The Cybernet of Domination
by Feral Faun
(Author's note: This article is more speculative than I ideally would have liked, because it is attempting to trace the tendencies inherent in one aspect of modem society, tendencies which, of course, are in relationship to other aspects of this society. This should not be read as prediction, but as an attempt to show why cybernetics is not even potentially liberating and will ultimately be opposed by insurgent free spirits.)
"The dictatorship of the instrument is the worst kind of dictatorship."
-Alfredo M. Bonanno
There is a revolution going on. By this I do not mean an insurrection, an uprising of individuals against authority (though this revolution has managed to recuperate some anti-authoritarian tendencies towards its ends). I mean a substantial, qualitative change in the modes of social reproduction. The domination of industrial capital over these processes is being replaced by the domination of cybernetic capital. As with all such revolutions, this will not be a smooth, easy, peaceful transition. The old ruling order and the new ruling order are in conflict. The strength of reactionary elements in American politics over the past several years shows the tenacity with which the old order is trying to maintain its dominance. But increasingly that dominance is purely political, and the cybernetic new order dominates the economy. Some of my technophilic anarchist friends have told me that I "need to face up to the realities of the cybernetic age." To me, this means examining the nature of domination in the cybernetic age and relentlessly attacking. All that I've observed indicates that cybernetic science and technology are essential aspects of this domination.
Cybernetics innovators tend to be young (as compared to most of the political leaders of the "old order") and consider themselves rebels of sorts, at the cutting edge. The anarcho-technophiles I have met are quite sincerely rebellious and consider themselves to be opposing all authority. But most of the cybernetic rebellion- including a fair amount of the 'anarchist' cybernetic rebellion- seems like a rebellion of entrepreneurs, a rebellion to liberate a mode of production/reproduction not to liberate individuals. Since these cybernetic innovators are the human agents of a qualitative change in the nature of capitalism, it is no surprise that they choose to play a role similar to that of earlier capitalist revolutionaries. Most of the cybernetics freaks I know are too poor and too sincerely anarchic to ever become part of a new ruling class. But cybernetic innovators with money are creating just such a ruling class- though, as I will attempt to show below, this 'class' might more accurately be perceived as a system of relationships in which the technology itself rules and the human "ruling class" of cybertechnicians and scientists only serves the instrument, the machine. The rebellion of the cybernetic innovators is, from its birth, purely a coup d'etat. There is nothing truly liberating about it.
As banal as it is, it seems to need constant repeating: we live in a society in which the image dominates reality, in which most people see the image as reality. This makes it very easy for the cybernetic order to recuperate rebellion, because this new order not only has a far better grasp of image-making technologies than does the old order; increasingly, it is becoming those technologies. A comparison of the old order- which still is the main source of domination in most of our lives- and the new order- which is perfecting the tools of domination, but at the expense of the old order- would be worthwhile here.
The old order is that of industrial/financial capital. But it is more than this- it is also the order of the nation-state and of real political power. Authority is blatantly centralized and openly hierarchical- no one else can pretend they are not being ruled. This is blatant because essential power in this order actually resides in human beings in their roles as part of the social structure. The political mode of this order is representational democracy or one of its variants, such as fascism, socialist dictatorship and other forms of dictatorship. The domination of civilization over all non-human-made existence is openly accepted as a positive and necessary thing. Commands and voting on a choice between various commands are the methods for getting things done. Punishment is the way of dealing with aberrations from the social norms (though even the old order frequently uses the language of therapy to describe its punishments). In other words, the old order is quite open about its authoritarian nature.
At present, in much of the world (quite noticeably in the U.S.), the technology of the new order is still mostly controlled by the old order, which is incapable of using it efficiently, because it can't be understood in the old order's terms. The social potential of cybernetics is, thus, best discovered by reading and listening to the cyber-mavericks. If their visions were pure sci-fi fantasies, I'd ignore them, but the socio-political structures to fit their visions are being actively promoted and created by various quasi-libertarian 'radical' groups and individuals (e.g. the Greens, libertarian municipalists, social ecologists, Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary...).
In the new order, the dominant form of capital is cybernetic/informational capital. This does not mean the end of industrial, financial and mercantile capitalism, but rather their subjection to the cybernetic mode of social reproduction. This new mode allows for some changes in social structures that, on the surface, appear almost anarchic- changes such as those promoted by Murray Bookchin, the Greens, RA. Wilson and other libertarians of the left and right. These changes are not only possible, but are probably necessary to some extent for the efficient reproduction of cybernetic society. Decentralization is a major rallying cry of many cybernetic radicals. This apparently anarchic goal is, in fact, not the least bit anti-authoritarian in the context of cybernetic capitalism. Cybernetic technology not only allows, but promotes, a decentralization of authority. Industrial capitalism began the process by which authority would come to exist increasingly in the very physical machinery which reproduces society. Cybernetic technology is perfecting this process to the extent of even bringing technologies of social control into the realms of leisure- the home computer, video games and the like. All of these apparently individual bits of cybertech-which have permeated workplaces, schools, game arcades and, at least in the U.S., homes of nearly anyone who's not too poor to get a personal computer- are part of a potentially unified, global network. This network is becoming the center of authority and power. It includes both the material technology of cybernetic machines and the social technology of cybernetic systemic structures. Those who are too poor to buy the material machinery are encompassed in the network by its making them dependent on social programs that are part of the network- this dependence stemming from a lack of access they have to knowledge which would allow them to create their lives for themselves. The decentralization offered by cybernetics can even extend to industry, fitting in well with the visions of certain techno-anarchists. Some corporations are already experimenting with having some of their production done in the form of cottage industry. What can't be done this way could probably be so automated that only a few technicians would be needed in a factory as trouble-shooters. (I've seen a huge factory which seemed to have only four workers.) So cybernetics allows for the apparent decentralization of production. But, of course, production itself remains unquestioned. This is because cybernetic 'decentralization' is not the least bit anti-authoritarian; it merely centers authority in a socio-technological network that has no spatial or material center, because the network is itself the center and it is (almost) everywhere. And it can easily intrude into all of our lives.
Along with apparent decentralization, cybernetic technology offers the possibility of apparent 'direct' democracy. This is what seems to attract those anarchists and libertarian leftists who drool over this technology. Everyone who 'owns' a computer is, at least politically, connected to everyone else who 'owns' a computer. It would be no surprise if some form of personal computer becomes available to even the poorer people in the more advanced areas of capitalist domination since this would more fully integrate them into the cybernet. If everyone in a particular nation had a computer, they could be easily convinced that they could make the real decisions that effect their lives- that they could vote 'directly' through their computers on all significant issues. That this constitutes as complete a separation between decision and action as may be possible is conveniently forgotten, as is the fact that the cybernetic system itself cannot be questioned significantly in this way since this system itself controls what can and cannot be questioned by the very nature of its technology. Cybernetic language is a high-tech newspeak. The 'direct' democracy it offers is only that which can reproduce cybernetic society. It does not eliminate representation; it can merely center it in technology rather than in elected human beings. But like all representations, this technology will act as a ruler.
The ideology behind cybernetic technology is systems analysis. Systems analysis seeks to understand all interactions in terms of systems or networks of relationships in which each thing affects all other things. It attempts to scientifically (i.e. mathematically) understand these systems of relationships in order to better control them. Thus, the concept of 'process', as opposed to chains of command, becomes increasingly important in cybernetic society. 'Process' - a radical buzzword for "politically correct" ways of communicating and relating- fits in very well with systems analysis because it is an attempt to formalize decision making relationships without making anyone involved feel that they are being coerced. 'Correct' process is potentially, the way for the cybernet to integrate everyone as completely as possible into itself. Process militates against non-participation, tending to make non-participation appear as victimization rather than as a freely made choice. The ideology behind 'correct' process assumes that the individual is merely a part of the process of the system of relationships that is the group (on the micro-level) or. society (on the macro-level). Process is systems analysis applied to group and social projects. It is the domination of the ideology of the cybernet in our interactions. Process is used regularly mostly in radical, ecological, feminist and similar groups. But many corporations are integrating process- consensus, facilitation and the like- with old order chains of command in experiments designed to make employees feel that they are more truly part of the corporation. Ultimately, the 'process' created by predominantly middle class 'radical' groups provides a system for controlling rebellious tendencies which fits perfectly into the framework of cybernetic control.
If a part of the cybernetic process is not functioning correctly, you don't punish it; you try to fix it. In the context of cybernetic society, punishment of criminals and deviants comes to appear increasingly inhuman and absurd. Efficient social control requires everyone to be as fully integrated into the social system as possible, and punishment does nothing to integrate the punished- more often than not it does the opposite. So the most 'progressive' elements in society create therapeutic approaches for dealing with social deviance. At present, criminals are still mostly punished though the language of therapy is used even in this context. Non-criminal deviance (e.g. 'excessive' alcohol use, 'inappropriate' sexual behavior, acting up in school, 'madness') tends to be labeled a disease and 'treated'. The proliferation of 12-step groups and new-age therapies is just a part of this phenomenon. Many of these groups very blatantly teach that you cannot do anything about your alleged problems by yourself; you have to become part of an interdependent group of fellow victims, helping each other to recover- forever and ever and ever- and become productive members of society. Occasionally, even criminals- particularly people convicted of DUI or minor drug offenses- are given a choice between punishment or forced therapy. A therapeutic approach to social deviance appears very humane- enough so that many anarchists have integrated aspects of therapeutic ideology into their perspectives-but this is deceptive. The purpose of thcrapy is to reintegrate social deviants into the social machine as well-oiled cogs. It defines technology or the conception of the wilds as integrated systems to be used in an integrated manner by society. Even "deep ecologists" only reject the integration of civilized social systems and wild 'eco-systems', because they feel that civilized social systems have strayed too far from the 'natural' systems to be capable of integrating (making some sort of social apocalypse inevitable), not because they reject the idea that undomesticated relating and interaction can be systematized. While most corporations continue on apace destroying the environment, it is quite hip now to talk ecology, and the most progressive corporations even try to act ecologically. After all, it is to their ultimate benefit. How can you possibly expand capital if you destroy the resources necessary for such expansion? So cybernetic capitalism tends toward an ecological practice as a means of domesticating the wilds without destroying them, of integrating them into the social system of the cybernet.
Of course, these are all just tendencies which the development and increasing power of cybernetic capital seem to be pushing towards. The old order of industrial capital is still quite strong, dominating in the political arena, and so still quite significant as a mode of social domination. But an intelligent insurgency needs to understand domination in its totality, needs to be able to recognize its new faces, so that insurgents aren't duped into embracing a new form of domination as liberation. Most of the individuals I know who have embraced some version of ecotopian, cybernetic, green anarchism seem to be quite sincere in their desire to live free of all constraints. But they seem to ignore some very basic aspects of cybernetics. As science, cybernetics is the study of systems of control. Practically, it is the production of such systems, technologically and socially- the production of integrated systems of social control. Some of the most common words of cybernetic language make this obvious. 'Data' comes from a Greek word which means 'That which is given" - that is an axiom, that which you are told, without proof, and are simply not to question. Information originally meant, literally "in formation" in Latin. The cybernet offers no liberation whatsoever, merely the illusion of liberation to keep rebels "in formation." It undermines individual experience and the trust of individuals in their own experience by creating realms of pseudo-experience, that is, of "the given," of information which has no connection to anything outside the cybernet. Individuals, increasingly, rely only on what they are told by the cybernet, and so become dependent upon cybernetic society. In this way, the cybernet becomes the most truly totalitarian system yet- precisely by 'decentralizing' and using the integrative methods of process and therapy which make individuals the agents of their own domestication in a situation in which no one trusts themselves, but all are dependent on the cybernet.
There is one flaw in this system. It disenfranchises those who do not want or cannot afford to have cybernetic technology in their home. Even when home computers do become available to the very poor, many may have no interest in even learning how to use them. It is further quite doubtful that the fully enfranchised- the technicians and scientists who know how to produce and fully use these technologies- will be interested in bringing everyone up to their level of knowledge about the cybernet. So, the disenfranchised- especially the voluntarily disenfranchised- will tend to become increasingly more so, until they are nearly completely outside the cybernet. While inside the cybernet the tendency is toward total control, -outside the cybernet the tendency would be toward the total breakdown of social control. Ultimately, in such a situation; insurgent rebellion would only be possible outside the net.
At present, this situation is being forestalled as the new cybernetic order and the old order have an uneasy truce. The old order needs the informational technologies which create and are created by the new order. And the new order is not yet powerful enough to dispense with some of the harsher means of social control produced by the old order. The new order has also found ways of integrating some of the more progressive elements of the old order, such as multinational organizations, into itself. It is also quite possible that the cybernet will find continued uses for cops, prisons and the like within its systemic network of social control. Or the uneasy truce may go on, indefinitely. Since the real relations between people do not, in fact, fit the formulas of the cybernet and its systems analysts, there is no way of predicting what might happen. My own desire is for an insurrection that will blow all systems of social control to bits.
But cybernetic technology is becoming the dominant mode of post-industrial capital. It is a mode in which capital, technology, authority and society become so totally integrated that they are truly one. Rebellion, in this context, means rebellion against the cybernet and rebellion against society in its totality or it means nothing. This is what it means for the insurgent to face up to the reality of cybernetic technology. The insurgent individual can no longer do anything less than rebel against the totality of society - including all of those 'radical' perspectives which are nothing more than the cutting edge of the real "new world order."