Data Trash (The Theory of the Virtual Class)

By Geert Lovink, 10 March 1996

An interview with Arthur Kroker about the virtual class, retro-fascism and the figure on the world stage of political history.

Arthur Kroker, Canadian media theorist, is the author of 'The Possessed Individual','Spasm' and 'Hacking the Future'. Over the past years he, together with Marilouise Kroker, were often in Europe and made appearances at Virtual Futures, V-2, Eldorado/Antwerpen, etc. Recently, they have also been discovered in German-speaking countries. Both are noted for their somewhat compact jargon, which made their message appear to drown somewhat in overcomplex code. But "Data Trash"`(1994) changed all that. The long treck through the squashy discourses had not been in vain. Firmly rooted in European philosophy, yet not submerged, Arthur Kroker has found his topic: the virtual class.

The ongoing world-wide commercialization of the Net gives at this moment a new sector in the economy and hence social categories. Kroker's virtual class appears to be remarkably aggresive and cynical and, as anyone can observe, would have little to do with grass roots democracy or public access issues. In today's exploding digital markets, it's grab as much as you can. Now that he has been able to define the adversary in such clear terms, Arthur Kroker understandably thriving. The critics in the media are outraged, why such pessimism? Aren't the good intentions of the media pioneers for all to see? The rapping Kroker is becoming a nuissance. Apparently he is kicking where it hurts.

Arthur Kroker wrote 'Data Trash, a Theory of the Virtual Class' together with Michael Weinstein, a poltical philosopher, rap poet and photography critic for The Chicago Tribune. According to Arthur Kroker he is also "a Nietzschian underground man who thinks deeply about the United States." Arthur and Michael met during the Vietnam years and collaborated for the last 20 years on the Canadian Journal for Poltical and Social Theory (now the electronic magazine 'CTHEORY'). 'Data Trash' is hyper topical, which is remarkable for such a slow medium as a book. It leaves manuals, introductions and speculations behind in order to operate a pincer movement, telling the story of the rise of a new class while at the same time reflecting upon its consequences. This is a far cry from the usual activities of media theorists for whom the Net is still more something of a rumour than of a concrete experience.

I asked Arthur Kroker how his book how it is that his book can be so topical and reflective at the same time. "My body does a lot of travelling. I like to take deep plunges in the San Francisco spreading psychosis. I visit MIT and the Boston area and I spend time in Europe as well, roaming between Grenoble and Munich, to understand the cybermatrixes. And I spend a lot of time in the Net." 'Data Trash' was written on the Net, the writers haven't seen each other face to face in five years. "We experienced that there was a third person, the third mind, who wrote the book. The computer had come alive and 'Data Trash' was the result."

The cultural strategy followed in this book is called 'Hacking the Media'. "We like the notion of overidentifying with the feared and desired object, to such a point of obsession that you begin to take a bath in its acid juices. You travel so deeply and quickly in cyberculture that you force it to do things it never wanted to. I try to live my philosophy through cyberculture." For Michael Weinstein too it was an unique situation because he is mostly outside of the glowing horizon of technoculture and does not live in the corporate capital of America. He dwells in the twilight zone of Chicago which produces rough midwestern thinkers, who reflect on the howling winds of sacrificial violence and the decline of the American empire.

Why does this emerging class does not have a class conciousness of its own?

Arhtur Kroker: "If it did it would be doomed as the emergent class. 'Data Trash' is on suicidal and passive nihilism, as the radical Nietzsche predicted it in his 'Genealogy of Morals'. Virtual Reality means to us the humiliating reduction of human beings to servo mechanisms, or as Heidegger would say: as a standing reserve. The humiliation of the flesh as you are poked and proved and sucked by the harvesting machines of the virtual reality scanners."

Virtual reality does not mean head-mounted scanners and data gloves to Kroker & Weinstein. In their terminology VR is a whole assemblage of experiences, involving a traditional class consiousness, the spread of the ideology of techno culture and the hegemony of 'liberal fascism' and its swing back into 'retro fascism' as the political force behind the so-called 'Will to Virtuality'. 'Data Trash' seems the purest consummation of marxism, the severance of the commodity form from its economic base, into the notion of the pure estheticization of experience. Arthur: "We talk about the recombinant commodity form, in an economy run by the biological logic of cloning, displacing and resequencing. Or virtualized exchange, the replacement of a consumer culture by the desire to simply disappear, from shopping to turning your body into a brand name sign."

Now that the Berlin wall has crumbled and everyone left marxism, Kroker & Weinstein have gone back to Marx for a close reading of the movement of capitalism into the phase of pure commoditization. Living in America is not a question of trying to catch up with the media. The body is always moving to the speed of the media itself. 'Data Trash' begins with two fundamental rejections: the techno-utopian stance taken by Rheingold in his book 'Virtual Communities' (not the same Rheingold than after his 'Hot Wired' experience) and Neil Postman's neo-conservative position. On the other hand, it critiques all brands of technological determinism, who state that we don't have choices. There are real contradictions and lots of fractures, even in the supposedly closed virtual class. For Kroker/Weinstein, the field of political contestation is wide open.

But is this class in itself, not already virtual, in the sense of being invisible, dispersed and without clearly formulated class interests?

"We have done our investigations in many countries, to try to understand the different class fractions. How would the virtual class be actualized in France as opposed to America or Canada? In every case it turns out to be this curious mixture of predatory capitalism and computer visionarism. But it strikes us that it is a coherent class with pretty straightforward ideological objectives. It has to suppress the working class. In North-America one should position it within the framework of the NAFTA agreements. It freezes the working class and lower middle class in place so that they cannot move easily over national borders. When the workers complain, then they bring in the mechanism of a disciplinary state, the pinitive side of the virtual class.

"It's commenplace rethoric now: they have to stampede everybody on the information superhighway, and every business man knows that if you're not going on it soon, you are going to be eliminated, economically and historically. And this whole notion has been appropriated by the virtual class. But at the same time it is not a traditional class because it does not operate in the traditional logic of the political economy. The very notion of capitalism has already mutated, not really into technology, but into virtuality. Our work is a prolegomenon to the study of the virtual class, about the coming to be of a much more sinister and demonic force and that's the 'Will to Virtuality', a deeply disturbing, nihilistic aspect of the culture in which we live. It's about this suicical urge to feed human flesh into image processing machines, in such intensity, hyper accelaration, and suicidal seductiveness that flesh appears humiliated before it.

In the end you have to choose for an existance as a 'honoured collaborator', in Whitehead's sense, of techno-culture, rather than not to act at all. For a lot of thinkers, the position of the human species as 'honoured collaborator' of techno-culture, is their idea of a modernist position, what I call 'technological emergentism'. The human species is being superseded by technology. All right they say (the Shannons, McLuhans, etc.), but we still can be a honoured collaborator, we can probe around the world, and we can have media extensions of man. The notion of exteriorization is the possiblity of discovering new religious epifanies of technological experience. We reject that perspective. It is not about 'reaching out' but about 'reaching in'.

How does the vitual class relate to neo-liberalism?

"The political program of the virtual class goes way beyond the Reagonomics and Thacherism of the eighties. The agenda of the corporate class is to remove all barriers for the transnational movement of products. The knowlegde industry, which is computer based, should also move freely and universally. The technocratic class is not so much conservative as liberal. It stands in opposition to national political forces that would obstruct pure transnationalism. President Bill Gates and President Bill Clinton have a common class ambition, that is to get everyone on the cybernet as fast as possible, through 'policies of facilitation'. Cyberspace promises better communication, greater interactivity, speed: a whole seductive rethoric is on offer. Once everyone is on, there's going to be privatization, what we call the 'politics of consolidation': shutting down the Net in favour of commercial interest or pay in order to have your body accessed.

Yet to outsiders this virual class doesn't appear at all to have an aggressive policy. Its daily work, writing software, seems to be pretty dull and harmless.

"A chacarteristic of the virtual class is that it is autistic. It's an absolute meltdown of human beings into these autistic, historically irresponsable positions, with a sexuality of juvenile boys and being happy with machines. Shutting down the mental horizon while communicating at a global level and preaching disappearance. And why not, because you've already disappeared yourself... But as the guide at Xerox Parc said, "Who needs the Self anyway?" Privacy for these people has always been imposed on human beings by corporations, it's not something they claim they wanted. The Xerox Parc of the future is not about copying paper anymore, but copying bodies into image processing machines. And who needs privacy in such a situation?

The other mental characteristic of the virtual class is that it is deeply authoritarian. It believes that virtuality equals the coming to be of a fully free human society. As CEOs of leading corporations use to say, "adapt or you're toast" and they utter this with the total smuggness of complacency itself. The other side of cyber-authoritarianism is the absolute outrage that grips them in the presence of opposition. Qualms about the emergence of the virtualclass, or about the social consequences of technology are met with either indifference or total outrage. Quite on the contrary, members of the virtual class see themselves as the missionaries of the human race itself, the advant garde, in their terms, of the honourful collaboration with the telematic machines.

The virtual class has this aspect of seduction and the on the other hand the policy of consolidation, which is the present reality in which we live. It is a grim and severe and deeply fascistic class because it operates by means of the disciplinary state, imposing real austerity programs in order to fund the research efforts benefitting to itself. At the same time it controls politically the working classes by severe taxation in order to make sure that people cannot be economically mobile and cannot accumulate capital in their own right. When it comes to Third World nations they act in classic fascist way. They impose strict anti-emigration policies in the name of humanistic gestures. They shield their own local populace from the influx of immigrants bycreating a 'bunker state', by going for a Will to Purity.

We're not dealing here with a 'Will to Power' or a 'Decline of the Western Society' but with a 'Recline of the West' and a 'Will to Virtuality'. The recliner is a new representative persona on the stage of world history. The recliner is the best captured by the US tv-series, 'The Simpsons'. "Just blame it on the guy who doesn't speak English, oh, he works for me." Truely retro-fascist ideas put it the mouth of cartoon characters. Bill Clinton is the perfect representative of the weak will, full of moral vascilations, yet authoritarian at the same time.

Still, you are not moving into a technophobic position, you use computers yourself and enjoy them. How can we make a distinction between the goals of this virtual class and opposite, alternative ways of using technologies?

"I have to be honest with myself and it's hard to think of life without computers. I genuinely believe that these technologies, on the base of real struggle and reflexion, do offer alternative possibilities from domination, towards certain forms of emancipation. 'Data Trash' is also written as a manifesto for the coming to be of geek flesh, a realistic look at the world.

It would be interesting to look at the role of traditional political strategies in cyberspace itself. For example the notion of 'Squatting the Media' for me is a fundamental point of media contestation and a theory in itself. Just as interesting would be the question of subversive forms of sexuality in cyberspace itself, like what the cyber-feminist group 'VNS-Matrix' from Australia is doing. Try to make the stable science systems as unstable as possible to open up possiblities for ambiguity and paradox and for the reversal of reversionary mechanisms. That is done now through these playfull but deadly serious interventions into the media-net itself, enriched with imagination. It attacks the system exactly in its own language and opens up possibilities for democratic consensus, without in any waybeing dogmatic.

'Squatting the Media' after all is politically significant, but it does not want to be explicit about it. When Karl Jaspers wrote 'Man and the Modern Condition' he said that the fundamental act of political rebellion today is the human being who refuses, who says no. It marks the end of any hegemonic ideological position and the beginning of politics again. 'Squatting the Media' represents a refusal and marks a return of morality into politics. It would be important to take practical examples of subversive intentions that operate deeply in cybernetic language itself, not outside of the media-net but inside it.

Geert Lovink

Arthur Kroker, Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash, the Theory of the Virtual Class, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1994.

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