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nettime: "Wired?"
Charles L. Bertsch" (by way of Pit Schultz <pit {AT} contrib.de>) on Tue, 10 Dec 96 02:57 MET

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nettime: "Wired?"

[this is a reedited version of the one appeared in ZKP1. 
guess it's an imortant article reflecting the 'language
politics' driving the expansion of the 'grid' -p]


by Charlie Bertsch

That we're *physically* addicted to electricity is obvious; the
extent to which we're *psychologically* addicted is not.
Particularly among people who try to conceive of opposition to the
dominant powers in our society, psychological dependence on
electricity reveals itself in a recurring tendency to imagine that
those powers behave like electrical power. To a certain extent,
this makes intuitive sense: electrical power plays an undeniably
significant role in structuring our everyday lives. However, this
isn't the only reason we make sense of power relations with an
'electrical consciousness'. Electrical power appeals to our
imagination because it is described by a coherent body of concepts,
a 'conceptual apparatus' with indisputable rules to guide our
classifications of phenomena. Other forms of power--political,
social, economic--often seem much harder to describe. Hence, people
'come to terms' with the powers that dominate them by borrowing
terms used in the description of electrical power. In other words, 
electrical terms like "resistance" and "feedback" are used to
describe social phenomena that have nothing to do with electrical
power. They become metaphors.

We are normally inclined to think of metaphor as an artistic
device. However, as linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark
Johnson argue in their book *Metaphors We Live By*, metaphors
underlie the concepts which "govern our everyday functioning, down
to the most mundane details," meaning that "the way we think, what
we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of
metaphor." Because most of the time we "think and act more or less
automatically," we are not aware of how thoroughly our relation to
the world around us is determined by the metaphors we live by.
Metaphors play a particularly important role in our understanding
of abstract concepts like "freedom", "justice" or "power". In fact,
figures of speech are the only way to connect such concepts to
something concrete. We need metaphors to make sense of our world.
The problem with metaphors is not they we use them, but that we
forget we are using them. Although the use of a metaphor begins 
self-consciously, it frequently becomes a habit. When this happens,
we can no longer see how it conditions and constrains our thinking. 

Right now, electrical imagery is everywhere. The exponential growth
of the internet is radically restructuring our picture of the
world. As social and political power increasingly becomes a
function of global 'connectivity', there is more reason than ever
to conceive of that power electrically. And that is what purveyors
of the cutting edge have been encouraging us to do. The magazine
*Wired* has played a particularly important role in pushing what I
call the 'electrical imaginary', invoking it even in its now-famous
name. The prevalence of electrical metaphors begs important
questions. Is the habit of thinking of power electrically a good
one? Or is it a bad habit? Certainly, it is clear that we have
become psychologically dependent on electrical metaphors to an
unprecedented degree. In an effort to answer these questions, I
will explore here the ramifications of imagining that social and
political power function like electrical power. I begin, not with
the present, but the recent past.
The use of electrical metaphors is nothing new. Ever since the
beginnings of electrical theory in the 18th century, poets
philosophers, and ordinary people have been borrowing its
terminology. A series of inventions--the telegraph, telephone,
electric light, electric railways, radio--made electricity a more
and more prominent part of everyday life in the hundred years prior
to World War II. Since the early 1960's, however, the use of
electrical metaphors has attained a new level of importance. What
happened in the early 1960's to radically advance the
electrification of our consciousness? For one thing, people started
to realize the significance of post-war technological developments.
Although some intellectuals--Norbert Wiener, Jacques Lacan and any
number of science-fiction writers come to mind--were already
talking about cybernetics and the human being-as-machine in the
early 1950's, it took most people a little longer to recognize the
significance of post-war technological innovations like the
television, the transistor, and the computer. The early 1960's also
marked the time at which these innovations finally went global.
Television culture had ceased to be an Anglo-American phenomenon.
Satellite telecommunications were starting to make possible the
existence of global events like the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The
telephone  and mass-electrification had finally been extended to
the most underdeveloped portions of the globe, which, not
coincidentally, were now linked to first-world states in an
increasingly universal United Nations. The computer, though still
not an everyday phenomenon, was beginning to be more and more of a
presence in the first-world corporate workplace. Finally, the
development of the integrated circuit promised a new era of low-
cost, high-volume, pre-fab electrical circuits that would extend
the realm of advanced electronic technology to the most mundane
tools of everyday life. 

These changes heralded the development of a global culture in which
information could be transferred across vast distances almost
instantaneously. Some people were alarmed; some were elated. The
work of prominent cultural theorists of the time offers excellent
examples of both extremes. In his *One-Dimensional Man* of 1964, a
seminal text for 'New Left' student movements of the 1960's,
Herbert Marcuse adopts the alarmist view and worries that
technological progress has outstripped our capacity to control its
course. Although Marcuse does not make explicit use of electrical
metaphors, the power he describes functions a great deal like
electrical power. His emphasis on the consequence of technological
innovation suggests that this is no accident.   

Marcuse conceives of society as a sort of 'closed circuit' that
seemingly incorporates all of our existence. Though it is seemingly
full of movement--the rapid flow of information, the breakneck pace
of technological innovation--global society is, as a whole, "a
thoroughly static system of life: self-propelling in its oppressive
productivity (p.17)." Thus, like a circuit, society constitutes a
stable system. Furthermore, society resembles an electrical circuit
in that it contains and even thrives on the tension between
'positive' and 'negative' elements. Marcuse believes that being
'negative'-- opposed to the status quo--no longer constitutes a
challenge to the system and that a truly critical take on society
must "proceed from a position 'outside' the positive as well as the
negative, the productive as well as destructive tendencies in
society," for "modern industrial society is the pervasive identity
of these opposites--it is the whole that is in question (p.xiv.)."
Society can no longer be distinguished from the technology it
produces, for "in the medium of technology, culture, politics, and
the economy merge into an omnipresent system which swallows up or
repulses all alternatives" and that "technological rationality has
become political rationality (p.xvi.)." All aspects of existence
appear to be subordinated to a one-dimensional 'total system'.
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan saw liberation in the very
developments that so alarmed Marcuse. In his 1967 book *The Medium
is the Massage* he agrees with Marcuse that "the medium, or process
of our time--electric technology--is reshaping and restructuring
patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal
life" and that this technology "fosters and encourages unification"
of societal forces into a 'total system', that the "social drama"
has become the "electric drama." He echoes Marcuse's apocalyptic
declaration that society has become one-dimensional, stating that
"electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of 'time' and
'space'" and made it impossible for us to challenge the powers-
that-be by opposing them from a position outside the system, since
"the instantaneous world of electric informational media involves
all of us, all at once" and "no detachment or frame is possible."
For McLuhan this means that "electric circuitry is Orientalizing
the West," that "the contained, the distinct, the separate--our
Western legacy--are being replaced by the flowing, the unified, the
fused." What's interesting to note are the remarkable similarities
between Marcuse and McLuhan's descriptions of 60's society, even
though they take completely opposite positions on the relative
value of the technological 'progress' they describe. Both agree
that society forms a 'total system' in which individuals function 
like so many pre-fab integrated circuits. Marcuse details at length
how the individual has become little more than an organizing
principle for an assembly of 'manufactured needs'; McLuhan even
peppers his book with greatly enlarged pictures of integrated
circuits and at one point asks the reader about one of these
pictures, "When this circuit learns your job, what are you going to
do?" In the end, Marcuse and McLuhan seem like positive and
negative poles in a total system they both take for granted. 

What are the political consequences of imagining that society is a
'total system' in which every social role, every position seems to
be contained within a continuous circuit of power? For one thing,
when we do this we are forced to revise radically our notion of
political 'resistance'. Marcuse's belief that resistance no longer
lies outside of the total system makes perfect sense if power is
conceived of in electrical terms. Resistance is an integral part of
electrical circuits, one of their most basic components. Although
'resistors' act to dissipate the energy in a circuit--by producing
heat or light-- and therefore impede the flow of current, they do
not impede the functioning of the circuit as a whole. On the
contrary, they play an essential role in its smooth operation. 
Often resistance is even the raison-d'etre of a particular circuit.
Electric light, for example, is the product of resistance put to a
particular practical use. Using electrical power as a metaphor for
socio-political power thus encourages us to think that  resistance
functions as what Marcuse calls 'structural resistance': it
supports the social whole.  

If, as many people in the 1960's did, you still want to somehow
struggle against a system you suppose to be a total circuit that
makes use of everything it encompasses, *including* resistance to
the flow of power, what are your options? Since the 60's, I would
argue, two superficially opposite strategies have dominated
political thinking. The first appears to assume--sometimes
provisionally, sometimes not--that the conflation of electrical
power and the powers that dominate us is not just a useful way of
conceptualizing those difficult-to-grasp powers, but an actual
fact. In other words, this strategy assumes that the problem
literally is technology itself and thus holds that the renunciation
of technology and the renunciation of the status quo are one and
the same thing. The most committed advocates of this strategy have
been associated with back-to-nature movements and, more recently,
'green' politics; with 'hippie' communes and their descendants;
and, towards the right of the political spectrum, with simulations
of back-to-basics 'frontier-living' by the sweat of one's brow
exemplified in the American TV series *Northern Exposure*. The
strategy itself, however, has had far wider impact than, for it
deeply informs the logic of one of the developed world's most
popular leisure and vacation practices: camping. 

In the United States this is especially obvious, because camping is
a mass phenomenon shorn of most challenges. For most Americans
camping is primarily a vacation from 'wired' existence, from the
continuous and seemingly limitless flow of electricity itself. They
drive their cars or RVs to a campsite without electricity--the weak
and short-lived output of the batteries they bring with them
excepted--in order to set up their often elaborate camping
apparatus, get out the Weber grill and the Coleman lantern, and
then spend several days in a 'nature' that has all the
accoutrements of modern everyday life--cars and even traffic, high
'population density', lots of garbage--*except* 'real' electricity.
I would argue that people who engage in this sort of camping think
they are 'getting away from it all' because they think the 'all'--
etymologically, the 'universe' in which their everyday lives take
place--they are escaping is synonymous with the domain of
electrical power. In other words, they imagine that the total
system--by definition 'all-encompassing'--only holds sway over the
technologized world. It seems that these people go camping to
convince themselves that they can still go 'unplugged', can do a
good job simulating their everyday lives *without* recourse to the
socket. Camping thus appears to be an attempt to imagine a world
not dependent on centralized power source, an 'alternative' world
apart from the electrical All. 

Aesthetically, the strategy that would resist the system by going
'unplugged' has lead to attempts to find and distribute 'authentic'
pre-electronic or at least 'traditional' culture. In the early
1960's it was folk music, a little later blues and country. From
the late 60's on, different aspects of minority, primitive, or
'third-world' cultures have appeared to offer the 'antidote to
civilization'. In all these cases, the people who appropriate these
'authentic' cultures seek refuge from the system in something that
appears to originate outside of its circuit of power. In a sense,
then, they are 'camping' in what they take to be cultural
wilderness. That their experience of 'camping' tends to consist of
pre-packaged hiking tours, visits to ethnic restaurants, or
shopping for world music at Tower Records means only that they
strongly resemble their less culturally sophisticated fellow
citizens who camp in the smog-filled Yosemite Valley. This might
explain why acoustic guitars fill both the cultural haunts of those
who appropriate folk cultures *and* your average summertime
The second strategy for opposing a total system imagined in
electrical terms is less optimistic about the prospects for
escaping that system. Those who adopt it tend to view the first
strategy as the product of wilful self-delusion. How could a total
system be so easily escaped? After all, there doesn't appear to be
any place left on the globe completely untouched by technology.
Proponents of this second strategy thus seek not to escape the
system, but to oppose it from within. They are 'turned-on' rather
than 'unplugged'. The problem they face is to reconcile the desire
to resist the system from within with their conviction that
'resistance' can itself be a function of the system. As philosopher
and cultural historian Michel Foucault argues in his *History of
Sexuality, Volume I*, "where there is power, there is resistance"
which is "never in a position of exteriority in relation to power."
And yet, although "there is no single locus of great Refusal, no
soul of revolt," it would be wrong to say that acts of resistance
are "only a reaction or rebound, forming with respect to the basic
domination an underside that is in the end always passive, doomed
to perpetual defeat." Foucault believes that "points of resistance
are present everywhere in the power network" and, while these
points are rarely capable of producing major change, they are also
not "a lure or promise that is of necessity betrayed (pp.95-96)."
In other words, these points of resistance, however infinitesimal,
can not be reduced to the 'structural resistance' Marcuse
describes. Understanding how this is possible requires a more in-
depth account of the relation between individuals and the power
flowing through the total system. 

What does it mean to be 'plugged in'? Foucault succinctly
exemplifies the answer this second strategy builds upon when he
states in his 1975 book *Discipline and Punish* that "power is not
exercised simply as an obligation or a prohibition on those who 'do
not have it'; it invests them, is transformed by them and through
them (p.27)." In other words, power flows through different social
positions within the total system and 'empowers' the people who
occupy those positions to transform it before they pass it on.
Foucault makes it clear elsewhere that the system functions
efficiently when people use their 'empowerment' to be productive
and increase the sum total of power within the system before
passing it along: the amount of power within the system should
perpetually increase in the course of its circulation. 'Productive'
individuals thus come to be defined as people who receive an input-
-the particular 'signal' of power--and generate an output that is
greater in size--a change in *quantity*--that is otherwise
identical to the input--no change of *quality*. They are like
amplifiers in an electrical circuit. Of course, like people, no
electrical component is perfect. An amplifier will always produce
'distortion'. The input signal will be transformed into an output
signal that "will not be simply an enlarged replica, but will have
a different shape. (Steven E. Schwarz and William G. Oldham,
*Electrical Engineering: An Introduction*, p.342)." Engineers seek
to avoid 'positive feedback' that "is very likely to lead to
instability" because the distortion keeps getting reinforced with
each course through the circuit until "the circuit 'runs away'

The 'turned-on' oppositional strategy sees its opportunity in this
tendency for distortion to build upon itself until the system is
out of control. Its basic project is to make people not into
'resistors' but 'bad amplifiers' who "can produce an output in the
absence of an input (p.354)" and thus transform their 'input
signal' not quantitatively but *qualitatively*, who maximize not
the volume of their output but the extent to which it deviates from
their input. In other words, this strategy is based on the idea
that the only way for individuals to help undermine a rational,
efficient system is to 'fail' in their assigned tasks and produce
the "random signals (p.363)" that constitute systemic 'noise'
instead of what the system requires (more of itself). Of course,
since real people do not receive input signals of an electrical
nature, this is not the sort of strategy that can be directly
enacted like the first one: you can renounce use of electrical
power and go live in a log cabin or cave; you can't, however,
really alter the shape that power takes. The sorts of responses to
the system that employ this second strategy thus tend to be much
more self-consciously metaphorical. 

The 60's provided us with an excellent sequence of idioms to
describe the process of literally 'failing' the system. People
'turned on' to drugs like L.S.D., 'tuned in' to the power they
suddenly felt to be literally surging through them, and either
'dropped out' or 'burned out'. 'Burn out' is a particularly
striking conceptual legacy of the 60's, for it appears to indicate
the long-term effect of the systemic 'overloads' that generate
noise. All of this metaphoric language is blatantly dependent on
the 'electrical consciousness' I have been describing. Of course,
as the problem of 'burn out' will attest, striving for literal
failure does not make for good long-term political strategy: too
many people die or go insane. For this reason, the 'turned on'
oppositional strategy has predominantly inspired aesthetic
responses to the system--although many of the individuals
undertaking them unwittingly cross over into literal failure or

What form do aesthetic applications of this strategy take? In
general, they strive for deliberate distortion or even the 'white
noise' of incoherence. While there are numerous examples in all
media of what this aesthetics leads to in practice, its effects are
particularly obvious in rock music, where 'electrical
consciousness' finds its most immediate expression. Since the mid-
60's, when rock groups like The Who and The Velvet Underground
responded to pop artists like Andy Warhol by combining sweet pop
melodies worthy of Tin Pan Alley with deliberate use of feedback
and distortion, one of rock's most critically lauded lineages has
illustrated again and again how a 'harmonious' input signal can be
transformed into something monstrous by turning up the volume to
the point of overload. This lineage leads through punk, the
'college radio' or 'indie' music of the 80's on up to the
mainstream 'alternative' rock of bands like Nirvana, Sonic Youth,
and the Smashing Pumpkins today. Throughout its history, this
lineage has convinced people that it is somehow 'oppositional' by
aesthetically demonstrating a failure to process input signals
efficiently. Bands like Nirvana appear to be undermining the system
when they generate  distortion because "when the 'true' signal is
small it may become  lost in the noise, and thus be unusable," for
"in communications, noise is the great enemy (p.363)." In other
words, they illustrate the way in which a circuit of power can be
made 'useless' by amplification gone awry. 

So we have two basic strategies for opposing a total system
conceptualized in electrical terms: we can give up on it altogether
and go hide in the woods; or we can 'fail' to play our societal
role--or at least pretend to--by being 'bad amplifiers' who flood
the circuits of power with incoherent noise; we can 'challenge' the
system by either running away from it or self-destructing.
Personally *and* politically, neither strategy seems a particularly
effective way of bringing about change in our everyday reality.
This is not to say that there is nothing pleasing about them. On
the contrary, they offer very seductive pleasures as compensations
for their very impotence: fantasies of escape on the one hand and
of a blissful self-annihilation on the other. Perhaps this explains
why the use of electrical metaphors for power has become so

The real problem, I would argue, is not that such fantasies are
available to us, or even that we sometimes indulge in them. It is,
rather, the way in which our psychological addiction to electrical
power prevents us from having any *other* fantasies of opposition
besides these two. If we realized the extent to which electrical
terminology has come to inhabit our mind; if we understood that
many of our perceptions of reality have been substantially altered
by a decades-long and largely unconscious addiction to that
terminology; if we became more self-conscious about the ways in
which we use metaphors as tools; and if electrical terminology were
just one of many tools available to us for conceptualizing power,
these fantasies would be less pernicious. As things stand right
now, however, we are at the mercy of a mind-altering body of
metaphor that can make meaningful opposition to the status-quo seem
Charlie Bertsch is a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department at 
the University of California at Berkeley, USA. He is completing
a doctoral dissertation entitled "Subverting the System: Models of 
Resistance in Post-WWII American Culture". He is also a member of the 
Production Team for *Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday 
Life*, a publication and electronic discussion list (see 
http://eng.hss.cmu.edu/bs). If you would like to respond to this article, 
please contact him at the following internet address: cbertsch {AT} crl.com

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