Selling Brooklyn Bridges in Cyberspace
Issue #18, January 1995
'Yes, the railroad had prevailed. The ranches had been seized in the tentacles of the octopus; the iniquitous burden of extortionate freight rates had been imposed like a yoke of iron...'
— The Octopus, Frank Norris
Ponzi schemes abound in cyberspace, and the nicest people are selling them. Let's take Howard Jonas, the founder of the Digital Freedom Network, who was responding to criticism that his new human rights cybernet wouldn't help computerless Bangladeshis, or in most of the world where economic and human rights are least available. According to Jonas speaking to the New York Times, however, 'It's the business leaders and intellectual groups in universities, where opinion is made, where people in those countries will have access to the Internet.' Politically speaking, the man shouldn't be let out of the house without a seeing-eye dog. And he represents many, far too many, who believe that elite cyber-access means democratic enlightenment.
Because the obvious so clearly needs restatement, cyberspace is expensive space. True believers who tout Internet as democracy actualized, as an electronic townhall meeting, live with class blinders in a muddle of self-delusion. One might as well call suburban country clubs models of classless social integration. Cyber-access is effectively divided between self-financed, institutionally-financed, and unprotected non-access. Private access requires significant disposable income to cover computer capitalization and the continuing outlays of phone bills, repair of maintenance-intensive equipment, and periodic recapitalization. For those whose employers pick up the tab, the cost arrives in the form of hierarchical workplaces and limited personal autonomy on the networks. Others — university students, for example — receive access as a temporary, institutionally-sponsored privilege towards a 'keep-up-with-the-cutting-edge' education. A few excepted classes exist, but a middle-class income is the basic password to cyber-existence. Nonetheless cyberspace has arrived virtually unchallenged as a democratic myth, a fresh field for participatory citizenship. Standard celebratory phrases include 'a new Jeffersonian democracy' and 'an electronic Athenian agora.' Aside from the historical ignorance incorporated in these comments, they all leave unspoken the hard fact that access capital is the poll tax for would-be virtual citizens.
Even as I traipse merrily through Internet gopherspace exploring interesting bulletin boards, I remind myself of the invisible price tags draped all over the electronic scenery. For all its pretense of global culture, cyberspace functions within the context of a characteristically American pseudo-classlessness. The system's very diffuseness deters a simplistic class vs. capital analysis of the old school. As a means of production that does not specifically belong to any identifiable owner (yet), cyberspace eludes those nineteenth-century political formulations that trailed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. The locus of class/power relations has slipped into a more diffuse, individuated mode, yet one that certainly is not class-neutral. This new diffuseness does not exempt cyberspace structure from class structure. Sartre observed in Search for a Method that '(W)orks of the mind are complex objects, difficult to classify.....one can rarely 'situate' them in relation to a single class ideology [rather].....they reproduce in their profound structure the contradictions and struggles of contemporary ideologies.' These ideologies — and especially their contradictions — manifest themselves most clearly at the gateways of cyberspace.
When thought is given to the ideology inhering to Internet, however, it tends to focus on the question of system privatization. Will ITT, AT&T and others be allowed to take over parts of the Internet system developed at taxpayer expense? Yet by this point in the system the basic questions of Internet control and function have already been decided. Sartrean ideological 'complexity' begins outside the system rather than inside it. The gateway decision — who gets access to an on-line VDT terminal — is the mediating point between external (social) and internal (techno-social) complexities.
There's still another ideology involved, an ideology of computing cheapness. Tech enthusiasts straightway point to the plummeting price of hardware and the massive expansion of the user base as evidence of future possibilities. 'The price of computing power drops by half every two years,' goes the mantra. Though prices do fall, the overall economic logic is about as valid as that old Attic brainteaser about how a race can never be completed since runners complete half the distance, then half of half, ad infinitum. For as prices fall, production is discontinued on low-end and less-profitable hardware, and the industry sets a more advanced, high-priced and profitable standard. This species of argument, along with its suggestion that a fully accessible and democratic cyber-culture is achievable in the not-too-distant future, is simply another social Ponzi scheme. It promises that Ms./Mr. User can purchase ever-more sophisticated hardware and communication links while costs will inevitably decline towards near-zero. And they can buy the Brooklyn Bridge as a peripheral, too........
Cyberspace may be aethereal, but it will never be as cheap as air. Even as trickle-down technology ideologues assert that cheap-as-rice chips and computer assemblies will eventually ensure universal cyberspace availability, they choose to ignore the gateway stratification and maldistribution of access incorporated in the current regime. As economic theory, it differs not a wit from the Friedmanian 'free markets solve all' panacea that have been deployed to rationalize social greed. The market forces evidenced in the computer industry, the fundament of cyberspace, have privileged leading-edge technologies in the search for profitability. It would be self-deceiving naivete to trust Silicon Valley market forces to provide affordable autonomous communications for those with less than American middle-class status. Further, corporate interests have increasingly regarded cyberspace as a discrete market in its own right, one where cybermalls will be accessed by remote shoppers. The market's size has already reached several hundred million dollars, and an estimated half of Internet users are commercial businesses. Marketplace access (i.e. computer purchase), credit access, and possible Internet privatization will act as successive barriers to 'down-market' buyers. Profit from the mid-and upscale-market, not downwardly spiraling cheapness, is already contouring public access.
ACCESS & ANTI-COOPERATISM
To rephrase the question, why should we rely on a corporate-shaped market for cyberspace distribution, especially when education and vital public services will be increasingly contingent upon on-line access?
In the mid-1980s an acquaintance of mine managed to obtain an hour-long interview with the general director of France Telecom, the government-operated telecommunications company, to present her visionary idea: free unlimited universal telephone service as a social right. She couched part of her visionary argument in quasi-adventist terms — everybody talks to everybody, and an Age of Peace ensues. Leaving aside notions of Absolute Interconnectivity and mystical techno-theology, maybe it's time I apologized for the scorn I poured at that time on the core idea. Why shouldn't we consider cyber-access an extension of the already publicly-regulated broadcast media, as mass interactive broadcasting? How can we shift paradigms from private-pay access to public cyber-access on demand? Since free speech depends on an available platform, free speech in cyberspace can only be achieved through universal, democratic cyber-access.
That won't happen while I'm above ground, I'm afraid. Social cooperatism in cyber-access contradicts the dominant ethos of privatized access, even while cyberspace represents the creation of an implicitly cooperatist social enterprise. Cyberspace functions under the fictive individualism of an 'electronic frontier' ethos. (1) Its terminology preserves these individualistic distinctions even while describing mass phenomena. A user may 'access' cyberspace, as though a single material door were being opened to allow entry. A user can access an electronic 'bulletin board,' as though standing alone in a town square gazing at the hoardings. An illusory ontogeny prevails; the gopher-surfer rides alone, solitary even amid electronic crowds. More comprehensive and realistic terminology might incorporate the mass simultaneity of these electronic acts and loci, but we continue to operate under more easily understood canons of contemporary individualism. This same sense of individualism and fragmented interests can only act as an impediment to social cooperation in cyberspace, and to the valuation of personal class privilege over an inclusive community.
Electronic Frontier Foundation pundit John Perry Barlow captured the essence of this cyber-bravura when he posed for the glossy photocover of his Wesleyan University alumni magazine standing heavily dressed in a twilight snowscape alongside a barbedwire fence, with a ranch cabin invitingly aglow in the background. An Apple computer stands atop a fencepost and Barlow packs a double-barrelled shotgun under his arm. Barlow's clumsy and unthinkingly malevolent symbolic exercise exemplifies themes of anti-social monadism and implicit violence which Richard Slotkin has traced so well through the history of American narrative. The ideal client for this old-new ideology is the one who writes a letter to the editors of Wired damning the Clipper Chip because 'Secure encryption, like firearms, represents an insurance policy for all citizens against future tyrants.' Mounting guard over private electronic property, not embracing social needs and human interdependency, defines this ethos of isolation and self-privileging. The essential solitude of a 'Don't tread on me' attitude and laissez-faire electronic frontier politics contain walloping measures of anti-communitarianism.
The Newts and their right-wing cohorts clearly prefer the term 'cyberspace' and envisage new Sooners rushing to claim their stake in the bandwidth. Cyberspace lends the air of open country available to pioneers, and later for subdivision into suburban tracts and malls. The Clintonian 'information highway,' on the other hand, smacks of a New Deal public works project. A deeply conservative strain of American political life needs and cherishes a living frontier, and has never brought itself to accept Frederick Jackson Turner's nearly century-old pronouncement of the American frontier's closure. It seizes on technology to reinvent an imagined apotheosis of the American national spirit, a phenomenon that Walter McDougall has examined in the Space Age rhetoric of the early 1960s. These periodic bouts with techno-frontierism, such as we are now witnessing in cyberspace, are an exercise in avoiding history's ugliness. The frontier destroyed as much as it created, and the frontier metaphor in cyberspace is at least appropriate in its legitimations of rugged individualism, social greed and monoculturalism.
Alongside the individualistic privatization of cyberspace we encounter its plural, the 'virtual community' theorized by Howard Rheingold and others. A 'virtual community' is a confused oxymoron, a dependent derivative of material communities, and not an autonomous existential rubric. The phrase transforms mechanical mediations into a convivial entity and canonizes phone calls as Community Incarnate. Or as my wise 11 year-old daughter phrased it, 'A discussion list uses telephone calls by computer. So why couldn't we call telephone calls between people themselves 'community'?'
Communications are contingent on community and are one of its constituents, not its entire body. Technology critic James Gleick similarly mistakes an agent for the whole when he prophecies that cyberspace will not remake society but rather will be society. He providentially excepts sex from total cyberization, although I not sure why he stops short. In the Gleickian nightmare of totalized communications, distinctions between online and offline will disappear and an all-embracing 'virtual community' will replace outmoded offline reality. But there has been a long line of would-be techno-revolutionists, the intellectual salesmen who merge our collective future together with specific technologies. Remember those social salesmen of the '50s who told America that 'Highways are communities'? They're back.
That cyberspace can even be mistaken for 'community' testifies to the attenuated sense of community that prevails in too many quarters of American society. Where 'community' means driving to a mall miles distant for a loaf of bread instead of walking to a cornerstore, ersatz substitutes hold sway. Instead of real communities, cyber-consumers sit in front of the Apple eWorld opening screen that pictures a cluster of cartoon buildings which represent community functions (click on post office for e-mail, a store for on-line shopping, a pillared library for electronic encyclopedias, etc.). Cyberspace software commonly imitates 'community' in order to further a non-existent versimilitude, and what the software addresses is desire for community rather than the difficult-to-achieve, sweated-over reality of community. Cybercommunity thus can be understood as an element in the ideological superstructure over the material base of cyberspace (computers, software, labor costs), an element that facilitates technological acceptance, integration, familiarity and consumption.
Pseudo-communities like these inspire and privilege commodified desires, otherwise known as 'lifestyle choices.' To park at home in front of a glowing VDT terminal for on-line chats or to keep up with the latest postings at alt.sex.bestiality certainly qualify as lifestyle choices, but in content are essentially ephemeral interactions or distractions. What Rheingold et al. really offer is the vision of cyberspace immateriality as a lifestyle choice. Yet materiality has been the historic bedrock of individual/community relations and it is difficult to accept the notion that advanced communications represent an evolutionary flying leap into immaterial communities, a domain hitherto reserved for promises of divine reward. Possibly a 'virtual community' can been seen as an assertion of faith in an immaterial existence, an extension of an older human tradition of affirming a spiritual community-that-cannot-be-seen. Tellingly, when Rheingold relates his experiences of community at the WELL in The Virtual Community, he returns again and again to comparisons of an electronic persona with the physicality he encounters at WELL get-togethers. The gravity of the material world pulls him back repeatedly to address an on-the-ground community.
Rheingold's desire for 'virtual communities' speaks of a basic human need. In the midst of desire we sometimes function under the conceit that if we name an object after our desire, the object is what we name it. Hard-up men buy large blow-up figures of women and hump desperately, admiring the femininity of their 'girlfriends' and groaning women's names over them. But whatever their imagination, it's rubberized plastic, not a woman. Likewise, cyberspace is to community as Rubber Rita is to a woman.
Cybericity does not replicate material communities in a parallel world where we can reformulate communality. To accept only communication in place of a community's manifold functions is to sell our common faith in community vastly short. Despite this intellectual faith, my forever sentimental side very much responds to the lure of online 'community.' Then, grabbing hold of my wits, I recognize that it is precisely this human need for community that is being projected onto cyberspace and exploited, sometimes even with the best of intentions. In hyper-consumption societies characterized by individual alienation and loneliness, there is an enormous appeal to buying some fine new equipment and joining the online world in search of community. Once television narrowcasting was supposed to accomplish the same function: stay at home, watch community meetings, vote on-screen, form a brave new community. This sort of communications rhetoric died in the '70s: today the consumption-devoted Home Shopping Channel doesn't even make the pretense of community-building.
In cyberspace rhetoric we're watching the same hopes and deflations that characterized this once-rampant belief in communications as community. Twentieth-century American technology, from those early 1920s family gathering ads for Zenith cabinet radios forward, has found familiality and communality exceedingly useful as feel-good advertising and sales themes. Saving permutations of globality and speed, cyberspace technologies are little different from their technological predecessors in this regard. Thus to posit cyberspace 'communities' as the contemporary equivalent of a barnraising, clam bake, or town fair is to validate such electronic exchanges as the ideological inheritors of an American community spirit. It's precisely this 'homegrown-ness' in which Mitch Kapor, Howard Rheingold, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and their crew are trading, a libertarian mythic vision of how it once was and can be again in cyber-communities.
One of my favorite literary scenes takes place in the nineteenth-century Parisian public neighborhood laundry in Emile Zola's novel, L'Assommoir. That washingroom scene weaves together themes of human emotion and worklife so masterfully because it elicits a sense of community. Although the university computer facility 'bullpen' is a rather more sedate environment, its ranks of students at terminals have reminded me of the serried rows of washerwomen Zola described. My strange imagination, perhaps. A friend reports that the same computer-room scene, with its printer queues and occasional rudeness, has few positive qualities. Still, I feel fortunate to sit surrounded by a physically present community, one where I can wave to a passing friend or ask for technical assistance, while exploring the nets. Community in its full materiality is visibly realized here; it is not an invisible hypothesis. If cyberspace becomes a substitute for the material reality of coexisting and cooperating with neighbors, whether in a work or residential environment, then it will become an off-the-streets political retreat and trap.
WHITE SPACE, GLOBAL SPACE
It's simplistic futurism to believe that electronic individualism leads ineluctably towards a monad's 'electronic cottage' and the neo-romantic pioneer spirit of telecommuting. The ideology being advanced is that of implicit entrepreneurialism, of Emersonian self-reliance in the electromagnetic spectra. Although a nominally liberal ideology of autonomous labor, this consciousness bases itself on some deeply conservative assumptions about capacity for self-capitalization and social predisposition to technological dependence. The same individualized ideological complex erases not only class, but differential access based on gender, race, communal origin and geographic location. The resultant field of putatively null, anti-signified cyberspace is unmistakably signed with Euro-American whiteness.
Race and ethnicity are simply not up for discussion in cyberspace social theory, and their very absence identifies unsubstantiated presumptions of community. The featurelessness of a presumptive non-raciality/ethnicity in cyberspace fails to correspond with the real and diverse communities around us. Even as ethnic/race user groups establish themselves on Internet, they disappear from public view, accessed only by those interested. Non-physicality elides their presence and alterity. While Internet's intercontinental breadth ensures its multi-racial character, its character as a totalizing medium denies the diversity of its users. This lack of correspondence between racial/ethnic presence and felt presence points, if not to the extinguishing of alterity, to its extreme marginalization. Such internalized online monoculturalism reiterates the external racisms prevalent in American social structures. Middle-class suburban America, confronted with its diversity on urban streets, has retreated to cyberspace to avoid the otherwise inescapable realities of diversity. For example, a pending FCC complaint by a civil rights coalition charges four Baby Bells with 'electronic redlining' in their planning of advanced interactive video networks that will avoid (black/ethnic) inner cities and serve (mainly affluent white) suburbs. Access, community and race are inextricably interlinked issues.
Our concept of community returns here as the keystone in a broader argument. Capital has a long history of defining community in reference to profitable or dying technologies — boom towns, Dust Bowl ghost towns, Rust Belt mill towns — and now 'virtual communities' have joined the list as the computer industry's contribution. There has been an equally long oppositional movement that defines community in terms of common human conditions: gender, race, ethnicity and class. The former is paternalistic at best and exploitative as a rule; the latter has been an embrace of community for group survival. While American racial and ethnic communities have been under sustained and racist assault, cyber-communities are being tendered as the New World Order's pallid substitutes. If the offline/black streets have turned mean, go plug into online/white optic fiber. Simply, the local geography of cyberspace follows the lines and contours of American racism, sexism and classism. An entire world lives outside those lines, and they've been electronically redlined out of cyberspace.
The Internet may be in the process of internationalization, but it remains blatantly American in its social rhetoric and values. And as found more generally in American politics, class simply does not exist as an extended cyberspace discourse. The Net's globality itself becomes another objection to class analysis of its systems because the Net links an impossibly diverse set of social circumstances (e.g. how does the same class analysis encompass both Calcutta and Scarsdale?). In the chaos of globality, an American identity imprints itself on the Net by default of any other seriously contending identity. As an Americanist, I find myself very much at home sorting through the Net's narrative threads. The electronic cabin evokes Hector St. John de Crevecoeur at the frontier and virtual communities seem like dreamy Hudson Valley villages sketched by Washington Irving. Examining these threads helps identify that distinctly American mix of self-referentiality, near-sightedness and insularity that frames the Net as universal, classless, and of solely technical articulation.
The political geography of cyberspace effectively mirrors the prevailing patterns of global resource distribution. Vast swaths of the world remain entirely unserved by Internet, neither to local elites nor to the larger population. On one hand this is simply a reiteration of the existing assymetrical information orders; on the other, it's an exacerbation and new order of magnitude in international disparity. In the developing world, problems of cyber-access are cast first in national terms before arriving at questions of private/public appropriation. For example, the USIA encountered its own national presumptions recently during a teleconference on assembling online archeological data bases between Egypt, Israel and Jordan. The Jordanians thought it was a fine idea, only the Net doesn't exist in Jordan and isn't anticipated for awhile. Even with the Net's enormous international growth, it doesn't even approach serving one percent of the adult global population. It remains unknown and irrelevant to daily life in the world-at-large.
Confusing improved communications with international community is another easy mistake of technological enthusiasm. Educated Victorian opinion made the same error when hailing the Eastern Cable Company's Suez-Aden-Bombay submarine cable for reinforcing and consolidating the British Empire as a unified community. The sense of closeness engendered when governmental instructions could be wired from London to India within hours was a measure of improved capacities for control of the imperial periphery. In some measure, cyberspace seems to serve as a contemporary equivalent to the early 'All Red Route,' the British-sponsored trans-global cable system that served its commercial and administrative interests. This example underlines how communications globalism and near-simultaneity, two characteristics attributed to 'virtual communities,' have been present for quite awhile. Internet simply sets a new standard for the technical expression of these characteristics. The comparison suggests that ideologies of metropole/periphery relations and international order inform the extension of Internet just as thoroughly and more complexly than its technological predecessor of a century ago, the colonial cable system.
In the skeptical view, global cyberspace lends itself to an elite political voyeurism more readily than to effective activism. Distant lives translate into a gopherspace file organized into a collectivity of deprived subjects and absent even of the materiality of yesterday's newspaper. Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury observes that Third World lives and texts tend to be treated like its natural resources and become grist for First World critical mills. For all its honorable intentions, a project such as the Digital Freedom Network is just an advanced mission civilitrice operating from a safe distance, one that dispenses (negligible) human rights information instead of religious tracts. Perhaps the relevant criterion for assessing subject-description relations here should be the proximity between a class/gender/racial/national experience and cyber-access. In other words, a documentation team from the Palestine Human Rights Data Bank attains a doubled subjectivity; theirs are both the experiences and on-the-scene reports. A community reports on itself, rather than is reported on by others. Where cyberspace can marry collective narrative with collective access, whether near or far, its effectiveness and credibility can only gain.
'Virtual communities,' in short, have become a new governing myth. The opening of new communications paradigms coincides with a yawning and unfulfilled need for community, and communications consumerism persuades us that this dream is available in an electronic affinity group. In its most expansive form, this notion becomes a comprehensive myth of global community. However, as Jonathan Sterne points out, universalism too has been a staple of communications industry rhetoric to encourage infrastructure investment. Communications capital has simultaneous and related mythographic needs for 'community' to facilitate micro-marketing and universalism to ensure market expansion. The challenge for progressive politics will be to separate the technological benefits of cyberspace from its marketing myths.
We are in the midst of a rapidly evolving cyber-machine age that, like the Machine Age of the post-Civil War period in America, is engaged in creating a new quasi-invisible public architecture and social master narrative. Too often in our vision of this cyber-world we are rewriting Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and its quaint 19th-century belief in neat technological utopias. By rushing to subscribe to the avant-gardism of an electronic society, even in some alternative and anti-capitalistic formation, we simultaneously subscribe to that faith in expanding productive forces that has done so much to shape American society, for good or ill. Now as then, emergent cyberspace ideologies commonly promote credence in machine-mediated social relations and their benefits, together with mystifications of individual, community and global relations. Progressive politics should seek to analyse, clarify and demystify these relations. Otherwise there will be little to separate the celebration of cybermachines from the then-progressive 19th-century infatuation with machines as the realization of human liberation. If we embrace cyberspace uncritically without a political consciousness of its structured dreams, then we are certain to awake 'in the tentacles of the octopus.'
(1) These individualistic origins are captured in the name of the 'Electronic Frontier Foundation,' proposed by co-founder John Perry Barlow who likens netsurfers to American pioneers who 'were able to tolerate harsh conditions, like fur traders.' Wired, June 1994, p. 129.
I wish to thank the Bad Subjects Collective, Perkins Foss, Sarah Liu, Jessica Lockard, Mike Mosher and Harry Zindel for their thoughtful comments.
Joe Lockard is a doctoral candidate in English literature at University of California, Berkeley. He teaches at Seminar Hakibbutzim, Tel Aviv, and A.B. Gordon Teachers College, Haifa.