From Dot-com Capitalism to Cybernetic Communism
* No. 10: The Internet Revolution: From Dot-com Capitalism to Cybernetic Communism by Richard Barbrook, with Andy Cameron. Institute for Network Cultures, 2016
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“Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron’s The Californian Ideology, originally published in 1995 by Mute magazine and the nettime mailinglist, is the iconic text of the first wave of Net criticism. The internet might have fundamentally changed in the last two decades, but their demolition of the neoliberal orthodoxies of Silicon Valley remains shocking and provocative. They question the cult of the dot-com entrepreneur, challenging the theory of technological determinism and refuting the myths of American history. Denounced as the work of ‘looney lefties’ by Silicon Valley’s boosters when it first appeared, The Californian Ideology has since been vindicated by the corporate take-over of the Net and the exposure of the NSA’s mass surveillance programmes. Published in 1999 at the peak of the dot-com bubble, Richard Barbrook’s Cyber-Communism offers an alternative vision of the shape of things to come, inspired by Marshall McLuhan’s paradoxical ‘thought probes’. With the Californian Ideology growing stronger, the Net was celebrated as the mechanical perfection of neoliberal economics. Barbrook shows how this futurist prophecy is borrowed from America’s defunct Cold War enemy: Stalinist Russia. Technological progress was the catalyst of social transformation. With copyright weakening, intellectual commodities were mutating into gifts. Invented in capitalist America, the Net in the late-1990s had become the first working model of communism in human history. In an introduction written specially for this 20th anniversary edition, Richard Barbrook takes a fresh look at the hippie capitalists who shaped Silicon Valley and explains how their influence continues to this day. These thought probes are still relevant in understanding the contradictory impact of ubiquitous social media within the modern world. As McLuhan had insisted, theoretical provocation creates political understanding.” (http://networkcultures.org/blog/publication/no-10-the-internet-revolution-from-dot-com-capitalism-to-cybernetic-communism-by-richard-barbrook-with-andy-cameron/)
“The two essays from the 1990s in this book are a small contribution to formulating the escape from our contemporary predicament. Today, for many of its former enthusiasts, the utopian promises of the information society have been fatally betrayed by the corporatisation and militarisation of the Net. However, although The Californian Ideology anticipated their critical attitude to Silicon Valley hype, Andy and I also emphasised that there was nothing inevitable about the ascendency of hi-tech neoliberalism. In its conclusion, our article pointed out that the Minitel system was built upon a different political economy than its American rival. Contradicting Wired magazine’s horror at the leading role of a state-owned telecommunications monopoly, the French version of packetswitched networking was able to commodify all of its online services by delivering them through premium phone lines. Ironically, as my Cyber-communism piece celebrated, it is the made-in-the-USA internet which has always had difficulties in applying the dogmas of bourgeois economics within its virtual world. User-generated content and open source software are the creations of voluntary labour. Through these two insights, the newly fashionable pose of technological pessimism can be dismissed with ease. The story of Minitel proves that computer-mediated-communications isn’t inherently neoliberal in its social implementation. The importance of the hi-tech gift economy demonstrates that online collective labour can be organised effectively without requiring money-commodity relations.
Back in the 1950s, Aksel Berg, Oscar Lange and other reformers in the East dreamt of replacing the top-down planning of the Stalinist bureaucracy with bottom-up decision-making by producers and consumers over a computer network: cybernetic communism.
With our much superior hardware and software, we now have the opportunity to transform their theoretical speculations into lived reality. By reshaping the Net in our own interests, both the authoritarian state and the oligarchic marketplace can be superseded by a massive multi-player participatory democracy. Let’s resume the acceleration into the emancipated future and dedicate our energies to creating a truly human civilisation!”
About the Author
“Richard Barbrook is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Westminster, London, England. He is a trustee of Cybersalon and a founder member of Class Wargames. He has written about the politics of the Net and gaming in his books Media Freedom: The Contradictions of Communications in the Age of Modernity; The Class of the New; Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village; and Class Wargames: Ludic Subversion Against Spectacular Capitalism.”
Colofon: Author: Richard Barbrook with Andy Cameron. Network Notebook editors: Geert Lovink and Miriam Rasch. Design: Medamo, Rotterdam. EPUB development: André Castro. Printer: Printvisie. Publisher: Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam 2015. ISBN: 978-94-92302-02-1.