[iDC] Against Web 2.0

David Golumbia dgolumbia at virginia.edu
Tue May 30 23:14:37 EDT 2006

Trebor et al,

I'm a little surprised by Trebor's latest post. It seems to me to shift the
terms that you introduced in the first place.

The crucial moment in your email is the one where you quote Mattelart. That
strikes me as especially unfortunate, because following on Innis and
McLuhan, and in many ways improving on them very much, Mattelart is among
the sharpest critics of the ideology that I thought we were starting to get
in our sights: that mass communications systems largely serve the interests
of power and track the spread of centralized power very precisely, *even
when they happen to provide benefits to distributed power*. Those
distributive effects are often secondary, and sometimes even take a strongly
ideological form, in which centralized powers sell the masses on new media
as the solution to social problems. Rock music, TV, magazines, films: so
many media/communication forms that serve power especially well appear to be
offering "power to the people." I had more faith in "Street Fighting Man" or
"Ohio" than I do in Amazon.com <http://amazon.com/> as a force for social
change, and with hindsight I'm not so sure about the work "Street Fighting
Man" was doing (or can do). "Impeach the President" is cool though. Maybe
it's having an effect. But I also think it's arguable that "American Idol"
and The Killers is where rock music was heading all along, that *they* are
having an effect, and it's not one that aims toward better democracy.

What I find most disturbing about what I think of as the "computers will
save us" view is that it focuses so narrowly on computers themselves,
following a pattern that many prior media and their advocates have followed.
When you step back and look at the world in which those media are embedded,
the supposedly beneficial effects can often be observed getting totally
swamped by the work of centralized power.

And this is so easy to see in our present moment, and so rarely commented
on. For 20, 30, 40 years, we've had the advent of what is supposedly the
most democratic, open, social media form ever introduced: the Internet (it
might even be those things). Now, look at the societies that use the
Internet: the US, Europe, China, Japan, Korea (and many others). Is it even
plausible to argue that these societies have become more democratic, more
open, less authoritarian during the Internet decades? You'd have real
trouble convincing me of that. With rock music, you at least have a couple
examples where you can argue some connection with democratic change!
(Czechoslovakia, US, UK, a few other examples).

What we've had in the US with the advent of the Internet is Reagan, Bush I,
Clinton, and Bush II. Maybe one of the worst strings of political leadership
we have ever had, including Clinton's repeated conciliations to the right.
And accomplished in no small part by incredibly sophisicated
and adroit manipulation of popular opinion and even "fact" ( e.g., with
regard to global warming). If the Internet is so democratizing, & makes "the
facts" so available to "everyone," why hasn't the US changed for the better?
Why don't we see radical democracy breaking out all over? Is it because
del.icio.us isn't quite primed with enough tag clouds? Because not enough
sites have created machine-readable metadata and split their content into
XML and style sheets? There are so many strong examples of societies and
social groups becoming MORE controlled with computerization (have you been
inside any corporations lately?), not less, that it is incumbent on Internet
advocates to show why, with empirical/historical arguments, we should
believe that these technologies lead the way to more freedom, better
democracy. You can't make these arguments by focusing on technologies: you
have to show the societies where change has happened. If anything,
democratic dissent in the US has become much less effective recently than it
was before: so now we need to argue that this effect has nothing to do with
the Internet, and the Internet just hasn't had its real effects yet. Bah.

Let's instead float a thesis that I hope some readers find disturbing, in no
small part because Mattelart, Innis, McLuhan, Virilio, Derrida, and many
others would agree with it and in many cases have helped to articulate it.
The rise of many recent sophisticated quasi-authoritarian regimes is
coterminous with the rise of the Internet and mass computerization. From a
historical perspective, then, a plausible thesis is that *computerization
walks hand-in-hand with a kind of state fascism, which sees owning the means
of production and the means of interpretation as primary means of social
control*. (That comparison is one reason it's vital to remember the
difference between Mussolini and Hitler: because it is Mussolini, nearly
reincarnated in GWB and his friends like Berlusconi and Rupert Murdoch,
whose political program has turned out to be so effective.) Indeed, it was
precisely to retain centralized power that DARPA designed the internet to be
so distributed. (see Alex Galloway, Paul Edwards, etc., as well as my own
writings on the subject) The point of the distribution, despite the way it
sounds, was to increase centralization. You can very easily work out just as
many conceptual connections for this thesis, and it has the advantage of
comporting very closly with a wide range of historical facts.

I'm all for more social technologies on the web; but I really want people to
think more seriously about the relationship of ANY social technology with
realpolitik. I think it is vital that exactly the people who subscribe to
this list and others like it try harder to situate the technologies in the
politics and histories from which they emerge--you know what happens if we
don't. We make the same exact mistakes over and over again.

I will state it as clearly as I can: computers aren't the answer to our
world's social problems. If that makes anyone's hackles rise, maybe it's
worth asking how those hackles got there in the first place.

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