Regressive Tendencies

Like a religion, the Internet has inspired many to believe in future potentialities rather than apparent tendencies. The future paradise that inspires the fabulously unhinged cults of Wired and virtual reality may best be explained as zealous failures to assimilate evidence. The industrial producers of computer and software technology remain somewhat diversified, and yet their deliveries fall short of expectations. What arrives, with disturbing regularity, are the traces of promises,-- packaging that reveals an unwanted compact. Whether one looks to media standards for video encoding, Internet browsers, or computing languages, what one finds are strategies that constrain the user, putting industrial interests first. Although it is easy to point fingers at this corporate behemoth or that, ultimately the imperative for profit maximization determines this state of affairs. One certainly cannot expect benevolent standards to be developed by corporations interested in their quarterly returns. Cooperation could lead to interoperability, which would curtail the artificially enhanced "need" for more products. In the gap between what people want and what they are offered, in the gap between what has been demonstrated possible, or dreamed, and the shrink wrapped product, there is ample room for cooptation, distraction, and lowered aspirations.

The whole question of "what people want" is inseparable from the enormous propaganda industry whose task it is to direct desire. Analyst Robert J. Cohen of McCann-Erickson Worldwide Advertising has estimated that U.S. advertising expenditures for 1999 will reach $212.3 billion. This would be about half the global expenditure on advertising (estimated to be $440.5 billion). Not a little of this prodigious outlay has been pouring into Internet ventures. In a matter of a few years, the Internet that knit universities, government research laboratories, and pioneering computer companies has become an infrastructure for countless global marketing initiatives. The surreptitious collection and analysis of "browser" behavior is continuing, through automation, to articulate a viciously potent suasion engine. A sophist's mechanism, it makes the lesser seem the greater. It makes the worker pay dearly for the products s/he makes. It convinces that regression is progression, that bad is good, that, for instance, people should get ads instead of art or entertainment. That they should be frisked if they try to assemble.

A recent cable television advertisement pictured a man in an arm-chair wrapped thoroughly in coaxial cable. During the ad, the cable was unwound. The intended message: that new features offered by the cable service provider are freeing the viewer from the bonds of old technology. Considering that the new systems, exemplified by WebTV (Microsoft), monitor everything viewers watch, buy, and ignore, the truth would seem to resemble the advertisement running in reverse. Departments of marketers analyze feedback data, which are correlated with demographic and zip-code information, and perhaps, soon enough, with cellular phone global positioning coordinates.

Regardless of how one feels about targeted, anticipatory advertising---the helping hand advanced by pointcast marketing---it may be worth considering its connection to the long arm of the law. In the U.S., there are now more private security police than state and local police combined; all manner of personal records once kept by the state (and some new ones) are increasingly available for a price over the Internet (Example). I am suggesting that marketing's road ahead is merging with law enforcement's, leading to a dismal enclosure of invasive foreknowledge, contingent opportunities, and programmatic constraints. Omnipresent security is reaching alarmingly powerful proportions. The annoying and counterproductive "login" authentication and card-swiping gateways of today beget instantaneous, uncontrovertible database entries, complete with sharp demographic resolution, credit history, and status level---all orchestrated through security cameras, sensors, retinal scanners, networks, and "intelligent" software. In the guise of needs, these technologies are being avidly advanced. They coincide insidiously with the prevailing agenda to silence, monitor, incarcerate, and criminalize that has rooted itself in government, schools, law enforcement, and the media.

In the wake of the cold war, with the transfer of punitive energies to populations within the "winning" societies, the burden of suppression has fallen not only to the burgeoning police and prison industrial complex, but equally to the media, which try to convince skeptical consumers that terrorism is the fountainhead of geopolitical distress (not a reaction). Represented as such, it will not stop, but serve as a sink hole for billions of dollars of defense expenditures. A more convincing message would be that media misrepresentation, motivated by the interests of advertisers and big business, impedes serious dialog and conflict resolution. Allan Sekula:

If we are to listen to, and act in solidarity with, the polyphonic testimony of the oppressed and exploited, we should recognize that some of this testimony...will take the ambiguous form of visual documents, documents of the microphysics of barbarism. These documents can easily fall into the hands of the police or their intellectual apologists. Our problem, as artists and intellectuals living near but not at the center of a global system of power, will be to help prevent the cancellation of that testimony by more authoritative and official texts. (Sekula, 1981: p.379) Quoted in Technoscience and Cyberculture

Confronted with the illegitimate power and authority of the mass media, and now software monopolist, Microsoft, those who would chart alternative courses face a diversified front of coercive institutions and agendas that sustain the official ideologies. Consumers of corporate media in the First World are continually taught to assimilate repression, violence, and mediocrity. The deregulation of media holdings limits in the 1980s and 90s has allowed a quiet consolidation that has affected the vast majority of broadcast channels. A few dozen media titans like Time-Warner, Bertelsmann, Viacom, Disney, Microsoft, and Gannet, produce the advertising-riddled lite show that governs the tone of public discourse, driving foreign and domestic policies with Hurrapatriotismus and smiles. Their media analysts would have the U.S. dropping more bombs on Iraq, while the sadists who approved the use of depleted uranium artillery may never be brought to justice for their crime against soldiers and the Iraqi people. Such injustices do not pass without considerable disinformation!

In the broken economies of the South, North, East, and West, although the abandoned and ignored poor may, by degrees, penetrate the bogus news fictions emanating from G7 media, they do not avoid the scorched-earth larceny of their resources and cultures. Sensible of this disenfranchisement, the differential meaning of the media for populations who can and cannot create for the new media, Roger F. Malina has cautioned of the "Dangers of the World Wide Web":

Very few people---under 100 million individuals on the planet---have access to the Internet's computer networks. This access is highly concentrated in developed countries and, within those countries, to individuals within companies and organizations or with sufficient personal wealth and access to expertise. The overwhelming majority of the world's population is excluded from the World Wide Web. The development of these new and expensive communication technologies leads to the further concentration of information and resources among those who are already in privileged positions. [Roger F. Malina - "The Fourth World: The Promises and Dangers of the World Wide Web" Leonardo 28, No. 1 (1995)]
Malina speaks from the position of one who has had simple access to publishing for years. What is more remarkable, which he seems to miss, is that 180 million (Recent statistics) people have access to this expansive network for exchange of ideas, collaboration, and contestation of the "official texts." The network is dominated by people in "companies and organizations or with sufficient personal wealth," and this goes a long way toward explaining the cosmetic banality of much of the first few years of Web production. Some, however, have recognized in present conditions the resources needed to produce collaborative media arts, software tools, and systems.

While the Internet is being besieged with old problems that have curdled broadcast, and with an assortment of new hazards, it's evolution is governed, also, by a contingent of resisters who have begun to realize the collective power of software development by geographically dispersed individuals and groups. With infinitely replicable bits and bytes, serious strides have been made toward the decommoditization of software. Eric S. Raymond has depicted the "open source" culture in several on-line essays. In "Homesteading the Noosphere", he anthropologizes his fellow hackers:

Obvious parallels with the hacker `gift culture' as I have characterized it abound in academia. Once a researcher achieves tenure, there is no need to worry about survival issues....In the absence of survival issues reputation enhancement becomes the driving goal, which encourages sharing of new ideas and research through journals and other media. ( Homesteading the Noosphere)
Whatever the psychological motivations of the participants, the open source movement has led to operating systems and tools, comparable or better in quality to commercial equivalents, but for free. Although still a far cry from the "struggle for the decommoditization of medicine, housing, education, food, and so on" called for by Aronowitz and DiFazio, the open source movement is consonant with the ideas of those authors as they have analyzed the technological elimination of work. The "gift culture" logic also prevails in France, currently, where work weeks are limited to 35 hours, so that more people may have jobs.

In New York City, machines that have been used in the service of the propaganda industry, to underinform and dazzle consumers out of their wits with virtualities of ever greater impalpability, are now to be found in trash dumpsters and on street corners. There is little shortage of computer hardware, for the people of the United States; more a lack of knowledge of how to use it, and why. To be sure, the situation is quite different in the Third World, where there is no comparable abundance of cameras, recording equipment, computers, printers, etc. In the countless and growing numbers of squalid barrios, war ravaged shanty towns, and slave plantations, the illiteracy and scarcity of electronic tools for representation of their stories diminishes the scope of aspirations for social change via media. In a few rare situations, such as the martyrdom of Ogoni playwright and tele-novelist, Ken Saro Wiwa, the stage of operations of Third World activism coincides precariously with the media boundaries of advanced industrialized nations. His selfless struggles against Shell Oil and the military dictatorship of Nigeria (sustained by the multinational oil companies), which ultimately cost him his life, led to a brief rupture of the ideological isolation of the First World.

Saro-Wiwa's story of the ecological terrorism visited upon southern Nigeria by foreign oil companies should be of more than passing significance to Americans and Europeans of conscience. Indeed, there is little need for high-tech representations of the subject in Ogoniland, where the problems are well known. Since the large majority of the sales of Shell's and Chevron's product occur in the U.S. and Europe, the pertinence of Saro Wiwa's cause to consumers in these places is clear. Nevertheless, in the absence of seductive images live at six and eleven, the news languishes in favor of feeble and still-born metropolitan stories about near misses and pets. The pace of news production, particularly television news, compels a procedural dependence on press kits and pre-fabricated (promotional) utterances that forestalls penetration into the complexities of international relations, regional struggles, and all forms of conflict with authorities. When essentially newsworthy stories do air, the lack of institutional conviction to press ahead with conclusions that are unflattering to news consumers leads to an infantile state of distraction.

The consequent importance of a global network such as the Internet must not be underestimated. While from a technical point of view Third World activists are reduced to a dependency on terrorism, martyrdom, and the spectacle; expatriates have been quick to adopt the Internet as a means of disseminating information. For despite unequal distribution of resources and instruction, within the First World societies the material and technical prerequisites for a wide reaching activism are comparatively modest.

Even with the proliferation of commercial and governmental initiatives to harness, regulate, and exploit the Internet, it remains an imperfect but useful resource for exhiles, activists, and researchers. While the flow of Internet technologies into, say, the Niger Delta, remains somewhat distant, the effects of this slightly freer information network have some impact on the chain of corporate and governmental policy decisions.

Having recognized this, however, one is still confronted with the intractable problems of First World apathy, depoliticization, and ignorance, all imbricated with the same new media. For it is equally true of the Internet that it does not by its nature demand the sorts of border crossings and cultural interchanges that exemplify its clearest value; rather, the seduction of gratifying mass-market software interfaces lead users in ever more inert and commercially paced lock step.

Attention must be turned away from vilification of the Internet as an anarchic and uncontrolled space, to the looming danger that it will be controlled. Hans Magnus Enzensberger's assertion, in Constituents of a Theory of the Media, that the Orwellian "bogey of a monolithic consciousness industry derives from a view of the media that is undialectical and obsolete" may be strictly accurate; but automated statistical analysis and unencumbered surveillance access lead to a substantially similar dystopia. He continues:

The possibility of total control of such a system at a central point belongs not to the future but to the past. With the aid of systems theory,... it can be demonstrated that a linked series of communications or, to use the technical term, a switchable network, to the degree that it exceeds a certain critical size, can no longer be centrally controlled but only dealt with statistically.

While the reality of privileged government access to all Internet traffic remains to be established ("In a setback for the FBI, the Federal Communications Commission has given the telecommunications industry an additional 20 months to comply with a federal law meant to bring law enforcement surveillance into the digital age." John Markoff, NYTimes, September 14, 1998), the ground work has been laid for Internet service providers to act as wire tapping collaborators. (See also ECHELON satellite surveillance network)

Enzensberger's conclusions notwithstanding, insofar as systemic software is uniform, and encryption regulated, the prospects for privacy do not appear bright. The Internet "portal" marketplace currently taking shape suggests that the vast majority of users will be working with software that is designed to be cooperative with an emerging suite of surveillance software. Although the sort of analysis software needed to evaluate for the meaning of data passed over the Internet is still in its infancy; and although the quantities of messages would seem to defy control; it may be possible to effectively discourage utterances of certain types by automatically limiting services to users who employ particular words, data formats, encryption techniques, etc. In this way the need for watchful human eyes is superseded by watchful programs. Such programs to the extent that they already exist, are incapable of really controlling much; but as service provision becomes more centralized? If the present operating system hegemony continues?

Much as one would like to see swift diversification of entrenched hierarchies of authority and influence, recent years have made abundantly clear just how hard-fought will be the ready access to the attention of Internet users. Here, one is struck by the incursions of Microsoft toward controlling the standards used over the network. As its operating systems continue to dominate, not only for client desktops, but increasingly for servers, the occasion presents itself for Microsoft to devise new services strategems that will actively select against their competitors---particularly those who provide free products. The open source movement, which figures to harness the energies of millions of dispersed programmers to surpass the corporate software industry, has much to lose if Microsoft succeeds in unilaterally establishing new Internet standards. Such a situation could jeopardize the essential indifference of present transmission protocols concerning data content types, opening the door for arcane codes of Microsoft's own pernicious design, which would privilege their content offerings and institute "efficient" pay-per-view networking. Already with the WebTV initiative, users are carefully watched, their every action databased for marketing research purposes. This state could advance until the tyranny of television begins to seem quaint.

The juxtaposition of cryptography and open source as resistance strategies warrants consideration. With privacy assailed from both government and commerce, encryption presents the possibility of secure communications, which has stirred to action legislative attempts to restrict cryptography. Ironically, although corporations have been the first to adopt encryption for sensitive communications, their closed-source shrink-wrapped programs are more likely to fall in line with cryptographic back-door privileges available by soebpena. Or by covert chicanery. No doubt, encryption will ascend into the high sciences. The real and hypothetical potential for coordinated global movements that challenge the legitimacy of existing regimes will insure that Internet security remains a red letter issue for the foreseeable future. With security and privacy at cross purposes, this would be a bad time for civil libertarians to blink. Over the Internet, the notion of "free speech" has made a sea change, and while the Communications Decency Act was proved unconstitutional, the somber new colors of freedom may show themselves through the obscure algorithms that administer formulaic selection. Filter upon filter, and super-computer crypto-analysis: these are the new domains of central "intelligence." Ever stronger security measures are demanded by duplicitous, cynical, false leaders, crusading to preserve privilege, and instability. We may reasonably ask what the military defense complex is moving cyber-ward to combat?

The cyberspace crime fighting initiative announced by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno (In February 1998, US Attorney General Janet Reno announced that she would ask Congress for US$64 million to fund a new US center for fighting cybercrime. The National Infrastructure Protection Center would be a hub for a renewed counterattack on hackers around the world. ) is reminiscent of another announcement by New York City Public Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, about why police should manage security not only around schools, but IN them:

"[this policy] puts us on a road to producing the sort of safety environment that we have a growing need for."
The day dream of a security environment concerns technology, fear, and an Utopian aspiration for control. Contracted, interlocked, shrewdly negotiated arrangements of authority sustain the manufacturers, politicians, and bureaucrats who peddle this fantasy. It glows through the screens of the wired world. It is the habitat, the imaginative terrain of the marketplace of ideas. An environment with an aptitude to inspire mismeasurements of the real, the aesthetic, the just. To confuse the serious with the trivial. An enormous aptitude for seeming that issues a sea of sameness, arrested development, iterations of the same idea ad infinitum, bouncing urban myths, perpetual NEA funding petitions...
Make the connection....enjoy the surge! Corrections is facing an explosion....why shouldn't your company profit from this incredible growth? -1994 promotional brochure, American Correctional Association
Make the connection indeed. Reinvent discourse beyond the sloganism of advertising lingo. Re-articulate art with politics so that it might appeal to the grand publique (not _just_ through intuition). Eschew the new liberalism, and with it the corrupt messengers and their mercenary and cynical exploitation of the spectacle. Enough of malaise; enough of resignation and meek introverted fixations. Resist the ooze of mediocrity - media-mendacity! In countless contexts there are constructive means of engagement. Contexts are everyday objects, spaces, languages, behaviors, laws, algorithms, gestures, habits! They are also communities. But opportunities for changing them can slip away into carceral, caste-perturbed compressions of dignity, justice, and liberty. Articulate new contexts in the most ad-vanced, insidious, derivative-stunned electronic spaces that affect so severely Our perception of the present and conception of the future.