Digitalization does much more than simply, as Negroponte argues, replace "the manipulation of atoms" with "the management of bits."1 To put it into machinic terms, manipulating atoms is one operating system with its own unique user interfaces, wide area networks, peripheral components, intelligent agents, and killer applications. While many forms of atom manipulation offline will not disappear, their workings are being displaced, disrupted, and disintegrated by the management of bits, and atoms, online. And, this collision of a new online machinic regime with an old offline version will have, and indeed is already having, tremendous implications for politics by transfiguring the codes of individual subjectivity and collective solidarity.
Negroponte is not entirely mistaken when he puffs up the potentialities of "being digital" as the latest grand transition of modernization. In his digital materialism, the economies and societies still organized around making and moving matter, or "atoms," will be slipsliding away into a new domain focused upon inventing and integrating information, or "bits." Space will be occupied by reworked atoms, but this occupation will also be filled by the flow of continuously upgraded bits. Without saying so, Negroponte essentially recasts digital technics as a nascent form of nanotechnology with which bits reach out and reshape atoms at will as part and parcel of "being digital."
Digital materialism acquires another articulation in Bill Gates' utopian visions of universalized personal computing. In fact, he outlines another style of being digital in elaborate tales about his, and allegedly "everyone" else's, experiences of "growing up" since the 1970s with computers:
In the minds of a lot of people at school we became linked with the computer, and it with us....In doing so, we caused a kind of revolution--peaceful, mainly--and now the computer has taken up residence in our offices and homes....Inexpensive computer chips now show up in engines, watches, antilock brakes, facsimile machines, elevators, gasoline pumps, cameras, thermostats, treadmills, vending machines, burglar alarms, and even talking greeting cards...Now that computing is astoundingly inexpensive and computers in habit every part of our lives, we stand on the brink of another revolution. This one will involve unprecedently inexpensive communication; all the computers will join together to communicate with us and for us.3
For Gates and Microsoft, computers are what will remake built environments, and the everyday life lived within them, for the betterment of all. Like it or not, our digital being on this hyper-real estate is the place where human beings find computers are linked to us, computers tie us into networks, and computers colonize other artifacts to communicate with each other, and, of course, us.
Unlike the public projects underpinning the polis, this odd remembrance by Gates belies larger corporate agendas for private profit and power to sustain an informatic "subpolis." What is more, the financial, professional and technical development networks behind this subpolis leave its possibilities for collective action and imagination caught somewhere between the traditional vision of politics and non-politics. This idea snags something quite significant out of the bitstream of digital materialism. As Beck suspects, big technological systems, like cybernetic networks, telecommunications grids, or computer applications, are becoming
...a third entity, acquiring the precarious hybrid status of a sub-politics, in which the scope of social changes precipitated varies inversely with their legitimation....The direction of development and results of technological transformation become fit for discourse and subject to legitimation. Thus business and techno-scientific action acquire a new political and moral dimension that had previously seemed alien to techno-economic activity....now the potential for structuring society migrates from the political system into the sub-political system of scientific, technological, and economic modernization. The political becomes non-political and the non-political political....A revolution under the cloak of normality occurs, which escapes from possibilities of intervention, but must all the same be justified and enforced against a public becoming critical....The political institutions become the administrators of a development they neither have planned for nor are able to structure, but must nevertheless somehow justify....Lacking a place to appear, the decisions that change society become tongue-tied and anonymous....What we do not see and do not want is changing the world more and more obviously and threateningly.4
In the name of digital materialism, Gates and thousands of other far more anonymous and usually more tongue-tied computer geeks like him, are mounting a revolution from their desktops by designing, building, and owning new subpolitical spaces. Digitalization, whether it is out on the WWW, from within the Wintel operating system, or with ASCII code, all too often is neither seen nor wanted. Nevertheless, the collective decisions taken through these codes and systems by technicians and tradesmen to structure the economy and society around such "subpolitical systems of scientific, technological, and economic modernization"5 are changing the world without much, if any, state regulation, political planning structure or civic legitimation.
Consequently, corporate campaigns for the expanded ownership and control of public goods, like cyberspace frequently are dressed out in a new pluralism of open-ended popular decisions. Because hackers, debuggers, and other users are always running an on-going open review of past design decisions, Microsoft and other vendors design feedback from their customers and their users. Either way, the net work of networkers out on the Nets builds, and then maintains the multi-layered complexities of this digital domain as a computer-mediated subpolis. Network connectivity, then, is "your passport" into "a new, mediated way of life."6 More than an object, not quite yet a subject, informatics will provide a pass, a port, and a presence for digital beings entering a new way of life.
Digital materialists imagine that the imperatives of the latest technologies will enable them, and indeed all of humanity, to enjoy a newly ennobled and empowered existence. George Gilder's celebration of "the new age of intelligent machines" sees this coming e-formation of our world of matter-centered manufacture attaining absolute immanence in societies under the sway of information-denominated "Mind."7 Conflating the Cold War with cyberwar in 1989, Gilder asserts,
The overthrow of matter in business will reverberate through geopolitics and exalt the nations in command of creative minds over the nations in command of land and resources. Military power will accrue more and more to the masters of information technology. Finally, the overthrow of matter will stultify all materialist philosophy and open vistas of human imagination and moral revival.8
This effusion of humans and machines in a progressive pact of transcendent unity ten years after, however, is leading more toward MP3 downloads, $8 online stock trades on Ameritrade, 24x7 swap meets on EBay, and cyberporn on demand than it is to an opening of communal concord between all humans. Such utopian talk is a recurrent theme in the rhetorics of digital materialism. Oddly enough, however, Gilder fails to show how the old materialist philosophy has been stultifying. Instead it returns in the discursive discipline of a digital materialism in which silicon, fiber and code will re-knit human and their machines into new subpolitical collectives of economic development. This utopianizing talk is no different than that made by other dialectical materialists who attributed these same powers over the past century to rayon, radio, and railroads.
Few questions are either as interesting or as significant as this one at this historical moment, because the modus operandi of many social practices are being reshaped out of bits, for bits, and by bits as online agency in virtual structures. In part, these changes derive from the creation of new machinic collectives, but they also articulate the conventions of global capitalist production and consumption which are colonizing time, energy, matter and time as ones-and-zeros. Consequently, this analysis will seek to weigh a few of these net outcomes of digital agency and virtual structures in today's economies, governments, and societies and, the advent of digital Fordism is an ideal case in point.