About the Authors: Jim Fearnley and Chris Pinchen are miners at the rock-face of the excavation of the Northwest Passage. Jim can be found on twitter and facebook
This 2-part piece aims to locate cybernetic systems theory and digital developments within the context of the now-structural economic ‘crisis’ and project of world libertarian communism, or to put this term another way, ‘the human project’…
These notes represent a preliminary outline of what will in due course be developed into a fuller piece of writing designed, as ever, to support the human project and the transformation of everyday life. Small ambitions, then.
As is so often the way, we were overtaken by events, and these notes were assembled before both the online data surveillance revelations regarding the UK and US States, and also the events taking place in Turkey and Brazil.
A preliminary reading of the role of the internet in these latter events suggests that its major role has been to drive up the speed of extension of social struggle, while the Prism and Pandora reports confirm the views of ‘conspiracy’ theorists.1 These revelations also highlight the forked tongues of the major cyber-players (contestational in public, craven in private), and their willingness to voluntarily initiate the will of State.
Audience and style
This is an open-ended endeavour, and one we aim to make as accessible as possible to non-techies and non-academics. It is not an item to be filed under cultural theory, but represents the beginning of an attempt to put this new world at our disposal once and for all. We draw on known schools of revolutionary theory, such as the Situationist project, council communist theory etc, but do not wish to confine ourselves to the company of other middle-aged men with questionable personal hygiene, sitting in free-house pubs and speaking in abstruse tongues.
The Game of Being
The chance offered by the Internet to masquerade as personalities we are not is more than a potentially sinister ruse to ensnare the unwary, but offers infinite opportunities for self-invention. In that sense it makes ‘real’ the proposition that we are who we say we are and choose to be. Given that more people are spending more time engaged in remote communication, the notion of reality (challenged by some post-modernists as being spurious because off its contingent and relative status) is itself opened to debate.
In this view, the persona becomes a more sophisticated self-chosen variant of Raoul Vaneigem’s division of the self into a series of roles (father, partner, worker, etc). Perhaps we should also consider Immanuel Kant’s categories as the framework by which a ‘self’ is defined, or as the Velvet Underground put it, “I do believe we are what we perceive”. However, the introduction of effectively mandatory online IDs, which is gaining currency via the Cloud, once again limits us to a given fixed identity.
There is an intrinsic tension between the ‘anonymous’ movement as a strategic means of developing resistance and evading State scrutiny, and the progressive ‘selfism’ that characterises human behaviour, namely the stressing of the primacy of the individual’s status and experience over the value of the collective, which the new social media promotes.
If all that anonymity means is the individual freedom to pass unsurveyed and unnoticed, it is a defensive, conformist, and utterly negative freedom, and contributes nothing to the project of human community. If, however, it is a flag of convenience for all those individuals whose starting point for mutual unmediated recognition is to be free of the State’s panoptical gaze, then it is positive.
‘New’ Media and Human Perception
The rate of acceleration of production and dissemination of perceptible images and ideas has been immeasurably increased by the development of electronic and cybernetic media. If, as the McCLuhanite School observed, visual images penetrate our consciousness far more quickly and in a far less mediated fashion than the spoken word, then this progressive acceleration is merely a matter of degree.
Whether orthodox Darwinism is sufficient to entirely account for changes in brain development is debatable, but it seems likely that being exposed from shortly after birth to new forms of media may alter the brain’s hard wiring within a single lifespan. This is consistent with and illustrative of the dialectic between humans and matter whereby tool development, a human activity, affects human perception and behaviour in turn.
Suffocated by Thin Air
The development of digital media has been co-terminous with radical changes in economic activity in the West, to the extent that commentators can talk about ‘living on thin air,’ which at first hearing, seems to posit that the grubby-nailed world of industrial production is a thing of the past.
This fallacy is relatively easy to swallow in economies where the production of things is overshadowed by the production and exchange of services, concepts, and experiences. However, it overlooks the daily horror of the North American Free Trade Agreement, multiple fatalities in Bangladeshi sweatshops due to working conditions, starvation, and impure water supplies as a given, etc.2
Charles Leadbeater, author of Living on Thin Air, argues that material production has not only been superseded, it has been replaced by ‘participation’, a term that not only carries the characteristic Blairite whiff of false consultation, but also overlooks the ubiquitous price of admission associated with any activity under capitalism.
“Partnership” and the pretence of consultation (the politicised variant of participation) create a notionally non-hierarchical world where fundamental disagreement has been left outside the hall, and the rules of discourse and behaviour are determined by their ‘appropriateness’, an unexamined ethos that places greater importance on the manner by which a message is conveyed than on its content.
However, more recent economic theory espoused by those who seek to continue and update Toni Negri’s crucial work make a convincing case for ‘thin-air’ capital to be as much of a value-bearing vehicle as the more traditional ones, on the basis that profit had outstripped traditional production’s capacity to continue generating surplus value on it at an ‘acceptable’ rate. This virtual capital not only encompasses net-based developments in the market, but also the Ponzi scheme of bad debt that led the current global economic crisis. We will return to this point in our second “paper” in this series.
Representation and ‘Reality’
There are further challenges associated with new forms of media, in particular the primacy given to the representation over the reality of the thing or the experience, to the extent that gap-year students will talk about having ‘done’ a given country, as if such journeys were something ‘outside’ the traveller, rather than part of the process of living. The temptation to record actuality rather than experience it, and the facility the Internet provides to channel-hop such representations, makes us all part of a movie that we seek to create, rather than living.
However, as we see when we examine the construction of memory, the apparent transience of experience that characterises online activity conceals the invariance of the version of ourselves held in aspic by those who control us through our self-representation ossified as data objects. The trivial attractions of an eternal present help to create the control we cede over a current version of ourselves, which can be re-transmitted to haunt us, either via marketing or policing.
Electronica as police-person
The Internet provides the opportunity to communicate freely and learn about the daily lives of others on a scale simply not imaginable twenty years.3 Thus, the Net and other media, such as mobile messaging services, have provided the opportunity to extend social interventions rapidly and efficiently. It is therefore no surprise that States have been keen impose their control as soon as they are able, in a not dissimilar fashion to income-generating market activities seeking to penetrate such a rich mine of no-cost peer activity.
We would also do well to remind ourselves of the policing possibilities offered by social media, which have been used to identify geographical concentrations of the expression of particular views, as was the case following the recent street killing in the UK of a person wearing a Help for Heroes (and therefore implicitly pro-military) T-shirt.
The Enemy without a Leader
The problem with the Internet, and the fuzzy lines between national and international capital formations in general, is largely one of control. The phenomenon of poacher turned gamekeeper at senior levels is well illustrated by Eric Schmidt, executive Chair of Google, who was previously an adviser to Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton. The porosity, flat structure and flexibility of the Internet are capable of ultimately defeating any attempts to contain and suppress it, assuming this is what the mass of users want. The deliberate conflation of all contestation as ‘acts of terrorism’ is therefore a powerful ideological weapon in the battle between humans and the State, as it is in the obfuscation between, say, stones and bombs.
Hacking and other forms of counter-attack become inflated into full-blown assaults on the machinery of state, (acts of terrorism). Fractally, but not effectively, there is some logic in this position, but this form of ‘psyops’ ignores the myriad motivations of participants, eg, self-defence, journalism, humour, all-out assault etc, and the blurred lines between these categories.
The deadly seduction the Internet offers is to act as the consolation of the defeated, in the form of online games, pornography etc. Capitalism would be happy for us to scuttle from office to home (assuming one has to leave home to work or even has a job) in order to download our lives. Who would we challenge and who would we blame for this state of affairs?
The progressive personalisation and targeting of data strengthens this isolating tendency yet further, ensuring that the ‘news’ which people receive online is selected according to the existing political assumptions of the consumer. The only contact we would have with others would therefore be virtual, and the selection of ‘facts’ and, by extension, contacts, would be predicated on one’s existing worldview.
Anonymity cuts both ways. One could vote for different shades of s*** via online survey, and, generally, direct communication between humans would become increasingly unnecessary. Julian Assange argues that this false reciprocity and illusion of participation actually creates the opportunity to “build and fine tune a political figure” by knocking off the ideological rough edges of an individual, who could be re-designated, for example, as challenging and polemical, but ultimately compliant.4
The political subject is thus dissolved by consensus, and becomes an object, an externally-controlled work in progress. The logical endpoint of this impersonal scenario would be a re-imagining of the human as an entity who understands ‘the social’ as itself a story or a game, rather than a defining and irreducible core from which all other possibilities flow.
To be continued…
1 Already proven many years ago by the discovery of universal monitoring of all telephone calls to/from the entire island of Ireland, for example.
2 In other words, ‘old’ capitalist business as usual.
3 However, honourable mention should be made of Karl Marx’s prescience in noting that the extension and development of capitalism creates an evolving globalisation (albeit an alienated one) as an inevitable feature.
4 New York Times review of The New Digital Age, 2 May 2013.