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Author: Richard Barbrook


A review of Pierre Lévy, Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace, Plenum, New York, $27.95, ISBN 0306456354.

The Net has become our symbol for the future. Like clocks, steam engines and nuclear power for earlier generations, we use this icon of technology to imagine what will result from our current period of rapid social change. In Collective Intelligence, Pierre Lévy provides a French vision of what will happen when everyone can participate within cyberspace.

Up until now, because the Net was mainly developed in California, it is not surprising that our view of the digital future has long been dominated by gurus from this state. So far, the Californians have proved to be better at making virtual machines than social analyses. Some of their cyber-theories promise not just the invention of synthetic life, but even immortality through uploading our brains into cyberspace.

But lurking behind this techno-mysticism is something much more sinister. In Wired magazine, John Perry Barlow, Kevin Kelly and other Californian ideologues assert that the Net is the sort of unregulated marketplace up to now found only in economics textbooks. Instead of supporting a caring society, they hope that technological progress into the 21st century will inevitably lead back to 19th-century tooth-and-claw capitalism. Their utopia looks like most other people’s dystopia.

Lévy’s book is important because it advocates an alternative future for the Net. As a French intellectual, he doesn’t accept free market dogmas. This approach is not simply morally preferable. It is also a precondition for any coherent analysis of what’s really happening in the Net. Contrary to the predictions of Wired, it has proved difficult to create a profitable digital economy. While existing products can be promoted or sold online, most Net users are reluctant to pay for visiting Web sites – or even to click on the advertising links placed on them. So why can’t the dotcom capitalists easily turn the Net into another form of commercial media?

This is because the entrepreneurs were the last people to arrive in cyberspace. Originally invented for military purposes, the Net was quickly hijacked by academics and amateurs as a cheap – even free – method of distributing information and communicating with colleagues. Within cyberspace, most users participate in discussions or publish their work for the pleasure of others recognising their efforts. When Net enthusiasts proclaim that “information wants to be free”, they mean it literally.

Rather than being just a business opportunity, Lévy claims instead that the Net is a qualitatively new way of living. In the tradition of French philosophy, he explains this insight with a grand abstraction. Inspired by the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Lévy describes how four types of social spaces have emerged that allow us to live in different ways. Back in the distant past, we wandered the open space of the Earth as nomads. With the emergence of agriculture, we then built the fixed space of the Territory. For the past couple of centuries, increasing numbers of us have survived within the industrialised space of the Commodity. Now we are witnessing the emergence of a fourth way of living: the space of Knowledge formed by cyberspace. Within this virtual world, individuals can think and discuss with each other freely. Once everyone is wired up, we will come together as the “collective intelligence”: an inclusive society borne out of the Net. Cyberutopia is imminent.

Lévy’s visionary anthropology is therefore diametrically opposed to that of the Californian ideologues. Instead of forming a perfect market, the Net opens the space of Knowledge. Crucially, this new space is completely distinct from the space of the Commodity. When we are on-line, we want to learn, play and communicate with one another rather than to make money. Above all, we want to participate within the “collective intelligence” because we suffer from individual alienation caused by capitalism. Like many of the West Coast gurus with whom he takes issue, Lévy can become mystical about his vision of cyberspace.

Inspired by Islamic theology, he says in one chapter that the “collective intelligence” is rather similar to God. This New Age rhetoric disguises, however, a specific form of politics. Nearly thirty years on, Lévy still champions the most radical demands of the New Left of the Sixties. Back then, these revolutionaries believed that replacing governments or nationalising industries would change very little. Instead, they thought that the ills of modern society could be cured only by everyone directly controlling their own lives. In the industrialised countries, this was prevented by the professionalisation of politics and the passivity of watching television. The New Left therefore demanded the simultaneous creation of direct democracy and interactive media. Once people were no longer represented by others, everyone would be able to participate in the running of society. According to Lévy, the Net is about to realise this 1960s revolutionary dream. What proved to be impractical in the past is now possible with new digital technologies. Once we all have access to cyberspace, we will be able to determine our own destiny through a real-time direct democracy: the “virtual agora”. According to Lévy, cyberspace therefore is the online version of a hippie commune.

While emphasising the Net’s noncommercial aspects is preferable to Californian free market platitudes, this New Left cybertheory has its own problems. Above all, the formalist method of French philosophy obscures as much as it illuminates. By abstracting too far into theory, Lévy avoids examining the messy nature of human activity. For instance, there is in reality no clear separation between the Net and the rest of industrial society. Over the past few centuries, the development of both the market and the state has only been possible through constant improvements in the technologies of physical and symbolic communications. The Net itself is created out of the convergence of already existing industries: telephony, media and computing. What is happening in cyberspace is the intensification of previous trends rather than something completely new. If the Californian ideologues think that the Net can only be a market, then Levy makes exactly the opposite error.

Despite its noncommercial aspects, the Net isn’t a world completely separated from money-making. Big corporations contribute to the Net from building PCs to laying networks. Small companies help from writing software to making Web sites. Because the Net has to be a total break with the past, Lévy can never admit that one of its major uses is for business communications.

By ignoring the world of work, Lévy crucially cannot explain why the Net was developed as a hi-tech gift economy in the first place. Invented by scientists, this technology was originally designed to facilitate a specific way of working. In their specialist fields, the direct application of markets hampers research. Instead of trading with each other, scientists distribute their findings for peer review, present papers at conferences and contribute articles to journals.

Now scientists are no more moral than anyone else. In their professions, the gift economy is adopted because it is a more effective way of working. When the Net expanded beyond its founders, its new users have unconsciously adopted this scientific behaviour. Although commercial interests are using the Net, many others have discovered the benefits of working within the hi-tech gift economy. Rather than forming a “collective intelligence”, cyberspace is facilitating new types of collective labour.

Despite these faults, Lévy’s book is still a useful corrective to the free-market orthodoxy coming out of the West Coast. It is preferable to overemphasise the role of the gift economy within cyberspace than to ignore it altogether. However, both the Californian and French visions of the digital future do share a common vice: the desire to impose a rigid model on an evolving social phenomenon. Yet, the Net precisely encourages the hybridisation and intermixing of different ways of behaving. If we really want to comprehend the digital future, we will have to move beyond the abstractions of both California and France.

The book review first appeared in the New Scientist, 13th December 1997.

Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.