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Author: Richard Barbrook

HYPERMEDIA FREEDOM by Richard Barbrook

Turn On, Log In and Drop Out!

As with any other law, the Telecommunications Reform Act will face the problem of enforcement. The ‘War on Drugs’ hasn’t stopped Americans from voraciously consuming billions of dollars of illegal chemicals every year. There must be similar doubts about the practicality of the censorship measures in the new Act. Is the American state really going to be able to prevent its citizens saying fuck to each other in their private e-mails? How will it prevent people logging-on to Web sites in other countries with a less hypocritical attitude towards adult sexuality? The development of hypermedia is the result of the convergence not only of radio and television broadcasting, but also of other types of less censored media, such as printing and music. Why should the Net be subject to broadcasting-style restrictions rather than those applied to printed material? A long political battle is now beginning to find an acceptable level of legal controls over the new forms of social communications.

Yet, at this crucial moment, one of the leaders of the principal cyber-rights lobbying group – the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) – has been gripped by an attack of ideological hysteria. In bizarre act of presumption, John Perry Barlow, the EFF’s co-founder, has issued a Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. In this manifesto, he casts himself as the new Thomas Jefferson calling the people to arms against the tyranny of Bill Clinton: ‘the great invertebrate in Washington’. Claiming to speak ‘on behalf of the future’, he declares that the elected government of the USA has no right to legislate over ‘Cyberspace, the new home of the Mind’. Because ‘we are creating a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live’, Barlow asserts that cyberspace exists outside the jurisdication of the American or any other existing state. In cyberspace, only Net users have the right to decide the rules. According to Barlow, the inhabitants of this virtual space already police themselves without any interference from Federal legislators: ‘you do not know our culture, our ethics, or the unwritten codes that already provide our society with more order than could be obtained by any of your impositions.’ Users of the Net should therefore ‘reject the authorities of distant, uninformed powers’ and ignore the censorship imposed by the Telecommunications Reform Act.

It is too easy to laugh at this Declaration as a high tech version of the old hippie fantasy of dropping out of straight society into a psychedelic dreamworld. In sci-fi novels, cyberspace has been often poetically described as a ‘consensual hallucination’. Yet, in reality, the construction of the infobahn is an intensely physical act. It is flesh and blood workers who spend many hours of their lives developing hardware, assembling PCs, laying cables, installing router systems, writing software programs, designing web pages and so on. It is obviously a fantasy to believe that cyberspace can be ever be separated from the societies – and states – within which these people spend their lives. Barlow’s Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace therefore cannot be treated as a serious response to the threat to civil liberties on the Net posed by the Christian fundamentalists and other bigots. Instead, it is a symptom of the intense ideological crisis now facing the advocates of free market libertarianism within the online community. At the very moment that cyberspace is about to become opened up to the general public, the individual freedom which they prized in the Net seems about to be legislated out of existence with little or no political opposition. Crucially, the lifting of restrictions on market competition hasn’t advanced the cause of freedom of expression at all. On the contrary, the privatisation of cyberspace seems to be taking place alongside the introduction of heavy censorship. Unable to explain this phenomenon within the confines of the Californian Ideology, Barlow has decided to escape into neo-liberal hyper-reality rather than face the contradictions of really existing capitalism.

Cyberspace – the Final Frontier

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). As Andy Cameron and I showed in our article, Californian Ideology, neo-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. Above all, this weird hybrid has relied on projecting old myths about the American revolution onto the process of digital convergence. According to Wired Magazine, the development of hypermedia would create a high tech ‘Jeffersonian Democracy’ – the eighteenth century will be reborn in the twenty-first century.

In his Declaration, John Perry Barlow consciously mimics the rhetoric of the Founding Fathers’ Declaration of Independence of the United States. Once again, free-spirited individuals are standing up to an oppressive and corrupt government. However, these revolutionary phrases from the past contain within them many reactionary aspirations. Back in 1776, Jefferson expressed the national dream of building a rural utopia in the wilderness of America. The winning of independence from Britain was necessary so that Americans could live as independent, self-sufficent farmers in small villages. Jefferson’s pastoral vision rejected city-life as the source of corruption – which he saw in the rapidly expanding conurbations of contemporary Europe. But, as America itself began to industrialise, the pastoral dream had to be displaced westwards towards the frontier. Even after the Indian wars had ended, the Wild West remained a place of individual freedom and self-discovery in American mythology. Jefferson had become a cowboy.

By its name, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is therefore invoking not just the cowboy myths of the last century, but also the pastoral fantasies of the writer of the original Declaration of Independence. When American government agencies first decided to crack down on hackers, a group of old radicals decided to defend the new generation of cyberpunks. Out of this act of solidarity, the EFF emerged as the political lobby group of the West Coast cyber-community. Using libertarian arguments, it campaigned for minimal censorship and regulation over the new information technologies. But, the EFF was never just a campaign for cyber-rights. It was also a leading cheerleader for the individualist fantasies of the Californian Ideology. According to the tenets of this confused doctrine, hippie anti-authoritianism is being finally realised through the fusion of digital technologies with free market liberalism. However, this inevitable rebirth of Jeffersonian Democracy now seems to have been postponed. Above all, the lobbying work of the EFF appears to have been frustrated – the repressive measures in the Telecommunications Reform Act passed with almost no opposition in the legislature or from the executive. At this moment of crisis, Barlow has embraced the wildest fantasies of the West Coast anarcho-capitalists. Once encryption is widely available, they believe that free-spirited individuals will be able to live within a virtual world free from censorship, taxes and all the other evils of big government. Unable to face the social contradictions of living within the digital city, Barlow has decided to join the virtual cowboys living on the electronic frontier.

If This is the Electronic Frontier, Who Are the Indians?

It is no accident that Barlow mimics Jefferson for this retro-futurist programme. Unlike Europeans who fantasied about rural utopias, Jefferson never rejected technology along with the city. On the contrary, the ‘sage of Monticello’ was an enthusiastic proponent of technological innovation. Crucially, he believed that it was possible to freeze the social development of the United States while simultaneously modernising its methods of production. The proponents of the Californian Ideology follow a similar logic. They wish to preserve cyberspace as the home of rugged individuals and innovative entrepreneurs while at the same time supporting the commercial expansion of the Net. For them, the development of the new information society can only take place through the realisation of the eternal principles of liberalism revealed by the Founding Fathers. Yet, like all other countries, the United States exists within profane history. Its political and economic structures are the result of centuries of contradictory social processes, not the expression of sacred truths. Its leaders were complex human beings, not one-sided ‘men of marble’.

This dialectical reality can be most easily seen by looking at the lives of those Founding Fathers – Jefferson, Washington and Madison – invoked by Barlow in his Declaration. On the one hand, they were great revolutionaries who successfully won national independence and established constitutional government in America. Yet, at the same time, they were vicious plantation-owners who lived off the forced labour of their slaves. In other countries, people have come to terms with the contradictory nature of their modernising revolutionaries. Even Chinese Communist Party now admits that Mao Zedong’s legacy contains both positive elements, such as the liberation of the country from colonialism, and negative features, such as the massacres of the Cultural Revolution. In contrast, Barlow – and many other Americans – can never acknowledge that their beloved republic wasn’t just created by hard-working, freedom-loving farmers, but also through the slavery of millions of Africans and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of indigenous peoples. The plantation economy of the Old South and the extermination of the First Nations are the equivalents of the Irish Famine, the Holocaust and the Gulag Archipelago in American history. But, these contradictions of the real history of the USA are too painful to contemplate for Barlow and other believers in the ahistorical truths of liberal individualism. Jefferson must remain as an unsullied portrait chiselled into the face of Mount Rushmore.

Yet, in understanding contemporary debates over the future of the Net, it is important to remember the contradictory nature of historical precedents glibly invoked by the Californian Ideology. Back in the early nineteenth century, the spread of the new industrial technologies freed no slaves. On the contrary, the invention of the cotton gin and mechanical spinning machines actually reinforced the archaic and brutal institutions of slavery in the Old South. Nowadays, the libertarian rhetoric of individual empowerment through new information technologies is similarly used to hide the reality of the growing polarisation between the largely white virtual class and the mainly dark-skinned underclass. If interpreted with a European sense of irony, Jeffersonian Democracy can be an appropriate metaphor for the dystopian present found in the inner cities of the USA!

The First Electronic Frontier

Because the liberal principles of Jeffersonian Democracy exist outside real history, Barlow and other Californian ideologues cannot recognise the temporal dynamics of really existing capitalism. Although new frontiers may be opened up by enterprising individuals, the original pioneers are quickly replaced by more collective forms of organisation, such as joint-stock companies. For instance, the free-spirited cowboys of the Wild West soon ended up as employees of agri-businesses financed by the industrialised East. A similar process occured in the first electronic frontier in American history: radio broadcasting. Back in the early 1920s, radio was initially developed by an enthusiastic minority of amateurs and entrepreneurs. With few restrictions over broadcasting, almost anyone could either set up their own station or rent airtime on somebody else’s. Yet, once cheap radio receivers became widely available, the airwaves were rapidly taken over by the corporate networks provided by NBC and CBS. This process of monopolisation was consolidated by the Federal government through the 1927 Radio Act which restricted broadcasting to the holders of licences granted by a state-appointed regulatory body. Not surprisingly, conservative politicians seized the opportunity to silence political and cultural radicals, especially from the Left. However, this imposition of censorship encountered little popular disapproval. On the contrary, most voters supported the Radio Act because the licencing system ensured that the popular programmes of the national networks could be heard clearly without interference from other stations. The democratisation of the availability of radio broadcasting had ironically removed most opportunities for participation within the new media.

The key question now is whether the new electronic frontier of cyberspace is condemned to follow the same path of development. Contrary to Barlow’s assertion that cyberspace is not a ‘public construction project’, the principal obstacle to the expansion of the Net in the USA is the problem of who pays for the building of the fibre-optic grid. Given that they refuse to provide state investment, the Democrats and Republicans have had to use the new Telecommunications Reform Act to create a regulatory framework friendly to the large corporations which possess the capital needed for the construction of the infobahn. Above all, both parties have given their blessing to the growing number of mergers between companies operating within the converging sectors of the media, computing and telecommunications. Because it has lost its competitive edge in its traditional Fordist industries, the American economy now relies heavily on companies at the centre of the process of digital convergence, such as the Hollywood studios, Microsoft and AT&T. Far from encouraging a Jeffersonian Democracy composed of small businesses, the Telecommunications Reform Act has cleared the way for the emergence of American ‘national champions’ which have sufficent size both to build the infobahn at home and to compete successfully abroad against their European and Asian rivals.

For many on the Left, these multi-media corporations are the greatest threat to free speech on the Net. As happened in radio – and later television – broadcasting, the desire to attract a mass audience can be a far more effective method of inhibiting political radicalism and cultural experimentation than any half-baked censorship provisions tacked onto the end of a Telecommunications Reform Act. The Neo-Luddite pessimists have their worst fears confirmed when corporate leaders openly proclaim their aim to transform the Net into ‘interactive television’. In this scenario, the new forms of sociability existing within contemporary cyberspace would be replaced by the passive consumption of pop entertainment and biased information provided by multi-media corporations. Despite their disingenuous protests against the anti-pornography provisions in the new Act, these corporations cannot be too sad to see the introduction of regulations which would turn the Net into a safe – and therefore profitable – form of family fun.

In this vision of the future, Jeffersonian Democracy is simply neo-liberal propaganda designed to win support for the privatisation of cyberspace from the members of the virtual class. By promiscuously mixing New Left and New Right together, the Californian Ideology attracts those individuals who hope that they’re smart – or lucky – enough to seize the opportunities presented by the rapid changes in the technological basis of social production. But, while they’re being sold the dream of making it big as cyber-entrepreneurs, most digital artisans are, in reality, denied the employment security previously enjoyed by workers in Fordist industries. Far from being self-sufficent pioneers on the electronic frontier, many end up living hand-to-mouth from one short-term corporate contract to another. Similarly, the privatisation of cyberspace also threatens community uses of cyberspace. As more commercial money is spent on providing online services, it becomes increasingly difficult for amateurs to create Web sites of sufficient quality to attract large number of users. Yet, as happened in 1920s radio broadcasting, many people will happily accept corporate control over cyberspace if they are provided with well-produced online services. According to the Neo-Luddites, the democratisation of the availability of the Net is removing most opportunities for meaningful participation within cyberspace.

Cyberspace is Social

The current controversy in the USA over the Telecommunications Reform Act has cruelly exposed the limitations of the Californian Ideology. Barlow may dream of escaping into the hyper-reality of cyberspace, but he is simply trying to avoid facing the political and economic contradictions of really existing capitalism. Far from producing an electronic frontier composed of many small businesses, the commercialisation of cyberspace is creating the conditions for the concentration of capital on a global scale. Given the huge costs of building a national broadband network, only very large corporations can mobilise enough investment to carry out this infrastructure project. Within this emerging oligopoly, innovative entrepreneurs will still achieve public prominence as either leaders of big businesses or as sub-contractors of the multi-media corporations. But their individual success will only be made possible through the huge collective effort to build the infobahn. The dynamics of digital convergence within really existing capitalism are pushing towards the ever increasing socialisation of production and communications, not the realisation of 18th century fantasies of individual self-sufficiency.

It is therefore rather one-sided for the EFF to direct its criticisms solely against the anti-pornography regulations contained within the new Telecommunications Reform Act. Freedom of expression on the Net is not only threatened by the state, but also by the market. As shown by the history of radio broadcasting in the USA, these two forms of censorship have often been imposed in parallel. Both politicians and corporations have a common interest in ensuring that middle America is not disturbed by any radical political and cultural ideas emanating from new forms of mass communications. Therefore, any meaningful campaign for digital rights has to fight for freedom of expression against both state and market forms of censorship. The development of the Net offers a way of overcoming the political and economic restrictions on free speech within the existing media. Everyone could have the opportunity not only to receive information and entertainment, but also to transmit their own productions. The problem is how this potentiality will be realised.

A campaign for hypermedia freedom can only be successful if it recognises the inherent contradictions within this fundamental right of citizens. The political rights of each individual are circumscribed by the rights of other citizens. For instance, in order to protect children, the state has a duty to restrict the freedom of speech of paedophiles on the Net. Because ethnic minorities have the right to live in peace, the democratic republic should try to prevent violent fascists from organising online. But, apart from these minimal restrictions, citizens do have the right to say what they like to each other. A democratic state certainly has no mandate to impose a narrow religious morality on all its citizens regardless of their own beliefs.

Similarly, a campaign for digital rights must also recognise the economic contradictions within hypermedia freedom. Because they use amateur labour, community hypermedia projects can happily exist within the hi-tech gift economy. But, if digital artisans are to be paid for their work, some form of commodity exchange will have to be created within the Net. However, the dominance of the free market will inhibit the free circulation of ideas. Therefore demands for digital rights have to engage with the economic contradictions of hypermedia freedom. Above all, they cannot take absolutist positions over the shape of the information economy. On the contrary, the development of cyberspace has so far been carried out through a hybrid of public, private and community initiatives. All sectors have played an important role in the construction of the infobahn. But, in the new Telecommunications Reform Act, Americans now face the problem of the wrong type of government action, rather than too much state intervention. While it seems all too eager to impose moral censorship on Net users, the Federal government has simultaneously shirked its duty to ensure that all citizens can have access to online services. While the corporations may possess the resources to build the broadband network, the state should use its powers to prevent any section of society being excluded from cyberspace for lack of resources.

Contrary to the predictions of the pessimists, it is possible to win the struggle against both the political and economic censorship of cyberspace. Although the state can – and should – prosecute the small minority of paedophiles and fascists, the resources needed to spy on everyone’s email and Web sites will make the imposition of moral puritanism very difficult to enforce. Even with sophisticated censorship programs, the sheer volume of Net traffic should eventually overwhelm even a well-funded surveillance body. While it might just about be possible to regulate the output of thousands of radio and television stations, the sheer cost of employing humans to vet the many millions of users logging onto a global network of online services would be prohibitive. The social nature of hypermedia is the best defence of the individual’s right of freedom of expression.

Similarly, the corporation’s ambition to buy up the whole of cyberspace will also be checked by the social basis of the process of convergence. For instance, the recent trials of interactive television have been commercial failures. As Andy Cameron points out in Dissimulations, the corporate cheerleaders are trapped within a category mistake: they’re trying to impose the form of earlier media onto the new hypermedia. Above all, interactivity can’t be restricted to clicking through a series of menu options. Most people want to meet other people within cyberspace. Unlike the existing electronic media, the Net is not centred on the one-way flow of communications from a limited number of transmitters. On the contrary, hypermedia is a two-way form of communications where everybody is both a receiver and a transmitter. The multi-media corporations will undoubtedly play a leading role in building the infrastructure of the infobahn and selling information commodities over the Net, but they will find it impossible to monopolise the social potential of cyberspace.

Over recent years, the advocates of the Californian Ideology have been claiming that 18th century liberal individualism would be miraculously reborn through the process of digital convergence. Yet, now online services are becoming available to the mass of the population, the collective nature of the new information society is becoming increasingly obvious. Within politics, electronic democracy will be at the centre of the relationship between representatives and their voters. Within all sectors of the economy, the infobahn will soon become the basic infrastructure for collaborative work across time and space. Crucially, this socialisation of politics and economics will be the best protection for individual freedom within cyberspace. Far from having to escape into a neo-liberal hyper-reality, people can utilise the new digital technologies to enhance their lives both inside and outside cyberspace. The electronic agora is yet to be built.

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.