CAPTURED IN THE NET
Computer networks are continually mentioned: on TV, in specialized magazines, in the inserts in newspapers, in the photocopied pages of zines. The world of the media has attained the synergy among the most disparate technologies and their consumers scattered all around the planet. It is not necessary to transfer information using diskettes or other magnetic supports. The development of communications technologies allows the automatic exchange of data and the sharing of resources even between computers that are thousands of miles apart. And this is in real time. Lines of transmission, cables, fibre optics: under our feet a carpet of connections spreads out.
Electro-magnetic signals rebound from the subsoil to satellites. I speak: my voice produces an oscillation of pressure in the air. A microphone modulates the electronic current to a likeness of the sound. Through electric energy, a sonorous lecturer obtains a digital trace that is registered as a file, transmitted to a node in the network and set on the road toward the required destination in any part of the world.
The euphoria that accompanies the development of the new technologies is understandable in managerial and university environments, and in research laboratories. One might be surprised to see certain environments that describe themselves as "anti-capitalist" sharing in these feelings of joy. But thinking it over, it is not so strange. Doesn’t the myth of the machine make up a part of the marxist cosmology? This is what I asked myself when I again picked up an essay by Hans Magnus Enzenberger from the 1970’s entitled Elements for a Theory of the Media. Between banalities and irrelevant considerations, the author makes himself the interpreter of an attitude toward the mass media that continues to find adherents.
In Enzenberger’s work a heavy Marxist theoretical framework is not lacking. Affirmations such as: "it is the mass character of communications technology that imposes its expropriation from bourgeois hands—historically linked to the invention of the book—and the social use of mass media," or "the proletariat of the free socialist society will take up the task of making the media truly productive for the first time", simple notes of folklore compared to our times. But there is something else that renders the writing of the German author current. In about thirty pages, we find considerations that could be shared by many apologists for domination.
For example, Enzenberger starts by declaring his belief in the possibility of interactions between those who transmit and those who receive (feedback), through the free connections, through communications. Even Habermas, a sociologist of the Frankfurt school, maintains in The Theory of Communicative Activity that speakers could construct a new society not built through contact, communication, mutual understanding: mass media becomes the artifice of a new world, with the advantage that emancipation does not require the bloodshed of revolutions. Along the same lines there are the writings of Vattimo—for what they’re worth—who sees in dialogue and the mass media privileged places in which to exercise chance and form consensus.
"The communication networks could provide models for politically interesting organizations" (Enzenberger, 1970). The idea that network-based models of communication constructed according to the principle of interaction could be taken up as a model for a new social organization makes Enzenberger one of the forerunners of the theses of certain oppositional technophiles.
One often hears talk of libertarian, "rhizomatic" relations, in opposition to the vertical functioning of hierarchic systems. Of course, the computer network is an organization that lacks any administrative center. It functions when it expands, when it forms new connections, new nodes. Now, beyond the fact that the internet and other networks have functionally more important units—nodes that form the backbone of the network, others that coordinate its operations and furnish any technical and informational assistance to the users—it is said that, in fact, there is no switch that turns the system off. In this way, hierarchy does not disappear, but dissolves into the organization. The time of captains and leaders is over. The technicians and administrators advance. The network becomes a chain that imposes the exclusion of some and the participation, the consent of the domesticated, a social form that requires new adherents, that functions only if continually used.
The network is an essentially flexible structure. It manages to deaden the blows. Up to a certain point, it even functions when mangled and can easily be restructured. This poses consistent problems for those who move in the luddite perspective of destruction as well. A society in the form of a network that can endure blows? Where is the best place to strike? And how? Does sabotage only have symbolic value? These are questions that we will have to try to answer in the future.
Meanwhile, cybernetic society is organized as a web. The art of control doesn’t require bosses politicians or police What Enzenberger, in his hymn of praise to the mass media, calls "the industry of consciousness will be able to bear its fruit within the next decade. The de-braining machines of Ubu are being set in motion.
In the virtual plaza of the cybernetic citadel there are no longer masters. The slaves remain: they find none who gives them orders, but they continue to bow.
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