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Prometheus Wired: The Hope for Democracy in the Age of Network Technology

Author: Darin Barney
Publisher: Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000
Review Published: November 2002

 REVIEW 1: Andrea M. Matwyshyn
 REVIEW 2: Randy Kluver

In Prometheus Wired, Darin Barney, an assistant professor of history and politics at University of New Brunswick, Saint John, embarks on "an examination of the politics of network technology" (25) through a "meditation upon the economic, ontological, and political conditions necessary for democratic self-government, the failure of the modern technological world to meet those conditions, and the likelihood that networks, as a technology, will perpetuate rather than alleviate that failure" (268). For Barney, democracy, which he calls "the great empty vessel of contemporary political discourse" (19), means a form of government in which citizens enjoy an equal opportunity to "participate meaningfully" (22) in the decisions that closely affect their common lives as individuals in communities, and he distinguishes ability to participate from mere opportunity to participate [1]. The book presents an original neo-Marxist perspective on network technology. However, by attempting to blend too many disparate philosophical literatures with too many technology policy questions, the book lacks the tightness of argument that might have resulted had the author limited the scope of the inquiry to the works of fewer thinkers and to fewer technology policy arenas.

Barney begins by citing the recurrent use of the myth of Prometheus, the fire giver, by authors such as Shelley, Marx, and Nietzsche as a metaphor for the technological spirit of the modern age. Following a brief encapsulation of the history of global technological development, he introduces the argument that, contrary to much of current technology discourse, the result of modern technology is not the furtherance of democracy in any meaningful sense, but, rather, the result is the manufacture of consent by political elites and capitalists as they deliver a relatively undifferentiated audience mass to advertisers. Stating that discourse regarding the allegedly revolutionary and democratic impact of technology is framed using postmodernist rhetoric, Barney critiques postmodernism, suggesting that postmodernism lacks the critical theoretical distance that can be gained from the writings of several "spectators" of past technologies -- Plato, Aristotle, Marx, Heidegger, and George Grant. By looking to these spectators, he asserts that a fundamental antagonism is revealed between technology and democracy: democracy does not require substantial expertise as a qualification for participation in decision making so it allows for government by mass ignorance, but, conversely, technology "defies democratic governance" (25) as it becomes increasingly more complex, requiring levels of expertise for its deployment and control that exceed the capacity of most citizens.

In Chapter 2, Barney briefly introduces the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, Marx, Heidegger, and George Grant on technology. Barney points to Plato and Aristotle as examples of philosophers who believed that technology was not value-neutral and states that their philosophies provide good resources for those who wish to think critically about technology. Regarding Marx, Barney argues that Marx was not a technological determinist, although he is frequently wrongly labeled as such, and that a more accurate reading of Marx translates into history being "bound up with" and not "determined by" technology. Barney reads Heidegger to assert that technology is lacking in redeeming qualities; it "enframes" human experience and turns it into a "standing reserve of bits" (195, 44-47). Technology eliminates meditative thinking about the essence of being and replaces it with calculative thinking, which is characterized by modes of thought oriented to efficiency, calculation, effectiveness, and accumulation. Barney interprets George Grant to critique society's concern over maintaining a plurality of judgments, instead of concentrating on "right" judgments. Grant, according to Barney, believes that the modern obsession with liberty undermines the capacity for genuine goodness in liberal technological communities by privileging material progress and unfettered technological development and creating a homogeneous, antiphilosophical, and irreligious milieu. Conceding that not all the philosophical frameworks he has presented can be reconciled with each other, Barney concludes that technology and politics are intimately linked and that political outcomes of technological advances are strongly conditioned by the economic, epistemological, and political environments in which they are situated.

Chapter 3 presents a discussion of the history of network technology, arguing that the Web is the culmination of all other network technologies; each webpage is a network itself linked through hypertext that erases the distinction among information production, information consumption, and communication, reducing all information to the movement of bits. In Chapter 4, Barney sets forth the argument that as Internet infrastructure ownership is becoming increasingly consolidated, control over users becomes intensified, and the Internet increasingly becomes merely a capitalist tool. Barney's discussion in Chapter 5 centers on the role that technology networks have played in making "work disappear" in "a step back in terms of relieving the general alienation and exploitation to which . . . wage labourers in a capitalist economy are systematically subjected" (133). Specifically, he describes the deteriorating working conditions of mostly female "teleworkers" who, because of network technology, work from home, manage themselves, incur overhead costs, and lose the benefits of office interactions. He asserts that opinions regarding the benefits of network technology fall along political lines, with left wing observers who represent the working people "upon whom technology is inflicted" (134) tending to view networks as causing joblessness and right wing observers tending to view networks as creating a future that is full of opportunities. He goes on to explain that the network economy "homogenizes" jobs in information technology, thereby eliminating skill. He states that information technology "pseudo-skills" such as constructing a Web site are "simply the undifferentiated lingua franca of the new economy" and that "if these are skills, then so is showing up on time for a shift at the factory and knowing what to do when the whistle blows" (155). Barney goes on to discuss workplace surveillance, which he describes as a means of socializing people to accept their inability to exercise good judgment, and different types of electronic payment systems. He concludes that network technology is distinctly capitalist in character, reinforcing a system of government that deprives most citizens of any portion of effective control over their own situation. He also believes that the likelihood of network technology being used in a systemic upheaval is becoming increasingly remote.

In the final chapter of the book, Barney argues that digital network technology is the culmination of a long line of modern technologies that delude humans into viewing themselves as creative, instead of created beings. He believes that humans currently exist in a world described by Heidegger as one which is characterized by rootlessness, calculation, and denial of mystery. Specifically, according to Barney, using the Internet does not root people in the way that, for example, using a local public library does. He equates libraries and the Internet [2]; however, he asserts that the library is rooted in physical proximity to the place where the people who use it live and work. In contrast, the Internet is rooted everywhere, which, for Barney, means it is rootless. Other examples of this rootlessness for Barney are the rise of "virtual corporations," which, Barney claims, exist nowhere (209), and the freedom of identity construction that the Internet provides, which he calls "concealment" [3]. Barney points to Heidegger's concern that technology's primary danger is its tendency to privilege and institutionalize calculative modes of thought over meditative thought. He asserts that a society that ponders the essence of its being would question whether networks should ever be built, and that, in particular, the Canadian Information Highway Advisory Council did not adequately contemplate Heidegger's concerns when it set forth a list of public policy issues related to development of network infrastructure in Canada.

Barney argues that networks are not, by nature, ungovernable and exempt from regulation and legal authority; therefore, he argues, those individuals who insist otherwise do so in furtherance of a particular economic and political agenda. In this way, the lives of people are mediated by network technology, a technology that renders them vulnerable to the attractive veneer of the universal, thoughtless, rootless, capitalist homogeneous state. Although Barney asserts that humans exhibit an abiding appetite for "unambiguous goods of community with their fellows," he also believes that "[w]hen human beings lack the intelligence to identify truly good ends or the courage to uphold what they correctly believe to be good, and moderate their appetites accordingly, they become vulnerable" to a politics of unreflective routines (265). Genuine politics would be comprised of "a more original revealing." The content of such revealing, Barney alleges, is impossible to specify in advance, and revealing is almost impossible in the current regime of network technology -- a regime of "ignoble delusion" in a time of "weakened spirit" (268).

Barney's arguments in Prometheus Wired highlight several important considerations that are frequently neglected in technology policy formation. Specifically, Barney's cautionary observation that technology is not, and can never be, value neutral is notable as is his assertion of the legal regulability of cyberspace, echoing the work of legal scholar Larry Lessig in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, which was published shortly before Barney's book. Barney skillfully sets forth a number of legal dilemmas in Chapter 6 regarding choice of law, choice of venue, and jurisdiction; to date, these dilemmas still lack conclusive international legal resolution. Also, Barney's discussions of the history of the development of the Internet and alternative payment mechanisms are well-researched, make for interesting reading, and remain useful and relevant despite being two years old, as do his discussions of the potential negative consequences of surveillance and datamining.

Barney's neo-Marxist analysis relies heavily on Marxist rhetoric of proletarian exploitation, false consciousness, and capitalist vilification (occasionally to a ridiculous extreme, such as equating capitalists with terrorists [4]). Barney acknowledges that certain elements of the philosophical works he discusses in the book are fundamentally incompatible with each other; the reconciliation of at least a portion of these conflicting elements would have tightened his analysis and, perhaps, guided the reader to see a connection among the chapters of the book prior to the last chapter. Barney does not adequately contemplate the ramifications of the Internet's use as a mechanism of global communication. Due to the Internet's inherently transnational nature, some readers may judge it as asynchronous that a meditation -- particularly a neo-Marxist meditation -- on the failures of the transnational networks of the technological world to nurture democracy (however defined) would be conducted from a clearly North American-centric perspective.

Barney opines that it is highly unlikely that the Internet will foster global upheaval. Adopting, for the moment, a Marxist posture, does not the Internet provide a historically unprecedented global instantaneous communication vehicle for the workers of the world to unite, recognize the contradictions inherent in capitalism, and plan their self-determined future in a classless society? The Internet has been and continues to be used by dissident groups throughout the world to coordinate their political activities and resources. In countries such as China, where Internet usage is censored and foreign news Web sites are blocked, dissidents sometimes rely on Internet anti-censorship proxies as "anonymizing" services to provide the only method of untracked communication and uncensored information which they use for, among other things, political mobilization [5]. The rise of technological foils to government censorship of fully truthful speech can be regarded as the victory of memes over matter: even assuming for the sake of argument Barney's point that a few capitalists control the Internet infrastructure, Internet content production is still very much in the hands of the masses.

Barney points to the "rootlessness" caused by the Internet as a social ill, as does Cass Sunstein subsequently in Republic.com (2001). For at least a portion of the global poor and oppressed, however, rootedness in their community can be a form of physical and intellectual imprisonment (and may not always be a developmentally sound or desirable preference, under either a subjective or objective standard). Citizens of some countries are not permitted to be rooted in their community, their library, or even to leave their homes because, due to an accident of birth, they are women and the "social good" allegedly requires that they be deprived of basic human rights such as freedom of movement, education, and equality under the law. The information parity the Internet provides the poor (whose primary means of access to the Internet in the U.S. would be at their local library anyway) and oppressed may offer a glimmer of hope of a different life, if that is what they desire [6].

The Internet is a cultural tool in a Vygotskian sense, meaning that it can enable a human to develop more than s/he otherwise would. The Internet's primary function is as a cultural (and intercultural) tool of instantaneous communication. For example, the Internet permits the women of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan to give the world reports of their shameful oppression in Afghanistan and the assassination of their leader; without www.rawa.org, many of us would never have known about their organization or as easily felt a connection to them. The very anonymity and identity construction which Barney calls deception and rootlessness is the same protective mechanism that allows these women to form an imagined community with the rest of the world and, somehow, survive the atrocities of their physically "rooted" existence. In their community, they are ignored, abused, killed, and silenced. On the Internet, however, they have a voice, a history, a presence, a hope for the future and, at least in Google's cache and the Internet Archive, a legacy.

Barney's analysis of international repercussions of Internet communications is limited to a brief critique of (presumably U.S.) cultural imperialism -- a concern which, practically speaking, predates the Internet and relates to multinational corporations' expansion into new markets, not specifically to network technology. Similarly, Barney's notion of a global "virtual corporation" that is rooted nowhere is an impossibility. Every corporation is incorporated somewhere and has a physical presence in some jurisdiction, i.e., with employees, product and/or machines, offices, warehouses, and the like. Also, the reality of corporate e-commerce risk assessment has always tended to dictate that entities selling product through a web-end operation limit exposure by selectively picking customers from a limited number of jurisdictions. Reputable companies tend to refrain from scattered global e-commerce due to uncertain national regulatory environments and the difficulties of payment collection in foreign jurisdictions.

On a similar point, Barney's arguments regarding worker disempowerment as a result of acquiring additional computer skills are, at best, self-contradictory. Despite alleging in the introduction that, as technology becomes increasingly complex, it requires levels of expertise for its deployment and control that exceed the capacity of most citizens, Barney then goes on in later chapters to pejoratively refer to technology skills entailed in, for example, creating a website as "pseudo skills," equating them with the ability to show up for work. Such an assessment of technology skills is baffling. The ability to create a secure page in XML with a fast loading Flash front end that is compatible with both Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator, looks attractive, possesses an easily navigable graphical user interface, and is effectively meta-tagged is simply not a skill that most workers -- be they proletarians or professionals -- possessed in 2000 at the time the book was published, currently possess in 2002, or will possess in the near future.

Finally, Barney's assertion that support for the expansion of the Internet falls along political left-right lines does not hold true in the U.S. Congress. Technology policy seems to be one of very few issues which consistently results in bipartisan coalition building on both sides of the issue. Similarly, Barney's commentary regarding inadequate meditation on the essence of being by government officials and his characterization of individuals as, on the one hand, historically striving and knowing the good and, on the other, possibly not possessing adequate intelligence to know what is good, may be unsettling to some readers. This type of commentary may bring to mind the societies and historical moments where Weberian charismatic leaders such as Stalin, Hitler, and Mao came to power in the name of cultural progress and informed their people of their assessment of the essence of being and an objective "good." Historically, in environments where the value of a plurality of opinions and subjective good is underestimated in favor of an objective "good," citizens whose opinions, interests, religion, or ethnicity place them in the minority tend to die at the hands of their "own" government.

1. In this definition, ability to participate entails the absence of practical, as distinct from legal, barriers to equal participation.

2. He calls both examples of mediating technologies that convey information that is remote to the users' experiences.

3. "Despite the obvious virtue of overcoming superficial and unjust bases of discrimination, the reality remains that individuals who access participation in this way do so by concealing a significant aspect of who they really are -- a concealment that typifies the uprooted identities of online beings" (214).

4. On p. 239, Barney asserts that "A situation [where the activities networks mediate are insulated from limitation] has obvious appeal to those -- such as pornographers, terrorists, capitalists, and criminals -- whose activities are typically constrained by states or other authorities in one way or another, and who are always looking for means of concealment and evasion."

5. Jason Lacharite, "Electronic Decentralization in China: A Critical Analysis of the PRC's Internet Filtering Policies (visited August 5, 2002).

6. Barney condemns global homogeneity; however, an argument could be made that, adopting Grant's terminology, the "good" necessitates some types of global homogeneity such as the homogeneity that arrives in the form of universal respect for human rights, even at the expense of indigenous "traditions" of oppression.

Andrea M. Matwyshyn:
Andrea M. Matwyshyn is an Adjunct Professor at Northwestern University School of Law and a Ph.D. candidate in Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern University.  <a-matwyshyn@law.northwestern.edu>

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