Californian Ideology
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Richard Barbrook
Andy Cameron
Californian Ideology
John Perry Barlow
Louis Rossetto

There are Alternatives
part 9

Despite its deep contradictions, people across the world still believe that the Californian Ideology expresses the only way forward to the future. With the increasing globalisation of the world economy, many members of the 'virtual class' in Europe and Asia feel more affinity with their Californian peers than other workers within their own country. Yet, in reality, debate has never been more possible or more necessary. The Californian Ideology was developed by a group of people living within one specific country with a particular mix of socio-economic and technological choices. Its eclectic and contradictory blend of conservative economics and hippie radicalism reflects the history of the West Coast - and not the inevitable future of the rest of the world. For instance, the anti-statist assumptions of the Californian ideologues are rather parochial. In Singapore, the government is not only organising the construction of a fibre-optic network, but also trying to control the ideological suitability of the information distributed over it. Given the much faster growth rates of the Asian 'tigers', the digital future will not necessarily first arrive in California [43].

Despite the neo-liberal recommendations of the Bangemann Report, most European authorities are also determined to be closely involved within the development of new information technologies. Minitel - the first successful on-line network in the world - was the deliberate creation of the French state. Responding to an official report on the potential impact of hypermedia, the government decided to pour resources into developing 'cutting edge' technologies. In 1981, France Telecom launched the Minitel system which provided a mix of text-based information and communications facilities. As a monopoly, this nationalised telephone company was able to build up a critical mass of users for its pioneering on- line system by giving away free terminals to anyone willing to forgo paper telephone directories. Once the market had been created, commercial and community providers were then able to find enough customers or participants to thrive within the system. Ever since, millions of French people from all social backgrounds have happily booked tickets, chatted each other up and politically organised on-line without realising they were breaking the libertarian precepts of the Californian Ideology [44].

Far from demonising the state, the overwhelming majority of the French population believe that more public intervention is needed for an efficient and healthy society [45]. In the recent presidential elections, almost every candidate had to advocate - at least rhetorically - greater state intervention to end social exclusion of the unemployed and homeless. Unlike its American equivalent, the French revolution went beyond economic liberalism to popular democracy. Following the victory of the Jacobins over their liberal opponents in 1792, the democratic republic in France became the embodiment of the 'general will'. As such, the state was believed to defend the interests of all citizens, rather than just to protect the rights of individual property-owners. The discourse of French politics allows for collective action by the state to mitigate - or even remove - problems encountered by society. While the Californian ideologues try to ignore the taxpayers' dollars subsidising the development of hypermedia, the French government can openly intervene in this sector of the economy [46].

Although its technology is now dated, the history of Minitel clearly refutes the anti-statist prejudices of the Californian ideologues - and of the Bangemann committee. The digital future will be a hybrid of state intervention, capitalist entrepreneurship and d.i.y. culture. Crucially, if the state can foster the development of hypermedia, conscious action could also be taken to prevent the emergence of the social apartheid between the 'information rich' and the 'information poor'. By not leaving everything up to the vagaries of market forces, the EU and its member states could ensure that every citizen has the opportunity to be connected to a broadband fibre-optic network at the lowest possible price.

In the first instance, this would be a much needed job creation scheme for semi-skilled labour in a period of mass unemployment. As Keynesian employment measure, nothing beats paying people to dig holes in the road and fill them in again [47]. Even more importantly, the construction of a fibre-optic network into homes and businesses could give everyone access to new on-line services and create a large vibrant community of shared expertise. The long-term gains to the economy and to society from the building of the 'infobahn' would be immeasurable. It would allow industry to work more efficiently and market new products. It would ensure that education and information services were available to all. No doubt the 'infobahn' will create a mass market for private companies to sell existing information commodities - films, tv programmes, music and books - across the Net. At the same time, once people can distribute as well as receive hypermedia, a flourishing of community media and special interest groups will quickly emerge. For all this to happen, collective intervention will be needed to ensure that all citizens are included within the digital future.

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