Mark Stahlman (via RadioMail) (by way of Pit Schultz <>) on Sun, 8 Dec 96 01:01 MET

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nettime: The Beast of All Possible Worlds


Who is this poor setupon cattle rancher who is being unfairly hounded by
all those bitter post-Marxist failed utopians?  Could it be the guy who
until recently bragged about being the principle briefing source on
cyberspace to the super-secret National Security Agency?  Could it be the
guy who claimed to have "lost my poltical virginity" when he personally
arranged to get the FBI's Digital Telephony Bill released by the Wyoming
senator who was holding it on civil liberties concerns?  Or is it the guy
who was selected by Jackie Kennedy to perform the fatherly duties of
introducing JFK Jr. to drugs sex and rock&roll out on the ranch -- making
him, in effect, the final JFK?   Could it be?  

Given those credentials and all the rest we've seen of the spectacle, why
would anyone pay any attention to whatever John Barlow has to say?  I
suggest that Barlow is a compulsively self-revealing window into an
important and dangerous world.  He's a way to glimpse the workings of the
techno-utopian mind as it attempts to justify the horrors that it has
planned.  He is trying to speak for a "virtual class" which is trying to
create a "virtual reality" which is intended to engulf us all.  Like
Toffler before him in the 1970's, Barlow is telling us something
significant about the future being planned by the futurists.  He's telling
us what to watch out for. What is it?

On LIberty

>Comes now the Net. Suddenly, almost overnight, the odious have their

LIberty becomes the right to express yourself.  This is the libertarian
perversion of liberty -- be yourself, the more base the better -- straight
out of Mandeville and complete with quotes from Mill.  This is the
foundation of the "English Ideology."  Liberty loses its meaning in
relation to oppression and enforced ignorance.  How could you be oppressed
if you are free to express yourself?  OK, everyone, let's decorate our
jailcells.  When, as Barlow once told me, "reality is just a matter of
opinion", what's enforced ignorance?  Liberty becomes oppression and
ignorance by this twisted definition.

On the "Great Conversation"

>Suddenly, an individual's opinion is as valuable as his more obvious currency. 
>A new economy is born.

Economics is performance.  We make it up as we go along.  Famine, epidemic
and destruction are all for those who can't make it up well enough.  Too
bad they can't write song lyrics.  Shit happens.  Perhaps, Barlow can
clarify one point, however.  Since when is performance the same as

On Wealth

>Physical economy is also a system in which the entire species competes for
>what is thought to be a finite economic pie. It is an economy where entropy

Who thinks of this as a finite pie?  Parson Malthus?  This is pure English
bunk.   Physical economy is potentailly highly anti-entropic and anything
but a finite, zero-sum game, unless you follow the Club of Rome's advise
and go "sustainable."  But, in the future, we're supposed to scrap all
ideas of growing wealth through technology.  Scarcity is all we can expect
, we are told.  Why, we'll all sell our opinions and, oh, how wealthy we
will be.

On Nations

>Aside from the economic stimulus they still provide in arms manufacture and
>maintaining differing currencies for trade, they serve almost no useful
>economic purpose that I can identify. They are largely in the way.

Again, spoken like a true English patriot.  The history of humanity has
been the history of empires, their rise and fall, except for one crucial
breakthrough -- the nation-state.   If the nation-state dies, as all good
techno-utopian futurists claim, the future will once again be one of
empires.  Only this one will be global and the techncrats think that they
will be in charge.  

On Ethics

>I've started faintly hoping for proof
>that there is actually secret central authority in charge here. The closest
>I can come to that is recognizing that, as Mitch Kapor once abjured me,
>"Inside every working anarchy, there's an Old Boy Network."

For someone who speciallizes in "Old Boy" networks, this is an interesting
psychological revelation.  Anarchists are, as a rule, totalitarians.  They
desire total control of the world as it affects them.  Their "ethics" are
often ends-justifies-the-means.  Since all authority comes from within,
whatever conforms to internal whim is permitted.  We're back to "The Fable
of the Bees" again.  And, as with all anarchists, if there has to be
someone in charge, it had better be me and my buddies.

On Surveillance

>Moreover, we will be electronically enabled with the ability to know as
>much about one another's dirty little secrets as my Wyoming neighbors know
>about mine. 

Privacy is of course, in the view of the techno-utopian, a remnant of the
Industrial past.  Indeed the "self" with its paradoxical relationship to
the society at large, disappears in a global/tribal future.  Your tribe
will "know" you by smelling your butt and pawing through your garbage.  
Barlow actually knows the spooks who are planning to watch us all.  He has
long since thrown the towel on privacy of thought or action. 
Crypto-hide-and-seek?  Not in the cards.  Ask Barlow.

On Work

>There is no good reason to structure information work as though it were
>factory work. These offices, still run as though they were assembly lines,
>will empty and the other folks who live literally by their wits, as I do,
>will start leading lives of continuous production and experience.

Yup, those offices are emptying allright.  First automation devalued manual
labor and then it was administrative labor (as forecast by Norbert Wiener
in the early 1950's) and now there are plenty of people living by their
wits.  Or, was that losing their wits?  The stagnation in real wages for
the past 30 years in the U.S. combind with complete lose of
dignity-in-place for most workers has been a real future shock.  But, hey,
if you got enough wits, have a ball.  Welcome to the "New Economy."

On Authority

>I don't have to ask which sex is likely to have the long-term advantage in
>a world where a large share of our interactions are virtual. The ladies win
>this one. Get used to it, boys.

Here's the final insult.  Where's Camille Paglia when we need her?  Who's
going to manage the post-civilization world of scarcity, tribal life and
virtual reality?  Who knows how to shape attitudes in order to determine
behavior?  Who's going to hand out the alms at the new settlement houses to
the 25% of the population who have become the permanently "Lost"?  That's
right; it's the "ladies."  No, not women or females; it's the "ladies." 
And as anyone who has subjected themselves to an online environment
controlled by the "ladies" will attest, there will be no thinking,
ambitious planning or questioning allowed.

Barlow's essay is the best that can be done to try to make a future in
which humans have forgotten how to be human seem attractive.  It's about
the "beast" of all possible world's -- which, for Barlow, is apparently the
"best" as well.  It's a classic expression of combinding zero-growth
economics with anti-authoritarian rhetoric to try to make an apocalyse seem
worth waiting for.  Read it carefully.  Notice the arguments and how they
link together.  Know the enemy.  Then make sure that their future will
never become our own.

Mark Stahlman
New Media Associates
New York City

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