richard barbrook on Mon, 20 Dec 1999 15:13:59 +0100 (CET)

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Richard Barbrook

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the prophets of American
neo-liberalism are heralding the imminent arrival of the digital utopia.
They believe that the noise and confusion of industrial production are
being replaced by friction-free trading within the perfect markets of
cyberspace. They claim that an elite of entrepreneurs, inventors and
ideologues are pioneering a digital lifestyle which will eventually become
available to everyone. These right-wing gurus even measure our progress
towards the privatised future through increases in the ownership of new
technologies: computers, mobiles, decoders and Net connections. Ironically,
this neo-liberal futurism echoes the preconceptions of Soviet communism.
During the 1930s, Josef Stalin similarly measured progress towards utopia
through the rising output of modern products: steel, cars, tractors and
machine-tools. In the former Soviet Union, the enlightened minority was
also leading the ignorant masses towards eventual emancipation. Most
notoriously, the Stalinists used the promise of future liberation to
justify the forcible silencing of the noise of dissent. Although the Soviet
Union has long disappeared, the ideologues of American neo-liberalism are
still inspired by the Stalinist version of communism.

		vanguard party 		digerati
		The Five-Year Plan		The New Paradigm
		boy-meets-tractor	  	nerd-meets-Net
		Third International		Third Wave
		Moscow 			Silicon Valley
		Pravda			Wired
		party line 		unique thought
		Soviet democracy		electronic town halls
		Lysenkoism		memetics
		society-as-factory		society-as-hive
		New Soviet Man		post-humans
		Stakhanovite norm-busting 	overworked contract labour
		purges 			downsizing
		Russian nationalism 	Californian chauvinism

According to most politicians, executives and pundits, intellectual labour
within the Net must be enclosed into commodities and protected by
copyright. However, the scientists who invented computer-mediated
communications were working within the academic gift economy. As a
consequence, they embedded the free distribution of information within the
technical structures and social mores of the Net. Over time, the charmed
circle of users has slowly grown from scientists through hobbyists to the
general public. Crucially, each new member doesn't just observe the
technical rules of the system, but also adheres to certain social
conventions. Without even thinking about it, people continually circulate
information between each other for free. By giving away their own personal
efforts, Net users always receive the results of much greater amounts of
labour in return from others. Although many on-line activities are trivial,
some collaborations are now creating very sophisticated products, such as
the Linux operating system and interactive music pieces. Net users are now
developing a much more efficient and enjoyable way of working together:

		commodity 			gift
		enclosure				disclosure
		copyright 			piracy
		fixed				 fluid
		product				process
		proprietary			open source
		digital encryption		 	free download
		original recording 			latest remix
		scarcity				abundance
		alienation				friendship
		market competition			network communities
		e-commerce			cyber-communism

For those nostalgic for ideological certainty, there can be no compromise
between these contradictory visions of the Net. The digital future must be
homogeneous and unsullied. However, it is impossible to expel noise and
disturbance from cyberspace. Already the synthesis of dialectical opposites
is happening for pragmatic reasons. The low cost of entry into e-commerce
depends upon the absence of proprietary barriers within the Net. The rapid
expansion of the hi-tech gift economy is facilitated by hardware and
software sold by large companies. Above all, Net users always adopt the
working methods which are most beneficial to their own interests. While
sometimes engaging in e-commerce, they often prefer to collaborate within
the hi-tech gift economy. Many social activities have long been organised
by voluntary labour and with donated resources. Now, with the advent of the
Net, this gift economy is hybridising with market competition at the
cutting-edge of modernity. Living within a prosperous society, many people
will work solely to gain the respect from their peers for their digital
artefacts. During the last two hundred years, the intimate bonds of kinship
and friendship have simultaneously inhibited and underpinned the impersonal
relationships needed for market competition. The modern has always
co-existed with the traditional. Now, within cyberspace, the exchange of
commodities is being both intensified and prevented by the circulation of
gifts. The modern must synthesise with the hyper-modern. Far from needing
leadership by a heroic elite, ordinary people are now successfully
constructing their own utopia. In the age of the Net, cyber-communism is
becoming an everyday experience. The digital future is a noisy festival.

The Dialectics of Cyber-Communism

The Positive:				work-as-commodity
						reactionary modernism

The Negation: 				waste-as-gift
						revolutionary anti-modernism

The Negation of the Negation:	work-as-gift
						network communities
						revolutionary modernism


Richard Barbrook is a member of the Hypermedia Research Centre, University
of Westminster, London. <>


This piece appears in the catalogue for 'Noise: the digital and the
discrete', an exhibition about information and transformation held in
Cambridge at Kettle's Yard; the Whipple Museum of the History of Science;
the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology; and the Fitzwilliam Museum; and
in London at the Wellcome Institute from 22nd January to 26th March 2000

Dr. Richard Barbrook
Hypermedia Research Centre
School of Communications, Design & Media
University of Westminster
Watford Road
Northwick Park


+44 (0)171-911-5000 x 4590

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