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||| Resisting the Neoliberal Discourse of Technology |||
The Politics of Cyberculture in the Age of the Virtual Class
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Totalitarianism is latent in technology. It was not merely Hitler or Mussolini who were totalitarian, or the Pharaohs as far as I am concerned. Totalitarianism is already present in the technical object.Such penetrating assessments of technology are increasingly exceptional: nearly all the political, economic, and cultural texts that surround us suggest that we are entering a truly new technological and democratic age. Indeed, modern day pharaohs, such as Microsoft's Bill Gates constantly assert that the world is on the brink of a "technological revolution". 2 Meanwhile, neoliberal politicians, like American Vice President Al Gore, see the "Global Information Infrastructure" as nothing less than the basis of a new Athenian age of electronic democracy. 3
The Neoliberal Discourse of Technology
Contemporary neoliberalism is the pan-capitalist theory and practice of explicitly technologized, or "telematic", societies. 4 Neoliberalism is of course a political philosophy which originated in the advanced countries in the 1980s. It is associated with the idea of "liberal fascism": free enterprise, economic globalization and national corporatism as the institutional and ideological grounds for the civil disciplining of subaltern individuals, "aliens" and groups. However, while pan-capitalism appears largely impregnable to various oppositional political forces and survives broadly uncontested, it nonetheless relies extensively on a specifically neoliberal discourse of technology. What is more, this discourse is principally concerned with legitimating the political and cultural control of individuals, groups, and new social movements through the material and ideological production, promotion, distribution, and consumption of self-styled "virtual" technologies like virtual reality (VR) and cyberspace.
These contentions about pan-capitalism, telematics, and the neoliberal discourse of virtual technologies derive from the fact that human labour is no longer central to market-driven conceptions of business and political activities. Actually, as far as some neoliberals are concerned, technology is now the only factor of production. 5 Artefacts like VR, cyberspace, and the Internet thus embody not "use value" but what Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein term "abuse value":
The primary category of the political economy of virtual reality is abuse value. Things are valued for the injury that can be done to them or that they can do. Abuse value is the certain outcome of the politics of suicidal nihilism. The transformation, that is, of the weak and the powerless into objects with one last value: to provide pleasure to the privileged beneficiaries of the will to purity in their sacrificial bleeding, sometimes actual (Branch Davidians) and sometimes specular (Bosnia). 6The neoliberal analysis of production under the conditions of pan-capitalism and telemetry accordingly focuses not on the outmoded Marxian conception of the "labor process", but on the technological and scientific processing of labour. 7 The result is that surplus labor is transformed by relentless technological activity, and the means of virtual production produce abuse value.
Technology and the Politics of Cyberculture
The technological fixations of the neoliberals are, of course, presently extending themselves from virtual production to virtual culture; to technoscience and to cyberculture, including the culture of cyborgs, cyberfeminism, cyberspace, cyberwarfare, and cyberart. 8 Nietzsche emphasizes, in The Wanderer and His Shadow, that technologies and machines are "...premises whose thousand year conclusion no one has yet dared to draw." 9 Yet, in scarcely over one hundred years, it has become clear that technology is not only voraciously consuming what is left of "nature," but is also busily constructing it anew. Nanotechnology, for example, brings together the basic atomic building blocks of nature effortlessly, cheaply, and in just about any molecular arrangement we ask. 10 Information and communications technologies evoke the virtual architecture and circuitry of fiber-optics, computer networks, cybernetic systems, and so on.
These technologies, these assemblages, though, need to be appreciated for what they are: synthetic materials transformed into instruments of "the will to virtuality," or of human incorporation - even "disappearance" - into cybernetic machinery. Cybercultural technologies are agents of physical colonization, imperialists of the human sensorium, created, like Frankenstein, by our own raw desire. They represent what Virilio calls "the third revolution", the impending bodily internalization of science and technology. As Virilio recently defined the third revolution:
By this term I mean that technology is becoming something physically assimilable, it is a kind of nourishment for the human race, through dynamic inserts, implants and so on. Here, I am not talking about implants such as silicon breasts, but dynamic implants like additional memory storage. What we see here is that science and technology aim for miniaturisation in order to invade the human body. 11As a result, the division between living bodies and technology is increasingly difficult to maintain; both are now so hopelessly entwined in the "cyborgian" sociotechnical imagination. 12 We are well on our way to "becoming machinic". As Deleuze and Guattari comment: "This is not animism, any more than it is mechanism; rather it is universal machinism: a plane of consistency occupied by an immense abstract machine comprising an infinite number of assemblages." 13
Nevertheless, the technologically determinist assemblages of sundry neoliberal computer mystics, like Jaron Lanier and John Perry Barlow, are questionable because cybercultural technologies, like all technologies, are innately political. Technologies like VR do not appear - like rainfall - as heavenly gifts. They have to be willed into existence, they have to be produced by real human beings. Information and communications technologies, for instance, both contain and signify the cultural and political values of particular human societies. Accordingly, these technologies are always expressions of socioeconomic, geographical, and political interests, partialities, alignments and commitments. In brief, the will to technical knowledge is the will to technical power.
It is crucial, then, to redefine, and to develop a fully conscious and wholly critical account of the neoliberal discourse of technology at work in the realm of cyberculture; one that exposes not only the economic and social interests embodied within cultural technologies, but also their underlying authoritarianism. Maybe Marshall McLuhan was right? The medium is the message. The question is, what does it say? Moreover, how does it manage to say it so eloquently, so perfectly, that some among us are more than "willing" to trade corporeality for virtuality? And all for what? A chance to dance to the (pre-programmed) rhythms of technologized bodies? Indeed, it is hard to disagree with Hakim Bey when he writes:
Physical separateness can never be overcome by electronics, but only by "conviviality", by "living together" in the most literal physical sense. The physically divided are also the conquered and the Controlled. "True desires" - erotic, gustatory, olfactory, musical, aesthetic, psychic, & spiritual - are best attained in a context of freedom of self and other in physical proximity & mutual aid. Everything else is at best a sort of representation. 14
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1. Paul Virilio and Carlos Oliveira. "The Silence of the Lambs: Paul Virilio in Conversation". In CTHEORY. Vol 19. No 1-2. 1996. p.3.
2. Bill Gates. The Road Ahead. , New York: Viking Press, 1995.
3. See, for example, Al Gore. "Forging a New Athenian Age of Democracy". In Intermedia. Vol 22. 1994. p.14-16.
4. Much of my argument in the following pages draws on Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein's Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class. , Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1994, and New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
5. See, for instance, Jeremy Rifkin. The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1995; Kevin Kelly. New Rules for the New Economy: 10 Ways the Network Economy is Changing Everything. London: Fourth Estate, 1998.
6. Kroker and Weinstein. Data Trash. p.64.
7. See, for example, William Di Fazio. "Technoscience and the labor process". In Technoscience and Cyberculture. Edited by Stanley Aronowitz, Barbara Martinson and Michael Menser. London: Routledge, 1996. p.195-204.
8. On the phenomenon of cyberculture and cyborgs see, for example, Stanley Aronowitz, Barbara Martinson and Michael Menser. Eds. Technoscience and Cyberculture. London: Routledge, 1996; Chris Hables Gray. Ed. The Cyborg Handbook. London: Routledge, 1995.
9. Friedrich Nietzsche. The Wanderer and His Shadow. New York: Gordon Press, 1974. p.176.
10. The most obvious reference here is, Eric Drexler. Engines of Creation. New York: Anchor, 1986.
11. Paul Virilio and John Armitage. "From Modernism to Hypermodernism and Beyond: An Interview with Paul Virilio". Translated by Patrice Riemens. Forthcoming in Paul Virilio, a Special Issue of Theory Culture & Society on the Work of Paul Virilio. Vol 16. 1999.
12. See, Donna Haraway. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-feminism in the Late Twentieth Century". In her Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Associations Books, 1991. p.149-181.
13. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. p.256.
14. Hakim Bey. "The Lemonade Ocean & Modern Times: A Position Paper by Hakim Bey".
Thank you to John Armitage for permission to use this piece. Previously published in ctheory, 1999. Also currently available at non-copyright sites textz.com and Sami.is.free.
John Armitage lectures in politics and media studies at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle, UK. He is the editor of Paul Virilio: From Modernism to Hypermodernism and Beyond (London: Sage, 2000).