Digital Materialism

What forces are at work in the transition from analogue to digital life? Historically, like Fordism, in the early twentieth century, the Internet has been a creation of the economy and society found in United States of America--the post-Cold War "hyperpower" allegedly at the heart of the New World Order.1 Yet, the legal authority, managerial acumen, and administrative effectiveness of various national and international bodies now nominally in charge of the Net, like the IAB (Internet Architecture Board), IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force), ICANN (International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), or the Internet Society (ISOC) itself, are quite underdetermined, or even uncertain. This condition has deepened since 1994 when the U.S. pushed forward the Net's privatization, and the hypertext transfer protocols of the WWW made it feasible to integrate the hitherto more discreet communicative currents of small Internet communities and many different corporate intranets into a vast anarchic marketplace of ideas, goods, and services. As an FCC policy brief from 1997 observed,

Most of the underlying architecture of the Internet was developed under the auspices, directly or indirectly, of the United States Government. The government has not, however, defined whether it retains authority over Internet management functions, or whether these responsibilities have been delegated to the private sector. The degree to which any existing body can lay claim to representing "the Internet community" is also unclear.2

In this power vacuum, which mostly has been created and maintained by statal and non-statal interests, new voices from groups all over the world are reimaging human community informatically while pushing their own unique ideologies and interests in pursuit of illiberal traditions, neo-liberal utopias, or antiliberal resistances. With an ironic twist to Engels' famous characterization of socialism, the Internet is moving many to think about forsaking the analogue government of people in physical space to the digital administration of things, which, in turn, remediates new modes of control as digital governance over people and things in more much partial, privatized, and productive sets of practice.

Out on the networks, people who are not of the same race, gender, class, nationality or locality all are interacting online through operational interfaces in virtual organizations that typically reduce their identities to strings of text, synthesized speech or stylized graphics. Once out on the Net, these online agents often to leverage cyberspace to serve various offline agendas; however, their efforts to operate together and alone in the digital domain are also unintentionally creating commonalities that can be pitched against their offline interests.

Cyberspace, then, is essentially a metaterritorial domain--everywhere, nowhere, here, there; always anywhere, somewhere else--and its economic, political, and social possibilities, especially for the rising blocs of digerati who ceaselessly tout its benefits, are metanational in quality and quantity because of digitalization. The virtual institutions of e-commerce, e-structures, and e-government require new "e-haviors" in cyberspace, and these platforms of shared interactivity help to constitute e-publics. Still, their online metanational characteristics simultaneously become entangled with, and free from, offline national properties. The metanation of cyberspace is a contradictory cluster of contrary oppositions inside of each nation, but also outside of it; for each nation, but also not only for it; by each nation, but also not of it. As a "meta" factor, it shares actions and structures in common with territorial nation-states, but the telematic metanation is already always more: a deterritorialized domain of domains whose virtual/fractal/digital/viral institutions will coexist behind, beyond or beside the nation-state system. However, it is not clear that digitalization means dematerialization.

In fact, many celebrants of cyberspace, despite their protests to the contrary, actually revitalize old materialist philosophies by grafting digitalization over the defunct dialectical fields in old progressive teleologies. Like orthodox communists, the advocates of digitalization presume already to know how history ends: in the classless state of full connectivity, ubiquitous computing, and 24x7 access. Thus, one finds them twisting every new optical cable, each new microchip design, and all new operating systems into another irrefutable sign of historical progress. Digital materialists boot up the mode of information, and then find the relations of informatics and means of informationalization configuring society into new means of more efficient cooperation--both online and offline--to attain finally full virtualization.

The ardent devotees of total digitalization among the digerati, like Nicholas Negroponte, overrate most of the positive aspects of telematic life, while they underplay how many already existing negative social and economic tendencies will continue in cyberspace to remain much like they are offline. Negroponte is obsessed with "being digital," because it represents the ultimate expression of hypermodernized being. In his vision, new e-haviorial ways for making, moving, and managing "bits" necessarily will replace many embodied forms of interaction conducted face-to-face with, by, as and through "atoms." For Negroponte, "the change from atoms to bits is irrevocable and unstoppable," and digitalization ultimately means dematerialization.3 To mark this turning point in human history, he asserts "computing is not about computers any more. It is about living."4 This claim, in all too many ways, is true; indeed, here is the political/ethical problematic of "the polis"--living how, living where, living for whom, and by whose leave--only now while online.

In most respects, then, the rise of telematics can be seen as only the latest wrinkle in "modernity." Once again, a fresh set of cultural transformations, resting in a destructively productive new technics with its own unformed social mores, appears as the source and goal of yet another universalizing moral order, uniform vision of nature, and univocalized economic model. Bits, like most modern things defined by commodified commercial operations, are privileged objects, which can go from anywhere to anywhere at anytime for anybody.5 Yet, this potential omnipresence, first, mostly glosses over how much "anywhere" actually remains--in world-systems terms--a handful of very limited venues, or truly a privileged set of "manywheres," albeit often widely distributed geographically. Second, it ignores how most digital packets go from somebody at one privileged site to somebody, or actually "manybodies," at another special place. And, third, it discounts how speeds in anytime are arrayed in "manytimes" as a function of the willingness to pay, weight of authority, or quality of connectivity.


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