Anarchy, Neo-Liberalism and the Internet's Privileged Epistemologies

ca. February 20, 2001 (wave list)


Over the last several months I have I been a member of an email list devoted to musical improvisation. Its active participants are all men except for one woman -- a scenario that is not uncommon. The list's language is often coarse and has a rather masculinist character that seems unwelcoming to women. Recently, the question of diversity was raised. It was suggested that the list needed some minimal language standards, and that a moderator might facilitate a more inclusive atmosphere. 

When the hapless woman who regularly participates said the list's language was indeed a problem for her, one of the men responded: "I don't really give a fuck as to how a person says what he/she needs to say...it's the fuckin' IDEA that ultimately counts." 

The idea of moderation was met with almost unanimous complaints of censorship by the men. The owner confirmed that the list is a place where anything goes, and that there would be no controls except the exclusion of concert notices (which are reserved for a separate address.) When the discussion of diversity became more heated (thus empowering the theme) one list member advised the others to quit addressing it, "Don't wrestle with a pig," he wrote, " you both get covered in shit and the pig loves it." 

Another participant trivialized diversity by comparing it to musical recordings that present "elephants" and "five year olds": 

"Here's something of interest to those of you who would like to see more inclusion of minorities in the music. Not only are these elephants Thai, but they are elephants. Very refreshing to see more folks including elephants. There's also a very tempting CD by an orchestra of 5 year olds."

Even though the comments were a bit more ugly than usual, the flame war was not untypical of what happens on many e-mail discussion groups. One well-known composer added that "anarchy" should reign on the list. 

This raises important questions about the Internet's presumed anarchy and who it benefits. On one hand, anarchy guarantees a kind of free speech, but on the other, it grants the ruling status quo (which is often that of white males) an unrestricted exercise of power that can further marginalize those who are different. Since the general ethos of the Internet stigmatizes regulation, it is seldom that lists grant any form of encouragement or "epistemological privilege" to marginalized views. Lists tend to gravitate toward norms that leave members little to do except preach to the choir. Those who are different are relegated to smaller, more specialized lists where their concerns are ghettoized. 

Does this process lead to a form of diversity, even if fragmented? Or does it leave a totalizing, "tribal" norm in the center that removes those marginalized from the avenues of power? 

Seen from a larger perspective, the Internet's presumed anarchy is culturally isomorphic with the non-interventionist ethos of a newly evolving, unregulated style of global capitalism. In its broader socio-cultural forms, this philosophy of non-regulation is sometimes referred to as neo-liberalism. It espouses freedom and a kind of non-policy anarchy, but the force of its unregulated, monolithic economic power creates a globalized, cultural uniformity. Cultures that oppose this largely Americanized form of global economics are ghettoized. Some of the more extreme examples are Cuba, North Korea, Libya, Serbia and Iraq, though neo-liberalism also stands in opposition to many aspects of Europe's highly regulated social democracies.

One of the most articulate proponents of neo-liberalism as manifested in global information technology is the Executive Editor of _Wired Magazine_, Kevin Kelly. In his book, _Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines_, he advocates the economic theory of "disorganized capitalism," and suggests that the "natural order" of the free-market creates a form of "control without authority" such as might exist in a bee hive or a flock of birds. In effect, he repeats Adam Smith's metaphor of the "Invisible Hand" that guides laissez-faire capitalism. [This form of free-market ideology was argued in influential books such as K. Offe's _Disoranized Capitalism_ (1985) and S. Lash and J. Urry's, _The End of Organized Capitalism_ (1987) and popularized under the Reagan administration.] 

There are two excellent critiques of Kelly's book available on the web that provide interesting perspectives about the Internet's current trends and who is privileged by its neo-liberal ethos. The first is William Grassie's "'The Nine Laws of God': Kevin Kelly's Out of Control Techno-Utopic Program for a WIRED World". You can find it at:

<http://www.voicenet.com/~grassie/Fldr.Articles/NineLaws.html> 

In general, Grassie argues that Kelly's laissez-faire neo-liberalism is flawed because it leaves the technology of global corporatism without an adequate system of checks and balances. Grassie also notes that neo-liberalism has, in effect, become a cultural system that shapes the way we use information technology. The Internet's lack of regulation, which was promoted as an ethic to protect free-speech on the "Information Super-Highway," was easily subsumed by E-Commerce. An "anarchy" originally planned to protect free-speech and tolerance, was transformed into a system of laissez-faire capitalism that now defines a large part of the Internet's general character. 

Grassie asserts that in the current cultural, political, and economic context, Kelly's neo-liberalism "turns out to be fully committed to a kind of Social Darwinist laissez-faire social-techno-evolutionary non-policy." In this wired, Darwinsitic free-market, the ruling status quo, as represented by the financial and media interests of society, are given powerful new tools to shape cultural values on a global scale. 

Whether it be the global economy or an e-mail list, the instantaneousness of modern information creates a kind of tribal uniformity that can silence or ghettoize those who are different. 

This raises important questions. Will the Internet be one more tool allowing American laissez-faire capitalism to create an ever-increasing form of globalized cultural uniformity? Will neo-liberalism's powerful business interests lend the Internet an increasingly homogenizing cultural ethos that only appears to be anarchic and unregulated? What are the mechanisms that grant neo-liberalism's Darwinistic definition of information technology an epistemological privilege, and -how- does it marginalize those who are different? And on a more speculative, microscopic level, is there a form of cultural isomorphism at work that creates a correlation between the neo-liberal ethos of the Internet and the tendency for e-mail lists to be mostly comprised of white males?

There are few clear answers at this point, but another critique of Kelly's book, by Richard Barbrook, entitled "The Pinnochio Theory," provides some specific political responses from a European perspective. His commentary can be found at:

<http://www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk/hrc/manifesto/pinnochio.html> 

Barbrook, a British media theoretician, argues that Kelly's concepts derive from an enculturated American view that anarchy is a "natural order" reflected in free-market capitalism:

"In essence, 'Out of Control' argues that American-style 'free market' capitalism is not a peculiar social creation, but an ahistorical natural eco-system. The 'invisible hand' of the marketplace and the blind forces of Darwinian evolution are one and the same thing. "

Like Grassie, Barbrook sees neo-liberalism's presumed informational "anarchy" as part of a highly ordered, Dawinisitic, technocratic, free-market capitalism. Barbrook notes that Kelly's concepts about information technology are even couched in terms of the cold war:

"As proved by the collapse of the USSR, any attempt by the state or the community to plan or regulate the development of capitalism is against the laws of nature (Kelly, pp. 52-3). The social can only be produced as 'spontaneous order' - the emergent property of individual consumers and producers pursuing their own self-interests in an unregulated marketplace (Kelly, p. 157). Like members of a swarm of bees or a flock of birds, people cannot influence their own destiny (Kelly, pp. 6-14). The future is 'out of control'. In his book, Kelly has simply updated this theory for the age of computers and the Net. 'Social Darwinism' no longer just reflects the natural laws of past evolution, but also the science fiction future foretold by the new information technologies."

The Net is thus defined as an extension of a Darwinisitic, anarchic, laissez-faire capitalism. Barbrook points out the correlations between the "spontaneous order" of Kelly's neo-liberalism and Reagonomics, and argues that in its technological manifestations, neo-liberalism challenges the traditions of Europe's social democracies: 

"... it is not surprising that Kelly uncritically regurgitates Cold War ideology in his analysis of the current wave of scientific innovation. Newt Gingrich - the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives - regularly claims that the advent of 'Third Wave' information technologies justifies his program for cutting welfare spending and removing economic regulations. ...it is then but a short step to further un-American activities, such as socialized medicine, vibrant trade unions, nationalized utilities, gun control and all the other features of the successful mixed economies of the European Union. Fearing this challenge to the American dream, Kelly is ready with the mathematical equations of 'Social Darwinism' to fend off the horrors of European civilization."

Whether or not we are facing the "un-American horrors" of national health insurance and gun control, at issue is the way neo-liberalism shapes the values of the Internet and who benefits from them. On one hand, neo-liberalism's presumed anarchy guarantees certain kinds of freedom and creates a fragmented diversity. But on the other, it creates a totalizing, global and yet "tribal" norm based on American neo-liberal capitalism that deepens the marginalization of those who are different. Over the long term, this might contribute to weakening some of the more valuable political and cultural traditions of Europe's social democracies.

These considerations might become increasingly important as we formulate the best ways to use the Internet. Or will alternatives to neo-liberalism's presumed "anarchy" even be considered? After all, we remember the admonition not to wrestle with a pig.

William Osborne
http://www.osborne-conant.org