" (by way of Pit Schultz <>) on Fri, 25 Apr 1997 15:25:25 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> WIREDness: Save or delete?

===> This appeared in the March issue of Perspective,
     a liberal magazine at Harvard.
     Profs: Time out to note what some students are actually 
     thinking about.
                                                        Occupied America

                          Superhighway to Serfdom
   By Jedediah S. Purdy
   The unofficial cultural journal of technophiliacs, Wired offers a
   snapshot of the people who want to define the next century. The
   magazine moves through editorials, fawning interviews, and pious
   profiles to patch together a vision of imminent technological utopia.
   At the same time, in the sorts of polemics that smart high-schoolers
   level at their principals, Wired identifies The Enemy: people gauche
   enough to have jobs making things, people who worry about the
   integrity of communities, people attached to the antique idea of
   living in particular places. We should all pay attention: in the
   struggle for the future, the technophiliacs are winning.
  Surfing the Third Wave
   Wired never tires of reminding us of what Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton,
   and the Tofflers have made a truism: we are now well into the "third
   great revolution" in human history. The first, students of Big History
   will recall, was the Neolithic move from nomadics to agriculture. That
   move has inspired much dissension in the past several centuries, first
   from Rousseau, more recently from would-be nomad Bruce Chatwin and a
   range of radical ecologists. The second, of course, was the Industrial
   Revolution, still notably ongoing in parts of the world but
   nonetheless officially obsolete. From Blake and Dickens through Marx
   to Wendell Berry, nearly everyone has had something bad to say about
   the harbinger of smokestacks and assembly lines. Now the Information
   Age is upon us--and the rules have changed. This time, no criticism is
   allowed, except from "whiners" and "losers." The future is set, Wired
   knows the plan, and resistance is futile.
   Of course, social prophecy is often empty. Wired is playing the same
   game as anyone who has ever wanted the world to be a particular way
   and made up a story about why it Has To Be So. Wired offers a glimpse
   at a world that one group, mostly young and male, mostly getting rich
   or dreaming of it, very much wants--and how they're trying to bring it
  Selling Out the Future
   The first hook for Wired readers is big, fast money. An obsession with
   the World Wide Web as a place to make one's fortune suffuses the
   magazine--from ads to articles, a frenzy for cash is the norm. The aim
   is what Wired merrily calls "the Sell Out," a new version of the
   oldest game of frontier economies. Develop a Web site that looks
   lucrative--as a source of advertising income, user fees, spin-off
   material, or whatever--and sell it to someone before its value is
   tested. Unlike any previous frontier game, except maybe the 1980s junk
   bond market, this one requires no resources but ingenuity. It
   represents the purest form of the cash-for-cleverness formulae that
   dominate the current economy. This is, according to Wired, "The Web
   Dream that smart kids across America--smart kids around the world--are
   dreaming." The point is instant wealth, won by being the one who
   cobbles together something marketable and sells it, rapidly, to the
   highest bidder.
   The Sell Out is also Buy Out, and somebody must be buying. The
   adolescent fantasy of easy money needs a flourishing adult capitalism,
   willing to buy up Web sites and other Internet commodities. That's why
   Wired is emphatically on the side of the global economy. This loyalty
   comes through in an obsequious interview with Texas economist Michael
   Cox, who has recently won attention for his willingness to claim that
   working people are better off now than they were twenty years ago. He
   does this repeatedly and to whoever will listen, insisting that anyone
   willing to follow the old formula of hard work and initiative can get
   rich in America. Cox calls "the most dangerous myth of all" the
   idea--propagated by such renegade myth-makers as the Census
   Bureau--that "the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting
   poorer, and most of us are going nowhere." Debunker Cox warns that
   "This suggests that society should turn against the rich."
   Well. He said it. Rather than press Cox with the numbers behind the
   "myth," Wired's intrepid interviewer responds, "So by attacking the
   system you could end up with a marginalized nation, wedded to outdated
   and backward technology, say, like Britain in the 1970s?" Cox assents,
   pleased at being so well understood. This, like so much else in Wired,
   is weary stuff. The idea that the untrammeled market is a natural
   ideal like a healthy organism and that any effort to redirect it will
   bring us stagnation and poverty is common currency. Continuing with
   the rhetoric of inevitability, Cox opines, "we're ahead in the long
   run if we accept the [economic and technological] change."
   So most of us are going to get rich, if we have the gumption. Some
   will Sell Out, and the rest will make their money by a virtual version
   of the Old-Fashioned Way. But wait: there's more.
  Logging in to the Living Cosmos
   This is the strangest part. Wired is awash in visions of a "new
   tribalism," made possible by the non-hierarchical and fluid
   communities of virtual space. In an interview with Wired , Derrick de
   Kerckhove, heir of media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, proposes that
   "The Web is a guise of language. In a tribal world, the cosmos has a
   presence. It's alive. The tribe shares in this huge, organic reality."
   This is true, allegedly, because language on the Web is at once
   instantaneous--typed and answered in real time--and permanent--it
   enters electronic archives as text. As in a living cosmos, there is
   permanent "stuff," but it is organic, ever-growing and shifting
   Such soaring into metaphysics invites a skeptical examination. De
   Kerckhove's view amounts to saying the Web lets us read magazines just
   as they come out, send letters without a three-day delay, and converse
   without the bother of seeing each other. Information junkies, hurry
   freaks, and the terminally shy may find all this a godsend, but a
   person has to be deep in technophiliac mysticism to take it for a
   "huge, organic reality." The claim is preposterous, really.
   Equally preposterous, but critical to the Wired version of the future,
   is the notion that our sensual experience is enhanced by participation
   in virtual tribes. De Kerckhove claims that, "As you eliminate your
   body on the Web, you recuperate it in your physical location.
   Sometimes you have a body, sometimes you don't. If you have a body,
   you are so there that your relationship with the world is what I call
   proprioceptive. It's tactile." Of course, all this trades on the
   notion that hunching over a keyboard typing to chat-room partners
   means "eliminating your body" so as to return as if from another
   plane. Even if that were true, the idea that our ordinary experience
   should be somehow richer on getting up from the keyboard rings hollow,
   and makes sense only on de Kerckhove's peculiar conviction that
   experiencing the "living cosmos" of the Web breathes new life into the
   actual cosmos as well. These are strong claims for no-wait magazines
   and chat rooms.
   What's more, going tribal is supposed to connect us with the animal
   nature that we lost during the Industrial Age. Wired devotes a spread
   to the work of Photoshop-obsessive Daniel Lee, who combines shots of
   people and animals to produce--of course--"manimals." The magazine
   remarks that "Lee understands that humanity is still wedded to its
   feral past." Lee, like de Kerckhove, imagines that computer technology
   is the way to release our essential ferality.
   In the inevitable future, then, we will all be rich, tribal, tactile,
   and feral. Unless one's mind chances to flash on Leona Helmsley, it
   all sounds great. Unsettlingly, though, another future emerges here
   and there in the pages of Wired which suggests distinctly less idyllic
  From Virtual to Actual
   Economist Cox is a little too enthusiastic. He talks a little too
   much. And so he gives away the game. He gladly declares, "You're going
   to have to change what you do, how you do it, where you work, what you
   produce. You need to do this because we're moving, and it's OK." OK
   for some people, maybe, including Michael Cox. However, the change he
   describes sounds more coercive than anything one would expect from a
   living cosmos. Indeed, despite de Kerckhove's declaration that, "On
   the Web, Karl Marx's dream has been realized; the tools and the means
   of production are in the hands of the workers," the scene sounds more
   like one of Marx's nightmares; as we once moved peasants from farms to
   factories, we now move workers from factories to cubicles. For the
   person being moved, the experience is far from "OK."
   Cox goes on to observe that new skills are at a premium in the new
   economy. "How you treat people. . . has become much more important now
   that we're in a service economy. The ability to pamper people is worth
   a lot more today." This is a crucial slip. In referring to the service
   economy, Cox violates the Wired principle that everyone in the
   Information Age will be a Web jock. Instead, most of us will work in
   Wal Mart (which now employs a population as large as South Dakota's),
   or at Starbuck's, pouring coffee for the Information Elite. There, the
   defining skill will be sucking up. Cox doesn't say whether, after an
   eight-hour shift at the latte machine, we can expect our relation to
   the world to be proprioceptive.
   There are other stress lines. Daniel Lee's manimals appear alongside a
   story on "smart farms," where planting, weeding, and harvesting can be
   conducted entirely by computerized robots. Describing an automated
   herbicide sprayer, Wired rhapsodizes, "When a weed is spotted, the
   computer gives the order: Death from above." All this may be the
   natural upshot of the mass-production farms that have become the norm
   in a half-century's devastation of the rural economy, but it's a far
   cry from tactile experience of a living cosmos. When our relations to
   the natural world are mediated by microchips, Romantic mysticism will
   be dead beyond all recovery.
   In other words, the actual future will be, for most people, a service
   economy where wages go to buy computer-farmed food and, perhaps, new
   entertainment software. No wonder Cox is so concerned about the
   suggestion that "society should turn against the rich." He fears the
   doomsayers in "government, labor, and the media" who describe a newly
   brutal economy. He abhors "the return of the Luddites," here meaning
   anyone who resents losing her job to a microchip. In other words, he
   worries that a democratic nation will turn against unmitigated
   capitalism and technological change. Politics is only relevant if
   people haven't given up on democracy as a way of shaping their own
   futures. Cox's talk and Wired's overall tone of mocking hostility to
   politics suggest that such a surrender would delight the Information
   Maybe this mistrust of democracy explains Wired's admiration for
   Walter Wriston, a retired international banker who appears on the
   cover of the October 1996 issue. Wriston remarks that "the old concept
   of sovereignty, as governmental acts that cannot be reviewed by any
   other authority, is no longer valid." The ascendant "other authority,"
   of course, is the global market, represented by multi-national
   corporations, the strictures of NAFTA and GATT, and the like. Which
   means that democracy, strictly speaking, is dead. Wired looks forward
   to a world where the market will be secured against the irresponsible
   fears and aspirations of ordinary people.
  What It All Means, and How We Could Change It
   In the end, it's hard not to write off much of Wired's rhapsodizing
   as juvenile froth. The magazine features a lengthy discussion of
   "smart" warfare, in which computer-designed viruses could "melt the
   bones" of selected populations while wounded soldiers regenerated
   their limbs through genetic engineering. A geneticist speculates about
   breeding animal-human hybrids. An article on Nevada's Burning Man
   festival, a counterculture performance-art event staged each year in
   an isolated desert, features a few columns of tepid prose and several
   pages of bare-breasted and nude female participants. This mix of
   push-button violence and anonymous sex is familiar from the worst sort
   of adolescent fantasy novel--or, nowadays, role-playing video games.
   To an extent, Wired is just the self-indulgent chest-thumping of
   little boys who haven't grown up.
   The magazine is really more than that, though, for a pair of reasons.
   First, it exemplifies one strand of apology for the global market. We
   will hear more of this in coming years as the new techno-elite tries
   to justify its dominance by appealing to both economic necessity and
   individual freedom. Progressives need to know this rhetoric in order
   to deflate it.
   Second, adolescent or not, Wired's view of "freedom" is widespread
   nowadays and deserves note wherever it appears. It is par excellence
   the freedom of the consumer society, the freedom to have whatever you
   can pay for, whenever you want it, and for exactly as long as you want
   it. It is freedom that runs roughshod over the hard requirements of
   community, ecology, and any love that is not a momentary act of desire
   but instead a glad, enduring, and necessarily limiting labor. This
   idea of freedom finds an apogee in the disembodied "communities" of
   the Web, where technophiliacs go where they like, for exactly as long
   as they like, and for as long as they can pay for it. These fleeting,
   selective encounters always detract from time in real communities and
   embodied relationships, and the hollow idea of freedom that Wired
   advances erodes such fragile goods still more.
   Finally, Wired 's blathering mysticism, and even its transformation of
   Burning Man into a pornography festival, amount to a caricature of
   some important ideas. There are thinkers who have spent lifetimes
   reflecting on the idea of a living cosmos as one which we might
   recapture and who recognize how basically hostile a Wired economy is
   to that idea. These include founding deep ecologist Arne Naess,
   agrarian Wendell Berry, and poet W.S. Merwin. They have offered
   consistent opposition to the untrammeled capitalism and self-indulgent
   individualism that Wired purveys. By touting an inane variant of these
   aspirations, Wired discredits a rich and valuable strand of
   contemporary thought.
   Reading Wired, then, shows us exactly what we will have to resist in
   the coming decades. Resistance means supporting pro-democracy projects
   like the New Party and freshly progressive labor unions, lending a
   hand to the Greens and other ecological movements that take a living
   cosmos seriously, and turning a chilly eye to claims for the necessity
   and inherent goodness of the dawning information economy. Banker
   Walter Wriston predicts that, in the next few years, "People invested
   in yesterday will fight to the last person." The same should be true
   of people committed to a better tomorrow than Wired offers.

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