by way of Diana McCarty on Sun, 20 Sep 1998 04:28:33 +0200 (MET DST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> The Selfishness Gene

{The following essay is excerpted from Mark Dery's forthcoming collection of
essays _The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink of the
Millennium_ (Grove Press, Winter, 1999). Those who've read Mark's essay on
the Unabomber in the Ars Electronica '96 _Memesis_ anthology, or his Nettime
response to John Perry Barlow's "economy is ecology" screed, will recognize
passages cannibalized from both.}

The Selfishness Gene: Neoliberal Capitalism---It's Not Just a Good
Idea, It's the Law

On June 2, 1997, John Perry Barlow---frequent flyer, sometime Grateful Dead
lyricist, and bearded prophet of our Divine Assumption into a cosmic web of
psychic Oobleck (the "physical wiring of collective human consciousness" into a
"collective organism of mind")---posted a note to Nettime.1 In it, he opined
that "nature is itself a free market system. A rain forest is an unplanned
economy, as is a coral reef." In the next breath, he inverted the metaphor:
"The difference between an economy that sorts the information and energy in
photons and one that sorts the information and energy in dollars is a slight
one in my mind. Economy *is* ecology."

Increasingly, the global marketplace is conceived of in Darwinian terms, with
the social and environmental depredations of multinationals rationalized as
corporate life forms' struggle for survival in an economic ecosystem.
"'Ecology' and 'economy' share more than linguistic roots," maintains the
nanotechnologist K. Eric Drexler; corporations, he argues, are "evolved
artificial systems" born of the marketplace's "Darwinian" competition.2 In
Bionomics: The Inevitability of Capitalism, business consultant Michael
Rothschild straightfacedly argues that "what we call capitalism (or free-market
economics) is not an ism at all but a naturally occurring phenomenon" (and
therefore presumably beyond reproach). In Clockspeed: Winning Industry Control
in the Age of Temporary Advantage, Charles H. Fine offers sociobiological
parables about "industrial fruit-flies" for anxious managers, whom he promises
to turn into "'corporate geneticists' who do not react to the forces of change
but master them to engineer their company's destiny."3

A 1996 issue of the digital business magazine Fast Company featured an
unintentionally hilarious example of corporate biobabble. A profile of Eric
Schmidt, Sun's chief technology officer, extols his expertise at corporate
crossbreeding---"organizational genetics," to those in the know, which means
"combining organizational DNA in unique and inventive ways." What's
organizational DNA, you ask? Why, "it's the stuff, mostly intangible, that
determines the basic character of a business. It's bred from the founders,
saturates the early employees, and often shapes behavior long after the
pioneers have moved on."4 Gene-splicing the latest in Darwinian metaphors to a
sexual politics that is strictly from Bedrock, the article's author analogizes
venture capitalists and entrepreneurs to "the male urge to sow seed widely and
without responsibilities and the female desire for a mate who'll settle down
and help with the kids."5

We've heard this song before, of course, and when the hundredth trendhopping
management consultant informs us, as James Martin does in Cybercorp: The New
Business Revolution, that high-tech corporations are "creature[s] designed to
prosper in the corporate jungle" and that "capitalist society is based on
competition and survival of the fittest, as in Darwin's world," we realize
where we've heard it. It's the theme song of Herbert Spencer's social
Darwinism, as popular in its day with monopoly-builders like John D.
Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie as Kelly's neo-biological capitalism is with
Tom Peters and his corporate flock. "'Social Darwinism,'" Stephen Jay Gould
usefully reminds us, "has often been used as a general term for any
evolutionary argument about the biological basis of human differences, but the
initial 19th-century meaning referred to a specific theory of class
stratification within industrial societies, and particularly to the idea that
there was a permanently poor underclass consisting of genetically inferior
people who had precipitated down into their inevitable fate."6

The genealogical links between the public musings of the self-anointed "digital
elite" and the Spencerian rhetoric of the robber barons is apparent at a
glance, though they're separated by a century or so. Nicholas Negroponte, a
sharp-dressed pitchman who hawks visions of a brighter, broader-bandwidth
tomorrow to Fortune 500 executives (and to the unwashed AOL millions in his
book Being Digital), breezily redefines the "needy" and the "have-nots" as the
technologically illiterate---the "digitally homeless," a phrase that wins the
Newt Gingrich Let Them Eat Laptops Award for cloud-dwelling detachment from the
lives of the little people.7 Stewart Brand, a charter member of the digerati,
blithely informs the Los Angeles Times that "elites basically drive
civilization."8 Wired founder Louis Rossetto rails against the critic Gary
Chapman as someone who "attacks technologically advanced people," as if website
design were an inherited trait, a marker of evolutionary superiority.9

If the analogy to social Darwinism seems overheated, consider Rossetto's
belief, earnestly confided to a New York Times writer, that Homo Cyber is
plugging himself into "exo-nervous systems, things that connect us up
beyond---literally, physically---beyond our bodies, and we will discover that
when enough of us get together this way, we will have created a new life form.
It's evolutionary; it's what the human mind was destined to do."10 As Rossetto
readily acknowledges, his techno-Darwinian epiphany (like Barlow's) is borrowed
from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit philosopher and Lamarckian
evolutionist who predicted the coming of an "ultra-humanity" destined to
converge in a transcendental "Omega Point" that would be "the consummation of
the evolutionary process."11

De Chardin's ideas are well known in theological and New Age circles and,
increasingly, among the digerati. Less known is his passionate advocacy of
eugenics as a means of preparing the way for ultra-humanity. "What fundamental
attitude...should the advancing wing of humanity take to fixed or definitely
unprogressive ethnical groups?," he wrote, in Human Energy. "The earth is a
closed and limited surface. To what extent should it tolerate, racially or
nationally, areas of lesser activity? More generally still, how should we
judge the efforts we lavish in all kinds of hospitals on saving what is so
often no more than one of life's rejects? [...] [S]hould not the strong (to
the extent that we can define this quality) take precedence over the
preservation of the weak?"12 Happily, the answer is readily at hand: "In the
course of the coming centuries it is indispensable that a nobly human form of
eugenics, on a standard worthy of our personalities, should be discarded and
developed," he writes, in The Phenomenon of Man.13

Since there's an implied guilt by association, here, it's important to note
that Rossetto and the other digital de Chardinians may well be unfamiliar with
the philosopher's thoughts on eugenics. But given our increasingly
"genocentric" mindset and the creepy popularity of books like The Bell Curve:
Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, as well as the potential
misuses of vanguard technologies like gene therapy and genetic screening, the
digerati would do well to consider the ugly underside of their techno-Darwinian
vision of the ultra-human apotheosis of the "technologically advanced"---"the
advancing wing of humanity," by any other name. Obviously, the Wired ideology
is far less pervasive, and not quite as nasty and brutish, as social Darwinism
in its heyday; none of the digerati has embraced eugenics, at least publicly.
But 19th century capitalists like Carnegie and Rockefeller, who in the words of
Andrew Ross "seized for themselves the mantle of the fittest survivors as if it
were indeed biologically ordained," would undoubtedly note a family resemblance
in the digerati---Way Cool white guys secure in the knowledge that they are
Brand's fabled "elite," guiding civilization from their rightful place atop the
Great Chain of Being (Digital).

* * *                  - (c) Mark Dery
1999 (all rights reserved; no part of this essay may be reproduced in any
medium without written permission, except for brief excerpts in reviews or
scholarly writings).


1 Jeff Zaleski, The Soul of Cyberspace (New York: HarperEdge, 1997), pp.
46, 48.
2. K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology
(New York: Anchor Books, 1986), pp. 32, 182.

3 All quotes from blurb in catalogue for Perseus Books, an imprint of

4 James F. Moore, "How Companies Have Sex," Fast Company,
October/November, 1996, p. 66.

5 Ibid., p. 68.

6 Stephen Jay Gould, "Curveball" in The Bell Curve Wars, ed. Steven Fraser
(New York: Basic Books, 1995), p. 12.

7 Nicholas Negroponte, "," The New York Times,
February 11, 1995, "Op-Ed" section, p. 19.

8 Paul Keegan, "The Digerati," The New York Times Magazine, May 21, 1995,
p. 42.

9 Paul Keegan, "Reality Distortion Field,", February 1, 1997,

10 Paul Keegan, "The Digerati," p. 88.

11 See Mark Dery, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century
(New York: Grove Press, 1996), pp. 45-8.

12 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Human Energy (New York: Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, 1962), pp. 132-3.

13 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (New York: Harper &
Brothers, 1959), p. 282.

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: