Print this page

Author: Celia Pearce


I first read a draft of ‘The Californian Ideology’ given to me by Andy Cameron during his visit to Los Angeles last summer for the SIGGRAPH ’95 Convention. At that time, Andy was showing Anti-Rom at SIGGRAPH on my invitation as part of an exhibition of alternative new media called the lounge@siggraph which I organized for the conference. Andy was staying near my house at a beachside motel in Santa Monica and wore sandals for the entire period of his stay. We ate cheap Mexican food for lunch every day across the street from the Convention Center. We had lively discussions on a variety of topics. With the exception of a few technical problems during the show, he seemed to have a lovely visit with us here in California. If I am not very much mistaken, he left Southern California with a bit of a tan.

What, Precisely, Is California?

“American and England are two nations divided by a common language.” Oscar Wilde was succinct in his observation, if not a bit simplistic. There is much more that divides America from England than mere linguistics. And if we are on the subject of California, the division is even more drastic since California is as far away from England as any place in the U.S., including Alaska, but with the possible exception of Hawaii.

It is typical of Americans to be myopically ignorant of their own history – not to mention everyone else’s – which is how the Republican Party is able to repeatedly succeed at the polls. But a glimpse into our history, and particularly the history of California, is useful in understanding the basis for the Californian Ideology.

California is and has always been characterized by pioneers and gold diggers. From the gold rush, to the movie industry, to the computer revolution, the Californian Ideology has always been one of spirited individualism and entrepreneurialism. A less utopian way to look at it is that California is a breeding ground for greed and self-interest. Both interpretations are correct. By way of example, take a look at this list of just a few of the things California has brought the world:

Levis Movies Charles Manson The Grateful Dead Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon Silicon Graphics Microsoft and Apple Industrial Light & Magic Los Angeles and San Francisco Scientology Disneyland

A Member of the Virtual Class

Bearing all that in mind, I’d like to analyze some of Cameron and Barbrook’s points from the perspective of someone who must live – and survive – the Californian Ideology on a daily basis. By way of qualifying that statement, let me confess at once and without shame that I am a member of the ‘virtual class’ described in the article. The description of this individual – the independent contractor, free to come and go as they wish, well-paid, but at the same time, suffering from acute workaholism – fits me to a tee. All except the well-paid part. And that is a myth. It is true that many of us are well paid by the hour. However, it is also true that many of us spend between fifty and seventy-five percent of our time trying to secure that hour of work. Furthermore, prospective clients often expect us to do work on spec or for very low rates, often with no assurance that work will not be used without our participation. Those of us to are pushing the envelope the hardest, and particularly, those who are trying to make product with social and cultural merits, must fight every step of the way. The people who are at the forefront of the digital revolution, the true vanguards, are blazing their trail at tremendous personal risk.

The condition of the ‘virtual class’ cannot be blamed on the individuals within it, but must be looked at in a larger context. In America, artists receive very little support from the government or, for that matter, the society-at-large. Since the 1930′s and the New Deal, when WPA funding was created to support a variety of arts and cultural projects, America has systematically eroded away its art and cultural support, much as a desperate animal gnaws its own foot off to release itself from a trap. In our anti-intellectual culture, artists are considered subversive and unnecessary. In America, anything that does not generate revenue is viewed as gratuitous.

And herein lies the key to understanding the Californian Ideology. The most important thing in America is making money. Period. If we begin our discussion starting from that axiom, we can start to make a little more sense of what the Californian Ideology is all about.

“Bigger is Better”

In many arenas, America prides itself on matters of size. “Bigger is better” is the general belief. But one of the primary reasons for the average American’s sense of political impotency is that America is quite simply too big to manage. The European Community will ultimately be a better model for managing governments than the United States of America. If you look at any large country with a large physical area and a large population, you will recognize that it is almost impossible to run a large country with any measure of freedom to its members. If you are autocratic and highly centralized, as was the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China, you can have some measure of control. However, once you start letting people have any say in what’s going on, things start to degenerate, as we are now seeing with former Soviet republics.

To compensate for this flaw in large-scale decentralized management, we have developed, in the form of corporations and companies, our own form of a tribal culture. Big companies like Disney, IBM, McDonald’s or Coca-Cola, are small nations unto themselves with their own culture, ethics, even their own language. These tribes cluster themselves into “industries” – software, entertainment, automobile, and so on. It is within these corporate tribes that most Americans find the unity and security one might expect to be provided by government in a place where the “common good” is seen as a priority.

Capitalist Cyberhippies

Why is Silicon valley overrun with capitalist hippies? It is easy to label these individuals are revolutionaries who ‘sold out’ to the capitalist ethic. But when you live within that ethic, you can also look at it another way. We learned in the 1960′s, after our President, his brother, and our two most influential civil rights leaders were murdered, that politics was a dangerous path to take in building a revolution. The Nixon regime further drove home the point that politics was no place for a respectable individual to devote their time and energy. Furthermore, it doesn’t take a genius to see that in reality, there is no politics in America, only economics. So to say that Americans are apolitical is absolutely correct. And that is because our country is about economics, not politics. In Europe, there are countries. In America, there are corporations. It is the corporations who take care of the people, not the government. Those things which are typically government supported in social democracies, like medical insurance, education, and even the arts, are provided by corporations. We have created a modern-day feudal society. And the only way to secure any real power in America is to either make -or control- large sums of money.

In the 1960′s, the generation that seemed destined to revolutionize America was utterly derailed by the events described above from a political path to change. They did, in fact, change America, but not in the ways we thought they would. Those who would have excelled in politics turned instead to industry. In another time and place, it might have been Bill Gates in the White House rather than Bill Clinton. But their generation learned the hard way that politics is as treacherous in America as it is pointless. The mere comparison of the two Bills should attest to that.

Siliwood & the Military Entertainment Complex

From Silicon Valley, you can follow the California fault to the other nexus of activity in California – Hollywood. Hollywood is the home of the entertainment industry, Silicon Valley of the computer industry. And in the past three years, these two powerful forces have “gotten in bed together” (as we say in showbiz) and given birth to a new phenomenon aptly known as ‘Siliwood’.

But beneath the self-congratulatory glitter of this marriage, both regions are tied together by a much stronger bond, a bond much less glamorous, but no less profitable. That bond is the military. As ‘The Californian Ideology’ very astutely points out, virtually every aspect of the computer industry has its roots in government-funded military technology, and California has always been a leader in military contracts. This all but explodes (pun intended) the myth of the autonomous pioneer. For every Apple in California, there is a Lockheed. Considering Silicon Valley is the domain of the cyberhippie-turned-capitalist culture, there is a deep irony in the fact that people who were once anti-war demonstrators have built an entire industry on the shoulders of the military. The brushing over of this fact is yet another example of historical myopia.

But one can scarcely explore the ironies of this without acknowledging Siliwood’s companion movement, the ‘Military Entertainment Complex’. In the wake of military downsizing, many military contractors, scratching their heads and wondering “Who, but the military, can afford us?” turned to their liberal neighbors in Hollywood. The result is a whole series of hybrid technologies, some of which I have had the pleasure of participating in the development of. I rather enjoy the concept of forging weapons into ploughshares, especially since both of the military-cum-entertainment projects I have worked on consisted of non-violent content. In spite of my staunchly pacifist position, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the fact that none of this would be possible without the military. In a way, the military could be looked at as the front end of the technological adoption curve.

Adoption Curve

‘The Californian Ideology’ spends a good deal of time on the topic of technological determinism and elitism. In America, we call this the ‘adoption curve’. Here’s how it works: Technology is developed at tremendous capital expense. It is released on the market at exorbitant prices, prices that the ‘average’ person cannot begin to afford. It is targeted to a certain demographic – affluent, young, educated, eager to impress themselves and each other. These are the people who ‘lead’ the market. They run out and buy ‘the latest’ thing, drop it in the trunk of their BMW’s, and take it home to their house in Marin County while listening to the CD player in their trunk, perhaps having a phonecall in the car on the way. If and when enough of these ‘early adopters’ invest in the technology, one of two things will happen. More often than not, the technology falls on its face for whatever reason and becomes obsolete, rendering the expensive device virtually useless. However, if the right combination of factors are present, and a certain saturation level is reached, then presto! The price begins to plunge, and the subsequent tiers of adoption trailers follow, and eventually, the technology becomes available and affordable on a mass level. This process can sometimes take years, and there is fairly consistent demographic sequence to this pattern. This is the general means by which technology achieves mass market penetration in the U.S. and these are the actual terms that are used to describe this.

On the one hand, this can be viewed as an elitist system. And in many respects it is. But the fact is that if the technology is really worthwhile, eventually, the cost will keep being pushed down until it becomes affordable on a mass level. And the people at the head of the adoption curve are the ones who pay the price. Because they buy the device at a premium, subsidizing further development so that a year or two later, others can buy it at a fraction of the cost. No-one feels sorry for them because that’s their job.

Underlying it all is the axiom with which we started. Profits profits and more profits. In France, you give free MINITELs to everyone. In America, you sell them for a lot of money to early adopters.

Social Capitalism & Autodidactic Communalism

If you prefer to exist outside the corporate culture, you must take on the role of a renegade and become a member of ‘the virtual class’. If you play your cards right, you can evolve into a consultant, which is basically just a renegade who knows how to market themselves.

Contrary to the myth, renegades to not operate in a vacuum, nor would the vast majority of us claim to. Instead, we form our own loosely structured, somewhat anarchistic communities. Because we share the common resource of the ‘digisphere’, we can, in fact, function in this way, without the ‘big brother’ protection of a feudal master. There are two systems of community which this has given rise to, which I call Autodidactic Communalism and Social Capitalism.

Most people in new media are autodidacts. As in all fields, education is always about twenty years behind industry, so anyone with any time in the new media business is, by definition, self-taught. The computer is, of course, the ultimate heuristic tool (and as I am speaking to a British audience, I can rest assured that you all know what this word means.) As such, it is the boon of the autodidact. But autodidacticism is also a myth and nowhere is this more true than in the computer field. In fact, we autodidacts work together. We learn by doing, and we learn by showing each other how to do things. HTML is a great example of autodidactic communalism. Everyone learns how to do it from their friends. Shareware is another great example. I can get all kinds of software on-line, and I can even download manuals. As people learn to do things, they make their learning available to each other, and this is very much a part of the hacker ethic. While the corporate world takes a proprietary posture, hoarding ‘intellectual property’ and charging a premium for its use, and the military world is entirely shrouded in secrecy, autodidactic communalists freely share – and steal – ideas and information, fully aware that such an open architecture is to the benefit of all.

Social Capitalism is a system by which a series of individuals or small companies develop horizontal, collaborative relationships providing each other with various services to support each others’ work. Sometimes, this work is done on contract, other times, it is taken in barter. But unlike the traditional hierarchical structure, in which one person is always ‘boss’ and the other always ‘worker’, relationships under social capitalism are reciprocal. I may be your client one day and you may be mine the next. Or, we may join forces and create a larger ‘alliance’ in order to take on a project than neither alone could do. This model is much less competitive than the corporate model in which large organizations vie for absolute power. In this model, cooperation and a sense of community is seen to benefit all. In the interactive multimedia field, there are many small companies and individuals who operate in just this way, and in fact, they have become the backbone of the industry. If you got to any of the major content producers in the U.S. multimedia industry, you will find that a significant number of them contract out the majority of their work to small production companies. Those who have tried to produce in-house have given up, finding they get better, faster and cheaper results if they contract out to a multimedia ’boutique’. Unhindered by the burden of high overhead or executive bottlenecks, these smaller organizations are frequently more efficient, more creative, and just plain better at what they do. (It may surprise some to know that it is becoming quite fashionable for American companies to call on the talent of small British companies for their multimedia needs.)

These two movements combine together to create a community of individualists. For those of us who are trying to break new ground, we have no choice but to live on the edge, but we cannot live on the edge alone. We must of necessity join together. Those of us who do share a sense of social conscience and do everything in our power to broaden the landscape and create a more inclusive forms of technology. But we must always fight an uphill battle to do so.

Many young entrepreneurs are creating cybercafes and other venues that allow free and open access of technology to a much wider audience. And although the Internet does promote individual expression, as suggested by ‘The Californian Ideology’, it also promotes freedom of access to information and a sense of community that transcends geographical boundaries.

This disintegration of these international boundaries is precisely what makes this type of discourse possible. As an inhabitant of the Californian Ideology, I can choose to write an article for Mute, rather than Wired, because to a large extent, I am more closely aligned to its ideology.

In spite of the apparent absolutism of ‘The Californian Ideology’, I happen to know that Andy Cameron spends his Friday nights watching American television programs. In fact, Andy knows more about American TV than I do. (I rarely watch it!) As much as the British may disdain our unsophisticated ways, just as the proponents of the Californian Ideology cannot deny their ties to the military, neither can its critics deny their ties to California.

Look at the world. On the one hand, we are in the midst of a number of major planetwide transformations. Multinational corporations are changing the face of the global economy. The earth’s environment is on the brink of major disaster. While half of Europe coalesces, the other half disintegrates. And in and around this complex landscape is the digital ‘Global Village’ (to unabashedly quote the oft-maligned Marshall McLuhan), simultaneously contracting and exploding, a parallel universe of which we all the architects – whether we read Wired, Mondo 2000 or Mute. In light of all this, it seems absurd to speak at all of ideologies which are geographically based. Rather, it would make more sense to define a new ideology which takes into account our individual political, social and economic realities, while creating a forum for change that goes beyond those limitations towards a global community consciousness that we can all aspire toward.

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.