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Geert Lovink on Thu, 4 Jan 96 23:15 MET


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Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class
According to Arthur Kroker
In conversation with Geert Lovink

   Arthur Kroker, Canadian media theorist and 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.
   Politically, the locus standi of the virtual class is already in
place. Arthur Kroker: "Look at Rheingold, saying, in a pessimistic
mood, "It's all over in America", meaning that the internet is too
expensive, which is not true. It is one of those self fullfilling
arguments, which seek to displace the internet as a public institution
and to silently justify a corporate takeover of the information
highway. There are a lot of conflicts in America, it's not all 'all
over'. Rheingold is here expressing a specific world view and presents
it as the totalizing perspective. But then, that is what ideology
always does."

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'.
Human beings have become like the dangling flesh. Its necessary to
kick-start the Will to Virtuality into real existence, after which the
human species will be dispensed with, in a kind of waiting time.
He/she can do what it wants, because it is not going to be necessary
for the operation of the recombinant culture.
   'Data Trash' is a antropology of a dying species and the emergence
of a new species, which is purely telematic. It is not only the story
of class quislings and class collaborators, but it is against the human
species itself. Selling the human race out to a technoculture which
exists with such intensity that it's existance comes alive as a new
species."

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.

   There is a big shift happening in the field of labour. Those
portions of the work force that belong to industrial capitalism are to
be shelved. They will either be controlled through the disciplinary
state, which is cutting their welfare and unemployment checks, or they
will be integrated to low level service jobs. On the other hand, a
section of them can be telematically re-enegineered to become
specialists within the techno culture, privileged people with high
paying techno jobs. They will become the cadre for making the US and
Canada globally competitive. For those whose labour is disposable,
funds will be provided for technical retraining. This is being
explained to the population as a whole in terms of living in the age of
the inevitability of the technological imperative: we have no choise.
This drumbeat is being repeated by the ideological apparatuses of the
state, to impose this rethoric as a closed horizon."

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?
   They are not employees anymore but missionaries. Think about the
various stages of repression, from primitive capitalism, to the
limitation of social choices. None of those limitations apply to the
virtual class. Their form of domination is psychological repression.
They don't have a clear class consiousness. They truely believe that
technology equals human freedom. The tour guide at Xerox Parc again:
"We just want to do good for the human race." Yet this is not
experienced as an ideological rethoric. As the philosopher Georg Grant
put it, "They have never learned to hate themselves", so they're not
capable of thinking either the worst or the best of human experience
itself."

   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 virtual
class, 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.
   But when they are confronted with my theory, they immediatly fall
into confusion and that is what gives me great optimism. It is a deeply
fractured class, not just at the level of social or economic
contradictions, but at the individual level also. It is an unstable
sign system. As the lead designer at Xerox Parc told me, "I have had my
doubts, who needs all this junk anyway?" This can be read either as
cynical piety, where you are aware what you are doing but it also
could mean the first glimmerings of the poverty of the imagination.
There have been many members of the virtual class who have experienced
exactly that type of deep ambivalance within themselves because they
are visionairies and authentically creative human beings and artists
and at the same time find themselves cut up in a flaw, an experience
that has a historical velocity in power which they do not understand.

   The program of the virtual class is a curse for those who stand
outside. It's not even a hostile position, it is simply contempt, for
those members of the working class that do not have easy access and who
cannot experience the new universal communion. At the same time you see
the virtual class shutting down the internet and it feels nothing but
contempt for the lost ideas of what they would like to call blue-eyed
utopian thinkers who called for the possiblities of a democratic use of
the internet, outside of the barriers of the state. But when they get
challenged, they go for their class interests and actually suppress
those members of competing classes that stand in opposition to
themselves.
    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 by
creating a 'bunker state', by going for a Will to Purity. In this way
it can tolerate 'ethnical cleansing' by way of intinite media coverage.
The Western reaction to the genocide in Bosnia is simptomatic for this.
Cynical piety is one of the real features of the politics of liberal
fascism and Clinton is a typical representative of this policy.

   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. He can take the reversed position as happily and with the
same degree of moral aquiescence itself. Reclining into the weak will,
the 'Will to Powerlessness, that is the society of disappearances."

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 way
being 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.


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