Technology and Liberation in a Messianic Age
Issue #51, October 2000
The computer, the collapse of communism, and the millennial anniversary of the birth of Christ are all topics of much discussion in recent years. The fact that these subjects arise at the same historical moment presents an opportunity for us to examine how they are connected and what these connections mean.
We are constantly reminded that this is the "Age of Information." But after many such ages -- the Machine Age, the Atomic Age, and so on -- one is tempted to call this era the "Age Age" simply because we seem to have become so fond of giving the particular time in which we live a name that sounds important. To speak of Ages is to speak of a spans of years. Because in recent centuries the world has had to accept (in many cases unwillingly) the Christian dating system, it would be more accurate to call this the Age of the Messiah. Further, there is more to this name than superficial chronological significance. The concept of a redeemer, a liberator, or a deliverer is much closer to the state of mind that is prevalent today than is the innocuous and ambiguous term information. Whether or not one accepts Jesus as our savior, the idea that we need to, and will, be saved has been the fundamental idea of Western society since long before Christ. In fact, the idea began with Zoroaster and was refined by the Jews but only came to global dominance with the conquest of most of the world by Christian countries.
This idea of redemption contains within it many assumptions that most of us make without question. Redemption means there is a future. It means there is change. It means that awaiting us there is a better world in which the suffering of the present is eliminated. In the Enlightenment, the worship of Christ as bringer of redemption was supplemented by humanist conceptions of redemption that led to the French and American revolutions and their designation of the "People" as the highest earthly authority (beneath God). In Enlightenment thought, the People would deliver themselves from the inequities and iniquities of monarchy, autocracy and religious dogma.
Subsequently, Marxism took this humanism to its logical conclusion and specifically identified the redemptive future as a classless, stateless society in which all humanity shared the wealth it produced in common. This vision is not unlike the vision Christ is purported to have preached. But regardless of these developments of form -- as significant as they are -- the substance of Messianic thinking remained the same. And now it is embedded in the contemporary discussion and promotion of the computer.
The promises made by the apostles of these new electronic devices bear a striking resemblance to the promises made by religious and political leaders. They can be reduced to two basic visions: freedom from work, and a better life. It takes a real leap of faith to believe that computers, or the Internet, have the capability to make these promises true. But such a leap of faith is precisely what we are all being cajoled and entreated to make every day. The skeptics are offered a carrot: the temptation of acquiring vast riches in the stock market; and a stick: the specter of being 'left behind', a condemnation that implies poverty, social ostracism, and personal irrelevance. Following a century that witnessed the horrors wrought by the Atomic Bomb, the Holocaust, and massive environmental destruction, people can be excused if they have become less than enamored with science and technology. It is hard to argue the unambiguous good of 'progress' in a world where the results of virtually all such claims have been -- without exaggeration -- catastrophic. The fact that tools are useful does not necessarily make them liberating. No device automatically, by itself, guarantees freedom from work or a better life. The fact that the new tools (computers, the Internet) are useful does not make them an exception in the history of tools. But the sales pitch is an exception to those that have come before, and it is far more insidious than the pitch made by washing machine manufacturers and vacuum cleaner salesmen (although the housewives of America were promised an end to the drudgery of their lives in advertising campaigns in the '50s).
This is where the three-way relationship between the collapse of communism, technology, and liberation becomes evident. First of all, the computer and the internet were both developed by the US government long ago with taxpayers' dollars. Initially, their main application was in military use. But later they were used by business, science, academics, and specialized fields such as graphic design and music and film production. Their ideological and propagandistic function was secondary. This function was developed during the eighties when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were promulgating policies designed to address the West's stagnant economies and falling rates of profit. Vast transfers of wealth were engineered at the governmental level whereby these problems could be, at least temporarily, alleviated -- at the expense of the masses, of course. These policies were implemented in the name of the free market, and were full of rhetoric that had been largely discredited during the sixties regarding the liberatory character of the capitalist system. It was capitalism, we were reminded, that gave the workers leisure time and the wherewithal to travel and enjoy the good life as opposed to the drab, gray, gulag of the communist east. Though the Soviet and Chinese revolutions had long since ceased to be beacons of light for the world's oppressed, they still played an important role in the tenuous balance of power worked out in the wake of World War II. The unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 left the US and its G7 partners in the embarrassing position of having to deliver on their promises of freedom from work and a better life that they had dangled in front of the populace to mobilize them as producers, consumers, and soldiers. This was a tough task made tougher by the fact that every evil necessitated by this system is justified by the promise of JOBS! Now the world was safe for democracy. But for most of us in the triumphant West things didn't look much different than they had before the eighties. In fact, since the Reagan era more and more of the US has looked like a third world country, with poverty and despair bursting from the widening cracks in the edifice of opportunity. This is where computers begin to play their role in the ideology of capitalism.
Along came these new gadgets that are manufactured for peanuts in Malaysia and sell like hotcakes in America. Around the time of Clinton's reelection the hype promoting computers' liberatory promise got hot. Just to keep up appearances, we were originally promised the 'information superhighway,' inherently democratic, available to all and more or less for free. (One of the peace dividends -- remember them?) But who says 'information superhighway' any more? Now it's all about e-commerce. And it's expensive. But regardless, the underlying theme of the public dialogue about computers is that this technology will mean liberation. Even more, liberation is this technology! Because in the absence of an enemy, or rather, without another world war to fight, capitalism is faced with a classic crisis of overproduction. Lacking a massive destruction that our society can busy itself rebuilding from, some other kind of huge infrastructural project must be substituted. This is the liberation represented by all the technological ramifications of computers, the Internet, telecommunications, and digitalization in general. A complete, worldwide infrastructural retooling. But how to enlist the masses in this project when the benefits will all accrue to the giant corporate entities that own virtually everything? We need to be convinced that among the many marvels offered by these new things is the magical quality of happiness. As the market is 'freed,' so will we be freed. As the communications revolution expands, so will our lives be revolutionized.
From a historical perspective, such assertions are absurd. We are therefore given a choice (this is a free country, right?) to reject history or reject such assertions. It is America's gift to the world that the past can simply be put behind us with a wave of the hand and an enthusiastic, "Westward Ho!" Because there is no more "Westward" to "Ho," we now have cyberspace. Because there is no freedom from work we have jobs -- more than we could ever want. Because there is no better life, we have endless entertainment; fantasy lives that allow us to escape the real lives that are not getting better. And this is not mere rhetoric. This is exactly what is happening.
In a moral sense, the perversity here is the Lie. This liberatory promise of computers is a deliberate falsehood that is being broadcast night and day in every conceivable format and medium. Advertising itself is a kind of lying, so this should come as no surprise. But what becomes of a society that is so thoroughly saturated with deception? How can relations between actual people in such a society be clean and healthy? How can young people form the ideals with which to envision a different kind of social relations? How can their parents advise and guide them?
In a political sense, there will be a reckoning and it will not be too far off. Because liberation still does mean to set free from imprisonment or oppression. Because revolution still does mean to overthrow rulers. Because the vision of social justice and an egalitarian distribution of the fruits of human labor is what the Messiah promised, and people still invest their hopes and aspirations in that promise. Because no machine ever liberated anyone anywhere.
In spite of the awe that new technologies may inspire, they cannot, in and of themselves, change the way people treat each other. That is the real task before us. Tools can be useful if the purpose of their use is clear. But as Bob Marley once sang, "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds."
Mat Callahan is a musician, composer, producer, author, and community activist.