Anarchy and the Big Society Machine

Anarchy and the Big Society Machine

talk prepared for Goldsmiths MA Interactive Media (2011)

Anarchism in an electronic age defies definition and will always tend towards sets of values or ways of thinking and doing that evolve from tensions in the individual and collective process. We could say that in this respect anarchism is defined as useful tension between community (or state) and self. Correspondingly, any dogmatic attempts to discuss anarchism are simply evocations of a dynamic process, illuminating, infuriating and then discarded. But they are not without purpose or an element of progression from one place to another, that is to say in negotiating the behaviours of the individual and the state.

We might think that the effect of the growth of electronic media has been to dissolve the power of the nation state in our affairs and the opposite in the case of China – the creation of what has become known as ‘the Great Firewall’. The unregulated and unprecedented movement of information has, as McLuhan predicted, decentralized our actions, as we move from conventions of trade of goods and services to an electronic world economy. The parcelling up of toxic debts within electronically facilitated trading was estimated by the International Monetary Fund in 2009 to be 4 trillion dollars. The consequence of such spectacular meltdowns has been the reappraisal of financial regulation throughout the developed economies. Neo-liberalised economic processes have brought many states to the point of self-destruction.

Negroponte in ‘Being Digital’ proposes the shift from atoms to bits, as industrial production moves from the material to the digital. This seems now techno-utopian and simplistic. Newsprint or the book, if we follow this idea, are replaced by onscreen media navigated by increasingly responsive interfaces. These interfaces can be increasingly attendant and responsive to our patterns of behaviour, reducing ‘wasteful’ search time. However these interfaces often reach back to forms of representation of prior media, what McLuhan called the ‘rearview mirror effect’. So in an iPad advert the user gestures towards a virtual bookshelf.

But now attention has become money or commodity too, at the same time that technological fetishisation or lifestyle technologies have become symbolic of global culture. Bernhard Stiegler has written extensively on the effects of mass media, the effect of which is the homogenisation of culture and its messages, leaving no space for transgression or alternative tempo or meaning.

The cultural supremacy and pervasiveness of computer generated movies seems undeniable. Could we argue that Toy Story 3 is the ultimate artistic statement of global neo-liberal culture? Its messages, aesthetics and modes of production convey a complete set of values in which the mass audience are emotionally tugged, puppeted and entertained. We might compare this to North Korean propaganda films (featured on YouTube) that take on a warped propagandisation of a dark-side “axis of evil” state. Is there a collective amnesia and form of control in CGI blockbusters?

McLuhan connects literacy with money. Work he says does not exist in the non-literate world, because the ‘whole person’ is in fact a hunter, fisher or even artist. They have no need for money because their activity is directly connected to subsistence. It is within this reduced or non-digital realm that everyday transactions become more meaningful, rewarding and creatively transgressive. This compared to the anxiety of the digital workplace where the extended self is locked into a puzzling world of making and responding to electronic messages, not necessarily knowing where priority lies.

Modern economies break down human activity into jobs and roles, fragmenting this whole person and thus creating a co-determinacy or dependency. McLuhan further suggests that the clock or means of calibrating time promotes a commodification of individual labour. Labour becomes subjugated to a time and motion study. McLuhan was aware that as electronic media and networked extension increased in the digital age, effectively knowledge would become the prevailing currency. Hence automation, as he put it, becomes a way of programming knowledge. We now live in what is termed as the ‘knowledge economy’.

The process of technics or technologisation can be seen as an open prison, where the non-productive post-industrial workforce are occupied in data entry and management of information. Then perhaps in its promotion and optimisation. The trap in negatively portraying digital culture is to imply some alternative ideologue or Eden of self-sufficiency. In ‘Walden’, Henry David Thoreau has provided an enduring example of the problems of disconnecting from the state and ‘the machine’.

McLuhan gives us a resounding picture of where we are with online culture. He says:

“In the age of instant information man ends his job of fragmented specializing and assumes the role of information gathering. Today information gathering resumes the inclusive concept of “culture”, exactly as the primitive food gatherer worked in complete equilibrium with his entire environment”. Our quarry, in this new nomadic and “workless” world is knowledge and insight into the creative processes of life and society.”

This is an intriguing point at which to assess what artistic practice or production looks like in an extended electronic age. John Cage’s ‘Lecture on Nothing’ within his first book ‘Silence’ points towards transgression and a reordering of the collapsed temporal-spatial modes of new technology. There is an implicit understanding that breaths, silences and events taking place in the world outside, will form a new version – each time – of the creative work. As a form of resistance, it serves to locate experience right in the moment, nuanced and unrepeatable. It is in effect undigital, manifest and if you wish it ‘spiritual’.

Quoted here from John Cage:

I am here                  ,                 and there is nothing to say

If among you there are those who wish to get               somewhere                          ,                                 let them leave at any moment                .

What we require           is                    silence                         ;                               but what silence requires is                                that I go on talking                 .                        Give any one thought                                    a push                            :                            it falls down easily                           ;

but the pusher                                    and the pushed                             pro-duce                             that entertainment                                             called a discussion               .                                 Shall we have one later (now)?

What I’m saying is that art is often transgression.


Simon Poulter © 2011