-part two-

Utopian Promises- Net Realities

Critical Art Ensemble

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 ever.

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 Critical Art Ensemble