alt. tech .dome . (Privacy please)

By William Shoebridge, 30 November 1994

"A particularly pernicious myth is that with the dramatic and on-going revolution in computer technology we (always that nebulous 'we' presumed to mean anglocentricly -based western culture) are entering a fundamentally new 'information age'.......The dramatically increased information processing spawned by computers simply processes old ways of doing things much more efficiently. This is hardly the defining characteristic of an information age"1.

We could start, maybe, by saying that it is unfortunate that any enquiry into the ramifications of contemporary technology and the relationship it has to an individual's interaction with it, is always accompanied by the same rhetorical excitement and hype that is responsible for initiating such a prolific landscape of high technology in the first place. Put another way, the capitalist hyper-narratives prompting the necessity for such a technology and it's usage in contemporary life are mimicked by the theoreticians and activists responsible for evaluating its meanings and implications. The language of the salesperson is the language of those in the position of interpreting culture. Is it possible that the same language used to sell this technology and the apparent excitement used to describe and interpret it conceals the blandness of its usage?

YOUR HOME IS AT RISK: On evaluating the extent to which an impending infobahn is about to plough up our daily lives; like many of the debates of the post-modern the home have become the battle ground for the advent of an information and communicative overload.

As 'Desire is not subordinated to procreation or even genitality.....That was it's modernism"2, home is not subordinated to shelter that was the home's modernism. The home is closer to a terminal, that is the home's postmodernism.

The arrival of telecommication networks and modem vices, the personal computer, cable and satellite media systems and the gradual introduction of widespread interactive television viewing has eroded ear distinctions between side and outside. The home as enclosure, a shelter, suggests a dissociation with the aside that was only possible More media-time became concurrent with real-time. At any point during 24 hours it is, as we I know, now possible to tap into, telephone or modem ages and information around the globe. It could be said that even home life has become a social experience. Doreen issey equates notions of ace and home with social relations:

'Social relations ways have a spatial form and a spatial content. They exist necessarily, both in space (e.g. a locational relation to other social phenomena) and across space. And it is this vast complexity of the interlocking and articulating nets of social relations which is social space.* 3

Massey's horizontal (spatial) analysis of social relations in city life is in opposition to the linear (temporal) quality of family life in general that is 'simply equated with community, and by that means provide a stable base for identity*.4 For the family with its history and decendance, which is its future, the home as shelter extends its enclosing structure to form or inform notions of community. Specific processes associated with the industrial age smashed the coherent nature of family life to pieces, dividing it up across vast distances. If, at this juncture, a cynical departure is taken, it could be said that these notions of 'community' and 'local' disintegrate even further when the home is punctured by the lines which make up the vast communications and entertainment's networks, turning the home into a terminal on entering and exiting in its flow.

However, it is probably more sensible to argue that a sense of community and social solidarity that bound earlier societies broke down with the complex social structure created by industrial influences, but; the advent of computer technology and its relevant nets possibly reverse this process re-informing new notions of community, what Howard Rheingold has called 'communities of interest' 5 rather than geography. Social interaction within cyberspace communities ringroads the divided nature of 'real life'. 'Netted up', unhindered by boundaries such as 'national' and 'international', scattered family life could possibly rely on this technology for its contact and relation; computer conferencing after all takes place across distances which would prohibit human interaction without the use of modems and the computer screen. Increased mobility whilst communicating on the net is becoming possible because of the shrinking nature of this new, light-weight technology: turning what was crude, but essentially a novel experience (human contact through electronic media) into astoundingly commonplace banality. The experience of mum and dad, could conceivably become then, just a sequence of soundbites and images. A blessing for some no doubt.

The depths to which these encroaching information highways penetrate our home or private lives can best be described by the address of a Usenet 'alternative' newsgroup known as 'asb.' ( This is technology through the front door, up the stairs and directly into the most intimate of all human arenas, the bedroom. Set up in 1991, 'asb', 'despite its name is not just for people into human macram6, it has become a general hangout for all sorts of sexual adventures'. The stories found are as diverse as its users. Some disguise their identities through the use of a 'remail server*(an address of a computer elsewhere other than your own) who then re-sends messages and stories back onto the net anonymously. Gender within this B.B.S. can be disguised also through the use of pronouns such as 'e, em , eir, eirs, eirself and sie'. So that 'she talks to herself' becomes 'sie talks to eirself*. 'Sie' being a substitute for both 'he' and 'she*6

Whether it be activist instructions, hackers' information or sexually explicit material the issue of privacy becomes forked. Firstly the notion that the home's 'privacy' is punctured when it, as an enclosing space, opens up to the world on the net, and, secondly on sending or receiving information that is intended for a single receiver. Can we be sure of a future 'privacy' where information sent is not intercepted, screened, censored or removed?

On the issue of this 'privacy', debates rage hard in the U.S. centred on the emergence of software such as P.G.P. and P.G.P. 2.0 (Pretty Good Privacy) which are public key encryption systems, enabling a sender to encode his message to be interpreted by a specific or known receiver. This kind of software has only recently emerged, bypassing U.S government legislation to block the importing and distribution of foreign alternatives to the U.S. government approved key escrow encryption aka. 'Clipper chip'. What the U.S. government National Security Agency (N.S.A.) wants as standard placed in all PCs is the clipper chip, an encryption tool, that unlike its foreign alternatives incorporates a 'back door' allowing access to information by the N.S.A. I assume the N.S.A.s interest in this surveillance of the movement of information stems from the idea that a national threat is only a threat when it becomes invisible.

The U.S., not only the purveyors of a global culture (it can be argued that there is a link between the availability of American Culture and the global nature of postmodernism), also wants control over the surveillance architecture of the infobahn affecting the civil liberties and privacy of the users of the net. Policing the infobahn raises issues around the specific flows at play in party politics that are having to become increasingly technocratic.

As this century draws to an end and the survival of political democracy becomes ever more critical with the global spread of an essentially right winged agenda, the problems of how to keep democratic spaces of freedom that extend beyond the boundaries of power systems of separate nations also become critical.

It can be said that what the net offers is an escape hatch for the survival of democratic representation and production, and a freedom to express a spectrum of ideas from groups whose small numbers or their 'status' on the periphery prevents their representation by the systems that govern us. Discourse centred on technology and its effects talk of 'now' being the time to democratise the net before the involvement of corporate or governmental power make it impossible to do so. This is idle thinking and rather naive. Corporate and governmental power is already involved in battle, the former over the medium itself, the latter over its surveillance. Initially a 'local' development spawned from the counter-cultural ideologies of the 60s and 70s, technological advances such as the PC has grown up over a relatively short time span into multinational corporations; despite its humble beginnings, this corporate power is nonetheless menacing. What should not be forgotten, however, in the battleground for democracy, is the enormous

computer corporations' involvement within the selling of and the usage of the medium itself, their control is in the creation of the necessity for such technology in the first place. Clich6s such as 'knowledge is power' turn information, the 'bread and butter' of knowledge into a currency, forcing interest-, pressure- and political groups into passive, consumers of a technology that possibly mollify their effect anyway.

Corporate powers' control, is not the slaying of civil liberties through rigid censorship, we have governments for that, their interest is not the nature and status of your identity, their only interest and control are in the development of the arena n which you interact per se. In other words, corporate powers' involvement in the survival of democracy with the advent of the net and the development of their technology is highly questionable. Technological corporations maintain their control by forcing the individual to interact, to join in, to take part; the threat of course is that, in a future without the relevant hardware, you occupy something of an 'anti-social' position. Pedestrians on the infobahn?

Cyberspace could be seen then, as one of those informal public places enabling people to rebuild aspects of community that were lost when the corner shop became the shopping mall,thus encouraging the expansion of options and possibilities. Alternatively, perhaps cyberspace isn't quite the right place to look for the rebirth of community, offering not a tool for conviviality but a life-denying simulacrum of real passion and true commitment to one another, either way we need to find out soon.?

1.'The Myth of the Information Age.' Jim Thomas p.p.1-2 in Intertekvol 3.4

2.'A Thousand Platens- capitalism & schizophrenia.11'

Gilles Deleuze ry Felix Guattari p.p.154-155

3.'A Place Called Home'. Doreen Massey p.12 in New Formations -A Question of Home

4. ibid g3 p.8

5.'The Virtual Communitiy' Howard Rheingold, see chapter 1

See Wired magazine 2.06

Ibid 5, chapter 1