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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 the emerging literature on the political implications of information technology, there is a growing suspicion that network technologies won’t have the democratizing tendencies attributed to them. For a variety of technological, regulatory, and economic reasons, it is becoming clear that the Internet will not be the “great democratizer” that it initially seemed. Darin Barney’s Prometheus Wired is a thoughtful and helpful addition to the work coalescing around the critical questions of political economy, information technologies, and democratic governance, primarily because Barney is willing to dig far deeper and ask more difficult questions than many of the agenda-driven proponents are.

The myth of Prometheus, which of course, the title reminds us of, has several interesting dimensions. Barney reminds the reader that although Prometheus did indeed steal fire and restore it to humans, this action was not the one that earned him eternal punishment, but rather, it was his subversion of Zeus by restoring “blind hope” to human hearts that earned his punishment. Barney is quite serious when he argues that in our “blindness,” we impose ourselves upon our future, no longer acknowledging our limitations, our constraints, or the very material conditions which have limited our communal lives. The rest of the volume examines a variety of mythologies that have goaded humans, including the very fashionable mythologies of technology and postmodernist varieties of human transcendence (such as the “fetishization of change”).

Barney grounds his analysis in several quite disparate philosophical traditions, from the virtual (read virtue) world of Plato, to the economic materialism of Marx, to the ontological questions of Heidegger, and others. The attempt to blend these together into a coherent whole is a project that this reviewer finds unsuccessful. However, there is nothing wrong with finding useful tools that can help to tease out certain aspects of our relationship to technology. Barney uses Marx quite well, for example, to examine how network technologies have altered the mode of production, but is less successful at using the Marxian framework in this section of the book to articulate Heidegger’s metaphysical and spiritual concerns. Aside from the obvious disjunctions this creates in the work, the volume succeeds quite well at articulating a political philosophy that is coherent, although the author ultimately finds himself at odds with the most recent fifty years of cultural and political change in the West. Moreover, although I suspect that Barney wants to make greater use of George Grant’s Christian humanism, in laying out an alternative form of community life, he is unable to fully explicate the value of Grant’s thinking to this contemporary issue.

Chapter one of the book lays out Barney’s understanding of modern technology, which is that in most of our attempts to create useful technologies, we have a quasi-transcendental goal, in that we are attempting to transcend the realities of everyday life. As Barney argues, “it is hope that has consistently animated humanity’s collective and public approach to the development of technology” (5). This hope, unlike the earlier traditions grounded in religious humility, is, to put it bluntly, idolatrous. When we encounter new problems precipitated by our technology, our solution is to find more technology to fix them, rather than allowing the multiplication of social dislocations to allow us to question our faith in technology.

In this chapter, also, Barney defines democracy as a “form of government in which citizens enjoy an equal ability to participate meaningfully in the decisions that closely affect their common lives in communities” (22) Although at first glance, the definition seems agreeable, it is in the adverbs and adjectives that it bogs down, and puts Barney in a position of setting up idealistic standards that are incompatible with later arguments. In this chapter, Barney seems to articulate the concerns of progressive politics, but in his later chapters, a deeper conservatism prevails as he decries the very liberalism that has come to characterize current political discourse. For example, by “equal ability,” Barney means that all citizens have the same access to the social, cultural, and economic means to influence policy, but later in the book, he argues for a communal, governmental authority that ultimately would unhinge the “equal ability” that he has argued must be present. Once a public decision is “binding,” then automatically, the abilities of anybody to “participate” in revising or refining it will be limited. Indeed, by Barney’s definition, few nations would qualify as “democratic,” and although the author recognizes this fact, he doesn’t attempt to help the reader locate an example of this type of governance. Here, reference to Benjamin Barber’s (1984) concept of “strong democracy” might or might not further along Barney’s argument.

In chapter two, Barney articulates the various philosophical bases which he later uses to unpack his argument, by examining the relationships between human technology and culture as articulated by several important thinkers. He is most captivated, however, by the ontological approach of Heidegger, although there is no attempt to clarify the relationship between the real (or were they virtual?) political commitments of Heidegger and the political and technological configuration that Barney sees emerging. Perhaps others have done this elsewhere; if so, it would be helpful to the reader to be pointed in that direction. The strength of this chapter is Barney’s ability to draw out seemingly unconnected perspectives to make an argument about technology, but the weakness is the inability to tie these together. Although Barney indicates that the work of Jacques Ellul is but a simplified version of Heidegger’s work, it seems that Ellul articulated quite fully many of the concepts that Barney is attempting to articulate some four decades earlier, in his work The Technological Society (1965).

In chapter three, Barney devotes an enormous amount of space to explaining the technologies themselves, in terms of digitization of information and the role of networking. Although a very comprehensive history of the various technical projects that have brought us to where we are, this chapter suffers from a tendency to include far too many details that are already quite well-known to the likely audience, such as the differences between centralized, decentralized, and distributed networks. The discussion of the technology is important, but perhaps overly emphasized. Barney uses this technical discussion, however, to articulate an important argument of his book, which is that in an age of network technology, only that which can be encapsulated into bit form, and thereby transmitted via networks, is of value in the network society.

In chapters four and five, Barney uses Marxian analysis to discern if in fact network technologies have had any positive role in the empowerment of workers. His conclusion is that what has been taken as a revolutionizing of the relationship between workers and work is in fact but a hyperextension of the relationship, as workers become deskilled and further alienated from any significant, meaningful role in the production or consumption of products. The political economy of the globalized world comes under severe scrutiny, as does the proliferation of networked surveillance. The conclusion, not surprisingly, is that networking technologies have brought little real empowerment to workers or consumers.

In chapter six, Barney reflects on the meaning of the networked world, and argues that just as prior generations envisioned the world as a “standing reserve” of resources for humans, we currently are in a socio-political environment in which humans have beome a “standing reserve of bits,” in which human lives are significant to the larger system only to the extent that they provide fodder for data mining. As calculation has become the primary social activity, so the human quest for significance and meaning can only be measured in our age by the patterns that we provide for marketing, planning, databasing, and archiving. Barney reminds us that our interest in the Internet should not be on what it does, but on what it means, a question that is far more difficult to answer than the purely technical one. He argues that its meaning is that humans are rootless and impermanent. Rather than celebrating the liberation postmodernists find in the networked technology, Barney argues that the “postmodern zeitgeist,” in which individuals have liberty to re-create, represent, and re-arrange their identities, ultimately is but an illusion, as not only does our materiality remain, but our conflicts with it remain unresolved. Our Being, therefore, remains unaddressed, unacknowledged, and unresolved.

Finally, in chapter seven, Barney examines the real political claims that have been made for network technology, not at the level of praxis, but rather in the ways in which legislation, national sovereignty, and networks interact. He finds that, again, in spite of the claims of many, network technology is very much rooted to the sovereignty of nations, the existing legal codes, and human decisions. Although the global nature of the technology raises interesting technical questions about political will, regulation, and sovereignty, Barney argues that the fundamental realities of social life remain very much the same, if more harried and less rooted in communities of meaning. In the new “trinity” of capitalism, liberalism, and technology, Barney finds little to indicate that a more meaningful political and social life is emerging. To tease out Barney’s analogy, it is hard to discover which member of this trinity is the creator, which is the redeemer, and which is the comforter.

One significant issue that needs to be addressed a bit more fully by Barney is that his argument tends towards reductionism. It is clear that more commercial, economic, and political relationships and transactions are being digitized, but it is less clear that non-digitized forms are thereby disappearing, which is the central thesis of Barney’s work. True, our behavior is increasingly monitored, scrutinized, and mined, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that all significant aspects of human life are thereby reduced to a “standing reserve of bits.” Barney finds evidence for this claim in his discussion of Sherry Turkle’s contention that Net users use network technologies to construct new identities, but most polling data (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2002) suggests that in fact, most users of the Internet use it for primarily pragmatic purposes, such as email, rather than “recreating” themselves. Thus, although users find pragmatic value in the Internet, they are not thereby automatically reduced to just a collection of quantitative data. Again, Ellul’s work on the primacy of the efficiency paradigm in the technological society would help Barney to make his point more strongly.

Although Barney’s work will have its greatest appeal to those within the political economy and philosophical traditions, its value will be more limited to activists and organizers who are engaged in the work of politics online. The tendency to overlook real political practice on the net means that Barney doesn’t really distinguish between the huge varieties of electronic democracy, such as community-based organizational or consensus-building work that is mediated electronically. The type of electronic democracy it seems that he has in mind is that advocated by Ross Perot, the electronic town hall, but he fails to consider the role of smaller, more focused discussions or work that can happen given the organizational benefits of electronic networks. Regardless, Barney does caution us against assuming that the online political experience will be necessarily better than the mass media driven politics we currently endure.

In sum, Darin Barney has produced a deeply reflective work on the relationships of human to technology, and articulates a series of concerns about this relationship that should cause us to reconsider the willy-nilly promotion of “electronic democracy.” By focusing on the philosophical, even theological, issues raised by the wholesale transmutation of human society into a “standing reserve of bits,” Barney helps us to understand that our current obsession with finding technological solutions to political problems is ultimately unsatisfying.

Barber, B. (1984). Strong Democracy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ellul, J. (1964). The technological society. (J. Wilkinson, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1954.)

Pew Internet and American Life Project. (2002, March 3). Getting Serious Online: As Americans Gain Experience, They Use the Web More at Work, Write Emails with More Significant Content, Perform More Online Transactions, and Pursue More Serious Activities. Available online: http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/toc.asp?Report=55.

Randy Kluver:
Randy Kluver is an associate professor in the School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University. He is co-editor (with Ho Kong Chong and Yang Chungchuan) of the forthcoming book Asia Encounters the Internet from Routledge. His current research involves the political use and impact of the Internet in Asia.  <TRKluver@ntu.edu.sg>

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