That Californian Ideology
From “The Californian Ideology” by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron who ask the question “who would have suspected that as technology and freedom were worshipped more and more, it would become less and less possible to say anything sensible about the society in which they were applied?”:
The Californian Ideology derives its popularity from the very ambiguity of its precepts. Over the last few decades, the pioneering work of the community media activists has been largely recuperated by the hi-tech and media industries. Although companies in these sectors can mechanise and sub-contract much of their labour needs, they remain dependent on key people who can research and create original products, from software programs and computer chips to books and tv programmes. Along with some hi-tech entrepreneurs, these skilled workers form the so-called ‘virtual class’: ‘…the techno-intelligentsia of cognitive scientists, engineers, computer scientists, video-game developers, and all the other communications specialists…’ Unable to subject them to the discipline of the assembly-line or replace them by machines, managers have organised such intellectual workers through fixed-term contracts. Like the ‘labour aristocracy’ of the last century, core personnel in the media, computing and telecoms industries experience the rewards and insecurities of the marketplace. On the one hand, these hi-tech artisans not only tend to be well-paid, but also have considerable autonomy over their pace of work and place of employment. As a result, the cultural divide between the hippie and the organisation man has now become rather fuzzy. Yet, on the other hand, these workers are tied by the terms of their contracts and have no guarantee of continued employment. Lacking the free time of the hippies, work itself has become the main route to self-fulfillment for much of the ‘virtual class’.
The Californian Ideology offers a way of understanding the lived reality of these hi-tech artisans. On the one hand, these core workers are a privileged part of the labour force. On the other hand, they are the heirs of the radical ideas of the community media activists. The Californian Ideology, therefore, simultaneously reflects the disciplines of market economics and the freedoms of hippie artisanship. This bizarre hybrid is only made possible through a nearly universal belief in technological determinism. Ever since the ’60s, liberals - in the social sense of the word - have hoped that the new information technologies would realise their ideals. Responding to the challenge of the New Left, the New Right has resurrected an older form of liberalism: economic liberalism. In place of the collective freedom sought by the hippie radicals, they have championed the liberty of individuals within the marketplace. Yet even these conservatives couldn’t resist the romance of the new information technologies. Back in the ’60s, McLuhan’s predictions were reinterpreted as an advertisement for new forms of media, computers and telecommunications being developed by the private sector. From the ’70s onwards, Toffler, de Sola Pool and other gurus attempted to prove that the advent of hypermedia would paradoxically involve a return to the economic liberalism of the past. This retro-utopia echoed the predictions of Asimov, Heinlein and other macho sci-fi novelists whose future worlds were always filled with space traders, superslick salesmen, genius scientists, pirate captains and other rugged individualists. The path of technological progress didn’t always lead to ‘ecotopia’ - it could instead lead back to the America of the Founding Fathers.
Freedom is Slavery
If its holy precepts are refuted by profane history, why have the myths of the ‘free market’ so influenced the proponents of the Californian Ideology? Living within a contract culture, the hi-tech artisans lead a schizophrenic existence. On the one hand, they cannot challenge the primacy of the marketplace over their lives. On the other hand, they resent attempts by those in authority to encroach on their individual autonomy. By mixing New Left and New Right, the Californian Ideology provides a mystical resolution of the contradictory attitudes held by members of the ‘virtual class’. Crucially, anti-statism provides the means to reconcile radical and reactionary ideas about technological progress. While the New Left dislikes the government for funding the military-industrial complex, the New Right attacks the state for interfering with the spontaneous dissemination of new technologies by market competition. Despite the central role played by public intervention in developing hypermedia, the Californian ideologues preach an anti-statist gospel of hi-tech libertarianism: a bizarre mish-mash of hippie anarchism and economic liberalism beefed up with lots of technological determinism. Rather than comprehend really existing capitalism, gurus from both New Left and New Right much prefer to advocate rival versions of a digital ‘Jeffersonian democracy’. For instance, Howard Rheingold on the New Left believes that the electronic agora will allow individuals to exercise the sort of media freedom advocated by the Founding Fathers. Similarly, the New Right claim that the removal of all regulatory curbs on the private enterprise will create media freedom worthy of a ‘Jefferson democracy’. 
Across the world, the Californian Ideology has been embraced as an optimistic and emancipatory form of technological determinism. Yet, this utopian fantasy of the West Coast depends upon its blindness towards - and dependence on - the social and racial polarisation of the society from which it was born. Despite its radical rhetoric, the Californian Ideology is ultimately pessimistic about real social change. Unlike the hippies, its advocates are not struggling to build ‘ecotopia’ or even to help revive the New Deal. Instead, the social liberalism of New Left and the economic liberalism of New Right have converged into an ambiguous dream of a hi-tech ‘Jeffersonian democracy’. Interpreted generously, this retro-futurism could be a vision of a cybernetic frontier where hi-tech artisans discover their individual self-fulfillment in either the electronic agora or the electronic marketplace. However, as the zeitgeist of the ‘virtual class’, the Californian Ideology is at the same time an exclusive faith. If only some people have access to the new information technologies, ‘Jeffersonian democracy’ can become a hi-tech version of the plantation economy of the Old South. Reflecting its deep ambiguity, the Californian Ideology’s technological determinism is not simply optimistic and emancipatory. It is simultaneously a deeply pessimistic and repressive vision of the future.
From the response by Louis Rossetto, Editor & Publisher, Wired Magazine:
A descent into the kind of completely stupid comments on race in America that only smug Europeans can even attempt. (Any country which prohibits its own passport holders from residing within its borders, or any people who are currently allowing genocidal war to be waged in their own backyard after the stupefying genocide of WWII, shouldn’t be lecturing Americans about anything having to do with race, much less events which occurred 200 years ago.) The charge of technological apartheid is just plain stupid: “Already ‘red-lined’ by profit-hungry telcos [isn’t every company, by definition, “profit hungry?”, although that description in this context is also stupid since telcos are regulated monopolies with government enforced rates of return], the inhabitants of poor inner city areas are prevented from accessing the new on-line services through lack of money.” Oh really? Redlined? Universal telephone access is mandated in the US. And anyone with a telephone has access to online service. Lack of money? On-line is cheaper than cable television, and you can get a new computer for less than $1000, a used one less than $500.
The utterly laughable Marxist/Fabian kneejerk that there is such a thing as the info-haves and have-nots - this is equivalent to a 1948 Mute whining that there were TV-haves and have-nots because television penetration had yet to become universal, the logical conclusion being that, of course, the state had to step in and create television entitlements. This whole line of thinking displays a profound ignorance of how technology actually diffuses through society. Namely, there has to be a leading edge, people who take a risk on new, unproven products - usually upper tenish types, who pay through the nose for the privilege of being beta testers, getting inferior technology at inflated prices with the very real possibility that they have invested in technological dead ends like eight track or betamax or Atari. Yet they are the ones who pay back development costs and pave the way for the mass market, which, let me assure you, is every technology company’s wet dream (the biggest market today for the fastest personal computers is not business, but the home). Not haves and have-nots - have-laters.