the opportunity to become a successful hi-tech entrepreneur. Information technologies, so the argument goes, empower the individual, enhance personal freedom, and radically reduce the power of the nation-state. Existing social, political and legal power structures will wither away to be replaced by unfettered interactions between autonomous individuals and their software. These restyled McLuhanites vigorously argue that big government should stay off the backs of resourceful entrepreneurs who are the only people cool and courageous enough to take risks. In place of counter-productive regulations, visionary engineers are inventing the tools needed to create a 'free market' within cyberspace, such as encryption, digital money and verification procedures. Indeed, attempts to interfere with the emergent properties of these technological and economic forces, particularly by the government, merely rebound on those who are foolish enough to defy the primary laws of nature. According to the executive editor of Wired, the 'invisible hand' of the marketplace and the blind forces of Darwinian evolution are actually one and the same thing [22]. As in Heinlein's and Asimov's sci-fi novels, the path forwards to the future seems to lead back to the past. The twenty-first century information age will be the realisation of the eighteenth century liberal ideals of Thomas Jefferson:

'...the...creation of a new civilisation, founded in the eternal truths of the American Idea.' [23]

 
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