David Hudson on Tue, 10 Feb 1998 09:09:26 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> REWIRED February 10, 1998

February 10, 1998

by David Hudson

Richard Barbrook's review of REWIRED, the book, sparked a bit of discussion
here and there, most openly on the Nettime list, before it finally landed
(in both English and German) in the publication that commissioned it,

My guess is that this is precisely the way Barbrook would have it. Barbrook
writes to provoke, and he does it well. See, for example, his most recent
post on the board which maxes out in the final sentence, "As a Euro Social
Democrat, it does give me great pleasure to see how our founding father can
still scare the Californians over a century after his death!"

This gem of a sentence not only manages to rhetorically tilt Marx onto the
same pedestal Americans originally raised for a small club of white
European males in powdered wigs, a move you just know he hopes will induce
cries of "Blasphemy!" from US patriots who stumble onto the REWIRED board,
but also manages one more dig at "the Californians". The danger here is
that it's beginning to appear as if Barbrook, who with Andy Cameron
contributed an important historical interpretation of early 90's
Wired-style libertarianism in "The Californian Ideology," either doesn't
seem to realize that history has marched on or aims to build a career on a
well-deserved hit.

Detained by the flu and a ridiculous workload, I wasn't able to leap into
the fray while it was still fraying, and at this point, there isn't much
left for me to do but sweep up a few untended details that may not matter
to anyone else but me. The discussion, after all, has centered more on the
reviewer than the book, and after Mark Dery's eloquent call in "The
Californian Demonology" for Barbrook to move on, all I have to add is a bit
of nitpicking.

First, Dery's presumption that the book is aimed at "the cultural elite"
is, to me, an important but understandable mistake. Barbrook is right to
point out that much of the book originally appeared at this site, but he
also seems to be understandably unaware that, one, much of it didn't, and
two, what did was rewritten for the proverbial "general reader". At the
same time, I've been fortunate to have several sharp readers who aren't as
steeped in what we used to call "cyberculture" tell me that the book mapped
well what to them had been rather confusing territory.

Opinionated as the book may be, it is a history, a guide of sorts, and not
a twelve step program to a better Internet. On the one hand, my initial
reaction to Barbrook's review was similar to Paulina Borsook's. "He's
accusing you of not being full of a positive socialist five year plan!?
Hey, some of us are just *writers*, and our role is to write what we see!"

On the other hand, I actually have more than a few times pounded my head
against Alta Vista wondering where, oh, where is that pundit, that paper,
or at least a ray of hope with some potential for a vision as vibrant and
seductively simple as Louis Rossetto's yet somehow turned upside down?

But that would be heading down the wrong road. Mark Dery, himself an astute
cultural critic and not a politician or even a propagandist, addresses this
conundrum far more assiduously than I could. I'd just add that the aim is
not to become some true believer in either some all-knowing hive mind or
anybody's founding father.

Barbrook strongest point is this: "Tortured with self-doubt, the American
Left is incapable of imagining any future other than being defeated again
and again." As often as I'm utterly astonished by how little Americans and
Europeans understand each other, despite countless lifetimes of cultural
exchange and the by now all but omnipresent media, this statement of
Barbrook's strikes home.

Simply skim the pages of The Nation, The Village Voice or any other left
leaning publication of your choice for immediate exposure to the symptoms
of what Chris Lehmann has called "The Left's Personality Disorder". Or
better yet, for a real slugfest, albeit carried out with more glee than
malice, lurk a while on the Bad Subjects list.

Bad Subjects is a fairly well-grounded zine covering "The Politics of
Everyday Life," while its accompanying mailing list features a twenty-four
hour sniper's war with -- perpetually, it seems -- the theorists on one
side and the activists on the other. Just imagine the threads that bloomed
when the opening words of a flyer for a conference at the University of
California at Santa Cruz were unleashed on the list. "A specter is haunting
US intellectual life: the specter of Left Conservatism," the flyer began,
and the fissure between those cling to "notions of the real" and those
don't was torn open once again.

I have no desire whatsoever to encourage such spats in any way, and yet I
do want to note that nearly all the reviews of REWIRED have skimmed over a
rather significant chunk of the book, the final section on community
networks. We don't hear much about them anymore, but they're still around,
and the people doing the hands on work of wiring those out-of-the-way
places the hive mind has forgotten are still actively dealing with
immediate yet not so mundane questions.

Do we stick to a strict diet of government funding, or do we cooperate with
businesses, and if so, which ones? Do we buy a lot of cheap computers that
may be obsolete next year, or a few powerful ones and strategically place
them so that everyone can get to them? Which places are best, libraries or
recreation centers?

These topics aren't as sensational as the colorful personalities behind a
popular magazine or a spectacular flame war that spreads from a European
mailing list to a legendary conferencing system in, yes, California -- and
back, drawing names everyone recognizes away from the galleys of their next

But buried somewhere in the humdrum muck of "the real" may be a handful of
issues the Left can grasp onto, perhaps even in a somewhat unified fashion,
and retake the initiative from a Right that has insinuated itself into both
the White House and 10 Downing Street where the "new" politics of the
Democrats and the Labour Party are effectively widening the already
grotesque chasm between the rich and the poor.

As Barbara Ehrenreich points out in her magnificent essay, "When Government
Gets Mean: Confessions of a Recovering Statist," what's tearing the Left
apart in the US is that we have been cornered by our own rhetoric into
defending a government that serves the Right. But she goes beyond mere
diagnosis and actually proposes a few routes out of this absurd quandary.

In the meantime, another absurdity. With CNN bouncing off the satellites
and the worldwide whatever humming through the wires, the globalization of
cultures and economies is said to be well underway, and yet I can't help
thinking that different continents with their radically different histories
are going to have to approach this challenge with their own sets of
priorities, their own missions, in their own language.

The dialogue between Europe and the US ought to be easiest of all, yet so
far, it's rife with misunderstanding and shoot-from-the-hip accusation.
This is a good sign. There may be hope for identity yet.


Some Links:

The Rewired Book Page

Richard Barbrook, "The Book of the Web-Site - a brief (and opinionated)
book review"

Richard Barbrook, "Das Buch zur Web-Site - eine kurze (und subjektive)

Richard Barbrook, "Castells is lapsed Marxist - and this is his major failing!"

Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, "The Californian Ideology"

Mark Dery, "The Californian Demonology"

Slate - Egghead - Jan. 20, 1998

Ted Byfield on Richard Barbrook, among other things

McKenzie Wark, "The Virtual Empire"

Julian Dibbell on the New Wired

Chris Lehmann, "The Left's Personality Disorder"

Barbara Ehrenreich, "When Government Gets Mean: Confessions of a Recovering

Bad Subjects

The Bad Subjects Discussion List


David Hudson                    REWIRED <www.rewired.com>
dwh@berlin.snafu.de             Journal of a Strained Net


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