visionaries, or digerati(1)…
before in human history have so many people laid
down their views on what the future will be like.
And never before have these views, prognostics,
or ideologies changed, or been proved to be wrong,
at such a fast pace. Until recently, the common
interpretation of the term ideology was somehow
related to long lasting belief. Capitalism vs. Communism,
Left vs. Right, Libertarians vs. Conservatives and
so on… Most of these dichotomies have lasted for
centuries and there was no sign and no need for
them to completely converge in the future.
On 20 July 1969, Neil Alden Armstrong, as commander
of the Apollo 11 lunar mission, became the first
person to set foot on the moon. Over the following
decades both the United States and the former Soviet
Union invested billions of dollars in space research
having as the ultimate goal the protection and promotion
of their ideologies. It was - many thought - just
a matter of time until the day when the human race
would have a secondary address: sidereal space.
And the question was whether it would be communist
The year 2001 seemed like a good date for the move.
The date was too far away for anyone to contest
(mainly in the late sixties, when the Apollo project
was at its full power and with outstanding results)
and the turn of the millennium had natural symbolic
meanings. On top of that, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968
masterpiece - 2001: A Space Odyssey - was in everyone’s
But where we are "moving" to - at the end of this
century - is a much less obvious "place": cyberspace(2).
The fall of the Berlin Wall, on 9 November 1991,
not only unified the former East and West Germany,
but also symbolised the end of the cold war. Capitalism
defeated communism and the USSR’s ideology slowly
faded away. Except for a few scientists and researchers,
no one really cared what human life in outer space
could be like. It was no longer a political issue!
But predictions about the future lifestyle in cyberspace
have skyrocketed! Ideologies in the so-called electronic
frontier did not concern nations at the same intensity
as in the past, but this time, private companies
and some individuals (the self acclaimed digerati)
propagated the future. No wonder cyberspace was
soon known by many as the "electronic marketplace"…
It is beyond one’s scope how much has been predicted
about the changes a few thousand computers, connected
by high speed wires, will provoke. MIT’s Media Lab
director, Nicholas Negroponte, predicts that one
billion people will be "netcitizens" by the year
2000 (3); the Speaker of US House of Representatives,
Newt Gingrich, believes that making Congressional
data available on the Net will turn America into
a better democracy and Americans into better citizens
(4); Bill Gates dreams about an Internet based friction-free
market, and for his friend, Esther Dyson cyberspace
will "suck power away from governments, mass media
and big business" (5). The list could go on and
we could easily be led to believe that a web browser
and an e-mail account can solve most of humankind’s
problems. In this scenario, everything will fit
perfectly and harmoniously. Even the traditional
form of representative government will be proven
The English perspective
In 1995, a critical essay written by Richard Barbrook
and Andrew Cameron (co-founders of the Hypermedia
Research Centre in London), vexingly named "The
Californian Ideology", pinpointed many contradictions
in the widespread hype. The paper is developed around
a profound analysis of the unusual merge of the
60’s New Left movement and the New Right libertarian
ideals; made possible by the potential of the new
information technologies. Barbrook and Cameron not
only highlighted the not so positive aspects of
West Coast’s lifestyle, such as racism, poverty
and environmental degradation, while enumerating
the factors responsible for the creation of the
"virtual class" in the Bay Area, but they also attacked
the so-called new "Jeffersonian democracy" by reminding
us that the third US president personally owned
200 human beings as slaves, as he spread free market
It was not hard to predict the feedback. Published
in a handful of websites and translated into a half
dozen languages, "The Californian Ideology" was
hostilely responded to by many of those who envisioned
an optimistic cyber-based future, including one
of the cyber-libertarians main spokespersons: Wired
Magazine’s former editor-in-chief, Louis Rossetto.
The "Californian Ideology" was an important step
towards a reality-check as to what this "revolution"
is all about. "Only by giving them a name we were
able to ridicule them. Now people say: ‘Oh, those
are Californian ideologues’…"(6), said Barbrook
in a recent seminar at the Hypermedia Research Centre
(HRC). Yes, in this case the Net really overcomes
geographical distances: the Californian ideologues
are all over and the few examples mentioned above
are as dispersed as Massachusetts (Negroponte),
Georgia (Gingrich), Washington State(Gates) and
New York (Dyson). Anyone slightly net-aware these
days knows about the hype, some are still firm believers,
but a critical mass is already mocking it. For many
the Wired era is coming to an end.
Another response to "The Californian Ideology" came
from former Wall Street analyst and current president
of the New York New Media Association, Mark Stahlman,
in an even more provocative article titled: "The
English Ideology and Wired Magazine". Although also
promoting a more sceptical view of the future, in
a partial convergence with Barbrook and Cameron’s
work, Stahlman invested an enormous effort in linking
the Californian ideology to all kinds of English
philosophers and writers: from Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)
and Francis Bacon (1561-1626) to H.G. Wells, who
was born in 1866 (the most recent he managed to
find). His article insists that the San Francisco-based
Wired magazine "represents yet another [English]
attempt to invade American culture and to undermine
American political and economic initiative"(7).
Okay, one could buy it a half-century ago (actually
when Wells was alive) but today Stahlman’s analysis
can only be seen as a distant and unrelated analogy.
As Marx said, "history repeats itself, first as
a tragedy, second as a farce"(8).
Although Stahlman managed to link the Greek-born
Negroponte to the English culture (by revealing
his secret dream: an AI-spawned robotic English
butler) but he overlooked Esther Dyson’s background
(who – like Mark Stahlman – also lives in New York,
was a financial analyst and, currently, is one of
the so-called digerati). Her father is Freeman Dyson,
British-born internationally renowned physicist.
At least it could be a living example.
Dyson’s case is peculiar: she belongs to a class
of "cyberprophets" who are slowly coming down to
Earth again. By following her weekly articles one
can easily identify a change of tone, explicitly
admitted in her 1997 book Release 2.0. "My first
vision of cyberspace in Release 1.0 [a IT newsletter
for executives] was optimistic and perhaps a bit
naďve", Dyson says, "this new vision is better informed
by experience, and wiser – but I have no illusions
that there won’t be a need for Release 2.1, […]
and ultimately a Release 3.0 somewhere down the
road" (9). Analogously, many of the critics have
completely lost interest in the quest of proving
how mislead the Wired troupe is. Anyone who listens
to David Hudson’s appeal "Let’s Get Sober!" in his
book-critique to net-optimism, "Rewired", knows
that the hype is fading. And it is not only the
professional writers and academic researchers who
say so. The amateur and one person-driven web site
called "What’s Newt", that during the last four
years criticised Newt Gingrich’s ideas and proposals
has simply not been updated since last August. If
you check out the site’s homepage, the webmaster
and software developer, Dan Schueler, simply says:
"Sorry for the delays in updating What's Newt. I
completely lost interest in Newt and whatever he
might be saying or doing for the past several months."(10)
"Beyond the Californian Ideology". That was the
theme of the seventh edition of Cyber.Salon - a
monthly gathering of London-based digital artisans
and intellectuals in a Bloomsbury cybercafe - promoted
by the HRC and the Austrian online magazine Telepolis.
One of the guest speakers on the 20th May 1998 meeting,
Peter Lunenfeld (from the Art Center College of
Design, Los Angeles, California), clearly stated:
"The closer you get to San Francisco, the less serious
you take Wired’s ideas". And he continues: "Wired
needed new celebrities to promote their view of
the coming information era, so they created their
own. It is like the Cigar Afficionado magazine,
whose covers display healthy top models smoking
Wired was launched in January 1993, in a market
inundated only by technical periodicals, such as
Byte and PC World, with perhaps the exception of
Mondo 2000. For most of the techies used to the
market status quo of computer related publications,
Wired’s glowing pages and predictions seem more
attractive than porn magazines and it’s appealing
design gave the magazine nothing less than 18 awards
from 1993 to 1997, including the three prizes conferred
by the prestigious American Society of Magazine
But Mercedes-Benz and Tag Heuer adverts mixed with
8,000 word articles on how the "information superhighway"
would bring power and knowledge to the poorest African
country was something beyond comprehension! Looking
back today, even 5-year-old articles are still so
"updated", i.e. the predictions simply haven’t happened,
or are they still to happen? In the magazine’s July
1993 issue, Mitchell Kapor, co-founder of the Electronic
Frontier Foundation (EFF), wrote an extensive article
named "Where is the Digital Highway Really Heading?",
in which he states: "Life in cyberspace […] is more
egalitarian than elitist, and more decentralised
than hierarchical. It serves individuals and communities,
not mass audiences". But the point, in this case,
is: how do we get to live in this cyberspace/dreamland?
Easy if you are a middle-class citizen of a First
World nation, with your basic needs fulfilled, access
to a phone line and a thousand-dollar computer.
But how the "digital highway" will give food to
Ethiopians before they can even think about having
a phone is still to be discovered. Actually, with
the help of Barbrook/Cameron, David Hudson, as well
as the promoters of the recent "technorealism" movement,
it is now easy to figure out the answer. It simply
Not much more than 2% of the world population have
online access. To reach the one billion Net users
Nicolas Negroponte promotes, maybe we should think
about the infrastructure first (and also make a
deliberate effort to forget about "meaningless"
issues, such as housing, literacy, and starvation).
As David Kline exposed in his column "Market Forces"
for HotWired, "currently there are only about 750
million to 800 million telephones lines worldwide.
Even in Asia, where phone usage is growing the fastest,
experts are predicting the installation of only
15 million to 20 million new lines annually over
the next six years. But what the heck, let's just
take a leap of faith and agree that maybe the world
will have a billion phones in use by the year 2000.
Does that give us a billion Net surfers? Even in
the United States, with perhaps 160 million telephones,
there are only 16 million to 20 million people on
the Net. And the vast majority of these, as you
no doubt are aware, come from affluent households
(though significantly, less than half of all owners
of computers with modems even choose to go online)"
(12). It is not hard to understand why Kline’s column
was discontinued shortly after that, by Wired Ventures.
Anyone just a bit net-savvy these days knows the
power of the search engines, such as Altavista,
Lycos and Excite as well as how hard it is to get
the right information on the first run. Usually
thousands of URLs match our search criteria and
the result is an end-of-millennium symptom: information
overload. Yes, the Internet made it possible – for
the top 2% of the population – to access information
like never before in human history. But how are
we going to deal with it, digest it, and interpret
it? Above all, how are we going to survive the anxiety
and other psychological consequences of this new
era? The motto "information wants to be free" is
on everybody’s lips, but how much freedom will information
actually bring us? Or it will just make us more
confused and lost? As David Shenk puts it, we are
heading towards a "data smog". When Newt Gingrich,
announced "Thomas", a web site making publicly available
all US Congressional documents, Shenk was right
on the spot in identifying the political concealment
within the act.
"If every citizen had access to the information
that the Washington lobbyists have, we would have
changed the balance of power in America towards
the citizens and out of the Beltway", announced
Gingrich in the National Public Radio on the morning
of the 26th January 1995. But for Shenk, a veteran
journalist who covered Washington D.C. politics
in the early ages of a teleprinter link provided
by the Federal News Service (that inundated his
room at the speed of 2 pages a minute with all the
key political transcripts), it was clear the consequences
of that single deed. "Gingrich is smart enough to
understand that opening the floodgates of information
doesn’t automatically turn Americans into better
citizens", unmasks Shenk, "to the contrary, while
some political specialists have benefited from the
comprehensive disclosure, the average citizen has
been more apt than before to get lost in the flood.
It’s focus that brings knowledge and power, not
A short retrospective
To clarify the analysis, it would be pertinent to
split down in a few distinctive periods the recent
history of information technology and the individual
empowerment process brought by the personal computers.
Here is what can be proposed:
DIY culture and pure nerdism (1976 – 1984)
At this early stage, personal computing was a hobby
for most. Enthusiasts assembled their own machines,
programmed their own code and exchanged their experiences
with their peers at the ‘homebrew’ computer clubs.
It was also when the first companies in the PC industry
started, such as Altair, Apple and Microsoft; but
with products focused to the niche market of ‘nerds’
Real-life applications and machines (1984 – 1990)
With the launch of the Apple Mac in 1984, non-techies
found their way into the benefits of the information
technology. Graphical user interfaces (GUI) and
applications such as word processors and spreadsheets
initiated a swich from an exclusively nerdy culture
to a results-oriented use of the personal computer.
Even the text-based and harder to use IBM PC platform
got its due in the office marketplace.
Windows embracing the "rest of us" (1990 – 1993)
In 1990 the first working version of Microsoft Windows
was released, emulating the success of the Mac GUI
six years previously. Although Apple created "the
computer for the rest of us" motto, in 1984, it
was Microsoft who profited the most. Through a series
of strategic mistakes (proprietary technology, no
licence agreements, higher prices than competition
and a strict bundling policy of hardware and operational
system), Apple lost its enormous PC market share
of the early days of the Apple IIs. It was Microsoft,
with its strategy of "embracing and extend", who
actually took over "the rest of us", in a time when
hardware prices dropped to acceptable levels for
most middle-class households in developed countries.
It was the foundations of its actual 94.1% of the
Graphical OS market share and the domination of
85% of the office applications industry (14).
Nonetheless those were the golden years when the
personal computing industry formed a critical mass
of users. Allied to the convergence of telecommunications
and media industries, this epoch built the foundations
of the techno-utopians’ ideals.
Net Utopia and cyber-liberalism: the Wired era (1993
And suddenly, by giving away to the private sector
the public Internet backbone - a result of over
30 years of investment with US tax-payers’ funds
– the American government turns an academic and
military network into the "information marketplace":
the new business frontier for any Republican post-industrialist
CEO. For a half decade we have been listening to
Wired’s libertarian campaign against state control
in cyberspace, featuring Gilder, Tofflers and the
like. But, as the saying goes: "you can fool some
of the people all of the time and all of the people
some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the
people all of the time".
Technorealism (1998 - )
And some people soon realised it. Early this year,
a small group of intellectuals led by Andrew Shapiro,
David Shenk and Steven Johnson initialised a movement
called "technorealism". With an eight-point manifesto
subscribed to by thousands on their website (15),
one finds it hard to contest the obvious and clear
conclusions. Many see it as the natural antidote
to the cyber-liberalism age. As Andrew Shapiro puts
it, "we want to criticise technology with the view
of improving it. I’m not anti-technology by any
means, but I find myself at odds with the boosterism
of Silicon Valley and, well, Wired magazine." (16)
Technologies are not neutral.
The Internet is revolutionary, but not Utopian.
Government has an important role to play on the
Information is not knowledge.
Wiring the schools will not save them.
Information wants to be protected.
The public owns the airwaves; the public should
benefit from their use.
Understanding technology should be an essential
component of global citizenship.
The above principles of technorealism were not created
overnight and a visit to www.technorealism.org will
give a further explanation of each of them. One
of the reasons for Barbrook and Cameron’s "The Californian
Ideology" wide acceptance was that many others were
already thinking about it, under one perspective
or another. When a profound analysis is presented
the public identification is immediate. The same
happened with the technorealism movement in one
way or another prior to the term being coined.
Even before Wired existed, Time magazine published
in its "Letters to the editor" section a complaint
from an irate parent who decided to buy a modem
so his 12 year old son could get connected to the
Internet. His action was based on a very favourable
article, published in a preceding issue of the magazine,
where all the educational potential of the web and
all the resources available were outlined. The reason
for the reader’s anger was that just a few days
after getting "wired", the kid managed to find a
way to exchange some pornographic pictures and was
spending most of his time doing it. "How can you
induce us to give our children access to the web,
if all this immoral stuff is also out there?" was
the question posed to the journalist responsible
for the article. The reply came straight after:
"the Internet is by no means different than the
real world. All the good and bad things your children
can find in the streets will be found in cyberspace.
You’ll have to teach them how to be careful in the
same way you do in real life". Six years later this
could be a classical example of the technorealist’s
principle number 2. "For every empowering or enlightening
aspect of the wired life, there will also be dimensions
that are malicious, perverse, or rather ordinary",
is partly how they explain why the Internet is not
By the sum of experiences over those early years
of broader Internet access and by keeping a balanced
critical position between the techno-utopians and
the neo-Luddites it was possible to formulate a
few common sense pillars.
It is completely unnecessary to exemplify all the
principles of technorealism, and most of them speak
for themselves, but one (principle 3), in particular,
brings to light one of the biggest aberrations of
the liberals quest: free market with no government
intervention. There is no single company in the
computer industry that is not concerned about Microsoft’s
monopolistic tactics. From small to large corporations,
Microsoft is a threat to market diversity and innovation.
Nowadays, the dream of any start-up company is to
be bought by Microsoft, since they know that, in
the current scenario, if Microsoft decides to move
into their business they will be out of the game.
The irony in this is that everyone is hoping to
have a chance in the free market economy (as propagated
by the Liberals) with fair competition but, in order
to get there, Microsoft has to be broken up or,
at least, regulated. Who is going to do it? The
market itself? Left alone to market forces, Microsoft
already defeated most of the leading companies in
the IT business, including Borland (development
tools), Corel (application suites), Novell (networking)
and Apple (operational systems/platform), either
by sweeping them out of the market or to a distant
second place. Everyone’s hope now is exclusively
on a lawsuit moved by the US Government’s Department
of Justice (DoJ). Yes, the very same government
to whom Wired and the cyber-libertarians say "hands
A dark future?
In Rewired, David Hudson dedicates almost one hundred
pages to a section entitled "One Dark Future", comprising
not less than 10 of the book’s 35 chapters. What
we can easily be led to think now is that if all
the optimist view and hype on how the Net would
give humankind a spectacular future is disappearing,
the only path ahead is a dark future.
Not necessarily! The Internet will indeed bring
a number of great things to humankind and a number
of new problems as well. Although it will expand
our access to information, it will not automatically
give us a better education; it might give us more
freedom of speech, but will not turn each of us
into a publisher that will jeopardise the media
titans; and it will also shorten the distance between
citizens and government, but will not substitute
for a representative congress or an elected head
The Internet will certainly create a number of problems
that are only now beginning to appear, ranging from
privacy issues to information anxiety and cyber-crimes.
Should we then step back and cut down the Internet?
Some people are proposing it, such as Paul Treanor
in an extensive paper published on the Web called
"Internet as Hyper-Liberalism" (17), but that is
just another extremism and goes blindly into the
other side of the spectrum. Just like any revolution
the Internet will bring many expectations and fears
and only time will allow things to settle down.
When, in 1906, Alberto Santos Dumont flew with his
14 Bis, the world’s first aircraft to take off and
land by its own means, great expectations were also
created and many of the problems could not be foreseen
at the time. Dumont himself did not accept the fact
that the aeroplane, an invention with the purpose
of bringing people together, soon ended up being
used during the First World War to kill other human
A more recent example comes from David Sarnoff,
founder of NBC and president of RCA, the man who
unveiled the first colour television in 1939. Like
many in that time, Sarnoff saw the new invention
as a force for truth, refined culture and national
edification. In 1940 he declared confidently that
television was "destined to provide greater knowledge
to larger numbers of people, truer perception of
the meaning of current events, more accurate appraisal
of men in public life, and a broader understanding
of the needs and aspirations of our fellow human
It is not hard to see the similarities between Sarnoff’s
perception of the television’s role in our society
and what has been said about the Net. Although enriching
and cultural programs do exist, most of the broadcasting
time is now devoted to consumerism, political apathy,
social isolation and cultural imperialism. Far from
a modern Agora, electronic media has become one
of the best examples of savage capitalism. But that
does not invalidate its importance and, when properly
produced and diffused, television programs can partially
achieve some of Sarnoff’s ideals.
Richard Barbrook defined the web so well: "The Net
is nothing but an inert mass of metal, plastic and
sand. We are the only living beings in cyberspace."
Yes, like almost every technological achievement
in history, the Internet will change human society
irreversibly, but at the end it is just another
tool. Will the changes be good or bad? The answer
In May 1998, after failing twice in attempts to
offer its stock on the public market, Wired Ventures
sold its magazine to Conde Nast Publications Inc.
for more than $75 million. The deal not only symbolised
Wired’s financial failure (the money was used to
pay Wired Venture’s short-term debts and to fund
its online counterparts HotWired, Wired News and
the HotBot search engine) but also how the magazine
should be perceived in the future. The acquirer,
apart from being an investor in the publication
since January 1994, is also the publisher of lifestyle
periodicals such as Vogue, GQ, The New Yorker and
Vanity Fair. In other words, it is now clear why
Armani Jeans and BMW adverts fit so well on the
magazine’s pages. Wired may very well have a long
life, but it will be nothing more than a cyber-fashion
magazine for the top 2% wealthiest Internet users.
The rest of us will just wear unbranded jeans, take
the tube to work and face all the joys and problems
of everyday life. Both inside and outside cyberspace.
Copyright © 1999 by Francisco Millarch
(1) The term first appeared in a January 1992 article
by Times reporter John Markoff. It was formed by
a blend of the words "digital" and "literati" (Italian
for the Latin litterati). Today, Markoff states,
digerati is a stand-in for "the digital elite" –
the powerful engineers, the Third Wave intellectuals,
and power brokers of the wired world.
(2) The information space. The place in computer
servers, geographically dispersed, and linked by
wavelengths. The term was coined by William Gibson
in his 1984 novel Neuromancer as "consensual hallucination
experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators,
in every nation, by children being taught mathematical
concepts… A graphical representation of data abstracted
from the banks of every computer in the human system.
Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in
the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellation
of data. Like city lights, receding…"
(3) Negroponte, Nicholas. Who Will the Next Billion
Users Be?. Wired 4.06, June 1996.
(4) Newt Gingrich’s speech to Republican National
Committee on 20 January 1995. http://dolphin.gulf.net/Gingrich/1.20.95.I
(5) Dyson, Esther. Release 2.0 A design for living
in the Digital Age. Viking, London, 1997. Page 6.
(6) author’s notes.
(7) Stahlman, Mark. The English Ideology and Wired
Magazine – Part One. Rewired website. http://www.rewired.com/96/fall/1118.html.
(8) Paraphrase of the opening sentences of Marx,
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852;
repr. in Karl Marx: Selected Works, vol. 2, 1942).
The actual words were: "Hegel remarks somewhere
that all great, world-historical facts and personages
occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add:
the first time as tragedy, the second as farce."
(9) ibid. page 5
(11) author’s notes
(13) Shenk, David. Data Smog: surviving the information
glut. HarperCollins, New York, 1997. Pages 173-174.
(14) For an in-depth analysis of Microsoft’s monopoly
strategies, refer to Millarch, Francisco. Monopolies
x Open Standards: An Abridged History of the Personal
Computer Industry and its influence on the Cyberspace.
(15) For more information, see www.technorealism.org.
Christe, Ian. Digital Dream Team Calls for ‘Technorealism’.
Wired News. 12 March 1998. http://www.wired.com/news/news/culture/story/10872.html.
(18) Sarnoff, David, Foreword to Lenox R. Lohr.
Television Broadcasting. New York. MacGrawHill.
1940. in Shenk, David. Data Smog: surviving the
This paper was originally submitted as a partial
requirement for my Masters Degree in Hypermedia
Studies at the University of Westminster
It was also published by Cybersoc Magazine Issue
4, December 1998 and translated for Cuadernos Ciberespacio
y Sociedad Issue 2, February 1999
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