Rewiring Technoculture

By Hari Kunzru, 10 January 1997

Critique of the Wired orthodoxy of a technology driven neoliberal utopia

"I mean, you read Wired magazine and it pretends to be very hip and trendy and radical, but it's basically arguing for all the unemployed to have their welfare benefits removed, to starve to death because it's good for them"[Richard Barbrook, Arena Magazine November 1996]

Where is technoculture going? The theoretical debate around issues concerning the impact of technology on society and politics seems to be becoming increasingly rigid in its terms. Orthodoxies, tendencies and schools of thought are emerging to segment a once-smooth landscape. A notable feature of this rapid organisation of the field has been the emergence of Wired as a symbol of a certain sort of orthodoxy. A backlash against the magazine was probably inevitable. Its rapid success and the adoption of aspects of its rhetoric by the cultural mainstream have turned it, in the space of a few years, from an underground publication into a sizeable organisation with a certain amount of political and cultural clout, especially in America.

This means that it's only right the magazine should become the object of critique. It also probably means that Wired no longer has to present the world in such simple terms (computers good, no computers bad) in order to make the effects of technology on society obvious to a general audience.

Declaration of bias: I'm Associate Editor of the UK edition of Wired. I'm not particularly bothered by the criticisms, since I like arguments and I know I'm not a digital cowboy hellbent on killing the unemployed and crowning Newt Gingrich God Emperor of Creation. However a climate in which Richard Barbrook can make a statement to a fashion magazine like the supremely silly one quoted above, is not particularly healthy for debate. If at this crucial stage critical thought about technoculture descends into meaningless sniping, it bodes very ill for the future

So the following comments are not intended as a defence of Wired. They're my views, not the views of the magazine which pays my salary. They're also not intended to demonstrate that I'm in any way more hip, trendy, or radical than Richard Barbrook, although of course I am.

A Second Look at The Market:

The Market is the issue on which most of the To-Wired or not-to-Wired argument seems to turn. The unapologetic free-market libertarianism of the Wired founders sounds very unpleasantly in the ears of Europeans and those on the American left who are accustomed to 'the free market' being used as a buzzword by proponents of a right-wing oligarchy who care little for anyone's freedom but their own and define it solely as the right to accumulate capital. I don't think that's what Wired has ever advocated, although I have problems with the brand of free-market thinking which has become the trademark of Wired US. I find it simplistic and believe it elides complex social and political issues in favour of the (journalistic) end of presenting politics in the Nineties as a straightforward 'out with the old and in with the new' scenario.

I also don't believe there is such a thing as a 'free market' in the quasi-transcendental sense used by some libertarian ideologues. The vision of a 'level playing field' is a misleading one, implying that if certain obstacles were removed (usually government regulation) the market would self-organise into an optimal form which would work for the benefit of everybody. This notion of freedom is skewed, not because markets don't self organise - they do, and hence are far more responsive to real conditions than state-centric command structures - but because the definition of what constitutes an obstacle to self-organisation, and the explicitly theological notion of 'perfect competition', the infinitely far-off point towards which the removal of obstacles is aimed, are not fixed, but deployed in fuzzy and dubious way to suit a ragbag of political ends.

Nevertheless, regardless of the frettings of social scientists who like to keep mathematics and politics safely separated, the global economy is a complex non-linear dynamical system. This mathematical description means, not that it is some transcendental entity to which we are all asked to submit, but is the total expression of the unimaginable number of economic decisions which we, singly and in groups, make every day.

Perhaps, so as not to produce a misleading idea of homogeneity and unity, it is better to think of the global economy not as a singular thing, but as an assemblage, a cluster or colony of systems. It is not a smoothly functioning efficient machine, but a vast jumble of processes, actions and decisions, which effect each other in unimaginably complex (but not in principle unknowable) ways.

Listening to certain cultural theorists, you get the impression they believe the world operates according to a duality - the market (capitalism), and the not-market (defined usually as state capital directed according to ethical dictates). This is simply untrue. Economic decisions, whether they originate inside or outside a State machine, feed into and out of the global complex market system. They constitute part of that aggregate. Nor is 'the economy' some transcendental realm separate from or dictating to other aspects of the global complex system of people, materials and ideas. It is a concept abstracted for functional reasons from the global process - which, with tongue only slightly in cheek, you could define as everything which happens everywhere all the time. There is a level on which everything is thinkable in terms of the movement of matter and energy. It's what Deleuze and Guattari spent their lifetimes theorising, what Delanda calls 'learning from lava', and what Richard Barbrook, Mark Dery and others mistake for a crude scientific determinism that negates the possibility of political action.

Government in the 1990's, more or less explicitly in the States which collectively identify as 'the West', is largely concerned with attempts to produce certain outcomes within the global economic system. You could think of this as a non-linear control problem - actions taken to influence the economy can produce results which vary enormously with minimal variation in those actions. That is to say, putting 0.5% or 1.5% on the rate of UK income tax may have an effect disproportionate to the 1% variation in those inputs.

States, significant actors within the global economy, try and manipulate it to get what they want. This is routinely presented to the populace as a traditional control problem - as if the State was outside the system it was controlling, had a perfect (or at least good) overall view of it, and the tools to do what it was promising to do - as if it knew what would happen to all variables when it put 1% on the income tax rate. States do control enough capital (and have other tools, like regulation, national borders and guns) to create big waves in the global economic pond. They are powerful and highly specialised economic actors. Yet they are still located within the global system. They have crude tools to manipulate the economy within the physical space they control (money supply, public sector borrowing, and so on). However such top-down control, even over important economic variables like relative currency values (see the recent ERM debacle), is impossible to maintain.

What does this mean? Bluntly, that you can't expect State systems to do things which are impossible to do, even when governments themselves swear to their voters that they are able to do those things, and even when we desperately wish for a mechanism to ensure that ethical imperatives drive politics, rather than the messy, sometimes callous pragmatism of market structures. Economic control (whether attempted for ethical reasons, or for reasons of profit) is restricted by the existence of all economic actors within a vast complex system. Even the biggest government on earth cannot rationally distribute wealth for the good of all. Soviet State Communism was the largest experiment in top-down control and rational planning ever. It seems uncontentious to say it was a failure.

So, we must accept that, in these terms, we all live within 'the market'. It is a phenomenon more like the weather than a giant oligarchic conspiracy to oppress the people . Compelling though the narrative is of a definable group of villains maintaining their social position at the expense of the majority, it's not (except perhaps in particular local situations) a story which reflects the real nature of events. Academic distaste for those working in the so-called 'private sector' does not constitute an adequate analysis. Social theorists on the Left must start to take a far more sophisticated view of market economics if their work is to be more than a kind of intellectual wish-fulfilment fantasy.

This does not mean we must immediately abandon any attempt to regulate companies or set up social welfare programmes, or that we must consider politics as no more than a subset of economics. It does mean that the clichéd opposition between state capital (rationally disbursed by a notionally democratic system) and market capital (selfishly co-opted by men with cigars in top hats) which seems to govern much technocultural debate, needs to be refined if we are to analyse the real situation in which we find ourselves. We need to reconceptualise the creaky old left/right socialist/capitalist axis around which politics has been conducted for much of this century. It no longer makes any sense. My instinct is that the libertarian - communitarian opposition conveys a lot more information about the current worldwide political landscape.

These might be considered 'negative' reasons for looking at market-oriented solutions to social problems. However it's not simply a case of accepting some element of market economics because there's a limit to what the State can achieve. Top-down command and bottom up emergence are polar opposites. The latter approach - which is the only one which seems to make sense when dealing with any complex system like an economy - demands that control be exercised heuristically - that is to say, in terms of a local, pragmatic response to immediate situations. Hard and fast positions which propose to dictate courses of action under any and all circumstances - ideologies in the old nineteenth and twentieth century mode - are redundant in the face of a constantly mutating complex system to which the would-be controller is immanent rather than transcendent.

So neither a Marxist teleology nor some supposedly 'Californian' vision of transcendental freedom are appropriate. Both fall into the trap of proposing a type of totalising prediction and control which it is not possible to exercise. Political economy at the end of the millennium is best thought of as an engineering problem - of controlling economies by allowing them to optimise themselves through self-organisation, of nudging them off sub-optimal attractors when they become trapped there, indeed of learning the craft of steering paths through the global economy without perfect knowledge, long term predictive capability or total control over outcomes. This is not a denial of politics. It is simply a set of heuristics by which politics should proceed.

Technology and Efficiency

When Wired is criticised for its optimism about technology, a counter-vision is usually proposed of a nightmarish workplace world where information technology is used to police the minutiae of daily life, where privacy is ended, where individuality and human rhythms count for nothing and people are no more than circuits in a giant machine. It's essentially a modernist trope, derived from the mid-century debates about mass culture, production-line manufacturing and rational social engineering. Transposed to the end of the century it assumes that an information economy will have to look much like an mass-industrial one. The keywords which appear again and again are 'Fordist' and 'Taylorist'. The vector of the debate tends towards producing Wired's 'Californian Ideology' as a proto-fascism -. Arbeit macht Frei.

Wired's technological optimism is supposed to elide various key problems. I'll run them through briefly. First, it is argued, information technology makes possible extraordinary levels of surveillance and control, and hence is intrinsically oppressive. Second argument - the 'information economy' trope elides the necessity of manufacture and heavy industry to produce the cool toys that the bearded surfer-fascists will masturbate over behind the high walls of their gated communities. Hence it is essentially an ideological smokescreen to ensure these people live la dolce vita, while the rest of the world suffers in slavery. Third, even within the information economy the majority of workers will be dehumanised technicians performing repetitive tasks to service the networked machine.

I don't intend to ridicule these concerns. I do however believe that a tactic of embracing information networks and dismantling State structures of control is the best way of avoiding the worst possibilities of the advent of digital communications. Conversely, I believe that the combination of a dirigiste State-centric political system and tight control over information technologies is most likely to produce this particular hell on earth.

A State, like any other organism, wishes to perpetuate itself. Power desires its own reproduction and will use any available means to achieve this. Technologies which allow vast quantities of data to be collected and analysed, which allow tracking of people and materials through physical and data space, which automate the bureaucratic task of classification and provide a prosthetic for projects of direction and control, are the most powerful tools for the auto-reproduction of centralised power yet seen on earth.

Given that it is not possible to unmake these technologies, the task is to minimise their negative effects and maximise their benefits. It seems to me that only a politics based on short-circuiting State power through devolution, decentralisation, the break-up of top-down control structures and the construction of bottom-up emergent ones, has any chance of stopping the worst outcome - the emergence of a totalitarian Information State which has the power to exercise control undreamt of by the industrial totalitarian systems of the twentieth century.

The people who on one hand invoke Fordism and Taylorism as spectres haunting an info-libertarian future, then call disengenuously for increased State regulation, are being naive and irresponsible. The Fordist/Taylorist mechanistic nightmare is exactly what the anti-Statist viewpoint (some version of which pretty much everyone involved in Wired espouses) seeks to avoid. Perhaps 'anti-Statist' is a misleading shorthand. 'Anti top-down control' would be a better way of putting it. Throughout this piece I use 'The State' in a sense largely derived from Deleuze and Guattari, as a cipher for any power structure which seeks to transcend the social field and channel matter and energy into its singularity, in order to perpetuate itself. Despotisms and Fascisms are archetypes of this kind of paranoid power structure. I consider centralisation of power in any organisation or institution as a vector which leads to this type of structure at the limit.

Jettisoning the Deleuzian theoretical abstractions it's possible to make much the same argument in another way. There are two opposing philosophies of control currently competing for dominance in the world of information networks. Call them Efficiency and Emergence.

Efficiency demands that available resources (bandwidth, time, processing power or whatever) be maximised by engineering control systems that assign those resources 'efficiently' - a process that involves predetermining how resource allocations will be made. An example of an Efficient system in this sense is circuit switching in telephone networks. Pick up the phone and a circuit is opened between you and the person you've called. No matter how much or how little talking you do, that circuit stays open until you hang up the receiver. You are taking up a fixed amount of bandwidth. When the bandwidth on a trunk line is used up by x simultaneous phonecalls the next would-be caller gets a busy signal and the phone company starts wondering whether they should get a fatter pipe. The strength of Efficient systems is that everything gets used in an orderly fashion; it's easy for the controllers to manage. Their weakness is the aspect of centralisation and predetermination. If conditions change (demand for telecoms bandwidth increases, for example) they're in trouble. Also they can paradoxically be very wasteful - the circuit stays open even if there's a ten-minute meaningful silence in my conversation with my lover.

Emergence is the exact opposite. Intelligence, instead of residing in the predetermined architecture of the system, is distributed throughout it. Each element makes decisions. In telecoms networks the paradigmatic emergent system is packet switching. The internet is based on a packet switching protocol. Instead of a circuit being opened up ahead of time for my data (voice, mouse-click or whatever) to go through, it's split up into 'packets', chunks of a standard size, each of which is told where it's supposed to be going, given the means to assess the current best route, and sent off down the wire to be reassembled at the other end. Each packet takes the current route of least resistance, like water flowing down an inclined plane. Such a system is messy, hard to manage, and inefficient - think of billions of ants scurrying around to build a nest as opposed to one giant purpose-built ant-nest builder. Emergent control systems work by abandoning centralised control.

State-centric top-down control structures are pretty good examples of Efficient systems. Resources are allocated by a central authority (the government, for example, decides to give a laptop to every school child). If conditions change such a system is fucked, or at least pretty slow to respond. Think, as an extreme example, of the attempts in Soviet Russia to fix prices using a central committee. Feedback was so poor, and decision-making so centralised that it was impossible for this method of price determination to reflect the real price of goods.

The advent of information technology means (perhaps self - evidently) that information is transmitted around the world increasingly quickly. This in turn means that decisions which lead to changes in economic and political variables ('buy Deutschmarks', 'bomb Iraq') are made more quickly and probably more frequently. It's an open question whether the rate of social and economic change is increasing (I'm not sure how one would go about producing an objective measure of such things - or whether the project of looking for 'objective' indicators by which to make measurements is a wise one), but it seems safe to comment that the number of trades on the London stock market, the number of people I communicate with in a working day, the rate of deployment of an army or a humanitarian relief operation - all are on the rise.

For the organisation which would control a complex system ramping up its feedback rate in this way, speed of response is everything. A control system predicated on top-down control is simply not equipped to deal with this speed and complexity, even if it employs computers in its project of control. The speed will, quite literally, shake such a system apart. I believe that the Nation State, in the nineteenth-century form which we have inherited, and to which many commentators seem (God knows why) to feel some kind of sentimental attachment, is in the process of collapsing. This does not mean that it will leave a joyous anarchy in its wake. Its death throes are going to be ugly and violent (the internal war in the UK on travellers, squatters and other 'unproductive' bodies is a foretaste) , and it looks likely to mutate into something perhaps resembling the monster so vividly depicted by so many technocultural theorists.

Fordism and Taylorism, industrial era philosophies of mass production and efficient resource allocation, are inextricably bound up with centralised control. Individuality, preferred working practices, human rhythms, habits and so on are forced into a predetermined framework designed by the architects of a working system. Contrast this with perfectly Emergent production system. Here the goal would be defined beforehand (make a car, bring out a magazine this month), but the route by which that goal was achieved would depend on the individual choices of the workers. Fixed production practices, the subsumption of the individual to the machine, would not be necessary.

This is obviously an idealised viewpoint - any institution, however decentralised, has elements of top-down control, and it is harder to imagine emergent working patterns in large-scale manufacturing than in small information-based companies. However there is nothing in principle which says that a set of social, economic and political practices based on Emergence couldn't replace many of the hierarchies which dominate the contemporary world. Conversely there's a lot to suggest that such structures, by their adaptability, will in the future pose increasing challenges to centralised control.

Wired has consistently championed Emergent control systems in politics, the workplace, telecoms networks and just about everywhere else a convenient binary opposition can be applied. So it seems pretty ridiculous to use Ford and Taylor, the twin spectres of dehumanisation and suppression of the individual, as sticks to beat the magazine. If anything, it's the people who propose predetermined regulation and centralisation as panaceas for our technocultural ills who deserve those labels.

Having defended the 'classic' Wired viewpoint that far, it also can't be denied that the magazine has elided many unpalatable possibilities of what it terms the 'digital revolution'. I've personally never been too fond of the phrase 'digital revolution', a feeling shared by many in Europe, where the word 'revolution' carries an ambiguity, an aura of violence, fanaticism and chaos which seems to be absent in the romantic American memories of their founding moment. If you've seen copies of Wired UK, you'll find it occurs infrequently. Its millenarian quality and its promise of total transcendence of current social realities don't square with the uneasy world in which most people feel themselves to be living.

Industry and manufacturing aren't going to go away. Much information work is not of the informal hacker variety promoted by Wired as workplace utopia, but consists of repetitive data entry, management and service. These are not creative, fulfilling jobs, despite the fact that they involve computers.

With all my reservations I still work for Wired, because I still believe that information technology and Emergent control systems can have immensely positive, liberating effects, not just for some angelic info-elite, but throughout societies at all economic levels. It's not simply a question of some guy in Palo Alto with an optical fibre running to his desktop that allows him to play superfast Quake in 360 million colours. Networks which don't require a centralised authority to function, which facilitate the creation of communities in spaces where traditional communities based on ethnicity, class and geographical proximity have ceased to function, networks which by their nature cross the geopolitical fault-lines that cause so much conflict in the world, have to be a potential force for good.

I feel there's something valuable in this vision of decentralised networks. Crucially, I have also yet to see anyone propose a workable alternative, and that is the only thing which will really move the debate along. It would be a tragedy if informed argument, both for and against the positions with which Wired is identified, was buried beneath such a weight of half-baked rhetoric.

Hari Kunzru <hari AT>