Issue #18, January 1995
Is there liberatory potential in the on-line world at the close of the twentieth century? How does such potential, assuming it exists, differ from liberations offered in other venues? How does the technology of being on-line impact on our liberation, for good or for bad?
I wish it could go without saying that there is no reason to dismiss cyberspace out of hand in the name of a misguided anti-technology stance. There are certainly problems in cyberspace; some of them are closely connected to the very technologies that bring us the joys of cyberspace. But cyberspace is not a bad place just because it is different from the past (nor is it a good place just because it is different, another observation that I wish go could without saying). Too often an analysis of the on-line world begins with the extremist stances of the hardest-core of netgeeks on the one hand and the most virulent of anti-techie folks on the other. Beyond establishing the borders of the debate, such analysis isn't particularly useful. What we need to discover are the liberatory and repressive elements in cyberspace in the 1990s, to the purpose of highlighting possible uses and strategies for progressives willing to confront this new world.
In many ways, this is the easiest and most obvious place to begin, given the structure of the Bad Subjects distribution network. As has been recounted many times, our journal had an estimated readership of upwards of 500 during our first year, when we were not on-line. While we still print the same number of hardcopies in our third year as we did in our first, we have also, for the past year-and-a-half, posted on-line editions of BS on our Internet gopher. I couldn't begin to tell you what our estimated readership is at this point. Making an educated but untrustworthy guess, I'd say it was possible that for every 500 hardcopies of BS, 1000 people read a particular issue, most of those readers coming within a few weeks of publication, before the copies are discarded. Making an uneducated and even more untrustworthy guess, I'd say it was possible that for every 1 copy of BS posted to our on-line gopher, 10000 people read a particular issue, with the shelflife of an on-line issue being virtually infinite: the one copy on the gopher is never discarded, and in fact as other people on-line connect links of their own to the Bad Gopher, the number of available copies of an issue increases.
This represents, among other things, an enormous expansion of the Bad Community. The expansion is not merely in numbers; it is also geographic. The first issue of Bad Subjects was composed and distributed entirely on and around the UC Berkeley campus; we now have readers across the globe (and our hardcopy distribution has increased, as well, thanks to new friendships made on-line ... hardcopies are now distributed as far away as Canada, Israel and New Zealand). It is quite simple: without the technological resources of cyberspace, most people reading this essay would not be reading this essay.
The implications for progressives, as for all groups interested in expanding their audiences, are clear. Cyberspace is a great place to spread the news. The expansion of the audience carries with it certain problems which are not particular to cyberspace. Not everyone who encounters Bad Subjects is necessarily what we might consider to be the Ideal Bad Reader, and the larger our readership, the more likely we are to encounter the less-than-ideal. (This would seem to be a problem for anyone concerned with an expanding audience; for just one example, see "A Conversation About Bruce Springsteen" by myself and Joe Sartelle, in Issue 9 of Bad Subjects.) Nevertheless, being Bad on-line is a bigger proposition than being Bad off-line, and while one can convincingly argue that an unthinking belief in bigger-is-better will destroy anyone who dares attempt such a naive move, the problems are related to the size of the audience, not the method of distribution.
And yet ... it would be silly to suggest that the relationships between the various Bad Subjects on the UC Berkeley campus are no different from the relationships between the various Bad Subjects whose community exists mostly in cyberspace. The on-line Bad community is different from off-line manifestations of the Bad community. Given the power of cyberspace to expand an audience, it is imperative that progressives closely consider the differences in community which can be attributed to on-line technologies, the better to harness whatever liberatory potential might exist in those technologies.
I would point up two areas that require further analysis. First, there still exists a value hierarchy whereby most people would seem to believe that relationships in the real world are better than relationships in cyberspace. While stories of friendships forged on-line are frequent and enjoyable (although he must certainly have tired of hearing this by now, we met our foster son on a local Bulletin Board System back in the early 1980s when the Internet was still something Matthew Broderick could hack in War Games), such stories only seem believable when the punchline includes a meeting in real life. Tales of on-line friendships (I have a friend with whom I exchange reams of Email) are a bit unsatisfying without that punchline (and we finally met face-to-face and got married). That this hierarchy is constructed rather than real goes without saying; however, as long as such notions exist, it would seem that an important aspect of making liberatory use of cyberspace would include punchlines, steps outside of cyberspace where the virtual community is enhanced by non-technological relations.
Second, we must at every moment remind ourselves that the term cyberspace is far too broad to be useful in any but the most general of ways. On-line communities and friendships form and prosper in a variety of virtual modes: private Email, public and private Email lists, public discussion lists, invitation-only discussion lists, and various real-time chat venues. If cyberspace lends itself to different communities than exist in other public spaces, then certainly each of these particular forms of cyber-communities themselves carry certain properties which differentiate them. (My own experience has been that one-on-one real-time chatting on-line leads to more intense personal exposing than any other kind of on-line communication; people seem to be willing to say more when typing in real-time to a friend than they would ever say in any other cyber forum, or real life forum, for that matter.)
There is, of course, a strong political presence on the Internet (and, to a lesser extent, commercial on-line services). The commitment and energy of those who are a part of that presence can not be questioned, and they offer hope to progressives who want to use the net as a political tool. Having said this, I must add that my own impressions of the net suggest that while there is a great diversity of positions and stances, there also seems to be a general trend towards a kind of politics that is not necessarily progressive. At least in the United States, an irascible individualism similar to that espoused throughout U.S. history is evident. This individualism appears to be more libertarian than anarchic (much less leftist), a combination of Don't Tread On Me and Keep Government Out Of My Life that contests outside intrusions into net life with fervor and eloquence. Personal freedoms are at the heart of this individualism, the freedom to say what we want wherever we want to say it, to use the net for whatever purposes we find appropriate ... and, of course, the freedom to do what we want without government interference.
One wonders if there is a clear relationship between the kind of frontier individualism present on the net, and the technologies by which we access the net. While I have argued that on-line communities are not merely virtual but also real, those communities are experienced largely in isolation, as individuals. A physical, material, real life community exists partly as a group of people in the same place at the same time; while each member of the community spends time alone evaluating their relationship to the community at large, eventually decisions are made and actions are taken in the presence of the group. On-line communities seem to flip this scenario on its back: not only evaluation but participation in the on-line community takes place when we are alone, with the important exception of real-time net activities like Chat (I am not referring here merely to our physical selves being alone; I mean that our cyberselves are usually alone within cyber communities ... we read our Email alone, read newsgroups alone, play on the Web alone).
A progressive use of the net would thus need, I think, to emphasize those aspects of the net which encourage or even demand group participation, perhaps especially in real time. While the ability of the net to disperse information quickly to vast areas is important and useful, without connecting that information to communal participation we run the risk of creating well-informed frontier individualists. The Bad Subjects Mailing List, while not real time, nevertheless is an example of one kind of step that can be taken, adding discussion and friendly community to the individual experience of reading the journal. As the interactive potential of the net is fulfilled over time, progressives might seek out ways to utilize these tools to expand our on-line communities (left-wing MUDS?). Anything which combats the apparently inherent solitary nature of experiencing on-line life would be welcomed for any group which wishes to foster community (including, perhaps, getting together as real life groups to access the net; those who have experienced such group access sessions notice that the on-line experience changes in interesting ways).
There is a more dangerous aspect, though, to the matter of isolation and net life. Despite the best efforts of the rich, it is next to impossible for even the privileged to live in the real world entirely without contact with those whose lives are different from their own. From the clerk at the grocery store to the panhandler on the street corner, from the person in the next work cubicle to the fellow commuter on the subway train, we all eventually are confronted with the realities of those outside our own particular circles.
The on-line world is not so messy, however, or rather, it appears to be even messier and more anarchic than real life, but it is actually narrower than our real lives. Certainly you will meet up with people and ideas on-line that you might never have encountered otherwise; this is indeed one of the most exciting and even charming aspects of netlife, the seeming breakdown of hierarchy in relationships. But the hidden members of society, who I suggest in the previous paragraph at some point will always make their presence known in the real world, are effectively cut off from even this limited form of interaction with the powerful in the on-line world. One can indeed avoid on-line contact with large segments of humanity, because access to on-line systems is still limited to specific social groups. I wrote the following two years ago in Bad Subjects; I fear the words are just as pertinent today, if not more so:
What do we do for those of us who cannot, for whatever reasons, access the emerging information networks ... average Joes and Janes who can't afford a computer? I mention this ... because I fear the entrancing nature of communication in cyberspace will lead, not to a better-informed populace, but rather to a more modern version of Walter Benjamin's flaneur, aimlessly wandering the halls of telecommunication, forgetful of our friends without access, imagining that in experiencing cyberspace we are experiencing all of humanity.... I am a great believer in the power of on-line communities. But we must not be forgetful of the systematic exclusion of entire sectors of our society from those communities. For now, it is unfortunately clear, the Information Era is unavailable to many.
Sex Appeal, or I Am a Flaneur
And now we come to Netscape.
Netscape is a program which allows its users to access the World Wide Web in all its multimedia glory. A child of Mosaic, the program which introduced hundreds of thousands of users to the Web, Netscape combines the intuitive nature of hypertext with the flash and, yes, sex appeal of multimedia in a package which is by net standards easy to set up and even easier to use. Microtimes magazine recently named Marc Andreessen, one of the creators of both Mosaic and Netscape and the public face for Netscape as it explodes on the computer world, as its 1994 Man Of the Year, noting that as the whole world caught Web fever, Andreessen's work with Mosaic and then Netscape drove computer-based publishing and communications to whole new frontiers. In an accompanying interview, Andreessen made some comments of interest in the context of a discussion of community and individualism on the net.
Asked to specify exactly how programs like Netscape could be considered empowering, Andreessen stated that "there are no restrictions over what can go over [the Net], what you can do on it.... Increasingly, what you can do, and the next wave of what people are doing on [the Net], is private activities.... do whatever you want. What that doesn't do, it doesn't interfere with any of the other activities that happen on the Net."
Clearly the definition of empowering being employed here is one that promotes individual over communal empowerment. And while Andreessen also notes that non-profit organizations, among others, can take advantage of increased Net access to broaden their horizons, the interview also delves into specific working agreements Netscape Comm. is developing with such progressive, non-profit titans as Bank of America and MCI. (During the writing of this essay, Netscape named an ex-executive of AT&T as their President and CEO.) It would seem that Netscape would not have much to offer for progressive groups interested in a different kind of empowering than one which promotes a you can do what you want on-line, especially if you are Bank of America version of empowerment.
Yet none of this matters once you crank up Netscape and allow it to lead you through the wonders of the Web. From the cute picture of Mozilla, the Netscape Mascot, that greets you when you log onto the Netscape home page, through the immense resources of the Web which are now easy to access, from sound files of your favorite underground rock bands to hot-cha pictures of your favorite Supermodels in various stages of undress, from the Library of Congress to Alex Bennett's World, to play with Netscape is to become the kind of flaneur Walter Benjamin could only have dreamed of. (One wonders what Benjamin might have thought of the rampant mechanical reproduction of everything existing which is part of the Net's appeal; how far removed is the World Wide Web from the original aura of the items which live on the Net?) One can play forever on the Web with Netscape, never really caring (or even knowing) where your travels might lead you, only knowing that you are likely to experience at least one thing for the first time.
A few tools have a marked impact on how we experience the Web, tools which admittedly serve such a needed and useful purpose (like Netscape itself) that we forget to analyze them in our haste to enjoy them. Bookmarks have been a key tool for net browsers of all kinds for quite a while. With bookmarks, the individual user can mark Net locations of interest, in order to instantly access them in the future by merely calling up their personal Bookmark List. In reality, bookmarks don't give you control over what happens on the Internet anymore than programming the buttons in your car radio gives you control over what is broadcast over the airwaves, but bookmarks ARE 'empowering' under the "do whatever you want in private" definition noted above. They 'personalize' the Net; you can learn a lot about someone by simply looking at their bookmarks to see where on the Net they like to return. They also give a feeling of control over the vast near-anarchy of the Net; whenever you feel lost, you can always just check out your bookmarks and visit a familiar locale.
Second, Netscape allows instant access to webpages listing new items of interest on the Net, along with a more idiosyncratic list of 'What's Cool.' Other websites offer similar services, and in fact I myself usually bypass Netscape's new/cool lists in favor of those on the Yahoo site (of course, to simplify this I have Yahoo on my list of bookmarks). Yahoo's website is a joy to behold, a clear and easy-to-use guide to what seems like every single thing on the Net; if I want to find something on the Internet, I always start my search with Yahoo. What is worth wondering about is not those wonderfully productive lists of what is new on the net, but those even more fun lists of what is COOL on the Net. Programs like Netscape and websites like Yahoo are so useful, so fun to use, that it is too easy to fall happily under their spells, forgetting to consider exactly who it is behind the Mozilla mask constructing lists of what is cool on the Net. Victims of the sex appeal of Netscape, we are only too willing to allow some obscure webmaster to decide what is cool enough to warrant our attention. This is not progressive; this is not even particularly useful for cranky individualists. It would seem mostly useful for people who like their pleasures to be guided covertly by unseen forces which hide their actions behind cute pictures of green dragons.
Yahoo offers a corrective to these cool lists, though. Alongside the lists of what is new and what is cool, Yahoo includes a 'random link.' Hit this button and you will be transported to you-dont-know-where. Just about anyplace on the Net is fair game for the random link, which seems to operate under a bizarre technological egalitarianism: one day you're sent to a physics department at a small university, the next day you end up reading Time-Warner publications, the third day you read someone's self-published zine on the politics of everyday life. Using the random link, one becomes a cyber-flaneur, unencumbered by geography, but also, as I suggested earlier, unencumbered by the presence of large sections of society who have no access to the Net, who make no appearances on the Net, who don't get in the way of our appreciation of the Net's sex appeal.
All of these tools, bookmarks, whats new/cool pages, random links, all of these tools are in their own way invaluable to our experience of the on-line world. None of these tools, though, seem to offer any specific progressive utility. Bookmark pages give an individual, illusory sense of control over the Net; new/cool pages accede to the opinions and authority of unknown others; random links are a parlor trick. None of these tools promote community beyond the kind of "I'm a Toys r Us kid" consumer community Bad Subjects has critiqued since Joe Sartelle's essay in the first issue, "As If We Were a Community."
As If We Were a Community
In the context of a discussion of identity politics in the above-mentioned essay, Joe Sartelle wrote:
The left needs a new fiction worth believing in ... one that is realized not through reified categories of identity but through participation in a collective practice. As a Marxist who refuses to consign himself to the ashcan of history, I would suggest that our much-needed new 'fiction' can be found in a militant rediscovery of the old truth of class struggle.
Joe's words carry particular weight in the context of our escape into the Net. For many progressives, the on-line world is one where 'new fictions' can be found, fictions worth believing in. The dangers are those which would turn Marxists into flaneurs, which would substitute sex appeal for the old truth of class struggle. There is no reason to add netlife to the ever-increasing list of areas where the left, by refusing to dirty themselves, abandon power to the right, which never minds being dirty when a war is being fought. The left must not abandon cyberspace just because as currently constructed it is insufficient to the needs of the lower classes. We must be equally vigilant, though, in ensuring that we don't unconsciously abandon those lower classes as we exult in a state of cyber-euphoria. There is a place in the on-line world for real community, for joy and pleasure, for progressive action, for all that we might desire in our utopian new fiction. Cyberspace is too important to be left to Bank of America and MCI.
Steven Rubio thinks Rickie Vasquez is the best thing to happen to network teevee since the invention of the SnackMaster. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.