Richard Barbrook on Tue, 16 Dec 1997 00:56:57 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Collective Intelligence: Mankind's Emerging World in Cyberspace by Pierre Levy

Collective Intelligence: Mankind's Emerging World in Cyberspace by Pierre
Levy, Plenum, New York, $27.95, ISBN 0306456354

The Net has become our symbol for the future. Like clocks, steam engines and
nuclear power for earlier generations, we use this icon of technology to
imagine what will result from our current period of rapid social change. In
Collective Intelligence, Pierre Levy provides a French vision of what will
happen when everyone can participate within cyberspace.

Up until now, because the Net was mainly developed in California, it is not
surprising that our view of the digital future has long been dominated by
gurus from this state. So far, the Californians have proved to be better at 
making virtual machines than social analyses. Some of their cyber-theories
promise not just the invention of synthetic life, but even immortality
through  uploading our brains into cyberspace.

But lurking behind this techno-mysticism is something much more sinister. In
Wired magazine, John Perry Barlow, Kevin Kelly and other Californian
ideologues assert that the Net is the sort of unregulated marketplace up to
now found only in economics textbooks. Instead of supporting a caring
society, they hope that technological progress into the 21st century will
inevitably lead back to 19th-century tooth-and-claw capitalism. Their utopia
looks like most other people's dystopia.

Levy's book is important because it advocates an alternative future for the
Net. As a French intellectual, he doesn't accept free market dogmas. This
approach is not simply morally preferable. It is also a precondition for any 
coherent analysis of what's really happening in the Net. Contrary to the
predictions of Wired, it has proved difficult to create a profitable digital
economy. While existing products can be promoted or sold online, most Net
users are reluctant to pay for visiting Web sites--or even to click on the
advertising links placed on them. So why can't the cybercapitalists easily
turn the Net into another form of commercial media?

This is because the entrepreneurs were the last people to arrive in
cyberspace. Originally invented for military purposes, the Net was quickly
hijacked by academics and amateurs as a cheap--even free--method of
distributing information and communicating with colleagues. Within
cyberspace, most users participate in discussions or publish their work for
the pleasure of others recognising their efforts. When Net enthusiasts
proclaim that "information wants to be free", they mean it literally.
Rather than being just a business opportunity, Levy claims instead that the
Net is a qualitatively new way of living. In the tradition of French
philosophy, he explains this insight with a grand abstraction. Inspired by
the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Levy describes how four
types of social spaces have emerged that allow  us to live in different
ways. Back in the distant past, we wandered the open space of the Earth as
nomads. With the emergence of agriculture, we then built the fixed space of
the Territory. For the past couple of centuries, increasing numbers of us
have survived within the industrialised space of the Commodity. Now we are
witnessing the emergence of a fourth way of living: the space of Knowledge
formed by cyberspace. Within this virtual world, individuals can think and
discuss with each other freely. Once everyone is wired up, we will come
together as the "collective intelligence": an inclusive society borne out of
the Net. Cyberutopia is imminent. 
Levy's visionary anthropology is therefore diametrically opposed to that  of
the Californian ideologues. Instead of forming a perfect market, the Net
opens the space of Knowledge. Crucially, this new space is completely
distinct from the space of the Commodity. When we are online, we want to
learn, play and communicate with one another rather than to make money.
Above all, we want to participate within the "collective intelligence"
because we suffer from individual alienation caused by capitalism. Like many
of the West Coast gurus with whom he takes issue, Levy can become mystical
about his vision of cyberspace.
Inspired by Islamic theology, he says in one chapter that the "collective
intelligence" is rather similar to God. This New Age rhetoric disguises,
however, a specific form of politics. Nearly thirty years on, Levy still
champions the most radical demands of the New Left of the Sixties. Back
then, these revolutionaries believed that replacing governments or
nationalising industries would change very little. Instead, they thought
that the ills of modern society could be cured only by everyone directly
controlling their own lives. In the industrialised countries, this was
prevented by the professionalisation of politics and the passivity of
watching television. The New Left therefore demanded the simultaneous
creation of direct democracy and interactive media. Once people were no
longer represented by others, everyone would be able to participate in the
running of society. According to Levy, the Net is about to realise this
1960s revolutionary dream. What proved to be impractical in the past is now
possible with new digital technologies. Once we all have access to
cyberspace, we will be able to determine our own destiny through a real-time
direct democracy: the "virtual agora". According to Levy, cyberspace
therefore is the online version of a hippie commune. 

While emphasising the Net's noncommercial aspects is preferable to
Californian freemarket platitudes, this New Left cybertheory has its own
problems. Above all, the formalist method of French philosophy obscures as
much as it illuminates. By abstracting too far into theory, Levy avoids
examining the messy nature of human activity. For instance, there is in
reality no clear separation between the Net and the rest of industrial
society. Over the past few centuries, the development of both the market and
the state has only been possible through constant improvements in the
technologies of physical and symbolic communications. The Net itself is
created out of the convergence of already existing industries: telephony,
media and computing. What is happening in cyberspace is the intensification
of previous trends rather than something completely new. If the Californian
ideologues think that the Net can only be a market, then Levy makes exactly
the opposite error.
Despite its noncommercial aspects, the Net isn't a world completely
separated from moneymaking. Big corporations contribute to the Net from
building PCs to laying networks. Small companies help from writing software
to making Web sites. Because the Net has to be a total break with the past,
Levy can never admit that one of its major uses is for business communications.
By ignoring the world of work, Levy crucially cannot explain why the Net was
developed as a hi-tech gift economy in the first place. Invented by
scientists, this technology was originally designed to facilitate a specific
way of working. In their specialist fields, the direct application of
markets hampers research. Instead of trading with each other, scientists
"give" articles to journals and "present" papers at conferences.
Now scientists are no more moral than anyone else. In their professions, the
gift economy is adopted because it is a more effective way of working. When
the Net expanded beyond its founders, its new users have unconsciously
adopted this scientific behaviour. Although commercial interests are using
the Net, many others have discovered the benefits of working within the
hi-tech gift economy. Rather than forming a "collective intelligence",
cyberspace is facilitating new types of collective labour. 
Despite these faults, Levy's book is still a useful corrective to the
free-market orthodoxy coming out of the West Coast. It is preferable to
overemphasise the role of the gift economy within cyberspace than to ignore
it altogether. However, both the Californian and French visions of the
digital future do share a common vice: the desire to impose a rigid model on
an evolving social phenomenon. Yet, the Net precisely encourages the
hybridisation and intermixing of different ways of behaving. If we really
want to comprehend the digital future, we will have to move beyond the
abstractions of both California and France.

Richard Barbrook is a member of the Hypermedia Research Centre, University
of Westminster <>

A remix by Mike Holderness is available in New Scientist, book review
section, 13/12/97  <>

Dr. Richard Barbrook
Hypermedia Research Centre
School of Communications, Design & Media
University of Westminster
Watford Road
Northwick Park

+44 (0)171-911-5000 x 4590

"...the History of the World is nothing but the development
of the Idea of Freedom." - Georg Hegel

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