Harvesting the Tubers (The Planting of Deleuze and Guattari)

By James Flint, 10 January 1997

The Great Deleuze and Guattari debate - part 2

"Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding..." ('Neuromancer', William Gibson).

Before it even existed, the Internet was being hijacked. The US Federal Government's need to work out a way to allow all the incompatible computers being used for government research to communicate with each other - a task which they set ARPANET about solving - was hijacked by the myth of protecting computer networks against nuclear attack. When packet switching came to California on the back of the PC industry, it was hijacked first by the "hackers", who wanted a temporary autonomous zone, then by the WELL and its denizens (including an infant Wired magazine) who wanted a new space for "true" democracy and Enlightenment ideals - who wanted, in short, a new American frontier. As soon as it became apparent that the idea was catching on, the burgeoning Internet was hijacked by the politicians and their "information superhighway", then by Microsoft with their "Internet strategy", and now - as online transactions become a reality, and as the Net melds with the mass media - by corporate culture in general.

None of this should be particularly surprising to us. After all, what is all that different about the Internet? It is a space, an arena, a milieu. It affords the possibility of interaction and communication. It presents evolutionary and expansionary opportunities (though let's not valorise either of those terms). It is a field made available to the hydrodynamics of power, of resistance, of control. It has levels of apparency and levels of indeterminacy; it affords various possibilities for movement and interpretation; it is complex and unquantifiable. Whilst the space of the Internet functions very differently from the spaces we are used to, that does not make it somehow more real, less real, hyperreal. It may sometimes seem other worldly, but it is firmly grounded in this world. It has, for example, an environmental impact: the total material cost of a car during its lifetime is 25 tonnes of matter; that of a PC is 19 tonnes (Wupperthal institute). Electrons must travel down wires, must whip through processors and, must trigger interfaces which connect with the humans in order for what is rapidly becoming known as the "virtual world" to exist.

Let us conflate for a moment, under the banner of the "virtual", the space of today's Internet and the concept of Cyberspace (N.B. my use of the word "virtual" here is not at all to be confused with D&Gs use of the term). If the virtual is a "consensual hallucination" it is an extension of that virtuality that already exists, say, as part of the culture of the game of chess. The virtual world of chess exists in myriad minds to a greater or lesser extent as a series of moves, power plays, possibilities for interaction; at the same time a physical interface is required (a chequered board) even if a computer is playing one side of the game. And just as chess is more than the logical sum of all possible moves, so the virtual, as far as digital technology is concerned, is more than the logical sum of all possible computer connections. This is why it terrifies (post)modernity, because (post)modernity sees it only as instant, logical, mental. Baudrillard's notion of the "hyperreal", effective though it is, fails to acknowledge that the virtual, by outgrowing its logical parameters, has in fact become real.

This is as much to say that any virtual space is invested from the start with a set of libidinal energies. It is not about being analogue or digital - a dubious distinction at the best of times - but about the new speeds and possibilities becoming available as we construct ourselves an infosphere, an infosphere which will not only envelop computers as we think of them today, but all forms of media from the telephone and the mail to CCTV networks and spy satellites. The marriage of television with the Internet through the set-top box and the digital satellite delivery system will bring this virtuality to the "masses" for the first time. What we need to understand about this development is not just what the psycho-social impact will be, nor just whether its arrival is a good or a bad thing, nor even just whether it threatens existing moralities and micro- & macro-political structures - although these questions have their place and are worth the asking. Instead, the questions we must ask are: what channels are being opened up; how are people organising themselves around the new flows; and what are the new configurations of power and control which are becoming possible as a result?

As Virilio has pointed out, there is a powerful relationship between speed (and today's virtuality is in many ways simply an increase in speed) and the State. But speed does not entail the State; for that to happen, speed needs to be captured, channelled and controlled. This means that during periods when new vectors and speeds are being introduced into society we need to be aware that we are then at our most vulnerable. A fable: the discovery and development of the technology of irrigation in the Nile basin introduced a new series of vectors and speeds into the society of that time. It is obviously impossible to say for sure but one would imagine that the farmers concerned welcomed this development: it gave them more control over the growing of their crops, reduced their dependency on the elements, freed them from the back-breaking toil of carrying water. But whilst liberating them on the one hand, it also laid them open to a new kind of oppression. The priest class which controlled the technology also controlled the flows of water and, by extension, the farmers who had become dependent upon those flows. On the back of this new configuration of control a new State formation came into being, one which eventually enabled the awesome power of the Pharaohs and all the horrors of their rule. At the end of the twentieth century, speeds are changing more rapidly that ever, and the Internet/Cyberspace/virtuality is the plane upon which the new vectors are operating. To be banal, what we have here is a new irrigation system, and governments and nations - the key Statist power formations that we have lived with all our lives - are like the tribal formations strung out along the Nile basin, collectively in thrall to a new and eager priest class. Already, there are potential pharaohs waiting in the wings: Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch; we know their names. They may or may not be evil men; that is not the point. But when the dust settles and the pipelines are in place and we're all using them because it's easier for us that way, suddenly we're going to find that these people control what we need to survive and that the option we once had to get along without them has somehow evaporated.

What we need, right now - not in 10 years time, because by then it will be too late - is our own set of tools. We need to be able to re-engineer this new space as quickly as it is manufactured by the corporate entities. We need to find a vocabulary in which we can discuss these changes and these new terrains apart from the overcodings supplied for us by governments, media giants, software hegemonies. We don't need a perfect overview - let the pharaohs chase their tails seeking that. We need strategies of blockage and diversion, we need ways to diffuse and short-circuit the State when it begins to instantiate itself amongst us.

Mounting a direct challenge may not be possible and it may not be what we want - we do not want to try to found a State system of our own. What we need to do is what we can do: cut new channels, create new temporary autonomous zones, defuse cathecting power. More than any other writers, D&G have developed a coherent set of conceptual tools that help us to understand our situation and act upon it. Suhail has detailed the cogent aspects of these in his piece; I don't need to lay them out all over again. But it is a mistake to think that the Deleuzian reaction to the Internet would be to evaluate its connective qualities in order to pronounce a judgement upon it: rhizomatic, good; arborescent, bad. We can indeed see that at present, as I remarked above, the Internet is witnessing a transitional phase, as "capitalism prevents full and absolute decoding and so [...] block[s] the rhizomatic line of flight of the Internet" (A Thousand Plateaus p.343), but it would be a mistake to think that this development is somehow necessitated or even facilitated by the structure of the Net itself. To argue this is to misunderstand the use of the word "machine."

As D&G point out, "This is the postromantic turning point: the essential thing is no longer forms and matters, or themes, but forces, densities, intensities." (A Thousand Plateaus, p. 343) Forces, densities, intensities. How do we understand the dynamics of the world understood in these terms, no longer a universe but a chaosmos? D&G suggest that the only way to do it without falling into the old traps of external causes or anthropomorphics is to identify the behavioural patterns of all and any energised milieux. To take a key example, in the book Anti-Oedipus they identify three syntheses: the Connective Synthesis of Production; the Disjunctive Synthesis of Recording; the Conjunctive Synthesis of Consumption-Consummation. The point here is not to elaborate what each of these means but to emphasise that each of these processes is a radically material one, and it is with this materialism that they found a machinics.

Don't be mislead by this word "machine". It is meant to shift the emphasis away from the human, yes, but it is not meant to carry that particular fascist connotation with it that always seems to come in through the back door in English whenever the machine and the human are mentioned in the same breath. The abstract machine, for D&G, is any creative pattern. Any dynamic environment - winds, crowds, plate tectonics - carries within it a multitude of possibilities for coherence, order and, by turns, disorder. Latent within every weather system is a motor - we call it a hurricane. D&G's machinics is a way to understand how the world coheres and develops, whether we're talking about the evolution of the eye or the creation of a sedimentary rock. The abstract machine is the word for all the dynamic latencies in matter, reduced to a handful of material syntheses. A machinic assemblage is the abstract machine made material or, if you prefer, made flesh.

There is a technical machine; the computer is one assemblage of it. It has the effect of generalised and instantaneous decoding. But the effect of the network - of the Internet - has been to transform the technical machine, not into a rhizome, but into a field. What is a field? Somewhere where "forces, densities, intensities" can once again come into play. The technical machine, instantiated in the computer, decoded and advanced the cause of capital. The effect of the development of the Internet - for a initial period, at least - was to unfold this machine, randomly plug it back into itself. But at the very point when the technical machine became a field, that field became a battleground, as outlined in my introduction. Initially, the field had a strongly rhizomatic character; that character is being lost as capital decodes, recodes and axiomatises as quickly as it can.

"Rhizomatics" and "arborescence" describe the two tendencies of connectivity. Neither is ever purely itself, and one is always turning into the other, just as overly-striated space becomes smooth space and vice versa. Seen in this manner, we should begin to recognise that the Internet, while something new, is not really all that special. It is not the answer to all our prayers (and it is certainly not the harbinger of some obscene "global consciousness") but nor is it necessarily an enabler of total oppression. It does appear that Cyberspace, on the other hand (if we can recall here Gibson's definition), with its infinite lines of virtual light and rigorous perfectionist logics which privilege antiseptic and re-engineered mental realms over and above the biopsychical, is in fact the first capitalist overcode of the Internet (which is still far from being a purely digital phenomenon). For in "Cyberspace", the technical machine once again holds sway; on the Internet, that is far from being the case.

Perhaps this is how we should define the challenge facing us now: how to stop Cyberspace taking over the Net. The techniques currently being used to enable this are not particularly original: a favourite technique much in play last year was the parading of the supposedly massive threat from online paedophiles in order to justify to the public the introduction of strategies that would bring the networks under some kind of centralised observational control. This is no different in kind to the Tories' current strategy of launching a new Anti-Terrorist advertising campaign just in time for the run-up to the next election.

Our old strategies are no longer working. This technology, so powerful, so exciting, is already being captured and recoded. Two things work in our favour: one, that it the technology itself has as yet unidentified dynamics of its own; secondly, that never before has such a powerful communications medium been in the hands of so many so fast (and that's still true even if it is only the most privileged 1% of the planet's population). D&G give us the tools to help think the situation of massively high media connectivity combined with transnational capital at the end of the second millennium. We shouldn't be worrying about whether or not the Internet is a rhizome; we should be worrying about what we want it to be and how we go about ensuring that it gets to be that way.

James Flint and Suhail Malik