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<nettime> Over the RGB Rainbow
Are Flagan on Mon, 3 Feb 2003 06:56:56 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Over the RGB Rainbow


Over the RGB Rainbow

by Are Flagan <areflagan {AT} artpanorama.com>

A polemic review of _Virtuality Check: Power Relations and Alternative
Strategies in the Information Society_, Francois Fortier (Verso, 2001).

_Virtuality Check_ by Francois Fortier, a political economist, quite
appropriately arrived the year the economically deflated, and then
theoretically inflated, dot-com bubble burst. Perhaps due to marginally
missing out on all the gloating soothsaying of told-you-so that followed,
the book actually offers a thoughtfully balanced and useful view of how
Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) interface on the electronic
frontier in the new economy. Taking as his starting point(s) the two
extremes of, on one hand, cyberspace as the postmodern enfranchisement that
will rid the world of its alienating tribulations and lead to liberation
though an Athenian-styled democracy, and, on the other, the turn to techno
slavery under corporate and state control, Fortier successfully lays the
groundwork for a justifiably reserved but still hopeful negotiation of the
opposing outlooks. He explicitly sets out to clean out many of the lingering
fantasies, mysticisms and scarecrows that prevent a focused assessment of
exactly what roles and functions ICTs perform, with an emphasis on the
relations they realize, and are equally the realizations of, today. As such,
he avoids much of the futuristic prophesizing that turns every competent and
clear-headed theorist into a 1-800 number clairvoyant. Gone entirely, and
very thankfully, is the jack in and tune out talk spilling over from the
binary mist of technotopia; a science fiction-inspired porthole of strangely
familiar narratives on the alien future that barely notices what has been
and rarely, and then only in hyperbole passing, what is. _Virtuality Check_
is, as its name playfully implies, grounded in examples and documented
trends that lend a perspective where virtuality is crucially inseparable
from reality. At roughly 100 undersized, hardcover pages (not counting the
notes and bibliography sections), it packs a lot of powerful punches without
embarking on the usual rounds of shadowboxing with the default figures
encountered in lofty cyber literature. Anyone still running the green data
shower from the _Matrix_ as a screen saver, however, will find the checklist
a rude awakening from sleep; it is not a manual for dodging real bullets in
a backstroke swimming-lesson facilitated by the virtual.

The saving grace of Fortier's method, as every method is by merit of its
application alone problematic, is that he does not perceive of favored ICT
catch phrases for node connection, such as the "Internet" and the "network,"
as fully formed substantive nouns or proper names, whose "identity" is then
at stake, but looks at the relations between society and technology in
general and then ICTs in particular. He states: "My purpose is to locate
disparate discourses in comparative perspective, and to highlight their
divergent representation of socio-technological processes." (3) Although he
arguably enters another quagmire of definitions and the troublesome
debunking of myths here, the comparative look, which follows, at processes
of production--what he repetitively subsumes in production and trade (of
valued goods and services)--and reproduction--implying the role media and
politics play in maintaining the social order and its production
processes--lends considerable insight into the political and economical
objectives of ICTs. Using the term political economy from a historical
materialist perspective, which in turn leads to an analysis of the roots,
mechanisms and purposes of power relations, Fortier succinctly and clearly,
as he does throughout the book, sums up how this choice affects the
reasoning and outcome of his analysis: "In other words, political economy
refuses to view social relations in terms of their presumed functional
utility to society; instead it questions that relative utility for all
social groups involved in a relation. It thus analyses power in terms of its
implications for exploitation (the extraction of one group's labour or
resources for another), resistance (the refusal of that extraction) and
oppression (the reaction against that refusal)." (10) Given that he then
firmly abandons the search for a unitary technopolis with seventh heaven and
cloud nine aspirations, the discussion usefully returns to considering how
ICT influences the power relations between _different_ social groups,
abandoning as mentioned technology's utility as uniform or unique, and
subsequently, and most crucially, its potential for democratic alternatives
within the relations thus mediated and negotiated.

In a section entitled _Perspectives_, Fortier outlines four established
methods whereby the relations between society and technology can and has
been analyzed: 1) Functional neutrality: This approach treats technology as
independent from social dynamics; it is understood on its own technical
terms and thus functional to an undifferentiated group. Fortier concludes:
"Even worse, by desocializing technology this analysis denies the plurality
of technological alternatives, turning agency into object and development
into destiny." (14) 2) Instrumentalism: This method recognizes what it
announces; that technology is for better or worse (or both) implemented
through social relations. Again Fortier finds it lacking: "No attention is
paid to the criteria by which technology is said to be valuable, for what
purpose and for whom. This obfuscates the agenda of dominant interests that
actually determines each and every step of technological life cycles." (15)
3) Ahistorical inherence: This line of attack or defense, depending on one's
outlook, realizes that technologies have political implications both through
their use and their characteristics. However, it ends up seeing technology
as a determinant of society, rather than looking at the underlying forces
also beneath and behind it, which also indicate the reverse relations.
Furthermore, it belatedly introduces the potential for alternatives, in that
critique is leveled at the outcomes rather than the processes. 4) Historical
inherence: Arriving, finally, at the perspective of choice, this approach
attempts to see technologies in their multidimensional relationships to
social processes, as inherently political in development and not by nature.
Building on the foundations that ICTs are fields of social struggle, Fortier
concludes: "This perspective on ICTs underlines the point that information
is power, but not in and of itself. It is power only to the extent that it
is grounded in material reality--that it has consequences for how people
act, and thus for how societies produce value and reproduce relations of
order and change." (24)

The ensuing chapters are a succinct tour de force on the impact ICT has on
society, covering in particular the advantage it gains over labor and the
effect it has on contesting movements in civil society. Starting off his
treatise with a chapter asking _Information Society or Control Society?_,
with the first subtitle adding another question mark in _Subsuming Labour:
Cybernetic Productivity?_, Fortier very persuasively derails the claim that
technology's paved road as, and toward, progress is indeed an inevitable
drive en route to increased productivity and, in parallel, a horizontal
leveling of the very means of production. Using the influential thesis
provided by Manuel Castells, which posits freedom as an essential ingredient
of information technology to ensure the _productivity_ of its flows, as his
counterexample, Fortier points out that growth and development does in no
way need democracy, beyond a certain utilitarian charade. Instead, it relies
consistently upon mechanisms of oppression and exploitation to extract
surpluses. As he concisely puts it to inform the naivety of much tech talk:
"So it is theoretically problematic to argue that, through the information
revolution, capital would barter democratization for productivity." (28)
Following from this base realization, there is however the countermove of
open information sharing, collaboration and cooperation, exemplified by open
source software and large public (arguably infused with private interests)
projects like the Human Genome Project, that appeal to a gift rather than a
profit economy. Although the latter models and affects have gained some
currency (Richard Stallman is, however, busy these days distancing himself
from the corporate cooptation of "open source," as distinctly separate from
libre), the vast majority of networks are obsessed with obtaining valuation
above connectivity, and this is arrived at through security and firewalls,
copyright and patent protection, secrecy and filtering, and so on. When
removed from those seductive diagrams of wishful thinking, one cursory
browsing through the reality of the networks that comprise information
technology indicates that they resonate with corporate interests that do
_not_ trade democracy for productivity, unless the balance of benefits tilts
by doing so. In fact, even when the core issue of technology in the
workforce is considered against the basic benefit of automation, it is
revealed that productivity is not necessarily, or only, linked to an
increased output per person, but the ability to utilize and control the
_processes_ of production through the enhanced flexibility and coercion of
labor. Since productivity when implemented through ICT thus fundamentally
seeks to change the relations of labor, it is always resisted (which may put
Luddites in a slightly different light for some), and Fortier argues that
motivations associated with ICT developments and introductions cannot be
linked, as logical and inevitable next steps, to claims for efficiency,
prosperity and progress. They must also be considered in view of a desire to
control the relations of production in cybernetic systems of supervision,
surveillance and control. In his summary, Fortier explains: "The argument
made above thus proposes that far from revolutionizing the way capitalist
societies produce, ICTs actually contribute to the realignment of the
_distribution_ of that production among various social groups." (41).

With this he turns to the Internet, under the subheading _Trapping
Consumers: No Free Cyber-Lunch_, and effectively describes that gathering
concept of nodes as a panoply of easily recognizable interests and
struggles, from the corporate-owned pipelines to the standards and protocols
of organizations like IETF, IESG, ICANN and the W3C, to name just a few,
that ensures and secures its operative parameters. Harking back to the
ideals outlined by Adam Smith, this vast realm, blissfully subsumed in a
noun only second to the universe, aspires to recall the friction-free
capitalism of open trade and markets that empower rational consumers to
pursue their economic interest at a remove from all restrictions and
obstacles. To cut a longer and well-told story short here, this was
obviously never the case, as both the wealth behind the above Internet
acronyms and the dot-com boom attests to. The reason venture capitalists
went crazy for Internet stock (when it was not running its laddering schemes
on Wall Street to back them) had of course nothing to do with the consumer's
emancipation, but quite the opposite; a belief that a few major brands would
prevail online, like it had offline, and steal markets from other merchants.
Throw in unprecedented measures of profiled marketing, so called narrow
casting, along with the new data mining capabilities, and the freedom linked
to supply and demand chains start to appear more like a push technology
slavery, with increased monopolization on transactions and trade. Indeed,
this marketing pattern has arguably been the major force in shaping the
Internet, and large conglomerates now effectively control and maintain
network pockets of intranets, like AOL, that attract millions upon millions
of monitored users, unlikely to venture far beyond their branded portal--to
nowhere it turns out. Such manufactured behaviors are further confirmed in
Internet traffic patterns, where a few domains absorb most of the bandwidth,
and Fortier concludes this section, with its initial promises of free flow
capitalism and the complimentary cyber lunch, thus: "Yet ICTs, in their
current form of development, enable the fragmentation of consumers through
profiled marketing and unprecedented levels of supply-driven manipulation of
wants, further accelerating the current restructuring and monopolization of
trade. This has the consequence of reducing consumer choice over brands,
shops, and the purchasing process, while threatening the imposition of
monopolistic prices--all for the endowment of traders, not for consumers, in
a form of _friction-free corporatism_." (58)

The remaining two sections of this chapter then, in logical turn, deal with
the manufacturing of consent and the panoptical aspects of cybernetic
technologies. While acknowledging that the interactive and collaborative
properties of ICTs, seen in mailing lists for example, offer an antidote to
the deafening bullhorn of television and radio, Fortier argues that if
various groups and interests had not early on driven the technical
innovation in this direction (BBS, Usenet, etc.), the technology would
already have followed in the beaten path of its, now in the flow of the
mainstream, media predecessors. Without this lingering upstart enthusiasm,
which has filtered into a marketed supply, the word alternative may already
have become the relative oxymoron currently seen on cable television. But
who actually benefits most from ICT in this respect? Fortier somewhat
controversially but convincingly claims that activists who mobilize through
increased ease of communication do nothing to improve on the overall balance
of power through this adaptation. It does not matter what one sector does in
one set of circumstances; one must look at the general picture of ICT and
the relations it, as a whole, supports. Seattle has come to stand as the
crowning glory of this activist perspective on ICT, spawning the birth of
the Indymedia network, but it may help to recognize that the Millennium
Round of the WTO, as _the_ effigy of globalization, would probably not have
taken place, at all, without the evolution of ICTs that enable and direct
this process. Likewise, one must acknowledge that the freely distributed and
open sourced Indymedia software runs on corporate backbones within a
technological superstructure. What is generally lacking in activist
perspectives is an understanding of what information does and how it does
it; how information mediates in relations of power. The heralded "educated
ability" to act, so popular in the margins, rarely takes into account the
hierarchical demographic that has developed further through and certainly
due to ICTs, but one could say that Indymedia's, to stay with the same
example, effort to institute a global broadcast system around the local,
with a branded overall identity, does in effect return to use this pyramid
model in a way that may, in some way, challenge its stuffing, without
moaning too loudly about the impracticable task of flattening it first.
Hardcore netizens who still believe that the uneven signal to noise ratio
promoted and realized by ICTs is overcome by the netiquette of universal
connectivity are most welcome to turn off their spam filters and then reply
personally to the next greeting and plea for help from the Spanish prisoner
in Nigeria. 

Such developments are further solidified by the firewalls and corporate
intranets (Reuters, for example, runs a parallel network to the Internet for
its financial services) that channels information. By restricting the flow
this way, network packets that were supposed to overturn hierarchies and
deplete rank and status have become susceptible to have their content
examined and originators punished if it constricts the "freedoms" thus
accessed. With specters like Total Information Awareness looming large, the
current installations of censorware, ensuring legitimacy upon delivery, and
packetshapers, directing bandwidth to ports (and, rightfully perhaps, used
by most universities to steer students away from wasteful P2P), are only
rough beta versions of what is to come under TCPA. But all this is very old
news, although Fortier elaborates eloquently at length, and has been among
the litany of dystopian complaints since Howard Rheingold surfed the
Internet and came upon the same troublesome passwords. However, trends have
continued relentlessly in this direction, and this is where the neo-liberal
logic of an inherent democracy to the network is so damaging to its
egalitarian prospects, precisely because ICT technology is _not_, in any
way, developing toward this potential. In other words, nostalgic subjugation
to the future prospects of a past promise only leads to a passive
contemplation of the _screen_ of globalization, not an alternative
appropriation that requires a different, far more acute and long term,
investment. Those still hovering in cyberspace to fight for justice are
firmly anchored by Fortier's concluding observations: "Already, a market
driven and price-tagged pay-toll information highway is materializing,
serving those with the highest purchasing power and reinforcing the current
structures of domination. Meanwhile, state and corporate apparatuses are
closely monitoring network activity for intelligence and propaganda
purposes, controlling both content and medium where necessary. For all the
early enthusiasm, computer networking, in its current forms, is definitely
not an almighty weapon of political resistance and counter-formation." (82)

In a penultimate chapter, Fortier outlines alternative strategies for the
deployment of ICT for various purposes within different social groups,
paying particular attention to the implementation of technology in the
so-called Third World, where it frequently arrives in the guise of
charitable aid that often sees the actual benefits return to suppliers and
development agencies. Since these all rely heavily upon identifying the
particular circumstances of those sectors, it may be equally useful to leave
it alone, for now, and instead refer interested parties to obtain a copy of
the book, or preferably embark on their own innovation based on specific
needs for alternatives. It seems important to stress, once more, that
_Virtuality Check_ does not attempt to assign one out of two value judgments
to ICTs, as in good or bad across the board, but rather try to analyze how
different groups within society form and appropriate ICT (in relations and
mediations of power). The point is to recognize that while the growth of ICT
has justifiably been cast as rather bleak, there is always a remedial power
and solution, a use and an application, that escapes the logic of intention
and relocates, or misappropriates, these tools for other purposes. (Of
course, such potential does not belong to one track alone.) And furthermore,
by its emphasis on development and relations _Virtuality Check_ continuously
stresses multiple avenues of influence to avoid technological determinism.
By approaching ICT from a political economical perspective, then, and
infusing it with historical inherence, Fortier has persuasively shown that
it _primarily_ serves and intensifies the processes and purposes of a
corporate globalization through "virtual" capitalism. Returning to the core
relations of production and reproduction and their proposed trade in
empowerment and democracy, Fortier delivers a final blow to cyberspace
creed: "The forms and balances of those relations have varied, but not their
nature: the roles of workers, capitalists, managers, bureaucrats, merchants,
peasants, women, men, youth, ethnic groups, or castes have remained
basically unchanged, while ICTs mostly serve the intensification of
exploitative and oppressive relations between those social sectors." (104)
It could even be argued that technology has further disenfranchised those
that, for various reasons, fall outside the oligopolies of the new economy.

If we suspend, in the adjacent background, the political economical analysis
at this juncture and return to the networked ideals of cyberspace, it should
be clear that much of the ongoing dialogue with its penchant for gift
economies and netocracies, with its claims that a virtual world is indeed
possible and forthcoming in some binary rapture, belongs to pipedreams
without useful inclinations toward infrastructure. It's overdue time to
leave William Gibson's fanciful flight through data structures spinning in
the airport book carousel. And, likewise, perhaps Donna Haraway should have
included a legally binding contract with premises and conditions before
donating her cause and body to the cyborg prospective. And maybe Lev
Manovich should have added a P2P friendly MP3 on oral traditions, a more
complex social weave of historical vocalizations, when outlining the
language of new media in algorithmic speech commands. And Geert Lovink
should possibly have enlightened his sub-continental dark fiber with an
eternally copyright free appendix on the Heart of Darkness. This is not to
diminish these contributions and their exchange value, but they collectively
fail to realize that we have come a long, long way along some distinctly
un-hip routes like the information superhighway since the Memex and Xanadu.
The networked Internet is not a pie in the sky anymore. It is a political
and economical behemoth with some very down to earth consequences. So
instead of crying out in feigned disbelief and outrage when ISPs shut down
our Halloween monsters, like The Thing, and rat on our Robin Hood pirates,
who download 600 songs in a day, we must come to terms with the fact that
corporate and government apparatuses can, when desired, turn out the lights
on our daring virtual oppositions with the click of a switch or a mouse. A
virtuality check, then, does not imply that we abandon the imagination in
search for alternatives, that we take leave of our monsters and pirates, our
digital multitudes and creative commons. It rather seeks to eventually
empower them by first pointing out that both current and developing ICTs do
not lend themselves to be hired for shared speculation on democracy without
steep interests attached and monthly payments in hard, cold cash. This is an
obvious connect-the-dots scenario that seems to escape most Internet
analysts. There is surely a persistent irony in consistently building
whimsical meta-technologies for metaphysics to define cybernetic networks,
and we can't always start at the end of the cyberspace rainbow to make some
real headway into the virtual future.

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