book review of Kevin Kelly's 'Out of Control: the New Biology of Machines' by richard barbrook
At the end of the twentieth century, the USA finds itself the winner of the Cold War, but the loser of the subsequent peace. On one side, America's hundred year superiority in industrial manufacturing has been overturned by Japan and the other Asian 'tigers'. On the other side, the country's claim to be the centre of democracy has been superseded by the reunification of Europe. At such moments of national crisis, the market for millennial prophecy and mystical cures is buoyant. Based on the West Coast - the home of both the computer industry and hippiedom - Wired magazine has recently spun the most sophisticated apologies for the supposed superiority of the American way of life. Now, in the new book by its executive editor, comes the blockbuster defence of the indefensible. In a burst of almost Victorian self-confidence, Kevin Kelly is determined to prove that the historically specific society created in the USA is the only possible outcome of millennia of natural evolution.
In essence, 'Out of Control' argues that American-style 'free market' capitalism is not a peculiar social creation, but an ahistorical natural eco-system. The 'invisible hand' of the marketplace and the blind forces of Darwinian evolution are one and the same thing (pp. 27-32, 509). As proved by the collapse of the USSR, any attempt by the state or the community to plan or regulate the development of capitalism is against the laws of nature (pp. 52-3). The social can only be produced as "spontaneous order" - the emergent property of individual consumers and producers pursuing their own self-interests in an unregulated marketplace (p. 157). Like members of a swarm of bees or a flock of birds, people cannot influence their own destiny (pp. 6-14). The future is 'out of control'.
This analysis is hardly new. Herbert Spencer argued for a similar form of 'Social Darwinism'. For him, the laissez-faire economic policies of late-nineteenth century Britain reflected the 'tooth and claw' struggle for survival within the natural world. In his book, Kelly has simply updated this theory for the age of computers and the Net. 'Social Darwinism' no longer just reflects the natural laws of past evolution, but also the science fiction future foretold by the new information technologies. The evolutionary pressures of the marketplace are bringing forth the post-human world of artificial life and digital cyborgs (p. 61). Far from being overtaken by its rivals, the USA is still the future.
Kelly's book presents itself as an entertaining and accessible overview of the influence of natural systems on 'cutting edge' scientific research into artificial life, the Net, computing, the biosphere and so on. Yet, despite its Darwinian rhetoric, this book has actually nothing to do with biology at all. What it is about is the use of mathematics for building models of the natural and human world. Ever since the end of the Second World War, American academics have been very good at procuring grants to use each new generation of computers as research tools. As computing power increased, they were able to build ever more complex simulations. Mesmerised by the beauty of their own creations, these scientists have been increasingly sucked into the hyperreality of their own models. Led by the advocates of 'Artificial Intelligence', gullible scientists started believing that their mathematical simulations were actually alive. As in the old folk tale, Pinnochio came alive.
The philosophical weakness of this position is clear. We use abstractions to understand the concrete world. A model - however sophisticated - is not the same thing as the real. A mathematical equation mimicking natural evolution is not actually alive. The idiocy of Kelly's argument is most obvious when he starts talking about the film fantasy of Toon Town as if it will soon really exist: "...someday Disney will have to deal with an autonomous out-of-control Roger Rabbit" (p. 424). But behind this apparent foolishness lurks something much more dangerous: the irrationality of neo-Platonism. Kelly is promoting a form of cyber-astrology. He believes that "...there is a mathematics of life" (p. 498). For him, underneath the chaos of the everyday experience of society and nature, mystical equations lie hidden which explain everything. By using better maths and bigger computers, the cabalistic secret of the universe is waiting to be discovered. As he himself concedes, Darwinian positivism is simply the path towards a "new spiritualism" (p. 260).
At this point, the reactionary heart of Kelly's work is exposed. The mathematical model is no longer a way of examining the world. It has ceased even to be a substitute for the real. It is now a way of not understanding what is going on. By accepting mathematical simulation as the only method of analysis, Kelly can uncritically take over the most blatantly ideological form of social theory: neo-classical economics. Within this discipline, mathematical models are widely used by tenured professors to avoid any examination of actually existing capitalism. Its primary theoretical concepts - 'free markets', 'market equilibrium', 'marginal utility' and 'marginal cost' - can only exist within the fantasy world of simulation. For instance, any company which actually did try to sell its goods or services at 'marginal cost' would go bankrupt almost immediately! Even Kelly is forced to admit that the central concept of neo-classical economics - 'market equilibrium' - has no factual basis. Despite this limited insight, he thinks that a hefty dose of non-linear equations will mysteriously reveal the order beneath the chaos of competition (pp. 119-21).
This uncritical belief in neo-classical economics is most evident in Kelly's analysis of the impact of the new hypermedia. According to him, the Net is the iconic example of the creation of the unregulated 'free market' through the fusion of nature and technology. Invoking Adam Smith, Kelly claims that the Net "...is the mystery of the Invisible Hand - control without authority" (p. 33). Yet, until recently, commercial interests have only played a secondary role in the development of on-line services. The Net was largely built with taxpayers' dollars from the American defence and education budgets. Many of its key programs were written by state-funded academics. Blinded by the mathematical beauty of economic models, Kelly simply ignores this well-known history of government involvement altogether! Instead, he bizarrely asserts that the global network of computers emerged entirely spontaneously from the actions of disparate individuals - like a synthetic version of a swarm of bees or a flock of birds (pp. 33-6). Similarly, Kelly can only conceive of the future of the Net as an electronic marketplace. He enthuses about the potentiality of encryption, digital money and other programs needed for on-line commodity exchange (pp. 262-96). Undoubtedly, private companies will increasingly advertise and sell their goods and services over the Net. However, Kelly's obsession with the 'free market' sidelines the other non-commercial uses of computer networking made by people, from public education and political campaigning to flirting and making friends. The price mechanism is not the only reason why humans like coming together in groups - whether off- or on-line!
As a rich white American, it is not surprising that Kelly uncritically regurgitates Cold War ideology in his analysis of the current wave of scientific innovation. Newt Gingrich - the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives - regularly claims that the advent of 'Third Wave' information technologies justifies his programme for cutting welfare spending and removing economic regulations. What is strange about Kelly is his attempt to reconcile a blind faith in the 'free market' with an ecological sensibility. In the past, most laissez-faire ideologues have tried to ignore the criticisms of the Green movement altogether. Some thoughtful neo-classical economists have admitted that the unfettered price mechanism ignores 'externalities': the market cannot cost the damage to the environment of everyone by the actions of individuals. But, once problems such as pollution and resource depletion are recognised, the case for state and community intervention becomes unquestionable. From the acceptability of environmental regulations, it is then but a short step to further un-American activities, such as socialised medicine, vibrant trade unions, nationalised utilities, gun control and all the other features of the successful mixed economies of the European Union. Fearing this challenge to the American dream, Kelly is ready with the mathematical equations of 'Social Darwinism' to fend off the horrors of European civilisation.
This slight of hand is done with ease. By reducing the natural world to a mathematical model, it is easy to make a direct leap from biological simulations to the algebraic fantasies of the economics departments. Reflecting the mystical equations of nature, the unfettered marketplace can now be described as a self-regulating eco-system (pp. 29, 92-3, 155-7). Far from being a threat to nature, unrestrained industrialism becomes the most evolved expression of the biological world (pp. 227-8, 240-50). Crucially, for his analysis, Kelly adopts the hardline form of neo-liberal economics promoted by Freidrich von Hayek and other members of the 'Austrian School'. Back in the 1920s, these economists launched the 'calculation debate' with the erroneous claim that it was impossible to run an economy without prices being formed by spontaneous market competition. Although ostensibly aimed at Soviet state planning, their immediate target was the Austrian Social Democratic Party with its proposals for social housing, a national health service and state economic intervention. In exile in the West, these ideologues continued their attacks on welfare provision and mixed economies throughout the post-war period.
With the arrival of the crisis of Fordism in the '70s, their analysis was taken over by the most reactionary political forces within the Western democracies: the British Conservatives and the American Republicans. During the '80s, using Hayek as justification, both the Thatcher and Reagan governments attacked the social gains of the post-war period with a vengeance. Faced with the failures of these regimes, many people are now looking for other ways of understanding how capitalism actually works. The rise of the Green movement throughout the world has been one response to the inadequacies of neo-classical economics. Yet it is precisely the failed ideology of Hayek and his followers which lies at the centre of Kelly's social analysis. In his weird hippie Republicanism, it is Hayek's unfettered 'free market' which becomes the epitome of ecological thinking. Yet, in the '90s, what is needed is a revived 'calculation debate' to show how the neo-liberal price mechanism cannot cost environmental damage. The 'free market' is not some spontaneous self- regulating product of nature. As shown by American big cities, it can simply be a dumb way to run a modern industrialised society.
At the back of his mind, even Kelly realises this. With no sense of irony, he quotes the examples of Danish and German firms who have adopted more ecologically-friendly forms of industrial production (pp. 228-36). Yet this was not achieved by the spontaneous working of the 'free market'. On the contrary, it is a product of two decades of passionate campaigning by the European Green movement. With their long tradition of Social Democracy, the people of these countries have forced companies through state regulation and public pressure to change their ways of doing things. Undoubtedly, many industrialists believed that this was an unwarranted interference in the spontaneous workings of capitalism. Yet, with the subsequent economic gains produced by these policies, most companies now realise the short-term losses incurred have led to long-term advantages for European industries. As with the creation of socialised medicine, public transport and other features of the welfare state, actually existing capitalism works better within the social discipline of the mixed economy than through the selfish anarchy of the Hayekian 'free market'.
It is this practical success of European Social Democracy which drives Kelly towards mathematical mysticism. For the first time in their history, Americans are no longer clearly better off than their European cousins. A combination of stagnant pay levels, long working hours, minimal holidays, unsafe streets, declining welfare services, rampant racism, poor education and many other problems have tarnished the American dream. For a nation founded as a utopia, this is causing a major existential crisis. Kevin Kelly's own magazine - Wired - regularly features denunciations of the French, the Chinese, the Singaporeans or anyone else who dares not to be American. In 'Out of Control', this sneering at funny foreigners is elevated to an eternal struggle between the divine and the profane. Unable to abandon its Cold War ideology, the USA must justify itself as the realisation of Nature, Mathematics and even God himself. The historically specific path taken by the development of capitalism in the USA has become the sacred fruit of eternal principles. The creation of 'Artificial Life' - the God-Man - will be the final proof of the superiority of the American way (pp. 441-53).
The descent of Kelly's analysis into cyber-spiritualism demonstrates the unscientific basis of his fusion of Darwin and Hayek. The mathematical simulation of reality cannot be substituted for the actual examination of nature and humanity. Above all, what is completely missing from Kelly's analysis is history. He escapes into the eternal verities of mathematical equations as a means of avoiding the messy temporality of human life. Kelly yearns for complexity, quantum jumps, paradigm shifts and even for Lamarckian self-evolution. Yet, his vision of human society is impoverished and one- dimensional - there is no alternative to the racially-polarised 'free market' capitalism of late-twentieth century America. But the present-day circumstances of the USA aren't simply the emergent properties of the 'invisible hand' of the marketplace. It is the result of specific decisions taken in series of unique historical circumstances. If American capitalism is faltering, it is because the political and economic elites are incapable of adopting policies to improve the conditions of the majority of the population. If, in contrast, German capitalism is thriving, it is because alternative policies were implemented within central Europe.
Crucially, in many European countries, citizens have used the democratic republic to impose the 'general will' on the egoism of the entrepreneurs, such as environmental regulations and welfare provisions. Conscious decisions are needed to manage nature and help the needy. Even Kelly's own iconic technology - the Net - is proof of the need for a mixed economy. The state, private businesses and d.i.y. culture have all made their own unique contributions to its successful development. Similarly, in the future, the imposition of social duties - such as universal Net access - on telcos and cable companies will benefit not only the poorer members of society, but also commercial companies. There will never be a mass market for on-line services without the masses being connected to the Net. Rather than abandoning ourselves to the spontaneous working of market forces - however lifelike mathematical models of the price mechanism might appear - what is needed is democratic debate amongst an informed citizenry about the direction in which they want to evolve. Far from wanting to be mindless members of a bee hive, we need to assert our rights to determine our own destiny. Rather than being 'out of control', humanity in the modern age needs to be in control. Let's seize the time...