Data of the World, Unite!

Reading Winthrop-Young’s “Drill and Distraction in the Yellow Submarine: On the Dominance of War in Friedrich Kittler’s Media Theory” in Critical Inquiry. I came across this provocative passage:

“With the decline of large-scale political activism in Western Europe and North America [terms like “guerilla” or “revolution”] were redeployed elsewhere, in particular within the more militant discourse of liberation of either nature or new information technologies. Information in particular appears to have become the proletariat of the third industrial revolution. It does the work, but it has yet to gain a true understanding of the historical impact of its labor; it enhances the freedom of those who exploit it, but it is itself unfree; it is by nature international, but it remains subject to national constraints. Technological advances may allow it to reproduce, circulate, and suffuse society at ever higher rates, but it depends on committed activists to secure its liberation.

“Once the chains imposed by adverse political and technological conditions have been thrown off, however, the new “mode of information” will realize its full potential and yield revolutionary social benefits. Data of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your access restrictions. This rhetorical migration from city streets to information highways has been particularly pronounced in North America, where it occurred as part of a large-scale displacement of utopian hopes ofthe sixties from social proj-ects onto new information technologies. The fact that the PC, the web, and early forms of VR technology have managed to attract so many of the aspirations born out of the consciousness-raising campaigns of the sixties has resulted in some family resemblances between the ways in which cyber-prophets of today talk about the communal and emancipatory potential of a wired world and their parents’ discourse on social reform. The most conspicuous example of this move from Haight-Ashbury southward to Silicon Valley may have been Timothy Leary’s well-publicized career switch from drugs as media to media as drugs; the most flagrant is the way in which multimillion-dollar software companies flaunt their adherence to the past ideals of Californian counterculture. This “soft” version, as it were, of the genealogical link between flower and browser power was accompanied by a transfer of the more martial tropes of self-stylization mentioned above. Starting in the late seventies and early eighties, popular culture became at-tuned to the image of the outlaw hacker, the lonely warrior or techno-guerillero in the war zone of codes and data who, rather than liberating the working class or the Third World is engaged in a struggle against the regime of IBM, Microsoft, the NSA, or any other force bent on restricting access to, or limiting the movement of, information.

Thinking of the manifestos (Cluetrain, or Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”) and other pronouncements/predictions about the revolutionary promise of data and networks, one is led to wonder: What motivates or authorizes the association of revolutionary language with data and information technology? Is it a good thing or a bad thing that this shift has occurred? What events might drain data of this potential, as happened with the proletariat?

This entry was posted in Media Theory, Open Ed. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *