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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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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