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Richard Barbrook
Ars Electronica
Richard Dawkins
Douglas Rushkoff
Californian Ideology

In The Beginning Was The Deed
part 5

Given that the meme concept is nothing more than hip bio-babble, what is interesting about this theory is why anyone would want to believe in such an intellectually dubious proposition in the first place. The meme concept is therefore important as an object of social anthropology rather than as a credible way of understanding human history. Alongside the Californian ideology, the positivist mysticism of memes is a discourse designed to sooth the existential confusion of the 'virtual class'. In the USA, the development of the digital economy has exacerbated the racial polarisation between the largely white professionals and the mainly black 'underclass'. The removal of this archaic social divide will only come about through the difficult task of reviving the New Deal in the USA, especially its policies for the redistribution of wealth. In contrast, the new cyber-faith offers a much lazier way of dealing with the guilt of privilege suffered by the 'virtual class'. Like Christianity in earlier times, positivist mysticism promises to resolve all earthly problems through magical means: the birth of the God-Man. By postponing any solutions to the apocalypse, this theory has the advantage of allowing its adepts to avoid actually doing anything practical to improve the everyday lives of people. It even allows members of the 'virtual class' to vote for Newt Gingrich and his "kill-the-poor" policies with a clear conscience.

The reactionary basis of positivist mysticism is often hidden behind radical rhetoric about the imminent arrival of the cyber- utopia. The belief in the imminent paradigm shift is one of the enduring cliches of modernity. Over the past two centuries, each successive generation has believed that it was on the brink of entering a new world. The continuous process of change within modernity gives the illusion that we're always about to make the great leap forwards. However, for inhabitants of the developed world, the truth is rather more prosaic. The hoped-for revolution has already taken place! We're no longer peasants scratching a subsistence existence in the countryside. Instead, over the past two centuries, we have turned ourselves into wage-workers living within an urban consumer society. If we wish to be poetic, we can commemorate the actual moment of our liberation from serfdom and slavery as dating from 14th July 1789: the storming of the Bastille. But this crucial historical event was only the birth of the emancipatory project of modernity. Being the heirs of the French Revolution, we face the more pragmatic problems of realising and universalising its abstract principles in practice. As Hegel pointed out, we have to make the rational into the real.

The meme concept can only obscure this long-term process of enlightenment. Hypermedia is important not because it is giving birth to the God-Man, but because it is helping to actualise the principles of 1789. For instance, the French revolutionaries promised that every citizen would have the opportunity to exercise media freedom. For the first time, this right could finally be realised within the developed world through the spread of hypermedia. But, this goal can only be achieved by overcoming many practical difficulties, including the rebuilding of the telecommunications networks and making the ownership of computers more widely available. Above all, the digital artisans will have to design useful and beautiful hypermedia which will allow people to work, learn and play together. Memetic theory can contribute nothing towards the resolution of these practical problems. Instead, we need to examine what are the political, economic and social obstacles to building a democratic and inclusive cyberspace - and how we can then overcome them. The refusal to be duped by false promises of the memetic nirvana is an important step towards ensuring that hypermedia is used to improve the daily lives of everyone. The emancipatory project of modernity has recommenced - and it is our task to contribute towards its realisation in practice.

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