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


The Myth of the 'Free Market'
part 5

Following the victory of Gingrich's party in the 1994 legislative elections, this right-wing version of the Californian Ideology is now in the ascendant. Yet, the sacred tenets of economic liberalism are contradicted by the actual history of hypermedia. For instance, the iconic technologies of the computer and the Net could only have been invented with the aid of massive state subsidies and the enthusiastic involvement of amateurs. Private enterprise has played an important role, but only as one part of a mixed economy.

For example, the first computer - the Difference Engine - was designed and built by private companies, but its development was only made possible through a British Government grant of £17,470, which was a small fortune in 1834 [24]. From Colossus to EDVAC, from flight simulators to virtual reality, the development of computing has depended at key moments on public research handouts or fat contracts with public agencies. The IBM corporation only built the first programmable digital computer after it was requested to do so by the US Defense Department during the Korean War. Ever since, the development of successive generations of computers has been directly or indirectly subsidised by the American defence budget [25]. As well as state aid, the evolution of computing has also depended upon the involvement of d.i.y. culture. For instance, the personal computer was invented by amateur techies who wanted to construct their own cheap machines. The existence of a 'gift economy' amongst hobbyists was a necessary precondition for the subsequent success of products made by Apple and Microsoft. Even now, shareware programs still play a vital role in advancing software design.

The history of the Internet also contradicts the tenets of the 'free market' ideologues. For the first twenty years of its existence, the Net's development was almost completely dependent on the much reviled American federal government. Whether via the US military or through the universities, large amounts of tax payers' dollars went into building the Net infrastructure and subsidising the cost of using its services. At the same time, many of the key Net programs and applications were invented either by hobbyists or by professionals working in their spare-time. For instance, the MUD program which allows real-time Net conferencing was invented by a group of students who wanted to play fantasy games over a computer network [26].

One of the weirdest things about the rightwards drift of the Californian Ideology is that the West Coast itself is a creation of the mixed economy. Government dollars were used to build the irrigation systems, highways, schools, universities and other infrastructural projects which makes the good life possible in California. On top of these public subsidies, the West Coast hi-tech industrial complex has been feasting off the fattest pork barrel in history for decades. The US government has poured billions of tax dollars into buying planes, missiles, electronics and nuclear bombs from Californian companies. For those not blinded by 'free market' dogmas, it was obvious that the Americans have always had state planning: only they call it the defence budget [27]. At the same time, key elements of the West Coast's lifestyle come from its long tradition of cultural bohemianism. Although they were later commercialised, community media, 'new age' spiritualism, surfing, health food, recreational drugs, pop music and many other forms of cultural heterodoxy all emerged from the decidedly non-commercial scenes based around university campuses, artists' communities and rural communes. Without its d.i.y. culture, California's myths wouldn't have the global resonance which they have today [28].

All of this public funding and community involvement has had an enormously beneficial - albeit unacknowledged and uncosted - effect on the development of Silicon Valley and other hi-tech industries. Capitalist entrepreneurs often have an inflated sense of their own resourcefulness in developing new ideas and give little recognition to the contributions made by either the state, their own labour force or the wider community. All technological progress is cumulative - it depends on the results of a collective historical process and must be counted, at least in part, as a collective achievement. Hence, as in every other industrialised country, American entrepreneurs have inevitably relied on state intervention and d.i.y. initiatives to nurture and develop their industries. When Japanese companies threatened to take over the American microchip market, the libertarian computer capitalists of California had no ideological qualms about joining a state-sponsored cartel organised to fight off the invaders from the East. Until the Net programs allowing community participation within cyberspace could be included, Bill Gates believed that Microsoft had no choice but to delay the launch of 'Windows '95' [29]. As in other sectors of the modern economy, the question facing the emerging hypermedia industry isn't whether or not it will be organised as a mixed economy, but what sort of mixed economy it will be.

 
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