Californian Ideology

Agora or Exchange - Direct Democracy or Free Trade?
Track 4

With McLuhan as its patron saint, the Californian Ideology has emerged from an unexpected collision of right-wing neo-liberalism, counter-culture radicalism and technological determinism - a hybrid ideology with all its ambiguities and contradictions intact. These contradictions are most pronounced in the opposing visions of the future which it holds simultaneously. On the one side, 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 will continue to shape the development of new information technologies. Community activists will increasingly use hypermedia to replace corporate capitalism and big government with a hi-tech 'gift economy' in which information is freely exchanged between participants. In Rheingold's view, the 'virtual class' is still in the forefront of the battle for social change. Despite the frenzied commercial and political involvement in building the 'information superhighway', direct democracy within the electronic agora will inevitably triumph over its corporate and bureaucratic enemies.

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. Ignoring their policies for welfare cutbacks, the magazine is instead mesmerised by their enthusiasm for the libertarian possibilities offered by the new information technologies. Gingrich and the Tofflers claim that the convergence of media, computing and telecommunications will not create an electronic agora, but will instead lead to the apotheosis of the market - an electronic exchange within which everybody can become a free trader.

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. Indeed, attempts to interfere with these elemental technological and economic forces, particularly by the government, merely rebound on those who are foolish enough to defy the primary laws of nature. The 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. Indeed, attempts to interfere with the emergent properties of technological and economic forces, particularly by the government, merely rebound on those who are foolish enough to defy the primary laws of nature. The free market is the sole mechanism capable of building the future and ensuring a full flowering of liberty within the electronic circuits of Jeffersonian cyberspace. As in Heinlein's and Asimov's sci-fi novels, the path forwards to the future seems to lie backwards to the past.

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