Chapter 1: Introduction - Direct Democracy and its Demons: Web 1.0 to Web 2.0

By Josephine Berry Slater, 22 August 2012

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Introduction to Chapter 1 of Proud to be Flesh - Direct Democracy and its Demons: Web 1.0 to Web 2.0

This chapter interrogates the web’s dual promise – to increase the direct democratic potential of many-to-many communication while, at the same time, perfecting the conditions for further expansion of capitalist social relations and the ‘free market’. Its timeframe spans the period between the pre-dotcom ’90s to the late Web 2.0-obsessed ’00s – a trajectory leading from the days of the internet’s initial and faltering marketisation to its mature, well-established form. As the net was popularised through Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web and the first commercial browsers, the ‘commons’ of the internet – originally developed, owned and maintained by the state – was laid open to popular usage and vulnerable to a corporate land grab. Mute was keen to rupture the market-orientated hype of the ‘digerati’ prospectors, to expose their economic bottom line, and to insist upon the continuity of social relations across real and virtual space – in this sense, we understood ourselves as the European anti-Wired.

Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron’s article, ‘The Californian Ideology’, written in 1995, describes the stakes of this struggle between commercial and radical democratic forces, and importantly exposes the economic and political underside of the seemingly hip West Coast digerati gathered around Wired magazine. Politically conservative neoliberalism and techno-determinism were being repackaged as the daring embrace of the new network culture, as Newt Gingrich shaded into William Gibson. The workaholism of ex-hippies developing internet start-ups in garages and their ‘spare time’ was revealed as anything but the slacker culture it pretended to be. As with its classical antecedents, the virtual class, performing its intellectual labour in the electronic agora, relied upon an underclass of black and immigrant workers, excluded from the networks, to perform its reproductive labour for it.

Were the digerati concerned by these exclusions and did they think the technology could help society address such inequities? In his interview with legendary techno-booster and Wired editor Kevin Kelly, Jamie King reveals, with comic aplomb, the self-referential nature of the Californian Ideology. Kelly – who famously argued in Out of Control that, like life itself, technology is a vital force that should be subject neither to ethical judgements nor to developmental interventions – is at a loss to address the question of the ‘digital divide’ that is developing as a result of the networks he so passionately embraces. Throughout the interview, while claiming that ‘technology solves the ills of society’, he continually defends its unbridled commercial development on the grounds of its naturalness. Like most neoliberals, Kelly hides his rampant free market thinking behind a barrage of unsubstantiated clichés about the natural order of things.

Pit Shultz, co-founder of the nettime mailing list (one of the hubs of ‘European’ media critique), is equally concerned with the growth of virtual life forms, but from a very different political standpoint. In his interview with Mute’s Pauline van Mourik Broekman, he rejects claims that there has been a ‘digital revolution’ while still holding out hope for new media’s ability to create channels which ‘redirect the flow of power’. Without the freight of advertising, the channel produced by the mailing list itself is described as not only free but also ‘silent’, and, curiously, as a space that attempted to ‘avoid dialogues’. Early nettime was conceived as a ‘collaborative filtering’ project, not the space of rhetorical theatrics it so often became.

Anustup Basu, in his piece ‘Bombs and Bytes’, written in the aftermath of the second invasion of Iraq, laments the role of the media in driving the shift from democratic discourses, based on knowledge and persuasion, to the mass ‘psychomechanical’ programming of thought made possible by informatics. Providing an example of (corporate and state media’s) fascistic collaborative filtering, Basu cites the combination of the events of 9/11 with the name Saddam Hussein as a lethal instance of information’s malleability. In this ‘inhuman plane of massified thought’, it is possible to combine two ideas which have no organic or narrative connection.

The final piece in this chapter, by Dmytri Kleiner and Brian Wyrick, brings the discussion full circle. Web 2.0, they argue, the tools and platforms which finally made ‘mass participation’ in the web a reality, in practice amounts to little more than ‘Info-Enclosure 2.0’. Where the first round of the net’s enclosure was centred on its infrastructure (its backbones, ISPs, browsers and means of governance), the second has focused on the capture of community-created content and a homogenisation of the means of sharing.

What Barbrook and Cameron dubbed the Californian Ideology has, over time, revealed itself to be none other than the informatic dimension of post-Fordism itself. As with flexibilisation in the work place, what might at first have seemed to present small gains for the working class quickly establishes itself as a more individualised, finely grained and decentralised form of control. With Web 2.0 sucking the majority of web content production into a pre-formatted and narcissistic micro-casting, the big bucks are now determining not only the shape of social reality in its massified form, but also what Deleuze calls the ‘imperial-linguistic takeover of a whole social body of expressive potentialities’.

Proud to be Flesh