Disembodied democracy awaits

The technocratic visionaries promise virtual communities on the Net. They are false prophets Your job may go, your nation may vanish and your privacy will be invaded
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The Independent Online
This week Wired magazine is being launched in Britain. The eyes of Thomas Paine gaze out from the cover of the first UK edition and his face is overprinted with a quotation from his work: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."

Wired is an upmarket computer mag. It is expensive (£3.50 here, $4.95 in the US) and it is targeted at the technocratic lite - "because," as its manifesto says, "the most fascinating and powerful people today are not politicians or priests, or generals or pundits, but the vanguard who are integrating digital technologies into their business and personal lives, and causing social changes so profound that their only parallel is probably the discovery of fire." Wired is fabulously successful, appallingly - as you will have gathered - written and stupendously confident.

This confidence is the point. It springs from the realisation that technological growth is moving from rapid to explosive. The digital revolution has at last begun. It is creating, Wired's editor, Louis Rossetto, tells me, "a global consciousness". And Nicholas Negroponte, director of the hugely influential Media Lab at MIT, writes in his new book of the technology as "creating a totally new, global social fabric".

Of course, we have all heard enough of such technocratic hype to make us either bored or suspicious. The information superhighway - yeah, yeah, the Net - oh sure, cyberspace - give us a break. But Rossetto and Negroponte are right to talk in revolutionary terms. Digital technology is advancing so explosively and so unpredictably that even that supreme technocrat, Bill Gates of Microsoft, admits he has no idea where it will lead. He only knows, as does Wired, that it will change everything.

In the bizarre setting of a grubby Clerkenwell pub Rossetto murmurs to me of "politics beyond government, consensus beyond elections". He talks of the end of cities and nation states, of a new information civilisation rising from the ashes of the mechanical age, of a massive youthful rebellion against history and embracing the limitless, benignly chaotic, digitised future. And Negroponte ends his book with these bright, beaming sentences: "The control bits of that digital future are more than ever before in the hands of the young. Nothing could make me happier."

Two messages are being delivered here: first, the world is about to change utterly and, second, this is a good thing. The first may be true but we have no reason to assume it entails the second.

The clue as to what is really wrong with all this technocratic hype is to be found in Wired's cover quotation and in the essay by Jon Katz on Paine - evoked as the patron saint of the Internet, the mechanism that will liberate us all from big corporations, nasty government and a dormant, sold-out media industry. Since Paine wrote of beginning the world again in the 18th century, we have learnt what an incredibly bad idea this is. The French aspiration to start afresh turned into the Terror, the Russian into Stalinism, the Chinese into the Cultural Revolution and the Cambodian into the Khmer Rouge. Beginning again usually means millions of bodies and no noticeable improvement in the human condition.

But this revolution, the technocrats say, is not like the revolutions of the past. The new Year Zero mentality is not based on any prescriptive ideology. The Net is what you make it. This is a revolution of means, not ends. People are being "empowered", not coerced.

This is dishonest. There is, in fact, a quite distinct digital ideology and it leaps from every page of Wired and every sentence of Negroponte's. It is, among other things, devotedly meritocratic, very free market, intensely libertarian and hyper-democratic.

Within this ideology there is, of course, a conflict between democracy and meritocracy. As the American historian Christopher Lasch points out in his book The Revolt of the Elites, published this week, meritocracy is a profound threat to democracy. By definition meritocracies are perpetually renewed and therefore represent a threat to the institutional continuity that makes democracy work. In Lasch's terms, the technocrats form an lite that is in revolt against genuine democracy.

As if to reinforce this point, the digital ideology also demands the overthrow of history and an insanely radical reform of the education system. And as for coercion: well, your middle-management job will go, you may have to work at home, your city centre will be abandoned, your nation may vanish and, as even beaming Negroponte admits, your intellectual property will be abused and your privacy invaded.

Furthermore, this new world is morally different. There is a famous cartoon of two dogs writing e-mail to each other. One writes: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." Step into cyberspace and you can be anybody you like because people only know you by the messages you send. There is no body, no eye contact. For Rossetto this is a cause for celebration: "The information society is inherently more democratic as a way of life. Black-white, male-female. People can't tell. You're just another voice."

This is a perverse idea of democracy. You get over racial or sexual tensions by deracing and desexing yourself. You become nobody and nothing, a disembodied voice, perfectly irresponsible, perfectly free to tell any lie, to construct any fantasy that springs to mind.

And alongside total disembodiment, the digital realm also offers radical displacement. Rossetto's ideal of an incorporeal democracy is matched by talk from other technocrats of "virtual communities", people with common interests who would find each other through the Net. They would be unrestrained by geography and they need never meet except in cyberspace.

Now the reason the technocrats are fond of this idea is that it casts a benign, communitarian glow over their enterprise. People will be brought together by the Net. New types of communities will be formed. Special interests, no matter how obscure, will be sustained. The technology of the Information Age will not fragment the world as did that of the Age of the Machine.

The placeless community is as perverse an idea as the bodiless democrat. People live in places and they go to places - to real, not virtual, places. A community, if it is to have any force at all, must have a geographical reality; an institution, if it is to work, must possess some local identity.

But the technocrats appear to find geographical reality and local identity immoral. Such concepts reek of the mechanical age, they propagate old tribalisms, old wars. In the new age we shall exchange information, we shall not fight. The young will join their virtual hands in benign cyberspace.

We should not listen. The danger of the technocrats' Year Zero is the same as every other. It lies in the hubristic belief that history is a mess and ought to be forgotten. But however bad the machine-age world is, it is not as bad as it might be, precisely because of remembered history. These technocrats want us to forget, to embrace an amnesiac future. They think we have no choice. But we have.

`Being Digital', by Nicholas Negroponte, Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99. `The revolt of the Elites', by Christopher Lasch, Norton, £16.95.