Goble, Mark. "The New American Frontier: Electronic Space and the Virtual Public," Lumpen, Vol.4, No.3 (Summer 1995) Lumpen 2558 W. Armitage Ave. Chicago, Illinois 60647 USA Phone: 312-227-2072 E-Mail: lumptime@mcs.com
A young girl in deep scarlet velvet, dress and matching cap, skips rope across a salt flat. She may be anywhere west of Salt Lake City and east of Pasadena. She may be in the Mojave or in southern Idaho. Her voice is distinctively English. Actually, she's Australian. She's the actress who played Holly Hunter's daughter in Jane Campion's Oscar award-winning film, The Piano. Her sweet, small voice, precocious to the American ear, gives us a hot tip. the Information Age, the superhighway with its fiber-optic cables, arrives soon. It will change your life. The little girl does not mention anything technical. The advertisement is selling the style and spirit of the information state. She reminds us how qualitatively different this new age will be. She tells us, "Someday there will be no there. Everywhere will be here." The screen fades to black with the sponsor's logo, MCI, burning into the TV screen. We are supposed to read this ad as heralding a new era of possibility, yet its images are entirely drawn from our culture's symbols of apocalypse and horror. This child with her stylized English costume and quaint accent, gestures toward our Old World past and colonial history. She plays on the hard polished sands of the great American military test-site, a landscape that is culturally coded as a post-nuclear waste-land. The ad's lighting hints at the over-exposed whiteness that has come to signal the nuclear after-glow in such films as Terminator 2 or The Day After. And her voice is the child's voice we are accustomed to hear not as angel, but as demon. It's Carol Ann's "They're here" in Poltergeist, or Linda Blair in The Exorcist. The desert surrounding the girl is not a miraculous ecology of life in the midst of scarcity. Instead, the desert is materialized lifelessness. We all live, now, in a desert, that's uniquely American nothingness that so many, from Nathanael West to Jean Baudrillard, read into the desert. It is not there, on the screen, because the digital age is obliterating such geographical constraints. The nothingness is here where I am writing at my kitchen table right now, and here where you are reading. And to this nothingness MCI and MCI alone can bring meaning. In this ad's vision of America, the country has blown-up. Post-apocalyptic desolation is the new reality. But we're still Wired, thank God. "Someday there will be no there. Everywhere will be here." Technologic frontierism is an ideology shared by a dizzying variety of people and corporations. From MCI, Packard Bell and other multi-nationals, to academics such as Donna Harraway, who hopes in her "Cyborg Manifesto" that the electronic extension of identity will offer new breathing space for the besieged subjectivities of women. At the hard core of information frontierism is the substitution of a shared text for a shared space. This substitution is perhaps most egregiously apparent in the current rush to get our nation's schools on-line. A Pac Bell ad features a spectacularly well-integrated class of school kids talking to NASA via e-mail. And schools across the country are investing in computer hardware or having it provided for them, "free of charge" by benevolent corporations. At the same time our nations' schools and neighborhoods are growing more segregated as the large scale bussing efforts of the early 70's are systematically dismantled. Constituencies as otherwise diverse as white suburban parents and black nationalists are re-evaluating the benefits of same-race same-class schools. Jean Francois Lyotard's Post-Modern Condition calls for the liberation of the databanks as the 1990's storming of the Bastille. Publications as otherwise different as Howard Rheingold's "The Whole Earth Review" with its Zen and the Art of Motorcycle-holisticism gone hypertext, and Wired, the ultimate magazine-as-advertisement for the information state, similarly point to the superhighway as the future's throne. Corporations and entrepreneurs scramble for position to exploit markets in virtual reality entertainment centers, interactive software and tele-dildonics, the computerization of sex. Each of these players in the information game is selling their own version of Utopia. Some Utopias are better than others. When the information superhighway finally bulls its way into my house, I hope that Howard Rheingold is its architect. Instead, it is likely that the profiteers of mega- corporations and their protŽgŽs in the U.S. government will run the show. (For an excellent discussion on making the information superhighway as good as it possibly can be, see Roger Karraker's "Making Sense of the 'Information Superhighway'" in "The Whole Earth Review," Spring '94). Regardless, we need to question some of the fundamental assumptions behind this culture-wide investment in the information frontier. The Civil Rights movement's integrationist vision of America seems with each year to be an increasingly fragile fantasy. In its place, we try to make segregated schools safe for the students who will attend them, and at the very least, give them "access" (the buzzword of computerized social justice) to the world of the Internet. Quietly passing from the discourse of mainstream politicians is the notion that anything can be done to address the structural inequalities in the schools. Nor does the discourse address the distribution of wealth. But the same information superhighway will run through Pacific Heights and Hunter's Point, or so they tell us. On-line, the kid in Winnetka and the kid in Cabrini Green are virtual equivalents. "Virtual community" is thus sold as the cure for a racially and economically divided America. And what goes for the racial underclass goes as well for the numerically more prominent but hardly ever mentioned white working poor. Most folks on welfare are white. And a large number of these folks live in the hinterlands of the west, midwest, and south. The decimation of the farm economy in the 1980's forced schools to close all over the new ghost towns of the midwest. The geographic proximity of the white affluence and often non-white poverty in America's urban/suburban centers is so glaring that it is easy to forget that thousands of square miles of America is largely populated by whites. Mike Davis' City of Quartz documents the destruction of public space in L.A. by various corporate re-development projects, the growth of an architectural style that makes security the prime aesthetic, and the internalization of the sidewalk and streetfront in high-tech urban malls and office complexes. Deliberate dis-investments are the public parks, beaches, and street fronts where white and non-white might otherwise mix. The public spaces of the information state can be seen as the logical, and pathological, extreme of this tendency in L.A. design. If geographic space can never be sufficiently purged of its undesirable elements, be they the weather, the people, the cost of the infrastructure no matter how carefully they planned, then the next step is simply not to have them at all. The final solution to the problems of public space is to ensure that no such space exists. Here in San Francisco, where we never willingly do anything at all like L.A., the recently completed Yerba Buena Center and the just completed SFMOMA, alongside the ongoing MATRIX cold war on the homeless, represent the making of a real-life virtual city. Elites can enjoy lovely gardens free of the homeless populations that congregate in the Civic Center or at South Park. The MATRIX program, now almost three years old, has systematically rousted and harassed thousands of homeless people by increasing the enforcement and the penalties of various "public decency" laws. First employed in an attempt to "clean-up" areas of high tourist density in San Francisco, MATRIX has recently turned its attention to other neighborhoods, such as the Haight, and South of the Market). This is where the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, a complex of gallery spaces and theaters, and the much bally-hooed SFMOMA (S.F. Museum of Modern Art) anchor City Hall's development plan for an "arts corridor," complete with high profile multimedia studios and production facilities. Yerba Buena, with its impeccably multi-cultural programming and its baffling exterior street-fronts that hide the gardens from passers-by and camouflage the structure's entrances and exits, signifies a decidedly post- modern mixture of liberal politics built on the material base of police-state architecture.. In the new main Public Library (expected to open later in 1995 or 1996) San Francisco will have another chance to prove itself unlike L.A. by allowing the homeless the same access to the new building that they now have to the old. It is unlikely that the city fathers and mothers will be as willing to let their glitzy neo-classical library of the future serve, as the old library does now, as one of the few places where the homeless can spend a day inside and enjoy access to public restrooms and free books. The destruction of real public space naturally gives rise to the question, 'Why leave the house'? If there is no 'there' out there where we can experience the problematic opportunities of public life, why shouldn't we try to build new virtual communities on the net? This strange convergence of the northern California commune mentality with the increasing Los Angelization of the entire nation, makes it fitting that the virtual geography of the information state is mapped out across the real California. From its sexy face here in San Francisco with Wired magazine, to its heart and mind in the Stanford/Silicon Valley/San Jose corridor, to its bowels in the Pacific Rim money and brutish ideology of L.A., the information state might finally be the grand unification of California cultures. The bourgeois ecology and sentimental leftism of the Bay Area "good life," through the know-how of the quirky inventors and billionaire "rebels" of Silicon Valley are finally to be reconciled with what Mike Davis has called the "detached culture of low- density residential life" at the core of the Southern California Dream. To date, the paradigmatic beneficiary of the information superhighway has been the Bay Area cultural worker, an academic, or a writer, able to access the world from their home in Marin county or the Oakland Hills, or their Pacific Heights apartment. The Northridge earthquake brought an acceleration of such "tele-commuting" and to some extent proletarianized what heretofore had been the work-at-home lifestyle of more "independent" white-collar workers as companies rushed in to set-up computer work-stations for thousands of people unable to navigate the damaged freeways. Now that the teeming suburban masses of the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys have had a taste of a less commute-intensive lifestyle, it seems only a matter of time before the same homeowners will take the next step and decide that they only want to leave their homes on their terms, venturing outside for well-protected bursts of leisure consumption. Don't forget, this is the class which found political expression in Proposition 13, which lowered their property taxes at the direct expense of public spaces and the renters, non-whites, and homeless that frequent them. One of the perverse side effects of the information state might be a renewed emphasis on consumer environmentalism, as the only time people will go out doors will be to enjoy themselves on their mountain bikes and jet skis. But all other forms of pleasure, from cultural to sexual, will in theory be available in the comfort and safety of the American home. Art galleries will be on high definition TV. Teledildonics, virtual sex on the net, and digital erogeny (with prosthetic skins worn over the body will eliminated trips to cafes, singles bars, and laundromats. (See Howard Rheingold's "Teledildonics" in Leo Marx's Technology and the Future.) What the information superhighway promises instead of the troubling democracy of shared social space is the utopian textual unity of an on-line America that might never really see each other, but is all, so to speak, on the same electronic page. Society is to become one unending and unendable text we all share, we all read, we all know, and we all write. The perceived freedom of the net has caused a small-scale revival of anarchism, as if now, for the first time, human interaction can be completely deregulated and bonds can be established based not on the state and corporate coercion and force, but on the exchange of language, ideas, and identities across fiber- optic phone lines. At the center of the information state as sold by the multinationals and their spokesmodels in Wired is the "virtual" destruction of public space. By extension, the land itself is to be rendered a commodity for the well-off, a ghetto for the less-fortunate, and an agar for the food we will still be eating. but in the remade virtual world, there will still be production. "Globalization" means that Capital will intensify the chase for the cheapest labor. Nikes, for example, come from female chattel labor in Burma, not from Star Trek-style replicators. This fact will not change because we may in the future buy our Nikes by pushing a button in the comfort of our homes instead of driving to the nearest Athlete's Foot. What will change, and change for the worse, is our understanding of these facts of production. A world in which the planet's real geography is displaced by fiber optic shopping web will not change this: Things will need to be made and people will have to make them. The people at Wired, self-described "digital revolutionaries" with a business plan, know that the bottom line of information superhighway is the exchange of products, services and styles. The average Wired reader makes $85,000, and 80% of them are male. In a 1994 San Francisco Bay Guardian article, Wired president Jane Metcalfe seemed perplexed with how few community organizers, teachers, social workers, janitors, undocumented workers, and unemployed scan the glossy pages of Wired: "It's appalling. They're [Wired readers] all so rich, they're all so educated." Wired executive editor Kevin Kelly says in the same piece, "We're here to sell the whole culture." Wired is lining up its own super-educated, super-male audience of far-flung, compu-friendly "information elites." Until these elites have been turned into uber-shoppers, the magazine's mission is incomplete. As the Guardian's Andrew Leonard observes, "The Internet is just a trial run. Before you know it, you will talk back to your TV and it will listen. It will take you where you want to go, order your pizza, call your mother, choose your news. And you won't have to master all kinds of difficult technology, because smart people are very busy figuring out how to make it easy for you. As long as you can hit the buttons on your remote control, you'll be OK. You will, however, have to pay. And you can't blame Wired for that." But if not Wired, then whom to blame? I say you blame Wired, Pac Bell, MCI, Disney, Microsoft, the Democratic Party. But don't stop there. Because even though these arrayed institutional forces may be at odds over the details of the path to info-nirvana, they share an ideological drive to advance the digital steamroller. There is no such thing as virtual production; what you buy on the net must still be made by someone somewhere out of real material. And chances are that where these goods are being produced, there remains a decidedly nineteenth century system of labor--complete with gross exploitation and rabid anti-unionism. The turf wars being fought over the internet and its ownership, will have little effect on workers in Mexico, in the Philippines, in Malaysia, and all over the United States. In strict economic terms, we are witnessing a mutation in the technologies of advertising and distribution, while the system of production calcifies and grows still more brutal. The information revolution is in part a tussle between elite factions arguing over whom will control this new variant of capital, including most importantly "intellectual property" (all the accumulated cultural knowledge heretofore in the public intellectual space: that which fills the libraries) and "cultural capital," (the work of creative producers like painters, filmmakers, writers, singers, and sundry entertainers). The monopolizers of the emerging cultural and intellectual capital are displacing certain fractions of traditional capitalist elites. Bill Gates now wields more economic power than a gymnasium full of Big Steel and Detroit auto executives. But this change at the top alters little for the workers on the shop floor. Marshall McLuhan's name appears as the "patron saint" on the masthead of each issue of Wired. When he was mentioned in the Guardian piece as Marshall "The Medium is the Message" McLuhan, I wonder if anyone fully realized how telling this error in copy-editing truly was. For the title of McLuhan and Quentin Fiore's pathbreaking, proto hypertext book of 1967 is not "The Medium is the Message," but instead The Medium is the Massage. Almost thirty years after McLuhan and Fiore articulated their radical utopian vision of an electronic "global village," a society of "allatonceness," where there exists the "possibility of arranging the entire environment as a work of art," it seems that everyone has forgotten what the book's title really says. The reader can never be sure where the "message" becomes the "massage" in McLuhan's pun-filled language ("Now al the world's a sage"). Nor have the folks at Wired thought very hard about the implicit racism and neo-imperialism at the heart of McLuhan and Fiore's "global village." The visual representation of the global village in The Medium is the Massage is a picture of African tribespeople engaged in an oral story-telling performance. Later, we read that "electric circuitry is Orientalizing the West." The contained, the distinct, the separate in our Western legacy are being replaced by the flowing, the unified, the fused. McLuhan and Fiore sell us the remaking of the American "environment" into a zone of media saturation where "the living room has become a voting booth" and spectatorship itself has become "participation via television in Freedom Marches, in war, revolution, pollution, and other events." The Medium is the Massage is a frustration book, and its representation of the global village is distressing both in its unguarded techno-euphoria and in its racialized primitivism. But despite all of its problems, The Medium is the Massage tries to be a radical work, and its critical energy, at least in its authors' minds, seem to be directed at the very institutions (the military industrial complex, the media corporations and their advertising firms, the American university system) that Wired caters to. McLuhan and Fiore were trying to get at wholeness at a time of violent social upheaval. Wired is trying to get at your pocketbook in a time of barely suppressed social violence. But the simple fact of the matter is that McLuhan, for all his prescience on the importance understanding how mediums structure though and by extension, public life, was all wrong when it came to characterizing the televisual. Our culture as a whole seems to be building its future on McLuhan's ill-conceived boosterism, while ignoring his other insights. McLuhan wrote that "in television there occurs an extension of the sense of active, exploratory touch which involves all the senses simultaneously, rather than that of sight alone. You have to be 'with' it.....Television demands participation and involvement in depth of the whole being." Actually, it doesn't. The folks that made the film Sliver were closer to the truth: we like to watch. Television has not led to tele-democracy, as the recent spate of so-called "electronic town meetings" has amply demonstrated. Television has not led to a global village, as the Rodney King incident horrifyingly proved. If anyone out there thinks that South Central L.A. and Simi Valley are of the same tele-visual Being, they are sadly mistaken. McLuhan is absolutely right when he says that "All media are extensions of some human faculty psychic or physical." I would add that all media are extensions of some human ideology as well. And the dominant politics of media in the United States is pretty much the same old implicitly racist, sexist homophobic out-of-control capitalism that goes for "middle of the road" in much of middle America. The information superhighway and its various splinters aspire to the power and pervasiveness of television in the making of a new American culture. Between e-mail and the net, we already have a new communication technology somewhere between letter-writing and ham-radio made sexy. And while e-mail threatens to reduce all language to the level of the answering machine message or the business memo (Re: my life. Can't talk now, but will write soon. Bought new Superchunk. Cool. Gotta go.), the net has been, and will be a useful technology. Amongst all the on-line Deadhead fan clubs and Star Trek: The Next Generation gossip, real ideas will get around and eventually things will happen that wouldn't have otherwise happened because of the new information to which we will have access. but it's not the net per se I'm worried about. Culture gets made because people tell stories, and a lot of people aren't telling the whole story about virtualizing of reality. In Wired's version, the story ends happily; the rich and the free are that much richer, that much better outfitted with goods and services purchased on-line. And eventual, like most technologies (at last all entertainment technologies) the hardware will be democratized. When Edison invented the record player in 1877, it started selling for over $300 dollars, easily the equivalent of several thousand dollars today. Within thirty years, you could buy a Victrola for around $15. Someday we will all have a lap-top if we want one and can scrape together some minimal amount of money. But I don't think that this is the real end of the story. I'm going to tell another possible ending, and to do it, I'm opening an actual book, with pages that turn, a breakable spine, and everything: Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. Something is missing here--the actual story itself. Near the end of the first book, against hope, and fearing without knowing what we fear. The irony of the goatherd's situation is lost upon him: he is a hermit crowded by other hermits like himself, each insisting upon his solitude even as their voices drown each other out, all telling the same story. The irony should not be lost upon us. In opening the electronic frontier, we might very well be making ourselves a virtual community of Cervantes' goatherds: lonely, lost, distracted and ever-insistent on our individuality. Even our voices can barely be heard among all other "individuals" exactly like ourselves.

Reprinted from Vigil Magazine 243 San Jose Ave. San Francisco, CA 94110