On Information Culture
No. 6: “Where am I?”
No. 2: “In the Village.”
No. 6: “What do you want?”
No. 2: “Information.” Shot of No. 6 walking across the main lawn of the Village.
No. 6: “Whose side are you on?”
No. 2: “That would be telling. We want information. Information. Information…” Reverb-effect on the word “information”. Shot of No. 6 running across the sandy beach, attempting to escape.
– Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner (1967)
At the height of the Wall Street Bubble of the late 1990s, one couldn’t walk down the street without tripping over an ode to the wondrous, weightless, and bodiless information economy. Information, according to its pundits, was everywhere and yet nowhere. It was the acme of abstraction, and yet the grimiest of realities. It was as simple as an LCD interface, and yet as complex as nanoscience. In the wilder versions of the tale, information was the utopian bridge between a natural history reduced to DNA, and a social history reduced to ROE (return-on-equity). After Francis Fukayama’s much-advertised End of History, there wasn’t much to do but reap capital gains.
Eventually the bubble collapsed, taking several trillion dollars of theoretical wealth with it. The pundits’ mistake was as old as commodity fetishism itself. They assumed that information was merely a commodity, which could be readily converted into capital. Yet even the simplest information commodity is enmeshed in dizzingly complex networks of social relations. Some of these relations are indeed capitalist, but others are virulently antagonistic to the marketplace. McGoohan’s video masterpiece quoted above, for example, transforms the Cold War secret agent into the counter-cultural information guerilla, by citing one of the key tropes of the 1960s consumer culture, the beach movie.
This complexity presents cultural critics of the information culture with a number of thorny conundrums. To begin with, there is the basic problem of periodizing a cultural field which seems to reinvent itself every few years. The sheer productivity of the field puts a premium on search techniques capable of sorting through vast stockpiles of outmoded forms, as well as metrics capable of triangulating between wildly different genres, media and cultural constellations. The parallels to the plight of ordinary consumers, forever paddling around a Sargasso Sea of cheap electronic goods, incompatible software and frustratingly opaque operating codes, are more than merely metaphorical.
One of the most salient features of the information culture is its capacity to shuttle between specific information commodities on the one hand, and the general matrix of the consumer culture on the other. The wiring of the planet has meant that the most advanced information commodities – everything from Gameboys and cellphones to DVDs – circulate throughout the most remote rural communities of the global periphery. At the same time, those same networks mean that unprecedented numbers of people, goods and narratives can travel in the opposite direction, moving from the periphery to the metropoles. This planetary process of cultural exchange is, however, as fraught with social inequality, political injustice and economic exploitation as its national and international predecessors, and we will pay close attention to the ways in which the information culture is a reflection and meditation upon the theme of social justice.
Nor is the wiring of the planet a license to argue that information is in the process of replacing aesthetics altogether. Affinity is not identity. The greatest works of the information culture are no more reducible to their coding than a great work of literature is to its grammar, or a musical work to its orchestration. What is true for the individual work is even more true for an entire cultural field. The arrival of the videogame culture no more signifies the end of cinema, for example, than the emergence of cinema meant the death of photography. Just as musicians transformed the whines, beeps and chimes of consumer electronics into the soaring beats of hip hop, and the commercial blare of the TV into the boundless vistas of video culture, so too have the service-workers of the information culture developed equally ingenious techniques of resistance, reappropriation and recuperation, ranging from open source software to the 3D videogame.1
In order to understand these techniques, we will have recourse to a thinker not usually associated with the Information Age, namely the celebrated Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno. What Adorno gives us is a theory of the global marketplace (or what Adorno calls the total system) adequate to the internal complexity of the information culture. This total system is not, it should be noted, a variant of the Weberian iron cage or its reactionary Cold War analogue, the totalitarian state. Rather, it is the terminological short-hand for the world-market of multinational capitalism, a system in which every particular commodity, subject, and social relation is in constant motion, while the sum total of this activity is the most inflexible rigidity, a.k.a. the compulsory subordination of human needs to market forces.2 Adorno’s key insight is that theory, the indispensable metric of the totality, must move at the electronic speed of the global, if it wishes to do justice to the local.
If this mysterious prescription seems to come straight out of the pharmacy of Morpheus, the rebel captain in the Wachowski brothers’ science fiction classic, The Matrix (1999), this merely underlines the degree to which the information culture is attuned to the deepest economic contradictions and political anxieties of the total system. What needs to be explained, indeed, is not so much the ways in which the greatest works of the information culture might be complicit with the logic of the marketplace, but rather the astounding ferocity, depth and scope of their resistance to that logic. Far from needing to be reconverted or persuaded to join the side of the global Resistance to capital, they are this Resistance, right down to their smallest subroutine. As the purest products of the system, they are also the most fearsome antagonists of that system, due to their capacity to run just a fraction of a clock-cycle faster than the logics running all around them. One of the key resources at our disposal is Adorno’s 1966 masterpiece, Negative Dialectics. Long consigned to relative obscurity due in part to a substandard English translation, and in part to the genuine difficulty of Adorno’s unique and richly dialectical style, this text will furnish us with the basic toolkit of concepts, instruments and heuristics we need to hack into the most heavily secured databanks of the total system.3
One of the first of these heuristics is located at the very beginning of Negative Dialectics, where Adorno highlights the contradiction between the spirit of the system and the systemic spirit. In like manner, we will argue that any critique of information culture worth its salt must carefully distinguish between the systemic spirit of information capitalism, a.k.a. neoliberalism, and the informatic spirit per se – a spirit which neoliberalism constantly seeks to economically expropriate, ideologically exorcise or symbolically annul.4 Circumventing such recontainment strategies requires more, however, than simply denouncing neoliberalism for what it truly is, namely a predatory ideology designed to justify the enrichment of a tiny rentier elite at the expense of virtually everyone (and everything) else on the planet. Nor is it enough to poke holes in neoliberal’s ideal scenario of perfectly transparent markets, costless information transfers, and identical market actors, by showing how even the most transparent market is subject to irrational bubbles and panics, incorrect information, and imperfect competition. Rather, the critique must engage neoliberalism at the point of its greatest strength, namely its claim to embody the logic of the total system. Neoliberalism’s global concept of itself must itself be globalized, its financial mediations financialized, and its informatic forms informatized, by setting all of these things in motion towards what they exclude, censor, or simply do not want to talk about.
What neoliberalism glosses over is the catastrophic violence of the world-market, which has inflicted a thirty-year Depression on sixty percent of the planet via privatization, deregulation, and IMF structural adjustment regimes. Neoliberalism has also fueled hugely destructive financial manias, which enriched the few while driving entire national economies (Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia in 1997, Russia in 1998, Turkey in 2001, Argentina in 2002) into bankruptcy overnight.5 Where neoliberalism seeks to hide the criminal impoverishment of the global workforce by means of phantasms of bodiless global speculations, the informatic spirit tracks these speculative energies back to their starting-point in realm of the corporeal.
This spirit is not really an objective space or organized subjectivity within the total system, so much as the collective force-field generated by the innumerable resistances to the global factory. It is a spectral, multinational collectivity, shimmering like the vast neon datascape of one of William Gibson’s AIs. Yet to paraphrase Heiner Müller, this specter comes not from the past, but from the future. It is a digital construct which can materialize at any time and anywhere in the total system, take forms ranging from the seismic mobilizations of the global justice movement, all the way to the bourgeoning infrastructures of the European Union (the world’s first, but hardly last, multinational superstate).
To track that construct, we will examine three bodies of work, each located at a key juncture of the information culture. William S. Burroughs’ early 1960s Nova science fiction trilogy (The Soft Machine in 1960, The Ticket That Exploded in 1962, and Nova Express in 1964) declares the initial autonomy of the information culture from the Cold War military-industrial complex which spawned it. William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is the breakthrough text which almost single-handedly coined the aesthetics of cyberspace. Last but not least, a remarkable cluster of 3D videogames revolutionized the Web culture at the turn of the 21st century: Valve’s Half Life (1998); Neil Manke’s Quake 2 and Half Life mods (1998-2001); Croteam’s Serious Sam (2001); and Remedy’s Max Payne (2001).
Though Burroughs and Gibson have both begun to receive significant critical attention, particularly in the fields of science fiction and media studies, the 3D videogame is very much uncharted terrain for cultural theorists (though not for the general public: the videogame market raked in an estimated $35 billion in 2003, while total videogame sales in the US exceeded cinema receipts).6 What marks these particular works as the first genuine classics of the 3D videogame culture is their ability to transform a remarkable array of neo-national, international and mass mediatic materials into a genuinely multinational art-form. Half Life, for example, leverages key elements of Cold War science fiction, the 1970s horror film, and the early 1990s PC shooter genre into the breakthrough 3D videogame of the 1990s. Serious Sam reconfigures Croatia’s traumatic birth amidst the Balkans wars and the economic onslaught of Eurocapitalism into a guerilla resistance movement against neoliberalism. Somewhat further afield, Manke’s work and Remedy’s Max Payne inaugurate what might be termed multinational horror fiction and the global adventure thriller respectively (something which, as we shall see in Chapter 5, has everything to do with Manke’s location in northwestern Canada, and Remedy’s base in Helsinki, Finland).
In retrospect, the 3D videogame is the paradigmatic confirmation of Fredric Jameson’s theory of postmodernism as the cultural logic of multinational capitalism.7 Carrying Jameson’s prodigious analysis one step further, we will argue that where the great works of the modernist era sought to repel the onslaught of the culture-industry, by carving out semi-autonomous spaces in the midst of an oceanic flood of kitsch churned out by the unholy trinity of Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley, and Madison Avenue (e.g. Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, Coltrane’s jazz atonality vis-à-vis commercial music; Orson Welles vis-à-vis the newsreel, or Klee and Kandinsky vis-à-vis commercial photography), the greatest works of the information culture turn the global scale and scope of the consumer culture against itself. They do this simply by being more totalizing, plebian, and downright global than the self-appointed agents of globalization themselves. In what has to be one of the most stunning role reversals in the history of aesthetics, it is the mainstream consumer culture which increasingly attempts to restrain, combat or otherwise recontain the logic of the information culture, rather than the other way around!
This role reversal has its precise equivalent in the ideological field, namely neoliberalism’s deep-seated antagonism vis-à-vis the information commodity. Here, too, an irresistible dialectic is at work, such that the greater the density of the exchange-net, the greater the relative autonomy of any given object in that net vis-à-vis all other objects, and consequently the less binding the claim of any given social relation on that object. Ideology outsources itself into the totality, as it were, in a well-nigh Hegelian fury of disappearance. Put more concretely, the complex web of user interfaces, informatic codes and mediatic symbols by which subjects navigate the consumer culture do not simply access or refer to the ideology of globalization: rather, the consumer culture is globalization, pure and simple.
This signifies neither the end of the historical process nor the end of ideology per se, but their unexpected and deeply dialectical intensification. The same global machinery which dampens, displaces or recontains each local contradiction of the totality, also and invariably transmits every single one of those contradictions throughout the length and breadth of the total system. To use Hegelian language, what vanishes in the particular resurfaces in the generality, else the system would not cohere as a system. To paraphrase Adorno, the more the total system abolishes the category of ideology, the more the totality becomes completely ideological; or put in the terms of the global justice movement, the globalization of capital generates the globalization of the resistance struggles against capital.
What all of this boils down to is that, paradoxical as it sounds, neoliberalism is for globalization as an abstract ideal, but against globalization as a concrete reality. This is nowhere more obvious than in the central aesthetic ideology of Wall Street neoliberalism, namely the trope of weightlessness celebrated by partisans of the New Economy, ranging from US Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan to the mundane hirelings of the management industry, which privileged stock options over dividends, speculative punts over physical investment, intangible brand names over plant and equipment, and the nonsensical business plans of dotcom hucksters over unimportant details such as actual profits or even revenues. On the other hand, the kernel of truth in the concept of weightlessness was the non-identity of the Wall Street Bubble with the multinational productive forces, or put more bluntly still, the yawning rift between the juridical and financial superstructures of a senescent US Empire, and the gargantuan industrial-financial networks of the EU and East Asia.
This rift is nowhere more obvious than the keitai (Japanese for “cellphone”) culture, which transformed an obscure text messaging system into DoCoMo’s renowned i-mode service. Launched in 1999, i-mode has already driven a veritable social revolution in Japan and the core economies of the EU, by transforming the wireless phone into cheap, portable information devices permanently hooked up to the Web, delivering the free-floating world of flexible networks of information and instantaneous communication which the standalone PC promised, but could never quite deliver. I-mode is also a textbook example of how multinational capitalism inexorably creates its own anthithesis, namely the plebian public space of the electronic commons.
One of the little-known secrets behind the success of i-mode is a deeply egalitarian ethos of cooperation between service providers, large-scale manufacturers, and small and medium-size online providers, in the context of a carefully-tended ecology of Web services – a virtual blueprint, in short, for the information socialisms of the future. The result has not been rapacious monopolies and economic disaster, but the most successful Web business model ever invented. Frank Rose provides this interesting comment in an issue of Wired:
DoCoMo does not itself supply any of the services available on i-mode. But it’s not a dumb pipe, because in addition to the technological infrastructure, it provides the billing system that enables its partners to make money, and the marketing to sell the service to customers. The lesson of i-mode is that rather than try to morph into media companies, wireless carriers should focus on how to be a better pipe.8
What made this productive division of labor possible in the first place, of course, was East Asia’s system of keiretsu capitalism – decentralized networks of producers, suppliers and contractors, often organized around a bank or trading house or a single large firm, which collectively own each other’s stock (institutional shareholders are the norm in the financial markets of East Asia and the EU). It should be noted that the keiretsu are not corporate monopolies in the sense of the 19th century trusts; no single entity runs the Mitsubishi keiretsu, for example. Rather, they are sophisticated and nimble corporate networks, capable of responding to the smallest market shifts at lightning speed, while drawing on the financial muscle of the entire group during times of crisis and restructuring.
No comparable networks exist in the US, for the simple reason that wealth in the US economy is concentrated to an extraordinary degree in the hands of individual shareholders, rather than corporations and institutions. Put bluntly, where East Asia has keiretsu ownership structures, and where the EU has powerful bank-industry alliances and welfare states, the US has Wall Street rentiers. Doug Henwood’s excellent Wall Street, relying on survey data from the Federal Reserve, provides us with this invaluable snapshot of what those rentiers own:
Ownership of the most valuable financial assets – real claims, like stocks and bonds – is densely packed in the upper crust. In 1992, the richest 1% of households – about 2 million adults – owned 39% of the stock owned by individuals, and 42% of the bonds (Kennickell, McManus, and Woodburn 1996); the top 10% own well over 80% of both. Since households own about half of all corporate stock, that posh 1% owns a quarter of the productive capital and future profits of corporate America; the top 10%, nearly half. These stockholders are overwhelmingly white; fewer than 6% of black and Hispanic households owned any stock in 1991 (US Bureau of the Census 1995, p. 513).
Those numbers are based on sorting households by their net worth; if you sort households by their stock ownership, the concentration is even more intense. In 992, the top 0.5% of stockowners held 58.6% of all publicly traded stock; the next 0.5%, 11.7%; the next 4%, 24.2%; add those together and you discover that the top 5% owns 94.5% of all stock held by individuals [italics in original] (Poterba and Samwick 1995).9
Put another way, whereas the EU and East Asia operate on the basis of long-term partnerships between labor unions, welfare or corporatist-minded states, and dense networks of small and medium-size businesses, the US economy is dominated by a tiny moneyed elite with both the means and the motive to maximize their own narrow self-interest at the expense of everyone else.
These bedrock economic structures of the global economy have three significant consequences for the information culture. First, mainstream informatic works from the EU and East Asia tend to be strongly linked to decentralized networks of production, precisely where comparable Northamerican works are heavily inflected by rentier consumerisms of various kinds. The best-selling videogames of Japan during the late 1990s, for example, were robot-based, adventure or action games, narratives predicated on the stylized demolition and reconstruction of bodies of all kinds. By contrast, the best-selling US videogames during the same time period were managerial simulations or sports games. Second, informatic works of the highest quality have the uncanny ability to transform such global contradictions into their privileged narrative content. Burroughs’ Nova trilogy depicts the global rebellion against a hegemonic Cold War consumerism, while William Gibson’s work depicts the seismic clash of rival multinationalisms which have transcended the framework of the Cold War.
Third, the sheer complexity of the information culture has driven the plebianization of cultural theory throughout the service economy, everywhere from graduate programs to management seminars, consultancies to business strategy sessions, and marketing and media campaigns to financial analyst reports. It’s important to stress that this service economy is by no means a North American monopoly: since the mid-1990s, giant firms such as Nintendo and Sony, as well as specialized cultural studios such as Gainax and Ghibli, have become world-class cultural producers and service providers, while the success of EU firms such as Nokia, SAP and Bertelsmann speaks for itself.
All three factors come into play in that quintessential product of the 1990s information culture, the 3D videogame. The exponential growth of online mappers, modelers and player-clans, each specializing in a particular aspect of 3D game design, testing and construction (maps, player models, team logos and icons, sound-effects, etc.), has created a remarkable variety of online communities, which cross all manner of traditional national, cultural and political boundaries. Gaming websites overflow with useful information about cutting-edge hardware, gaming strategies, custom modifications and open source software, ranging from bug fixes of game code to astonishingly creative advances on the original game. Gamers are also among the most rigorously critical consumers around, automatically distrustful of received wisdom or corporate agendas, and ready and willing to render the most merciless judgments on games which fail to measure up to the standards of the field. In short, gaming is creating one of the first authentic public spaces of the Information Age, a kind of electronic commons combining many of the best features of the community clubhouse, the library, the university department and the amateur sports league.
Though the full story of the development of this commons is far too complex to be told here, it’s worth noting that, due to technological limitations, the earliest multiplayer computer games were entirely text-based affairs, e.g. the multi-user dungeon (MUD). As Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck observed, dungeons were essentially glorified chat-rooms where characters interacted via written texts and typographical qualifiers. By the early 1990s, dungeons had developed into complex mini-environments wherein players could travel, compete, chat, fight, cooperate, accumulate and exchange items, and even earn (symbolic) money. Surprising as it may sound, the innovation which transformed the text-based MUD into a true global art-form was not the progress of graphical interfaces per se, but an unrelated application of game-play. This was the rise of the death-match, or competitive multiplayer gaming.
The death-match is simply an online competition between competing teams or individual players, played on a particular map and on a particular server. What made death-matching so wildly popular was the clever invention of automatic respawns, which means that players wiped out by the opposing team are automatically reincarnated, none the worse for wear, in the midst of the action. Various objects and equipment are also respawned every so often, ensuring that no team or individual can afford to sit on their lead. Simplified interfaces replaced the cumbersome verbal cues and linguistic skills of the MUD with a multinational set of scripting and mapping tools, capable of generating a limitless set of player-characters, models and environments. The result is a wild and woolly, totally unpredictable, and extraordinarily intense game-play experience, the online equivalent of the sports scrimmage.
The reptilian metaphor of “spawning” is not an accident, but is derived from one the bedrock tropes of the information culture, namely Godzilla, the classic icon of the unforeseen consequences of Cold War technology. Toho’s stylized monster was both the neo-national exorcism of the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the landmark symbol of multinational capitalism in East Asia, its signature profile silhouetted against the Tokyo skyline like the uncanny premonition of the vast office towers of the postwar boom it indeed was. It’s significant that the closest equivalent of the Godzilla narrative in the Hong Kong film culture, namely Bruce Lee’s 1973 blockbuster Enter the Dragon, draws upon a progressive micropolitics (Bruce Lee’s emergence as the breakthrough Asian-American superstar, or what amounts to the video categories of the martial arts videogame) as opposed to a thermonuclear natural history (Godzilla as a fable of the emergence of the Pacific Rim economy).
The great achievement of Gibson’s Neuromancer, on the other hand, was to synthesize both antipodes – micropolitical social history and Cold War natural history – into something new. This is not the informatic matrix per se, but the informatic body capable of navigating through that matrix, and thereby setting micropolitics in motion towards geopolitics. What Gibson’s text somehow intuited, decades ahead of the achieved fact, was that the neo-national mobilizations of the 1970s, the multicultural and environmental struggles of the 1980s, and the global justice mobilizations of the late 1990s are inseparable from the decline of the Cold War power-blocs and the rise of multinational economic, cultural and political formations. Post-1968 micropolitics, in short, was always the antipode of a multinational geopolitics.
What made this micropolitics intolerable to Wall Street neoliberalism was not merely the former’s rhetorical insistence that the personal was the political, but the curious fact that neoliberalism’s hegemony rested largely on personal, rather than geopolitical, grounds. To understand why this is so, it’s worth stepping back for a moment and reexamining the central geopolitical reality of the late 20th century, namely the decline of the US Empire and the corresponding rise of East Asia and the European Union as economic, cultural and henceforth geopolitical competitors. At its zenith in the 1960s, the US was the biggest, richest, most advanced economy on the planet, with a per capita GDP roughly double that of Western Europe and four times that of Japan; it was also the world’s largest creditor nation, and the US dollar was the world reserve currency.
Two long-term transformations changed all this. First, Western Europe and East Asia began to catch up with the US; and second, the US entered a period of profound structural decline. The first part of the story can be summarized fairly quickly: thanks to canny industrial policies, far-sighted state intervention and egalitarian income structures, Japan and Europe caught up with most indexes of US per capita living standards in the late 1980s, and diversified from medium-technology and basic manufacturing industries into high-end telecom, computer and media industries in the 1990s. The second part of the story is more complicated, but boils down to the toxic long-term effects of Wall Street’s rule over the US economy.
The great paradox of Wall Street neoliberalism – and one of the reasons that the information culture resists the latter as ferociously as it does – was that the stronger its stranglehold over the US economy became, the more the toxic side-effects of its rule weakened the geopolitical position of US capitalism.10 Neoliberalism’s typical response to this dilemma was the symbolic effacement of US decline, via compensatory fantasms of borderless, impalpable and ultimately unreal financial speculations – magical financializations, designed to paper over the quite real financial takeover of the US economy by Eurocapital and Asiacapital. Neoliberalism thus projected a universe of investments devoid of subjective agency – financial flows without bodies – precisely where the Bubble-consumerisms of the late 1990s posited subjective agents devoid of objective context – financial bodies without their corresponding flows. Arguably, whereas the outer limit of such bodiless flows was the transcendental perspective or Gods’-eye view of the central bankers who, as Bourdieu pointed out in a splendid passage in Acts of Resistance, are very much the ecclesiastical authorities of neoliberalism,11 then the limit-point of bodies without flows was the speculative instrument itself: the fetishization of the specific stock certificate, initial public offering, bond document and so forth.
The irresistible conclusion is that neoliberalism, for all its global pretensions, is shockingly provincial; its claim to universality is nothing but the crassest self-interest; its concept of justice is the rankest expropriation; and its claim to incarnate economic rationality is the acme of irrationality. Just as the 19th century liberalisms harped on the virtues of fiscal prudence and Victorian mores, while indulging in the most debauched railroad speculations and bloodthirsty colonial predations, so too did their late 20th century successors prate about budgetary orthodoxy and financial transparency, while spawning lunatic financial bubbles and immiserating the bulk of the planetary population via IMF austerity regimes.
That said, it is precisely the fact that neoliberalism is so palpably untrue which makes it such an indispensable index of the information culture – or put somewhat differently, it is the fact that it is so utterly fictional which makes it an invaluable index of the reality of multinational capitalism. (Arguably, the Victorian liberalisms did similar yeoman service for Karl Marx, by highlighting the gap between the shining ideals of free trade and the heroic entrepreneur, and the ghastly realities of global unequal exchange and British colonialism). Neoliberalism is never more false than where it is most true, and never more true than where it is most false.
We have already mentioned three areas where the information culture is structurally antagonistic to neoliberalism, namely the realms of micropolitics, multinational aesthetics, and cultural theory. There is, however, one additional zone which needs to be mentioned here, and that is the realm of informatic politics. The stakes of this latter are far greater than the simple demand for global access to the corporate databanks, or even the defense of the electronic commons, that loose community of public institutions, universities, and open source programmers, whose very existence disproves the neoliberal claim that market forces drive innovation and technological progress. Rather, to the extent the information culture is able to tap into the well-springs of the collective resistance to neoliberalism and to articulate alternatives to the status quo, no matter how shadowy or indistinct, then it is also the place where the nascent information proletariat dreams. Where the Nintendo kids dreamed of East Asian socialism, the children of the Euro dream of keitai communism.
Articulating these alternatives is not the same thing as painting utopias. No informatic utopia could do justice to the unimaginable potential slumbering in the over 6 billion human beings on this planet; conversely, no dystopia could ever truly take the measure of the appalling violence inflicted on those human beings by the total system, both in terms of unequal exchange and expropriation as well as in terms of the symbolic and cultural violence of the totality. The key contribution of the information culture, on the other hand, is its incomparable capacity to map out the total system, to bridge the yawning abyss between the representation of the reality and the reality of what is unrepresentable, and thereby open the door to Adorno’s labor of the negative, Jameson’s cognitive mapping, and Bourdieu’s reflexive analysis, a.k.a. the critical negation of the total system.
What all of these critics would share is the insistence on the essential plebianism of this negation, which is by no means the exclusive preserve of highly-paid academic professionals, media superstars or programmers. Consider, for example, the subversive implications of a 1998 UN report entitled Knowledge Societies, which issues this blunt corrective on premature utopias of the wired world:
Region Illiteracy Rate
Other North Africa 49.2%
Sub-Saharan Africa 45.3%
West Asia 26.6%
Latin America 13.3%
Eastern Europe 5.8%
Central Asia 2.5%
…However, it seems likely that the vast majority of the illiterate population will be excluded from the emerging knowledge societies. This population amounts to at least 1.35 billion people or over 30 percent of the world’s [adult] population. For every illiterate male there are almost two illiterate females and the ratio of female to male illiteracy is relatively constant across different cultures. If literacy is a fundamental condition for the growth of knowledge societies, it appears that many of the world’s people will not have the most basic skills for participating in it, and women will be more disadvantaged than men from the outset.12
The so-called global digital divide is by no means a function of differing rates of development or access to technology per se, but is inextricably intertwined with the systematic destruction of the communal infrastructures of literacy, health care and education by IMF austerity packages and neoliberal restructuring. It is hardly an accident the regions of the world-system most in thrall to neoliberal orthodoxy, namely the Maghreb, Latin America, the Caribbean, West Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, show far worse results than Central Asia, Eastern Europe and China, regions with powerful traditions of non-market mobilization and state-sponsored development. If one assumes that basic literacy and education are human rights and not the privilege of monied elites, then neoliberalism may well be the most atrocious human rights abuser of them all.
Conversely, the resistance to neoliberalism has a directly pedagogic arm, in the sense that the struggle for informatic democracy – new forms of informatic literacy, new types of global solidarity between the informatic workers of the planet, and the emergence of information socialisms whose scale, scope and emancipatory potential we are just beginning to be able to imagine – is inseparable from the struggles for economic and cultural democracy. Doug Kellner has the best single summary of the radical potential of this pedagogy:
Computer-information literacy involves learning where information is found, how to access it, and how to organize, interpret, and evaluate the information that one seeks. Computer and information literacies also involve learning how to read hypertexts, traverse the ever-changing fields of cyberculture, and to participate in a digital and interactive multimedia culture that encompasses work, education, politics, culture and everyday life… Genuine computer literacy involves not just technical knowledge and skills, but refined reading, writing, research, and communicating ability. It involves heightened capacities for critically accessing, analyzing, interpreting, processing, and storing both print-based and multimedia material. In a new information/entertainment society, immersed in transformative multimedia technology, knowledge and information come not merely in the form of print and words, but through images, sounds, and multimedia material as well.13
In other words, the ability to effectively use information to analyze still other forms of information – the ability, in short, to learn – is more than just the capacity to assimilate sign-systems or forms. Ultimately, it is the ability to grasp the historical process itself, and change that history for the better. As we shall see, the greatest works of the information culture provide us with the tools to do just that, by opening the intergalactic stargate to the geopolitical.
1. “Open source” means the source code for a program is made available via downloads to the public at large (either for free, or at a nominal charge). The only catch is, the end-user is not allowed to turn around and sell the original downloaded code as their own creation, but is allowed to alter the code and then redistribute it for non-commercial purposes, i.e. for free or at a nominal charge. Such software is referred to as “copyleft”, in contrast to the traditional notion of the copyright. The basic idea is to create a public library of tools and programs independent of the control of any given corporation or government agency, programs which are available to any interested citizen, something which has spurred a dramatic advance in the socialization of informatic labor. Thanks to the Internet, thousands of volunteers can collectively write, test and debug the most amazingly complicated code; the result is a quantum leap in productivity, whereby a freeware operating system such as Linux can significantly outperform Microsoft’s commercial Windows products in terms of reliability, security, cost and speed.
2. See <http://www.efn.org/~dredmond/admm.html> for the details of how the concept of the total system evolved over time, and its key position in Adorno’s vision of a negative or multinational dialectics.
3. There is a new and substantially improved translation of Negative Dialectics available as a free set of downloads at <http://www.efn.org/~dredmond/ndtrans.html>. It’s also worth noting that Robert Hullot-Kentor, unquestionably the best English-language translator of Adorno’s work around, is currently working on a new and definitive translation of Negative Dialectics, which will eventually supersede this interim version.
4. “Critique does not simply liquidate the system. At the height of the Enlightenment, D’Alembert had reason to differentiate between esprit de système [French: spirit of the system] and esprit systématique [French: systemic spirit], and the method of the Encyclopedia took this into account. Not only the trivial motive of an attachment which instead crystallizes out in what is unattached speaks for the esprit systématique; it is not only that it satisfies the bureaucratic ambition to stuff everything into its categories. The form of the system is adequate to the world in which the content eludes the hegemony of thought; unity and unanimity are however at the same time the oblique projections of a contented, no longer antagonistic condition on the coordinates of dominating, repressive thinking. The double meaning of philosophical systematics leaves no choice but to transpose the energy of thought once unbound from the philosophical systems into the open determination of particular moments. This was not exactly foreign to Hegelian logic. The micro-analysis of the individual categories, appearing simultaneously as their objective self-reflection, was supposed to allow each and every concept to pass over into others, regardless of anything laid out from above. The totality of this movement meant the system to him. Between this concept, as the one which concludes and thereby brings to a halt, and the one of the dynamic, which creates out of the subject by pure autarkic production, which constitutes all philosophic systematics, prevails contradiction as well as affinity. Hegel could balance the tension between the static and the dynamic only by means of the construction of the principle of unity, that of the Spirit, as something at the same time existent in itself and pure becoming, under the recuperation of the Aristotelean-scholastic actus purus [Latin: pure act]. The inadequacy of this construction – subjective production and ontology, nominalism and realism, syncopated to the Archimedean point – also hinders system-immanently the dissolution of that tension. Nevertheless such a philosophical system-concept towers over the merely scientific systematic which demands ordered and well-organized representations from thought, the consistent construction of disciplinary fields, without however strictly insisting on the inner unity of the moments, from the object’s point of view. As prejudiced as this postulate is in the presupposition of the identity of everything existent with the cognizing principle, so too does that postulate, once burdened as in the manner of the idealistic speculation, legitimately recall the affinity of objects to each another, which is rendered taboo by the scientific need for order in order to yield to the surrogate of its schemata. What the objects communicate in, instead of each being the atom to which classificatory logic reduces it, is the trace of the determination of objects in themselves, which Kant denied and which Hegel wished to reestablish against Kant through the subject.” Theodor Adorno. Negative Dialektik. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1973 (35-36). (This is my own translation).
5. Despite heavy regulations and strong state intervention in the economy, the economies of the Second and Third World grew rapidly from 1945-1975. Beginning in the late 1970s, the vast majority of the Second and Third World were subjected to punishing structural adjustment regimes, including cutbacks in domestic spending on education, training and social welfare; cuts in real wages; high real interest rates; deregulation of the financial sphere; abolition of national tariffs; and extensive subsidies for well-connected domestic elites and foreign investors. The results speak for themselves: according to World Bank statistics, annual per capita growth in consumption in low-income countries declined to a pitiful 1.4% from 1980-1998, far below the comparable figure for the high-income countries (2.2%). Excluding India and China, two countries which never followed IMF prescriptions, and consequently grew faster than average, 95 out of the remaining 107 countries listed in the World Bank report saw per capita consumption levels fall (in some cases, quite drastically) relative to those of the richest countries. The 2000-2001 World Development Report, World Bank (277).
6. WedBush Morgan Securities estimates global videogame sales at $35 billion in 2003. The San Jose Mercury News reported that total sales of videogame hardware, software and peripherals in the US amounted to $10 billion in 2003, outpacing cinema reveues ($9.3 billion). “Video game hardware revenues down in 2003: but gaming software sales rise,” Dean Takahashi, San Jose Mercury News, January 21, 2004. http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/local/7763478.htm
7. Jameson’s schemata can be briefly summarized as follows: the epochs of liberal, monopoly and multinational capitalism correspond, very roughly, to the reign of the British Empire in the 19th century, the rule of the US Empire in the 20th, and the dominion of the EU and East Asia in the 21st. The culture of liberal or national capitalism (very roughly, from the 17th century to the mid-19th century) was characterized by the formation of the world-market under Iberian, Dutch and ultimately British rule, the rise of an urban industrial proletariat drawn from a dispossessed peasantry, the classic urban financial speculations and imperialisms, and the politics of nation-state formation and national identity. The central logic of monopoly capitalism was international, and its hegemon was the United States. Economically, the US Empire legislated its rule via the installation of the US dollar as world reserve currency, the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, and US military Keynesianism; politically, as the Cold War power-blocs; and culturally, the hegemony of US consumerism (automobiles, department stores, and Hollywood). Economically, the core regions of multinational capitalism are characterized by powerful developmental and welfare states, heavily institutionalized capital markets and behemoth financial-corporate networks; culturally, by a multinational media culture; and politically, by political institutions such as the European Union.
8. Frank Rose. Pocket Monster: How DoCoMo’s wireless Internet service went from fad to phenom – and turned Japan into the first post-PC nation. Wired, September 2001 (135).
9. Doug Henwood. Wall Street. NY: Verso, 1997.
10. According to neo-conservative orthodoxy, wage cuts for workers and tax cuts for the rich were supposed to rejuvenate the US economy; instead, domestic investment plummeted, the stock market boomed, and the US began to deindustrialize. By 1982, the US became a net debtor nation for the first time since the late 19th century, and began running permanent trade and current account deficits with Japan and Europe. In a very short amount of time, the net international investment position of the US economy – the total debts the US owes other economies, minus the total debt other economies owe the US – increased from 1.4% of GDP in 1982 to 10.1% in 1990, stagnated for a few years, and then mushroomed from 12% in 1994 to an astounding 26.7% of GDP by 2001. What this means is that by 2002, the US had to import $400 billion (about 4% of its GDP) from abroad every single year, just to keep its economy afloat; by contrast, the EU and East Asia have been and continue to be self-financing.
All these statistics are derived from the US Federal Reserve’s quarterly flow-of-funds reports. Complete downloads covering the years 1954 to the present are available at <http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/Z1>. The EU’s net international investment position was slightly negative in March of 2002, according to the ECB’s Monthly Report at <http://www.ecb.int>; this is because the Eurobanks park much of their surplus in Switzerland. Adding in the figures from the Swiss National Bank (<http://www.snb.ch/e/publikationen/publi.html>), continental Europe as a whole ran a respectable capital surplus of somewhere around 2% of GDP. The Bank of Japan’s latest estimate of Japan’s net international investment position is available at <http://www.mof.go.jp/english/e1c018.htm>. Last but not least, for an explanation of why current account deficits and net international investment positions matter, see Doug Henwood’s Wall Street, pp. 58-61.
11. Pierre Bourdieu. Acts of Resistance. Trans. Richard Nice. New Press: NY, 1998 (45-51).
12. Robin Mansell and Uta Wehn, eds. Knowledge Societies: Information Technology for Sustainable Development. Oxford: United Nations, 1998 (35).
13. Douglas Kellner. New Technologies/New Literacies: Reconstructing Education for the New Millennium. Logos: Winter 2002, Number 1, Volume 1 (http://logosonline.home.igc.org/kellner.htm)