Cybersyn & Arpanet
Cybersyn, designed for Salvador Allende’s Socialist Chilean government by the British cybernetician Stafford Beer in the early 1970s, has been called “a socialist Internet, decades ahead of it’s time.” (Fisher 144) Cybersyn comprised of a network of telex machines and communications devices that would allow workers unprecedented control over their own lives and work. The central module collected production data from factories across the nation and responded to them in real time, rather than dictating economic policy from central government. Eventually it was hoped that it could be developed in a way that would allow citizens to communicate their feelings about the workings of the state directly to the government, an enterprise called Project Cyberfolk. It was a wholly unrealised ambition: Allende’s government was overthrown in a military coup led by general Pinochet in 1973. Cybersyn never had a chance to flourish. The images that remain from the Cybersyn project seem like a dispatch from the future, a glimpse of a world that could have been ours: an ‘alternative Internet,’ another kind of networked commons, built to ensure abundance for all.
Cybersyn was developing contemporaneously with military research in the United States towards building an inter-connected system of computers. The mandate was to create a distributed network of computers that could resist any single point of failure, preserving information and remaining operational in the event of nuclear catastrophe or hostile attack. Called Arpanet, it was an initiative of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA, an agency of the United States Department of Defence. DARPA was one of the driving forces behind the development of the Internet, and more recently has been at the vanguard of research into virtual reality, battlefield robotics, and interstellar travel.
The End of the Internet
The Internet as we know it today “arrived from two directions: one top-down and the other bottom-up,” (Lanier 27) the cumulative result of military and governmental research alongside the efforts of independent computer scientists, programmers and entrepreneurs. To many, the de-centralised nature and universality of the Internet, both expressions of the “universal and non-discriminatory” (Semeniuk 47) principles of its design, seemed to promise a wider decentralisation of power and the creation of a new global commons, as the collective knowledge of the world became universally available, and creative and intellectual collaboration over the Internet became possible.
The revolutionary potential of the Internet to usher in an era of the democratic and free exchange of all the world’s knowledge has been compromised by a counter-revolution of enclosure, surveillance, and a concentration of corporate and governmental powers. At the present time, the experience of living in the world where the Internet is a ubiquitous phenomena contrasts starkly with the utopian ambitions of the early network pioneers. Both economic and political power is now greatly augmented by dominance over information. Singular, monolithic corporate entities have come to dominate popular niches of Internet activity such as social networking. The most iconic corporations of the new century, e.g. Google and Facebook, have made access to and control over huge swathes of data enormously lucrative. We live with what the artist and writer Hito Steyerl calls an ‘Internet Condition,’ in which the conditions of surveillance and corporate monopolisation, normalised on the Internet, spill over into the ‘real’ world. The Internet, according to Steyerl, “is undead and it’s everywhere.” (Steyerl, “Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?”) Every action online we make can be tracked, traced and stored, your location monitored, your life surveilled in the interests of both capitalist accumulation (e.g. online tracking) and state security (e.g. mass data collection by GCHQ and the NSA). We live in a kind of digital panopticon, a high-tech version of Jeremy Bentham’s ideal panopticon prison, where prisoners were aware of being watched at all times without being able to see or identify the watcher. The Internet has become a tool of social control, where it once could have one of emancipation and commonality.
The Disappearing User
In addition to this concentration of powers, there is another troubling aspect to digital network technologies as they exist now, and that is the complete disappearance of the interface as we know it. Internet artist and theoretician Olia Lialina has written about this issue, suggesting that the boundaries between technology and us are becoming increasingly invisible:
Computers are getting invisible. They shrink and hide. They lurk under the skin and dissolve in the cloud…with the disappearance of the computer, something else is silently becoming invisible as well — the User. Users are disappearing as both phenomena and term, and this development is either unnoticed or accepted as progress — an evolutionary step.
(Lialina, “Turing Complete User”)
Computing processes are completely ubiquitous yet increasingly opaque. Computers begin to disappear as discrete objects, distinct from other consumer objects in the world and are absorbed into all other objects from watches to toasters in the Internet of Things. An interface is no longer an interface, but an experience. Many of the leading contemporary technology companies actively pursue the development of software interfaces that are both intuitive and ‘invisible’. When the interface disappears, the user too becomes invisible, when the term user is a useful reminder that the computer is a programmed system designed by another. It is not neutral. To fail to recognise that a person is a user of a system puts in jeopardy the users’ right to question that system, and to critique it.
An interface designed to be invisible renders a device almost unrecognisable as technology: it instead becomes naturalised as a benevolent, non-human factotum, a familiar spirit. We touch immaterial images and symbols on the glass screen of our smartphones, while fitness trackers and smart watches track our heartbeats and metabolic rates and weight loss apps send daily diet reminders and motiving messages. The intimate details of our lives are shared freely on social media, read by scopophilic algorithms and used to more efficiently market products and services. As Donna Haraway writes, “our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.” (152) The experience of living with networked information technologies is interpenetrated on multiple levels by elements of embodied and affective experience, yet the ways in which we engage with technology are more often framed as a disembodied experience, one that is structured by language and overwritten by Heidegger’s ‘rule of instrumentalism.’
In The Question Concerning Technology (Heidegger, 1977), Heidegger describes how in a technocratic society all things “live under the rule of instrumentalism” (Bolt 71) in which the earth is a resource to be used to do or to produce, a resource which can be mastered through technological means. Our engagement with technology is limited to what technology can do for us rather than an engagement with the fundamental essence of what it is. However technology is more than just means: it is also a “challenging revealing,”(Heidegger 16) a system of thought which orders the world in a constant cycle of unlocking and transforming the energy in nature and then storing and distributing that energy through production. This revealing is a system of thought that delegitimises and drives out other ways of thinking about technology outside of its particular system of enframing. (Bolt 75) The instrumentalising effect of a technological enframing begins to colour all other relationships according to this system of thought, reducing the world and humanity to a “standing-reserve” (Heidegger 17) of energy and all beings to resources awaiting use (an effect that is vividly expressed in the managerial language of ‘human resource management’). In opposition to this, Heidegger sets out poiēis, (10) a mode of bringing-forth presence that involves “openness before what is” (Bolt 80) rather than ordering and mastery. Heidegger associates art with poiēitic revealing, but also with techne, an ambivalent term between poiesis and technological enframing that is the etymological root of the word ‘technology.’ It is both its likeness to and its difference from the technological that gives art a unique power to unsettle an instrumental view of the world, arts’ ‘accursed share’ (Bataille) of non-recuperable excess.
A refusal to engage with, to share in, a digital network culture that demands a permanent state of receptivity, can be a powerful statement personally and politically. Boredom, melancholy and negativity can be refigured as productive affective states, alike to art in that they, too, are possessed of an ‘accursed share.’ We are surrounded by anti-boredom devices, and we can be bored as well as overwhelmed by information overload- but it’s a mediated form of boredom that allows no room for thought or reflection. The sociologist and critic Sigfried Kracauer went even further, suggesting that only ‘extraordinary, radical boredom’ (Kracauer, quoted in Morozov ‘Only Disconnect’), as opposed to the ‘radical distraction’ of a real-time social media news feed, could reunite us with our body, our heads and the lived materiality of the world. Only in moments of silence and solitude could one flirt with radical and unscripted ideas. Boredom was rethought as political. In Kracauer’s writing, boredom allows us to experience the world at different temporalities, and to reimagine not only what the present can look like, but what the future could look like too. To Kracauer, boredom is not only our “modest right” (303) to do no more than be with ourselves, but it is also “the necessary precondition for the possibility of generating the authentically new.” (301-2) If an individual is never bored, then they are also never really present. So, if to be bored is to be present, then ‘radical boredom’ brings us back to Heidegger and his concept of Dasein, ‘being in the world,’ wherein human existence is grounded in the body and in the specific place in which we live. Being in the world emphasises that we are more than just an incorporeal self that is distinct from the “confining prison house” of the body, (Cottingham 252) that consciousness is more than a string of information that can flow seamlessly between and the synapses of the brain and the silicon chips of a computer. An explanation of consciousness as an informational pattern, equally replicable in organic or non-organic materials, falls short of accounting for ‘Dasein.’
The culture of distraction demands not only a permanent state of receptiveness, but also a permanent ‘now,’ a temporal state radically different from the ‘being present’ of Dasein. The temporality of the network world is one of urgency, of being ‘just in time’ rather than ‘in the moment’. Zygmunt Bauman describes this as “the insubstantial, instantaneous time of the software world,” (118) an inconsequential time, immediately evanescing from experience into “exhaustion and fading of interest.” (ibid) Exhaustion is the inevitable result of the over-participation and over-sharing demanded by the network world, yet withdrawal and recuperation are not necessarily solitary and isolated acts. As Jan Verwoert writes, “the exhibition of exhaustion produces public bodies.” (Verwoert 107)
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