Hypermedia freedom by richard barbrook
If This is the Electronic Frontier, Who Are the Indians?
It is no accident that Barlow mimics Jefferson for this retro-futurist programme. Unlike Europeans who fantasied about rural utopias, Jefferson never rejected technology along with the city. On the contrary, the "sage of Monticello" was an enthusiastic proponent of technological innovation. Crucially, he believed that it was possible to freeze the social development of the United States while simultaneously modernising its methods of production. The proponents of the Californian Ideology follow a similar logic. They wish to preserve cyberspace as the home of rugged individuals and innovative entrepreneurs while at the same time supporting the commercial expansion of the Net. For them, the development of the new information society can only take place through the realisation of the eternal principles of liberalism revealed by the Founding Fathers. Yet, like all other countries, the United States exists within profane history. Its political and economic structures are the result of centuries of contradictory social processes, not the expression of sacred truths. Its leaders were complex human beings, not one-sided "men of marble".
This dialectical reality can be most easily seen by looking at the lives of those Founding Fathers - Jefferson, Washington and Madison - invoked by Barlow in his Declaration. On the one hand, they were great revolutionaries who successfully won national independence and established constitutional government in America. Yet, at the same time, they were vicious plantation-owners who lived off the forced labour of their slaves. In other countries, people have come to terms with the contradictory nature of their modernising revolutionaries. Even Chinese Communists now admit that Mao Zedong's legacy contains both positive elements, such as the liberation of the country from colonialism, and negative features, such as the massacres of the Cultural Revolution. In contrast, Barlow - and many other Americans - can never acknowledge that their beloved republic wasn't just created by hard-working, freedom-loving farmers, but also through the slavery of black people and the "ethnic cleansing" of Indians. The plantation economy of the Old South and the extermination of the First Nations are the equivalents of the Irish Famine, the Holocaust and the Gulag Archipelago in American history. But, these contradictions of the real history of the USA are too painful to contemplate for Barlow and other believers in the ahistorical truths of liberal individualism. Jefferson must remain as an unsullied portrait chiselled into the face of Mount Rushmore.
Yet, in understanding contemporary debates over the future of the Net, it is important to remember the contradictory nature of historical precedents glibly invoked by the Californian Ideology. Back in the early nineteenth century, the spread of the new industrial technologies freed no slaves. On the contrary, the invention of the cotton gin and mechanical spinning machines actually reinforced the archaic and brutal institutions of slavery in the Old South. Nowadays, the libertarian rhetoric of individual empowerment through new information technologies is similarly used to hide the reality of the growing polarisation between the largely white virtual class and the mainly black underclass. If interpreted with a European sense of irony, Jeffersonian Democracy can be an appropriate metaphor for the dystopian present found in the inner cities of the USA!