nettime on Tue, 21 Apr 1998 06:26:21 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Class Warfare in the Information Age - A New Book

[Headers edited; this came to nettime by way of Jagdish Parikh 
 <> and a nettime roving correspondent. St. Mar-
 tins, 1998, ISBN 0312177585. -T]

Michael Perelman's new book, Class Warfare in the Information Age has come to
hand. It fills an important need as a corrective to the now almost universal

Net-hype ranges a broad spectrum from the pompous (and often vacuous)
theorising of Manuel Castells (Tony Blair's favourite philosopher) --
to the Wired hysterias of Kevin Kelly -- to the imbecile moral panics
(net-crime, net-gambling, net-pedophilia, net-surveillance) which the
mass media manage to mix with uncritical enthusiasm (the Net as the
future of post-human, genetically-enhanced humankind, immortalised in 
virtual worlds; the Net as improbable panacea for Third World poverty; 
the Net facilitating Athenian-style direct democracy; the future as 
a permabulation through virtual malls, etc.) 

Net-hype even extends to Net-Insurrectionaries, Harry Cleaver's espousal of
sub-comandante's virtual Zap revolution being a prime example.

All this hype needed a god debunking. So it is useful to be reminded, as
Perelman does, that 'the reality of the information age falls considerably
short of the futuristic vision of the information age. In fact, the imaginary
dystopias of science fiction seem to be closer to the truth than the fantasies
of the champions of the coming information age.'

His critique does not stop there. 

There has been much recent research to suggest that informatics has
not exactly been the productivity boon the corporations had expected.
Nor has labour fared any better: the much-heralded workless society
has coincided with speed-up, longer hours, casualisation and the
three-job anti-social family.

So what is going on? What's behind the hype?

Perelman wants 'to make sense of this welter of conflicting claims and
accusations in the context of the information revolution.'
His conclusions: that the information revolution is 'overblown', that
in any case we are not educating people to make sense of it, that most
new employment is not connected with it, and that its most useful
attribute is to perfect capitalism's command and control. According to
Perelman, what informatics really creates is the Panopticon society,
after Bentham's notion of the perfect prison.

The real subordination of labour to capital is the true name of the
game, even when it comes at the expense of the massive glitches and
crashes which the emphasis on command-and-control instead of decentred
networking often entails.

A major theme of Perelman's book is the privatisation of society's
knowledge-base which, like DNA and even the carbon in the atmosphere,
is one of the last great commons capitalism has left to enclose. What
the information age will bring may actually be a lack of information.
Knowledge will still be power, and access to it will be strictly
controlled. Information will be commoditised, regulated and rendered
much less accessible.

All this will surely be true to some degree, despite the generalised
promise of the Net and of things like Project Gutenberg. Yes, it will
bring an ocean of culture, books, art, knowledge and as bandwidth
grows, moving images, into everyone's lives, as television once did
and movable type before that. But the apparent plethora will conceal a
drastic diminution of opportunity, a reduction in the democracy of
knowledge which robber barons like Dale Carnegie once tried to extend
to the masses. The really important things will be more inaccessible
than ever, shut away behind strong cryptography, archived on orbital
satellites beyond the ken of governments.

Class Warfare in the Information Age is more extended essay that
kilometric, Castells-style exposition. It is portable. But as a tour
d'horizon it's as good as they come. Perelman's strength is that his
overview is historical as well as social.

Frances Yates' great book, The Art of Memory, described how the
invention of alphabets and writing in antiquity, displaced an
attribute of civilised discourse which had taken generations to
develop. It thereby privileged the masses against the leisured class
which had time to develop such skills, expressed in phenomenal 
memory-feats by poets and orators from Homer to Cicero -- and 
even Shakespeare.

Non-coincidentally, these were mostly cultural conservatives. Perelman
reminds of this but his conclusion is not the obvious one that the
Information Age presents similar subversive possibilities to writing.
Conservatives from Plato to TS Eliot were fearful of the consequences
of massifying knowledge, objectifying it and making it available to
the unscrupulous masses. According to Perelman, they would be less
fearful of the 'information revolution' which may have the opposite
effect, making knowledge (as opposed to information) less accessible,
reinforcing authority and hierarchy.

The meat of Perelman's extended essay is his discussion of corporate
strategies for privatising the gold in people's minds. Quoting Kenneth
Arrow: 'embedded information... [as] capital depends on slow mobility
of information-rich labor', he reminds us of the infamous treatment
meted out to researcher Petr Taborsky, who invented, in his own time,
a form of sewage-purification of potential value to his employer,
utility holding company Florida Progress. Taborsky patented his ideas
and was rewarded by being convicted (in 1990) of grand theft of trade
secrets, for which he was sentenced to a year's house arrest, a
suspended prison term of 3 1/2 years, probation, 500 hours community
service .. and when he continued to insist on his right to his own
ideas, Taborsky was assigned to a chain gang for two months.

Be warned, knowledge-workers, you are the feudal servitors of the
Information Age.

Mark Jones
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