“The Californian Ideology”. (1996)


I’m in broad agreement with the argument of ‘The Californian Ideology’  written by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, and its attack on that ideology in which “the ahistorical dogmas of neo-liberalism are beefed up with added techno-determinism.”

The argument does have a weakness in the alternatives it presents:

– an idealistic view of the French Minitel system of which there is evidence that its use is mainly by young professional men;

– the pan-European ideology of modern Gaullism, Europe versus America, a Europe which is not subject to the same analysis of inequality and exploitation applied to the USA.

This insufficiency is excusable given that the Californian ideology, ironically constructed by people with a psychic need to see themselves as rebels, is now ‘the conventional wisdom’. Alternative models are liable to be viewed optimistically by those opposing the dominant ideology. This is especially so when the European Commission’s own Bangemann Report undermined any European strategy when it embraced the Californian ideology with enthusiasm.

What’s less excusable is that this ‘Gaullist’ point of view in ‘The Californian Ideology’ is to ignore initiatives in the USA like the Public Information Exchange (PIE) based in Maryland. It is described as “an electronic clearing house that brings together a wide variety of public information consumers and producers. It has organized coalitions of health care organizations, consumer groups, environmentalists and civil rights groups to put information on-line in America’s 15,000 public libraries.” It has also attempted to provide real information about candidates, their histories and programmes before elections. This in stark contrast to the frightening prospect of instant referenda without the time or means being provided to give the information on which judgements could be made. Against this Mao’s view: “No opinions without research.”

This insufficiency can only be remedied by an informed and scrupulous tracking of what possibilities are offered by the variety of tools made available by the new computer-driven technologies. That and a cold-eyed analysis of what social democracy is capable of doing in this area, whether it is capable of doing anything serious at nation-state level. What I mean by social democracy here is the ability of the state or supra-state structures to regulate what exists, and instigate what does not, with the aim of enhancing the power of those without historically-made resources. Here again a more scrupulous look at the difference between the Gore/Clinton programme of cultivating small-scale public initiatives and making public libraries on line, and that for example of the British Labour party, whose prospective deal with BT makes sense from the point of view of national economic development but depends rather a lot on exhortation and enclouragement when it comes to on-lining all schools and libraries. Geoff Mulgan of Demos (a New Labour thinktank), for example thinks the Gore approach better than the Labour-BT promise.

The techno-utopianianism of the Californian ideology would see these questions as irrelevant political and moral anachronisms. For me, they are difficult and unpalatable. I see myself as being part of a socialist libertarian tradition which has little trust in the nation-state or social democracy. Little trust, because enhancing the power of those without historically-made resources involves some degree of restricting the power of those who have them in abundance, and at minimum their perception of that exclusive power. This is something social-democracy has usually not had the stomach for.

This libertarian socialist tradition I am proud to identify myself with sees the twin evils of elitism and exploitation as what must be fought to make the world civilized and sustainable. Let alone the global reality of these evils, even the words do not exist in the interminable supply of printed text from the Californian ideologists. Who, at the same time, define themselves as libertarians for whom the state is a necessarily stupid – because centralized-oppressor which they no longer need. This at a time when after years of being trashed, there are signs of a rehabilitation of the New Deal and even Johnson’s Great Society. There is hard evidence beyond sentimental recollection, that the state-instigated initiatives of the New Deal (regardless of the motivations of its instigators) released the creativity of masses of poor Americans.

One of the main reasons given by the text for the ‘emergence’ (as Kevin Kelly might put it) of 1960s libertarian hippies in the Californian ideology is the physical defeat of the Californian left by then Governor Ronald Reagan. Fear -and the US state and capital has always been especially violent towards ‘leftist activity’ – is likely to involve a fair degree of displacement activity, the direction of energy to safer goals. Income, ageing, and ambition may also have been involved as well as a genuine intellectual-utopian excitement. California is also an exceptionally privileged area of the globe for a good part of its population. More than that, it is not surprising that this ideology of a computer-driven revolution of infinite potential should come from an area of the globe which is so successful in producing many of the key bits and pieces of this revolution. The re-discovery of American self-confidence vis-a-vis Japan has emanated specifically from this sector of production. That this happened in the presidency of a nominally social democratic President with a seriously IT enthusiast Vice President is either coincidence, or is further evidence of the wilful non-acknowledgement of state support for this sector which the text demonstrates. For the Californian ideology it shows – without regard for anything as banally economic as a long-term over-valuation of the Yen – the triumph of genuine individualism against a corporate version of capitalism.

The embracing of free-market ideology (as articulated by then President Ronald Reagan) by a techno-counter-culture with a psychic need to see itself in rebellion, requires a massive array of flim-flam. In particular it has used Fuzzy Implication and Dodgy Analogy. Global has been a key word in both techniques. It implies an internationalist and ecological view of the world. In fact it has replaced ‘imperialism’ in a way which hides the global hierarchy of exploitation that ‘imperialism’ (however degraded its use became) did not. It derives not just from McLuhan but more tangibly from the icon of 1960s technological optimism, the space programme and those shots of the earth as a globe in space. This image is key in the development of the most fuzzy forms of ecology which also originated in the USA and centred around the phrase ‘Spaceship Earth’. Spaceship earth – we’re all in this together – again had the role of hiding the global hierarchy of exploitation, which in the most tangible ways, prevents the development of any real ecology. I emphasise this because this kind of ecology was important in the 1960’s counter-culture (Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue for example) and in Kevin Kelly’s present individualized ecological concerns which have been a rich source of dodgy analogies.

From the global we are lurched into equally fuzzy Good Things as proclaimed by this ideology, the Holistic – the Non-Linear. The fuzziness of these involves the implication that they are automatically non-reductionist which is a Very Good Thing. The preferred course taken by the Californian ideology in the use of these words has been chaos theory. The degraded notion of the holistic can also be seen in the work of ‘management gurus’. We have Richard Pascale of Stanford University urging a ‘holistic approach to management. And we have Tom Peters, frequently described as an evangelist or missionary of management, entitling his latest best-seller, Thriving on Chaos.

Chaos theory, with its dependence on number-crunching, is a child of the computer revolution. It proclaims that there is pattern, that the world is mathematical, just that these patterns are far more complex than linear Newtonian physics would allow. Its holistic/ecological claim is seen in the metaphor/partial reality of an event in one part of the world having an effect on the climate elsewhere. It also creates beautiful patterns called Fractals. On the basis of this it rather fetishizes Weird Connections via its use of statistics on a scale unknown before computing power. It makes big claims for itself in stark contrast to the modesty expressed in Eugene Wigner’s great essay, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.

In some respects it mimics the breakthroughs of the modernist science of quantum physics – just as post-modernism takes the Uncertainty Principle of quantum physics and makes of it a lazy analogy for a bogus relativism – in its use of the non-local effect which is central to that physics. N.B. The non-local effect is proposed by J.S. Bell and later proved by Alain Aspect in an experiment in which two unrelated atoms influenced each other without being able to signal each other. A wonderful piece of science, but one which is open to plenty of dodgy analogizing. That we should be vigilant about dodgy analogizing, should be clear from the late 19th century notion of Social Darwinism. The revolutionary theory of evolution, the liberation from monotheism (and the accompanying soul-body dualism) it offered, was analogized into a banal and rather nasty prop to elitism and comepetitive capitalism. Still today, it lurks behind both: to justify the unjustifiable in the one; and to prop up the nostalgic version of itself which the multi-natioanl corporations and their planning staffs maintain as a working ideolgy in textbooks.

Chaos theory like quantum physics is not-Newtonian. What is lazy, and will therefore hide various dirty corners of bad faith, is the assumption that what is anti-Newtonian is A Good Thing in itself. In Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control there is a continual complacency about anything which is non-linear, not-Newtonian; the interchangeable networks/swarm systems/complex adaptive systems he sees across the board. Yet he does not acknowledge the real anti-Newtonian breakthrough of the pre-computer mathematicians of Quantum Physics. Perhaps it is too uncomfortable, whereas Chaos theory, we might say, puts the Certainty back into the Uncertainty Principle.

Equally the attack on Newtonianism from Ilya Prigorgine (Order Out of Chaos) is far tougher. What it does is to attack the notion of timeless equilibria in the Newtonian and posit against it the “irreversible arrow of time” from his own speciality: thermodynamics. Spurious notions like “the End of History” and the equilibria-based mathematical models of neo-classical/liberal economics are both dependent on non-acknowledgement of the irreversible arrow. Chaos theory is static and timeless in its claims to be able to draw the unexpected, with iteration doing the rest, as if all time and all dynamics was a process of iteration. We can see this in the interest of Chaos theory in commodity prices and their historical cycles. There is a safety to it. Just as Kevin Kelly, futurologist, lives in a perpetual present in which, discussing money, there are no questions about the cashability of future pensions for example.

If we compare the technological utopianism of the 1950s which focussed on atomic energy, featured non-photogenic squares, working for the state in white coats and smoking pipes to that of the more exotic Californian ideologues of now what we see is a change of language from the control of nature to that of its management. This reflects those ecolgical and holistic concerns of the present hiding how it is global patterns of exploitation which determine Spaceship Earth’s condition. It also shows a touching faith in our powers of observation and data-gathering (increased so greatly by satellite and computer) to solve ecological problems by themselves. This is the supposed fallacy if intellectuals: if you’re aware of a problem, it’s OK, it’s then manageable. In addition, Who is doing the watching? Who is doing the interpreting?

It is precisely these political questions the Californian ideology avoids, just as those pipe-smoking squares dodged them. They have more than that in common, they share a techno-determinism which tends to be uncritically optimistic. I would like to seperate this from that smug and crass element of Gaullism which likes to pose a wise European scepticism against an exclusively American brash optimism: techno-determinism is not exclusively American. Instead it has an uncanny resemblance to the individualist optimism that comes from the theorizing of the free-market by von Hayek for example. This too raises difficult questions about the nature and possibilities of social democracy. Socialism has usually been characterized as an Enlightenment project with a fundamental belief in human reason and the perfectability of humans; while a reactionary view of the world was based on the notion of original sin. Modern social democracy seems to see the world as a pretty shitty, and that therefore controls and regulations are needed to protect the weak. My doubts about it remain that it hasn’t done much of a job of it.

This techno-determinism has something else in common. I’ve said that non-reductionism was an important strand of that weave of flim-flam the Californian ideologists have created. In its uncritical embrace of the new however this strand is revealed as flimsy.

This flimsiness is revealed in the embracing of Marvin Minsky’s notions of Artificial Intelligence. Aside from the argument that there are limits to the number-crunching which would be involved, the most effective critique of AI comes from the mathematician Roger Penrose, someone with great confidence in mathematics but who says mathematical understanding is non-computational as is understanding in general. As an example of what he is arguing he quotes Godel saying that no system of computational rules can characterize the properties of natural numbers and then points out that children can grasp the notion of them.

It is hard to say whether the especially heavy dose of fuzzy and dodgy analogizing by Kevin Kelly on this question is because he can see the reductionism there or not. Whatever way, the chapter of Out of Control entitled ‘Machines with Attitude’, focussing on the work of Marvin Minsky and Rodney Brooks, is a tour de force of flim-flam. We are jumped from quote to quote: – from the philosopher Daniel Dennett, “The idea that the brain has a centre is just wrong. Not only that, it is radically wrong.” – to an approving reference to “the bureaucratization of the brain” – to the collapse of the USSR being soley ascribable to the instability of any centrally controlled complexity to “There is no ‘I’, for a person, for a beehive, for a corporation…” (this a knowing nod in the direction of post-modernist orthodoxy) – to the really specious analogy filched without acknowledgement from quantum physics (whose practitioners have warned against such analogy) it is very likely that intelligence is a probabilistic or statistical phenomena.

With the reader suitably softened up from this scatter gun of analogies, up pops Marvin Minsky to tell us “You can build a mind from many little parts, each mindless by itself.” Followed by Kelly telling us “Singly, each is a moron; but together, organized in tangled hierarchy of control, they can create thinking.” Kelly then has a few problems with this “hierarchy of control” but soldiers through that, warning the anarchists they would be wrong to be disappointed by this necessity and by the use of tangle which he has previously used in a string of metaphors, “the web of life, the tangle of the economy…” He bypasses the reductionism inherent in Minsky with the concept of complexity: “Complexity must be grown up from simple systems that already work.” ‘The Californian Ideology’ points out that the new multi-media technologies make up something greater than its parts, but this does not mean that this is true of the world in general or of natural sciences.

In his superb attack on the genome Project in The Politics of DNA, Richard Lewontein analyses why so much biochemistry research is focussed on the bits and pieces. It is easier to do, to get results than examining the working of the central nervous system for example that can only be understood as a whole. The bits and pieces do not necessarily add up.

With Roger Brooks’s alternative of many small robots, Kevin Kelly says, “So difficult was the task of co-ordinating a central world view that Brooks discovered it was far easier to use the real world as its own model…With no centrally imposed model, no one has the job of reconciling disputed notions; they simply aren’t reconciled. Instead, various signals generate various behaviours. The behaviours are sorted out (suppressed, delayed, activated) in the web hierarchy of subsumed control.” Then in a brazen piece of reader flattery he says “Astute observers have noticed that Brooks’s prescription is an exact description of a market economy.” It is not just flattery but that most dangerous of analogies and time-worn ideological props, that the capitalist free market is a Natural state of affairs.

The virtues of the market economy have already been implied by the fetishizing of “decentralization” as a Good Thing in itself. In the world of lazy and dodgy analogizing, the righteous celebration of diversity, difference and multiplicity; the creative potential of the non-linear and some of the insights of quantum physics; and the structuralist critique which kicked away so many of the props of White-man-centricity, has been hijacked by that relativism which says that nothing is better than anything else, one which has always been a handy tool for those doing very well with the way things are. The notion of de-centralization can be proclaimed by post-modernism as an at-last reflection of the multiplicity of human life. In reality it has been used to kick way the vestiges of class struggle in the social democratic mode, i.e. regulation of the conditions of exploitation and an element of redistributive taxation. For the relatively powerless there is no one to negotiate with anymore, governing institutions are consciously made ad hoc. It reminds me of a self-critical pamphlet from the socialist libertarian movement and entitled, The Tyranny of Structurelessness.

This de-centralization has its objective base not in post-facto, dusted down monetarist economics, but in real globalization, especially that of money. It is the global movement of capital made ever easier by the developments of communications technology which consistently undermines any aspirations to a Global ecology. The free movement of capital is seen as one of the essential constituents of that de-regulated free trade ideology which rules the world from various centralized locii of financial power. Ricardo may have been rubbished as all classical economics has been by the free marketeers, but his theory of comparative advantage has been constantly re-used by its ideologues. In fact the theory of comparative advantage assumes that factors of production, including capital, are immobile. The present interpretation is that capital can be mobile, labour not. There are no regulations on the movement of capital: there are an ever-increasing raft of them when it comes to labour. Turn the rafts over, drown the fuckers as the Italian state has it. With decentralization the forces of lazy analogy have also been hard at work. In the latter years of the Cold War planning was made synonymous with centralization and the state. In the West planning continued and continues apace, the planning by large capitalist concerns called corporations. They have anthroplogical, technical, sociological, economic philosphical talent working on it constantly. They have always planned. The difference now is that:

– the role of state as planner has been reduced to the production of infrastructure when and if required by these corporations; – the corporations also have the gurus of the Californian ideology on the team. On the team partially on their own terms, as consultants. Thus Stewart Brand and Peter Schwartz’s ‘Global Business Network’ for example.

In the polemic one of the sharpest arguments is how much of the technology which celebrates its free birth and development in fact originated with state spending. In both the USSR and the USA this took place largely through defence budgets. I think this argument could be widened without becoming fuzzy. Free markets have always depended on the state to bail it out when major fuck ups take place. The de-regulation of the S&L banking set-up in the USA lead to massive scandals and losses. The state, using a large chunk of that taxation that is anathema to free-trade ideology, rescued it In The Public Interest. Something similar seems to be happening now in the UK with the de-regulation of pensions.

How anyway does the free market component of the Californian ideology look in relation to its own history and present. They may hold Bill Gates up as a baddie but the fact is that he is a monopolist, and a successful one, in the heart of their world. Mr Murdoch’s very recent move into Telecoms with MCI is also indicative. The regulation of US ‘national interest’ between the rights of big capital and its monopolizing and the cutting edge that real competition should provide is at present all being determined in the US legal system. There are no regulatuions but it is here that the arbitration of the respective rights of dynamic corporatist capitals and a dynamic technology is taking place on a case by case basis. The recruitment policy of Microsoft, the baddie, has also been copied by Californian ideologists who profess to see him as an anemy. Microsoft scoured India for the best and cheapest programmers and instituted a hierarchical system with an elite of mega-programmers to point these saps on their way. In the true traditions of the Californian ideolgy they could dress as they liked and worked which hours they liked as long as they did the hours and kept to their subservient role of serving the meta-programmers.

The Californian ideologists have been more interested in the programmers of the ex-USSR and their ideas. There is a programming cottage industry in the low-wage Ukraine. There are also ideas. If the difference between the USSR and the USA in the Cold war period could be characterized (as it is so often is) as between the empiricists and the theoreticians, the empiricists are now reaping the benefit of the theoretical brilliance of Russian computer experts financed by the very defence budgets which helped finish off the “state-socialist” USSR. Many of these brightest and best of the ex-USSR state are employed by Californian hi-tech industries for that theoretical brilliance which enabled them to stay up with the USA in the space race even though the US government had banned them from access to super-conducters.

In a thoroughly snide interview of Kevin Kelly by Peter Yorke in The Guardian (one which makes me instinctively sympathize with Kevin Kelly) there is one revealing section with deals with the basic question of empowerment and the net, one which many people have raised.

PY: “Won’t a lot of people be left outside these new media?” KK: “There will be a large number left outside and it’s unfortunate, we should bring them in. No one argues about that. Let the rich buy technology now, to make it cheaper for the poor. The issues are not the haves and the have-nots but the haves and the have-lates.” He goes on to say that what is important is shrinking the time-lapse.

All the evidence is that a whole range of hard and software which began as being very expensive has got cheaper and cheaper. It may also be true that in many cases it is the rich who have been conned into buying all sorts of dubious up-dates. On the other hand what Kelly is saying sounds suspiciously like ‘trickle-down’ theory, that socio-moral get-out clause of hard-line free market economics, which asserts that if the bounds are removed from the rich getting much richer (bounds like health and safety requirements at work as well as minimum wages) wealth will be generated which the poor will (again there is a time-lapse) eventually benefit from. All the evidence here is that this is not the case.

I don’t want this to stand as a dodgy analogy but there is a similar question to be asked which is, why should those doing very, very well out of how things are want this situation to change. Some people who are very clever do have an edge right now and a lot of them are in California. What is implied by the Californian ideologists’ techno-determinism is that this technology is different, that this technology cannot help but be progressive and democratic.

In the absence of public or autonomous initiatives wotking to make it so, this is wilfully optimistic. It ignores the fact that though there may be legendary small outfits in Silicon Valley the industry is still dominated by large capital. Time-Warner, Viacom-Blockbuster, Rupert Murdoch, telephone companies, they’re all in there. More specifically, IBM has not gone bust. Predictions of Microsoft being ‘in trouble’ in relation to Netscape sounds like whistling in the wind from the Jeffersonian ideologues.

In the Financial Times of 2nd Febuary 1996 it was announced that Visa International and MasterCard International have agreed to collaborate in creating a system to ensure the security of credit card transactions on the net. The system will be called Secure Electronic Transactions. The software code will be made freely available. “This is the first step in making cyberspace an attractive venture for banks and merchants,” said Mr Edmund Jensen, president and chief executive of Visa International. The report also says that until now Visa had been working with Microsoft on the project, and Mastercard with Netscape. They are now all working together.

In the early issues of Wired magazine, encryption was seen as the cutting edge of rebellious libertarian work in the new technologies, creating the means for genuine privacy from the state I do not want to try and describe Kevin Kelly’s chapter on E-money, he gets into terrible difficulties with the potential use by organized crime, but to say that a means of safe payment on the net is precisely what is required for full commercial exploitation of it. It is here that a ‘trickle-down’ notion of the Net runs into difficulties and the price of information likely to be prohibitive without social democratic and autonomous initiatives.

My suspicion of social democracy remains for the reasons I have given and also because it is been elitist in the sense of managing and representing its clientele in a way which allows them little input. What it might be able to offer is some protection and resources to make autonomous initiatives flower and make the new technology truly a tool for liberation.

Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.