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JOURNAL OF A STRAINED NET:
every monday: what it is, the web and beyond



    Webflashes:
    REWIRED's first double feature!
    Rebecca Eisenberg ponders the "hippie=raver?" equation at the Digital Be-In.
    Mitchell Halberstadt goes beyond California in his critique of cyberlibertarianism.

    Beyond California
    by Mitchell Halberstadt

    Tune in, Drop Out
    by Rebecca Eisenberg

    January 20th, 1997


    Beyond California A dvocates of info age hyper-capitalism have donned the "libertarian" mantle, but their claims are dubious.

    "Cyberlibertarianism" is problematic from the perspective of its very own claims - purportedly anti-authoritarian and countercultural. ("Californian"? Which "California"? Hippie Haight? Leftist Berkeley? Hoover-hip Palo Alto? High-Cap Silliwood?)

    There are several interrelated problems.

    1. Concentrations of power - the hierarchies and power structures they breed - use alibis. Capitalism is no exception: it claims to be the apotheosis of individualism. But it is, after all, a form of ostensively "private" collectivism: accumulation, by definition, and regimentation. Jefferson railed against it as such.

    Bosses aren't always agents of the State, though they can be. Sometimes they're just bosses. And what's more capitalist than a boss?

    And who's boss? Property-oriented "Libertarians" (Propertarians) claim that markets, including the "marketplace" of ideas, reward (and thereby encourage) initiative and innovation. But as tangible entities, money, and property generally, are subject to concentration and manipulation. In fact, markets reward those most adept at acquiring and manipulating property "rights."

    The basis for the propertarian claim to individual rights is a generally unstated assumption about human identity, the Ownership Paradigm: "I am, most fundamentally, that which owns."

    For instance, propertarians are fond of saying, "You own your own body, don't you?" But the construction of such a question masks a dogma about the nature of identity, of consciousness and of the Self. It assumes - in fact, demands - acceptance of a fundamental subject/object dualism centered on control, and it enshrines "ownership" as the locus of a controlling Self. It leaves no room for deviation. What could be more totalitarian?

    Not all humans share the propertarian conception of the Self. In fact, most human spiritual traditions are centered on the very subject/object dualities that propertarians enshrine as absolute. Many believe that life is about resolving our alienation from a more fundamental Unity, or living in a way that reflects such Unity. How are we to treat those who "deviate" toward such a consciousness? Like Indians?

    Propertarians are fond of noting that, if one doesn't like their version of "freedom," one can "buy one's way out," and set up a commune or whatever. But doesn't this require all deviation to be on the market's terms, and require an "a priori" acceptance of its mode of consciousness? Consider the inverse: suppose each and every manifestation of ownership, or of an actual or potential "market," similarly and constantly had to have permission to opt out of the "commons"?

    If we are not to be totalitarians, we must acknowledge, within the individual, the possibility of motivations other than the desire to "own." This may include, in fact, a desire for (comm)unity, or for excellence and accomplishment for their own sake - as well as mutual aid as a survival modality.

    That - not Propertarianism - is, in fact, individualism.

    2. Property - particularly ideas-as-property, or the notion of "intellectual property" - actually impedes the free flow of information. If, as cyber-libertarians are fond of saying, "information wants to be free," the apparatus of property rights creates boundaries that inhibit the optimum functioning of its free flow.

    Every transaction concerned with - or deriving from treating - information as property occupies bandwidth that could otherwise be devoted to the free flow of the primary ("pure") information itself.

    Consider Web ads, for instance, that slow the downloading of the information for which people came to a page. Consider property's creating a need to give passwords before proceeding. Consider all the effort and bandwidth expended in tracking and billing idea-exchanges as commercial transactions.

    Can't we just talk, or exchange ideas? For propertarians, evidently not. Everything must be accounted for as property.

    In fact, this brings us back to the earlier observation that, when applied to information or communication, a market paradigm rewards those who manipulate property rights, not necessarily (or even usually) those who generate the information. Propertarians may complain about the intrusion of the State - the paperwork, for instance, demanded by the IRS or environmental regulations - but, in fact, a property-based system is the prototype for (and perhaps progenitor of) all such procedures.

    Is it any wonder that so many propertarians (lawyers included) push paper for a living?

    3. All is not lost, however. Propertarianism suggests an interpretation of history that goes beyond the collectivist model of class conflict, but that may - if we let it - tend toward the same result.

    Instead of class conflict, we can view human evolution as a manifestation of the increasing fluidity or volatility ("freedom") of trade and of markets. In other words, trade tends toward increasing "frictionlessness."

    Capital itself, as concentration of power, becomes increasingly transitory, and the boundaries defining capital accumulations become more and more dysfunctional, as "information wants to be free."

    Eventually, the ownership paradigm itself begins to break down, as it becomes more and more of an impediment to the tendency for this process to complete itself - and, conversely, as it becomes harder and harder for "ownership" to define its boundaries in "real time."

    4. So much for information-age theory. The problem, however, is that information exists in a material world, and humans are material beings with biological needs. We're back to the problem of dualism.

    Can any paradigm adequately encompass this mind/matter duality? All attempts, from "command economies" to the "free market," are actually mere jury-rigged attempts to apply a material metaphor to the world of ideas. Metaphor is not reality, and all attempts to force reality to conform to a metaphor end in tyranny.

    In the West, however, we're "stuck" with the propertation metaphor - and this works as a scam favoring those who "trade" in ideas. No wonder many of us are loath to give it up!

    Remember the old saying, "Give a man a fish, and he'll be hungry again tomorrow - but teach a man to fish, and he'll never go hungry again"?

    In our Brave New World, we've added a new caveat: "Treat your knowledge of fishing as a commodity, and bargain shrewdly, and you'll never need to fish again - because the newly-taught fisherman will always owe you part of his catch." And guess what! In the real world, that means we're back to "Give a man (this time, the teacher) a fish."

    Steal a car, and it's gone from the driveway where you found it. "Steal" a software application, and the "original" is still right where you left it.

    Free speech, then, is only free for as long as it remains abstract, free from commerce, from the reality of material consideration, of real hunger. Are we "stuck" with a world where the history of freedom is the history of corruption - of the degradation of the integrity of information by material considerations?

    5. The cover story of the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly is entitled "The Capitalist Menace," by the financier George Soros. (No corruption: I haven't been paid to plug the article.) Soros cites his philosophical mentor, Karl Popper, who asserts that all knowledge is imperfect, and therefore that no person or institution has a monopoly on Truth. Soros, along with Popper, believes that this recognition mandates the need for an open society.

    So far, so good.

    Soros also notes that markets don't merely match supply to demand, creating an equilibrium, as touted by propertarians. (I'd add that this is because, like all imperfect metaphors, markets take on a life of their own.) Marketing (Just ask Bill Gates!) and even (perhaps especially) pricing itself have what Soros calls a "reflexive" effect on demand. (It's no secret in business that, if you price something higher, people will think it's worth more.) So much for "equilibrium."

    Moreover, the uneven accretion of property (accruing, specifically, to those adept at - or specializing in - manipulating it [Soros should know!]) creates vested interests and hierarchies that further distort the no-longer-"free" market. It's no wonder the propertarians' beloved "captains of industry" are often called Robber Barons. The magic of the marketplace actually involves plenty of sleight-of-hand.

    Soros, to his credit, acknowledges the problem. But this raises further questions.

    If knowledge is imperfect, imperfect with respect to what?

    Does this imply, beyond markets (or, if Wittgenstein is correct, language), the need for some notion of (or belief in) a comprehensive unity?

    Spinoza and Einstein (coincidentally, like Soros and myself, both Jews) thought so. (I share this belief; I don't know about Soros.) But suppose this is wrong? What other possibilities or beliefs might counterbalance the tendencies, both centrifugal and absolutist, of a purely market-driven society?

    What does this suggest in terms of the ethos or institutional structure (and of the relationship between ethos and institutional structure) of an open society?

    The answer to this isn't forthcoming from the propertarian Hoover Institution any more than it was from the Kremlin. But our fate may soon hinge on the process of evolving toward an answer we can all live with - ultimately, to the question of who (and what) we are.


    "tune in, turn on, drop out"
    by Rebecca Eisenberg

    As much as we new media types try to deny it, history will find a way to repeat itself. And like most bad movies, it is never as good the second time around.

    Nothing could provide better evidence of this inevitability than the recent celebration in San Francisco of the 30th anniversary of the Human Be-In.

    The original and Human Be-In, according to its organizers, Allen Cohen and Michael Bowen, was a "gathering of the tribes" in order to unite the philosophically opposed factions of the San Francisco hedonistic hippies and the violently confrontational Berkeley activists and join them together to create a new kind of political activism. On January 14, 1967, 30,000 counter-culturalists and radicals converged in Golden Gate Park in order to "meet minds" and "question authority." With Timothy Leary at the helm, they "turned on, tuned in, and dropped out," and a revolution - (of sorts) - was in motion.

    But thirty years later, in the gentrified South of Market San Francisco district, free love is tired, and folk music, passe. In the all-out-for-ourselves internet universe, there are no feuding factions to unite, no Victorian social enforcers to rebel against, and, as to the censorship-happy federal government to oppose - well, we did that last year.

    Fortunately, memes can be bent, and, in the eyes of the neuvo-Leary-cum-cybernauts, personal computers replace water pipes, bandwidth replaces parkgrounds, and ascii and html serve as fine pixels of Electronic LSD. And thus the idea of the 9th Annual Digital Be-In was born.

    A Digital Be-In, they discovered, could be more than a corporate-backed showcase of electronic art, providing little service beyond an opportunity for high-tech corporations from Silly Valley a chance to drive north to market their wares.

    This year's more mature Digital Be-In remembered its roots: it selected a political theme, and invited the world by means of a netcast. It promised to celebrate "Cultural Diversity in Cyberspace." In an industry notorious for its domination by white males, Be-In '97 had the right idea.

    But it had the wrong audience.

    Although Jerry Brown was passionate when describing his new grass roots digital effort, and Delores Huerta pointed all to the internet-based Strawberry workers campaign, the congregation consisted primarily of the choir. Had there only been some 20-somethings in the crowd before midnight, the event might actually have produced the impression that the high tech slackerati do care about their fellow humans, and not just about controlling their joystick and their next bag of shrimp chips.

    So where were those Gen-Xers, the voice of tomorrow?

    Perhaps following too closely the words of deceased utopian Leary to "think for themselves," most of the 20-somethings stayed home for the speeches and saved their arrival for the beginning of "seminars" - the Be-In buzzwords for "musical celebration."

    The only thing that should be surprising is that anyone would be surprised.

    We live in an age where new-media-philes and digital-proto-pundits declare ad nauseam the arrival of an Internet "Revolution" - where freedom reigns supreme in the universal aether playground and memes flow and mutute freely from hub to shining hub. But "revolution" necessarily implies change, and change requires action - hardly the first priority on the to-do list of the post-political dissatisfied slackerati.

    The true digividual thinks for herself - and stands up to authorities like the "PC Police" - who order them to integrate their start-ups. In right-leaning anarchism, diversity flows from each person stepping up to bat; nevermind those farm workers, nevermind the technologically lacking.

    "But we are rebelling against the Man!" type the web slingers into their java-based chat forums, surfing the weather pages and selecting their rave gear. Why take part in politics? Taking a stand is so "PC." And organizing a movement is so anti-individualistic.

    Instead, water bottles in hand, backpacks in tow, they toss on their mini-shirts and baggie slacks, and celebrate themselves to the tune of repetitive drumbeat techno while neon and digital vrml-like patterns splash and spin on screens and walls: "self... selfless... self... selfless...".

    They form a community alright, but do not take it to arms. Where "selfless" meant "for the good of us all," it now means "unattached to ourselves." To hell with the fact that nothing would better satisfy the "authority" they bemoan than their community of dopey-eyed teenytshirt-wearing blowpop-sucking pixel pushers, "dropping out" before "tuning in."

    Do not get me wrong. I like a good party as much as the next 20-something. And I too enjoy the thrill of events where if the "Man" and his corporate subsidiaries bring the lasers flashing leftist propaganda while new agers and other addicts smoke norcal outdoor greenbud out of glass pipes.

    As Emma Goldman put it, "If I can't dance, I don't want your revolution."

    But make no mistake: this is not a revolution. This is nothing more than a party.

    We have the free speech. Now somebody ... please talk.