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<nettime> Article 68-Resisting the Neoliberal Discourse of Technology
CTHEORY EDITORS on Tue, 2 Feb 1999 02:09:44 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Article 68-Resisting the Neoliberal Discourse of Technology


 _____________________________________________________________________
 CTHEORY          THEORY, TECHNOLOGY AND CULTURE        VOL 22, NO 1-2
 
 Article 68       99/02/01       Editors: Arthur and Marilouise Kroker
 _____________________________________________________________________
 
 Resisting the Neoliberal Discourse of Technology:
 ================================================= 
 The Politics of Cyberculture in the Age of the Virtual Class
 ============================================================
 
 ~John Armitage~
 
      Totalitarianism is latent in technology. It was not merely
      Hitler or Mussolini who were totalitarian, or the Pharaohs as
      far as I am concerned. Totalitarianism is already present in
      the technical object. - Paul Virilio [1]
 
 Such penetrating assessments of technology are increasingly
 exceptional: nearly all the political, economic, and cultural texts
 that surround us suggest that we are entering a truly new
 technological and democratic age. Indeed, modern day pharaohs, such
 as Microsoft's Bill Gates constantly assert that the world is on
 the brink of a "technological revolution". [2] Meanwhile, neoliberal
 politicians, like American Vice President Al Gore, see the "Global
 Information Infrastructure" as nothing less than the basis of a new
 Athenian age of electronic democracy. [3]
 
 The Neoliberal Discourse of Technology
 --------------------------------------
 
 Contemporary neoliberalism is the pan-capitalist theory and practice
 of explicitly technologized, or "telematic", societies. [4]
 Neoliberalism is of course a political philosophy which originated in
 the advanced countries in the 1980s. It is associated with the idea
 of "liberal fascism": free enterprise, economic globalization and
 national corporatism as the institutional and ideological grounds for
 the civil disciplining of subaltern individuals, "aliens" and groups.
 However, while pan-capitalism appears largely impregnable to various
 oppositional political forces and survives broadly uncontested, it
 nonetheless relies extensively on a specifically neoliberal discourse
 of technology. What is more, this discourse is principally concerned
 with legitimating the political and cultural control of individuals,
 groups, and new social movements through the material and ideological
 production, promotion, distribution, and consumption of self-styled
 "virtual" technologies like virtual reality (VR) and cyberspace.
 
 These contentions about pan-capitalism, telematics, and the
 neoliberal discourse of virtual technologies derive from the fact
 that human labour is no longer central to market-driven conceptions
 of business and political activities. Actually, as far as some
 neoliberals are concerned, ~technology is now the only factor of
 production~. [5] Artefacts like VR, cyberspace, and the Internet thus
 embody not "use value" but what Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein
 term "abuse value":
 
      The primary category of the political economy of virtual
      reality is abuse value. Things are valued for the injury that
      can be done to them or that they can do. Abuse value is the
      certain outcome of the politics of suicidal nihilism. The
      transformation, that is, of the weak and the powerless into
      objects with one last value: to provide pleasure to the
      privileged beneficiaries of the will to purity in their
      sacrificial bleeding, sometimes actual (Branch Davidians) 
      and sometimes specular (Bosnia). [6]
 
 The neoliberal analysis of production under the conditions of
 pan-capitalism and telemetry accordingly focuses not on the outmoded
 Marxian conception of the "labor process", but on the technological
 and scientific ~processing of labour~. [7] The result is that surplus
 labor is transformed by relentless technological activity, and the
 means of virtual production produce abuse value.
 
 Technology and the Politics of Cyberculture
 -------------------------------------------
 
 The technological fixations of the neoliberals are, of course,
 presently extending themselves from virtual production to virtual
 culture; to technoscience and to cyberculture, including the culture
 of cyborgs, cyberfeminism, cyberspace, cyberwarfare, and 
 cyberart. [8] Nietzsche emphasizes, in _The Wanderer and His Shadow_,
 that technologies and machines are "...premises whose thousand year
 conclusion no one has yet dared to draw." [9] Yet, in scarcely over
 one hundred years, it has become clear that technology is not only
 voraciously consuming what is left of "nature," but is also busily
 constructing it anew. Nanotechnology, for example, brings together
 the basic atomic building blocks of nature effortlessly, cheaply, and
 in just about any molecular arrangement we ask. [10] Information and
 communications technologies evoke the virtual architecture and
 circuitry of fiber-optics, computer networks, cybernetic systems, and
 so on.
 
 These technologies, these assemblages, though, need to be appreciated
 for what they are: synthetic materials transformed into instruments
 of "the will to virtuality," or of human incorporation - even
 "disappearance" - into cybernetic machinery. Cybercultural
 technologies are agents of physical colonization, imperialists of the
 human sensorium, created, like Frankenstein, by our own raw desire.
 They represent what Virilio calls "the third revolution", the
 impending bodily internalization of science and technology. As
 Virilio recently defined the third revolution:
 
      By this term I mean that technology is becoming something
      physically assimilable, it is a kind of nourishment for the
      human race, through dynamic inserts, implants and so on. Here,
      I am not talking about implants such as silicon breasts, but
      dynamic implants like additional memory storage. What we see
      here is that science and technology aim for miniaturisation in
      order to invade the human body. [11]
 
 As a result, the division between living bodies and technology is
 increasingly difficult to maintain; both are now so hopelessly
 entwined in the "cyborgian" sociotechnical imagination. [12] We are
 well on our way to "becoming machinic". As Deleuze and Guattari
 comment: "This is not animism, any more than it is mechanism; rather
 it is universal machinism: a plane of consistency occupied by an
 immense abstract machine comprising an infinite number of
 assemblages." [13]
 
 Nevertheless, the technologically determinist assemblages of sundry
 neoliberal computer mystics, like Jaron Lanier and John Perry Barlow,
 are questionable because cybercultural technologies, like all
 technologies, are ~innately political~. Technologies like VR do not
 appear - like rainfall - as heavenly gifts. They have to be willed
 into existence, they have to be produced by real human beings.
 Information and communications technologies, for instance, both
 contain and signify the cultural and political values of particular
 human societies. Accordingly, these technologies are always
 expressions of socioeconomic, geographical, and political interests,
 partialities, alignments and commitments. In brief, the will to
 technical knowledge is the will to technical power.
 
 It is crucial, then, to redefine, and to develop a fully conscious
 and wholly ~critical~ account of the neoliberal discourse of
 technology at work in the realm of cyberculture; one that exposes not
 only the economic and social interests embodied within cultural
 technologies, but also their underlying authoritarianism. Maybe
 Marshall McLuhan was right? The medium ~is~ the message. The question
 is, what does it say? Moreover, how does it manage to say it so
 eloquently, so perfectly, that some among us are more than "willing"
 to trade corporeality for virtuality? And all for what? A chance to
 dance to the (pre-programmed) rhythms of technologized bodies?
 Indeed, it is hard to disagree with Hakim Bey when he writes:
 
      Physical separateness can never be overcome by electronics,
      but only by "conviviality", by "living together" in the most
      literal physical sense. The physically divided are also the 
      conquered and the Controlled. "True desires" - erotic, 
      gustatory, olfactory, musical, aesthetic, psychic, & spiritual
      - are best attained in a context of freedom of self and other
      in physical proximity & mutual aid. Everything else is at best
      a sort of representation. [14]
 
 Technology and the Virtual Class
 --------------------------------
 
 What are the central political dynamics at work in the neoliberal
 discourse of technology? Today, the development of this discourse is
 also the development of the shifting determinations of the virtual
 class. For it is this, "...social strata in contemporary
 pan-capitalism that have material and ideological interest in
 speeding up and intensifying the process of virtualization and
 heightening the will to virtuality." [15]
 
 Resisting the unconstrained development of the neoliberal discourse
 of technology is vital because such resistance impedes the
 contemporary development of the  virtual class. To some of its 
 members, like Douglas Coupland, the reigning technological discourse
 constitutes the narcissistic flowering of long-held personal
 ambitions, while to others, like _Wired_'s neoliberal evangelist
 Nicholas Negroponte, it represents the beginning of a new
 techno-religion. To Alvin & Heidi Toffler, the neoliberal discourse
 heralds the emergence of a whole new civilization while to Bill Gates
 and Kevin Kelly it means material wealth and political influence
 beyond measure. [16]
 
 Certainly, it is possible to characterise the present period of
 self-consciously "spectacular" technological innovation as being
 driven primarily by pan-capitalism's need to arm itself against the
 onset of virtual class warfare. [17] Without doubt, the virtual class
 must, at some stage - and probably with the acquiescence, if not the
 full participation of global technocratic, political and military
 elites - confront living labour, actual communities, tangible spaces,
 material environments, and physical, breathing, bodies. The
 neoliberal discourse of technology therefore represents an attempt by
 the virtual class to open up a new period in the cybernetic carnival
 that is pan-capitalism. The unfolding of the neoliberal discourse of
 technology is thus the unfolding of virtual class relations. This is
 the true nature of social communications in the contemporary era.
 
 For these reasons it is essential to advance unorthodox, bottom-up,
 explanations of the evolution of the neoliberal discourse of
 technology. The chief aim ought to be the equipping of the digitally
 dispossessed with counter arguments and active political strategies
 that will work against what the late Christopher Lasch might have
 called "the revolt of the (virtual) elites and the betrayal of
 (electronic) democracy." [18]
 
 Make no mistake, VR and cyberspace have not simply opened up new
 wealth generating possibilities for the virtual elites. They have
 also opened up new political prospects for those who wish to see the
 spectacular representational systems of crash culture disappear. What
 is important in the interim, then, is to challenge the pronouncements
 of the virtual class wherever they appear and join with others in a
 comprehensive and detailed critique of the neoliberal discourse of
 technology in a variety of fields ranging from VR to cyberwarfare and
 beyond. [19] Further, such challenges need to involve a multiplicity
 of individuals and groups. These might range from school kids and
 students disenchanted with the increasing replacement of education by
 mere technocratic information, to disaffected computer industry
 workers, or simply local communities seeking control over their own
 technological environments.
 
 Virtual politics, therefore, should be founded on defying the
 neoliberal discourse of technology currently being fashioned by the
 virtual class. It is crucial to ensure that the political genealogy
 of technology, of virtual reality, of the reality of virtuality, is
 uncovered by numerous individuals, groups, classes, and new social
 movements. Indeed, without such excavations, the increasingly
 institutionalised neoliberal discourse of  technology currently being
 promoted by the virtual class will rapidly become a source of immense
 social power. This is why concrete, corporeal, and ideological
 struggles over the nature and meaning of technology are so important
 in the realm of virtual politics. It is also  why the specifically
 neoliberal  discourse of the virtual class needs to be countered.
 
 The pan-capitalist revolution and the development from industrial to
 virtual production have generated the neoliberal discourse of
 technology. It provides the virtual class with an ideological
 rationale for the ever increasing manufacture of virtual distractions
 (e.g., movies, VR, and interactive video games). Consequently, many
 human activities are no longer simply mediated through technology.
 Indeed, they are so utterly "possessed" by technology that the
 distinction between virtual activities and actual activities borders
 on the incomprehensible. [20] The ambitions of the neoliberal
 discourse of technology are not only unremitting but also potentially
 infinite.
 
                          * * * * * * * *                           
 
 Totalitarianism is latent in technology. It is not simply the virtual
 class that is totalitarian. Totalitarianism is always present in
 technology itself.
 
 Virilio's acute observations on technology are therefore essentially
 correct: his theoretical analysis indicates that while we are indeed
 in the midst of some kind of technological transition, it is
 improbable that such a transition will usher in a new era of digital
 democracy. [21] On this view, then, humanity is not on the verge of
 the kind of technological and democratic revolution envisaged by the
 neoliberals.
 
 What separates a ~critical~ interpretation of technology from that of
 global technological entrepreneurs and leading politicians is a
 determination to forge a radical understanding of technology's
 consequences. The advantage of this kind of analysis is that it
 focuses on key aspects of technology that are rarely, if ever, voiced
 by computer manufacturers and political pundits. Indeed, the general
 absence of a critical understanding of technology is one of the chief
 reasons why so many people seem to be so baffled by the "mysteries"
 of technology.
 
 Thus, it is vital to resist both the neoliberal discourse of
 technology and the contemporary development of pan-capitalism. In the
 specific context of the political debates over the discourse of
 cyberculture, then, it is important to question the uncritical and
 antidemocratic conception of technology presently being elaborated
 and disseminated by the virtual class in its quest for actual wealth
 and power.
 
 While technology is obviously an extremely important and determining
 force, it is crucial to remember that it is not the only force or
 agent of change. The virtual class is not simply an assortment of
 technological and visual representations. In fact, it is all too
 real. It is the class that at this moment is rewriting the history of
 virtual and other technologies while simultaneously controlling their
 organized production, distribution and consumption.
 
 As a result of it's monopolistic control of technology, the virtual
 class is presently being courted by the newly ascendant virtual
 political class (of which Newt Gingrich in the US and Tony Blair in
 the UK are examples). This class opposes all those who resist the
 neoliberal discourse of technology in whatever form it takes (e.g.,
 anti-road building and animal rights protests by young people). It is
 time, then, to radically rethink, redefine and reinterpret the very
 meaning of technology, politics, and cyberculture in the age of the
 virtual class.
 
 Notes:
 ------
 
 [1] Paul Virilio and Carlos Oliveira. "The Silence of the Lambs: Paul
 Virilio in Conversation". In _CTHEORY._ Vol 19. No 1-2. 1996. p.3.
 
 [2] Bill Gates. _The Road Ahead._ , New York: Viking Press, 1995.
 
 [3] See, for example, Al Gore. "Forging a New Athenian Age of
 Democracy". In _Intermedia._ Vol 22. 1994. p.14-16.
 
 [4] Much of my argument in the following pages draws on Arthur Kroker
 and Michael Weinstein's _Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual
 Class._ , Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1994, and New York:
 St. Martin's Press, 1994.
 
 [5] See, for instance, Jeremy Rifkin. _The End of Work: The Decline
 of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era._ 
 New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1995; Kevin Kelly. _New Rules for the
 New Economy: 10 Ways the Network Economy is Changing Everything._
 London: Fourth Estate, 1998.
 
 [6] Kroker and Weinstein. _Data Trash._ p.64.
 
 [7] See, for example, William Di Fazio. "Technoscience and the labor
 process". In _Technoscience and Cyberculture._ Edited by Stanley
 Aronowitz, Barbara Martinson and Michael Menser. London: Routledge,
 1996. p.195-204.
 
 [8] On the phenomenon of cyberculture and cyborgs see, for example,
 Stanley Aronowitz, Barbara Martinson and Michael Menser. Eds.
 _Technoscience and Cyberculture._ London: Routledge, 1996; Chris
 Hables Gray. Ed. _The Cyborg Handbook._ London: Routledge, 1995.
 
 [9] Friedrich Nietzsche. _The Wanderer and His Shadow._ New York:
 Gordon Press, 1974. p.176.
 
 [10] The most obvious reference here is, Eric Drexler. _Engines of
 Creation._ New York: Anchor, 1986.
 
 [11] Paul Virilio and John Armitage. "From Modernism to
 Hypermodernism and Beyond: An Interview with Paul Virilio".
 Translated by Patrice Riemens. Forthcoming in _Paul Virilio_, a
 Special Issue of _Theory Culture & Society_ on the Work of Paul
 Virilio. Vol 16. 1999.
 
 [12] See, Donna Haraway. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and
 Socialist-feminism in the Late Twentieth Century". In her _Simians,
 Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature._ London: Free 
 Associations Books, 1991. p.149-181.
 
 [13] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. _A Thousand Plateaus._
 Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. p.256.
 
 [14] Hakim Bey. "The Lemonade Ocean & Modern Times: A Position Paper
 by Hakim Bey". 
 (http://www.tO.or.at/hakimbey/hakimbey.htm, Internet, 1991). p.3.
 
 [15] Kroker and Weinstein. _Data Trash._ p.163.
 
 [16] See, for instance, Douglas Coupland. _Microserfs._ Northampton:
 Harper Collins, 1995; Nicholas Negroponte. _Being Digital._
 New York: Knof, 1995; Alvin Toffler and Heidi Toffler. _Creating A
 New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave._ New York: Turner
 Publishing, 1995; Bill Gates. _The Road Ahead._ New York: Viking
 Press, 1995; Kevin Kelly. _Out of Control: The New Biology
 of Machines._ London: Fourth Estate, 1994, and Kelly's  _New Rules
 for the New Economy: 10 Ways the Network Economy is Changing
 Everything._ London: Fourth Estate, 1998.
 
 [17] Guy Debord. _Society of the Spectacle._ Detroit: Black and Red,
 1983.
 
 [18] Christopher Lasch. _The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of
 Democracy._ New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.
 
 [19] See, for example, Chris Chesher. "Colonizing Virtual Reality.
 Construction of the Discourse of Virtual Reality, 1984-1992". In
 _Cultronix._ Vol 1. No 1. 1994; Manuel De Landa. _War in the Age of
 Intelligent Machines._ New York: Zone Books, 1991; Paul Virilio.
 _War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception._ London: Verso, 1989.
 
 [20] This argument can be found in Arthur Kroker. _The Possessed
 Individual: Technology and Postmodernity._ Basingstoke
 and London: Macmillan, 1992.
 
 [21] Paul Virilio. "The Third Interval: A Critical Transition". In
 Verena Andermatt Conley. Ed. _Rethinking Technologies._ Minneapolis:
 University of Minnesota Press, 1993. p.3-12; Paul Virilio. _The
 Art of the Motor._ Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 
 1993.
 
 _____________________________________________________________________
 John Armitage lectures in politics and media studies at the
 University of Northumbria at Newcastle, UK. He is currently editing 
 _Paul Virilio_, a special issue of the journal _Theory Culture &
 Society_, and working on _Virilio Live: Selected Interviews._
 _____________________________________________________________________
 
 * CTHEORY is an international journal of theory, technology
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