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    a daily take on what it is, the web and beyond

    The Other Californians
    By David Hudson
    June 24st, 1996



    Two words you don't see together all that often.

    T he other day I was sitting at a cafe here in Berlin, chatting with Pit Schultz, moderator of the excellent nettime mailing list. We covered a lot of ground, but I was taken by surprise by one issue that popped up in particular.

    Pit, who's as sharp and Net savvy as they come, perceives California, specifically San Francisco, pretty much as a colony of Wired and all it represents. I should say "perceived", because I set him straight, and he was quick to admit that, yes, the moment he gave it a second thought, it only makes sense that there'd be a large number of detractors from the hard line and from what he constantly referred to as "The Californian Ideology". A lot of that detraction would naturally be based on sheer economics, the rest of it on common sense.

    Thing is, wherever he's invited to speak on Net issues, Budapest or London, Trieste or Madrid, whenever Pit and his fellow Euro Net Critics toss around the term, "The Californian Ideology", everyone knows exactly what is meant. The feeling of some sort of cultural clash between the US and Europe on just what the Net is and what it's for, even among the two groups of Net enthusiasts, has always been around, but over here, a name for "the other side" only gelled when Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron gave it one in an essay a few months ago.

    Now I like Barbrook. A professor at the Hypermedia Research Centre of the University of Westminster, London, he's terrific at detecting and dissecting cyberblather. I've got no bone to pick with his pinpointing and tearing into what he calls "The Californian Ideology" in terms of its politically offensive stance, though I'd quibble with the name. Barbrook summed up the gist of "the CI" piece called "Hypermedia Freedom" for CTHEORY (VOL 19, NO 1-2, 96/05/15):

    "The ideological bankruptcy of the West Coast libertarians derives from their historically inaccurate belief that cyberspace has been developed by the 'left-right fusion of free minds with free markets' (Louis Rossetto, editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine)...[N]eo-liberalism has been embraced by the West Coast version of Kroker and Weinstein's 'virtual class' as a way of reconciling the anarchism of the New Left with the entrepreneurial zeal of the New Right."

    So what I'm thinking is this: The targets Barbrook is aiming at are right on; what needs to be cleared up is the "who" that is said to represent them. The "virtual class" may be a lot smaller and less influential in its hometown than it's generally thought to be elsewhere. This is not mere nit-picking. Barbrook is right to point to CA, and specifically, Bay Area political history and outline why the CI couldn't have come about anywhere else. Indeed, a brief glance at the unique role San Francisco played in the Net's salad days turns up several interesting implications related to the real geography behind the curtain of virtual space.

    The jamming of Silicon Valley, a thriving art scene and a tradition of embracing The Next Big Thing turned it into the cultural HQ of "the Net". HQ has since set up offices all over the place, but some oh-so-Northern-Californian ideas did feed into a sort of foundational, unwritten constitution of Net behavior while setting the tone for what the Net was supposed to represent, spoken of in the early days (and still is in some corners) in nothing less than cosmic terms.

    Had The Well, Wired, much of the EFF, etc., etc., all been happening in NYC or LA or Washington back then, the Net as a whole would have had a very different flavor indeed. You can argue that all that is over, that with rampant commercialization or even the very globalization of the Net this set of ideas called for, all innocence has been lost. But we are all marked by our births, even abstract entities like nations and networks.

    The bone I do have to pick with Barbrook is his reliance on Wired's monopoly on the rest of the world's image of what's happening - not just in CA or the west coast - but in the "industry" as a whole to prove an argument. What Barbrook is saying between the lines is that the people with their hands on the reigns of power in all of the wired world (because "they" make the software, set the standards, etc.) are guided by an utterly skewed philosophical construct.

    The argument in turn is put to use in the second half of "The CI" to put forward his agenda for a European policy designed to counter what ultimately boils down to more American cultural imperialism. Which is another subject I'll get to later, but for now let this suffice: Europe could kick ass on the Net (you want culture? we got culture!), but instead, it's sitting on its own.

    And I wouldn't object to some sort of coordinated Euro policy if it genuinely were directed at the benefit of the majority of Europeans. But to set one up simply to counter false impressions of some unified, misguided, overestimated ruling class would be to waste severely limited resources at the worst possible time.

    Besides the dissident voices among Wired's own offspring (Jon Katz, David Kline), besides the several active and activist networks engaged in direct online combat with "the entrepreneurial zeal of the New Right", AlterNet to name just one, besides the lively and vibrant virtual communities thriving on BBS's that are anything but The Well and bustling with a population derived from anywhere but the "virtual class", the San Francisco Bay Guardian Online to name just one again, the Bay Area is chock full of organizations, groups and colorful individuals, online and off, struggling to make ends meet and to make it easier for others to as well. And charged with very other Californian ideologies.