Some recent, front-page headlines from the New York dailies:
--The New York Times: "Congress Votes to Reshape Communication Industry, Ending a 4-Year Struggle."
--The New York Times: "3 Boys Used Internet to Plot School Bombing, Police Say."
--The Daily News: "Online Adultery, Real Divorce: Hubby catches wife in cybersex fling with stranger."
--The Post: "Cybersex Divorce: Husband charges adultery over E-mail love notes."
The passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated regulations (or created self-regulation) for the American broadcast media, the organization of the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC), the adoption of the so-called V-Chip and the Telecommunications Decency Act, data seizures by federal prosecuters in Munich, Singapore's censorious legislation of on-line material, and China's repressive regulations for Internet use, will all reverberate through the network as far more than the growing pains of the most potent communications system ever devised. Such acts will stand astride the incorporation of the network as the circulatory system for economic development and targeted, international audiences.
The twin issues of the deregulation of competition and the regulation of behavior, language and images, makes it clear both that the network offers unprecedented possibilities for unmediated commmunication that threaten many in power and that the re-implementation of cold war strategies for "repressive tolerance" operate in profoundly insidious ways. The end of the millenium has brought a dazzling array of reactionary responses ranging from "crash" arts, media, and technology, to the attempt to re-legitimize the authoritarian models of broadcasting in a kind of telephobic modernity lurking in the "liberal democratic" correctness of little annoyances like "Surfwatch," and background "guardian" surveillance systems that scrutinize e-mail and web based communications. Conjoin the utopian assumptions about the era of "being digital" and the "city of bits," with the politics of communication technology, the libertarian "ideals" of cyber-paradise, the linking of computing and biology, and the imperialistic infrastructural initiatives of service providers, and the complexities of the allegedly "autonomous" network are revealed.
The Telecommunications Act is, in many ways, the legitimation of the network as the locus of the economic interests of the broadcast, cable, and computer industries. Indeed, many of the preposterous frontier assumptions still clouding so much thinking about the network are only the veiled manifest destiny of the incorporation of cyberspace. As the libertarian responses to the regulation of the net multiply--the blackening of backgrounds on web pages, John Perry Barlow's "Cyberspace Independence Declaration," the Blue Ribbon campaign, an e-mail onslaught directed at Attorney General Janet Reno--the Act's constitutionality has already been challenged by an ACLU-led consortium of plaintiffs. Unfortunately, Judge Ronald Buckwalter's order prohibiting enforcement of the ban on "indecent"content, but not on material considered "patently offensive," is a slight victory at best.
The libertarian attempts to put a few dents into the monolithic Telecommunications Act is something like trying to sink the Titanic with an ice cube. Well meaning but indefensible proclamations like Barlow's "I declare the global social space to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us....It is an act of nature," will only serve to embolden a well-organized effort to annihilate freedom of information in the name of morality. (Patrick Henry must be rolling over in his grave: "Give me cyberspace or give me death...") A more serious legal challenge will undoubtedly make for some strange alliances between the born-again counter-culture and the born-again Christian right, both promoting an anti-legislative position.
Of course, such skirmishes over content derail the discussion of urgent matters like the economics of data distribution and property. If the rush to legislate suggests as much uncertainty as it does protectionism, it is partly because of the shameless exaggerations of both the industry and the so-called wired generation. Each haplessly touts the net as the completion of the project of modernity. Beneath the very real concern, though, rest some very problematic notions about the network, itself.
On the one hand there's "The Magna Carta for the Information Age," published by The Progress and Freedom Foundation, which is closely allied with Newt Gingrich. This document outlines a feudal approach to cyberspace, the idea of which apparently still flummoxes historians unable to re-think outdated assumptions about the relationship between space ("cyberspace is the land of opportunity" or "cyberspace is the last American Frontier") and matter ("the central event of the 20th century is the overthrow of matter"). Alas this illogical position is also posited by Negroponte in Being Digital as the shift from "atoms" to "bits." Formulations like Negroponte's suggest that while terrorist atoms are blowing victims to bits, the rest of us can remain snug and warm in the knowledge that "being digital is different." On the other hand, there is the loose affiliation of civil libertarians still skeptical about the network, but convinced that cyberspace is worth defending. Indeed, the Right's ursurping of the network-as-issue from techno-enthusiasts like Al Gore, reminds us that the issues of unregulated capitalism go hand and hand with presumptions about (regulated) free speech.
Is it at all astonishing that the so-called freedom of speech will increasingly signify speech that is unregulated? That depictions of "accurate violence" are permissible while "wanton mayhem" will be repessed? That the inversion of the real and the fictional has been accomplished? That the relationships between reception and behavior, morality and politics have found common ground in the attempt to devastate creativity in the name of fundamentalist ethical cliches masquerading as ambiguous archetypes modeled on the speech-as-act theory? That all this is taking place in a veiled "social" space in which power is as omnipresent as it is invisible?
It should not be a surprise that the panoptic metaphors of Bentham and Foucault are re-invented in the cybersphere in the guise of "agents" and filters. No doubt much of the problem is rooted in the reinvention of McLuhan's work in the inebriation of wired culture. No patron saint, McLuhan's iridescent rationale of imperialism as globalization mirrored the multinational development that grounded the merging media of the 1960s. Coupling televisual and informational technologies was, in fact, the basis of a social transformation in which broadcast media seemingly swept across the Global Village, while providing what Hans Magnus Enzensberger aptly termed a "reactionary doctrine of salvation." But the McLuhanization of media did not then--and will not now--salvage the imperatives of the collapse of Modernity, so much as it serves to link utopic dissemination of media with the broad corporate and political objectives of media owners and developers. Indeed the absent discourse of McLuhan was that of politics, a discourse so cryptically present in the net criticism and theory of the 1990s. The effects of the dispersal of information, power, coherent politics, and the redirection of military research and development into cybertechnology has led to renewed chaos in which virtualization supplants illusion and in which the deployment of technologies (bio-, neuro-, info-, geno-) masquerades s a communications revolution.
Enzensberger wrote that "no avant-garde has thus far called for the police to rid it of its opponents." Yet in the frenzied inversions of corporate and avant-garde intentions, it is clear that times have changed. Resistance, after all, is almost wholly reliant on software implementations developed to serve models of distribution firmly rooted in corporate interest. Far too often we fall into the trap of mystifying universalization, forgetting that deterritorialization is not always a signifier of nomadic empowerment. Within the agencies of communication, the illusions of power can be as seductive as the fall into utopia. As Debord remarked so cogently, "Secrecy dominates this world, and utmost as the secret of domination." At the end of The Electronic Disturbance, their speculations about cyberspace, Critical Art Ensemble asks: "How can technological decentralization return sovereignty to the individual rather than taking it away?" Their (partial) answer: By "meeting information authority with information disturbance."
Was it any coincidence that the story in the New York Times beneath the front-page articles on the passage of the Telecommunication Act described a "plot" by 13 year olds to make a bomb with information gathered from the network? Juxtaposing such a story with articles suggesting the need to regulate net-related behavior promotes the kind of legislated caution embodied in the Telecommunications Act itself. Indeed, the information on the making of bombs from fertilizer and fuel, common knowledge in the farming community in which the teenagers live, is neither unique to the network nor inaccessible in most public libraries. But the story surely heightened fears that uncontrolled access will only lead to violence and, by implication, to terrorism.
If the passage from the sublime to the ridiculous can be charted in terms of media coverage, the front-page stories in the Daily News and the Post reinforce our perception of the use of the network as a site for illicit behavior. The Daily News headline about "Online Adultery" was supplemented with the enticement: "Full Interactive Story: See Page 3," where readers learned that the aggrieved husband filed for divorce on two counts: "The first count alleging extreme cruelty based upon the transmissions, the second alleging adultery." The wife's lawyer responded: "To have adultery you have to have intercourse and you can't have intercourse over the computer." (Duh!)
The conflation of the looming end of the millenium and the crescendo of technologies, anxieties, and excesses of the past decade (let alone the past century), has opened the floodgates for everything from calculated rumination to desparate illusion. The seductions of cyber-culture, the emerging electronic crisis of dispersion and disavowal, the disappearance of the public sphere and the disembodiment of the self, are already encompassed in the network. In this highly regulated system, consensus, representation, and politics are happily abandoned in favor of tele-presence and potentially fatal fallacies of ubiquity.
Timothy Druckrey is co-editor of Cultures on the Brink: Ideologies of Technology.