The Net Society

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
12 December, 2016
Editorial: 56
Fecha de publicación original: 28 enero, 1997

Date of publication: 28/1/1997. Editorial 56.

Let sleeping dogs lie

Last year, the World Economic Forum in Davos, already institutionalised as the annual summit of the most powerful businessmen on the planet, paid tribute to one of the golden calves presently in vogue: globalisation of commercial and business activities. To mark the occasion, they invited a gentleman who opened his speech with this dramatic call: “Governors of the Industrial World, weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of the Mind. In the name of the future, I beg you, the representatives of the past, to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty over the place where we meet”. To give you some idea of the atmosphere in which such a conclusive (and exclusive) declaration of principles was made, the gentleman in question was wearing a suit — as was everybody else in the audience — but he had a splendid head of hair in the style of Buffalo Bill. This was John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Barlow read his “Declaration of Independence in Cyberspace” – a new territory where freedom, democracy and peaceful co-existence were concepts that meant something very different from the world which his listeners were used to destroying in the name of progress and well-being.

This week, the thousand-member forum returned to the little Swiss town to meet at a conference entitled “Building the Net Society”, which is very different from building the society of networks (they have already established and kept those well-oiled for decades). I don’t suppose that Barlow imagined for one moment that his sermon would fall on such fertile ground so soon. Nor that his place in the pulpit would be taken up by the theologian Hans Kung or the writer Eli Wiesel. Nor that things like “public-spirited business “, the negative consequences of technology and the impact of the most perverse side of the US economic model, (their words not mine), would hold such a prominent position on the agenda. What lurks behind this striking stance which the business conglomerates have taken on, is the fact that it is not clear that the social and political results of market globalization –included in all their political programs and so much extolled by the hard-line liberals at the heart of the system (a long list of which includes governments who have accepted the fallacy of “The End of History” theory backed by the Chicago School and other US universities) as well as their angry peripheral henchmen (such as Mario Vargas Llosa)– necessarily bring about an increase in global standards of living, nor that they bring us any closer to a just society (and I quote them again). Quite the contrary. In a world becoming more and more paranoid about security, the contrary – insecurity – is the only thing that is gaily proliferating all over the place. Lack of security, although they would like to sweep it under the carpet, is precisely one of the symptoms of social conflict.

Globalization at the hands of information technology, particularly in telecommunications networks, fragments the world labour market into a thousand shards of a broken mirror which project the labour force into the infinite. There will always be work to supply industry in its process of capital accumulation all over the world, but it will never absorb the supply because it could break it up into as many fragments as it likes along the length, height, depth and breadth of the labour networks and, as is happening in cyberspace, de-localize it, “de-territorialize” it according to current criteria of profitability. So there will always be unemployment, chronic unemployment, technical unemployment, in short, global unemployment with all its inevitable consequences: marginalization, unsustainable inequality, social and political instability, outbreaks of social violence….In other words, not exactly the most desirable prospect for an industry capable of operating within the magical framework of globalization.

This essential aspect of the networked society was what J. P. Barlow did not mention in his diatribe last year. The ex-lyricist of the Grateful Dead, painted a rosy-coloured picture of cyberspace (as one would expect from a Declaration of Independence), but avoided mentioning that the laws of capital accumulation still prevail there and, consequently, the stringency of the employee/employer relationships when it comes to the provision of “labour-services” as well, to put it politely. Of course, cyberspace will not be an exact replica of the “real world” (as Barlow clearly points out in his writing), but the dynamics of the digital planet will not allow by itself that iron barrier of employment on a world scale to be transcended. Above all, if this dynamic rests only on extreme liberal policies and the enthronement of the market as the fundamental regulator of its construction.

If the process of globalization continues, as is likely, as a result of the densification of networks of communication on every level and scale, tremendous creativity will be necessary to find new means of social participation in order to open up completely innovative areas, at present unimaginable. Individuals, groups, organisations and companies will have to direct their efforts into finding new ingredients to put into the big stew which we will have to live off in the next century. In the light of this challenge, it is almost insulting to see the smugness of so many intellectuals, who, driven by the imminent approach of the date, allow themselves the freedom to pontificate about what awaits us beyond the year 2000 without giving a moments thought to the impact of the looming developments in the Net and its relationship to employment on a world scale. On the whole, almost all of them have already turned 50 and have apparently decided to retire to the old-aged home of ideas.

Translation: Bridget King