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


Cyborg Masters and Robot Slaves
part 8

The fear of the rebellious 'underclass' has now corrupted the most fundamental tenet of the Californian Ideology: its belief in the emancipatory potentiality of the new information technologies. While the proponents of the electronic agora and the electronic marketplace promise to liberate individuals from the hierarchies of the state and private monopolies, the social polarisation of American society is bringing forth a more oppressive vision of the digital future. The technologies of freedom are turning into the machines of dominance.

At his estate at Monticello, Jefferson invented many clever gadgets for his house, such as a 'dumb waiter' to deliver food from the kitchen into the dining room. By mediating his contacts with his slaves through technology, this revolutionary individualist spared himself from facing the reality of his dependence upon the forced labour of his fellow human beings [38]. In the late-twentieth century, technology is once again being used to reinforce the difference between the masters and the slaves.

According to some visionaries, the search for the perfection of mind, body and spirit will inevitably lead to the emergence of the 'post-human': a bio-technological manifestation of the social privileges of the 'virtual class'. While the hippies saw self- development as part of social liberation, the hi-tech artisans of contemporary California are more likely to seek individual self- fulfillment through therapy, spiritualism, exercise or other narcissistic pursuits. Their desire to escape into the gated suburb of the hyper-real is only one aspect of this deep self-obsession [39]. Emboldened by supposed advances in 'Artificial Intelligence' and medical science, the Extropian cult fantasises of abandoning the 'wetware' of the human state altogether to become living machines [40]. Just like Virek and the Tessier-Ashpools in Gibson's 'Sprawl' novels, they believe that social privilege will eventually endow them with immortality [41]. Instead of predicting the emancipation of humanity, this form of technological determinism can only envisage a deepening of social segregation.

Despite these fantasies, white people in California remain dependent on their darker-skinned fellow humans to work in their factories, pick their crops, look after their children and tend their gardens. Following the L.A. riots, they increasingly fear that this 'underclass' will someday demand its liberation. If human slaves are ultimately unreliable, then mechanical ones will have to be invented. The search for the holy grail of 'Artificial Intelligence' reveals this desire for the Golem - a strong and loyal slave whose skin is the colour of the earth and whose innards are made of sand. As in Asimov's 'Robot' novels, the techno- utopians imagine that it is possible to obtain slave-like labour from inanimate machines [42]. Yet, although technology can store or amplify labour, it can never remove the necessity for humans to invent, build and maintain these machines in the first place. Slave labour cannot be obtained without somebody being enslaved.

Across the world, the Californian Ideology has been embraced as an optimistic and emancipatory form of technological determinism. Yet, this utopian fantasy of the West Coast depends upon its blindness towards - and dependence on - the social and racial polarisation of the society from which it was born. Despite its radical rhetoric, the Californian Ideology is ultimately pessimistic about fundamental social change. Unlike the hippies, its advocates are not struggling to build 'ecotopia' or even to help revive the New Deal. Instead, the social liberalism of New Left and the economic liberalism of New Right have converged into an ambiguous dream of a hi-tech 'Jeffersonian democracy'. Interpreted generously, this retro-futurism could be a vision of a cybernetic frontier where hi- tech artisans discover their individual self-fulfillment in either the electronic agora or the electronic marketplace. However, as the zeitgeist of the 'virtual class', the Californian Ideology is at the same time an exclusive faith. If only some people have access to the new information technologies, 'Jeffersonian democracy' can become a hi-tech version of the plantation economy of the Old South. Reflecting its deep ambiguity, the Californian Ideology's technological determinism is not simply optimistic and emancipatory. It is simultaneously a deeply pessimistic and repressive vision of the future.

 
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