Author: Mark Stahlman
THE ENGLISH IDEOLOGY AND WIRED MAGAZINE by Mark Stahlman
Last year, a critical essay entitled The Californian Ideology by Richard Barbrook and Andrew Cameron (University of Westminster) appeared on the Internet and quickly became a focal point for growing criticism of the glossy and widely influential Wired magazine. However, the author’s difficulty in sorting out the origins of the ideas behind Wired and it’s version of the “Digital Revolution” was painfully obvious in their essay.
I’d like to argue that the group which has consistently promoted the worldview expressed by Wired and, in effect, publishes and writes the magazine today isn’t American at all — it’s the English. If anything, Wired represents yet another attempt to invade American culture and to undermine American political and economic initiative — another of the attempts which have characterized American relations with the English for many centuries.
Wired magazine is not an American institution, nor is it even distinctly Californian (although its association with San Francisco is certainly undeniable). And, it’s ideology is also not nearly as novel as Barbrook/Cameron and some other European commentators seem to suggest — although, arguably, it is appearing in a new and, therefore, potentially confusing form. Each of the magazine’s elements, including free-market economics, hedonic lifestyle, techno-utopianism and, crucially, complete disdain for the uniqueness of human consciousness are all specifically and historically English.
For that matter, the magazine’s sponsors are all English (or self-confessed Anglophiles). Its themes are largely English in origin and its strategy of world-domination through techno-utopian revolution is English (specifically H.G.Wells) to the core. Indeed, Wired is a house-organ for the modern political expression of British radical liberalism and it’s philosophical partner British radical empiricism. Politically, philosophically, financially and psychologically, Wired is a concrete expression of the English ideology.
The Wired project began when the director of MIT’s Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte (an Anglophile who’s ideal digital-slave is an AI-spawned robotic English butler), plucked Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe from obscurity in San Francisco’s European sister-city, the other Anglo-Dutch “experimental” metropolis, Amsterdam. Before Wired, Rosetto’s greatest previous literary achievement had been a book describing the high-budget nudie shenanigans at the filming of Caligula. This movie, in turn, was the boldest effort by Penthouse magazine’s Bob Guccione, whose introduction to porn-production was under English tutelage in Tangier and who sent his sons to British military finishing schools.
Negroponte’s apparent goal was to meld Rosetto/Metcalfe with the now flagging San Francisco-based Whole Earth project of his longtime associate, Stewart Brand (who had previously contributed the book/marketing-brochure Media Lab). First to join the Wired editorial team was Brand protege and Whole Earth editor, Kevin Kelly, in what was billed as an ambitious relaunch of the original effort designed to amp-up the graphics, capture consumer product advertisers and spearhead the, now digital, techno-Utopian world revolution. Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll were now “tired”; Wired was now “wired.”
Wired, which positioned itself as the journal of this post-psychedelic world revolution, was launched with seed money from Negroponte (buying him the back page and ultimately a best-seller) and from game designer Charlie Jackson. But the glossy mockup failed to attract the crucial second round of investment and Wired appeared to be still-born until Negroponte introduced them to the San Francisco-based private bank, Sterling Payot, which fronted the money for the magazine’s launch. Continued existence, however, was still in doubt until the notoriously Anglophile (a polite word for English in American clothing) publisher Si Newhouse’s Advance Publications stepped in for the last push. (No, despite its name, the Newhouse published magazine, The New Yorker is actually not an American publication — it’s English.)
In this tumultuous process involving financial reorganizations, whatever notions of editorial independence which might have been initially entertained at Wired were quickly contained. The editorial content of the magazine from its inception has been heavily influenced by the larger utopian agendas of Brand and his Whole Earth-to-Wired editorial colleague Kevin Kelly. In particular, the multi-national scenarios-planning company co-founded by Brand and previously London-based Royal-Dutch Shell futurist Peter Schwartz, the Global Business Network (GBN), has been decisive in shaping Wired’s “content.” From promoting GBN’s consultants endlessly with cover-stories and interviews to actually producing a “special issue” on the future totally with GBN resources, Wired handed over its editorial reigns to GBN and it’s New Dark Age scenarios (more on this below) from day one.
To be sure, proclaiming the gloomy truth of the GBN scenario-planned and social-engineered future is not exactly Wired’s public mission. Wired is all about the “optimism meme” and is committed to catalyzing the creation of a “better world” — at least for the 5% of the population who are expected to comprise the new Information Age rulers. This new “class” even has a name — the “Brain Lords” (and what else would the English call the Information Age aristocracy, anyway?) — according to Michael Vlahos, a policy analyst at Newt Gingrich’s think-tank, the Progress and Freedom Foundation. Editorial support for Gingrich’s brand of “revolution” as well as consistent backing of his technocratic policy advisers, most notably Alvin Toffler, has been a Wired commitment from its earliest issues.
The project which preceded Wired, the Whole Earth Catalog (and its various off-shoots, such as the computer conferencing system known as the Well and the newer Electric Minds), had been the product of Stewart Brand et. al’s 1960′s efforts to engineer a utopian counter-culture which, it was hoped, would broadly transform society at large. So, aren’t I confusing my history here? Isn’t Brand all American? No, I don’t think so. Scratch a Stewart Brand and what will you find? None other than the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson, of course. And, it is from Bateson’s lifelong commitment to re-program a humanity which he deeply despised and, in particular, his explicit drive to destroy the religious basis of Western civilization by replacing God with Nature, that the Whole Earth project was born. It was literally the beginning of a new religion with Nature at its center and mankind portrayed as the dangerous ape threatening to destroy it all.
Bateson’s British (and American) intelligence sponsored takeover of the nascent field of cybernetics in the 1950′s from its creator, Norbert Wiener, led directly into Bateson’s LSD-driven experiments on schizophrenia and creativity in Palo Alto, which in turn, were the origins of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and their house band, the Grateful Dead. Indeed, Stewart Brand’s own career as a publicist for what was first conceived of as drug and then computer-based techo-utopian revolution owes much to Bateson’s cybernetics guidance. Brand was among the first to recognize that personal computers and computer networks might have even greater potential to re-program the humans who “used” them than the psychedelics which fueled his earlier efforts. Indeed, based on Brand’s success at promoting LSD at his Trips Festivals, he was hired by Doug Englebart to stage the first mass demonstration of the mouse and windows system which Englebart had invented at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI).
Bateson is the son of the English geneticist, William Bateson, whose attacks precipitated the suicide of his principle Continental rival, Otto Kammerer, is chronicled in Arthur Koestler’s Case of the Mid-Wife Toad. And, if the Englishman Bateson doesn’t satisfy your hunger for a proper genealogy for psychedelic San Francisco, one might consider Captain Al Hubbard (no relation to L. Ron), the Johnny Appleseed of LSD. He was born in Kentucky but by the 1950′s had renounced his U.S. citizenship and sailed right up to Vancouver, British Columbia, to become a commodore in their very English yacht club. That’s where he set up the world war-room to target the destruction of Western culture (through San Francisco) and from this base that he joined forces with Humphrey Osmond (English military psychiatrist, lead English MK-ULTRA researcher and the originator of the term “psychedelic”) and Aldous Huxley (English black-sheep godson of the original techno-utopian, H.G. Wells) to spread LSD among the intelligentsia to achieve the world revolution. To be sure, San Francisco’s cultural scene has long been shaped by its close association with English/Anglophile intellectuals and social engineers.
But, it’s not sufficient to demonstrate the intellectual genealogy of Wired to fully describe their tight affiliation with the English ideology. There is a crucial component of the technological and biologically deterministic utopian worldview at the core of Wired’s “content” which must be carefully situated as well. Wired’s techno-utopianism is merely the modern expression of H.G. Wells’ attempts in the first half of this century to construct a technocratic global empire ruled by a new elite — much like the audience that Wired seeks to rally behind its now digital but still self-consciously revolutionary banner.
In its various forms, following Thomas More’s coining of the term Utopia with the publishing of his book with that title in 1516, utopian writing and, indeed, utopian social experiments tended to be pastoral and, if anything, anti-technology. It was H.G. Wells who changed all that with his 1905 publication of his novel, A Modern Utopia (one of the few of his 20th century works which is still in print). And, it was Wells who initiated the entire inquiry into a technology-defined future (and, indeed, launched the field now known as futurism) in his seminal 1902 essay, Anticipations.
While Wells is popularly known as the first true science fiction writer, he lived for 50 years after he completed his cycle of four major sci-fi novels in 1897. During this half century, he was very busy designing the future of the British Empire — the Third Rome as he put it (or as Toffler would later put it, the Third Wave) — as a vision of a world knit together by communications and transportation technologies and controlled by a new class of technocrats. What Wells’ described in volume after volume throughout the rest of his life (both in fictional and essay format) is indistinguishable from the digital revolution Wired hopes to lead. It’s a post-industrial world that has abandoned the nation-state in favor of Wells’ World State, that has scrapped the premises of it’s industrial past, embraced the scarcity of an anti-growth economics and based itself on the emergence of a newly indoctrinated post-civilization humanity.
Wells had devoted himself to organizing a world revolution based on technology, synthetic religion and mass mind-control — the same revolution discussed monthly in the pages of Wired. In Wells’ A Modern Utopia, the rulers are called the “New Samurai” and they are a caste of scientist/priests who social-engineer the global society Wells called the “World State.” John Perry Barlow’s Wired-published, Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace would have made Wells very happy, I have no doubt. Yes, that’s Wells’ “World State” lurking in the margins of Barlow’s manifesto despite his waffling on the specifics of future forms of “governance” — except to say that the future of politics will be conveniently (from the social engineer’s standpoint) “post-reason.”
But, aren’t I heading straight into the jaws of an overwhelming and categorical contradiction? Wells was certainly no free-marketeer. He was a professed socialist and Wired appears on its face to be thoroughly free-market capitalist. How could I claim any affinity between the British radical liberals and Wells (and with both and Wired)? Aren’t I just gluing together two sets of intellectual forebears — who both just happen to be English? How do I avoid the “bizarre fusion” description favored by Barbrook/Cameron? In the end, doesn’t my English ideology argument collapse as just another curious historical accident combine with an overworked imagination?
I don’t think so. Despite the naked attempt to rescue Well’s socialist legacy in a recent biography by the past-head of the British Labour Party, Michael Foot, Wells was indeed a very strange socialist. Likewise, when the substance of its arguments are carefully considered, Wired strikes the pose of a very odd sort of capitalist. I’m convinced that they both choose to adopt protective coloring to enhance their stature in their respective times and places but that, just beneath the surface, they are both simply utopian/corporativists — the same ideological impulse which gave rise to Fascism — and not what they may appear to be to the more casual and, too often, more credulous observer.
Both Wired and Wells are, in fact, utopians and elitists with overarching ambitions of leading a world revolution. This revolution is intended to produce radical economic and political transformation which would put their ilk in charge of running a new worldwide empire. From a strategic standpoint — fundamental goals and premises — Wells, Wired (and their common antecedent the anti-human radical Liberals) were/are all fighting for the same new imperial outcome. While there are certainly many tactical twists and turns in this plot over the centuries, this entire grabbag is precisely what I’ve been referring to as the English ideology — the ideology behind a global empire which combines an anything-goes small-scale private life (libertarianism) with rigidly defined large-scale constraints (technocracy). If you would like another description of the same utopian ying-yang, refer to Jaron Lanier’s November 1995 editorial in the Spin magazine issue on the future and his characterization of the Stewards (technocrats) and the Extropians (libertarians) as the post-political poles of discourse.
Wells’ dalliance with the Fabian Society (he tried to take it over by promoting free-love to the wives of its board members) may be one of the sources of confusion leading to Wells’ apparent “socialist” credentials. But, as even a cursory reading of Wells’ quickly demonstrates, their was absolutely no room for working class revolt (or certainly working class leadership) in Wells’ worldview. He was thoroughly convinced that the downtrodden could never lead or even comprehend the revolution he saw coming. Wells’ life was dedicated to organizing a completely new class of technical and social scientific experts — technocrats — who would assume control of a world driven to collapse and ruin by workers and capitalists alike. Wells wanted to completely re-program humanity — through the creation of a synthetic religion — and, like all utopians, had no affection for the commoner of his time at all. Wells considered socialism, in its various Social Democratic to Marxist manifestations, to be a string of completely anachronistic failures and a throwback to the era of human folly and self-destruction which Wells sought to leap past — much like Toffler dismissing nation-states and representative democracy as “Second Wave.”
In fact, Wells was very clear what sort of corporativist world he wanted when identified the earliest of the multinational corporations as the fledgling model of his ideal economic organization. In his 1920′s novel, The World of William Chissolm, and the companion essay, Imperialism and The Open Conspiracy, Wells cites early multi-nationals as the only kind of globe-spanning (and, therefore, anti-nation-state) economic structures which could embody his revolutionary principles. He chides both government and business leaders who think that any remnant of the still British-nation-centered Empire could survive and calls on the heads of multinationals to join in forming the vanguard of his revolutionary “Open Conspiracy.”
He also published extensively about the inevitable scrapping of democracy and any form of popular rule in his World State. His “New Samurai” were volunteers who pledged their lives to the pure experience of ruling as a new caste of priest/scholars. No elections, no parliament, no hereditary titles and no buying your way in, Wells was clear that his new ruling class would be a religious elite with global reach. He even predicted that a new field of inquiry, which he termed Social Psychology, would arise and become the “soul of the race” by developing social control techniques which would systematically re-train the masses which he openly despised. And, following WW II, the core of British and American psychological warfare leadership created just such field to pursue worldwide social engineering. H.G. Wells was a very strange “socialist”, indeed.
Oh, he did call for the abolition of all socially significant private property. But, then so has Wired with their repeated claims that in the Information Age intellectual property will disappear in cyberspace — a posture that has not gone unnoticed in the more orthodox neo-liberal circles as demonstrated by Peter Huber’s scathing critique of Wired in his piece for Slate, Tangled Wires. Such a call for abolishing property was also featured by the native U.S. fascist movement, Technocracy — which was launched out of the Columbia University Engineering Department with 1932 nationwide radio broadcast. In fact, while Wells rejected the offered allegiance to his “Open Conspiracy” by native British fascist, Oswald Moseley, he did it by pointing out that “what we need is some more liberal fascists.” Being educated as he was, Wells surely understood (and I believe embraced) the philosophical heritage of radical “liberalism.”
As a matter of fact, independent economic sovereignty (the essence of politically effective private property) is what Wells (and all his empire building successors have) objected to. It is the independence of large scale economic forces — particularly those associated with strong nation-states — that both Wells and the radical Liberals both objected to so forcefully. It is only such forces, operating with determination and resolve, that function as a bulwark against empires like Wells’ World State. Despite their surface appearance of conflict, Wired-style free-marketeering and Wells’ “Open Conspiracy” both lead to the same political-economic outcome — oligarchist/corporativist control of a global economy. This is why the intellectual progenitor of modern libertarianism, Hayek, spent his career at the nominally Fabian socialist London School of Economics alongside Keynes, they were simply two birds of the same feather. Another ying-yang twinned pairing pointing to a common endgame.
While it admittedly flies in the face of conventional categorization, right-wing and left-wing utopian/oligarchists are still fundamentally and most significantly utopian/oligarchists — even if their protective plumage might temporarily succeed in confusing some birdwatchers. They differ merely on the tactics, while presenting a home for confused fellow-travellers of all persuasions, while they thump for the same 1000 year empire and imagine themselves sitting behind the steering wheel. This should be no more confusing than watching Alvin Toffler, and his wife Heidi, move from active Communist Party membership and factory floor colonization to becoming chief advisors to Newt Gingrich. Tactics may change; the strategy remains unaltered.
What sort of future do the futurists see for us? Despite the sugar-coated promises of wealth and power being held out to those who make the cut and get inducted into the supreme religious cult which gets to play imperial Wizard of Oz, the reality of a Wells/Wired future won’t be nearly so cinematic for most earthlings. As every honest futurist has admitted, the future will be painful and pointless for most who survive. The Information Age will be a Dark Age. It will bring pre-mature death to half or more of the earth’s population and it will represent the deliberate scrapping and then forgetting of humanity’s greatest achievements.
Perhaps, the harsh truth of the Information Age was best described in Michael Vlahos’ January 1995 speech, “ByteCity -or- Life After the Big Change.” Vlahos is a Senior Fellow at Newt Gingrich’s thinktank, the Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF), and a past geo-political analyst who has led PFF’s exploration of implementing the Toffler/Wells plans. Vlahos presents a terrifying future scenario roughly 20 years in the future in which society has stratified into elites and gangs. In fact, life is so threatening in ByteCity that we spent most of our time in our rooms staring at wall sized vidscreens — if we’re lucky enough to have a room, that is.
Vlahos’ world is run by stateless modern robber-barons, which he terms the “Brain Lords” and which he characterizes as “rampaging not through the landscape but making billions in the ether.” These new aristocrats will come from the merger of telecommunications and entertainment multinational giants and much like in Wells’ formulation, the “Brain Lords” do not inherit their class status and they will burn out from looting at an early age. After 40 they will retire to run the world. They will comprise 5% of the population, he says. They are Wells’ “New Samurai.”
Below them he stratifies in the “Upper Servers” and the “Agents” who comprise another 20% who will spend their lives destroying the value of professional education and association in a vicious “information” driven chase for individual recognition. Below that, roughly 50% of the population lives as service workers slaving 12-15 hours a day in front their living-room vidscreens “servicing” their global clients in a world that respects no time zones.
And the bottom 25%, who, if they are not pacified will provide ample motivation for people to stay indoors to avoid being attacked by roving gangs, are what Vlahos calls “The Lost.” Roughly twice as large a population share as those who were discarded by the Industrial Revolution in Britain according to Vlahos, “The Lost” are those that will never become a functioning part of “ByteCity.” Sustained by modern “Victorians” who know the threat posed by the poor, “The Lost” are merely the most wretched of the wretches. Life all the way up the line from “lost” to “lord” will entail such radical disruption of personal safety and well-being that, in effect, Vlahos has turned dystopian cyberpunk literature into a policy statement. Naturally, expecting to rise to the top, Vlahos appears to feverishly await the “Big Change.”
No less chilling is the scenarios planning exercise that Wired’s wizards-behind-the-curtain perform on their multi-national clients. From General Motors to AT&T, the Global Business Network (GBN) charges hefty sums to show the yellow-brick-road towards “ByteCity” to strategic planners and top corporate brass. In one recent and rare public discussion of the results, GM’s top planning team defined the three “alternative futures” which emerged after years of GBN counciling. The first is just like our world and, so by definition, is not very interesting. The second is an eco-fascist regime in which car designs are completely “Green” and the companies can only follow orders. The third is the fun one, however. This is the world in which armed gangs roam the streets and surface travel is a series of car chases. This scenario has already been anticipated with a Cadillac that includes armored protection and a “panic” button installed in the middle of the dashboard. The car has a satellite tracking system built in and it can call the local authorities (presumably your multi-national’s private swat-team) and get help when you get trapped by the natives.
Vlahos/PFF/Gingrich and Wired/GBN/Brand and Wells/Toffler/”Open Conspiracy”. What ideology is being expressed by all these 20th century New Dark Age “revolutionaries”? Is this ideology “Californian”? Or, does it have another historical context and another tribal association? I merely suggest that accuracy, intellectual faithfulness and international solidarity require us to pin the tail on the real (Benthamite) donkey. This is the English ideology and, as usual, it’s hell-bent on ruling the world — over our dead bodies.
[Copyright New Media Associates, 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.