Essay: The God of the Digerati

N
o ambition, however extravagant, no fantasy, however outlandish, can
any longer be dismissed as crazy or impossible. This is the age when you can
finally do it all. . . . You can become whatever you want to be." This bold
invitation stretches across the first few pages of the October 1994 issue of
Wired magazine, emblazoned over a computer-generated, Dali-esque
landscape populated by transparent human forms whose brains, muscles, and
entrails are tangles of silicon chips and fiber-optic cable. The phrases echo a
favorite slogan of Wired editor Kevin Kelly: "We are as gods, and we
might as well get good at it." Do these proposals amount to the same thing?
Should we accept them? And, if we do, what might be the consequences for our
culture and politics?

These questions are not idle. Wired is the lifestyle magazine par
excellence—the chapbook of tastes, taboos, and aspirations—for the shock troops
of the information economy. More than 300,000 readers earn their average annual
income of over $80,000 designing, selling, and hacking the computing systems
that increasingly shape everyone's workplace, home, and civic life. More than
any other group's, their job description includes designing the future.
Wired outfits that future, announcing which ideas and products are
"wired" and which "tired"; keeping up a "jargon watch" so that readers will know
to say "lifestyle reboot," not "power cocooning"; pointing out the goods and
manner that bring "street cred," as in credibility; and holding forth on
"fetishes," the super-goods of the super-wired.

Prominent among the magazine's fetishes is a new brand of libertarianism, the
hoary political temperament that thinks of government as serving only to iron
out a few inconveniences that arise between private individuals, and otherwise
staying out of the way. Wired exchanges the gray woolens of conventional,
economically minded libertarianism for the shimmering colors and romantic
rhetoric of a technologically enhanced Friedrich Nietzsche. The magazine heralds
a nascent political culture, a Nietzschean libertarianism.


THE NIETZSCHEAN TRIBE

Nietzsche, the German philosopher and iconoclast who died in 1900, has
been the perennial source of twentieth-century efforts to break the chains of
the past and create an entirely new intellectual and moral universe. He thought
that all the old myths of religion, nation, and philosophy had failed and that
people found themselves for the first time in a world without gods or magic.
While desperately painful, this situation presented an opportunity. Christian
morality, with its secular avatar, liberal democracy, had oppressed the most
strong-willed and charismatic individuals, drawing them into its cult of
meekness and sowing self-contempt with the doctrine that humanity is essentially
sinful. With this burden lifted, the strongest individuals could create new
myths, remake themselves as they wished, and form communities of the equally
strong and like-minded. They would become, in the unfortunately popular phrase,
supermen.

Wired styles its readership a tribe of budding supermen. The
magazine's first issue declared boldly, "Wired is about the most powerful
people on the planet today—the Digital Generation." Publisher Louis Rossetto
prefers the term digerati, a play on literati, for the new economic and,
increasingly, cultural elite. This elite not only enjoys the usual perquisites
of its position, but anticipates expensive biological and electronic advances
that promise people the capacity to tinker with themselves in unprecedented
ways. The quote that begins this essay comes from a leader of the Extropians,
favorites of editor Kevin Kelly's. The Extropians are committed to "turning
humanity into something far superior" through technology, espousing "a
philosophy of freedom from limitations of any kind." Those who can afford it
will eventually be able to overcome mortality by "downloading" consciousness
into computers, where it will survive forever as disembodied mind, perhaps
helped along by robotic accessories and virtual-reality sensations. They are
equally committed to pharmaceutical, surgical, and other ways of concentrating
and expanding the power of the mind. They also "hate government" and wish
to develop wholly voluntary communities governed by "spontaneous order."

Extreme as they are, the Extropians are representative lunatics. In "Birth of
a Digital Nation," a piece that aspires to take a generational pulse,
contributing editor Jon Katz writes that the zeitgeist honors "relying on
oneself to be the captain of one's ship and charting one's own course." Nearly
every issue of Wired includes a lionizing portrait of a trail-blazing,
go-it-alone entrepreneur, delivered in tones that would make Ayn Rand blush. The
magazine's governing assumption is that we make ourselves and our communities as
we will.



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The tone of these voluntary communities, among which the digerati are
preeminent, is pungently techno-pagan. This is a tribal libertarianism. Just
over a year ago Wired featured a cover story on Burning Man, a weekend
gathering in the deserts of Nevada where technology and counterculture meet in a
festival of body paint, drumming, and electronically enhanced mayhem,
culminating in the burning of a huge human figure, a custom last practiced by
Europe's ancient Celts. The following issue featured an admiring interview with
Canadian media studies professor Derrick de Kerckhove, who believes that
internet users have re-attained "a tribal world, [where] the cosmos has a
presence. It's alive. The tribe shares in this huge, organic reality." In a
sense, the magazine's Tired/Wired and Fetish features track the symbols of
tribal membership, which require constant updating; this tribe is all about
being on the move, and about buying.


GODS AND THEIR WORLDS

Stranger stuff yet lurks in Wired's circuits. In Out of
Control
, editor Kevin Kelly proposes that the old line between "the born and
the made" has been irremediably blurred. Biotechnology, especially genetic
engineering, has begun to insert technical processes into organisms. At the same
time, self-replicating computer programs that mimic evolution by developing un
planned order, and the early stages of "artificial intelligence," bring the
dynamics of living things into machinery.

According to Kelly, these changes enable us to see what has always been true
but hitherto hidden. "Life" means not carbon-based organisms, but any self-ordering,
self-reproducing system—what Kelly calls a vivisystem. We are
vivisystems, but so, too, are computer networks, market economies, and "hybrid
patches of nerve and silicon." Moreover, Kelly speculates, life has a tendency
to spread itself into previously inert matter, fighting back against entropy—hence
the label Extropian—and slowing the death of the universe. By passing from
us into computers, "Life has conquered carbon" and gone on, leaving humanity "a
mere passing station on hyperlife's gallop into space."

Here again, Wired shows Nietzsche's mark. His last work, dubiously
edited and written in the mental eclipse of creeping dementia, highlights the
idea of a "will to power" that flows through the universe, forging order out of
chaos. We are among the chief agents of that order. In this view, Wired
draws not only on Nietzsche, but also on a tradition of romantic vitalism that
forgoes troublesome political and ethical questions in favor of celebrating
"life," whatever it might do.

Only man can make a computer, so it is our task to extend life's march by
building the next vivisystem. We do this by designing computer programs that
replicate and expand themselves in unpredictable ways, setting in motion a
"post-Darwinian evolution." The best of these, in Kelly's view, will be virtual-reality
programs, in which creators can become virtual inhabitants. This is not
so far-fetched as it seems. Some people already spend considerable time in
"virtual communities," multi-user versions of the computerized role-playing
games that came into prominence in the 1980s, where players interact with each
other and perhaps with "bots" (programs designed to imitate people) in a
landscape de scribed onscreen. This technology could be straightforwardly united
with the indeterminate "evolution" of self-replicating programs and with the
virtual-reality techniques that give users the impression of actually inhabiting
programmed landscapes.

A few people, mostly college students, have largely withdrawn from their
embodied lives to participate in virtual communities. Kelly wants this practice
to go much further, to see more people inhabiting specialized online
communities, sometimes of their own making. Creating these worlds extends
"life," and "every creative act is no more or less than the reenactment of the
Creation." By entering these realms, their programmers reproduce the "old theme"
of "the god who lowered himself into his own world." Kelly identifies this theme
with Jesus, but one wonders if Narcissus is not a more appropriate touchstone
for his ambition.


GODS AND OUR WORLD

These odd ideas shape the attitudes that Wired prescribes to the
digerati. Take, for instance, Wired's worshipful attitude to the free
market. Markets are ideal in stances of "spontaneous order," and so very nearly
of life itself. It is in this light that the magazine celebrates the economic
dislocation that accompanies industry's replacement by the information economy.
Last year, Kelly wrote in Wired, "In a poetic sense, the prime task of
the Network Economy is to destroy—company by company, industry by industry—the
industrial economy." Knowing that Kelly considers economic transition an
evolutionary triumph of one vivisystem over another, in which people are only "a
way-station," illuminates the rhapsodic tone of his description.

The irony of this view is that the free-for-all that Wired admires on
the Internet is threatened less by government than by the prospect of domination
by mega-corporations. Less than a year ago, as Wired's online publishing
efforts foundered, Microsoft announced plans to devote a healthy portion of its
$9 billion in cash to dominating that field. A favorite Wired icon for
the information feedback loop, a dragon curling in a circle to swallow its own
tail, could become more apt as a symbol of the timeless libertarian paradox:
Monopoly verging on feudalism emerges from unregulated competition to bite
libertarianism in the posterior.

In the same vein, Kelly's techno-romanticism guides Wired to a willful
obtuseness before ecological concerns. Last year, UCLA's Gregory Stock, who
"believes that genetic engineering is the next stage in natural evolution," told
the magazine: "The planet is undergoing a massive extinction. . . . [W]e're at
the center of it." We shouldn't be concerned, though, because "modern technology
is a major evolutionary transition. . . . It would be astonishing if that
occurred without disrupting existing life." In an earlier issue, Paul Levinson
reassured readers that, now that DNA can be preserved for possible
reconstruction, "extinction [no longer means] gone for good." To be sure, large-scale
extinction and global warming can be considered "evolutionary
transitions," triumphs of the human and industrial vivisystems, if one
interprets them insistently enough. Similarly, if the existence of a species is
reduced to a matter of recoverable genetic information, we may be comforted
about the loss of the ecosystem that it now inhabits. Still, the reader is right
to think that something—perhaps the most important thing—is lost in this view.
Kelly's bizarre biological ideas underlie a giddy indifference to public policy.

Such complacency is an intrinsic temptation of this attitude. When any
transformation is taken to be the fruit of life's battle against entropy,
debating social and economic change appears fatuous. Trends take on an air of
inevitability, and of inevitable goodness. Any doctrine that celebrates the raw
power of natural processes as they flow through society will end by sacrificing
the rigors of democratic deliberation for the pleasures of vitalist
enthusiasm.


THE TECHNOCRATIC CONCEIT

Of course, there is more to Wired than romantic libertarianism.
The magazine now and again veers into a Panglossian picture of democracy's
future on the Internet. Contributing editor Jon Katz, in particular, enjoys
comparing the digerati to Jeffersonian yeomen: rugged, self-reliant
individualists with their own ideas and the courage to voice them. Katz is fond
of asking questions like, "Can we build a new kind of politics? Can we construct
a more civil society with our powerful technologies? Are we extending the
evolution of freedom among human beings?" Regrettably, he answers with tired
observations and insubstantial proposals: The digerati are uninterested in and
disaffected from mainstream politics, and haven't contributed much to that
politics except defense of their own cyber-interests; however, if they ever put
their lively minds to politics, they would probably come up with something
worthwhile.

The substance of that something, when made explicit, usually rests on the
benefits of online conversation and the extraordinary availability of
information on the Internet. Both of these are valuable, especially for citizens
who are committed to particular issues and have trouble finding neighbors who
share their interests and adequate resources in the local library. The more we
cultivate informed, contentious citizenship, the better off we all are. However,
these technologies chiefly enhance the efforts of already-engaged men and women;
they enrich the margins more than they affect the main current of politics.
Overlooking this fact is typical of the technophiles' tendency to mistake new
tools for new worlds. Katz refers in awed tones to "the unprecedented ability of
individuals to speak directly to each other" on the Net, but thoughtful folk
will recall that earlier eras are known, now and again, to have achieved
conversation.

Moreover, the picture of democracy that Wired honors rests not so much
on shared deliberation as on "spontaneous order." Kelly offers as a parable for
democracy a stadium full of people who, without express instructions, manipulate
light sticks to form patterns. This sort of "hive mind," as Kelly unnervingly
puts it, may be a fitting ideal for stadium performances; it is less obviously
one for self-government. In fact, this is a basically vitalistic picture of
democracy.

This vitalism, bordering on mysticism, spurs Wired to contempt for the
banal institutions of government itself. Frequent contributor and Net guru John
Perry Barlow suggests that in short order, "the U.S. Senate will seem about as
relevant as the House of Lords." In the same spirit, Wired publisher
Louis Rossetto told the New York Times three years ago, "In ten or twenty
years, the world will be completely transformed. . . . [We will see] not just
the change from L.B.J. to Nixon, but whether there will be a President at all."
By every indication, the Wired crew would prefer that there not be. An
admiring article on cyberspace tax dodgers who operate out of the Caribbean
gleefully invited readers to imagine a future "nation state—with 20 percent of
its current tax revenue." The Extropians have already imagined it.


THE POVERTY OF GODHOOD

In some ways, it is best not to take all this too seriously. Wired
is redolent of intellectual pretense and factual delusion. Some portion of the
magazine is just the adolescent effusion of overgrown boys with too much money.
The article on Burning Man misses no chance to show young, bare-breasted
celebrants in body paint. Every few issues, a breathless piece on the future of
military technology evokes video games brought down to earth. A long description
of internet entrepreneurs in Canada's near-Arctic Northwest Territories is
mostly an admiring look at hard-drinking, hard-living frontiersmen recognizable
from any Louis L'Amour novel. Whether Hefner or Hemingway, the young men of
Wired—and the magazine's readers are mostly men—get their share of
fantasy material.

The more ambitious moments are equally unsatisfactory. Professor Derrick de
Kerckhove's claim that we are rediscovering a "living cosmos" turns on the fact
that, on the Internet, language is both experienced in real time and given
permanent, recorded existence. The first supposedly creates an organic
immediacy, while the second secures ontological stability: Permanent language
becomes part of the structure of things. This "new guise of language," when
parsed, means that we have verbatim records of our conversations, get our mail
almost instantly, and see magazines as soon as they go online. One wonders
whether, once L.B.J. and Nixon began taping their Oval Office conversations,
they experienced a living cosmos. Envision the transcript: "P: Henry, I feel so
[expletive deleted] tribal!"

More seriously, the future that Wired evokes belongs to a single
population—the digerati—who are happy to tout their experience as universal. The
information economy emphatically does not mean "reenacting the Creation" for
most of its workers. Data-entry workers, shop clerks, and the warehouse staff at
amazon.com will face the same problems as ever: depressed wages, battles over
benefits, barriers to unionization, and inadequate political representation in a
Congress whose resemblance to the House of Lords is for them a matter of
economic class more than of anachronism. Their situations will be the less
stable for the "creative destruction" of firms and industries that Kelly
celebrates. Tribalism will do them little good, as is generally true of lesser
tribes.


LIBERTARIANISM OR LIMITS?

It is precisely because the digerati are not a lesser tribe that their
defining cultural document demands attention. Wired's unlikely ideas and
improbable prognostications are less significant in the end than its
temperament, the turn of mind and set of moral—and amoral—priorities that it
displays. Temperament is a theme too little appreciated in reflecting about
culture and politics. Although no temperament neatly supports any particular
political order, there are echoes, affinities, and latent hostilities between
habits of mind and political practices.

The Wired temperament is contemptuous of all limits—of law, community,
morality, place, even embodiment. The magazine's ideal is the unbounded
individual who, when something looks good to him, will do it, buy it, invent it,
or become it without delay. This temperament seeks comradeship only among its
perceived equals in self-invention and world making; rather than scorn the less
exalted, it is likely to forget their existence altogether. Boundless
individualism, in which law, community, and every activity are radically
voluntary, is an adolescent doctrine, a fantasy shopping trip without end.

In contrast, liberal democracy at its best starts from a recognition of
certain limitations that we all have in common. None of us is perfectly wise,
good, or fit to rule over others. All of us need help sometimes, from neighbors
and from institutions. We are bound by moral obligation to our fellow citizens.
We share stewardship of an irreplaceable natural world. This eminently adult
temperament is alien to the digerati.

The choice of which temperament we will cultivate is timely, for it lies near
the heart of our decisions about how to regard the ascendant, global,
information-based economy. Will we see in it the latest set of temptations to
our familiar maladies of greed, mutual indifference, and self-absorption, and
work to address those with the best resources of liberalism, privately and
through our political institutions? Or will we pretend with Wired that
those hazards and their accompanying obligations are finally behind us, that the
millennium has come in a microchip?

The invitation to godhood inhabits a long tradition in our culture, from the
original temptation in Eden to the bargain of Faust. Kelly has this tradition in
mind when he asks about the prospects for creating artificial evolution, "Have
we ever resisted temptation before?" Before accepting too blithely, though, we
should recall that bargains in this tradition are tragic at best, destructive at
worst. With this in mind, we do refuse temptation, not least when we decline the
pleasures of glib libertarianism, idle romanticism, and technophilic hubris. In
the face of these, refusal deserves pride of place among the liberal virtues. We
should learn to recognize an infernal bargain when we see one.



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