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Author: Richard Barbrook


After the Wall 

As this century draws to its close, the rapid development of the Net has rekindled a sense of optimism within the developed world. For almost two decades, we have been facing a failure of imagination and creativity. Despite the end of the Cold War, Western societies haven’t even been able to protect their existing welfare provisions let alone advance further towards the good society. As expressed in the nihilism of post-modernism, we have lost faith in the universal values which were to be realised through the ‘grand narrative’ of history. Rejecting praxis, commitment and hard thinking, intellectuals have instead proclaimed the triumph of fatalism, apathy and triviality. All that was left for us to do was “play with the pieces” inherited from earlier and more inventive times.

Suddenly, after the long night of neo-liberalism, the arrival of the Net has signalled the recommencement of the emancipatory project of modernity. As the process of digital convergence accelerates, divisions between different professions are being broken down. The structural rigidities of Fordism are being replaced by more flexible and informal methods of working. People are acquiring new skills and creating innovative forms of artistic expression. With cheaper global communications, they are discovering how easy it is becoming to work and play together across time and space. Even the right of every citizen to disseminate their own media is in the process of finally being realised.

Hard Work

Hypermedia is being developed through the collective effort of many millions of people. Despite its hi-tech basis, the construction of cyberspace in part depends on some very traditional forms of working. For instance, large numbers of semi-skilled manual workers have to dig holes in the road so that the fibre-optic grid can be built. Other people need to labour on assembly-lines making the computers needed for receiving, manipulating and transmitting information. Yet, at the same time, hypermedia also is facilitating the emergence of innovative ways of working. Much of its content is being produced by digital artisans. By spending many long hours in front of their screens, these artist-engineers are creating the aesthetics and writing the code for the new hypermedia products and services. Their design skills and cultural imagination are now at the centre of the process of making hypermedia part of everyday life.

As with other sectors of cultural production, digital artisans are faced with the problems of working within a late-twentieth century capitalist economy. They have to negotiate their way through the maze of interlocking corporations, state regulations, copyrights, health & safety issues, legal contracts, tax demands and so on. At this stage of modernity, we only seem to be able to work together successfully through the mediation of reified social relations. Yet, hypermedia does facilitate more flexible ways of organising our labour. The Net itself is the result of a synergetic miscegenation of state, corporate and d.i.y. initiatives. The importance of artisan labour within the virtual economy demonstrates how hypermedia is helping to break down the previously rigid polarisation between commercial and community, state and market, proletarian and bourgeois.

The digital artisans do not labour simply to support themselves financially. Their days and nights of creative effort are slowly integrating hypermedia into the daily lives of everyone within the developed world. At some point in the near future, the hype over hypermedia will disappear. A minority of people are already sending e-mail, using CD-roms and browsing the Web on a regular basis. Over the next few years, many more will be using the Net and other digital technologies for work, entertainment and education. As Buckminster Fuller said, a good technology is successful when it has become transparent. The skilled work of the digital artisans is slowly transforming hypermedia into an essential part of our everyday lives. They will have succeeded in this task when people use hypermedia without noticing how strange and wonderful these new tools are. One day, hypermedia will be as prosaic and banal as the electric light, the washing machine or the vacuum cleaner.

Mystical Positivism

Yet, at the very moment when hypermedia is becoming an everyday tool, there are increasing numbers of people who are turning digital convergence into a new religion. For them, hypermedia is no longer simply a useful and beautiful tool for work, entertainment or education. Instead, it is the focus for their mystical fantasies. Confusing science fiction with science fact, they believe that new silicon forms of life are being born and/or that humans are about to be transformed into cyborgs. Like earlier attempts to fuse science and religion, this new cyber- faith does contains elements of insight into the contemporary condition. From fractal geometry to evolutionary progress, digital technologies do simulate aspects of the natural world. From consumer goods to medical technologies, humans do live in symbiosis with their machines.

Yet, the new believers are not really interested in how nature can inspire the making of good hypermedia or how we can invent technologies for better living. Even John Perry Barlow’s crazy scheme to declare the independence of cyberspace is far too utilitarian for them. Instead, they want to be present at the apocalypse itself – the end of time, the world and the human race. For intellectuals, artists and ordinary punters alike, this millenarian vision can be both romantic and intoxicating. If they’re really lucky, they won’t just witness the dawning of a new epoch, but also might even get absorbed by the Net into the Godhead or be turned into immortal post-humans!

Ironically, one of the key concepts of this new cyber-faith is the old enemy of religious belief: Darwinism. Back in the nineteenth century, evolutionary theory didn’t just discredit the literal truth of the holy texts. It also provided a rational basis for understanding the human condition. From Spencer on the right to Marx on the left, Darwinism acted as an inspiration for social thinkers to examine human society without being trapped within the confines of religious belief. Yet, nowadays, it is evolutionary theory itself which is being used to proclaim the imminent arrival of the God-Man. Nowhere is this clearer than in the popularity of the concept of the meme – the cultural form which self-replicates using human society like DNA reproducing itself through a species. Because this theory already uses the computer virus as an analogy, the existence of memes has become a central article of faith for the cyber-mystics. For what are the new Gods emerging from digital convergence but memes embodied in silicon and metal?

The Fallacies of Memetics

Although we may still hunger for spiritual meaning, it is almost too easy to debunk the positivist mysticism of memes. Firstly, the meme theory is dud philosophy. As Feurbach pointed out, all religion inverts reality. The creative powers of the human species are projected onto a divine being which we then bow down to worship. As Christianity and other religions went into decline, this swapping of subject and object has been rehashed by all the most dubious trends in social theory. Over the last seventy years, psychoanalysis, neo-classical economics, Leninism, structuralism, semiotics, post-modernism and technological determinism have been used to deny the Promethean powers of human labour. Whatever their formal differences, these various ideologies are all profoundly anti-democratic. Crucially, they deny that ordinary people – although limited by their circumstances – can influence their own destiny. Instead, the advocates of these theories claim that we’re simply passive objects of impersonal forces outside our control, such as the unconscious, market forces, ideologies, structures, languages, discourses or technologies. In all these theories, there is no dialectic between free will and necessity.

The meme theory is yet another attack on human subjectivity. Our complex social development is first simplified into technological progress, then reduced to culture, and finally explained away through the biology of memes. Our creativity and imagination as humans is once again denied. Translated from bio-babble, meme is simply another word for the all-powerful idea, ideology or sign. It is the Platonic deity reborn. Yet again, we’re supposed to believe that we’re simply empty vessels manipulated by mysterious outside powers. As Feurbach said, when illusion becomes sacred, truth is rejected as profane.

Secondly, the meme concept is bad science. It is the revival of the discredited theory of Lamarck in a new form. Because people will no longer believe that learnt behaviours can be actually embedded in our genes, we’re now told that the development of human societies can be explained by a hybrid of DNA and memes. Yet, like the unconscious in psychoanalysis or utility in neo- classical economics, the concept of memes is completely unprovable. No one has ever seen a meme. You cannot examine one under a microscope. You cannot measure its impact on the social world. Lacking any credible scientific evidence, acceptance of the meme theory can only be a pure act of faith. Yet, on this flimsy assertion, we’re called upon to reject all previous research into the development of human societies. Although social science may not appear as positivist as biology, at least many people working in this field have recognised the fundamental specificity of the human species. Unlike other animals, we not only possess consciousness, but also are capable of acting collectively to change our own circumstances.

Lastly, the meme concept is reactionary politics. Earlier in the process of modernisation, other versions of biological reductionism – Social Darwinism and Nazi race science – were used as a pretext to reverse social progress. Although great human suffering was justified by these ideas, we’re now once again being called upon to believe in biological reductionism. Despite the denials of the Californian ideologues, the theory still contains a strong smell of fascism. In the USA, some sections of the white ‘virtual class’ dream of embodying their racial privileges in a cyborg form. For others, the meme theory promises a more subtle justification of their social position. Using memetic theory, they claim that unregulated trade between competing companies is the same thing as the circulation of genes between members of a species. As in Spencer’s Social Darwinism, any attempts to alleviate poverty or correct other market failures can then be denounced as contravening the immutable laws of nature.

Whether in its racist or neo-liberal variants, the popularity of the meme concept thus expresses a deep fear of the emancipatory process of modernisation. Even when hidden behind sci-fi fantasies of artificial intelligences or post-humans, this theory denies the ability of people to invent themselves in ways which go beyond the particular situations in which they find themselves in. The process of modernity has often been cruel and wasteful, but it has also involved a liberation of our Promethean powers. Despite wars and genocides, we have been able to civilise our societies in this century through introduction of universal suffrage and the creation of welfare states. The rapid development of hypermedia is a sign that this process of enlightenment is not over. For instance, it is now conceivable that one of the founding principles of republicanism – media freedom for all citizens – is on the verge of being achieved through the two-way communications made possible by the Net. By escaping into sci-fi fantasies, the adepts of the cyber-faith avoid facing the difficult problems of how the democratic potential of hypermedia can be realised in practice. It is much less strain on their brains to regurgitate mystical mantras than to think hard about how we can provide access for all to the Net, build a fully two-way communications system, invent systems of payment for digital work, decide who has property rights in cyberspace, debate the role of state regulations over the virtual world and so on. The building of the infobahn will never be accomplished by divine revelation. It can only be achieved through the pragmatic application of our collective imagination and effort.

In The Beginning Was The Deed

Given that the meme concept is nothing more than hip bio-babble, what is interesting about this theory is why anyone would want to believe in such an intellectually dubious proposition in the first place. The meme concept is therefore important as an object of social anthropology rather than as a credible way of understanding human history. Alongside the Californian ideology, the positivist mysticism of memes is a discourse designed to sooth the existential confusion of the ‘virtual class’. In the USA, the development of the digital economy has exacerbated the racial polarisation between the largely white professionals and the mainly black ‘underclass’. The removal of this archaic social divide will only come about through the difficult task of reviving the New Deal in the USA, especially its policies for the redistribution of wealth. In contrast, the new cyber-faith offers a much lazier way of dealing with the guilt of privilege suffered by the ‘virtual class’. Like Christianity in earlier times, positivist mysticism promises to resolve all earthly problems through magical means: the birth of the God-Man. By postponing any solutions to the apocalypse, this theory has the advantage of allowing its adepts to avoid actually doing anything practical to improve the everyday lives of people. It even allows members of the ‘virtual class’ to vote for Newt Gingrich and his “kill-the-poor” policies with a clear conscience.

The reactionary basis of positivist mysticism is often hidden behind radical rhetoric about the imminent arrival of the cyber- utopia. The belief in the imminent paradigm shift is one of the enduring cliches of modernity. Over the past two centuries, each successive generation has believed that it was on the brink of entering a new world. The continuous process of change within modernity gives the illusion that we’re always about to make the great leap forwards. However, for inhabitants of the developed world, the truth is rather more prosaic. The hoped-for revolution has already taken place! We’re no longer peasants scratching a subsistence existence in the countryside. Instead, over the past two centuries, we have turned ourselves into wage-workers living within an urban consumer society. If we wish to be poetic, we can commemorate the actual moment of our liberation from serfdom and slavery as dating from 14th July 1789: the storming of the Bastille. But this crucial historical event was only the birth of the emancipatory project of modernity. Being the heirs of the French Revolution, we face the more pragmatic problems of realising and universalising its abstract principles in practice. As Hegel pointed out, we have to make the rational into the real.

The meme concept can only obscure this long-term process of enlightenment. Hypermedia is important not because it is giving birth to the God-Man, but because it is helping to actualise the principles of 1789. For instance, the French revolutionaries promised that every citizen would have the opportunity to exercise media freedom. For the first time, this right could finally be realised within the developed world through the spread of hypermedia. But, this goal can only be achieved by overcoming many practical difficulties, including the rebuilding of the telecommunications networks and making the ownership of computers more widely available. Above all, the digital artisans will have to design useful and beautiful hypermedia which will allow people to work, learn and play together. Memetic theory can contribute nothing towards the resolution of these practical problems. Instead, we need to examine what are the political, economic and social obstacles to building a democratic and inclusive cyberspace – and how we can then overcome them. The refusal to be duped by false promises of the memetic nirvana is an important step towards ensuring that hypermedia is used to improve the daily lives of everyone. The emancipatory project of modernity has recommenced – and it is our task to contribute towards its realisation in practice.

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.