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Cyberspace - the Final Frontier
track 3

The ideological bankruptcy of the West Coast libertarians derives from their historically inaccurate belief that cyberspace has been developed by the "left-right fusion of free minds with free markets" (Louis Rossetto, editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine). As Andy Cameron and I showed in our article, Californian Ideology, neo-liberalism has been embraced by the West Coast version of Kroker and Weinstein's "virtual class" as a way of reconciling the anarchism of the New Left with the entrepreneurial zeal of the New Right. Above all, this weird hybrid has relied on projecting old myths about the American revolution onto the process of digital convergence. According to Wired Magazine, the development of hypermedia would create a high tech "Jeffersonian Democracy" - the eighteenth century will be reborn in the twenty-first century.

In his Declaration, John Perry Barlow consciously mimics the rhetoric of the Founding Fathers' 'Declaration of Independence of the United States'. Once again, free-spirited individuals are standing up to an oppressive and corrupt government. Yet, these revolutionary phrases from the past contain within them many reactionary aspirations. Back in 1776, Jefferson expressed the national dream of building a rural utopia in the wilderness of America. The winning of independence from Britain was necessary so that Americans could live as independent, self-sufficent farmers in small villages. Jefferson's pastoral vision rejected city-life as the source of corruption - which he saw in the rapidly expanding conurbations of contemporary Europe. But, as America itself began to industrialise, the pastoral dream had to be displaced westwards towards the frontier. Even after the Indian wars had ended, the Wild West remained a place of individual freedom and self-discovery in American mythology. Jefferson had become a cowboy.

By its name, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is therefore invoking not just the cowboy myths of the last century, but also the pastoral fantasies of the writer of the original Declaration of Independence. When American government agencies first decided to crack down on hackers, a group of old radicals decided to defend the new generation of cyberpunks. Out of this act of solidarity, the EFF emerged as the political lobby group of the West Coast cyber-community. Using libertarian arguments, it campaigned for minimal censorship and regulation over the new information technologies. But, the EFF was never just a campaign for cyber-rights. It was also a leading cheerleader for the individualist fantasies of the Californian Ideology. According to the tenets of this confused doctrine, hippie anti-authoritianism is being finally realised through the fusion of digital technologies with free market liberalism. Yet, the inevitable rebirth of Jeffersonian Democracy now seems to have been postponed. Above all, the lobbying work of the EFF appears to have been in vain - the repressive measures in the Telecommunications Reform Act passed with almost no opposition in the legislature or from the executive. At this moment of crisis, Barlow has embraced the wildest fantasies of the West Coast anarcho-capitalists. Once encryption is widely available, they believe that free-spirited individuals will be able to live within a virtual world free from censorship, taxes and all the other evils of big government. Unable to face the social contradictions of living within the digital city, Barlow has decided to join the virtual cowboys living on the electronic frontier.

 
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