Cybertopia

August 20, 2011 § 2 Comments

Lev Manovich, “What is New Media?” (2001)

Oh good, this question. New media all the way down. No reason to privilege the computer –itself a convergence of revolutions within computing and media technologies– though the techno/info/cultural revolution ushered in by all these 1s and 0s has forever changed everything ever. Intertwining of computing and media from the very beginning (loomshit/ADA!!!!!) — parallel development, brain strain, Alan Turing, Konrad Zuze. Cinema becomes slave to the computer. Processing! Synthesizing! Manipulating! Principles of new media: numerical representation (binary code; traceable to factory/assembly line logic), modularity (parts can be manipulated and rearranged whilst maintaining discrete coherence and coherence of whatever whole), automation (low and high level AI; algorithms doing human gruntwork), variability (reflective of emerging postindustrial logic, which values individuality/customization over conformity), and most importantly transcoding (co-evolution of machine and human logics). New media is not things too, mostly it’s not entirely new (many of the qualities attributed to “new” media also present in “old” media, including interactivity) and is often quite lossy, noisy, (self-)destructive, so stfu about the digital being some shiny city on a hill.

Pierre Lévy, Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (1997)

The digital is a shiny city on a hill, and is changing our cognitive capabilities for the better. Due to it ushers in a new dimension of collective communication and memory. Collective intelligence! Totalitarianism collapsed because it couldn’t harness THE POWER. This is not that; this is the cogito giving way to the cogitamus. This is utopia! Well or. It will be utopia? Maybe. Either way. Universally distributed knowledge. In the cyberwebternet this intelligence is (will be? almost constant slippage) always-already updated, synched, shared. Not like ants though, that’s cynical. New humanism! Engineering the new human bond! Liberty and justice for all! Economically fungible molecular technologies! Zero-contempt models of management! A VIRTUAL AGORA. The turbulent waters of anthropological mutation. Terminals and cybergates. Democracy NOW, cyberstyle. The intelligent city. Cyber cyber cyber. Let’s enter the circle and begin by listening. Atheology. First heaven. The problem of evil. God is as the machine. Deterritorialization. LUMINOUS AND DANCING LIKE FLAMES. Contingent and eternal velocities. Portolans. Cinemaps. An uninterrupted process of pluralization and heterogenesis. The voyage to Knossos. The continuous drift of the human world; I appeal to the judge of hell.

Pierre Lévy, Cyberculture (2001)

Remix! Digital culture necessitates and sustains universally distributed intelligence, aka collective intelligence. Das ist characterized by “the synergy of skills, resources, and projects…the constitution and dynamic maintenance of shared memories…the activation of flexible and nonhierarchical modes of cooperation…[and] the coordinated distribution of decision centers” (10) and is fueled by the active participation of a figuratively –and literally– plugged-in online populace. Collective intelligence transcends the written culture of the West and returns to a folkloric, neo-oral cultural system; knowledge inheres within and depends upon shared experience, thus necessitating a fundamental shift in the way we think about community, pedagogy and creativity within virtual spaces. Lévy compares CI to the pharmakon, an ancient Greek term meaning both poison and cure (12). Like the pharmakon, whose definition is context-dependent, collective intelligence as experienced online is either very good or very bad. To participants and sympathizers, collective intelligence is generative, ingenious, and provides an endlessly fascinating window into the human experience. To detractors, or to those who attempt to apply old standards to new phenomena, collective intelligence is disconcerting, exclusionary and politically problematic.

John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” (1996)

Hey guess what, Governments of the Industrial World, you’re assholes and we hate you. We hate you so much we built a treehouse all the way up in Cyberspace and due to our NO ASSHOLES ALLOWED policy you can’t come in ever! Ha ha ha you’ll never find us here, and if you do, we’ll be like NO THANKS ASSHOLES, and then you’ll have no choice but to leave. You don’t know us. You’re not the boss of us. We do what we want, and what we want is for you to gtfo. We don’t even have bodies. We don’t even have property. What’re you gonna do about it? Nothing, that’s what. We’re democracy angels from Cyberspace and you’re just dumb suits from shit city, the end.

What I learned from these fine scholars. 

Today’s moral is less about what I learned and more about what I brought to these selections. My lizard brain has been spinning lately, so much input, so much reading, so many things to (re)consider. Yesterday I got a new problem courtesy of go4goatse, head admin at lemonparty.gov, a celebrity gossip aggregate specializing in pirated sex tapes and trenchant political commentary. I’d already been kicking around conceptions of online utopia(s) –thoughts spurred in part by an earlier conversation with go4– and yesterday was confronted with a new way of thinking about thinking about dystopia, which of course ties into utopia, and connects to my own work in all these strange and unexpected ways which frankly is giving me a headache.

The nutshell version: in an essay detailing the crypto-queer undertones of Max Max, go4 asks how and under what conditions we might imagine two people squaring off outside the influence of Culture, big-C due to what does that even mean, where do you draw the line between institution and praxis, etc. I immediately started thinking about representations of alternative realities or political schemas or whatever and realized I couldn’t do it (save for a stream of Hollywood-supplied images of lawful evil or zombies or aliens or whatever). The whole exercise was like being asked to describe my own death — textbook aporia shit. Because step outside? Outside of what, it’s not like there’s some BioDome someplace we can just escape, like so many Pauly Shores. “Culture” is far too pervasive; it’s not a jacket we can wiggle out of because we decide it makes us look fat or because jackets are for capitalists, man.

Getting back to my own research focus, reading Lévy and Barlow (not so much Manovich, who takes great care to place the emergence of computing and media technologies squarely in historical and political context) made me think more critically about the utopian side of dystopian discourse (which is almost entirely alien territory to me, though I’m beginning to wonder if that isn’t a can of worms I might have to officially open). Particularly, how odd it is to describe –or even just try to describe– a system which isn’t or wouldn’t always-already be undergirded by precisely the assumptions and tiger traps that animate our current system and, more insidiously, that motivates the very writing of these sorts of accounts? The question, I guess, is how it would even be possible to imagine a world not subject to the problems that plague this one, at least while home-sweet-meatscape is still such a raging mess. I’m not being defeatist, here (i.e. we’re screwed either way so why bother — definitely not my outlook), it’s just that I’m suddenly wondering about the ideological motivations and implications of online utopian discourse. My initial and most basic reaction was jesus christ white people, which leaves much to be desired but gives me more to think about.

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