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Author: John Blower


Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron have provided a provocative and necessary contribution to the emerging debate over the future of ‘Cyberspace’ (or Hypermedia).

It is unfortunate that the authors’ strident anti-Americanism somewhat detracts from the validity of their final conclusion – that the ‘State’ has a role in fostering the development of the new medium, with a view to ensuring its democratization and accessibility.

“Ideology n. 1. (arch.) science of ideas; visionary speculation. 2. manner of thinking characteristic of a class or individual, ideas as the basis of some economic or political theory or system.” [Oxford English Dictionary].

By their use of the term ‘The Californian Ideology’ Barbrook and Cameron seek to foster the illusion that, buried on a hard drive somewhere in California is a set of guiding principles which underly the development of the Web. The cognoscenti are presumably given the URL of this ‘ideology’, which is then ingested, acted upon, actions assessed, ideology modified and so on.

A somewhat cursory search through Infoseek and Alta Vista turned up one reference – that of the authors’ own site at HRC. The existence, then, of an ‘ideology’ would seem to exist only within the authors’ self-constructed, neo-Marxist universe.

While the conclusion of the paper is valid, the analysis would seem to betray a woeful ignorance of recent American – and particularly Californian – political, social and cultural history.

While there is no doubt that the new medium has spawned a flood of optimism amongst the digerati, the authors’ attempts to equate this to a new type of ‘slavery’ is risible. “Their Utopian vision of California depends upon a wilfull blindness towards the other – much less positive – features of life on the West Coast: racism, poverty and environmental degradation”, they state with a confidence bordering on arrogance.

It is this writer’s opinion and experience that, in fact, the opposite is the case. That artists and writers are still passionate about these issues; that the fight against social injustice and environmental exploitation is being joined in the new medium. Political, environmental and social activists are using the new medium to disseminate knowledge and information, forming previously impossible alliances and exchanging skills, knowledge and expertise to strengthen their cases against institutions and corporations which have no appreciation of the medium – yet.

Perhaps the authors’ major analytical flaw is in using the labels ‘New Left’ and ‘New Right’ as if they still had meaning, not only in the new medium, but in the context of American politics.

Politics in the US, on a national level, is in process of re-alignment. Ten years ago, a simple equation could be drawn: ‘Left’ = Democrat/Liberal, ‘Right’ = Republican. That is no longer the case – for example, Senator Exon – a Democrat – favors censorship of the Net, while Speaker Gingrich, a Republican, opposes same. Members of both parties in both houses have changed sides. The Democrats, in abandoning an interventionist agenda, have finally broken with the New Deal tradition in pursuit of short-term political gain. It is a step they will rue.

The political process at the national level has divorced itself from the mass of people and alienated them. Voter participation is low – ‘representatives’ often represent noone but themselves and/or their special interests. There are, of course, exceptions, but this is a view which is current at a perceptual level. Such perceptions inform action – or inaction.

In California, this process is particularly apparent. Pete Wilson was elected Governor on a rabid anti-immigrant platform. He successfully used the mainstream media to instill fear into the bosoms of those most likely to vote. And, because he had the bigger warchest, he carried off the prize. Of course, the spin-off the authors fail to mention is that his opponent, Dianne Feinstein, was subsequently elected a Senator, and has been instrumental in furthering the handgun control agenda – a piece of ‘liberal’ – and many would say ‘interventionist’ – legislation if ever there was one.

The disillusion of voters is due to one simple fact – the passage of Proposition 13 in California in 1978. This piece of legislation – voter-driven – effectively froze revenues from property taxes at 1978 levels. When a piece of residential property changes hands, the annual tax is assessed at the new market value – but only when it changes ownership. (Corporations, being enduring legal fictions, are effectively exempt.) The result has been the polarisation of communities along age lines, with established residents paying low taxes and younger newcomers paying higher rates.

For several years, the state was able to coast on the accumulated surplus of the late sixties and early seventies. By the mid/late 1980′s, the surplus was exhausted, and the state started to rein in its activities, cutting grants to cities and counties. There is widespread acknowledgment, both in and out of the ‘virtual community’, of the damaging effects of Proposition 13, particularly in the education field. Californians bemoan the fall from grace of the University of California system, which, with the help of immense state subsidies, was affordable, accessible and enjoyed a reputation for excellence. Alas, no more….

The new medium upends the existing paradigms for commerce, for social interaction, for communication – for everything. Participants in the ‘virtual world’ are, in the very absence of a coherent ideology, being forced to enter the supermarket of ideas, just to see what’s around, to make sense of their experience. This is part of the process of the redefinition of the political and social landscape. As ideas and theories are picked up, examined and rejected, so new ones appropriate to the chaged circumstances, will emerge. Many of these will be syntheses of existing notions. But it would be foolish to seek to characterize them as either of the ‘Left’ or of the ‘Right’.

The authors make much of the apparent hijacking of credit for Web development by private entrepreneurs. They cite the subsidization of Babbage’s Difference Engine by the British Government in the 1830′s. Later in their paper, they make much of the French Government’s backing of Minitel. Minitel may well have been a success at the time. But where is it now? And what about other, less successful interventionist strategies, like the nationalization of the French car industry? Along the way, they throw in references to IBM, flight simulators and just abut every gew-gaw of modern life with a technological bent.

The implication seems to be that everyone who has developed a piece of hard- or software for use on the Web should, somehow or other, render praise to the Feds for making it all possible. That is like arguing that the developers of anti-lock braking systems should give tribute to the Feds because the Government builds roads!

The authors would do well to stop searching every nook and cranny of the Net for evidence of an “anti-statist ideology”. There isn’t one.

“The business of America is business”. This truism may be riddled with inconsistencies, with false perceptions, with an over-adulation (and over compensation) for corporate entrepreneurs. But it is a guiding principle. It has given rise to beauty and ugliness in about equal measure. But that’s the way America works. We may disagree with it, but the credo’s very flexibility leaves it open to change, both from within and without. For example, Pacific Gas & Electricity has, on numerous occasions, hired the author of ‘Ecotopia’, Ernest Callenbach, as a consultant on how best to minimize the utility’s environmental impact.

California, in particular, is a state of abundant paradoxes. Consider the Yosemite valley and South Central LA. In their own ways, access to one – and the inaccessibility of the other – are both a result of the policies and practices of private enterprise, tempered by legislative and administrative action at state and federal levels.

One of California’s paradoxes is it’s love/hate relationship with the State of California and its agencies. For example, how can CalTrans, responsible for the construction of Highway 280 (one of the most elegant and environmentally sensitive freeways in the state), also be responsible for the urban blight created by the 5 years of inactivity in repairing the Cypress Freeway after the Loma Prieta Earthquake? How is it that the home of the automobile – Los Angeles – also has a brand spanking-new public transit system?

Californians are aware of these paradoxes, and about the ambiguities of life in the state. But how can we talk of “Californians” with any sense of homogeneity? San Francisco and Los Angeles are in a state of constant cultural warfare, and both disdain the inhabitants of the Central Valley…..

The fact that the paper millionaires of Silicon Valley choose to live in Mountain View is, in a sense, irrelevant. Would their work have more integrity if they lived in East Palo Alto or San Francisco’s Mission barrio? Apparently, the authors of “The Californian Ideology” believe so.

Currently, the Net is an elitist club. Access currently runs at about $3,000 for a system. Six months ago, it was $5,000. Six months from now, it will probably be $1,500, with the possibility of the $500 Internet ‘box’ a possibility in the not too distant future. Net access will become, in California at least, as ubiquitous as the automobile. (It would, as an aside, be interesting to learn the equivalent subscription rate for would-be users in the United Kingdom. In my experience, a dollar price translates to a £ sterling price 1:1.5, making Net access in Britain a truly elitist experience.)

How to democratize access is one of the challenges facing all of us, no matter where we are located geographically. The Web has no boundaries, knows no time. It is a miraculous medium, which will for ever change our thinking, our feeling, our range of life experience.

The authors of ‘The Californian Ideology’ are correct in their plea for further development to be a result of cooperation between the ‘State’ (the ‘nation-state’? – an increasingly irrelevant concept…), private industry, individuals and other, more amorphous collectives of interested participants.

It is unfortunate that a somewhat simplistic, ideologically-burdened analysis detracts from that message.

John Blower – January 18, 1996

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.