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Theme and variations on the Net seen from France

3 - For the Keyboard

                         But back to the speech by Mr. Baker of the NSA.
                         (...) I'd like to make an even more amusing
                         observation-that I've seen scarier secret police
                         agencies than his completely destroyed by a Czech
                         hippie playwright with a manual typewriter.

                         Bruce Sterling (1994).

Everybody says this, and every statistic points towards this: Personal
computing is not accessible by everyone, neither is the Internet. This is so
because of regrettable but inescapable financial and cultural reasons, which
should inspire more restraint to the enthusiastic defenders of direct
democracy through the telecom networks. The Net must not become, as is
sometimes wished, the compulsory medium for citizenship: it may legitimately
help people circumvent some laws or subvert authoritarian governments, but
it must not short-circuit parliaments elected normally. This would create a
totalitarianism of technology, a situation as iniquitous as that which
prevailed in the south of the United States when, in order to circumvent the
15th Amendment to the Constitution, some states prevented people who could
not read from voting. Those who cannot or will not access computer keyboards
would be excluded from society at large. This is of course unacceptable.

But at a time when it is fashionable to pretend that the computer is the new
tool used by the white male Žlite for the furtherance of their domination
over the rest of the world, and to accuse Internet users of having
outrageous social privileges, I find it interesting to set a few things
straight and to expose the motivations of some persons or groups who in
various ways fight personal computing and the Net as it exists now. Several
converging logics are at work to combat the libertarian values which give
personal computing its meaning and structure as an autonomous activity and
new culture of the end of our millennium. I think I can identify three: a
political logic, unacceptable but predictable, from the various right-wing,
conservative parts of the spectrum; another political logic, a perverse one,
from the "politically correct" end of the same spectrum; and a commercial
logic, from some parts of the electronic industry.

Conservatives are eponymously wary of novelties. They have always fought the
persons who escaped the control of institutions to express themselves, from
Socrates to Giordano Bruno and now Phil Zimmerman. They have always
condemned technological evolution when the latter changed the structure of
power in their societies. And since the printing press appeared-this
diabolical invention which freed books from the confines of abbeys, pushed
categories of population that were supposed to be obedient to learn how to
read and to question sacred dogmas-they have learned to combat the
revolutionary potential of information technology. (As Bruce Sterling notes
in the passage I quoted, they have not always been very successful at this .
. .) But already those conservatives who realize what is at stake with the
generalization of personal computing are putting all their weight in the
balance to fight against it. For the moment, they are not really
dangerous-no one is genuinely afraid of Senator Exon or French philosopher
Paul Virilio. Yet, one should expect their influence to grow in the years to

Personal computing seen as a threat

Because computing is, whether we want it or not, linked to power, and
constitutes as such an truly essential political battleground. The idea of
personal computing is seen by many as heretical in nature since the PC, like
a typewriter, better than a typewriter, gives power to the person who uses
it, and even more power to the persons who connect their machines over a
network. It may seem ridiculous to try and find where exactly this power is
situated, but the question is in fact relevant. The power is not that of the
processor on the mother-board, as is often thought; nor does it lie in the
definition of the screen-else TV would not be the instrument of submission
that we know. It can be found rather in the keyboard, in the recordable
memory and in the capacity to send information over the network-of the same
nature and at the same rate as it is received.

If we understand this, we can understand a number of past and future events
in the world of digital technology. We can understand that conservatives,
who want power to stay in the hands of recognised institutions that they
control (armies, governments, churches, big businesses) do not fight
technology as a whole, but the techniques which allow individuals to write,
to create things, rather than spend their free time to consume TV
programmes. We can understand the obstacles put in the way of the marketing
of the DAT (Digital Audio Tape) recorder: DATs constituted a recordable
memory that was judged too simple to use, which would have given too much
power to individuals.

We can understand why computer networking ˆ la franaise, designed by the
state company France Telecom in a very de Gaullian way, has rested on a
truncated computer, "Minitel," which has no recordable memory and sends data
16 times less quickly than it receives it. It does have a keyboard, since
when it was introduced graphical interfaces hardly existed, but great care
has been put in rendering this keyboard as awkward to use as possible.

And we understand at last the well-kept secret which most projects linked to
the generic term "information highway" have in common as an essential
constituent, what the true reasons are for building a high-bandwidth net
modelled on cable TV which could choke the Net as we know it,
short-circuiting personal computing, and making data available through a
"box" without a keyboard, plugged on the TV to take advantage of the
(relatively) high definition of the screen and piloted with a control not
entirely unlike a seganintendo joystick, with no more than ten keys. The
users of this new toy would be well-behaved consumers and would not risk
being initiated in the dangerous culture of virtuality. Only a caste of
computer-literate technicians would know how to produce information, just
like before the invention of the printing press only monks could access the
written word (and even then, not any written word-see The Name of the Rose
by Umberto Eco).

Unnatural alliances

All this would be laughable if other groups did not find it useful to attack
in their turn the memory, the idea of symmetrical outputs and even more the
keyboard. "Politically correct" people, those who can only view the world
from the angle of egalitarianism and the fight against exclusion, who dub
themselves "forces of progress" in my country, have in this regard extremely
dangerous things to say, which I have had the opportunity to analyse and
disprove in a previous article (1). Let us summarize quickly. These people
say that the main effect of the new information technologies is the division
of society into two classes: information haves and have-nots, or, as coined
in French by Jo‘l de Rosnay, the "inforich" and the "infopoor." This
division, which is more cultural than financial, is according to them, evil
incarnate and should be combated at all costs. Which leads them to
objectively ally with the conservatives and in their turn reproach personal
computer users with having too much power.

Their way of thinking is characteristic of Marxist and/or Christian groups,
i.e. of groups which are not particularly known for their energy in
defending the revolutionary slogan (which has become the official motto of
the French Republic) Liberty-Equality-Fraternity. This could be seen for
example in the way a participant revealed her true thoughts in an TV show
last October (Michel Field's L'Hebdo), when she loudly attacked Internet
users in her conclusion to a debate. "Freedom for some people only is not
freedom as I see it," she said triumphantly. A noble, generous statement.
However, if she had possessed even a rudimentary historical culture, she
could have seen that the same applies to the kinds of freedom brought by the
virtual age as it did in previous times. At the beginning, the choice is not
between freedom for some and freedom for all, but between freedom for some
and freedom for nobody. And we are still at the very beginning of the
virtual age.

Pushing to the extreme the normal desire to reduce the cultural obstacles to
the access of the greatest number of people to the Net, egalitarians who
will have the opportunity to give their opinion on the Information Highway
will want computing accessible to the individuals to be simple, more than
that: to be simple enough for an ignorant to use it. OK to the Net, but only
if it connects machines piloted with four keys and a joystick and if the
documents sent over the wires are suitable for the general public-which
implies by the way the setting up of a surveillance committee whose mission
would be, as expressed in Newspeak, to "protect the weakest from the
contents which could harm them."

Face with this convergence of the conservatives and the politically correct
left, it would be nice to think we can count on the computer manufacturers
to put on the market cheap but complete machines for potential users with
little financial means. It would be possible thus to see a great number of
students build for themselves a true virtual culture. But no extraordinary
power of analysis is required to see that since the appearance on the market
of the first personal computer, the price of configurations never stops
going down while staying the same. Of course, the raw computing power of a
machine sold FF13 000 ($2 900) was worth at least five times as much two
years ago. Yes indeed, if the airplane industry had progressed at the speed
of the computing industry since the Second World War, a Mirage 2000 would
cost as much as a teddy bear. But anyone wishing to buy a new mid-range
computer must pay as much as 5 years ago: approximately FF13 000 ($2 900,
including the sales tax) in our country. In addition used computers are made
to appear more obsolescent than they could be. And there exist almost no
independent user groups which could provide the technical help that the
industry has ceased to give to users of old machines and early versions of
well-known software packages-at least here in France, I do not know if this
is the same in the US.

This is all the more frustrating as simultaneously the market for truncated
computers, those our political adversaries would like to see installed,
ersatz machines which do not give the full measure of the virtual culture,
evolves rather differently. The Hot-Java project, based more or less on
improved "Minitels" has the support of a large part of the industry. A
state-of-the-art playstation, which is nothing more than a computer without
any keyboard and almost deprived of recordable memory, sell here for about
FF3 000 ($650). As if a rising number of manufacturers were in their turn in
the business of discouraging their customers of acquiring power tools,
especially keyboards.

Is this going to last? I am a bit afraid it will, but I do not know exactly.
Maybe we can count on the public, even if people most of the time do not
realize what is at stake, to ask for complete computers rather than
substitutes. We can all work at our level to allow this to happen and help
people around us to realize what personal computing, whether networked or
not, can bring them practically speaking. I think it is particularly urgent
in France to get a rising number of women to take an interest in the virtual
culture. Among the points at stake here is something absolutely essential:
the human richness of the Net. I will discuss this at length here next
year-in a dischordant manner, as can be expected. In the meantime, I will
spend the rest of 1995 to work on another dissonant variation of Dischord
for you to read in January.

30 November 1995
translated by the author, 3 December 1995

[1] "Oui ˆ la diffŽrence inforiches-infopauvres", not yet available on the
web, not yet translated into English (though I plan to work on it rather
soon), but I will nevertheless send this article by e-mail to anyone who
asks for it.

              This issue of Cybersphre is sponsored by [ROL]

Mark Tribe