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Commentary :: Politics
The Anarchist Case for Moderation: Television, Computers, and a Post-Capitalist Future
31 Mar 2004
"I recently exchanged views with the editors of a certain counter-cultural magazine about the (de)merits of computers, and of the internet... The point of contention involves whether the internet is as alienating as television... Television is pure reception. The internet, on the other hand, allows for both reception and transmission. And therein lies the internet’s most pernicious feature... "
"What is the position of a thoughtful revolutionary to be with regard to technology?..."
I recently exchanged views with the editors of a certain counter-cultural magazine about the (de)merits of computers, and of the internet. I fear that I failed to make my position clear, a position that is neither a blanket commendation nor condemnation of digital technology, and that is certainly not dogmatically Marxist. I do not take the time to pursue this subject further on the egotistical supposition that my being misunderstood is of such grave import. Rather, for reasons that I trust will become clear soon enough, I consider this topic to have implications that reach beyond the specifics of the immediate discussion…
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The point of contention between the magazine editors and myself involves whether the internet is as alienating as television. They imply that it is, and I insist that it is not. Before examining this question in greater depth, I should note that when I say the internet is less alienating than television, that is akin to saying that Big Macs are more healthful than eating raw nuclear waste. Neither is especially good for you, but there is no useful purpose to be served by equating one with the other. No, rather than serving a useful purpose, when we don ideological blinders and take such untenable positions we damage our credibility as radicals, and weaken what is really a very strong case against the continuance of many technological processes and practices.
To begin with, what are the practical consequences of taking the extreme position of “all technology is bad technology”? One is left to argue against the internet, on the internet. Even one of the magazine’s editors admit as much. He employs a connected computer, unable to live in harmony with his own ideals. Not so my position. I eschew television in theory and in practice, and am the richer for it. And I use the internet, for subversive purposes.
What, then, is the difference between television and the internet? The contrast is similar to that of prayer and meditation. While slave Christians sing the praises of prayer, more advanced mystics speak of prayer and meditation as if inseparable. The former is transmitting, while the latter involves receiving. The internet allows its user to both transmit and receive, to pray and to meditate. Television, on the other hand, is pure reception.
What are the consequences of this most fundamental of differences? The ill effects of the television are well documented: docility, indoctrination to consumerist values, political herd mentality. The list could go on indefinitely, but each item would be a different manifestation of an utter ability to think for oneself. This is the natural consequence of overdosing on a medium that is pure reception.
The internet, on the other hand, allows for both reception and transmission. Granted, most people never use the transmission mode (and not only due to a lack of technical skills). And therein lies the internet’s most pernicious feature.
Who surfs there?
In order to accurately gauge the effect of internet usage on a person’s psychology, it would be helpful to have a profile of that person’s psychology. So let us now pause, and build a composite sketch of a stereotypical American consumer of the online experience. This person’s earliest memories include visits to the community church, visits in which the pastor and others relentlessly sermonized about the value of blind obedience. The most horrendous and enduring retributions were said to follow on the heels of any rebellion. Upon returning home, the child’s failure to comply was the occasion for actual beatings, coupled with outraged accusations that the victim had done grave harm to the abuser. When the child became old enough to start school, the concept of competition was introduced (if it hadn’t already been occasioned by sibling rivalry). Grades, sports, social situations, the child’s very survival seemed to be predicated on his ability to decipher what was expected of him and perform it, not to “the best of his ability” (as the tired and false slogan asserts) but better than his peers. Our child had no friends but rather classmates, those with whom he shared a rank, a status, and usually a race.
It would be hard to overemphasize the fact that his success/survival did not hinge on creative activity. No, his success followed from memorization and regurgitation, spitting back at the teachers and coaches the explicitly defined product just received. Just as efforts at artistic expression yielded to “running plays” on the ball field, so the classroom’s subjective essay trailed in the wake of the standardized multiple-choice test.
Time advanced and our child ceased being a child, at least chronologically. Upon graduation he joined a factory, a kitchen assembly line, or an office (it matters little which). Everything that went before was in preparation for this day, the ultimate exercise in conformity, the earning of his wages. Perhaps the corporation provided a uniform identical to that adorning his fellow prisoners on either hand. Or perhaps our child’s class status dictated that he purchase his own outfit, but his “choice” of khaki and penny loafers were no more an indication of his personal preference than if it had been a uniform.
Slowly, the child began to amass possessions, a home, an automobile, a television (with all the afore-mentioned conditioning that implies) and eventually his own computer with an internet connection. And now at last, the glorious day has arrived. He can sit at his terminal and not only receive, but transmit as well.
But he doesn’t transmit. He doesn’t remember how to, and he wouldn’t have the courage to if he did. Instead, our child spends his evenings consuming corporate news and entertainment, living vicariously the adventures of his virtual alter egos, as the fast food wrappers pile up around his chair.
Perhaps one day he decides to “build” a web page. He goes to a corporate web site for assistance. “Insert your child’s picture here.” Soon he has produced a site just like his brother’s, and his cousin’s and his neighbor’s, save for the number of zits on the children’s faces. Proudly, he stands in front of the computer and stretches. “Man, I haven’t done anything that creative in a long time.”
Certainly, the connected computer has the potential to be even more alienating than the television, because it offers the user the illusion that he has the option to transmit. In fact, our protagonist has had all capacity for transmission marched, recited, uniformed and paychecked out of him long ago. He couldn’t have an unconventional thought, much less take an unconventional action, if his life depended on it. But because the computer gives him the ability to transmit in theory, the responsibility for his continued docility now appears to be his own. Now understanding himself to be incapable of acting independently under any circumstance, even when the opportunity is at his very fingertips, our poor hero dies more convinced than on the day of his birth of his own incapacity for autonomy.
The case against radical extremism
Now, we have painted quite a grim picture of the alienating nature of digital technology. But our analysis of the online experience is incomplete. To begin with, while modern man is indoctrinated in the extreme, is he really any more the victim of social conditioning than the peasant of the Middle Ages, who toiled under the superstitions of the Church and the social structure of feudalism? Of course not, and yet then and now certain individuals, for reasons that remain unclear, have been able to see through the veil of mysticism and hypnotism. Seeing clearly, they have spoken sedition and lived rebellion. What of these few, under the reign of the virtual kingdom?
It is the uses to which the connected computer is put by this rare rebel that separates that machine from the television. For one who is psychically capable of transmission, the connected computer allows it. And that is all, but that is so more much more than commercial television is capable of. As a result, today we have anarchist web sites, worldwide days of action, and so many other things that the continued hegemony of television would never have allowed.
Perhaps most importantly, in between these extremes of ultra-conformist and revolutionary is a huge cultural middle ground. Peopled with neither mindless drones nor blatant rebels, the various offbeat discussion groups and clubs that can be found squatting in the alleys of cyberspace can only be noted with hope by those who have long lamented the centralized mass production of “modern culture”. Perhaps, perhaps the spark of a grassroots renaissance culture is contained therein, an organic culture to challenge and replace the existing manufactured one. Or perhaps the combined efforts of the corporations and the governmental bodies, efforts that are already well under way, will drive these new elements back underground, while MSNBC marches stupidly into the gray and dismal future.
Will anarchists participate in the fight to preserve this momentarily liberated cultural terrain? Or, in a position roughly analogous to certain anarcho-syndicalists who would countenance no union save a purely anarchist one, will we relegate ourselves to an overly principled position well outside the heat of battle? Will we dogmatically reject all technology, or will we participate in the creative reconstruction (and reduction) of it?
The anarchists’ proper place is not in the mainstream. We are radicals, with all that implies. But as those who advocate a mass rebellion against the ruling class, neither should we place ourselves wholly outside the scene of struggle and conflict. The anarchist place is on the fringes of the fight, by example leading our neighbors in ever more radical and militant directions. This goal cannot be accomplished from the middle of the road, but neither can it be from a position utterly removed from the battlegrounds.
Does the manufacture of computers contribute to the exploitation of the Third World by the powers of the North and West? Would even relatively affluent Americans and Europeans be better off with fewer computers (and televisions)? Should we walk and talk outside more often, and message less? Is one good copulation beneath the stars worth a thousand porn sites? Of course, of course, of course…
Again, I come not to sing the praises of the internet, but merely to give an honest and realistic appraisal of it, unfiltered by dogma. I liken the internet to a Big Mac, most definitely a killer when ingested in excess, but less lethal than nuclear waste, or television.
No argument is made here that computers are an indispensable component of some post-revolutionary utopia, and certainly not in their present incarnation. But while they exist, what harm is there in putting them to subversive use, for those of us who can use them (rather than being used by them)? What harm, that is, beyond that which is being done anyway? I liken demonstrations organized online to a textile factory occupied by the workers, and put to the service of clothing the militant forces of revolt. Will the free society of tomorrow have textile factories? Computers? Some may hope not, but while they exist, let us expropriate them for the service of our cause, which is freedom.
The general question of technology
Many words have been written here, and yet the surface of the technology question has only been scratched. We considered at some length the ramifications for the individual of using computers vs. giving up television, etc. But what position should a responsible revolutionary take, in a more general sense, with respect to technology?
To begin with, those who oppose any and all technology, whether they admit it or not, advocate a massive reduction in the human population. “Any volunteers to go first?” This is not a recipe for promoting a popular rebellion.
Apologists for capitalist production, on the other hand, argue just as conclusively (if less consciously) for a mass die-off, whether by climatic disruption, toxic poisoning, nuclear catastrophe or other means as yet unseen. Even assuming that man’s creativity were capable of continuing to pull technological rabbits out of the ecological hat in order to forestall global disaster, many would argue that this scenario for survival would hardly constitute “life” by any meaningful definition of the word. In other words, techno-survival might well be an existence not worth having (a point that we have likely already reached for many).
What is the position of a thoughtful revolutionary to be with regard to technology? In order to survive as a species we must continue some form of production for some time, and yet production must be drastically curtailed. What should be produced (what MUST be produced) and what discontinued? What form should the production take, and in precisely what quantity? Can we even predict the forms that such a future production will take, or will it of necessity evolve organically, as capitalist production did? In our strivings for a reduction of industrialism should we agitate for a smaller population, in effect speaking against that most life affirming of all experiences, childbirth?
There are many difficult questions such as these to be addressed, that I have not begun to answer, because I HAVE no answers. But answer them we must. First, however, we must engage the radical margins of the discussion, as I have attempted to do here regarding the particulars of television and computers. We will have to abandon our positions on the unreasonable extremes, to forsake the comfort of our principled irrelevancy. We must bring the full force of our reason to bear on these questions to which there are no easy and comfortable answers, and begin to give them the serious attention and debate that they deserve.
prole cat
March, 2004

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