DEMOCRACY & NATURE: The International Journal of INCLUSIVE DEMOCRACY
vol.6, no.1, (March 2000)
Roadgrading Community Culture
Why the Internet is so dangerous to real democracy*
Matt Hern and Stu Chaulk
"And I am not without hope. I knew a man who, in the age of chainsaws, went right on cutting his wood with a handsaw and axe. He was a healthier and a saner man than I am. I shall let his memory trouble my thoughts."* Wendell Berry.
Abstract: This article forwards an anarchist analysis of the Internet as inherently degrading of local community and the possibility of real democracy emerging. The authors suggest that rampant virtuality, based on the erradication of time and space as functional communicative restraints, acts to separate individuals from their face-to-face relationships and localities. They forward that local community is the only forum in which genuine democracy and an ecological society can hope to thrive. The article argues that in asking the question Where do you want to go today?, the Internet attempts to create a virtual everywhere, a universalizing logic that is to communication what the WTO and globalization are to economics. Further, the piece forwards a view of technology and society in dialectic relationship with one another, suggesting that democratic tools and a democratic society rely on one another for their emergence.
Upon considering Democracy and Nature and especially the 'Science, Technology and Democracy' issue (#10), we feel compelled to offer our perspectives, both generally and specifically. We are interested in forwarding an analysis of the Internet and new communications technologies from an anarchist perspective, but also in viewing these tools in dialectic relationship with society. The Interent clearly presents us with complex and layered number of issues to deal with, but importantly, the intents and logics driving the wired (and now wireless) world are hardly new at all and fall directly in line with two other transformative tools of this century: the car and the television. To understand our cultural embrace of these tools, and the effect they have on the possibility of community and democracy, it is critical to see our tools and our society in relationship with one another, each altering and compelling the other.
To speak of democracy and community today is profoundly difficult. The ideals remain buried within cultural memory, but in practise they have been degraded by both official and vernacular discourse to the point where democracy means periodic voting, and community has been reduced to association. The advent of virtuality and the information superhighway has accelerated this decline and forebodes a world full of isolation, triviality, technocracy and potential ecological catastrophe. Resisting the Net and its cheerleaders is a complicated but necessary task.
To comprehend the relationship between the decline of community and the rise of virtuality, Net culture and our society must be seen dialectically. Takis is surely correct when he writes "... a democratic science and technology presupposes an inclusive democracy", but the reverse is entirely true as well. Our tools are not simply pieces of metal and plastic, their implications reverberate throughout the society, and it is impossible for genuine community and democracy to flourish in the face of overwhelming virtuality. A democratic science and technology and a democratic society require one another.
Renouncing the Virtual Life
The Internet has been frequently lauded as a New Age experiment in radical democracy and open communication. We believe that it is precisely the opposite, and in fact a virtual life is deeply damaging to the possibility of genuine democracy emerging. Within the current socio-economic system, it is impossible to limit new technologies for long, as they are swiftly turned in service of capital growth. There are however, existing tools which carry with them the potentiality of flourishing in an ecological society. Parts of the Net are perhaps worth preserving, but on the whole, it is a deeply degrading tool, and well worth anarchist resistance.
There is a significant and powerful constituency that reifies the Net as the saviour of our culture: cyberspace as utopia, or at least the apex of civilized communication. Listen to Howard Rheingold, who claims that electronic communication represents the greatest resource ever for community-building, "...the future of the Net is connected to the future of community, democracy, education, science and intellectual life", or how about Frank Ogden, " The magic of electronic communications makes direct democracy inevitable. Does this signal the dissolution of government as we know it? Unquestionably." Bill Gates wants a micro-computer in every pocket and believes that "The information highway will transform our culture as dramatically as Gutenberg's press did the Middle Ages." Not to be outdone, Daniel Burstein and David Kline believe the development info highway means that "Civilization now stands at one of those great historic junctures that arise only a few times in a millennium", while Derrick de Kerckhoic claims that we are "…undergoing one of the greatest leaps in the evolution of our species" as a result of the Internet.
This kind of reification of the Net reverberates throughout the culture to the point where even those entirely unacquainted with computer networks are convinced of its importance and relevance. It is now popularly assumed that every classroom, every living room, every office and every library must have Net access if they have any hope of engaging contemporary public discourse. Parents are considered lax if they have not found some way to provide their children with PC's and modems, schools embarrassingly outdated if students are not doing research online, social services failing their mandate without a web page.
It is not a simple task to renounce virtuality and call for limits in this cultural spasm of shameless enthusiasm. We have been hoping though, to appeal to two largely lost but almost universally regarded (in the abstract) ideals: democracy and community. It is our contention here that the two are inseparable, and require one another to hold any real meaning. The realization of these ideals is necessarily dependent upon a careful regard for time and space, the constraints of which the virtual life promises to annhilate.
Throughout much of his piece 'Towards...', Takis takes pains to to emphasize that capitalism (he names it the market economy) is the root cause of our social/ecological crises, not the current industrialism or technology, "Therefore, the ultimate causes of the ecological crisis are the market economy and its offspring, the growth economy, and not its symptoms, namely, the present type of technology and industrial society." We agree with this in principle, but there is more than that. To fixate on chicken-and-egg arguments over which came first may be academically relevant (if that is not oxymoronic), but is not particularly useful in the real, lived world of technology.
It is absolutely true that the root cause of the ecological crisis is capitalism, but at the edge of the millenium, the logic of growth and its technologies are indistinguishable: they are one and the same. Global village logic, colonialism, the death of democracy, the peril of community, the rise of virtuality ... these cannot be separated easily. They feed and build on one another. The Internet is to communicative life what globalization and the WTO are to economic life. They are part and parcel of the same process, the same logic and they rely on each other to flourish.
It is thus critical to analyse tools themselves, to evaluate the role they have in enhancing the growth of capitalism and the effects they have on community and democracy. Each tool carries with it a specific set of considerations, a particular quandary for those interested in resisting capitalism at every level. This is not in any way to suggest that tools are ‘neutral’. They are not, and all technologies emerge from specific historical circumstances. In our case, tools come into being and become widely useful when they are supported, financed, sold and accepted in the interests of capital. Technologies that are not perceived to be marketable, which cannot immediately fit within the rubric of business, rarely see the light of day.
The tools that do emerge however, are not static, but have a trajectory of their own, in dialectic relationship to the culture which allowed them to thrive. Not every tool which a grow-or-die economy supports has the same levels of use or value, and every piece of technology has to be evaluated independently, and with a clear and constant understanding of its social context. Some tools are relatively benign and may well be useful to a democratic society; a telephone comes to mind. Others, such as nuclear power, are inherently dangerous and should be rejected entirely. Many other tools however, contain complex, layered dilemmas and resist easy analysis and evaluations. New communicative technologies, are precisely of this slippery nature and need to be considered carefully, in light of their vast marketing hype, and in light of capital’s enthusiastic support for IT growth and development
Fundamentally, we do not believe that a democratic science and technology can exist for long within a capitalist society. Pockets of democratic practise and genuinely ecological tools are constantly springing up, but they are absorbed by capitalism’s amazing malleability and ability to consume. The institutional framework of society is not static either however, shifting and configuring in relationship with its technologies, and while some tools are explicitly supportive of capital domination, others are potentially useful to an ecological society. Some tools are worth saving, some practises are worth remembering. It may be that chopping wood has more inherent value than using a chainsaw, and that digging is a better thing do than using a backhoe, in and of itself. Of course it matters intensely what the chopping or digging is doing, who is doing it, where it is being done and why it is being done. Still, there is reason and value in considering the nature of the tools themselves, because they are not neutral, and their nature is direct relationship to their use. Some tools are worth preserving and might potentially be of use to a genuinely democratic society. Others are not. It is in this light that we offer our views on the Internet.
The Nature of Community
When we are speaking of community, it has to be predicated on place, geographical affinities and relationships, and we want to argue that the ideal of real community is the only possible arena for real democracy to flourish. Virtual communities beget virtual democracies, and in the void of public discourse, common values and geographical communities that virtuality requires, we will lose some of our most cherished and irreplaceable values. To look to computer networks, however sophisticated, as being able to replace, simulate or even augment genuine community is perilous.
Even Howard Rheingold, pausing for a moment from his ebullient reification of the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, the hippy-style network from Berkeley), momentarily wonders: "Or perhaps cyberspace is precisely the wrong place to look for the rebirth of community, offering not a tool for conviviality but a life-denying simulacrum of real passion and true commitment to one another. In any case we need to find out soon.". Why Howard doesn't pay this thought any more heed is a small wonder, but nevertheless, he leaves this idea behind entirely and launches into 300 more pages of cheerleading. Like so many in the Internet entourage, he senses the contradictions, but there are too many chat lines to visit to bother spending too much time sweating those kinds of details.
The degradation of community necessarily means the degradation of democracy. Local places, rural commmunities and urban neighbourhoods are defined by the quality of the relationships contained within; between humans, non-human life and the environment. Genuinely participatory and direct democracies require the kinds of humanly-scaled social relationships that only face-to-face living, commitment and an unshakeable love of place can support. As our cities and rural communities lose the "deep and abiding sense of loyalty to its welfare, and an attempt to place these sentiments within a rich moral and ecological context, whether God-given or intellectual [that] clearly distinguishes the majority of cities of past eras from those of present ones", ideals of citizenship and responsibility fade. The virtual life can only further insulate us from the vernacular social relationships that might nurture a revival of local democracy.
The power of Internet is that it allows individuals to transcend all the restraints that make local community time-consuming, inefficient, limited, limiting and frustrating. At the same time and by definition, it erases the possibilities for direct, face-to-face democracy, public responsibility and common understanding. In the pursuit of a clean, easy, swift and non-binding communication, the messiness of local democracy is forgotten. There is no question that local community presents specific dangers; parochialism, insularity and small-mindedness, among others, but these are identifiable and confrontable in the flow of comprehensible life.
Wendell Berry has offered a useful set of criteria for replacing one tool with another, and it makes some sense to apply them to the Net.
1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces
4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that
of the body.
6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as
8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store
that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already
exists, and this includes family and community relationships.
So what exactly do the Net and its cheerleaders propose to displace, given the realization of their techno-utopias? For starters, books, newspapers and the printed word could soon become largely obsolete. Libraries and art galleries will see all their contents become available on-line. The conventional mail system can hardly hope to compete with instant document transferral and e-mail capabilities. Bookstores will become irrelevant, films, video clips and music will be easily downloadable, phasing out movie theatres, music stores and radio, and the Net will merge with television. These kinds of predictions only begin to scratch the surface of what Net enthusiasts propose; their larger dreams are of replacing all forms of social communication. Or as our friend Howard Rheingold illustrates, when faced a tick on his daughter's scalp, he “logged on and got my answer on-line in minutes". What Rheingold sees as a "magic protective circle around the atmosphere in this particular conference", we believe signals the sharp decline of local relationships.
People can believe magic is at work on-line all they want, but there is nothing fantastical about the decline of reciprocity and mutual aid. The Net's entourage may hallucinate real people inside of a faceless placeless screen spitting out information, but when they need friends to clean up garbage, help take care of children, go for a walk or play football with, the virtual life comes up hollow. The answer to ticks may be available in seconds, but when real friendship is needed, the screen cannot produce them. In those few seconds, another chance to nourish connectedness and real community is lost.
Relationship and Commonality
In this culture our technologies are never seamlessly absorbed into the everyday fabric, our tools attempt to subsume chunks of culture, they try to become culture itself. It is a fantasy to think that the free-floating discourse of on-lineness can prepare or nurture individuals for the creation of physical community. Virtual relationships are in no way akin to face-to-face relationships, they are denuded of the physical realities and burdens of place, and will move users further away from local places, not closer. As John Gray has written, the Net is "a designer Utopia customised for people who believe in technical fixes and not in morality or politics and the long haul we face in the struggle to protect our human and natural environments."
This is precisely it. The Internet insulates users from the enduring loyalties and efforts of place and relationship, cocooning them within a simulacra of community that bears no semblance and requires none of the skills or responsibilities of the real thing. On-line, an individual is reduced to a temporarily induced inability to verify chains of meaning, a solitude without the confrontation of relationship that community demands. The attempt to retreat from the work of building local places to hide in virtuality is a chimera, and one which renders users far less able to imagine a lived democracy and community, not more.
We are not advancing an anti-modernism or anti-technology stance in any way here, but a social argument for the restoration of place-based community and local democracies. New tools have to be evaluated using ethical, cultural and social criterion, and an analysis of their effects have to be comprehensible and lived. The Luddites, one the most perniciously misunderstood movements of the last two centuries, wrote in their letter of March 1812 that they were not opposed to all machinery but to "all Machinery hurtful to Commonality".
The Luddites were cottage workers in the middle counties of England who rose up in 1811 and 1812 against the decimation of their community culture and livelihoods by the imposition of textile machineries being assigned to their jobs by elite interests. The Luddite argument was never only about technology, it was about local power and control. In today's breathless techno-frenzy 'Luddite' is a term of derision and condescension, relegated to a dim past, but consider that small phrase; it is exactly commonality that the Net endangers.
Ironic frontierism and the death of space: Where do you want to go today?
Technology evolves dialectically from its culture and our culture is seemingly incapable of producing a new matchstick right now without producing social degradation. In a better culture, in a saner social environment, it is thoroughly possible that the Internet could be widely used usefully, ecologically and wisely. To be sure, there is much of our culture well worth replacing; the Net however, displaces the wrong things. It advances speed, access to more information, efficiency and private isolation. None of these are currently lacking, while it degrades that which desperately requires nurturing; family, community, home, public space, common discourse and local places. A virtual future is a future to be feared.
In its place we are advancing a genuinely alternative modernity, one which incorporates technology whenever possible and does not shy away from its tools. We are, however, insisting that social and cultural criteria be used to evaluate new tools and their effects on the deepest and most valuable aspects of human relationships. We are insisting that the insatiable need for speed exemplified by the automobile and Internet be carefully limited and that the social degradation virtuality carries with it be resisted.
Sitting around watching an afternoon of football, one is presented with a surprising barage of Internet advertising on TV. One of the most crass campaigns is for Megadepot.com, a kind of Walmart, superstore thing on-line, where you can purchase anything at anytime under the slogan 'Safe. Low price. Convenient.' It is important that the first of all Megadepot.com's claims is that of safety because that strikes at the heart of ironic Net culture. The advent of the Internet has been documented ferociously using frontierist imageries and hyperboles, as if cyberspace was new territory and early hackers and programmers cowboys and outlaws. The Net has always been viewed as a New World, a place where new rules, new laws and new ethics are required.
Everything about the emergence of this new frontier has been predicated on the erradication of time and space on-line. It is where conventional and parochial ties are shed in favour of an ultimate kind of freedom to go where you please, when you please and with who you please. It is where social interactions are maintained only when necessary, useful or interesting and sites are only visited when they can hold ones immediate interest. These are all very basic and vernacularly understood assumptions about Net culture, and ones which all suggest, implicitly and explicitly, a sense of risk, a sense of adventure and exciting exploration. The relentless Microsoft ad line, 'Where do you want to go today?' puts it exactly, and underlines the view of the Internet as frontier.
One of the great ironic tendencies of viruality is just this; while it promises an adventurous frontierism, evoking imageries of hiking backcountry, white-water kayaking and rapelling across glaciers, the Internet finds its real appeal and power in the reverse: a cocooning vision of safety and security. On-line one can go anywhere without having to actually travel, meet people freely without worrying about who they might be, shop without having to brave the crowds, talk with friends without having to see them. It is plainly a territory bent on erradicating risk, where one can come and go without responsibility, and never worry about leaving home, or even the chair. It is about flattening and controlling the surprises and constraints of lived life, the true opposite of adventure.
Which also points to a similarly transparent and widely understood irony of Net culture. While the transendence of physical limits is the basis of the Internet's power, the defeat of time and space as barriers to communication results in a sharp decline in the possibility of public space, not its promised revival. Spending time on-line is not about being in the public sphere in any sense, and while surfing the web is mostly like cruising a mall, the total experience of the Internet is a new postmodern kind of open yet non-public, privatized yet not fully owned space. As Martha Rosler put it when speaking of new urban frontiers and homelessness;
Postmodern discontinuity, like scattered sites of industrial and image
production, is also manifested as a blurring of the boundaries between public and private life -- to which I'll return later. Intentionally or not, this blurring serves the interest of greater but less confrontational social control. ...
Contemporary society, with its changes in information and transportation
flows that have forced a de jure adherence to social ideals of equal
participation -- not least in consumerism -- but without adequate economic means to put them into practise, no longer supports that
late version of a chain of being in which each being holds a particular,
Spending time on the Web really is a lot like cruising a Superhighway, and it feels about as much like the public sphere as a freeway does. Or as conducive to genuine public discourse and life as does a mall. In many ways, a shopping mall is an especially evocative metaphor for considering the Internet, in the ways virtuality and mall culture govern both social and spatial relationships and the easy blurring of public and private both engender.
Like all decent-sized malls, and especially the supermalls, the Internet claims to contain everything, to represent and recreate the whole world, only better and cleaner. Carefully constructed simulacra, mall culture is limitless and attempts to satisfy every potential consumer. Speaking about the West Edmonton Mall, Margaret Crawford writes;
At the opening ceremony aboard the Santa Maria, one of the mall's
developers, Nader Ghermezian, shouted in triumph, "What we have
done means you don't have to go to New York or Paris or Disneyland
or Hawaii. We have it all here for you in one place, in Edmonton,
Alberta, Canada! Publicity for the Fantasyland Hotel asks "What country
do you want to sleep in tonight?" -- offering theme rooms based not only
on faraway places such as Polynesia and Hollywood, and distant times
such as ancient Rome and Victorian England, but also on modes of transportation, from horse-drawn carriages to pickup trucks.
This is exactly the Fantasyland the Net has positioned itself as, only on a larger, more malleable and intrusive level. The 'What country do you want to sleep in?' becomes 'Where do you want to go today?', and the two make perfect sense together.
Not surprisingly, the visceral sense one gets surfing the Net is almost exactly that when cruising a mall. A twitchy, distracted sense of both hyperreality and stupor;
For Joan Didion the mall is an addictive environmental drug,
where 'one moves for a while in aqueous suspension, not only of light, but of judgement, not only of judgement but of personality'.
... William Kowinski identified mal de mall as a perceptual paradox
brought on by simultaneous stimulation and sedation, characterized by disorientation, anxiety and apathy. 
In this context, what appears to be and perceived as generally public space is really privately owned and governed, and mall security can legally eject anyone who is infering with the consumer agenda in any way.
Michael Sorkin has nicely named this 'the Disneyification of culture', and in many ways Disney and especially Disneyland are the real spiritual basis for both mall and Net culture. The constant simulations, all referencing other, physically distant people or places and the necessary abstractions of authenticity run through the attempts at living fantasy. Writing in 1992, before the real Internet explosion, Sorkin drew the connection well:
The urbanism of Disneyland is precisely the urbanism of universal
equivilance. In this new city, the idea of distinct places is dispersed
into a sea of universal placelessness as everyplace becomes
destination and any destination can be anyplace. The world of traditional urban arrangements is colonized by the penetration of a new multinational corridor, leading always to a single human
subject, the monadic consumer. The ultimate consequence is likely
to be the increasing irrelevance of actual movement and the substitution
of the even more completely artificial reality of electronic 'virtual' space.
In the early seventies historian William Irwin Thompson spoke of Disneyland as a "shattered landscape in which the individual moves through a world of discontinuities: Mississippi riverboats, medieval castles, and rocket ships equally fill the reality of a single moment"The discontinuity is what is relied on, because in the absence of place and traditional meaning, alternatives flow easily into the space. Postmodernity, theme parks, Disneyification and virtuality are quick and anxious and absolutely capable of providing titilating and pleasing answers at the drop of a hat.
In this kind of universalized/ing terrain, comprehensible virtues like neighbourliness and generosity and hospitality have immense difficulty emerging. In the context of everywhereness and facelessness they are easily displaced by abstract, atomistic renditions of virtues such as charity and civility. In the true absence of face-to-face relationships and reciprocity, a direct, lived democracy and the community it absolutely relies upon melt away. In their place hollow democracies and genuine public space gives way to a fractured new territory of indistinct and universalized social relations.
The reasons why the Net is not and can never be a genuinely public space are rooted precisely in its ironies. In defeating time and space, the supposedly resultant connectedness leaves only an isolated simulacra. In a presumably adventurous frontier, cocooned safety and security are paramount. Being able to speak with everyone anywhere leaves users very alone. The ability to visit anywhere anytime leaves one in an essential nowhere. It is the same universalizing logic that fuels the rhetoric of economic globalization and colonization, a logic that is certainly pervasive and felt constantly on-line.
* The article is based on the authors’ forthcoming book An Architecture of Isolation: the Myth of the Internet, (Broadview Press, 2000). The authors wish to thank the Institute For Anarchist Studies who assisted in the funding of the book.
* Berry, W., What Are People For?, San Francisco: North Point, 1990. p. 196.
. Fotopoulos, T., 'Towards a democratic conception of science and technology' in Democracy and Nature, Vol. 4, No. 1, Issue 10. p. 86.
. Rheingold, H., The Virtual Community, Reading, MA: Willaim Patrick, 1993. p. 6.
. Ogden, F., Navigating in Cyberspace, Toronto: Macfarlane, Walter and Ross, 1995. p. 97.
. Gates, B., The Road Ahead, New York: Viking , 1995, p.9.
. Burstein, D. and D. Kline, Road Warriors, New York: Dutton, 1995. p. 1.
. de Kerckhoic, D., Connected Intelligence, Toronto: Somerville House Publishers. Toronto, 1997.
. Fototopoulos, 'Towards...', p. 61.
. Rheingold, H., The Virtual. p. 26.
. Bookchin, M., Urbanization Without Cities, Montreal: Black Rose, 1992. p. 6.
. Berry, W., What Are People For?. p. 171-2.
. Illich, I., Energy and Equity, New York: Harper and Row, 1974. p. 23.
. Gray, J., 'Cyberspace Offers a Hollow Freedom', Manchester Gaurdian, April 16, 1995.
. quoted in Sale, K., Rebels Against the Future, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1995. p. 261.
. Rosler, M., 'Fragments of a Metropolitan Viewpoint' in Wallis, B., ed., If You Lived Here, Seattle: Bay Press, 1991. p. 17.
. Crawford, M., 'The World in a Shopping Mall', in Sorkin, M., ed., Variations on a Theme Park, New York: Noonday, 1992. p. 4.
. ibid., p. 14.
. Sorkin, 'See You in Disneyland', in ibid., p. 217.
. Thompson in Meikle, J.L., American Plastic: a Cultural History, New Brunswick, NJ; Rutgers University Press, 1995. p. 280.