Cyber-space article in Against Sleep And Nightmare #4, circa 1992. Despite archaic references, the thrush of the article anticipates present day info-capitalism and info-repression.
John Fogerty, tired former star of Creedence Clearwater Revival, was sued a few years back for plagiarizing his own songs by Saul Zantz, mega-music-capitalist and the largest landlord in Berkeley, CA. There are two ways this cuts.
On one hand, suing someone for plagiarizing themselves shows the level to which this society will sink in commodifying life. It's like buying someone's feet and charging them to walk or buying someone's asshole and charging them for taking a shit.
On the other hand, rock stars themselves are simply professional music thieves and recyclers. They churn distinct trends into a mediocre amalgamation. The gesture of suing a rock star for plagiarizing himself has a certain charm. Fogerty, in his earlier incarnation as the front man of Creedence, sold a carefree vagabond spirit to millions of dislocated youths. After that, he regorgitated the same trash for years. He could be legitimately convicted of plagiarizing himself.
Fogerty and Zantz's legal cat fight is not only an example of this society's absurdity. It is also part of the leading edge of this society's absurd logic. It reflects Capital's abstract crisis in a visible form. These battles for the control of intellectual property are gang fights. The different gangs battle for their cuts of the spoils of the "information age."
Tentatively, we can accept the term "information age" for the present stage of social decomposition. The information age is a systematic effort to colonize a part of life that until relatively recently had not been thought controllable.
The stages that capital is going through can be seen as a kind of after-life. The original agricultural/slave societies (Egyptian, Sumerian or Inca) began as a way that human societies dealt with a local scarcity of resources. Like later slave societies, modern society must deal with the opposite problem. It must maintain the order of scarcity in a society where resources are more and more abundant. It must conquer more and more of the human existence that is based on abundance. It must hold it's slaves in thrall when the chance of living fruitfully is all around them.
The rulers of this society arose as capitalists. Capitalists base their power on owning labor power. They trace their origins to the mill owners of England. These rulers learned to pay workers for their labor power instead of simply taking the surplus grain of peasants. Capitalists need the order of scarcity to exist.
Instead of owning slaves or peasants, they own the means of production that wage-workers work at. They maintain their power on top of our alienated activity. They siphon profits off the exchange of goods and services. The factories, offices and shopping malls they own must be filled for them to make money.
By this very logic, capitalism cannot maintain scarcity with pure domination. It cannot have an elite consume all excess production like earlier systems. Having the morality of absolute master, medieval nobles and Tibetan monks consumed the excess of their societies in ritual or cruel play. Rather than have absolute power in a set territory, capitalists have their zones of influence within parts of life. Each capitalist compromises with the system's logic. GM sells cars. ATT sells long distance telephone service. And so on. Each slice of life must be balanced in power. Capitalists need the marketplace to negotiate their relative power. ATT sells GM so many long distance calls for the money to pay for so many cars. One GM stock is worth as many as so many ATT stocks etc..
To maintain their power, capitalists must maintain the circulation of money. Thus capitalism maintains its power to the extent that each person must pay for everything in their lives. This what we mean by this society commodifies our lives. The commodity society has this paradox: People consume more and more different things but they consume a smaller and smaller percentage of what society produces.
As Lewis Mumford points out, human speech is the most immediately available model of an economy of the gift. We all speak and we all gain something from our speech. No computer can duplicate it, no accounting system can manage it and it is given freely. We don't need computer networks or special permission. The human mind outstrips any computer in the complexity and the interest of its output. A room with ten people hhas infinitely more possibilities than a room with ten computers.
This system has always had various contradictions. While lately the system has faced various crises, it has so far survived and controlled these problems.
The information age is capitalism trying to come to terms with the abundance. Our technology is developing faster and faster to the point of eliminating the need for labor for survival. Capital tries to capture intelligence and sell it back to those with an artificial need for it. Artificial intelligence is for those without natural intelligence.
But full human intelligence can't be captured. It exists outside of any accounting system. If we look at it's accounting in detail, we see how the information system explodes.
A computer scientist calls the number of bits needed to store a given document on a computer disk information. A bit is a one or zero stored on a disk. A floppy disk that fits in a shirt pocket can contain one million separate one or zero bits.
The beauty of information is that it combines all of Western civilization's mechanical categories into one total category. Information is anything from machine diagrams, digitized photographs and MIDI coded music to junk mail and gibberish. Information is the perfections of all automated production and consumption.
This makes information the perfect product. Through this redefinition of the world the sale of information is a huge industry. Information is everything from video games, to television, to fashion, to packaging to CD's to college lectures to bank records and junk mail.
To make the ideal model of information real, corporate America is trying to build a "cyberspace" where information is the universal substance. Once it is built, this "cyberspace" would exist entirely within a computer or a group of computers.
The information age offers capitalists a solution to the problem of maintaining the logic of scarcity. Capitalists imagine the information age as a bigger and bigger world where the old order of scarcity continue. All information will be a commodity and all commodities will be information.
In the capitalists' retrospect, the information world is the conclusion to all history. As capitalism commodifies life, it builds a larger and larger cage for human activity and intelligence. Miniaturization will now let these huge automatic cages exist in one silicone chip.
Capital's long range salesmen conjure a frontier to be exploited like the "untrampled" shore of America five hundred years ago. Here all capital's information production will be sold and all its debts paid. Like America, future colonists call the plane of information "empty" only because it hasn't been colonized by them. There is still an infinite amount of human activity that marketing has not captured.
Cyberspace proposes life within configuration space. This is the terrain of all possible configurations of symbols - the universe as viewed by computer scientists. A piece of information is can be seen as one point in the hypothetical cyberspace.
An entity that "lives" in cyberspace would move from one configuration of information to another. A person would experience this new world by having data simulate sensory impressions for her or him instead.
Everything that happens here is information processing. A bicycle, an elevator or printing press are devices to change the configuration of elements in the real world.
To move in cyberspace, you change the information arround you. The capitalist sees that information processing involves both production and consumption of information. Thus information is the ideal commodity; profits are guaranteed. Everyone is an information processor by definition.
Market research and cybernetic control are the methods for building this new world. Instead of singing together as community, each atomized consumer buys mass marketed music for individual entertainment. When consumers are like ping pong ball bouncing different ways with each manufactured trend, their action become simple mathematical modelling.
Any part of social life that can be mathematically described can already be seen as information processing.
Along with capitalist logic, the contradictions of capitalism are also embedded in cyberspace. Building this space creates more and more crises. Cyberspace gives a single capitalist the chance to own everything. It contradicts the fluidity of power that capitalist wage labor rests on.
The world market faces a crisis on the level of pricing information commodities. Prices are set by the struggles between capitalists and between workers and capitalists. Each capitalist faces the other as a commodity seller.
The information world has no natural ordering according to price or information configurations. A company must tack the price onto an information commodity at the end of production. Price is an extraneous part of any piece of information. An industry thus must use an arbitrarily chosen information standard to order for information its information production. Video games must be written for Nintendo or Atari. Music is recorded on compact disks, tapes, or "Mini disks."
Thus the ultimate price of a piece of information is arbitrary. Its cost of production is either zero or based on extraneous factors.
Owning an information commodity only gives a person power at the level of legality. A store keeper or a factory owner produces items that she or he exercises physical control over. A break-in or employee theft will produce a call to the police. The method of production insures some control over the product. The possessor of the product has an incentive to maintain the property relations since if the product is stolen, the possessor loses it. It is quite difficult for someone to build a bridge, even if they steal the design from someone else.
It is very easy for someone to duplicate a videocassette, a piece of software, or a piece of music. Networks of friends give away free software. The Compact Discs now being used for both data and music were design specially to be hard to duplicate. Still, the nature of information will make it easier to duplicate these also - Digital Audio Tape (DAT) is already a step in this direction.
The ownership of capital goods, of information standards, is hardly in better shape. Information standards are the highways on which information processing takes place. The largest computer companies count on Graphic User Interface (GUI) standards to be their "profit centers." By owning the basic system that a computer works with, companies like Microsoft, Sun, and Apple Computer expect to get profits from each computer regardless of what other programs the computers' users buy.
But every information standard is subject to "cloning," to having a different system designed that works the same way. From computer systems to chips to operating systems, many important standards have been cloned. This has kept them from producing high profit rates for their owners.
While courts often allow companies to patent an information standard, these patents are completely arbitrary. There is no reasonable way to decide what screen appearance, algorithm or computer language can be reasonably owned. The result is an endless stream of lawsuits. Since the lawsuits decide boundaries of the information world, more and more money rests on them. Microsoft recent said that Apple Computer's suit against it asks for 4 billion dollars in damages.
When all information is property, it is necessary to continuously police all possessors of any kind of information to stop its unauthorized use. Already, workers in with assess to classified information are supposed to be constantly watched.
The policing is the only thing that can protects information commodities. Companies spend millions tracking down those who pirate information. But this only catches people brazen enough to sell the pirated information. Those who give it away are virtually invisible. And giving it away is easy.
Today, it is mostly individuals who pirate software. Larger companies still fear the lawsuits that pirating may bring on. But is because most companies invest only a fraction of their total value in software.
When software becomes the main capital good, when a program allows someone to make money with it alone, piracy is likely to become universal.
The information world maintains itself only if becomes an ever-expanding repressive bureaucracy. The contradictions of the information standards naturally end up in the policing. The borders of who owns what information are not perfectly defined. Thus continuous judicial labor is required to decide them.
Just like Apple and Microsoft, Fogerty and Zantz are fighting over the boundary lines of legally redefined reality. Zantz tried to use the principle of intellectual property to own not just a certain configuration of notes but Fogerty vagabond attitude as well. At the limit of this, we could imagine a future world where hippies, punks or heavy metalers buy a licence for their images.
The only need created by information is the need for police to protect information commodities. The "Personal Computer," which corporation originally sold as equivalent to television, is now sold only to workers who the corporations force to take their work home.
An information commodity is only valuable if information itself is scarce. Thus the "intelligence community," where "for security reasons, information can only be given on a need-to-know basis" is the perfection of the information world. The gang system, whether legal or illegal, as just as perfect for an information scarce system.
Security is the good that world capitalism is redefining in all these maneuvers. By making people less and less secure, the information system forces people to buy more and more information. The point of information sales is to sell many pieces of information without giving out a general knowledge of any field. The ghetto with it's infinite permutation of rumors and protection systems is just as much part of the information world is silicone valley.
Policing today serves as primitive accumulation of information. No one has much information and what unique information they will be taken away and used in the common pot.
Even if the information you produce is your ID for a cop on the corner, you have completed a circuit of information capital.
We can easily extrapolate. Laws, tax regulations, medical processes, and retirement systems are now so obscure that they require computers to keep track of them. Now that powerful microcomputers are available to consumers, the complexities can multiply. Eventually each consumer will be forced to buy autonomous software to survive. This software will then issue orders whose purposes cannot be deduced.
This ultimate order is limited only by how atomized and irrational the information system can make workers. The clarity of total must ultimately destroy information.