The californian ideology

book review of rewired

David Hudson in association with eLine Productions, Rewired: a brief (and opinionated) net history, Macmillan Technical Publishing, Indianapolis IA 1997, pp. 327, US$ 29.99.

The publication of Rewired represents a new phenomenon: the book-of-the-web-site. Successful films and TV series have long been repackaged into books. Now, for the first time, popular web sites are spawning hardcopy versions of themselves. For over two years, the Rewired e-zine has been publishing articles and holding discussions on the social and cultural issues affecting the Net. As its name suggests, Rewired has particularly targeted the wacky positions championed by Wired magazine, the mouthpiece of the West Coast cyber-elite. By publishing Rewired, David Hudson has provided a clear and well-argued summary of what has been happening on the Rewired web site during the last couple of years. For this reviewer, there even is the peculiar pleasure of seeing my own personal appearances in Rewired once again!

The traditional form of the book has one major advantage over the web site: a clear narrative structure. Although some commentators celebrate the non-linear nature of hypertext, users are often overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of interlinked information available on the web. Hudson has usefully edited the large amount of material found on the Rewired site into a linear analysis of the history and politics of cyberspace. However, unlike other Net books, Rewired is not a tale of specific technologies or particular companies. Above all, the author doesn't claim that the development of the Net is realising some science fiction dream, such as the creation of 'artificial life'. On the contrary, Hudson has written his history to demonstrate the importance of ordinary people in the construction of cyberspace.

As the author explains, individuals have been subverting the official purposes of the Net from its very beginning. The U.S. military initially funded the early experiments in network communications to enhance its nuclear war fighting capabilities. Yet academics involved in these pioneering developments quickly transformed the new communications system into a tool for working, playing and gossiping together. Even in the present age of glossy corporate web sites, the success of an e-zine like Rewired demonstrates how the Net still retains its hacker roots. As Hudson points out, the "killer app" of cyberspace is not a particular piece of software, but the people who inhabit it.

This humanist history of the Net has a definite political purpose. Hudson wants to refute the mystical positivism championed by Wired magazine. For instance, its editors believe that the latest developments in genetics prove that our minds are controlled by memes: the biological equivalents of self-propagating computer viruses. This pseudo-scientific nonsense would be simply laughable if it did not hide a particularly nasty form of politics. As Hudson shows, what appears to be 21st century biobabble is really the revival of 19th century Social Darwinism. In issue after issue, the editors of Wired have claimed that historically specific phenomenon of market capitalism is founded on ahistorical natural laws. Crucially, they predict that the spread of the Net will remove any need to compromise the purity of neo-liberal economics with state intervention, including help for the sick and needy. While posing as radical futurists, the editors of Wired act as cheerleaders for the reactionary policies of Newt Gingrich, the conservative Congressional leader.

For anyone who still has illusions in the progressive nature of Wired, the most revealing section of Hudson's book will be its truly scary interview with Louis Rossetto, the founder of the magazine. Sounding like a West Coast version of Mussolini, Rossetto rants against the corrupting effects of electoral democracy, minimum wages, welfare provisions and other collectivist iniquities introduced by the Left. In their place, he celebrates the victory within the marketplace of the heroic cyber-capitalist: a Nietzschean Superman emerging from the fusion of information technologies with biological advances. Although wrapped up in science fiction rhetoric, Rossetto's politics are thus completely atavistic. As Hudson exposes in great detail, this authoritarianism is not simply ideological. Within Wired, writers who have dared to question its neo-liberal 'party line' quickly found out that their articles were censored - and that they were purged from the magazine's staff. Fearful of serious debate, Rossetto ensured that all his critics were silenced.

Because so few people within the USA challenge the conservative politics of Wired, the publication of Rewired is an important event over there. For instance, Hudson's historical approach is useful for reminding Americans that the Net was invented using their tax dollars rather than through market competition. Above all, the author shows how Wired magazine's vision of the future is really a return to an imaginary past. However, even after exposing such intellectual flaws, Hudson's book has one dehabilitating weakness: its pessimism about any Left alternative to the retro-futurism of Wired. Despite ending Rewired with a look at the potential of community networks, Hudson accepts that cyberspace will inevitably be swallowed up by commercial interests. Much worse, he remains mesmerised by the sheer ideological fervour of the hi-tech neo-liberals. In an interview included in the book, Hudson agrees with Pauline Borsook - a Californian critic of Wired - that the neo-liberal ideologues face no serious opposition within cyberspace. Tortured with self-doubt, the American Left is incapable of imagining any future other than being defeated again and again.

Such profound pessimism disables the power of Hudson's trenchant criticisms of Wired magazine. Rossetto may be a dangerous fanatic, but it is his crazy opinions which are shaping the digital future. This lack of self-confidence shows how Rewired is a deeply Californian book. When myself and other European leftists appear in the book, our more optimistic views are largely marginalised simply because we are not from the West Coast. Even the political terms used to describe people's opinions will disorientate many non-American readers. In this book, libertarians are not anarchists, but loopy neo-liberals; liberals are not Thatcherites, but confused leftists; and communitarians are certainly not communists! Beneath the peculiarity of American political descriptions lies a deeper confusion which disables the radical aspirations of this book. How can anyone take a Left seriously which erroneously calls itself liberal because it doesn't dare even to be rhetorically socialist? Hudson may denounce the evil consequences of the neo-liberal economics championed by Wired magazine, but he possesses no social democratic alternative to such regressive policies. Despite all the evidence which he himself produces, Hudson is forced to accept that the Net must be the apotheosis of the free market. As a patriot, he certainly cannot find solutions in the Europe which so many emigrated from in search of the American dream.

The author's Californian parochialism seems very strange as he lives in the heart of Europe in Berlin rather than somewhere out on the West Coast! Yet, like so many exiles, Hudson ignores his physical surroundings in favour of his lost homeland. Of course, the Net has made such dislocations between mind and body much easier. As Hudson recounts, he uses local bulletin board services to remain an active participant within San Francisco cyber-culture without actually having to live there. However, it is still very odd that the author avoids any real comparisons between the USA and the EU. For Wired magazine has no such inhibitions. Articles regularly appear denouncing the sins of Europeans against the holy precepts of neo-liberalism. Rossetto even has a personal grudge against the continent because an earlier version of Wired flopped when it was launched in Amsterdam. Above all, him and his fellow editors have a deep fear that the welfare states of Europe may be a preferable place to live than their free market dystopia in California.

Even with cyberspace itself, the lack of any real comparison between the two continents severely weakens the book. For the American experience is only one aspect of the history of computer networks. Crucially, Hudson fails to pick up on one particularly dumb assertion made by Rossetto in his interview for the book. The editor of Wired falsely claims that Minitel set back the development of the Net in France by ten years. Yet, in reality, French people were building virtual communities, enjoying cybersex and assuming false identities on-line over ten years before most Americans had even heard of computer-mediated communications. As a narrow-minded ideologue, Rossetto could never admit that a European nationalised telephone monopoly successfully pioneered the hi-tech future before the neo-liberal Californians. More importantly, this West Coast guru has to avoid facing the strangest paradox of all. While it remains difficult to sell on-line services over the Net, France Telecom has created a vibrant commercial sector within Minitel by using premium phone lines to charge consumers. Even commodity exchange works better on Minitel than the Net!

The complete absence of any discussion of Minitel in Rewired is the clearest example of this book's Californian parochialism. Although operating in a country adjacent to his own residence, Hudson - like Rossetto - thinks that Minitel is simply an obsolete technology which will have to conform to the Californian model of computer-mediated communications. Yet, the Minitel terminal is the precursor of the much heralded Network Computer. Furthermore, its different trajectory of development does demonstrate that there is no inherent neo-liberal logic at work in the emergence of the Net. Like many other sectors in France, Minitel grew through a creative synergy between the state, private companies and community initiative. The history of this parallel computer network is important because it illustrates how the Net too is the product of a similar miscegenation between different sectors of society.

Rather than the realisation of free market ideology, the Net is therefore - if anything - proof of the inevitability of the mixed economy in the contemporary world. Far from becoming more pessimistic, the spread of computer networks should now be making the American Left increasingly optimistic. As neo-liberal ideology cannot be realised within cyberspace, the way will eventually be opened up for more radical uses of interactive technologies. Above all, the global nature of the Net will slowly break down the isolation of Americans from other people's experiences, including those of the wicked Europeans. Hudson maybe won't have to be so reticent about sharing his overseas experiences with the folks back home. As their circumstances improve, American leftists in time might acquire the self-confidence to call themselves social democrats rather than liberals! The future will be wired, but certainly not in ways imagined by Wired - or even, at this point, by Rewired.....