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 grown.
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 slum.
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.
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 the screen.
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 it represents?
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 entertainment.
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 exhaustion.
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 evolution" either.
Let's talk about something else.
This article also appears in the CTHEORY anthology, Digital Delirium, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.