With Roger Brooks's alternative of many small robots, Kevin Kelly says, "So difficult was the task of co-ordinating a central world view that Brooks discovered it was far easier to use the real world as its own model...With no centrally imposed model, no one has the job of reconciling disputed notions; they simply aren't reconciled. Instead, various signals generate various behaviours. The behaviours are sorted out (suppressed, delayed, activated) in the web hierarchy of subsumed control." Then in a brazen piece of reader flattery he says "Astute observers have noticed that Brooks's prescription is an exact description of a market economy." It is not just flattery but that most dangerous of analogies and time-worn ideological props, that the capitalist free market is a Natural state of affairs.
The virtues of the market economy have already been implied by the fetishizing of "decentralization" as a Good Thing in itself. In the world of lazy and dodgy analogizing, the righteous celebration of diversity, difference and multiplicity; the creative potential of the non-linear and some of the insights of quantum physics; and the structuralist critique which kicked away so many of the props of White-man-centricity, has been hijacked by that relativism which says that nothing is better than anything else, one which has always been a handy tool for those doing very well with the way things are. The notion of de-centralization can be proclaimed by post-modernism as an at-last reflection of the multiplicity of human life. In reality it has been used to kick way the vestiges of class struggle in the social democratic mode, i.e. regulation of the conditions of exploitation and an element of redistributive taxation. For the relatively powerless there is no one to negotiate with anymore, governing institutions are consciously made ad hoc. It reminds me of a self-critical pamphlet from the socialist libertarian movement and entitled, The Tyranny of Structurelessness.
This de-centralization has its objective base not in post-facto, dusted down monetarist economics, but in real globalization, especially that of money. It is the global movement of capital made ever easier by the developments of communications technology which consistently undermines any aspirations to a Global ecology. The free movement of capital is seen as one of the essential constituents of that de-regulated free trade ideology which rules the world from various centralized locii of financial power. Ricardo may have been rubbished as all classical economics has been by the free marketeers, but his theory of comparative advantage has been constantly re-used by its ideologues. In fact the theory of comparative advantage assumes that factors of production, including capital, are immobile. The present interpretation is that capital can be mobile, labour not. There are no regulations on the movement of capital: there are an ever-increasing raft of them when it comes to labour. Turn the rafts over, drown the fuckers as the Italian state has it. With decentralization the forces of lazy analogy have also been hard at work. In the latter years of the Cold War planning was made synonymous with centralization and the state. In the West planning continued and continues apace, the planning by large capitalist concerns called corporations. They have anthroplogical, technical, sociological, economic philosphical talent working on it constantly. They have always planned. The difference now is that:
- the role of state as planner has been reduced to the production of infrastructure when and if required by these corporations; - the corporations also have the gurus of the Californian ideology on the team. On the team partially on their own terms, as consultants. Thus Stewart Brand and Peter Schwartz's 'Global Business Network' for example.
In the polemic one of the sharpest arguments is how much of the technology which celebrates its free birth and development in fact originated with state spending. In both the USSR and the USA this took place largely through defence budgets. I think this argument could be widened without becoming fuzzy. Free markets have always depended on the state to bail it out when major fuck ups take place. The de-regulation of the S&L banking set-up in the USA lead to massive scandals and losses. The state, using a large chunk of that taxation that is anathema to free-trade ideology, rescued it In The Public Interest. Something similar seems to be happening now in the UK with the de-regulation of pensions.
How anyway does the free market component of the Californian ideology look in relation to its own history and present. They may hold Bill Gates up as a baddie but the fact is that he is a monopolist, and a successful one, in the heart of their world. Mr Murdoch's very recent move into Telecoms with MCI is also indicative. The regulation of US 'national interest' between the rights of big capital and its monopolizing and the cutting edge that real competition should provide is at present all being determined in the US legal system. There are no regulatuions but it is here that the arbitration of the respective rights of dynamic corporatist capitals and a dynamic technology is taking place on a case by case basis. The recruitment policy of Microsoft, the baddie, has also been copied by Californian ideologists who profess to see him as an anemy. Microsoft scoured India for the best and cheapest programmers and instituted a hierarchical system with an elite of mega-programmers to point these saps on their way. In the true traditions of the Californian ideolgy they could dress as they liked and worked which hours they liked as long as they did the hours and kept to their subservient role of serving the meta-programmers.
The Californian ideologists have been more interested in the programmers of the ex-USSR and their ideas. There is a programming cottage industry in the low-wage Ukraine. There are also ideas. If the difference between the USSR and the USA in the Cold war period could be characterized (as it is so often is) as between the empiricists and the theoreticians, the empiricists are now reaping the benefit of the theoretical brilliance of Russian computer experts financed by the very defence budgets which helped finish off the "state-socialist" USSR. Many of these brightest and best of the ex-USSR state are employed by Californian hi-tech industries for that theoretical brilliance which enabled them to stay up with the USA in the space race even though the US government had banned them from access to super-conducters.
In a thoroughly snide interview of Kevin Kelly by Peter Yorke in The Guardian (one which makes me instinctively sympathize with Kevin Kelly) there is one revealing section with deals with the basic question of empowerment and the net, one which many people have raised.
PY: "Won't a lot of people be left outside these new media?" KK: "There will be a large number left outside and it's unfortunate, we should bring them in. No one argues about that. Let the rich buy technology now, to make it cheaper for the poor. The issues are not the haves and the have-nots but the haves and the have-lates." He goes on to say that what is important is shrinking the time-lapse.
All the evidence is that a whole range of hard and software which began as being very expensive has got cheaper and cheaper. It may also be true that in many cases it is the rich who have been conned into buying all sorts of dubious up-dates. On the other hand what Kelly is saying sounds suspiciously like 'trickle-down' theory, that socio-moral get-out clause of hard-line free market economics, which asserts that if the bounds are removed from the rich getting much richer (bounds like health and safety requirements at work as well as minimum wages) wealth will be generated which the poor will (again there is a time-lapse) eventually benefit from. All the evidence here is that this is not the case.
I don't want this to stand as a dodgy analogy but there is a similar question to be asked which is, why should those doing very, very well out of how things are want this situation to change. Some people who are very clever do have an edge right now and a lot of them are in California. What is implied by the Californian ideologists' techno-determinism is that this technology is different, that this technology cannot help but be progressive and democratic.
In the absence of public or autonomous initiatives wotking to make it so, this is wilfully optimistic. It ignores the fact that though there may be legendary small outfits in Silicon Valley the industry is still dominated by large capital. Time-Warner, Viacom-Blockbuster, Rupert Murdoch, telephone companies, they're all in there. More specifically, IBM has not gone bust. Predictions of Microsoft being 'in trouble' in relation to Netscape sounds like whistling in the wind from the Jeffersonian ideologues.
In the Financial Times of 2nd Febuary 1996 it was announced that Visa International and MasterCard International have agreed to collaborate in creating a system to ensure the security of credit card transactions on the net. The system will be called Secure Electronic Transactions. The software code will be made freely available. "This is the first step in making cyberspace an attractive venture for banks and merchants," said Mr Edmund Jensen, president and chief executive of Visa International. The report also says that until now Visa had been working with Microsoft on the project, and Mastercard with Netscape. They are now all working together.
In the early issues of Wired magazine, encryption was seen as the cutting edge of rebellious libertarian work in the new technologies, creating the means for genuine privacy from the state I do not want to try and describe Kevin Kelly's chapter on E-money, he gets into terrible difficulties with the potential use by organized crime, but to say that a means of safe payment on the net is precisely what is required for full commercial exploitation of it. It is here that a 'trickle-down' notion of the Net runs into difficulties and the price of information likely to be prohibitive without social democratic and autonomous initiatives.
My suspicion of social democracy remains for the reasons I have given and also because it is been elitist in the sense of managing and representing its clientele in a way which allows them little input. What it might be able to offer is some protection and resources to make autonomous initiatives flower and make the new technology truly a tool for liberation.