Clinic essay-header

Digital Politics 101

by Jay Kinney

Is there a new political paradigm lurking in cyberspace?

Introductory notice: The September 1995 issue of WIRED contained an article by me on how politics might be evolving in the digital era ("Anarcho-emergentist Republicans?"). As finally edited, it was a relatively tight 2500 word article.

The essay which follows is the complete 7500 word piece which was, in the course of several drafts, originally submitted to WIRED. Since this piece took over six months of research and thought, I was reluctant to commit two-thirds of it to the memory-hole. Thus, as mentioned in the author's blurb to my published piece, I made available the complete piece online. It is substantially different from the version published in WIRED, and in some cases, features different conclusions and observations. Dozens of people were surveyed or interviewed in writing the original piece, however quotes from most of them did not make it through the editing process. Some of them are preserved here.

I am not claiming that this is the better piece, simply that it says more and is more nuanced (and probably harder hitting) than what finally saw print. As an editor and publisher myself, I understand the space and editorial constraints that shaped WIRED's trimming of my admittedly sprawling piece. However, as a writer, I grieve for all the words that never made it into print. Here they are, courtesy of the Web. Keep in mind that this was written over twenty years ago, before the Web really took off. I like to think that there is some prophetic truth contained herein. — Jay Kinney

It starts with a nagging feeling in your gut. You stand in the voting booth scanning the ballot, trying to recognize a familiar name or number. You can hear the people waiting impatiently in line outside and the sound reminds you of the lines for the bathroom at intermission during Angels in America. You just want to do your business and get out of there so that the next person in line can get in and have their moment of release. This is democracy? This is a pain in the neck. And all too often this is politics in America today.

So you hearken to the siren song of digital politics. Someone conjures up a vision of electronic democracy: Vote from the comfort of your own home! Take as long as you like to make your decisions! Access readily-available candidate information and statements on-line! E-mail your congressperson! Sign that electronic petition! Form ad hoc interest groups and virtual political parties! Debate the issues! Fax your grievances to Boris Yeltsin! Chat with Al Gore on AOL!

Yes, it's a thrilling scene with the socially-concerned family gathered around the ol' PC forging the politics of tomorrow. Why, I can feel the glow from here, but then that old nagging feeling starts up again and those haunting questions are back. Does this rosy scene have more than a snowball's chance in hell of actually happening? Whose vision is this anyway, and how much does all that hardware actually cost? What is going on?

Take the A Track

Early on in one's confrontation with the marvelous digital future, one realizes that this developing reality has at least two parallel tracks down which it's rushing simultaneously.

Track A: The never ending wet dream of power, speed, and wealth expanding exponentially forever and ever. This is the world where we'll soon have Crays on our desktops; the World Wide Web will be the Ultimate Info Mall; Junior's savvy use of his Grolier CD-ROM will get him into Harvard; and for only a small fee you'll be able to do what you've always wanted — home banking! This is the vision of computer magazines, technology columnists, Pentium ads, and user groups. It's the adrenalin rush of more megs of RAM, more gigs of storage, and a ISDN line for Christmas. Chances are, if you are reading this, Track A is familiar turf. It's also the track of electronic politics: a grand empowered future is within our grasp! Let's call it airbrushed, backlit, Future Porn.

Track B is a bit less dazzling. It's the imploding nightmare of bankruptcy, frustration, and fascism with the meter ticking and spiraling endlessly into the black hole at the center of your wallet. This is the universe where your hard disk just munched itself without a backup; the latest version of Microsoft Word requires 26 megs of storage; you have to max out your credit card to get the PowerMac you need to keep up with the competition; and the NSA and FBI want to assure their access to everyone's private files "just in case." This is the reality of money laundering by electronic funds transfer, BBS busts by Tennessee prosecutors, Kevin Mitnick with your creditcard number, and press conferences by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It's the grinding anxiety of viruses in your system, flame wars in your e-mailbox, and pinpoint bombing in this week's Third World country of choice. Again, chances are, you've got one foot in this world as well. Call it Digital Dystopia if you will.

Any serious look at how technology is shaping our political landscape has to take both tracks into consideration. Track A for the promises being made and Track B for booby traps located in the fine print.

Shift to Future Tense

Although cultural critics some time ago announced the death of the avant garde as an artistic force, the news has yet to penetrate the bastions of media where the concept of a "cutting edge" still provides the rationale for marketing the ongoing cultural carnival of magazines, CDs, software, and world views. During the heyday of modernism the old avant garde served to critique the remnants of a cultural Academy steeped in bourgeois self-satisfaction. However the avant garde was absorbed by the mass bohemian spasm of the counterculture at the close of the '60s, and shortly thereafter the whole dream of a rebellious alternative culture mutated into mock-outrageous pop culture powered by the constant need for new things to sell. Somewhere in there, the avant garde transmuted into the myth of the cutting edge.

During the '70s, the mechanism for the evolution from avant garde to cutting edge was facilitated by a treadmill of pop nostalgia which methodically gobbled up the previous decades of the twentieth century climaxing in a brief (and unnerving) embrace of the present during the Carter administration. This brief moment of real time was celebrated by the enforced donning of tractor or baseball caps by all Americans above the age of five. However 1977 saw the emergence of two cultural icons that marked the coming shift from past and present to future tense: Star Wars and the Apple II. The allure of actually living in a sci-fi universe, now rendered both accessible and cuddly by George Lucas and Steve Jobs' mastery of the cute touch, was impossible to resist.

If literary science fiction in the hands of past masters like Frederick Pohl or Cordwainer Smith served as a social critique of the present in the guise of the future, pop sci-fi now became an invitation to trade-in the past for a hopped up celebration of the still-to-come.

Although intended as mockery, the media's characterization of Reagan's proposed Strategic Defense Initiative as "Star Wars" ended up cementing the marriage of convenience between sci-fi and future porn. By the time that Cyberpunk, "Bladerunner," and "Terminator" came along with their seductive cyborg nightmares the general population was primed for techno-lust. The cutting edge was rollerblading down both Tracks A & B and there would be no looking back. The identification of digital culture as the wave of the future was complete.

Rust Never Sleeps

Cupertino is not Akron. As the old messy technology of heavy industry was dying in the aging Rust Belt back East and shifting to cheaper venues abroad, it was somehow fitting that the culture of infinite possibilities would spring up in the far West. Silicon Valley in the '80s was a heady place, an amazing electromagnet for venture capital. With all that capital pouring in, the contagious belief that anything could happen (and indeed sometimes did) spread like wild fire. Early video game programmers made their fortunes in royalties, home computing hotshots built up companies out of thin air, and Steve Wozniak had sufficient funds to bankroll the Us Festival, a nerd's version of Woodstock. Horatio Alger was reborn in an alligator shirt and whatever the state of the steel mills in Pittsburgh, things looked sweet on the Peninsula.

Dreams die hard, and although some of yesterday's brightest high tech stars have subsequently plummeted to earth and the era of overnight success in software and gadgetry is long since gone, the fact remains that computers and consumer electronics are one of the few places in the economy where products continue to improve while prices drop. It's as if, at least in this niche, the ideals of competition, creativity, and progress still seem to magically work.

Small wonder then, that Silicon Valley continues to be a fount of inspiration and validation for America's beloved myth of work and success. The corporate culture that has inevitably settled in is still looser than in most older industries and the breakneck pace of change provides a heady sense of momentum unimpeded by stick-in-the-mud factors like trade unions. Since many of the key players in the field do not fit the cliche of drab businessmen and the technology keeps topping itself in smart-aleck fashion, the glowing self-image generated on Track A almost necessitates the idea that there is a new improved politics emerging in the midst of gung-ho digital culture. This notion is even more seductive if one zeroes in on digital culture's cutting edge: cyberspace. However, the closer one looks, the more dicey the proposition becomes.

Gumbo for Breakfast

About the time that CNN viewers got to witness ecstatic Germans capering around on top of the Berlin Wall, it became clear that politics as usual was hemorrhaging severely. The poor performance of the socialists in power in France and Italy, and the collapse of Soviet communism and its satellites delivered a swift kick to the nuts of leftists everywhere. The sheer exuberance of the citizens of the Eastern Bloc as they busted free from their ideological chains was contagious and it nearly did in the Left as a credible player in the political arena. Even Sweden, everyone's favorite welfare state, underwent a mini-revolution and voted the long-reigning Social Democrats out of power.

Ironically, the apparent demise of communism as a galvanizing enemy also rendered a delayed body blow to the Right as well. Conservatives began to fight among themselves over the next step to take, opening up a rift between neocons and paleocons. Free market visionaries and investors who had been talking a good game in Gorbachov's final days, plowed head first into the dung heap of Russia's chaotic economy under Yeltsin. And George Bush, who announced the arrival of the New World Order, was unable to sustain the afterglow from Reagan's revolution for more than one term.

Fast forward to the present standoff with a Democratic president, a Republican congress, and more voters than ever registering as "Independent." Momentary crowing among the Republicans over the `94 elections aside, one gets the sense that given half a chance the electorate would love to ditch the old left/right horseshoe match and try on some new paradigms altogether.

A couple of years back, Ross Perot spoke to this craving, emulating a kind of pure American pragmatism beyond ideology. However the plucky little billionaire made an awkward populist and had too much other baggage, most notably a bad haircut and a bad temper, to serve as anything other than a spoiler. Still, the frustration with politics as usual lives on, translated into a generalized "anti-government mood" as it's been dubbed by the media. Which, one would think, would result in scores of voters embracing the Libertarian Party, the most explicitly anti-government electoral vehicle around, and the main political entity claiming to be neither left nor right.

Think again. Although there's currently an upsurge of pundit-chat about the possible rise of a major third party in the next election, both hostile state electoral rules and pervasive media skepticism are stacked against it. Besides, a third party President, unaccompanied by a supporting wave of sucessful third party congressmen and senators, would be even more thwarted than Clinton. Minus a breakthrough in grassroots organizing, the Libertarian Party —like other third parties — limps along, its most palatable rhetoric coopted by politicians outside its ranks. By default the disgruntled crowd ends up voting against whoever is in power or not voting at all. And so the game staggers on zombie-like, sapped of real will or credibility.

Less is More

Which leads some visionaries to theorize that maybe the high tech juggernaut — especially the online parts — will break the stasis and usher the world into a crackerjack new era of digital democracy. After all, you don't have to be inordinately rich in order to open a Web site, or a BBS, or to spout off in online forums. Maybe this is the grand opportunity for new political paradigms and ideologies to coalesce and to strut their stuff before an appreciative citizenry. As you'll recall, one of Perot's most memorable flourishes was a call for Electronic Democracy.

Colorado bulletin board maven Dave Hughes helped get a "Perot for President" BBS set up during the 1992 campaign and is second to none in touting the potential virtues of a wired populace. For Hughes, "Electronic Democracy simply means using [. . .] two way electronic means to permit the voting public to participate actively and not passively in the public debate, discussions, [. . .] and analysis of issues, candidates, and public matters." It is, "above all, a renewal of the idea that individuals count again in the political process, and have the power to participate, through electronic devices they have access to."

Certainly the political voices that can be encountered in cyberspace seem diverse, although recent polls are of little help in determining concrete numbers. A mid-1994 survey of Internet users by three academic researchers found that their political party affiliations roughly matched those of the general population: 36% Democrat, 32% independent, and 23% Republican. Yet an early 1995 Newsweek poll (which cited the general population as 33% Republican, 31% Democrat, and 36% independent) concluded that online participants were 48% Republican and 24% Democrat. That's a 25% spread between the academic survey and the Newsweek poll on the presence of Republicans in cyberspace!

When WIRED recently conducted an informal e-mail poll among a cross-section of participants in the budding digital culture, no clearcut political identity emerged. "Liberal," "progressive," "libertarian," "anarchist, and "conservative," all scored between 10% and 17% as self-applied labels, while a sizable chunk came up with intriguing if indecipherable oxymorons: "Progressive conservative"; "Virtual Populist"; "market oriented progressive"; and the ever popular "Anarcho-emergentist Republican."

Be that as it may, the most common perception of the brand of politics dominating the Net is one of radical libertarianism or "a mix of extreme liberals and extreme conservatives [with] very little in the middle," as venture capitalist Andrew Browning Dumke put it.

Why such polarization? The rather monolithic demographics of cyberspace would lead one to expect a political uniformity. One recent research study pegged Internet users as highly educated, 80% male and 80% white. Another survey identified World Wide Web users as 90% male and 87% white. Yet if there is any truth to the claim that the upheaval of the '94 elections reflected the frustration of white males feeling ideologically adrift, it stands to reason that the same groping for redefinition would manifest online.

Time Magazine's Philip Elmer-DeWitt suggests, "the people most attracted to the new media are folks from the fringes, who for one reason or another feel their message is not well represented by mainstream media. Gerard Van der Leun calls them the `bandwidth hogs,' because they tend to use the medium like a megaphone to broadcast their off-center views."

Which may be precisely the point: if a new inchoate politics is percolating among people who, whether justifiably or not, feel disturbed by the drift of the culture, this politics is likely to erupt in non-mainstream and off-center ways, otherwise it wouldn't be new.

This may not exactly be what the advocates of electronic democracy have in mind, but it does correlate with the popularity of, say, Rush Limbaugh: a lot of mid-Americans are royally pissed off and the emerging digital culture is one arena for that discontent.

Anarchy in the C-shell

Cyberspace is often characterized by observers as a new frontier with the "Don't Tread On Me" vigor of the Green Mountain Boys and the old Wild West. While international in scope, the Net has been dominated so far by American voices and sites. Perhaps its new politics is not so new at all, but rather the resurfacing of a doughty American anarchism — a pioneer/settler philosophy of self-reliance, direct action, and small-scale decentralism translated into pixels. After all, the relatively wide open nature of the Net during its early years meant you could stake your claim in some obscure corner of the Net and be the ruler of your own virtual realm.

Science writer, Simson L. Garfinkel observes: "Information Technlogy seems to have attracted strong, aggressive, male, radical Libertarian types. I suspect that this is because it is attracting people who feel comfortable dominating: they dominate technology, they dominiate those around them, they feel comfortable taking charge and control of things. I also believe that Information Technology makes people this way. This is because [. . .] it gives you the power to work your will on your environment. You can shut people up by pressing the "D" key or putting their name in your kill file."

Although originally funded by government sources, the Internet's decentralized, cooperative structure has been, ironically, the closest thing to a functioning large-scale anarchist society that human culture has yet seen. While the offline society-at-large seems bogged down in a bewildering swamp of regulation, litigation, legislative gridlock, and intrusive social engineering, the relatively blank canvas of the Net has encouraged visionaries to project their dreams of a new political order.

When Feedback Becomes Noise

These dreams take several forms. Track A visionaries such as Marilyn Davis, author of the eVote software for online voting, are certain that the political process, including elections themselves, will be enhanced by the expansion of cyberspace.

Davis explains: "In the not-too-distant future, the people in the online communities will band together to get their candidates elected to every office in every (somewhat) democratic country. These new 'politicians' will be the puppets of the online democratic community and they will, as much as possible, hand over all their power to the online community.

"People who are not online will vote for our candidates because they hate politicians. And because Our system will be wonderfully benevolent."

Davis, bless her heart, is quite sincere. So is Jim Warren, founder of Infoworld and the Computers, Freedom & Privacy conferences, although he doesn't go quite so far in his goals. Having masterminded online pressure that led to the California Legislature making information on bills, amendments, votes, etc. available on the Net, Warren is busy these days orchestrating support for the expansion of information available through the U.S. Congress's Thomas WWW page. Warren's goal includes making available online transcripts of House and Senate C-Span programs, the Congressional Record, extensive information about all registered lobbyists, and much more. With all this information at our fingertips, Warren hopes that "we may be able to see it in time to effectively participate in the process of our own governance through irresistable grassroots action."

But such optimism calls for a dose of Track B pessimism to keep things in perspective. Given that probably only 5% of the population even owns a modem, if that, these envisioned grassroots remain pretty rarified. Yet even this minute upsurge of activity may backfire. Simson L. Garfinkel cautions: "I know that most Congressional staffers simply dread the day that constituents are able to send e-mail to senators and congressmen. I was speaking to one staffer the other day, who said that they were simply deluged with letters and telephone calls now; they can't give out the fax number, for fear that the fax will become unusable. She is terrified that the level of mail will increase by a factor of two or three once they go online. . . . She said that they might have to stop their policy of returning a personalized letter to every letter that they get."

Garfinkel continues: "I believe that easier access to our representatives will have the result of lowering their accountability and interest in voter feedback. It will do this by lowering the communications barrier between the representatives and the people, thus raising the noise level. We have seen the same thing happening on the Internet."

Virtual Reality researcher Robert Jacobson is even more pessimistic about political things to come: "The grassroots opinions are going to become increasingly irrelevant, except at regular booster sessions called to stand in for vital political debate. Elections will be for functionaries to argue the cases of their respective corporate patrons."

In any event, whether you are seized with electronic optimism or pessimism, it is best to remember that the politics that we bring to cyberspace is only half the picture. The politics that the burgeoning technology is enacting upon us as it spreads its tendrils everywhere looms larger still. Let's cut away for a bit from the microcosmic vision of votes, civic debates, and mid-America with modems and consider the bigger picture, for there is compelling evidence of global forces at work which dwarf the self-conceptions or ideological intentions of any one group of individuals. This is the politics of historical currents, not net-surfing soapboxes.

Think Locally, Act Globally

Futurists make much of the collapse of time and space that is being ushered in by world telecommunications and the microchip. As anyone who has stuck their finger in the socket of the Internet can testify, the heady sense of personal power that results from zipping back and forth from FTP sites in Europe to Web pages in Vancouver is dazzling — at least initially. However the power of virtual mobility is not quite the same as the power of accumulated capital. At the same time that you may be downloading an enormous video clip of Tonya Harding's wedding night courtesy of some net server five states away, multinational corporations are busily conducting transactions worth millions of dollars in the blink of an eye.

Cyberspace is full of armchair mavericks and eccentric ideologues. But whatever the gyrations of political difference and originality among them, the onrushing logic of the integration of the world economy and world politics into a single unified whole may overshadow those distinctions, just as the boundaries between nations are becoming anachronistic in the face of the "global marketplace."

It's at this point in the discussion that things begin to get a little hairy. Political minds of a certain "patriotic" turn, be they Birchers in the U.S. or Pamyat in Russia, catch a whiff of this creeping globalization in the wake of the Cold War's demise and the ascendancy of international networking, and start shouting about nefarious conspiracies to do in their respective Motherlands. Since talk of international conspiracies smacks of paranoia, scapegoating, or worse, these naysayers to the New World Order are immediately dismissed as reactionary nutcases.

However, this may be a case of tossing the baby out with the bathwater. True, the Illuminati may not exist and the thought of some hidden directorate craftily coordinating everything from the S & L debacle to the spread of AIDS is a mite hard to swallow. Yet, like the Internet itself, the process of global integration may have no directing center on which to pin the blame, but merely its own internal logic and the confluence of self-interested economic and political entities. This may be quite sufficient to overturn the old order.

When queried about the future of nationalism, Lawrence Wilkinson, co-founder of the net-wise Global Business Network, encapsulates it thus:

"Just as during the Enlightenment `the nation-state' took over from `the church' to become the dominant seat of action, so the nation-state is now receding, yielding center stage to `the marketplace'; the action in the marketplace is interestingly everywhere: local, global, wherever — where `wherever' is increasingly dictated by `pure' economics and interests, not by national borders (nor the tariffs, national practices, ilkinson observes: "I believe that we're in for some nationalist noise and some nationalist violence before the transition is done, but I do believe that it will finish, to be replaced by the kinds of tribal and commercial conflicts described by folks like Joel Kotkin (Tribes) and Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaur (Seven Cultures of Capitalism). What will remain of nationalism? My bet is that it'll have the character — the strength and relative `weight' — of brand loyalty; perhaps in some cases, that charged variety of brand loyalty, a fan's relationship to a sports team."

In the Beginning Were the Logos

It's funny that Wilkinson should mention sports and brand loyalty because that very area may provide an incongruous example of what's under way. As it turns out, shoe companies and sportswear makers are spending millions of dollars to assure that football, basketball, and other teams wear their brands of logo-emblazoned apparel on the field as a form of quasi-subliminal advertising. As John Flinn recently reported in the San Francisco Examiner, "Shoe companies actually file `starting lineups' before each game with NFL Properties. Nike and Reebok are allowed to have 10 players on each team displaying their logos. . . . Players not under contract are allowed to wear Adidas or other brands on the field, but only if the logos are covered with tape."

In other words, as nationalism becomes mere brand loyalty, brand loyalty becomes the new nationalism. Inner city gangs are already hip to this development. Just ask the school kid who's been shot for wearing the wrong sports jacket. This is also the peculiar truth that reactionaries intuit when they conjure up visions of the Universal Price Code as the Mark of the Beast. Nature abhores a vacuum and as the old icons of flag and family blink out there are plenty of registered trademarks to take their place.

Perhaps I exaggerate, but still, with the old nationalist boundaries dissolving — on the Web, in the market, on TV — suddenly you are face to face with the only boundary left that counts: the boundary between your mind and the rest of the world. Prepare for psychic colonization wherein every moment bears the stamp of some corporate sponsor or other. The A & E or Fox Network "bugs" in the corner of your TV screen (or the ad strips across the top of HotWired WWW screens for that matter) are only the beginning.

Sci-fi Toast

Okay. Let's see if we can take this planetary Track B nightmare and boil it down into a single equation: Digital Revolution = Global Integration = New World Order = Marketplace Ü ber Alles. Shades of Neuromancer.

Is this a credible bogeyman? When I run this scenario by Mitch Kapor, founder of both Lotus and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, he is strongly skeptical. "I don't believe that anyone has made a remotely plausible case for that. Science fiction authors seize on it, and write very interesting and provocative statements but I don't even think that it's worth discussing until somebody can point me to one piece of writing that suggests plausibly how those forces might be so powerful [as] to bring that about....In fact you could argue that the same types of decentralist forces that are tending to put pressures on nations are also going to put pressures on corporations."

Well, alright. But maybe these "decentralist forces" are not really at odds with the convergence of interests that is implied here. Arthur Kroker, who is admittedly about as close to sci-fi as you can get in the academic world of postmodern theory, offers a couple of specific examples of transnational integration. Kroker points to the growth of a "new global technological elite" (which he calls the "virtual class") who see the Net as an opportunity to "maximize pure business interests. [Their] motto is: `Adapt or You're Toast.' For example, British Air uses the information superhighway to relocate its world-wide reservation service to India in order to take advantage of cheap labor and, in the near future, Africa will be used as a base for surveillance systems for U.S. malls, thus hard-wiring cheap labor to the information superhighway."

What is this if not simultaneous decentralization and integration? In similar fashion, a junior executive who telecommutes from home is less beholden to the geographical location of corporate headquarters, but he is all the more dependent on the network of technology and information that underpins the process.

Cybercratic Clampdown?

A few years back in a thoughtful white paper called "Cyberocracy is Coming," RAND Corp. analyst David Ronfeldt examined both positive and negative futures that might result from the growth of cyberspace and the information-based society. He noted: "These forces disrupt and erode hierarchies, diffuse and redistribute power, redraw boundaries, broaden spatial and temporal horizons, and compel closed systems to open up. This creates troubles especially for large, bureaucratic, aging institutions. . ." From a positive perspective, Ronfeldt suggested that such troubles "favor the rise of multi-organizational networks of small organizations" which are able to act together at a distance through networked links. Score one for the little guy.

However, in terms of possible negative outcomes he also cited and paraphrased Daniel Bell's 1977 warnings about destabilization. This has more immediate domestic implications and brings us back to the question of emerging politics. Ronfeldt wrote: "Societies, the United States in particular, are undergoing a `loss of insulating space' as conditions and events in one place are quickly, demandingly communicated to other places. Political systems are becoming more `permeable' than ever to destabilizing events, and people are more able to respond directly and immediately. In some societies — Bell was worried about the United States — this may raise the likelihood of contagious mass reactions and mobilizations, and make the rulers strengthen centralized controls to keep that from occurring."

With all the encouragement coming from Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, and Co. for the infobahn to come, it would seem as if contagious mobilizations and destabilizations are the last thing that the government is worried about. Not so. The NSA and FBI had at least one eye on such possibilities, along with more garden variety crimes and mischief when they proposed the clipper chip and last year's Digital Telephony Act. And more efforts at control, both cultural and political, are coming fast and furious. To those in charge, any change in the distribution of power or secrecy is destabilizing.

But, don't PGP encryption and the decentralized nature of the Internet assure freedom of speech and ward off attempts at control? Not really. A radar detector can help warn you of speed traps but the highway patrol will still arrest and prosecute you if they discover you have one in your car. PGP may enable you to exchange mail securely with a friend but it doesn't help much if what you exchange is defined as illegal and your hard disk is seized.

The shorthand term "infobahn" summons up visions of the German autobahn — an atypical stretch of road with no speed limits. But much of U.S. highway still has 55 mph speed limits. Everyone ignores those limits but only at the sufferance of the cops. As the info superhighway comes into view our lawmakers are hustling to jump on their motorbikes and start issuing tickets. Thus, legislative efforts are already underway to make it a felony to transmit files, e-mail or images deemed unacceptable. A few pivotal lawsuits and court cases may throw the fear of God into the rising telecomglomerates real quickly, rendering unpopular speech on the Net an activity dangerous to one's health. If a local Tennessee prosecutor (with the assistance of the Justice Department) can successfully convict a California adult BBS for obscenity, how much longer before the clean-up crews start going after the alt.binaries newsgroups on the Net?

And that's just the attacks from above. Online warfare from private parties is also gearing up. Recently someone apparently sympathetic to the Church of Scientology unleashed a cancelbot on the Internet to delete all Usenet postings they considered injurious to the Church's name and property. The Church even went so far as to persuade Finnish police to wrest the identity of an anonymous poster to alt.scientology from the confidential files of anon.penet.fi, the anonymous e-mail remailer in Finland. And greencard lawyer Martha S. Siegel, of Canter and Siegel spamming notoriety, rang in the New Year with an op-ed piece in newspapers across the country demanding that Internet be put under FCC control and that the same anonymous server in Finland be demolished through diplomatic pressure. In other words, the Net's days as a free zone may be rapidly drawing to a close, and instead of electronic democracy we may find ourselves catapulted into a surreal mix of psychowar and corporate feudalism.

Before you kindly wipe the foam from my mouth, consider this: As any social studies teacher can tell you (and probably did at some point) the foundations of traditional democracy derive from electing representatives who presume to speak for discrete real-world communities and are pledged to defend their interests — or at least help them mesh with those of the greater good. Thus the shift towards a world of atomized individuals linked primarily in ad hoc and transitory virtual communities is a step away from the context in which democracy makes most sense.

No matter how much legislative information is available online, it is basically superfluous if you don't have the time or desire to access it, digest it, and weigh your options. Unfortunately the network-induced collapse of time doesn't deliver more time — it takes it away by speeding everything up. This quickening is grand for those who are poised to leap on each new innovation and exploit it profitably, but it doesn't help much in building a new politics which goes beyond blowing off steam in alt.conspiracy.

Self-Policing the Net

As for political watchdogging? Former CIA analyst Robert D. Steele has proposed an "Open Source Intelligence" strategy which helps trim intelligence agency budgets and excessive covert bravura by redirecting intelligence gathering towards the Net.

One OSI proposal by Steele associate Anthony Fedanzo suggests "the constituents of the proposed OSI organization will be electronically linked, geographically dispersed, predominantly unpaid amateurs from the standpoint of present intelligence professionals. OSI participants will be citizen analysts, a term describing persons whose primary activity in life is not the collection, analysis, and presentation of intelligence, but some other way of life and employment.

"Citizen analysts will be free of employment contracts, performance reviews (except defacto reviews by their peers and information requesters), and all statutory obligations beyond those already existing for civilized behavior. They are at liberty to work with whatsoever information tools, techniques, methods, and resources they select. Citizen analysts are required to use OSI standard exchange formats and media for OSI products.

"On the other side of the ledger, citizen analysts will not be able to charge expenses. Nor may they claim any form of compensation now or in the future from the OSI organization. They will receive a fixed minimum number of free hours of connect time to the OSI network.

"Ideally, the incentive for participants consists of social recognition and psychological rewards stemming from voluntary service to the nation. More pragmatically, requesters could contract directly with citizen analysts or consortia of analysts for follow-on studies. Commercial firms that allow employees a few hours a week to participate might receive R&D tax credits, or the like. The OSI organization will need to receive a small percentage (say, 1-2 percent) of any fees paid to OSI participants when those fees result from work gained through participation in the OSI network."

In other words, amateur spies — excuse me, citizen analysts — may keep tabs on the far-flung Net in return for free connect time and that sense of patriotic pride. It's enough to give a new meaning to the phrase, "inquiring minds want to know!"

Make no mistake, the Internet is not the end-all and be-all of digital culture, it is just the current boxing ring where the rationalization of cyberspace is being hammered out. One is reminded of Mao's strategic campaign to "let a thousand flowers bloom," which flushed out all the trouble-makers who then had nowhere to hide when the worm turned.

Boxing Day

Make no mistake, the Internet is not the end-all and be-all of digital culture, it is just the current boxing ring where the rationalization of cyberspace is being hammered out.

Perhaps reflecting the polarized mix of ideological proponents who populate the Net, the de facto politics of cyberspace until now has been an amalgam of anal retentive libertarianism and liberal altruism. You could more or less do what you liked online, as long as you played by the rules, channeled your anti-social and deviant impulses into obscure alt.hierarchy newsgroups, and didn't get the wrong sysops mad at you. It's all been rather like an enormous floating sci-fi convention by modem, which is just about what you'd expect from a milieu that was originally devised by people whose idea of fun was reading Dune at two in the morning while waiting for their code to compile.

Yet, when you get down to brass tacks, it seems like such laissez-faire pluralism is not so much the wave of the future as an artifact of an odd fleeting interlude in the late twentieth century when Queen Unix ruled the Net and the Chancellor of the Exchequer was off at a Mensa meeting. Perhaps in the same way that artists and bohemians serve as unwitting advance scouts for urban neighborhood gentrification, the cutting edge technopagans and netheads are actually homing devices for the waves of MBAs and lawyers coming to settle cyberspace. If they're lucky, the original natives of the Net —the grad students and the hackers who devised freeware like Archie and invented the Usenet binaries groups — will be allowed to retire to a reservation in some obscure corner of the Global Village, there to grep and ping like their ancestors before them. Everyone else will be busy shopping online, playing Doom, and keeping tabs on each other.

"My My My," said the Spider to the Fly

Then again, the very term "online" may rapidly become obsolete if current trends continue. Consider the following projections and spin your own scenario.

If we assume that:

  • both co-ax and wireless grids spread to quasi-Universal access (already in motion);
  • bandwidth widens to allow the equivilent of HDTV on your desktop (only a matter of time);
  • your desktop decentralizes and mobilizes through miniaturization, voice recognition, and "smart" interfaces to usher in PDAs done right (i.e. Alan Kay's vision finally comes true);
  • television with its schedule-based programming and distinct commercials at measured intervals mutates into a selection of interactive 24-hour lifestyle choices sponsored by vast competing corporate alliances who help you to literally "get a life" (foreshadowed in TCI-Sprint or Microsoft Net ventures coming into view);
  • electronic money, smart cards, and various tax agencies collaborate to marginalize cash while assuring that the City/State/Federal/and (in due course) World tax authorities get their cut of every financial or commodity transaction (still working the bugs out of this one); and that
  • One way or the other, nothing is free — i.e. the meter is running on all services rendered all the time, although we may toggle between productive "billable" time (when we build up our credit reservoir) and leisure "consumption" time (when our reservoir is drawn upon); and when
  • IRC, phone sex, CB radio, TV talk shows, and talk radio all coalesce into an array of 24-hour pick-a-peer channels you can patch into anywhere with your wireless headset, and the dividing line between Virtual Reality and Real Life becomes mostly academic; and when
  • the whole hassle over sampling, copying, digitizing, intellectual property rights, and licensing get ironed out in some grand ASCAP-like registry scheme where consumers subscribe to licensing banks which grant them usage rights over all media with that bank's logo-stamp (Bill Gates is already heading in this direction);

Well, then, where does that leave us?

In such a future — an instrumentalized, administered, metered, and market-defined future to be sure, when Track A and Track B are so inextricably interwoven that leaving the Net becomes as unthinkable as giving up breathing — where is the place for politics, new or otherwise?

The whole thrust of the major player, video-on-demand, totally wired, multi-media, content-provider blitzkrieg is an entertainment-saturated environment that leaves little time or space for debate and studied thought about "issues." The increasingly complex decisions required by a global civilization will likely be left to the policy wonks, CEOs, and the institutional minions who keep the whole ball rolling anyway.

Choices like "more" or "less" government become obsolete when the technocratic, quasi-parental, servicemarked colossus reduces your decision-making capacity to the level of "would you like milk or sugar with your Prozac?" As the warp and the woof draw ever tighter, the feelings of claustrophobia and manipulation that result may indeed trigger a new politics in the midst of digital culture: the networked equivalent of the Branch Davidians, where the ultimate political gesture is one of withdrawal and self-marginalization. But even self-exile to a private MUD counts for little when the Feds come knocking, as the ghost of David Koresh reminds us.

A Limited Time Offer

Meanwhile, netsurfing is an undeniable kick. All that psychic space to move around in is seductive in the extreme and at least in plugged-in urban areas it's actually cheaper to maintain a SLIP or PPP connection than it is to watch cable TV. But that too may change.

After all, repeat customers are the model citizens of the global marketplace and addiction is the unspoken motif of the cuddly control that has got us in its grip. Libertarians love to point out that "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch," though that's not always true. With drug dealers "the first one's free," and it's a humdinger. The price goes up on the second visit. Perhaps the World Wide Web will be like really good crack: cheap and affordable until you're thoroughly addicted, then you wake up one day to discover the meter ticking and you've got an insatiable hunger for online infomercials.

One doesn't want to take this addiction metaphor too far — rampant accusations of addiction being the moral vice of the late 20th century — but there is more than a passing resemblance to the junkie's build-up of drug tolerance and raised buzz threshold in the accelerating pace of innovation and throughput which drives digital culture forward. "You gotta let me have more RAM, Frank! I can't get off on only 8 megs anymore!"

And this is ultimately how the political lid is kept screwed on, no matter what label you choose. If your food and rent are dependent on e-mail and electronic currency and if your contact with friends and family is largely via Cyberspace, then it's a good bet that you'll be dependably sitting at your PC (or lugging your PDA) most of the day, beholden to a global system which fits you like a snug logoed shoe. In such a universe the only political opposition not vulnerable to having its electricity shut off may be quirky third world despots like Qaddafi who stand and heckle the advancing New World Order from the side of the road. And that is not a comforting thought.

But perhaps this is all too pessimistic, too Track B. Perhaps object-oriented programming and parallel processing will trickle down to where we can all create the decor of our own virtual universes and your e-mail gripe to your congressman will indeed make it through the maze and fulfill the promise of electronic democracy. Unfortunately, I have a recurring dream where the new political paradigm is already in place: You have to wear Nikes and I have to wear Reeboks — it's in the fine print of our software licenses. As for the technopeasants who are stuck swapping old 2400 baud modems down at the fleamarket in the vacant lot? They have to tape up their logos when the camera's on them and just say "Cheese."

Anyone care for an hors d'oeuvre?

END

Sidebar

Net Politics

Is there concrete evidence for the emergence of a new politics in digital culture? Cyberspace itself is busy broadcasting mixed messages.

In a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association this last fall, scholars Bonnie Fisher, Michael Margolis, and David Resnick reported on a survey they conducted of Internet users. Their 30-question survey, sent to a cross-section of Listserve mailing lists and Usenet news groups, garnered 453 respondents (along with an additional 100 refusals and flames). The results were suggestive of the political and economic contours of cyberspace.

80% of the respondents were male, 80% were white (although not necessarily the same 80%), 40% were single and had never been married, with a median age of 31 years. 85% had at least some college education while 51% had degrees. For the 310 U.S. citizens who responded, the median household annual income was between $40,000 and $59,000.

Fisher, Margolis, and Resnick noted that the American respondents "showed a distribution of party identifications that broadly reflects the general population: 36 percent Democrat, 32 percent independent and 23 percent Republican."

However, beneath the party i.d.'s lurked a more complex set of values. The American respondents' political self-descriptions (many of which no doubt overlapped) included: 36% Liberal, 31% Environmentalist, 26% Libertarian, 26% Middle of the Road, 25% Conservative, 20% Feminist, 19% Left Wing, 12% Socialist, 10% Indifferent or apolitical, and 7% Right Wing.

Inspired in part by this survey, WIRED queried a potpourri of techno-buffs, online denizens, Silicon Valley employees and observers of digital culture about their politics and opinions on technological impact. (With 40 responding out of 140 questionnaires sent out by e-mail, the results were admittedly unscientific, although interesting.)

Only 15% bothered to use "Democrat" or "Republican" as political self-labels and those who did appended modifiers to further fine-tune the description: ("registered Democrat who votes libertarian if possible"; "Democrat (progressive)"; "constitutional republican"; "Conservative democrat"; "Anarcho-emergentist Republican"; and "new Democrat." The other 85% of the respondents opted for more specific ideological designations [Progressive — 17.5%; Libertarian — 15%; Liberal — 12.5%; Anarchist — 10%; and Conservative — 10%] or for one-of-a-kind or hybrid labels defying easy categorization ["Progressive conservative"; "Virtual Populist"; "market oriented progressive"; or "independent".] Thus, although the numbers in the two surveys differ, they do confirm an extensive political spread.

Quotes from some respondents to the WIRED questionaire can be found in the accompanying article. -JK

This article is © copyright 1995 by Jay Kinney. Portions of this piece that appear in "Anarcho-emergentist Republicans" in Wired, Sept 1995 are © copyright 1995 by WIRED. All rights reserved.

Reproduction is prohibited without permission of the author. Contact Jay Kinney.