Filed under: Capitalism, cyberspace, Film, Imagination, Literature | Tags: Blade Runner, Colonialism, Colonization, Cyberpunk, cyberspace, Fredrick J. Turner, Frontier, Frontier Thesis, Locomotive, Neuromancer, Once Upon a Time in the West, Ridley Scott, Sergio Leone, Western, Wild West, William Gibson, Wired Magazine
In 1894, Fredrick J. Turner articulated his famous American frontier thesis:
American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West.
The ‘Great West’ in the American consciousness is not a geographical location, but a manufactured horizon perpetually out of reach. After all, the ‘Great West’ never needed to be ‘discovered’; it was already there and hundreds of indigenous societies called it home. Its construction as an uncivilized frontier remains an essential ingredient of economic expansion and legitimized the eradication of Native American cultures across the continent and the subsequent accumulation of wealth, natural resources and property. Unfortunately, arrival at its opposite coast and pan-national colonization did nothing to quench America’s desire for expansion and settlement. In fact, once America was confronted with physical evidence that the frontier that had motivated their historical narrative had disappeared, Western culture developed a cultural anxiety, almost an identity complex: once the end has been reached, once the West is no longer wild, how do we proceed?
The answer? Invent a substitute. Hollywood created a new, imaginary frontier in film, television and pulp fiction to retame and to recolonize. The trajectory of the cinematic Western follows the incessant progression of the locomotive, a potent symbol of modernization. From John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) the locomotive lumbers on in an increasingly modern landscape; its arrival at the coast in Leone’s epic coincides with the death of Cheyenne, the classic (and nostalgic) frontiersman archetype, who succumbs to a wound inflicted by Morton, the railroad tycoon. Filmgoers witnessed their filmic West become civilized, settled and modernized, gradually weaned of its coarse and savage past. Seven months after the release of Leone’s final Western, Sam Peckinpah released The Wild Bunch (1969), a film set decidedly in the modern era, in 1913, complete with machine guns and automobiles. Colonization of the American Western was now complete.
This tactic of imaginary colonization was repeated with the emergence of cyberpunk. It was as if by the end of the 1970s, Western art had run out of revised histories to colonize, so it turned to the future. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) remain seminal texts for the new genre. Cyberpunk remains a curious cultural phenomenon. By 1993, only nine years after the publication of Neuromancer, Wired Magazine had already declared cyberpunk dead. Even contemporary films with clear allegiance to cyberpunk’s legacy, like the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003, 2003) and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) remain dissociated from the earlier cyberpunk canon.
The blinding speed with which cyberpunk completed its colonialist project is telling. What is notable about cyberpunk fantasies is their uncanny resemblance to contemporary global capitalism. They are like the present, only more so. Cyberpunk artists tend to tease out the latent material of our consumerist, fragmented society in a frenzied, amplified paean to postmodern life. The dystopic cityscapes of Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, saturated with corporate advertisements and giant digital screens might not concern a viewer who has visited New York’s Times Square in this century. Gibson is also credited with coining the term ‘cyberspace’—the ‘consensual hallucination’ of transglobal corporate commerce. The only difference between Gibson’s cyberspace and ours is that his vision of the corporate potential for profit were far too conservative.
Capitalism, having not yet realized its fullest desires in its own time, tips its hand with cyberpunk and colonizes the hereafter—or, in the parlance of Max Headroom, ‘20 minutes into the future’. The cyberpunk future collapses in on the present, which now seems a cruder, less civilized version of itself. The West has turned its settlers into natives; modernity needs to catch up and there’s no time like the present. ‘The wilderness masters the colonist,’ Turner wrote more than a century ago. ‘It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe’.
What is important to keep in mind, however, is that the space being colonized is not imaginary, but an actual, physical space in society. Just as colonizing the imaginary, filmic Wild West in fact colonized twentieth-century America with the expansion of the film and pulp literature industries to help establish a commodity culture, the preparation and subsequent colonizing of cyberspace facilitates the proliferation of offshore outsourcing, limitless free trade and the establishment of a post-industrial economy. Telecommunication companies colonize the real West with broadband cables and fibre optics, broadcast towers and satellite dishes. The fantasy, articulated by cyberpunk, of a decentralized, boundless, radically free market is purchased by a concentration of infrastructure and a focalized, urban population eager to make use of it.
So, finally, we are left with a new manifestation of Turner’s frontier: a vast, unnavigable space promising opportunity and expansion on one side; and a centralized, civilized posse of venture capitalists with an eye for profit. Only now, we don’t have to worry about that pesky Pacific ocean…
Filed under: cyberspace | Tags: Corporatization, Cyborg Manifesto, Donna J. Haraway, Militarization, Net Neutrality, Neuromancer, Raymond Williams, United States Armed Forces, William Gibson
TomDispatch reveals the latest move by the U.S. Armed Forces in their ongoing project to militarize cyberspace.
Air Force officials, despite a year-long air surge in Iraq, undoubtedly worry that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s “next wars” (two, three, many Afghanistans) won’t have much room for air glory. Recently, looking for new realms to bomb, it launched itself into cyberspace. The Air Force has now set up its own Cyber Command, redefined the Internet as just more “air space” fit for “cyber-craft,” and launched its own Bush-style preemptive strike on the other military services for budgetary control of the same.
If that’s not enough for you, it’s now proposing a massive $30 billion cyberspace boondoggle, as retired Air Force Lt. Col. William Astore writes below, that will, theoretically, provide the Air Force with the ability to fry any computer on Earth. And don’t think the other services are likely to take this lying down. Expect cyberwar in the Pentagon before this is all over.
I’m not sure why this should come as a surprise. Tom Engelhardt references William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) which, before AOL even knew what it was, conceived of cyberspace as territory ripe for colonization and profit by a militarized corporate hegemony. Internet precursor ARPANET was a project of the United States Department of Defence and the people that brought this technology to the public were members of a corporate elite. Raymond Williams said of television broadcasting that it “was developed not only within a capitalist society but specifically by the capitalist manufacturers of the technological apparatus” and the same could be said of Internet technologies. Certainly the latest controversy about Bell Canada’s packet throttling indicates that it is corporations and not citizens who police cyberspace.
Donna J. Haraway’s polemical “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1991) offers a slim hope to override the hostile trajectory of cyberspace corporatization and militarization. While her terms are somewhat outdated (substitution of “cyberspace” for “cyborg” will stave off its expiry date slightly), Haraway employs the harnesses cyberspace’s unique ability for dissent and subversion of its founding structures. “The cyborg is the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism.” By virtue of its illegitimacy, cyberspace offers the promise of democracy, plurality and liberty we always hoped was there. “Illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins,” Haraway continues.” Their fathers, after all, are inessential.”
With the military and corporations trying to reclaim their lost sons and daughters (who have not been nearly prodigal enough) there is greater immediacy to flaunt the bastardhood of cyberspace. This latest cyber-incursion by the U.S.A.F. is a flawed and toxic homecoming. It’s difficult to conceive of sufficient strategies of resistance in a space where the boundaries are already defined, but those less cynical might point to recent mobilization of digital advocacy in a growing global concern for online democratic rights. Meanwhile, we can shore up the democratic spaces that do exist on the web and resist the colonization of cyberspace which is part and parcel of the West’s interminable effort to militarize the planet, virtual or not.
Filed under: cyberspace | Tags: Chris Avenir, facebook, Greater Manchester Police, Policing, Public Space, Ryerson University, Surveillance
Back in March, I referred to case of alleged academic dishonesty between Chris Avenir, facebook, and Ryerson Univeristy as a question of policing, surveillance and coercion. Ryerson University, I argued, was attempting to colonize cyberspace in their interests, while the students’ conception of what one should expect online was very different. Well, now it seems, this case has surfaced outside of academia. And the stakes seem a bit higher:
Via Google News I hear of a new Facebook Application: GMP Updates. The application, also known as “The Greater Manchester Police Updates,” gives you a feed of crime updates and links to a form for reporting crimes, according to the article. It’s the first time I’ve seen a law enforcement based Facebook application…
That’s not all that is happening. When you add an application, by default it can see what you can see on Facebook. So you’re also sharing your friends’ information with law enforcement. Your friends may opt-out of this sharing, but until they do you’ll be the eyes and ears of law enforcement by adding a law enforcement-based Facebook app.
This maneuver by the Manchester Police, while framed as a great way to “crack crime,” should render blatantly obvious that the Internet is not public space. It is land up for grabs, and the Manchester Police are making their play for it. The kind of logic that absolves Ryerson and the GMP of their aggressive power play is the same kind that George W. Bush and his cronies enact to justify their wire-tap scheme, roundly condemned as an assault on civil liberties. Why, when it comes to cyberspace, should we think any differently?
Hat-tip to April Reign.
Filed under: cyberspace | Tags: Alexander Cockburn, Bell Canada, Digital Commons, Net Neutrality, Rogers Telecommunications
Hat-tip to M. Spector on babble.
Filed under: cyberspace | Tags: Becoming Modern in Toronto, Chris Avenir, cyberspace, Education, facebook, Keith Walden, Private Space, Public Space, Ryerson University, Technology
By now you should have heard the story of Ryerson University, facebook, and Chris Avenir. While many would prefer to boil the story down to the question did he or didn’t he, most people realize that more is at stake than a single instance of academic dishonesty.
The first issue that springs to mind is one of policing: policing, surveillance and coercion. The administration at Ryerson University believes that because they can access facebook and the Internet, they should be permitted to use whatever evidence they find there in cases of student discipline. The internet, as far as the University is concerned, is public space. One hundred and forty-seven students question that assumption.
I sympathize with Avenir’s professor, whose generous gesture to the students to offer a take-home assignment in lieu of an exam backfired. But her anger should not signify betrayal by the students, but rather her own failure as an educator to predict the students’ response. If she did not want the students to collaborate she enjoys access to a simple solution: hold an in-class exam. The students simply outmaneuvered her attempt to randomize each assignment with a unique selection of questions from a list of problems. It is as unfortunate as it was inevitable.
The University responded by charging Avenir with one count of academic misconduct and 146 counts—one for each group member—of “enabling.” This response is reactionary and panicked. It signals an administration clueless as to what the Internet portends and a heavy-handed attempt to claim cyberspace for itself. They are attempting to foreclose any future student forays into facebook and stamp-out any dissenters. It is, in short, a land grab.
Society has designated, arbitrarily, certain aspects of our life public and certain aspects private. As new technologies appear and as social conventions develop, these arbitrary boundaries become redrawn. The mass-produced automobile, for example, turned individual travel from a public into a private affair for the masses. When the telephone first entered public use, users were reluctant to use it, citing stage fright. Historically, those with power control how this redesignation occurs.
In his study Becoming Modern in Toronto: The Industrial Exhibition and the Shaping of a Late Victorian Culture (U of Toronto P, 1997), Keith Walden outlines a similar disconnect in cultural and technological expectations:
On 2 September 1892 Hannah Heron was struck by one of Toronto’s new electric trolleys in a downtown residential neighbourhood…Shortly before 3 p.m. she was being escorted to the Church Street car by her host’s companion, who saw the trolley approaching. As they stood on the northeast corner of the intersection, Heron was told she had to board at the southwest. She raced across the street, intending to cross diagonally. Recognizing the danger she was in, the driver rang a warning bell, but the noise disoriented her. She stopped in the middle of the street. Too late to brake now, the motorman started to shout, increasing her bewilderment. Finally, she darted in front of the car, which knocked her down and passed over both her legs below the knee. She was carried back to her aunt’s house, where she died five hours later.
When Hannah Heron stepped into the middle of Church Street, she was articulating a particular understanding of what a Toronto roadway meant—of the nature of the vehicles likely to be encountered there, of the dangers that needed to be considered, of appropriate ways of moving through that space, of the status of a human body relative to all these things. Unfortunately, her understanding, based on past experience, was contested by the street railway company, a much more powerful entity, which wanted to run cars at speeds faster than had been possible with horse-drawn wagons. By changing just one element in the situation, the entire web of signification had to be reknit…such questions, which went to the heart of the meaning of the street, bodies, machines, and citizenship, all had to be renegotiated because hierarchies of speed and power had changed. (3-6)
Like the fate of Ms. Heron, at stake is a question and dispute over reading—over signification. We can accept uncritically the University’s insistence that it has a right to police the Internet and affirm their dismissal of 147 students as “naive,” or, we can respect that the students oppositional worldview may hold merit. Significantly, the students of Ryerson—a great number more now than Avenir’s 146 co-conspirators—have come out in force behind Avenir and in contradistinction to the administration. Consider too that younger generations tend to understand the cultural implications of new technologies far earlier than the older, and in fact, facebook was originally created exclusively for students’—not administrators’—use. Unlike Ms. Heron’s ill-fated clash with the Toronto street railway company, the debate on how we read cyberspace is not yet closed, nor is it as starkly drawn.
If, like me, you find the increasingly popular state practice of universal surveillance odious, you should resist the University’s appropriation of cyberspace. In fact, I hold the University to a higher standard than I would the government, so I would expect such an institution to resist such practices actively rather to capitulate to them. Free Avenir.