Pit Schultz on Sun, 19 Nov 95 17:03 MET

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Utopian Promises-Net Realities / Critical Art Ensemble

Address to Interface 3:
Utopian Promises-Net Realities
Critical Art Ensemble

The need for net criticism certainly is a matter of overwhelming urgency.  
While a number of critics have approached the new world of computerized 
communications with a healthy amount of skepticism, their message has been 
lost in the noise and spectacle of corporate hype-the unstoppable tidal wave 
of seduction has enveloped so many in its dynamic utopian beauty that little 
time for careful reflection is left. Indeed, a glimpse of a possibility for a 
better future may be contained in the new techno-apparatus, and perhaps it is 
best to acknowledge these possibilities here in the beginning, since Critical 
Art Ensemble (CAE) has no desire to take the position of the neoluddites who 
believe that the techno-apparatus should be rejected outright, if not 
destroyed. To be sure, computerized communications offer the possibility for 
the enhanced storage, retrieval, and exchange of information for those who 
have access to the necessary hardware, software, and technical skills. In 
turn, this increases the possibility for greater access to vital information, 
faster exchange of information, enhanced distribution of information, and 
cross cultural artistic and critical collaborations. The potential 
humanitarian benefits of electronic systems are undeniable; however, CAE 
questions whether the electronic apparatus is being used for these purposes in
the representative case, much as we question the political policies which 
guide the net's development and accessibility.
        This is not the first time that the promise of electronic utopia has 
been offered. One need only look back at Brecht's critique of radio to find 
reason for concern when such promises are resurrected. While Brecht recognized
radio's potential for distributing information for humanitarian and cultural 
purposes, he was not surprised to see radio being used for the very opposite. 
Nor should we be surprised that his calls for a more democratic interactive 
medium went unheeded.
        During the early 1970s, there was a brief euphoric moment during the 
video revolution when some believed that Brecht's call for an interactive and 
democratic electronic medium was about to be answered. The development of home
video equipment led to a belief that soon everyone who desired to would be 
able to manufacture their own television. This seemed to be a real 
possibility. As the cost of video equipment began to drop dramatically, and 
cable set-ups offered possibilities for distribution, electronic utopia seemed
immanent, and yet, the home video studio never came to be. Walls and 
boundaries confounding this utopian dream seemed to appear out of nowhere. For
instance, in the US, standards for broadcast quality required postproduction 
equipment that no one could access or afford except capital-saturated media 
companies. Most cable channels remained in the control of corporate media, and
the few public access channels fell into the hands of censors who cited 
"community standards" as their reason for an orderly broadcast system. While 
production equipment did get distributed as promised, the hopes of the video 
utopianists were crushed at the distribution level. Corporate goals for 
establishing a new market for electronic hardware were met, but the means for 
democratic cultural production never appeared.
        Now that giddy euphoria is back again, arising in the wake of the 
personal computer revolution of the early 80s, and with the completion of a 
"world-wide" multi-directional distribution network. As to be expected, 
utopian promises from the corporate spectacle machine drown the everyday lives
of bureaucrats and technocrats around the first world, and once again there 
seems to be a general belief-at least within technically adept 
populations-that this time the situation will be different. And to a degree, 
this situation is different. There is an electronic free zone, but from CAE's 
perspective, it is only a modest development at best. By far the most 
significant use of the electronic apparatus is to keep order, to replicate 
dominant pancapitalist ideology, and to develop new markets.
        At the risk of redundantly stating the obvious, CAE would like to 
recall the origins of the internet. The internet is war-tech that was designed
as an analog to the US highway system (Yet another product which stemmed from 
the mind of the military, and which was primarily intended as a decentralized 
aid to mobilization). The US military wanted an apparatus that would preserve 
command structure in the case of nuclear attack. The answer was an electronic 
web capable of immediately rerouting itself if one or more links were 
destroyed, thus allowing surviving authorities to remain in communication with
each other and to act accordingly. With such an apparatus in place, military 
authority could be maintained, even through the worst of catastrophes. With 
such planning at the root of the internet, suspicion about its alleged 
anti-authoritarian characteristics must occur to anyone who takes the time to 
reflect on the apparatus. It should also be noted that the decentralized 
characteristics for which so many praise the net did not arise out of 
anarchist intention, but out of nomadic military strategy.  
        Research scientists were the next group to go on-line after the 
military. While it would be nice to believe that their efforts on the net were
benign, one must question why they were given access to the apparatus in the 
first place. Science has always claimed legitimacy by announcing its 
"value-free" intentions to search for the truth of the material world; 
however, this search costs money, and hence a political economy with a direct 
and powerful impact on science's lofty goals of value-free research enters the
equation. Do investors in scientific research offer money with no restrictions
attached? This seems quite unlikely. Some type of return on the investment is 
implicit in any demand from funding institutions.  In the US, the typical 
demand is either theory or technology with military applications or 
applications that will strengthen economic development. The greater the 
results promised by science in terms of these two categories, the more 
generous the funding. In the US, not even scientists get something for 
        The need for greater efficiency in research and development opened the
new communication systems to academics, and with that development, a necessary
degree of disorder was introduced into the apparatus. Elements of free zone 
information exchange began to appear. But as this system developed, other 
investors, most notably the corporations, demanded their slice of the 
electronic pie. All kinds of financial business were conducted on the net with
relatively secure efficiency. As the free zone began to grow, the corporations
realized that a new market mechanism was growing with it, and eventually the 
marketeers were released onto the net. At this point, a peculiar paradox came 
into being: Free market capitalism came into conflict with the conservative 
desire for order. It became apparent that for this new market possibility to 
reach its full potential, authorities would have to tolerate a degree of 
chaos. This was necessary to seduce the wealthier classes into using the net 
as site of consumption and entertainment, and second, to offer the net as an 
alibi for the illusion of social freedom. Although totalizing control of 
communications was lost, the overall cost of this development to governments 
and corporations was minimal, and in actuality, the cost was nothing compared 
to what was gained. Thus was born the most successful repressive apparatus of 
all time; and yet it was (and still is) successfully represented under the 
sign of liberation. What is even more frightening is that the corporation's 
best allies in maintaining the gleaming utopian surface of cyberspace are some
of the very populations who should know better. Techno-utopianists have 
accepted the corporate hype, and are now disseminating it as the reality of 
the net. This regrettable alliance between the elite virtual class and new age
cybernauts is structured around five key virtual promises. These are the 
promised social changes that seem as if they will occur at any moment, but 
never actually come into being.

Promise One: The New Body

Those of us familiar with discourse on cyberspace and virtual reality have 
heard this promise over and over again, and in fact there is a kernel of truth
associated with it. The virtual body is a body of great potential. On this 
body we can reinscribe ourselves using whatever coding system we desire. We 
can try on new body configurations. We can experiment with immortality by 
going places and doing things that would be impossible in the physical world. 
For the virtual body, nothing is fixed and everything is possible. Indeed, 
this is the reason why hackers wish to become disembodied consciousnesses 
flowing freely through cyberspace, willing the idea of their own bodies and 
environments. As virtual reality improves with new generations of computer 
technology, perhaps this promise will come to pass in the realm of the 
multi-sensual; however, it is currently limited to gender reassignment on chat
lines, or game boy flight simulators.
        What did this allegedly liberated body cost? Payment was taken in the 
form of a loss of individual sovereignty, not just from those who use the net,
but from all people in technologically saturated societies. With the virtual 
body came its fascist sibling, the data body-a much more highly developed 
virtual form, and one that exists in complete service to the corporate and 
police state. The data body is the total collection of files connected to an 
individual. The data body has always existed in an immature form since the 
dawn of civilization. Authority has always kept records on its underlings. 
Indeed, some of the earliest records that Egyptologists have found are tax 
records. What brought the data body to maturity is the technological 
apparatus. With its immense storage capacity and its mechanisms for quickly 
ordering and retrieving information, no detail of social life is too 
insignificant to record and to scrutinize. From the moment we are born and our
birth certificate goes on-line, until the day we die and our death certificate
goes on-line, the trajectory of our individual lives is recorded in scrupulous
detail. Education files, insurance files, tax files, communication files, 
consumption files, medical files, travel files, criminal files, investment 
files, files into infinity....
        The data body has two primary functions. The first purpose serves the 
repressive apparatus; the second serves the marketing apparatus. The desire of
authoritarian power to make the lives of its subordinates perfectly 
transparent achieves satisfaction through the data body. Everyone is under 
permanent surveillance by virtue of their necessary interaction with the 
marketplace. Just how detailed data body information actually may be is a 
matter of speculation, but we can be certain that it is more detailed than we 
would like it to be, or care to think.
        The second function of the data body is to give marketeers more 
accurate demographic information to design and create target populations. 
Since pancapitalism has long left the problem of production behind, moving 
from an economy of need to an economy of desire, marketeers have developed 
better methods to artificially create desires for products that are not 
needed. The data body gives them insights into consumption patterns, spending 
power, and "lifestyle choices" of those with surplus income. The data body 
helps marketeers to find you, and provide for your lifestyle. The postmodern  
slogan, "You don't pick the commodity; the commodity picks you" has more 
meaning than ever.
        But the most frightening thing about the data body is that it is the 
center of an individual's social being. It tells the members of officialdom 
what our cultural identities and roles are. We are powerless to contradict the
data body. Its word is the law. One's organic being is no longer a determining
factor, from the point of view of corporate and government bureaucracies. Data
has become the center of social culture, and our organic flesh is nothing more
than a counterfeit representation of original data.

Promise 2: Convenience

Earlier this century, the great sociologist Max Weber explained why 
bureaucracies work so well as a means of rationalized social organization in 
complex society. In comparing bureaucratic practice to his ideal-type, only 
one flaw appears: Humans provide the labor for these institutions. 
Unfortunately humans have nonrational characteristics, the most notorious of 
which is the expression of desire. Rather than working at optimum efficiency, 
organic units are likely to seek out that which gives them pleasure in ways 
that are contrary to the instrumental aims of the bureaucracy. All varieties 
of creative slacking are employed by organic units These range from work 
slowdowns to unnecessary chit-chat with one's fellow employees. Throughout 
this century policy makers and managerial classes have concerned themselves 
with developing a way to stop such activities in order to maximize and 
intensify labor output.
        The model for labor intensification came with the invention of the 
robot. So long as the robot is functional, it never strays from its task. 
Completely replacing humans with robots is not possible, since so far, they 
are only capable of simple, albeit precise, mechanical tasks. They are data 
driven, as opposed to the human capacity for concept recognition. The question
then becomes how to make humans more like robots, or to update the discourse, 
more like cyborgs. At present, much of the technology necessary to accomplish 
this goal is available, and more is in development. However, having the 
technology, such as telephone headsets or wearable computers, is not enough. 
People must be seduced into wanting to wear them, at least until the 
technology evolves that can be permanently fixed to their bodies.
        The means of seduction? Convenience. Life will be so much easier if we
only connect to the machine. As usual there is a grain of truth to this idea. 
I can honestly admit that my life has been made easier since I began using a 
computer, but only in a certain sense. As a writer, it is easier for me to 
finish a paper now than it was when I used pen and paper or a typewriter. The 
problem: Now I am able to (and therefore, must) write two papers in the time 
it used to take to produce one. The implied promise that I will have more free
time because I use a computer is false.
        Labor intensification through time management is only the beginning, 
as there is another problem in regard to total utility. People can still 
separate themselves from their work stations-the true home of the modern day 
cyborg. The seduction continues, persuading us that we should desire to carry 
our electronic extensions with us all the time. The latest commercials from 
AT&T are the perfect representation of consumer seduction. They promise: Have 
you ever sent a fax....from the beach? You will." or  "Have you ever received 
a phone call....on your wrist? You will." This commercial is most amusing. 
There is an image of a young man who has just finished climbing a mountain and
is watching a sunset. At that moment his wife calls on his wrist phone, and he
describes the magnificence of the sunset to her. Now who is kidding who. Is 
your wife going to call you while you are mountain climbing? Are you going to 
need to send a fax while lounging on the beach? The corporate intention for 
deploying this technology (in addition to profit)  is so transparent, it's 
painful. The only possible rejoinder is: "Have you ever been at a work 
station....24 hours a day, 365 days a year? You will." Now the sweat shop can 
go any where you do!
        Another telling element in this representation is that the men in 
these commercials are always alone. (This is a gendered element which CAE is 
sure has not failed to catch the attention of feminists, although CAE is 
unsure as to whether it will be interpreted as sexism or a stroke of luck). In
this sense, the problem is doubled: Not only is the work station always with 
you, but social interaction will always be fully mediated by technology. This 
is the perfect solution to abolish that nuisance, the subversive environment 
of public space.

Promise 3: Community

Currently in the US, there is no more popular buzz word than "community." This
word is so empty of meaning that it can be used to describe almost any social 
manifestation. For the most part, it is used to connote sympathy with or 
identification with a particular social aggregate. In this sense, one hears of
the gay community or the African-American community. There are even oxymorons,
such as the international community. Corporate marketeers from IBM to 
Microsoft have been quick to capitalize on this empty sign as a means to build
their commercial campaigns. Recognizing the extreme alienation that afflicts 
so many under the reign of pancapitalism, they offer net technology as a cure 
for a feeling of loss that has no referent. Through chat lines, news groups, 
and other digital environments, nostalgia for a golden age of sociability that
never existed is replaced by a new modern day sense of community.
        This promise is nothing but aggravating. There is not even a grain of 
truth in it. If there is any reason for optimism, it is only to the extent 
mentioned in the beginning of this lecture; that is, the net makes possible a 
broader spectrum of information exchange. However, anyone with even a basic 
knowledge of sociology understands that information exchange in no way 
constitutes a community. Community is a collective of kinship networks which 
share a common geographic territory, a common history, and a shared value 
system, one usually rooted in a common religion. Typically, communities are 
rather homogenous, and tend to exist in the historical context of a simple 
division of labor.  Most importantly, communities embrace nonrational 
components of life and of consciousness. Social action is not carried out by 
means of contract, but by understandings, and life is certainly not fully 
mediated by technology. In this sense, the connection between community and 
net life is unfathomable. (CAE does not want to romanticize this social form, 
since communities can be as repressive and/or as pathological as any society).

        Use of the net beyond its one necessary use (i.e., information 
gathering), is, from CAE's perspective, a highly developed anti-social form of
interacting. That someone would want to stay in his or her home or office and 
reject human contact in favor of a textually mediated communication experience
can only be a symptom of rising alienation, not a cure for it. Why the 
repressive apparatus would want this isolation to develop is very clear: If 
someone is on-line, he or she is off the street and out of the gene pool.  In 
other words, they are well within the limits of control. Why the marketing 
apparatus would desire such a situation is equally clear: The lonelier people 
get, the more they will have no choice but to turn to work and to consumption 
as a means of seeking pleasure. 
        In a time when public space is diminishing and being replaced by 
fortified institutions such as malls, theme parks, and other manifestations of
forced consumption that pass themselves off as locations for social 
interaction, shouldn't we be looking for a sense of the social, (that is, to 
the extent still possible), direct and unmediated, rather than seeing these 
anti-public spaces replicated in an even more lonely electronic form?

Promise 4: Democracy

Another promise eternally repeated in discourse on cyberspace is the idea that
the electronic apparatus will be the zenith of utopian democracy. Certainly, 
the internet does have some democratic characteristics. It provides all its 
cyber-citizens with the means to contact all other cyber-citizens. On the net,
everyone is equal. The shining emblem of this new democracy is the World Wide 
Web.  People can construct their own home pages, and even more people can 
access these sites as points of investigation. This is all well and good, but 
we must ask ourselves if these democratic characteristics actually constitute 
democracy. A platform for individual voices is not enough (especially in the 
Web where so many voices are lost in the clutter of data debris). Democracy is
dependent on the individual's ability to act on the information received. 
Unfortunately, even with the net, autonomous action is still as difficult as 
        The difficulty here is threefold: First, there is the problem of 
locality and geographic separation. In the case of information gathering, the 
information is only as useful as the  situation and the location of the 
physical body allows. For example, a gay man who lives in a place where 
homophobia reigns, or even worse, where homosexual practice is an illegal 
activity, will still be unable to openly act on his desires, regardless of the
information he may gather on the net. He is still just as closeted in his 
everyday life practice, and is reduced to passive spectatorship in regard to 
the object of his desire, so long as he remains in a repressive locality. 
        The second problem is one of institutional oppression. For example, no
one can deny that the net can function as a wonderful pedagogical tool and can
act as a great means for self education. Unfortunately, the net has very 
little legitimacy in and of itself as an educational institution. The net must
be used in a physical world context under appropriate supervision for it to be
awarded legitimacy. In the case of education, in order for the knowledge-value
gained from the net to be socially recognized and accepted, it must be used as
a tool within the context of a university or a school.  These educational 
contexts are fortified in a manner to maintain a status-quo distribution of 
education. Consequently, one can acquire a great deal of knowledge from the 
net, but still have no education capital to be exchanged in the marketplace. 
In both of these cases, there must be a liberated physical environment if the 
net is to function as a supplement to democratic activity.
        The final problem is that the net functions as a disciplinary 
apparatus through the use of transparency. If people feel that they are under 
surveillance, they are less likely to act in manner that is beyond normalized 
activity; that is, they are less likely to express themselves freely, and to 
otherwise act in manner that could produce political and social changes within
their environments. In this sense, the net serves the purpose of negating 
activity rather than encouraging it. It channels people toward orderly 
homogeneous activity, rather than reinforcing the acceptance of difference 
that democratic societies need. 
        To be sure, there are times when transparency can be turned against 
itself. For example, one of the reasons that the PRI party's counteroffensive 
against the Zapatistas did not end in total slaughter, was the resisting 
party's use of the net to keep attention focused upon its members and its 
cause. By disallowing the secret of massacre, many lives were saved, and the 
resistant movement could continue. Much the same can be said about the stay of
execution won for Mumia Abu Jamal. The final point here is that it must be 
remembered that the internet does not exist in a vacuum. It is intimately 
related to all kinds of social structures and historical dynamics, and hence 
its democratic structure cannot be realistically analyzed as if it were a 
closed system.
        Taking a step back from the insider's point of view, achieving 
democracy through the net seems even less likely considering the demographics 
of the situation. There are five and a half billion people in the world. Over 
a billion barely keep themselves alive from day to day. Most people don't even
have a telephone, and hence it seems very unlikely that they will get a 
computer, let alone go on-line. This situation raises the question, is the net
a means to democracy, or simply another way to divide the world into haves and
have-nots? We also must ask ourselves, how many people consider the net really
relevant in their everyday lives? While CAE believes that it is safe to assume
that the number of net users will grow, it seems unlikely that it will grow to
include more than those who have the necessary educational background, and/or 
those who are employed by bureaucratic and technocratic agencies.
        CAE suggests that this elite stronghold will remain so, and that most 
of the first world population that will become a part of the computer 
revolution will do so primarily as passive consumers, rather than as active 
participants. They will be playing computer games, watching interactive TV, 
and shopping in virtual malls. The stratified distribution of education will 
act as the guardian of the virtual border between the passive and the active 
user, and prevent those populations participating in multidirectional 
interactivity from increasing in any significant numbers.

Promise 5: New Consciousness

Of all the net hype, this promise is perhaps the most insidious, since it 
seems to have no corporate sponsor (although Microsoft has tapped the trend to
some extent). The notion of the new consciousness has emerged out of new age 
thinking. There is a belief promoted by cyber-gurus (Timothy Leary, Jason 
Lanier, Roy Ascott, Richard Kriesche, Mark Pesci) that the net is the 
apparatus of a benign collective consciousness. It is the brain of the planet 
which transcends into mind through the activities of its users. It can 
function as a third eye or sixth sense for those who commune with this global 
coming together. This way of thinking is the paramount form of ethnocentrism 
and myopic class perception. As discussed in the last section, the third world
and most of the first world citizenry are thoroughly marginalized in this 
divine plan. If anything, this theory replicates the imperialism of early 
capitalism, and recalls notions such as manifest destiny. If new consciousness
is indicative of anything, it is the new age of imperialism that will be 
realized through information control (as opposed to the early capital model of
military domination). 
        Of the former four promises examined here, each has proven on closer 
inspection to be a replication of authoritarian ideology to justify and put 
into action greater repression and oppression. New consciousness is no 
exception. Even if we accept the good intentions and optimistic hopes of the 
new age cybernauts, how could anyone conclude that an apparatus emerging out 
military aggression and corporate predation could possibly function as a new 
form of terrestrial spiritual development? 


As saddened as CAE is to say it, the greater part of the net is capitalism as 
usual. It is a site for repressive order, for the financial business of 
capital, and for excessive consumption. While a small part of the net may be 
used for humanistic purposes and to resist authoritarian structure, its 
overall function is anything but humanistic. In the same way that we would not
consider an unregulated bohemian neighborhood to be representative of a city, 
we must also not assume that our own small free zone domains are 
representative of the digital empire. Nor can we trust our futures to the 
empty promises of a seducer that has no love in its heart.

anti-copyright 1995 CAE

distributet by nettime
not for commercial use