Richard Barbrook on Tue, 3 Feb 1998 08:37:37 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> 'Rewired' book review

David Hudson in association with eLine Productions,
Rewired: a brief (and opinionated) net history,
Macmillan Technical Publishing, Indianapolis IA 1997,
pp. 327, US$ 29.99.

The publication of 'Rewired' represents a new
phenomenon: the book-of-the-web-site. Successful films
and TV series have long been repackaged into books.
Now, for the first time, popular web sites are
spawning hardcopy versions of themselves. For over two
years, the REWIRED e-zine has been publishing articles
and holding discussions on the social and cultural
issues affecting the Net. As its name suggests,
REWIRED has particularly targeted the wacky positions
championed by 'Wired' magazine, the mouthpiece of the
West Coast cyber-elite. By publishing 'Rewired', David
Hudson has provided a clear and well-argued summary of
what has been happening on the REWIRED web site during
the last couple of years. For this reviewer, there
even is the peculiar pleasure of seeing my own
personal appearances in REWIRED once again!

The traditional form of the book has one major
advantage over the web site: a clear narrative
structure. Although some commentators celebrate the
non-linear nature of hypertext, users are often
overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of interlinked
information available on the web. Hudson has usefully
edited the large amount of material found on the
REWIRED site into a linear analysis of the history and
politics of cyberspace. However, unlike other Net
books, 'Rewired' is not a tale of specific
technologies or particular companies. Above all, the
author doesn't claim that the development of the Net
is realising some science fiction dream, such as the
creation of 'artificial life'. On the contrary, Hudson
has written his history to demonstrate the importance
of ordinary people in the construction of cyberspace.

As the author explains, individuals have been
subverting the official purposes of the Net from its
very beginning. The U.S. military initially funded the
early experiments in network communications to enhance
its nuclear war fighting capabilities. Yet academics
involved in these pioneering developments quickly
transformed the new communications system into a tool
for working, playing and gossiping together. Even in
the present age of glossy corporate web sites, the
success of an e-zine like REWIRED demonstrates how the
Net still retains its hacker roots. As Hudson points
out, the "killer app" of cyberspace is not a
particular piece of software, but the people who
inhabit it.

This humanist history of the Net has a definite
political purpose. Hudson wants to refute the mystical
positivism championed by 'Wired' magazine. For
instance, its editors believe that the latest
developments in genetics prove that our minds are
controlled by memes: the biological equivalents of
self-propagating computer viruses. This pseudo-
scientific nonsense would be simply laughable if it
did not hide a particularly nasty form of politics. As
Hudson shows, what appears to be 21st century
biobabble is really the revival of 19th century Social
Darwinism. In issue after issue, the editors of
'Wired' have claimed that historically specific
phenomenon of market capitalism is founded on
ahistorical natural laws. Crucially, they predict that
the spread of the Net will remove any need to
compromise the purity of neo-liberal economics with
state intervention, including help for the sick and
needy. While posing as radical futurists, the editors
of 'Wired' act as cheerleaders for the reactionary
policies of Newt Gingrich, the conservative
Congressional leader.

For anyone who still has illusions in the progressive
nature of 'Wired', the most revealing section of
Hudson's book will be its truly scary interview with
Louis Rossetto, the founder of the magazine. Sounding
like a West Coast version of Mussolini, Rossetto rants
against the corrupting effects of electoral democracy,
minimum wages, welfare provisions and other
collectivist iniquities introduced by the Left. In
their place, he celebrates the victory within the
marketplace of the heroic cyber-capitalist: a
Nietzschean Superman emerging from the fusion of
information technologies with biological advances.
Although wrapped up in science fiction rhetoric,
Rossetto's politics are thus completely atavistic. As
Hudson exposes in great detail, this authoritarianism
is not simply ideological. Within 'Wired', writers who
have dared to question its neo-liberal 'party line'
quickly found out that their articles were censored -
and that they were purged from the magazine's staff.
Fearful of serious debate, Rossetto ensured that all
his critics were silenced.

Because so few people within the USA challenge the
conservative politics of 'Wired', the publication of
'Rewired' is an important event over there. For
instance, Hudson's historical approach is useful for
reminding Americans that the Net was invented using
their tax dollars rather than through market
competition. Above all, the author shows how 'Wired'
magazine's vision of the future is really a return to
an imaginary past. However, even after exposing such
intellectual flaws, Hudson's book has one
dehabilitating weakness: its pessimism about any Left
alternative to the retro-futurism of 'Wired'. Despite
ending 'Rewired' with a look at the potential of
community networks, Hudson accepts that cyberspace
will inevitably be swallowed up by commercial
interests. Much worse, he remains mesmerised by the
sheer ideological fervour of the hi-tech neo-liberals.
In an interview included in the book, Hudson agrees
with Pauline Borsook - a Californian critic of 'Wired'
- that the neo-liberal ideologues face no serious
opposition within cyberspace. Tortured with self-
doubt, the American Left is incapable of imagining any
future other than being defeated again and again.

Such profound pessimism disables the power of Hudson's
trenchant criticisms of 'Wired' magazine. Rossetto may
be a dangerous fanatic, but it is his crazy opinions
which are shaping the digital future. This lack of
self-confidence shows how 'Rewired' is a deeply
Californian book. When myself and other European
leftists appear in the book, our more optimistic views
are largely marginalised simply because we are not
from the West Coast. Even the political terms used to
describe people's opinions will disorientate many non-
American readers. In this book, libertarians are not
anarchists, but loopy neo-liberals; liberals are not
Thatcherites, but confused leftists; and
communitarians are certainly not communists! Beneath
the peculiarity of American political descriptions
lies a deeper confusion which disables the radical
aspirations of this book. How can anyone take a Left
seriously which erroneously calls itself liberal
because it doesn't dare even to be rhetorically
socialist? Hudson may denounce the evil consequences
of the neo-liberal economics championed by 'Wired'
magazine, but he possesses no social democratic
alternative to such regressive policies. Despite all
the evidence which he himself produces, Hudson is
forced to accept that the Net must be the apotheosis
of the free market. As a patriot, he certainly cannot
find solutions in the Europe which so many emigrated
from in search of the American dream.

The author's Californian parochialism seems very
strange as he lives in the heart of Europe in Berlin
rather than somewhere out on the West Coast! Yet, like
so many exiles, Hudson ignores his physical
surroundings in favour of his lost homeland. Of
course, the Net has made such dislocations between
mind and body much easier. As Hudson recounts, he uses
local bulletin board services to remain an active
participant within San Francisco cyber-culture without
actually having to live there. However, it is still
very odd that the author avoids any real comparisons
between the USA and the EU. For 'Wired' magazine has
no such inhibitions. Articles regularly appear
denouncing the sins of Europeans against the holy
precepts of neo-liberalism. Rossetto even has a
personal grudge against the continent because an
earlier version of 'Wired' flopped when it was
launched in Amsterdam. Above all, him and his fellow
editors have a deep fear that the welfare states of
Europe may be a preferable place to live than their
free market dystopia in California.

Even with cyberspace itself, the lack of any real
comparison between the two continents severely weakens
the book. For the American experience is only one
aspect of the history of computer networks. Crucially,
Hudson fails to pick up on one particularly dumb
assertion made by Rossetto in his interview for the
book. The editor of 'Wired' falsely claims that
Minitel set back the development of the Net in France
by ten years. Yet, in reality, French people were
building virtual communities, enjoying cybersex and
assuming false identities on-line over ten years
before most Americans had even heard of computer-
mediated communications. As a narrow-minded ideologue,
Rossetto could never admit that a European
nationalised telephone monopoly successfully pioneered
the hi-tech future before the neo-liberal
Californians. More importantly, this West Coast guru
has to avoid facing the strangest paradox of all.
While it remains difficult to sell on-line services
over the Net, France Telecom has created a vibrant
commercial sector within Minitel by using premium
phone lines to charge consumers. Even commodity
exchange works better on Minitel than the Net!

The complete absence of any discussion of Minitel in
'Rewired' is the clearest example of this book's
Californian parochialism. Although operating in a
country adjacent to his own residence, Hudson - like
Rossetto - thinks that Minitel is simply an obsolete
technology which will have to conform to the
Californian model of computer-mediated communications.
Yet, the Minitel terminal is the precursor of the much
heralded Network Computer. Furthermore, its different
trajectory of development does demonstrate that there
is no inherent neo-liberal logic at work in the
emergence of the Net. Like many other sectors in
France, Minitel grew through a creative synergy
between the state, private companies and community
initiative. The history of this parallel computer
network is important because it illustrates how the
Net too is the product of a similar miscegenation
between different sectors of society.

Rather than the realisation of free market ideology,
the Net is therefore - if anything - proof of the
inevitability of the mixed economy in the contemporary
world. Far from becoming more pessimistic, the spread
of computer networks should now be making the American
Left increasingly optimistic. As neo-liberal ideology
cannot be realised within cyberspace, the way will
eventually be opened up for more radical uses of
interactive technologies. Above all, the global nature
of the Net will slowly break down the isolation of
Americans from other people's experiences, including
those of the wicked Europeans. Hudson maybe won't have
to be so reticent about sharing his overseas
experiences with the folks back home. As their
circumstances improve, American leftists in time might
acquire the self-confidence to call themselves social
democrats rather than liberals! The future will be
wired, but certainly not in ways imagined by 'Wired' -
or even, at this point, by 'Rewired'.....


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

An edited and translated version of this review will soon be appearing on
Telepolis <>.

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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