Cybersociology Magazine: Issue Five
Cyberpower and the Meaning of Online Activism
By Tim Jordan
Power is the condition and limit of politics, culture and authority. Power seeps through and around all forms of subjectivity, at times bringing opposites into conflict in a way that reinforces the fundamental flow of power. Power concerns not immediately obvious forms of politics, culture and authority but the structures that condition and limit these three. Grassroots activism exists in constant flows of power. Democracy is invented and reinvented between the demands of those without power and the limitations those with power try to impose. How are these two almost obsessively analysed figures of politics 'the grassroots and democracy' transformed by being digitised and sent into cyberspace? Only when we have some understanding of the nature of power online will online activism and digital democracy be able to be grasped. Understanding cyberpower will reveal the underlying workings of lives, societies and dreams within structures of politics, culture and authority in cyberspace. Understanding cyberpower will help reveal the conditions in which online activism exists and the authorities that will seek to bend democracy away from the grassroots and towards the elites.
But where to begin? How can such a topic as the 'nature of power in cyberspace' ever be answered? It is simpler than it seems, for beginning from one universal and constantly repeated experience will lead to an understanding of one dimension of cyberpower. We all have to log-on, we all begin every journey into cyberspace being reminded 'I am an individual with this username and this password, that is mine alone', from this beginning a certain form of power can be defined. But it will not be enough to grasp this form of power, though it is the understanding of power that pervades online activist groups particularly civil rights groups. Instead its failure to grasp how communities can make individuals, means a second form of power needs to be grasped; cyberpower of the social. Even these two dimensions of cyberpower are not enough because both individuals and collectives in cyberspace are committed to something more than themselves and each other, they are also committed to an imagined virtual community beyond all individuals and communities. The imaginary of cyberspace needs to be explored and it reveals a third level of cyberpower.
One cyberpower is defined as the inter-relations of the three levels of the individual, the social and the imaginary we can understand some of the typical issues and discourses that pervade both online activism and digital democracy. In particular, we can see why certain issues dominate the organisations that online activism have thrown up. We can understand how the flows of cyberpower generate a certain cyberpolitics. We will also see why libertarianism has become the language of cyberpolitics, not that all online become libertarians but that the ideology of individual liberty accompanied by its close cousin the free market, offers the words, metaphors and concepts which draw support from both the digital grassroots and the digital elite communicate to provide a denial of the need for democracy online. Understanding cyberpower allows us to understand better the world of online grassroots activism and the possibilities for digital democracy.
The constant experience of virtual lives is of individuals passing through the screen to enter cyberspace and then construct societies. This is not a misguided perception, it is not somehow false knowledge of cyberspace, rather it is the accurately understood experien ce of many that they first enter cyberspace as an individual in front of a terminal and then often must restate their individuality ('handle and password please, or no entry') to go where they want to go. When the individual is the starting point for analysis of life in cyberspace, power as the possession of individuals emerges as the compelling experience of cyberspace. The key to understanding such a political focus is the conception of cyberspace as a place in which individuals gain certain powers. For example, in the last year there has been a debate in the UK about the ability of patients to search the Internet for information and then go to their doctor demanding certain treatment. Some worry this means amateurs are attempting to by-pass the years of training required to become a doctor and in doing so are putting their health at risk. Others celebrate the empowerment of the individual patient against the institutions controlled by health professionals. Whatever your opinion of this particular example, for present purposes it illustrates the way a certain capacity of cyberspace 'in this case, access to a wide range of information' offers individuals certain new powers to take action.
From this flows the most common issues of cyberpolitics, such as privacy, encryption, censorship and access. In this context are met the 'grassroots' cyberpolitical organisations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (and all the other Electronic Frontier X's it inspired, such as EF Australia and EF Austin), Voters Telecommunications Watch or the British-based CommUnity. These organisations define and conduct a politics based on the assumption that individuals gain greater powers as individuals in cyberspace and that these powers must be protected and extended. Analysis of the issues that appeared in the electronic newsletter of the most long-lived and famous Internet civil rights organisation's (EFFector, published electronically by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, www.eff.org) produced following picture of cyberpolitics:
Clearly four of the most common political divisions of offline life 'gender, race, class and ecology' find little echo in six years of EFFs work. Little echo in the time in which EFFs influence reached the dizzy heights of direct input into USA Presidential policy on cyberspace and in which an internal crisis about being recuperated and normalised within USA's power structures led EFF to split, physically depart Washington DC and try to reconnect to the digital grassroots. The example of EFF shows that a distinctive politics emerges online, in an organisation devoted to protecting rights online. It is the politics of the cyber-individual. It is the pol itics of protecting the abilities all the virtual nomads find in cyberspace, whether that ability is to promote hate-speech or to indulge in sexual experimentation.
Power understood as the possession of individuals leads to a cyberpolitics predicated on the need to maintain and extend those abilities individuals find online. Online grassroots organisations accordingly organise primarily around the powers of the individual in cyberspace. These powers can be understood as existing along two axes of, first, the need to widen access to cyberspace so that more individuals can gain access to cyberpowers and, second, the need to maintain an individual's powers in cyberspace.
Access is a form of cyberpolitics that cuts in two directions. First, it addresses inequalities of access that need to be understood in two ways; between nations and within nations. Access to cyberspace is clearly wildly uneven. For example, in July 1978, 70.9 per cent of Internet hosts were located in the USA, Canada and Mexico but only 0.4 of hosts existed in sub-Saha ran Africa with 97% of these hosts being located in South Africa. (Jordan, 1999; 51-2) Similar tales of inequality can be told within even the most advanced cyber-nations. Second, problems in access spring from two sources, culture and cost, and the more obvious limitation, cost, may well not be the most important. For example, some of the most powerful hackers, ruling princes of cyberspace, have worked their digital magic with the most basic of technological devices. Top line, expensive computer equipment is needed for Quake II and for some over-developed web-sites, but most of the powers of cyberspace can be had with cheap, 'obsolete' equipment. The difficulty is spreading the understanding of how to use and obtain such equipment. To possess the powers cyberspace offers, you must be able to go there. Access springs from the notion that individuals gain power in cyberspace, making access to those powers fundamental.
For those with access to cyberspace, a second set of typical cyberpolitical issues emerges around the powers cyberspace offers. Here can be found the political issues and organisations that many consider typical of cyberspace; issues like censorship, privacy, intellectual property. The main cyberpolitical issues have revolved around four broad areas; free spe ech, privacy, encryption and intellectual property. Free speech, obviously also including censorship, has already been discussed when outlining the Rimm' CDA story. Clearly, in a world in which your identity depends on the information you can type, the ability to write what you want and send it to whomever you want to is equivalent to the right to exist as you want to. Privacy is easily understood as gaining the power to penetrate others' privacy by reading their email or gaining a profile of their consumption habits or protecting that privacy by encrypting email or demanding that web-sites tell users what personal information is taken in cyberspace. Encryption relates to the ability to scramble information so that only those you allow to unscramble it will be able to read it. Encryption concerns a set of software tools that gives avatars control over what they write. Copyright can be understood as either the freedom or restriction of information flow. Information is the fundamental source of cyberspaces' powers, and copyright concerns problem of paying for information in a world where it can be quickly, cheaply, easily and endlessly copied.
In all these cases, the key issues of cyberpolitics result from the conception of cyberpower as a possession, as something that individuals take and use. Much of the political heat of cyberspace is generated here and is the result of beginning from the fact o f individuals facing screens and reaching through the capabilities cyberspace offers to guess that online power is the possession of individuals. This conception underpins some of the great hopes for cyberspace, as it is a place where individuals can finally rest control of their being from institutions, governments, corporations and oppressions.
Yet unease with such an individualistic basis for cybersocieties is sometimes felt. Cyberpower of the individual is felt as the belief that online lives and communities are constructed and maintained by individuals. It is not that collectives or cybersocieties do not exist, but they are dependent on the individuals that make create them. Are the strongly felt commitments people have really just for the aggregation of individuals they meet? Or is there also a commitment to cybersociety as something more than a collection of individuals? Is there a commitment not just to the collective experiences individuals construct but also to the fact of collective experience? A commitment to the common spaces that may need to be defended on behalf of individuals who have never been met, who have not helped create that common space but whose right to come and exist is often felt. Sometimes allegiance is first and foremost to society and not to individuals. From this perspective, a very different power appears.
What make s individuals in cyberspace possible? Certain forms of technology make them possible, certain wires, code and computers. All such artefacts of technoscience are part of a process in which pieces of technology are constructed according to certain social values but then appear to individuals as things for use. Dead technology always opens on the living. For example, consider perhaps the greatest icon of the digital age the @ symbol; the single character that sits between your handle and your domain name to constitute your virtual address. The @'s place in cyberspace was created in 1972 by Ray Tomlinson, working for the firm Bolt, Beranek and Newman. Tomlinson was writing a small email programme to be used on Arpanet, almost as an afterthought it was going to be added to a new file transfer programme. Tomlinson needed something to separate the name of a user from their machine. He was working on a certain keyboard, Model 33 Teletype, which only had around a dozen punctuation characters and he chose '@'. It had the advantage of meaning 'at' but any of the punctuation characters on this keyboard would have done. Indeed, several other email programmes on other networks used different symbols, especially the '!'. (Hafner and Lyon, 1996: 191-2, Quarterman, 1990: 216-22) The success of the Internet and its roots in Arpanet now ensure @ is as close to an undisputed thing as cyberspace may ever get. We can also see i n Tomlinson's story various elements that appear as things, but which we could examine just as we have the @. Who designed the Model 33 Teletype? Why does it only have the punctuation characters it does? Certainly, it was never designed with the thought in mind that the @ must be included so that at some future time Tomlinson could turn it into an icon for the digital world. But, certainly, humans designed the Model 33.
Technopower is constituted like an infinite series of Chinese boxes, each opening onto another little model of itself, and each layer composed of the same elements, inert seeming technology and alive seeming values. Technopower can also be seen in offline life; from car engines (why are they made so powerful?) to ice cream, we live surrounded by technological artefacts that leak social values from every crevice. The difference between online and offline is that online social forms are constituted fundamentally, if not totally, from technopowers. The fundamental importance of realising that cyberspace is informational space is that it means technopower is dominant in online societies. When we adopt the perspective of the social in cyberspace, we lose sight of individuals and their powers and bring into focus impersonal powers based on particular technopowers that constitute the very possibility that cyberspace exists in the first place.
The way this oscillation between soci al values and technological things is structured creates a form of power that is crucial in a realm that only exists because of this oscillation. Technopower in cyberspace is governed by the ever increasing reliance by users on technological tools, that time after time appear as neutrally pointing the way to greater control over information but time after time result in different forms of information constituted by the values inherent in the new tools. Information is endless in cyberspace and creates an abstract need for control of information that will never be satisfied. The direction of technopower in cyberspace is toward greater elaboration of technological tools to more people who have less ability to understand the nature of those tools. Control of the possibilities for life in cyberspace is delivered, through this spiral, to those with expertise in the increasingly complex software and hardware needed to constitute the tools that allow individual users to create lives and societies.
What can be called the technopower spiral is constituted out of three moments. First, there is the ongoing and repeated sensation of information overload in cyberspace . Cyberspace is the most extreme example of a general acceleration in the production and circulation of information. For example, cyberspace encourages people to produce more information rather than passively consume it. Information moves faster and in greater quantities in cyberspace than in other space. Most powerfully, cyberspace increases information by releasing it from material manifestations that restrict its flow and increase its price. Ideas embodied in books have inherent costs and restrictions on the number that can be produced and the speed at which different people can obtain them. Information is largely freed of its material form in cyberspace. This constant increase in the sheer amount and speeding up of information leads to the experience of information overload. While the notion of having too much information might seem paradoxical, it is also the case that only a certain amount of information can be dealt with at one time. As early as 1985, Hiltz and Turroff estimated that computer-mediated communication resulted in what they call superconnectivity, whereby individuals' connections to each other increase ten-fold. (Hiltz and Turroff, 1985: 688) Too muc h information or information too poorly organised leads to information overload. How many of us know the feeling of signing up to an email list and then finding the constant flow of emails means messages have to be deleted before being read and the group resigned from? How many of us search the Web for a particular topic only to end up with megabytes of files or piles of print-outs destined never to be read because there is simply too much? Cyberspace increases information's velocity and size to such an extent that information overload is a constant experience of virtual lives.
The second moment in the spiral in technopower is the attempt to master whichever moment of information overload has occurred. This can be done simply by switching off, but doing so removes all the powers the individual might feel they benefit from. Instead, information overload is constantly addressed with new technologies. Various solutions to the glut of information that cyberspace produces have been created, from news services that email news bulletins once a day to ticker tapes that produce a constant flow of stock prices or news flashes across a browser. Maes lists intelligent agents that schedule meetings, filter Usenet news and recommend books, music and other entertainment. (Maes 1994) All these share a number of traits. First, they interpose some moment of technology between user and information. This is always s imultaneously a moment in which technopower is manifested and articulated because some technological tool, appearing as a thing yet operating according to values, is the method of controlling information overload. Second, the devices themselves produce information problems because they need to be installed and used properly. No matter how sophisticated such a device is the user will need to understand how to manage the device or risk being controlled by it. Third, new tools nearly always make more information available and cyberspace easier to use, tending to create a new overload. This seems too paradoxical to be true, as the goal of many tools is to reduce the amount of information received by focusing or managing it in some automated way. However, the very success of any such tool tends toward the production of more information because it makes gaining information more efficient and there is always more relevant information waiting out there in the infinite reaches of cyberspace. Problems can be expected to re-emerge with the devices that have become essential to information management themselves producing too much information. For example, having a browser on which stock prices tick across means being connected to your stock portfolio (assuming you have one) and to your possible wealth, every minute. Sell or buy becomes a permanent state.
The technopower spiral is completed and re-initiated wi th the emegence of a new problem of information overload. This spiral of overload, tools, more overload and more tools is fundamental to technopower in cyberspace. It means that as individuals pursue their powers in cyberspace, they constantly demand more technological tools to master the seemingly infinite amount of information at their disposal. Technopower is constantly elaborated to meet the demand to control and manage information in cyberspace, thereby ensuring that cyberspace constantly becomes more and more technologically complex.
Offline societies also increasingly depend on and are affected by these tools because part of cyberspace functions as an informational space of flows that provides essential services to newly emerging informational socio-economies; such as instantaneous, twenty-four hour, global stock trading. Life in cyberspace and meatspace is ever more dependent on ever more complex forms of technology that structure the possible actions individuals are able to take. Greater freedom of action is available to technological adept individuals and, given the ever increasing complexity of cyberspace's technology, this means an elite based on expertise or the control of expertise increasingly dominates the fabric of cyberspace and the informational space of flows. Social cyberpower distributes individuals and their capacities for action across cyberspace according to their place i n networks of experts and technology and, in doing so, constitutes a cyber-elite that dominates the possible choices individuals have in cyberspace.
What do Linus Torvalds, Bill Gates and Kevin Mitnick have in common? Linus Torvalds is the co-ordinator and co-writer of the freely available and open source operating system called Linux. Bill Gates is the co-founder of Microsoft and controls through Microsoft's operating system Windows (3.x, 95 and 98) ninety per cent of all personal computers. Kevin Mitnick is the first hacker to be accused, on the front page of the New York Times, of causing a billion dollars of damage (there is no proof of this accusation). All three represent different definitions of the elite in cyberspace. Torvalds and Gates show that controlling major features of technopower, the operating systems that make cyberspace and all its teeming virtual life possible, can flow from co-ordinating or controlling the work of many software programmers. Torvalds does this in a co-operative, free and open manner, while Gates embodies the profit-seeking, competitive, free marketeer (assuming everyone understands that the aim of every free market capitalist is to eliminate their competition and so become a monopolist). Both Torvalds and Gates manage fundamental elements of cyberspace that most individuals in cyberspace must both rely on and have no hope of changing. The much vaunted 'open' n ature of Linux, which means anyone can have access to and change the source or fundamental code that constitutes Linux, only reinforces this point; as Linux is 'open' only to other members of the expertise based cyber-elite, those who can programme. Mitnick shows how hackers may control and manipulate great tracts of cyberspace almost purely through their expertise. Hackers too can delve into the workings of technopower and accumulate capacities, free phone calls, redirect or listen to others' phone calls, 'redesign' someone's web-site and so on, that are far beyond most individuals in cyberspace. Torvalds, Gates and Mitnick exemplify the technopower elite in three different ways. They make clear that cyberpower of the social is a power that produces and sustains an expertise-based elite, who have increasing control over the fabric of cyberspace.
Around these two levels of individual and social power, flows power as the constituent of social order. This occurs in cyberspace through the collective imagination individuals and collectives construct that allows them to recognise people they have never, and will never, meet as members of the same virtual community. An imaginary or collective imagination exists in most communi ties or nations. Not everyone in the UK has to meet to know that many people share a vision of what it means to be British, whether that vision is racist, multicultural, cricket-based, on its bike or off its trolley. Cyberspace has a similar collective imagination is made up of deep hopes and fears expressed as visions of a heaven of immortality and omnipotence counterposed to a hell of total surveillance and perfect totalitarian weapons. Technology to create either of these always appears to be almost ready, and so demands urgency and commitment from members of the virtual community, but the essential purpose of the collective imagination or imaginary is not to create heaven and/or hell but through the mutual recognition of these hopes and fears to create the cybercommunity.
The utopian side of the imaginary can be seen by examining cyborgs and the fantasy of information codes that underpin them. Cyborgs are the connection of human to machine and everyone in cyberspace is a cyborg, as their virtual self only comes to life through keyboards, screens, wires and computers. Cyborgs transgress boundaries and give rise to hopes that previous categories, such as women and men or human and animal, will be overcome. The mingling of human and machine in cyberspace relies on a deeper fantasy in which everything is governed by information codes. This fantasy lays particular emphasis on its connection to the mapping of the human genome and understandings of the nature of information in cyberspace. At its most rhapsodic, the heavenly imaginary of cyberspace offers both immortality and godhood to humans through the translation of life into information held in cyberspace. For example, author of the Declaration of Independence for cyberspace, cyber-activist and religious studies graduate John Perry Barlow sees the net as the fulfilment of theologian Teilhard de Chardin's prediction of an 'omega point' in which all consciousnesses meld; a possibility first mooted by Marshall McLuhan. Or there are those such as the extropians who see cyberspace as the natural home for human identities that have been uploaded onto silicon. Less spiritually, many who are inspired by Donna Harraway's feminist vision of the cyborg see a 'cyborg consciousness' as the means by which the oppressed will unite and rise up to the heaven of free and equal world.
The dystopian side of cyberspace's imaginary reverses these hopes and pictures a Superpanopticon of total surveillance, which r esults from the archiving of all social interactions in distributed databases inter-related through cyberspace. From bank transactions to newspaper purchases to car travel, it is feared that all social actions will be translated into digital records that can be assembled to form a complete account of someone's life. The Superpanopticon can be exemplified through three tactics for its realisation. First, hellish cyborgs is the fear of social control through joining human and machine together, for example through the implanting of tracking devices in humans. Second, the collection of minutiae is the dread of social control through recording and collecting every small transaction that occurs in someone's life. For example, through the tracking of purchases that supermarket 'reward' cards offers. Third, fear of cyberspace is the anxiety that all the individual powers offered by cyberspace can be turned to evil purposes. For example, that child pornographers are finally safe in cyberspace behind walls of encryption and anonymous remailing. The imaginary's hell relies on the transmutation of human lives, as they are lived minute-by-minute, into information that is collated through cyberspace. Both sides of cyberspace's imaginary therefore rely on the belief that everything is made of information or can be turned into information.
These two sides of cyberspace's imaginary are neither mutually exclusive nor likely to become wholly true or untrue, but they will constitute a 'digital nation' by expressing the hopes and fears of digital citizens. This can perhaps be understood by a brief analysis of two of the most famous slogans voiced in cyberspace: information wants to be free and information is alienated experience. These two can be heard ringing across cyberspace and they initially seem contradictory; the first posits information as some sort of life form that 'wants' something (or as is it is often termed as a 'meme'), while the second recognises information is the alienated experience of humans, it is our experience made alien to us through becoming embodied in books, software, web-sites or even online magazines. But understood from the imaginary their contradictions merely express our deeper hopes and fears. They can be decoded in this way:
1. Information wants to be free.
2. Information is alienated experience.
3. Alienated experience wants to be free.
3a. Humanity wants to be free.
3b. I want to be free.
Grassroots, Elites, Cyberpower and Libertarianism
Having defined the three levels of cyberpower, many will find it tempting to assert a dominant or fundamental level within cyberpower; to ask which level determines in the first or last instance? It is tempting, perhaps, to see the powers, individuals can t ake up in cyberspace as, in the end, able to construct social structures to the dictates of individuals, in this way subordinating technopower to individual power. Many of the libertarian strands of cybercultures implicitly take this position, arguing that the determined defence of individual liberty serves cybersocieties best. After all, individuals are real and social structures are abstractions; elites cannot 'want' but Bill Gates or Kevin Mitnick can and as long as individuals are free to 'want' then cybersocieties will conform to their desires.
Or it will be tempting to dismiss any such primacy of the individual as idealist fantasy. Individuals never exist in isolation, even in cyberspace. The simple fact that even libertarians have to use similar computers and similar software to enter cyberspace, and these technologies are controlled and determined by corporations, governments and other institutions, means that the virtual individual is always having their nature pre-determined. Do you want to change gender? Well don't try it via email when your address is [email protected], but go to a MUD where you can hide the male mark of John and become Joanna. The two different places in cyberspace made by email or MUDS only allow certain types of individuality. And an elite based on expertise and the control of expertise controls all such pre-determinations of individuality. These, some may want to believe, are the fundamental facts of cyberspace; it is another arena in which the privileged gain power over the underprivileged, yet here the privileged control even the choices of gender, name or identity any individual might want to make.
Then again, some might see all these concerns for primacy within cyberspace as small thinking at the turn of the millennium, as so many little rockets and explosions to fascinate those who cannot see that the destruction and reinvention of humanity is occurring. Is god-hood around the corner? Will cyborgs rise up to finally unite the disparate strengths of the oppressed in the revolution? Are truly totalitarian societies finally being created? Those who cannot see that these are the sorts of questions that cyberspace poses are simply missing the greatest mutation of humanity, of life on earth, since humans first walked the earth. The only importance of individual powers or elite domination is their role in these fundamental transformations. Three sets of arguments easily come to mind, each of which demonstrates the primacy of one level of cyberpower over the others and it is not that these arguments are each fundamentally wrong, rather all three are both right and wrong. Articulating them together shows how they do not escape each other, how each dominates and is subordinated to each other and that cyberpower is only understood when its full, un determined complexity is allowed. The temptation for many will be to simplify the complexity of cyberpower, there will be an almost irresistible refusal to allow cyberpower its fundamental multiplicity of direction, but all arguments and evidence point to the co-dependence of all three levels of cyberpower and not to any one level's independence.
Taking all levels of cyberpower together also allows us to see why the ideology of libertarianism plays a central role in cyberpolitics because it speaks both to the grassroots and to the cyber-elite. At the level of the individual, libertarianism connects to the powers individuals gain to construct their communities. Individuals feel they create their own online worlds and the attractions of an ideology that places individual liberty at its core seem obvious. No government or state is needed in a frontier society that allows individuals to create and participate in communities as they wis h. The technopower elite will also feel attracted to libertarianism because of its close relationship to the free market. As a class, the technopower elite can justify their control over the fabric of cyberspace by pointing out it was gained within an equal contest on the level playing field of a free market. In particular, the elite define cyberspace as a near-perfect market, thereby asserting both the 'rightness' of their dominance and the phantom fragility of their dominance; often the elite can be heard discussing, who is in which garage creating the 'next big thing' that will overthrow the current elite? The greater freedom of action that spirals of technopower produce for those who command technical expertise can be constantly justified as the result of individual liberty as played out in the free markets of goods and ideas.
Libertarianism becomes an online ideology that can emphasise either individual liberty, speaking to individuals and their powers, or that cyberspace produces the best possible outcomes because these outcomes are tested through free markets, speaking to the elite as a justification for their growing control. This does not mean libertarianism will be universally celebrated on the net, some will claim to see a trick that promises individuals' liberty but delivers power to an elite who will exploit them. Barbrook and Cameron attack the proponents of cyberspace's libertariani sm in this way.
they are passionate advocates of what appears to be an impeccably libertarian form of politics'they want information technologies to be used to create a new 'Jeffersonian democracy' where all individuals will be able to express themselves freely within cyberspace.
However, by championing this seemingly admirable ideal, these techno-boosters are at the same time reproducing some of the most atavistic features of American society, especially those derived from the bitter legacy of slavery. Their utopian vision ' depends upon a wilful blindness toward the other, much less positive, features of life on the West Coast: racism, poverty and environmental degradation. Each member of the 'virtual class' is promised the opportunity to become a successful high-tech entrepreneur. Information technologies, so the argument goes, empower the individual, enhance personal freedom, and radically reduce the power of the nation-state. Existing political and legal power structures will whither away to be replaced by unfettered interactions between autonomous individuals and their software. (Barbrook and Cameron, 1997: 45 & 53)
Barbrook and Cameron, and others, see individual powers as only a smokescreen through which the cyber-elite is attempting to impose its will, for its advantage and in ways that repeat the inglorious USA history of slavery , racism, poverty and pollution. (Barbrook and Cameron, 1997, Hudson, 1997: 173-259, Kroker and Weinstein, 1994) Within the perspective of the social such arguments can make sense, libertarianism can be seen as the ideology of a technopower elite who increasingly control the possibilities for life in cyberspace. But cyberpower tells us this is not the whole story and we can also expect celebrations of libertarianism. Louis Rosetto is the founding and ex-editor in chief of 'Wired', one of the homes of cyberspace libertarianism, and argues;
the question is no longer what sort of statists we should be supporting: Republicans or Democrats, communists or fascists. The question really is what sort of libertarians we should be supporting. There is no alternative to a world that's out of control. Central power not only doesn't work, it is not even possible any more. (Cited in Hudson, 1997: 173)
Speaking from the cyberpower of the individual, Rosetto points to power in cyberspace as the distributed possession of individuals who have and need their liberty to exercise their powers. 'Wired', as it shows in numerous articles, is committed to the twins of individual liberty and free markets. If a further example is needed, we can look no further than the Electronic Frontier Foundation whose work undoubtedly contributes to the rights and abilities of both a digital elite and the o nline grassroots. What could be more emblematic of the connection of elite and grassroots in cyberspace than the founders of probably the most influential online activist group being three mulit-millionaires and a Grateful Dead songwriter (Steve Wozniak, Mitch Kapor, John Gilmore and John Perry Barlow)? (Jordan, 1999b)
The strength of libertarian beliefs in online life surprises some people, but from the perspective of cyberpower it is a uniquely equipped ideology for the battles around grassroots and elites in cyberspace because it allows each side to translate their demands and beliefs into language acceptable to the other. Libertarianism is the language through which virtual individuals and the cyber-elite play out their alliances and conflicts. The ongoing battles between grassroots and elites, battles that will fragment both sides into coalitions and oppositions, can be articulated through libertarian rhetoric.
The totality of cyberpower is the three levels of individual, social and imaginary. Taken together they provide a complex map of the dominant structures and trends of life in cyberspace. They help us understand why online civil rights organisations, the ngos of cyberspace that are often taken as an expression of grassroots' desire, focus on certain isssues to the exclusion of political forms typical of offline life. They help us und erstand the peculiar power of libertarian rhetoric to frame cyberpolitical debate, not to determine its outcomes or provide its ethics but to be the language of cyberpolitics. Cyberpower provides a map of the forces underlying both online grassroots political activism and digital democracy, as well as their enemies.
However, as with any map, this cartography of power does not provide an experiential picture. It does not recount this author's exploits online, follow the history of a famous corner of cyberspace or record growing confidence or anxiety with cyberspace. Cyberpower is not perceptible from any one person's journey in online life because all such journeys are constrained by the day to day lived reality such authors ground their work in. Cyberpower is never experienced as separated levels of the individual, the social and the imaginary or as the connections between them. Cyberpower is an abstract representat ion of the forces at work in cyberspace that are experienced by individuals in complex, confused moments. While many different adventures, technologies and people inform the analysis of cyberpower; it cannot be represented solely through these moments. Cyberpower must be distilled from the many and varied experiences available in cyberspace, until it appears as an abstraction of life online. When people are online they experience emails, text-based worlds and conversations and all-singing, all-dancing web pages, all in the blur of a normal virtual life. Cyberpower is a chart of the forces and tensions that underpin the blur that is a lived virtual life. Cyberpower is the theory of the virtual life.
|Tim Jordan ([email protected]) is a member of the New Politics Research Group, Department of Sociology, at the University of East London. He has had two books published in 1999: his own book, "Cyberpower: the culture and politics of cyberspace and the Internet" (London: Routledge) and the edited collection [with A. Lent] , "Storming the Millen nium: the new politics of change" (London: Lawrence and Wishart).|
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