I first read a draft of 'The Californian Ideology' given to me by Andy Cameron during his visit to Los Angeles last summer for the SIGGRAPH '95 Convention. At that time, Andy was showing Anti-Rom at SIGGRAPH on my invitation as part of an exhibition of alternative new media called the lounge@siggraph which I organized for the conference. Andy was staying near my house at a beachside motel in Santa Monica and wore sandals for the entire period of his stay. We ate cheap Mexican food for lunch every day across the street from the Convention Center. We had lively discussions on a variety of topics. With the exception of a few technical problems during the show, he seemed to have a lovely visit with us here in California. If I am not very much mistaken, he left Southern California with a bit of a tan.
What, Precisely, Is California?
"American and England are two nations divided by a common language." Oscar Wilde was succinct in his observation, if not a bit simplistic. There is much more that divides America from England than mere linguistics. And if we are on the subject of California, the division is even more drastic since California is as far away from England as any place in the U.S., including Alaska, but with the possible exception of Hawaii.
It is typical of Americans to be myopically ignorant of their own history - not to mention everyone else's - which is how the Republican Party is able to repeatedly succeed at the polls. But a glimpse into our history, and particularly the history of California, is useful in understanding the basis for the Californian Ideology.
California is and has always been characterized by pioneers and gold diggers. From the gold rush, to the movie industry, to the computer revolution, the Californian Ideology has always been one of spirited individualism and entrepreneurialism. A less utopian way to look at it is that California is a breeding ground for greed and self-interest. Both interpretations are correct. By way of example, take a look at this list of just a few of the things California has brought the world:
Levis Movies Charles Manson The Grateful Dead Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon Silicon Graphics Microsoft and Apple Industrial Light & Magic Los Angeles and San Francisco Scientology Disneyland
A Member of the Virtual Class
Bearing all that in mind, I'd like to analyze some of Cameron and Barbrook's points from the perspective of someone who must live - and survive - the Californian Ideology on a daily basis. By way of qualifying that statement, let me confess at once and without shame that I am a member of the 'virtual class' described in the article. The description of this individual - the independent contractor, free to come and go as they wish, well-paid, but at the same time, suffering from acute workaholism - fits me to a tee. All except the well-paid part. And that is a myth. It is true that many of us are well paid by the hour. However, it is also true that many of us spend between fifty and seventy-five percent of our time trying to secure that hour of work. Furthermore, prospective clients often expect us to do work on spec or for very low rates, often with no assurance that work will not be used without our participation. Those of us to are pushing the envelope the hardest, and particularly, those who are trying to make product with social and cultural merits, must fight every step of the way. The people who are at the forefront of the digital revolution, the true vanguards, are blazing their trail at tremendous personal risk.
The condition of the 'virtual class' cannot be blamed on the individuals within it, but must be looked at in a larger context. In America, artists receive very little support from the government or, for that matter, the society-at-large. Since the 1930's and the New Deal, when WPA funding was created to support a variety of arts and cultural projects, America has systematically eroded away its art and cultural support, much as a desperate animal gnaws its own foot off to release itself from a trap. In our anti-intellectual culture, artists are considered subversive and unnecessary. In America, anything that does not generate revenue is viewed as gratuitous.
And herein lies the key to understanding the Californian Ideology. The most important thing in America is making money. Period. If we begin our discussion starting from that axiom, we can start to make a little more sense of what the Californian Ideology is all about.
"Bigger is Better"
In many arenas, America prides itself on matters of size. "Bigger is better" is the general belief. But one of the primary reasons for the average American's sense of political impotency is that America is quite simply too big to manage. The European Community will ultimately be a better model for managing governments than the United States of America. If you look at any large country with a large physical area and a large population, you will recognize that it is almost impossible to run a large country with any measure of freedom to its members. If you are autocratic and highly centralized, as was the Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China, you can have some measure of control. However, once you start letting people have any say in what's going on, things start to degenerate, as we are now seeing with former Soviet republics.
To compensate for this flaw in large-scale decentralized management, we have developed, in the form of corporations and companies, our own form of a tribal culture. Big companies like Disney, IBM, McDonald's or Coca-Cola, are small nations unto themselves with their own culture, ethics, even their own language. These tribes cluster themselves into "industries" - software, entertainment, automobile, and so on. It is within these corporate tribes that most Americans find the unity and security one might expect to be provided by government in a place where the "common good" is seen as a priority.