Ludd Lives

There’s an interview with Hakim Bey over at The Brooklyn Rail, in which he indulges in a Luddite rail against the internet.

Bleyer: But isn’t there something to be said for the subversive use of technologies?

Wilson: We believed that in the ’80s. The idea was that alternative media would allow us the space in which to organize other things. Even in the ’80s I said I’m waiting for my turkey and my turnips. I want some material benefits from the Internet. I want to see somebody set up a barter network where I could trade poetry for turnips. Or not even poetry — lawn cutting, whatever. I want to see the Internet used to spread the Ithaca dollar system around America so that every community could start using alternative labor dollars. It is not happening. And so I wonder, why isn’t it happening? And finally the Luddite philosophy becomes clear. We create the machines and therefore we think we control them, but then the machines create us, so we can create new machines, which then can create us. It’s a feedback situation between humanity and technology. There is some truth to the idea of technological determination, especially when you’re unconscious, drifting around like a sleepwalker. Especially when you’ve given up believing in anti-capitalism because they’ve convinced you that the free market is a natural law, and we just have to accept that and hope for a free market with a friendly smiling face. Smiley-faced fascism. I see so many people working for that as if it were a real cause. “If we have to have capitalism, let’s make it green capitalism.” There’s no such thing. It’s a hallucination of the worst sort, because it isn’t even a pleasurable one. It’s a nightmare.

I’m sympathetic to his position, and tend to largely agree with him regarding the demos. But, damn that’s a depressing interview. Perhaps one of the reasons that more hasn’t been done with the internet is that people like Bey have been unwilling to engage with it.

As for the Ithica HOURs project, if Bey spent some time online he’d realize how much of that is integrated with the internet. At the MEA Conference, Douglas Rushkoff expressed his enthusiasm for such attempts to “play” the economic system. To me, though, scrip systems are too easily reduced to dollars. Bey is right in that interoperability are at the root of both the internet and global capitalism.

I wonder what Bey would think of the headline on the Ithaca Hours site (if he ever used a computer) that reads “HOURs Go Global!” Or the fact that the introduction notes that Ithaca has issued “over $105,000 of our own currency.” That’s right, in US dollars. While it’s an interesting idea, barter systems do ultimately reduce to capitalism.

Quixotic isn’t even the word: you need to be stupid to assume that a violent overthrow of capitalism is going to happen at all. I am convinced that Marx didn’t think this is how things would go. What may happen — with enough material and symbolic work — is a gradual erosion of capitalism over time. And I think we see that happening in technological circles. I am optimistic that open source — and it’s outgrowth in open culture — represents the seed of an idea that is going to spread. The trick is to open up pockets of autonomy in time and space — yes, Temporary Autonomous Zones — and allow these to grow to the degree that someday, and I think that days is not so very far off, capitalism — or at least the very negative outcomes of capitalism — are minimized and marginalized.

In other words, just because new technologies share some of the aspects of global capitalization (namely, a drive toward interoperability and the tendency to alter consciousness) does not make it identical. In fact, it may provide the means for creating a viable alternative. Bey needs to buck up a bit.

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