Californian Ideology

Social Capitalism
part 2

Capitalist Cyberhippies

Why is Silicon valley overrun with capitalist hippies? It is easy to label these individuals are revolutionaries who 'sold out' to the capitalist ethic. But when you live within that ethic, you can also look at it another way. We learned in the 1960's, after our President, his brother, and our two most influential civil rights leaders were murdered, that politics was a dangerous path to take in building a revolution. The Nixon regime further drove home the point that politics was no place for a respectable individual to devote their time and energy. Furthermore, it doesn't take a genius to see that in reality, there is no politics in America, only economics. So to say that Americans are apolitical is absolutely correct. And that is because our country is about economics, not politics. In Europe, there are countries. In America, there are corporations. It is the corporations who take care of the people, not the government. Those things which are typically government supported in social democracies, like medical insurance, education, and even the arts, are provided by corporations. We have created a modern-day feudal society. And the only way to secure any real power in America is to either make -or control- large sums of money.

In the 1960's, the generation that seemed destined to revolutionize America was utterly derailed by the events described above from a political path to change. They did, in fact, change America, but not in the ways we thought they would. Those who would have excelled in politics turned instead to industry. In another time and place, it might have been Bill Gates in the White House rather than Bill Clinton. But their generation learned the hard way that politics is as treacherous in America as it is pointless. The mere comparison of the two Bills should attest to that.

Siliwood & the Military Entertainment Complex

From Silicon Valley, you can follow the California fault to the other nexus of activity in California - Hollywood. Hollywood is the home of the entertainment industry, Silicon Valley of the computer industry. And in the past three years, these two powerful forces have "gotten in bed together" (as we say in showbiz) and given birth to a new phenomenon aptly known as 'Siliwood'.

But beneath the self-congratulatory glitter of this marriage, both regions are tied together by a much stronger bond, a bond much less glamorous, but no less profitable. That bond is the military. As 'The Californian Ideology' very astutely points out, virtually every aspect of the computer industry has its roots in government-funded military technology, and California has always been a leader in military contracts. This all but explodes (pun intended) the myth of the autonomous pioneer. For every Apple in California, there is a Lockheed. Considering Silicon Valley is the domain of the cyberhippie-turned-capitalist culture, there is a deep irony in the fact that people who were once anti-war demonstrators have built an entire industry on the shoulders of the military. The brushing over of this fact is yet another example of historical myopia.

But one can scarcely explore the ironies of this without acknowledging Siliwood's companion movement, the 'Military Entertainment Complex'. In the wake of military downsizing, many military contractors, scratching their heads and wondering "Who, but the military, can afford us?" turned to their liberal neighbors in Hollywood. The result is a whole series of hybrid technologies, some of which I have had the pleasure of participating in the development of. I rather enjoy the concept of forging weapons into ploughshares, especially since both of the military-cum-entertainment projects I have worked on consisted of non-violent content. In spite of my staunchly pacifist position, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the fact that none of this would be possible without the military. In a way, the military could be looked at as the front end of the technological adoption curve.

Adoption Curve

'The Californian Ideology' spends a good deal of time on the topic of technological determinism and elitism. In America, we call this the 'adoption curve'. Here's how it works: Technology is developed at tremendous capital expense. It is released on the market at exorbitant prices, prices that the 'average' person cannot begin to afford. It is targeted to a certain demographic - affluent, young, educated, eager to impress themselves and each other. These are the people who 'lead' the market. They run out and buy 'the latest' thing, drop it in the trunk of their BMW's, and take it home to their house in Marin County while listening to the CD player in their trunk, perhaps having a phonecall in the car on the way. If and when enough of these 'early adopters' invest in the technology, one of two things will happen. More often than not, the technology falls on its face for whatever reason and becomes obsolete, rendering the expensive device virtually useless. However, if the right combination of factors are present, and a certain saturation level is reached, then presto! The price begins to plunge, and the subsequent tiers of adoption trailers follow, and eventually, the technology becomes available and affordable on a mass level. This process can sometimes take years, and there is fairly consistent demographic sequence to this pattern. This is the general means by which technology achieves mass market penetration in the U.S. and these are the actual terms that are used to describe this.

On the one hand, this can be viewed as an elitist system. And in many respects it is. But the fact is that if the technology is really worthwhile, eventually, the cost will keep being pushed down until it becomes affordable on a mass level. And the people at the head of the adoption curve are the ones who pay the price. Because they buy the device at a premium, subsidizing further development so that a year or two later, others can buy it at a fraction of the cost. No-one feels sorry for them because that's their job.

Underlying it all is the axiom with which we started. Profits profits and more profits. In France, you give free MINITELs to everyone. In America, you sell them for a lot of money to early adopters.

Social Capitalism & Autodidactic Communalism

If you prefer to exist outside the corporate culture, you must take on the role of a renegade and become a member of 'the virtual class'. If you play your cards right, you can evolve into a consultant, which is basically just a renegade who knows how to market themselves.

Contrary to the myth, renegades to not operate in a vacuum, nor would the vast majority of us claim to. Instead, we form our own loosely structured, somewhat anarchistic communities. Because we share the common resource of the 'digisphere', we can, in fact, function in this way, without the 'big brother' protection of a feudal master. There are two systems of community which this has given rise to, which I call Autodidactic Communalism and Social Capitalism.

Most people in new media are autodidacts. As in all fields, education is always about twenty years behind industry, so anyone with any time in the new media business is, by definition, self-taught. The computer is, of course, the ultimate heuristic tool (and as I am speaking to a British audience, I can rest assured that you all know what this word means.) As such, it is the boon of the autodidact. But autodidacticism is also a myth and nowhere is this more true than in the computer field. In fact, we autodidacts work together. We learn by doing, and we learn by showing each other how to do things. HTML is a great example of autodidactic communalism. Everyone learns how to do it from their friends. Shareware is another great example. I can get all kinds of software on-line, and I can even download manuals. As people learn to do things, they make their learning available to each other, and this is very much a part of the hacker ethic. While the corporate world takes a proprietary posture, hoarding 'intellectual property' and charging a premium for its use, and the military world is entirely shrouded in secrecy, autodidactic communalists freely share - and steal - ideas and information, fully aware that such an open architecture is to the benefit of all.

Social Capitalism is a system by which a series of individuals or small companies develop horizontal, collaborative relationships providing each other with various services to support each others' work. Sometimes, this work is done on contract, other times, it is taken in barter. But unlike the traditional hierarchical structure, in which one person is always 'boss' and the other always 'worker', relationships under social capitalism are reciprocal. I may be your client one day and you may be mine the next. Or, we may join forces and create a larger 'alliance' in order to take on a project than neither alone could do. This model is much less competitive than the corporate model in which large organizations vie for absolute power. In this model, cooperation and a sense of community is seen to benefit all. In the interactive multimedia field, there are many small companies and individuals who operate in just this way, and in fact, they have become the backbone of the industry. If you got to any of the major content producers in the U.S. multimedia industry, you will find that a significant number of them contract out the majority of their work to small production companies. Those who have tried to produce in-house have given up, finding they get better, faster and cheaper results if they contract out to a multimedia 'boutique'. Unhindered by the burden of high overhead or executive bottlenecks, these smaller organizations are frequently more efficient, more creative, and just plain better at what they do. (It may surprise some to know that it is becoming quite fashionable for American companies to call on the talent of small British companies for their multimedia needs.)

These two movements combine together to create a community of individualists. For those of us who are trying to break new ground, we have no choice but to live on the edge, but we cannot live on the edge alone. We must of necessity join together. Those of us who do share a sense of social conscience and do everything in our power to broaden the landscape and create a more inclusive forms of technology. But we must always fight an uphill battle to do so.

Many young entrepreneurs are creating cybercafes and other venues that allow free and open access of technology to a much wider audience. And although the Internet does promote individual expression, as suggested by 'The Californian Ideology', it also promotes freedom of access to information and a sense of community that transcends geographical boundaries.

This disintegration of these international boundaries is precisely what makes this type of discourse possible. As an inhabitant of the Californian Ideology, I can choose to write an article for Mute, rather than Wired, because to a large extent, I am more closely aligned to its ideology.

In spite of the apparent absolutism of 'The Californian Ideology', I happen to know that Andy Cameron spends his Friday nights watching American television programs. In fact, Andy knows more about American TV than I do. (I rarely watch it!) As much as the British may disdain our unsophisticated ways, just as the proponents of the Californian Ideology cannot deny their ties to the military, neither can its critics deny their ties to California.

Look at the world. On the one hand, we are in the midst of a number of major planetwide transformations. Multinational corporations are changing the face of the global economy. The earth's environment is on the brink of major disaster. While half of Europe coalesces, the other half disintegrates. And in and around this complex landscape is the digital 'Global Village' (to unabashedly quote the oft-maligned Marshall McLuhan), simultaneously contracting and exploding, a parallel universe of which we all the architects - whether we read Wired, Mondo 2000 or Mute. In light of all this, it seems absurd to speak at all of ideologies which are geographically based. Rather, it would make more sense to define a new ideology which takes into account our individual political, social and economic realities, while creating a forum for change that goes beyond those limitations towards a global community consciousness that we can all aspire toward.

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