|firstname.lastname@example.org (David Hudson) (by way of Pit Schultz ) on Wed, 11 Dec 96 03:45 MET|
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|nettime: LR Interview, pt. 2|
[this is part II or the Louis Rossetto Interview of David Hudson -p] DH: Can the Net evolve away from the democratic model? LR: Anything can happen. But right now, there are no signs that it is becoming any less democratic. What is happening is that commerce is arriving on the Net, as it arrives anywhere humans congregate. I don't think that's a bad thing. People who do think it's a bad idea need to explain why, not fall back on kneejerk (and ultimately hypocritical) reactions to anything commercial. DH: Hypocritical? I honestly don't understand. In what way? LR: Because commerce is inherent in human life. Everybody engages in it. And everyone needs to be part of it to survive. Even the Unabomber needed to go to the store. Treating it like it's heresy, like there's some pure world out there that it violates, while at the same time living off it, one way or the other, is hypocritical. DH: Here's my main question, then. You're saying Wired is neither right nor left, but represents something new, a third alternative. This is very exciting and appealing obviously as the electorate, in its 'throw the bums out' mood, swings every two years between its seemingly very limited choices. But how does "out of control" translate in real, what-to-do-about-it terms? Isn't it, so far at least, just the New Right's wide open market approach dressed up in cyber-cool? LR: There are really only two alternatives: trust the universe, or trust the politicians and bureaucrats. Right now, most people who have been educated believe that governments are necessary, and that electoral politics is the highest form of democracy. Indeed, they equate electoral politics with democracy. And that may have been true when these ideas of representative governments were formulated in opposition to the high-handed rule of monarchs in the 18th century. That equation of democracy with electoral politics is entirely inappropriate now. People believe electoral politics is democracy because they have been brainwashed, period. Children are collected in public schools, they are taught history, which means basically they are taught the history of the state, or rather the history of a particular way of looking at their state, and that idea is continually reinforced by mass media and the structure of the game. Democracy in America? It's quadrennial Kabuki paid for with tax dollars administered by politicians and bureaucrats ultimately for their benefit, and for the benefit of the economic interests who influence them. As Jerry Brown said, there's only one party in Washington, the Ruling Party. The fundamental question: is what we got now really democracy? Indeed, what is democracy? Democracy to me is not an electoral process, it's a social process. The social process is about creating and discussing ideas, and arriving at a consensus about how we'll behave with each other. Discussion is the essence of democracy. Electoral politics used to be part of that process. It no longer is, and no amount of so-called reform is going to change that. In a world kept ignorant by mass media, presided over by politicians who have no interest in discussing ideas, there is no serious discussion of real issues in the traditional public spaces, as Jon Katz has pointed out in Wired and HotWired. Because the system is inherently decadent and corrupt. Now an alternative has emerged. It is networked communications. A higher proportion of the populace is engaged in discussion of fundamental, crucial issues, on a higher level, than at any other period since the Committee of Correspondence during the American Revolution. This is real democracy. Democracy is what occurs in the Net, in our homes, offices, factories -- it is not politics. Politics has always been the tail on the dog. In 1996, this election is proving that it's now the tail that's wagging the dog. I believe the current political situation is inherently unstable, and that we are on the cusp of a massive change. And that change will entail the continuing decline of state power, and the gradual emergence of a new democracy founded on an ongoing, high level discussion in the nets of the world. That democracy is then an evolving social consensus, which may or may not find its way into law. But that democracy will be a lot more powerful than the combined collection of 70K pages of the Federal Register. DH: A quote from Richard Sclove [author of Democracy and Technology]: "Karl Polanyi, in The Great Transformation, explained 50 years ago that truly unfettered competitive markets are unfailingly a human and social disaster. They trammel people, communities, and natural environments in devastating ways, and have always resulted eventually in compensatory regulation to try to clean up the mess, ameliorate some of the suffering." Would such lessons, drenched in history, have any bearing in the 21st century? LR: On the most primitive level, thousands of people carry on a plebiscite about the market every day. They decide to leave the countryside and move to the city. Despite the horrors of the favelas, despite the grimness of being at the bottom of the social order, they continue to stream into cities -- to the market. They do it because they perform the calculus and decide that the benefits outweigh the costs, they're better off. If Polanyi was right, the mass migration would be going in the other direction. Change has costs, no question. Massive change has massive costs. The world as we know it is being overturned. There's lots of dislocation. People are hurt. But on the whole, society is benefited. There's a reason there are five billion people alive on the planet today, and it's not because a politician or bureaucrat planned the whole thing out. DH: This sort of opens a Pandora's box of case by case quibbling -- we could, theoretically, get into ticking off specific countries in the first through fourth worlds and citing different reasons for different migrations. For weeks. But instead, let me just say, as someone who appreciates the role of free markets in society, in conjunction with other factors, that I find this paragraph pretty scary. You're not only saying that it's ok that entire populations are uprooted and forced to abandon the land (where the real resources are still, even in the digital age) and try to make do in already congested, depleted cities, but that it's the market that's left them no choice. Ok, I'm tweaking your words, but my real question is, doesn't your example actually only prove Polanyi was right? LR: I'm saying that people always have choices. I've traveled extensively through the third world. A lot of it is outside the money economy, as it's been for millennia. They live, in that pre-money economy, as well (or as miserably) as they ever have. Meanwhile, there's a money economy which exists in the cities. Relatives come back and tell them about it. They decide to leave for the city. The city is hard, horrible maybe -- but not so horrible that they turn around and return to the pre-money economy they came out of -- because that, relatively to them, is even more horrible. This is not about force. Force is what Jackson did to the Seminoles. Force is Stalin deciding that the Volga Germans should be "uprooted" and driven to the middle of Russia. Force is what the Serbs did to the Bosnians. The migration to the city in most of the Third World is about people deciding on the micro level what is best for them. And let's get over the mythology of the land. As the grandson of generations of small peasant farmers, I don't think there's anything romantic about living under the same roof as the cows and pigs, or eeking out a living by scratching in the dirt. I repeat, very few people, once they are exposed to the money economy, voluntarily return to ancient ways of surviving. And certainly no one who has grown up in the money economy voluntarily returns to subsistence agriculture. DH: As one of those "lefties", I'm with you all the way on free speech, of course. Isn't there more to the left than regulation (which, yes, I would argue has its place -- admittedly, it's a tricky formula)? LR: The sad fact of regulation is that it's never a ceiling, it's a floor -- on which the regulated stand. There has never been a regulatory board that hasn't become a tool of the supposedly "regulated." Wishing it were otherwise, hoping that someday, somehow we can find the right "tricky" formulation of words and people who could accomplish "good" regulation, doesn't make it so. And yes, the left is more than regulation. It's worse. Much of the left is stuck with a belief in the inherent superiority of central planning to accomplish social ends. Regulation is only one part of that planning. But central planning -- the belief that a technocratic elite can run society like a machine -- just doesn't work. Not only doesn't it work, it's been shown in many situations to be an abomination. And in a networked world, it is now a virtual impossibility. DH: You realize, of course, you're going to ruffle some feathers placing the "technocratic elite" on the other side of your argument, though I'm sure that doesn't disturb you. No question here, just an observation. LR: Technocrats, of course, don't have to know anything about technology, and often don't. DH: Minimum wage -- a floor worth preserving? LR: Minimum wage, a religious artifact worth fighting over? If you could make people wealthy by passing a law, why doesn't Congress just raise the minimum wage to $20 dollars an hour, a $100? Because, surprise, the laws of economics have yet to be repealed. You raise the cost of something, you diminish its consumption, it's that simple. You raise the minimum wage, and those people who still have a job are better off, and those whose job has suddenly become redundant because the business cannot absorb the cost, those people are unemployed. If the real purpose of a minimum wage was to insure a decent living for the lowest paid -- instead of a public relations wank by a bunch of well-paid politicians and their political co-religionists -- then the solution would be to pass an income subsidy law, instead of trying to mandate that the cost of that subsidy be born disproportionately by certain businesses, and ultimately individuals, who will pay with their jobs when those jobs are extinguished because those businesses can't afford the increase. The minimum wage is kabuki, pure and simple, the theater of politics. Ask yourself why it was brought up in this, an election year, when the Democrats don't control Congress, instead of the first year of Clinton's term, when they did. DH: What about positive activism toward goals such as universal access...? LR: Universal access is only an issue in an environment of a certain kind of scarcity. Do we ensure universal access to air, water, food, clothing, television sets? No, we only do it to regulated, monopoly communication services. That monopoly is going away with deregulation. The increased supply of telecommunications services (wireless, cellular, satellite) is driving the cost of access to affordability for the entire population. Access is a non-problem. I keep comparing it to television. Should we have had government mandates to insure universal access to television? Cars? No, because even though at the beginning they were restricted to elites, it was the elites who helped amortize the development costs and pave the way for the mass market. A good example of how bad mandates in telecommunications can be is the example of Minitel in France, which put a 1200 baud computer in everyone's home, and retarded the development of a truly useful Net in France by 10 years. DH: "Do we ensure universal access to air, water, food, clothing, television sets?" You know, actually, we do. In a variety of ways. Excepting the obvious exception of TVs, most of us view the first four you mention as inalienable rights. The UN has even tried to cast these rights into some sort of global Bill of Rights, without a whole lot of success, of course, but the symbolism of the attempt means something to a lot of people. LR: Universal access is the mandated provision of service. Far as I can tell, not even the government has figured out how, or had the audacity, to mandate the provision of air, water, food, or clothing -- as in forcing some company or individuals to provide them to the population at large at artificially low prices. On the other hand, the government has surely tried to subsidize the provision of some of those goods, which is another story.