-part one-

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 nothing.

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.

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