Notes for CTHEORY
In fractal mapping - like the famous Mandelbrot Set, that supreme
fashion hieroglyph of the 1980s - the basic pattern keeps repeating itself, ad
infinitum apparently - the deeper & more infolded you go, the more it
repeats - till you get tired of running the program. After a certain amount of
time, you might say, the fractal appearance has been "theorized" more or less
satisfactorily. No matter how much more exploitation of conceptual space occurs,
the structure of the space is now defined for all practical purposes.
Hasn't something similar happened with the Internet?
In the late 18th or early 19th century a group of runaway slaves and
serfs fled from Kentucky into the Ohio Territory, where they inter-married with
Natives and formed a tribe - red, white & black - called the Ben Ishmael
tribe. The Ishmaels (who seem to have been Islamically inclined) followed an
annual nomadic route through the territory, hunting & fishing, and finding
work as tinkers and minstrels. They were polygamists, and drank no alcohol.
Every winter they returned to their original settlement, where a village had
But eventually the US Govt. opened the Territory to settlement, and
the official pioneers arrived. Around the Ishmael village a town began to
spring up, called Cincinnati. Soon it was a big city. But Ishmael village was
still there, engulfed & surrounded by "civilization." Now it was a
Hasn't something similar happened to the Internet? The original
freedom-loving hackers & guerrilla informationists, the true pioneers of
cyberspace, are still there. But they have been surrounded by a vastness of
virtual "development," and reduced to a kind of ghetto. True, for a while the
slums remain colorful - one can go there for a "good time," strum a banjo, spark
up a romance. Folkways survive. One remembers the old days, the freedom to
wander, the sense of openness. But History has gone... somewhere else. Capital
has moved on.
Incidentally, in the late 19th & early 20th century the Ishmaels
were discovered by the Eugenics movement, which declared them to be racial
mongrels & degenerates. The Ishmaels were targeted for extinction; those who
did not flee & disappear were institutionalized or even sterilized. The old
slum was cleared & built over, and the Ishmaels were forgotten.
Something Borrowed Something Blue
The marriage of heaven & hell - that is, of the Internet and
television. The net is pure, "out of control," free & undefined, an
autonomous space, a gnostic pleroma. Television is infernal, fifth-rate heroin,
spectacle of capitulation, ceremonial voice of Capital, etc. etc. But now they
are united - for example, in "point-casting," whereby a commercial server offers
an information menu designed just for you - while highly produced
advertizements run continuously in one corner of the screen (see? you can
do two things at once). Soon the advertizements will be designed personally as
well. Home Shopping Network - that was the embryonic form of the Internet, its
true "future." But in fact the PC and the TV were always already "the same
thing" in at least one vital aspect: the screen - and the body slumped before
Place Your Bets
Actually, the Internet has a structural aspect that makes it somewhat
analogous to Capital: both in fact are fractal or chaotic systems - both have
abolished space and time - both are self-replicating - both have reduced wealth
to information - both are global structures (leading to conflicts with bordered
entities). But isn't it a cliche to point out that any communication medium is
analogous or mirror-like in relation to the dominant cultural paradigm that
co-evolves with it? "When it's telegraph time, it telegraphs." And the ancient
Persian postal system was an exact map of the Archaemenian Empire. Yes, these
are truisms - so why should we expect the Internet to be an exception to this
rule? How could there exist a communication medium outside the totality
Please Try Again Later
The Internet as a tool for radical organizing - the Zapatistas, the
Scientology case, the McLibel case, etc. True enough - at one time the printing
press also had revolutionary potential. So does the telephone, the fax, and the
telex. Each new technology as it appears seems liberating. The postal system,
for that matter, is still "out of control" - perhaps even more so than the net.
Only a few letters & packages can be checked, but "search engines" have now
made it possible to steam open every bit of email in the world (in fact the NSA
is already doing it). If I had secrets the last place I'd air them would be the
WWW. The interesting question about the Net was never its usefulness as a
tool for radical organizing - the interesting question was whether or not
the Net itself could be seen as an area of contestation, as a "world" to be won
or lost - or at least, as a strategic space. Clearly the answer is: no,
no more than any other communication medium. For that matter, why not try to
"seize control" of language itself?
As Geert Lovink says, Capital has now made it possible for us all to
be "innocent" again. After all, if the Movement of the Social is dead, if
History is ended in a burst of electromagnetic bliss, it's as if these
botherations never really existed in the first place. Free at last! - free of
that deadly burden of knowingness and belatedness. Now to plug into some real
Baudrillard has decided that it's all over, so much so that it will
not even come to an end! Not only does he quote the (ex-fascist) dean of
pessimists, E.M. Cioran, he's even ready to embrace the "evil" - ready to spend
eternity at poolside in his mirrorshades (or is that just another 1980s
hieroglyph?) - ready to capitulate. Baudrillard is no longer a critic of Too
Late Capitalism - he's a symptom of it. The "New Innocence" is merely
I'd like to be a luddite; smoking machines would gratify me, I admit
it. So naturally I'm distrustful of this tendency in myself. I pity the
Unabomber because he's made himself into the unwitting object lesson of a
"real world" totality of mediation & separation - living proof that we
cannot bomb ourselves back to the Stone Age.
But the next time some Chernobyl occurs, some Bhopal, some Love Canal
- and the people (instead of swallowing it as "victims") rise up and
destroy... what will I think then?
And what relevance does this have to the Internet?
"We're all connected...!" The triumph of the Net, not that different
from telephone or TV - "reach out & touch someone" - "Be there!" - but not
in the body. On the whole, the values of connection between or among virtual
subjects appears outweighed by the deficit of actual presence.
The subject and object of Capital exists only in exchange, whether of
information or money. True difference can only come into being outside or in
opposition to this sameness; within the sphere of the totality all that appears
as "difference" is merely simulation and packaging - a set of masks for
separation. Since full contact can only occur between real differences, &
since all communications media are mirrors of the totality that excludes such
differences, it follows: that the contact cannot take place "within" or
"through" such media.
Of course this isn't true! - the spirit bloweth where it listeth! Well
then, let's say it may be statistically true.
Disinformation - the Internet as psychic swamp - disembodied egos -
information vampires. "We have a web page."
What to do with all these badly-designed gadgets? If I put the PC into
an olde oaken cupboard, like rich people used to do with their TVs, I'd feel
like an idiot - but if I leave it in plain sight it offends me at every moment
with its smug space-age yuppie shape and designer beige plastic intrusiveness. I
admit, these feelings scarcely amount to a high moral ground.
But please: let's have no more posturing about "the next stage of
Let's talk about something else.
Hakim Bey is best known for his zine-publications that were
collected under the title TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological
Authority, Poetic Terrorism, and more recently, Immediatism. His most
recent book is entitled Millennium
(Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia; and Dublin: Garden of Delight, 1996).
This article also appears in the CTHEORY anthology, Digital Delirium,
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
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