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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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Technology and the Virtual Class
What are the central political dynamics at work in the neoliberal discourse of technology? Today, the development of this discourse is also the development of the shifting determinations of the virtual class. For it is this, "...social strata in contemporary pan-capitalism that have material and ideological interest in speeding up and intensifying the process of virtualization and heightening the will to virtuality." 15
Resisting the unconstrained development of the neoliberal discourse of technology is vital because such resistance impedes the contemporary development of the virtual class. To some of its members, like Douglas Coupland, the reigning technological discourse constitutes the narcissistic flowering of long-held personal ambitions, while to others, like Wired's neoliberal evangelist Nicholas Negroponte, it represents the beginning of a new techno-religion. To Alvin & Heidi Toffler, the neoliberal discourse heralds the emergence of a whole new civilization while to Bill Gates and Kevin Kelly it means material wealth and political influence beyond measure. 16
Certainly, it is possible to characterise the present period of self-consciously "spectacular" technological innovation as being driven primarily by pan-capitalism's need to arm itself against the onset of virtual class warfare. 17 Without doubt, the virtual class must, at some stage - and probably with the acquiescence, if not the full participation of global technocratic, political and military elites - confront living labour, actual communities, tangible spaces, material environments, and physical, breathing, bodies. The neoliberal discourse of technology therefore represents an attempt by the virtual class to open up a new period in the cybernetic carnival that is pan-capitalism. The unfolding of the neoliberal discourse of technology is thus the unfolding of virtual class relations. This is the true nature of social communications in the contemporary era.
For these reasons it is essential to advance unorthodox, bottom-up, explanations of the evolution of the neoliberal discourse of technology. The chief aim ought to be the equipping of the digitally dispossessed with counter arguments and active political strategies that will work against what the late Christopher Lasch might have called "the revolt of the (virtual) elites and the betrayal of (electronic) democracy." 18
Make no mistake, VR and cyberspace have not simply opened up new wealth generating possibilities for the virtual elites. They have also opened up new political prospects for those who wish to see the spectacular representational systems of crash culture disappear. What is important in the interim, then, is to challenge the pronouncements of the virtual class wherever they appear and join with others in a comprehensive and detailed critique of the neoliberal discourse of technology in a variety of fields ranging from VR to cyberwarfare and beyond. 19 Further, such challenges need to involve a multiplicity of individuals and groups. These might range from school kids and students disenchanted with the increasing replacement of education by mere technocratic information, to disaffected computer industry workers, or simply local communities seeking control over their own technological environments.
Virtual politics, therefore, should be founded on defying the neoliberal discourse of technology currently being fashioned by the virtual class. It is crucial to ensure that the political genealogy of technology, of virtual reality, of the reality of virtuality, is uncovered by numerous individuals, groups, classes, and new social movements. Indeed, without such excavations, the increasingly institutionalised neoliberal discourse of technology currently being promoted by the virtual class will rapidly become a source of immense social power. This is why concrete, corporeal, and ideological struggles over the nature and meaning of technology are so important in the realm of virtual politics. It is also why the specifically neoliberal discourse of the virtual class needs to be countered.
The pan-capitalist revolution and the development from industrial to virtual production have generated the neoliberal discourse of technology. It provides the virtual class with an ideological rationale for the ever increasing manufacture of virtual distractions (e.g., movies, VR, and interactive video games). Consequently, many human activities are no longer simply mediated through technology. Indeed, they are so utterly "possessed" by technology that the distinction between virtual activities and actual activities borders on the incomprehensible. 20 The ambitions of the neoliberal discourse of technology are not only unremitting but also potentially infinite.
Totalitarianism is latent in technology. It is not simply the virtual class that is totalitarian. Totalitarianism is always present in technology itself.
Virilio's acute observations on technology are therefore essentially correct: his theoretical analysis indicates that while we are indeed in the midst of some kind of technological transition, it is improbable that such a transition will usher in a new era of digital democracy. 21 On this view, then, humanity is not on the verge of the kind of technological and democratic revolution envisaged by the neoliberals.
What separates a critical interpretation of technology from that of global technological entrepreneurs and leading politicians is a determination to forge a radical understanding of technology's consequences. The advantage of this kind of analysis is that it focuses on key aspects of technology that are rarely, if ever, voiced by computer manufacturers and political pundits. Indeed, the general absence of a critical understanding of technology is one of the chief reasons why so many people seem to be so baffled by the "mysteries" of technology.
Thus, it is vital to resist both the neoliberal discourse of technology and the contemporary development of pan-capitalism. In the specific context of the political debates over the discourse of cyberculture, then, it is important to question the uncritical and antidemocratic conception of technology presently being elaborated and disseminated by the virtual class in its quest for actual wealth and power.
While technology is obviously an extremely important and determining force, it is crucial to remember that it is not the only force or agent of change. The virtual class is not simply an assortment of technological and visual representations. In fact, it is all too real. It is the class that at this moment is rewriting the history of virtual and other technologies while simultaneously controlling their organized production, distribution and consumption.
As a result of it's monopolistic control of technology, the virtual class is presently being courted by the newly ascendant virtual political class (of which Newt Gingrich in the US and Tony Blair in the UK are examples). This class opposes all those who resist the neoliberal discourse of technology in whatever form it takes (e.g., anti-road building and animal rights protests by young people). It is time, then, to radically rethink, redefine and reinterpret the very meaning of technology, politics, and cyberculture in the age of the virtual class.
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15. Kroker and Weinstein. Data Trash. p.163.
16. See, for instance, Douglas Coupland. Microserfs. Northampton: Harper Collins, 1995; Nicholas Negroponte. Being Digital. New York: Knof, 1995; Alvin Toffler and Heidi Toffler. Creating A New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave. New York: Turner Publishing, 1995; Bill Gates. The Road Ahead. New York: Viking Press, 1995; Kevin Kelly. Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines. London: Fourth Estate, 1994, and Kelly's New Rules for the New Economy: 10 Ways the Network Economy is Changing Everything. London: Fourth Estate, 1998.
17. Guy Debord. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black and Red, 1983.
18. Christopher Lasch. The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.
19. See, for example, Chris Chesher. "Colonizing Virtual Reality. Construction of the Discourse of Virtual Reality, 1984-1992". In Cultronix. Vol 1. No 1. 1994; Manuel De Landa. War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. New York: Zone Books, 1991; Paul Virilio. War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. London: Verso, 1989.
20. This argument can be found in Arthur Kroker. The Possessed Individual: Technology and Postmodernity. Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1992.
21. Paul Virilio. "The Third Interval: A Critical Transition". In Verena Andermatt Conley. Ed. Rethinking Technologies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. p.3-12; Paul Virilio. The Art of the Motor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
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).