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Theorizing New Technologies

By Douglas Kellner

The current explosion of new technologies and furious debates over their substance, trajectory, and effects poses two major challenges to critical social theory and a radical democratic politics: first, how to theorize the dramatic changes in every aspect of life that the new technologies are producing; and, secondly, how to utilize the new technologies to promote progressive social change to create a more egalitarian and democratic society in an era marked by rampant technological development and the seeming victory of market capitalism over its historical opponents.

In this article, I first want to suggest some ways to theorize the current technological revolution without falling into either technological or economic determinism, as well as the modes of technophilia or technophobia. I will argue that one needs to theorize the spread of new technologies and series of transformations that we undergoing: 1) in the context of the current stage of capitalist development, as a crucial part of the global restructuring of capitalism, and thus to think together the current development and imbrication of technology and capitalism; and 2) as embodying a set of artifacts and practices that themselves can be restructured and reconstituted to carry out individual and group projects, as well as following the imperatives built-into the technologies.

In carrying out this hermeneutical process, one needs to avoid the extremes of either exaggerating or downplaying the autonomous role of technology in this process, as if technology were either the demiurge of the contemporary world, or an unimportant epiphenomenon of a much greater force, such as capitalism or human self-development. In addition, one must avoid two extremes which would either denigrate and demonize technology in the mode of technophobia, or celebrate and deify it in the mode of technophilia. Instead, a critical theory of technology attempts to develop a dialectical optic that avoids one-sided approaches in theorizing and evaluating the genesis of the new technologies and their often contradictory effects.

I also want to develop democratic and activist perspectives on the new technologies, suggesting some ways that they might be used for such things as self-valorization and empowerment, democratization, and progressive social transformation, in opposition to their roles of strengthening the forces of corporate and state domination. Yet I do not want to fall into the utopianism of the boosters of new technologies, nor the pessimism and defeatism of those who merely see new technologies as an instrument of capital and the state. In addition, I will take on the issue of theorizing the information society and the so-called Information Superhighway and will argue that the information society is the new dominant ideology of technocapitalism that identifies technological progress and human well-being with new technologies and the market, while presenting the state as an obsolete force of domination and bureaucratic state apparatus that is seen as an impediment to progress, freedom, and other positive values. In this view, it is the market and individual entrepreneurship that has made possible the dramatic technological revolution of the present and any state regulation is seen as an impediment for further progress. Such an ideology is used to dismantle the welfare state and must thus be put in question and subjected to ideological critique.

For a Critical Theory of Technology

In studying the exploding array of discourses which characterize the new technologies, I am bemused by the extent to whether they expose either a technophilic discourse which presents new technologies as our salvation, that will solve all our problems, or they embody a technophobic discourse that sees technology as our damnation, demonizing it as the major source of all our problems. It appears that similarly one-sided and contrasting discourses greeted the introduction of other new technologies this century, often hysterically. To some extent, this was historically the case with film, radio, TV, and now computers. Film, for instance, was celebrated by some of its early theorists as providing new documentary depiction of reality, even redemption of reality, generating a new art form and new modes of mass education and entertainment. But film was also demonized from the beginning for promoting sexual promiscuity, juvenile delinquency and crime, violence, and copious other forms of immorality. Its demonization led in the United States to a Production Code that rigorously regulated the content of Hollywood film from 1934 until the 1950s and 1960s -- no open mouthed kissing was permitted, crime could not pay, drug use or attacks on religion could not be portrayed, and a censorship office rigorously surveyed all films to make sure that no subversive or illicit content emerged (Kellner 1997).

Similar extreme hopes and fears were projected onto radio, television, and now computers. It seems that whenever there are new technologies, people project all sorts of fantasies, fears, hopes, and dreams onto them, and I believe that this is now happening with computers and new multimedia technologies. It is indeed striking that if one looks at the literature on new technologies -- and especially computers -- it is either highly celebatory and technophilic, or sharply derogatory and technophobic. For technophilia, one can open any issue of Wired, or popular magazines like Newsweek, one can read Bill Gates' book The Road Ahead (1995), or some of the academic boosters of new technologies like Nichols Negroponte, Sandy Stone, or Shierry Turkle. These folks are sometimes referred to as digerati: intellectuals who boost new technologies and they also include Alvin Toffler, George Gilder, David Gelernter, (incidentally, one of the Unabomber's victims), and countless wannabees who write for the media, specialist journals, and other publications who want to get on the digital bandwagon and extract whatever joys and cultural capital it will yield.

Technophilic politicians include Al Gore and Newt Gingrich in the United States and Tony Blair and his New Labor cohorts in England. These boosters of the information society promise more jobs, new economic opportunities, better education, a bountiful harvest of information and entertainment, and new prosperity in a computopia that would make Adam Smith proud. With powerful economic interests behind the new technologies, one expects the technological revolution to be hyped. And obviously there is academic capital to be gained through promoting new technologies, so it is not surprising that our colleagues too are promoting these technologies, often in an uncritical fashion. What is perhaps more surprising, however, than the promotion of the new technologies, is the extent of wholly negative discourses on computers and new technologies. In the past years, a large number of recent books on computers, the internet, cyberspace, and the like have appeared by a wide range of writers whose discourse is surprisingly and strikingly technophobic.

One strand of this vast technophobic literature now aimed at computers goes back to 1960s and earlier criticism of technology by Theodor Rozack, Charles Reich, Neil Postman, Jerry Mander, and other longtime critics of media culture and technology, who now aim their anti-technology jeremiads at computers. The same arguments these writers have previously used against technology in general, they are now using against computers, so there is recycling of a lot of arguments in the contemporary critical discourses on new technologies.

Critiques have emerged from the philosophical community, including Albert Borgmann's Across the Postmodern Divide (1994) which claims that new technologies are taking us into the sphere of hyperreality, a term he borrows from Baudrillard, and that we are losing touch with our bodies, with nature, with other people and with focal things and practices -- an argument developed in more popular form by Slouka (1995). Lorenzo Simpson's book on technology and modernity (1994) provides another technophobic polemic against how technology is alienating and oppressing us. Postmodern theorists Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein have written a book called Data Crash (1995) -- a highly demonizing and technophobic book which suggests that our culture has crashed, imploded, into hyperreality, and that we've lost touch with reality altogether, that we are ruled by a new virtual class, that we have entered a new stage of virtual capitalism, which comes to a great surprise to those still laboring in sweatshops or factories. But perhaps the most famous technophobe is the Unabomber whose Manifesto is a compendium of anti-technological, technophobic discourses, condemning industrial-technological society in its totality, echoing countercultural writers and theorists like Marcuse, Ellul, and other critics of the technological society who condemned its dehumanizing features, its tendencies toward massification, and its robbing individuals of power and freedom.

Other technophobic missives include Clifford Stoll, Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway (1995), which provides a fascinating contrast with Gates book, attacking everything that Gates affirms, providing positive-negative mirror images of each other, both of which are highly one-sided and demonstrate the need for dialectical perspectives. Our comrades on the Left are also enrolled in the ranks of the anti-information technology forces, including Kevin Robins and Frank Webster who advocate a neo-Luddism (1986 and forthcoming), failing to see any progressive aspects to the new technologies which they see primarily as capitalist tools, used by capital to ensure its hegemony and to alternately dominate and overpower or seduce the working class into virtual dreams and technofetishism. Thus, while Robins and Webster are aware of the magnitude of the restructuring of capital and of the importance of new technologies in this restructuring, they primarily maintain a gloomy pessimism, believing that new technologies are simply tools of capital hegemony and not resistance and democratization.

Against one-sided technophilic or technophobic approaches, I would argue that we need to develop a critical theory of technology in order to sort out positive and negative features, the upside and downside, the benefits and the losses in the development and trajectory of the new technologies. It is necessary, I believe, to counter promises of technological utopia, that computers will solve all our problems, produce jobs for everyone, generate a wealth of information, entertainment, and education, connect everyone, and overcome boundaries of gender, race, class -- claims that we hear from Bill Gates, Clinton and Gore, Tony Blair, and others. But we also need to counter technological dystopia, that computers are our damnation, that they are vehicles of alienation, mere tools of capital, the state, and domination.

Both approaches are one-sided and reveal the need for a dialectical theory that plays off extremes against each other to generate a more inclusive position, indicating how technology can be used as instruments of domination and emancipation, as tools of both dominant societal powers and of individuals struggling for democratization and empowerment. A critical theory of technology requires a substantive vision of what technology is, what it does and what it could do, as well as a normative vision that delineates positive and negative uses. This requires articulation of a standpoint of critique, from which one can make distinctions between positive and negative uses of technology.

The critical theory of the Frankfurt School, which I am drawing upon in this article, criticizes existing institutions, social relations, and phenomena from a normative standpoint through which existing realities can be judged deficient and oppressive. I would suggest that those forms and uses of technology that enhance positive values such as democracy, community, freedom, self-development, and the like should be deemed life-enhancing and meritorious, while those forms and uses of technology which promote domination and oppression while undermining democracy, community, freedom, creativity, and other positive values should be criticized as blameworthy. Of course, often one cannot make such a clear distinction, there can be unintended consequences of introducing new technologies, and technologies are often highly ambivalent, combining positive and negative functions and effects.

Most contemporary critiques of technology operate with highly dualistic and usually ontologized categorical distinctions between such things as technique and being (Heidegger), technical action and social interaction (Habermas), devices versus focal things and practices (Borgmann), instrumentality and meaning (Simpson), in which the former is devalued as modes of technological domination and alienation, whereas the latter is valorized as the authentic sphere of human meaning and value. This mode of critique thus ontologizes technology and excludes it a priori from the essential forms of human being. Such approaches separate technology from culture and reify a notion of technical or instrumental action in which all action that involves technical imperatives follows a logic of things, of instrumentality, abstracted from human purposes and meaning. They therefore fail to see how technology can involve meanings and contribute to human development.

Dominant currents in the philosophy of technology thus essentialize technology, decontextualize it, and abstract it from culture and human meaning, and thus fail to see how deeply embedded technology is, and has long been, in the very fabric of everyday life. Such essentialist conceptions should be distinguished from a critical theory of technology that sees technology as central to human life, deeply involved with what human beings are, that criticizes specific technologies and their uses in specific socio-historical contexts, and that promotes the reconstruction and refunctioning of technology to serve positive values like democracy or human development. Technology can either be extremely domineering and destructive, or creative and life-enhancing depending on the technology in question, its specific uses in particular contexts, and the values that are being pursued in concrete situations. Yet it should also be seen that technology is highly ambivalent, that its positive and negative aspects are often interconnected, and that it is thus often extremely difficult to appraise and evaluate.

The ambiguity in part derives from the centrality of technology in human life, its deep embeddedness in every integral dimension of human life ranging from the economy, to the polity, to social and everyday life, and culture and human subjectivity itself. Human beings are technical beings, technologies are extensions of human faculties which in turn come to shape human thought, behavior, and interaction. Technology is pivotally embedded in the human adventure, and is thus bound up with the nature of the very beings that we are. For this reason, social constructivist conceptions of technology miss the depth and pathos of technology, its centrality in the human adventure, and the extent to which it influences the organization of human society and culture in all known historical periods. To be sure, on one hand, technology is socially constructed, specific societal biases and interests are encoded in technology, and the social relations in which technology is produced and used will help determine its nature and uses.

Yet a critical theory of technology is concerned to articulate the potentials of technology, to develop a substantive vision of the role of technology in human life, and to project ways that technology can serve human self-valorization and democratic values. A critical theory of television must thus articulate critical perspectives that can distinguish between life-enhancing and diminishing technologies and uses, and democratizing and authoritarian ones. A critical theory of technology will critique the oppressive and authoritarian forms and uses of technology and sketches ways in which the restructuring and refunctioning of technology can promote progressive social change and the creation of the good life and the good society. Thus, a critical theory of technology is driven by philosophical vision of normative conceptions of ethics, aesthetics, and politics, judging technology according to ethical, aesthetic, and political norms, and seeing the construction and reconstruction of technology as fundamental to the human adventure. Overcoming one-sided essentialist vs. social constructivist conceptions of technology, a critical theory of technology recognizes in the mode of historicism the social constructedness of technology, but sees it as central to human life and history and thus develops a substantive philosophy of technology adequate to the importance and centrality of technology.

Thus, one needs a dialectical normative optic to develop a critical theory of technology that spells out its positive and negative -- or ambivalent -- aspects. This is not to reject radical critiques of technology, or of specific technologies, out of hand, for often the critiques are valid and important. It is a mistake, however, to dismiss technology per se as merely a mode of domination and oppression, though it may be so in many cases and threaten positive values. Technologies, like the computer, for instance, were initially used and developed by big government, corporations, and the military as a centralized instrument of social control and power and were, with much justice, criticized in the 1960s for contributing to big institutional domination, the dehumanizing and disempowerment of humans, and the proliferation of destructive and life-threatening weapons systems. Yet in the 1980s and 1990s computers were recreated, made "personal," and are significantly different in their constitution and effects than their earlier incarnations.

A critical theory of technology thus creates a historical specific and normative critique of technology. It not only attacks life-negating and oppressive aspects of technology, but valorizes empowering, democratizing, and positive forms and uses. Crucially, it attempts to discover and invent ways that technology can serve the interests of human emancipation and well-being, while aspiring to delineate emancipatory functions and uses for technology -- which may require the reconstruction of existing technology and the creation of what Marcuse called a "new technology" that synthesized art and technology (1964: 227f.; see the discussion in Kellner 1984 and development in Feenberg 1991 and 1995). As for the standpoint of critique and the normative criteria that differentiate emancipatory from oppressive constructions and uses of technology, they themselves are historical, evolving, and subject to change and development. Conceptions of democracy, freedom, and human well-being are constantly shifting and so one's normative standards are historical, subject to the vicissitudes of history. The Frankfurt School, for instance, shifted in the 1930s and 1940s from socialist conceptions of critique, that would evaluate phenomena from the standpoint as to whether they promoted or retarded the growth of socialism and/or promoted capitalism and domination, to what they called "immanent critique," which took the norms of existing society as yardsticks to measure and criticize failures to realize these norms. Thus, the Frankfurt School in the 1930s assumed the validity of the norms of enlightenment, democracy, human rights, individualism, freedom, and other positive Enlightenment ideals to criticize the suppression of these norms in existing fascist, communist, and capitalist societies. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno (1972) argued that these values had turned into their opposite, that enlightenment, rationality, culture, and other bourgeois ideals had shifted from a form of emancipation and progress to one of oppression and domination, as science, technology, industry, and instrumental rationality created machinery of war, death camps, and nuclear annihilation, as well as systems of social control and oppression. Henceforth, they attempted to develop new strategies of critique and opposition to the new forms of technological domination and power.

A critical theory of technology may also deploy strategies of immanent critique, but may wish to develop stronger conceptions of democracy, freedom, and the good society than notions currently in play and should carry out critiques of ideological notions of democracy, empowerment, and freedom being promoted by the avatars of new computer and multimedia technologies. This, of course, is an immense task and my present reflections can only contribute to making a few observations on theorizing new technologies in the context of threats to the welfare state and democracy in the current global restructuring of capitalism and the ways that technology is both central to this process and yet provides potentially progressive uses and effects. What is at stake, therefore, is theorizing at once how new technologies can be used as instruments of domination and how new technologies can be used for democratization, for creating a more egalitarian society, and for empowering individuals and groups who are currently disenfranchised and without power -- a task that I will undertake in the following sections of this paper.

One also needs to distinguish between technology as part of a societal system, as a force of production that inscribes but is also shaped by a system of relations of production contrasted to technology as a set of specific instruments and practices used by particular individuals with their own ends and goals in sight. This involves theorizing connections between technology and the economic, political, cultural, and social dimensions of contemporary society, and seeing how technology can be used differently by varying groups and individuals in specific contexts. It also involves analyzing the social construction of technology and how certain societal biases, interests, and values are embedded in current forms of technology, ranging from the home computer to nuclear weapons.

In the current mode of social organization, technology plays such a major role, however, that there has been an explosion of theories of technological determinism which make an autonomous technology the organizing principle of contemporary society, thus occluding the force and power of economic and political dimensions, and erasing the efficacy of human practice. Theories of technological determinism often use the discourse of postindustrial, or postmodern, society to describe current developments. This discourse deploys an ideal-type distinction between a previous mode of industrial production characterized by heavy industry, mass production and consumption, bureaucratic organization, and social conformity, contrasted to the new postindustrial society characterized by "flexible production," or "postFordism," in which new technologies serve as the demiurge to a new postmodernity (Harvey 1989). For postmodern theorists such as Baudrillard, technologies of information and social reproduction (e.g. simulation) have permeated every aspect of society, high tech has created a new social environment and we have left reality and the world of modernity behind, as we undergo an implosion of technology and the human and mutate into a new species (see Baudrillard 1993 and the analyses in Kellner 1989b, 1994, and 1995). For other less extravagant theorists of the technological revolution, we are evolving into a new postindustrial technosociety, culture, and condition where technology, knowledge, and information are the axial or organizing principles (Bell 1976).

Theorizing the Information Society

The postindustrial society is sometimes referred to as the "knowledge society," or "information society," in which knowledge and information are given roles more prominent than earlier days (see the survey in Webster 1995). It is now well-documented that the knowledge and information sectors are increasingly important domains of our contemporary moment and, as many have noted, the theories of Daniel Bell and other postindustrial theorists are not as ideological and far off the mark as many of us once argued. But in order to avoid the technological determinism and idealism of many forms of this theory, one should theorize the information or knowledge "revolution" as part and parcel of a new form of technocapitalism marked by a synthesis of the information and entertainment industries and producing a new form of "infotainment society." The limitations of earlier theories of the "knowledge society," or "postindustrial society," as well as current forms of the "information society," devolve around the extent to which they exaggerate the role of knowledge and information and advance an idealist vision that excessively privileges the role of knowledge and information in the economy, in politics and society, and in everyday life, downplaying the role of capitalist relations of production, corporate ownership and control, and hegemonic configurations of corporate and state power.

Yet while perceiving the continuities between previous forms of industrial society and the new modes of society and culture described by discourses of the "post," we should also grasp the novelties and discontinuities (Best and Kellner 1997). Webster (1995: 5, passim) wants to draw a line between "those who endorse the idea of an information society" and "writers who place emphasis on continuities." Although he puts me in the camp of those who emphasize continuities (188), I would argue that we need to see both continuities and discontinuities in the current societal transformation we are undergoing, that we deploy a both/and logic in this case and not an either/or logic. In other words, we need both to theorize the novelties and differences in the current social restructuring, as well as the continuities with the previous mode of societal organization. Such a dialectical optic is, I believe, consistent with the mode of vision of Marx and neo-Marxists such as those in the Frankfurt School.

In any case, the concept of the information society and information superhighway is emerging as the new dominant ideology of contemporary technocapitalism. The notion of the information society goes back to post-industrial society theorists such as Daniel Bell in the 1970s (Bell 1973 and 1976; Webster 1996), though the information superhighway concept is more recent, promoted by the Clinton-Gore administration report The National Infrastructure: An Agenda for Action issued in 1993, followed by Vice-President Al Gore's popularization of the concept of the information superhighway in a March 1994 speech at the World Telecommunication Development conference. These conceptions have proliferated in the 1990s, with the Singapore government publishing their Vision of an Intelligent Island in 1993, conceiving of Singapore as an information island. In 1994, Japan followed with its report Reforms Towards the Intellectually Creative Society of the 21st Century; the UK produced a report Creating the Superhighways of the Future; Norway published its plan National Information Network; Sweden released a report Wings to Human Ability; and Denmark issued a report Info-Society 2000. European Union and G7 reports followed, generating a vast media and academic literature on the information society and information superhighway (see O'Siochru, forthcoming).

These documents for the most part advocate economic liberalization, deregulation, and resurgent market forces as the best route to develop a healthy and robust information infrastructure, and thus promote the now hegemonic neo-liberal market ideology championed by Thatcherism and Reaganism. Hence, whereas Daniel Bell did not perceive the emerging post-industrial society as relying primary on market mechanisms and in fact advocated technocratic-inspired control mechanisms (O'Siochru, forthcoming), the current discourse relentlessly advocates a deregulated capitalist market system as the road to the information society and tends toward a form of technological determinism which sees the new technologies producing the information society as inevitable and beneficial.

Gore's 1994 celebration of the information superhighway as the route to more jobs, better education, economic prosperity, and a global culture and communication network is the most extravagant (see Smith, forthcoming), but a broad array of political reports and discourses, technophiliac academic and popular celebrations of the new technologies and information superhighway, discussed above, and a dominant media discourse is equally as enthusiastic (the latter is not surprising since, as I document below, mergers between the giant media conglomerates and the key institutions of the information and computer industries are proceeding at a dramatic pace). What, then, is being occluded or mystified in the discourses of the information society and information superhighway and what sort of a discourse is this anyway?

First of all, the official information society discourses tends to be highly techophilic and uncritical, promising a wealth of bounties from the new technologies, though there is a technophobic academic discourse that equally one-sidedly bemoans the proliferation of the new technologies. Secondly, the discourse tends to be deterministic, as if it were fated that new technologies would dramatically proliferate, that the market was the most effective mechanism for their development and dissemination, and that all humans could do was to get on the bandwagon, to be wired, and to participate in the joys and benefits of the Computer Revolution. Such discourses downplay the costs and dislocations of the new technologies, the powerful economic and political interests that will reap the substantial portion of the benefits, and the fact that capital is promoting these technologies as the essential ingredient in a global restructuring that itself is fraught with peril, uncertainty, and suffering for much of the world.

The discourse of the information society thus occludes the economic forces and dynamics behind the proliferation of new technologies, the costs as well as the benefits, the extent of the social and economic changes, and the political issues at stake in the debate (i.e. the dismantling of the welfare state, the threats to democracy, and the opportunities for promoting progressive social change, as well as increased power for capital, the state, and the media). I have argued that the implementation of new technologies and their promotion are part of a global restructuring of capitalism and that the mergers of the information and entertainment industries and new syntheses of information and entertainment are producing a new infotainment society. Consequently, understanding these developments and developing a politics to promote a democratization of the new technologies is of crucial importance in the contemporary moment.

Metaphors and Ideologies for the Technological Society

As noted, the "information superhighway" is emerging as the key ideological discourse that legitimates the development of technocapitalism and the concept of the information society. I would indeed go so far as to claim that the information superhighway is the dominant ideology and the infotainment society is the primary project of the contemporary technocapitalist society. It is hyped to the maximum by the U.S. media because these corporations are the major players in this project, because the same corporations that own big media are merging with computer and information industries, and thus the new technologies are both a source of profit and of social power and prestige. Thus, while one could envisage competition between the established media institutions and new institutions of the information and computer society, their mergers have created a situation where the media are cheerleaders and promoters of the new technologies and the information superhighway.

Moreover, the libertarian individualism and "free market" entrepreneurialism associated with the discourses of the new technologies and information superhighway are part of the ideological arsenal against the Welfare State which associates Big Government with harmful regulation, excessive taxes, and wasteful welfare spending. The prestige and power of the new computer culture thus feeds into "free market" ideologies and mitigates against statist and welfare discourses. The discourses of the new technologies articulate with ideologies of individualism which have long been functional for capitalism.

The individual has become both the structure and part of the ideology of the information superhighway and very texture of the information society. The concept of the individual emerged in early modern society in the Renaissance and Enlightenment as the source of knowledge, discovery, and creativity, as well as a valuable political unit whose rights and freedoms must be protected. As capitalist society developed, and as threats to individual freedom and well-being intensified, a romanticization of the individual continued, even as massification and increased social domination robbed actually existing individuals of the freedom and creativity once maintained as the basis of bourgeois society. This romantic individualism, this celebration of the sovereign subject, and denigration of those powers and institutions that would threaten it, have metamorphosed in computer culture.

As a discourse, the individual and information superhighway are rich with connotations and seductive images and concepts. The notion of the information superhighway and discourse of "surfing" or "cruising" the 'web or 'net carries connotations of fast travelling, of adventure, and of individual excitement and adventure -- connotations enhanced by the discourse of the "electronic frontier" with the connotations of exploration, the establishment of new communal spaces, and of being on the cutting-edge of the new. The metaphors of the 'net and 'web also point to connectedness, rhizomatic and multilayered levels of experience and texture, that naturalize and domesticate the highly artificial and complex technological worlds of the new computer networks.

In fact, the "natural" discourses of the information superhighway (i.e. surfing, cruising, the net, the web, connectivity, etc.) transform nature into culture and make the dramatic development of the information society a force of nature, a natural event that cannot be stopped. Indeed, the discourse appropriates both biological/natural metaphors and the figure of evolution to make it appear that the development of the new technologies and resultant social transformation is a natural process that in addition is a force of human progress, of development to higher spheres of social evolution. Such metaphors of nature and progress cover over the social constructedness of the new technologies, the corporate interests behind the project of technocapitalism and the infotainment society, and the social struggles over its future.

In addition, Bill Gates' notion of a "friction-free" capitalism (1995) also covers over the messiness, conflictedness, and suffering created from the reorganization of capitalism in which there are necessarily winners and losers, and tremendous pain from dislocation, downsizing, and economic downward mobility, uncertainty and anxiety. In general, there can be no friction-free capitalism as capitalism itself depends on competition, antagonisms, and what Schumpeter called "creative destruction." It is an ideological illusion and fantasy to believe that capitalism could eliminate friction, conflict, and suffering, especially through the market-mechanism alone which is predicated on self-interest and a Darwinian logic of the survival of the fittest.

I would also argue that current conceptions of the information society and emphasis on information technology as its demiurge are by now too limited; the new technologies are modes of information and entertainment, and it is becoming harder and harder to separate them. Indeed, as I have been suggesting, the new technologies are much more than solely information technology, but are also technologies of entertainment, communication, and play, encompassing and restructuring both labor and leisure. Previous forms of entertainment are rapidly being absorbed within the Internet, and the computer is coming to be a major household appliance and source of entertainment, information, play, communication, and connection with the outside world. As clues to the enormity of the transformation going on, as indicators of the syntheses of information and entertainment in the infotainment society, I would suggest reflections on the massive mergers of the major information and entertainment conglomerates that have taken place in the United States during the past two years which have seen the most extensive concentration and conglomeration of information and entertainment industries in history, including:

CBS and Westinghouse: $5.5 billion

MCA and Seagrams: $5.6 billion

Time Warner and Turner: $ 7.5 billion --

Disney/Capital Cities/ ABC $19 billion

NBC and Microsoft/ megabillions

These mergers bring together corporations involved in TV, film, magazines, newspapers, books, information data bases, computers, and other media, suggesting a coming implosion of media and computer culture, of entertainment and information in a new infotainment society. There have also been massive mergers in the telecommunications industry (in the U.S. between Southwest Bell and California Bell and New York and Atlantic Bell, with a merger between AT&T and major regional systems almost occurring, and with MCI negotiating a $37 billion merger with WorldCom, which topped British Telecommunications and GTE offers). The corporate media, communications, and information industries are frantically scrambling to provide delivery for the wealth of information, entertainment, and other services that will include increased internet access, cellular telephones and satellite personal communication devices, and video, film, and information on demand, as well as Internet shopping and more unsavory services like pornography and gambling.

Consequently, the mergers between the immense information, computer, and entertainment conglomerates disclose a synergy between new technologies and media, which combine entertainment and information, undermining such a distinction. These mergers call for an expansion of the concept of information revolution, or information society, into concepts of the infotainment society in order to highlight the imbrications of information and entertainment in the new media and technologies of the present. Together, these corporate mergers and the products and services that they are producing constitute a new form of technocapitalism and new infotainment society that it is our challenge to theorize and attempt to shape to more humane and democratic purposes than the accumulation of capital and corporate/state hegemony.

Technocapitalism and the Infotainment Society

I thus want to argue that this synthesis of entertainment and information in the technological and information revolution is part of the creation of a new infotainment society that itself is part and parcel of a global restructuring of capitalism. Few theories of the information revolution and the new technologies contextualize the structuring, implementation, marketing, and use of new technologies in the context of the vicissitudes of contemporary capitalism. The ideologues of the information society act as if technology were an autonomous force and either neglect to theorize the interconnections of capital and technology, or use the advancements of technology to legitimate market capitalism (i.e. Gates 1995). More critical theorists of the momentous changes in the contemporary society often fail to theorize the ways that the restructuring of capital are connected with technological revolution. Offe (1985) and Lash and Urry (1987 and 1994), for instance, see important changes in the economy, polity, culture, and society, but see this as a disorganization of capitalism, as its unravelling, rather than as reorganization.

While most of the prophets and promoters of the information society tend to be technological determinists, many of the (neo)Marxists who criticize its ideologies and practices tend to be economic determinists. Both economic and technological determinisms, however, often neglect the role of continuing conflict and struggle, the possibilities of intervention and transformation, and the ability of individuals and groups to remake society to serve their own needs and purposes. In all determinist conceptions, technology and society are conceived as matrixes of power and domination, while humans are seen as passive objects of manipulation and empowering uses of technology are not considered. With Lewis Mumford (1934), however, we should insist that humans take command of their social circumstances and technology, shape their social environment to enhance their life and use technology to empower themselves and democratize society. Technics are instruments that can be actively deployed by human beings. Although they are shaped by social forces to serve specific ends, they can be reconfigured, reshaped, and deployed against the purposes for which they are designed. This is close to what autonomous Marxists call self-valorization, as opposed to capital-valorization, using the technics of production and communication against capitalist relations of production and values (see Negri 1989).

But to avoid the romanticism of voluntarism and humanism, we need to be clear concerning the precise economic, social, political, cultural, and technological forces that are currently restructuring every aspect of life and develop strategies based on this knowledge. I introduced the term "technocapitalism" to describe the synthesis of capital and technology in the current organization of society (Kellner 1989a). Unlike theories of postmodernity (i.e. Baudrillard) which often argue that technology is the new organizing principle of society, and not the economic relations, I propose the term technocapitalism to point to both the increasingly important role of technology and continued primacy of capitalist relations of production. I would argue that contemporary societies continue to be organized around production and capital accumulation, and that capitalist imperatives continue to dominate production, distribution, and consumption, as well as other cultural, social and political domains. Workers continue to be exploited by capitalists and capital continues to be the hegemonic force -- more so than ever after the collapse of communism.

The term technocapitalism points to a configuration of capitalist society in which technical and scientific knowledge, automation, computers, and high tech play a role in the process of production analogous to the role of human labor power, mechanization of the labor process, and machines in an earlier era of capitalism, while producing as well new modes of societal organization and forms of culture and everyday life. We are in a parallel situation, I believe, to the Frankfurt school in the 1930s which was forced to theorize the new configurations of economy, polity, society and culture brought about by the transition from market to state monopoly capitalism which was producing new forms of social and economic organization, technology, and culture with the rise of giant corporations and cartels, a capitalist state to help organize capitalism whether in a fascist or a state capitalist form, and with culture industries and mass culture serving as new modes of social control, new forms of socialization, and a new configuration of culture and everyday life (Kellner 1989a). My thesis is that today media culture and new technologies are vitally transforming every aspect of social life in a process that is creating new forms of society, sometimes described as postmodern society, the information society, cybersociety, global postFordism, and various other terms.

The concept of technocapitalism thus points to syntheses of technology and capital and attempts to avoid technological or economic determinism. The restructuring of capital, I am arguing, is producing a very specific new social configuration that I propose calling "the infotainment society" in order to point to the mergers of information and media industries and to the significance of new technologies of information, entertainment, and social reproduction. In terms of political economy, the new postindustrial form of technocapitalism is characterized by a decline of the state and increased power of the market, accompanied by the growing power of globalized transnational corporations and governmental bodies and the decline of the nation-state and its institutions. To paraphrase Max Horkheimer, whoever wants to talk about capitalism, must talk about globalization, and it is impossible to theorize globalization without talking about the restructuring of capitalism (see Cvetkovitch and Kellner 1996 and Kellner 1998a).

While knowledge, information, and education are probably playing a more important role than ever in the organization of contemporary society, this is because, I would argue, capital is restructuring itself through the implementation of new technologies into every sphere of life. The dangers are that corporate control of knowledge, information, entertainment, and technology will provide a tremendous concentration of corporate power without any countervailing forces. The ideologues of the technological revolution and information society are forever arguing that education is the key to future prosperity, that education must be made available to all, and that it is thus the top social priority. This would be fine if education were to be expanded and made accessible to more individuals and if it were able to augment the realm of knowledge and literacies, rather than just to serve as a sophisticated enhancement of job training, focusing on transmitting the skills and knowledge that capital needs to expand and multiply.

Yet it is clear that new technologies are revolutionizing not only labor, production, and leisure, but also education and schooling. The past years have seen major implementation of new technologies in the educational process and a fierce debate over how to deploy new technologies, how to make them accessible for everyone, and whether they are enhancing or destroying education. Whether new technologies will ultimately enhance or diminish and harm education is not yet decidable, but it is clear that individuals need to develop intensified computer literacy, as well as print literary and, I would add, media literacy, social and cultural literacy, and ecoliteracy (see Kellner, 1998b). As we approach an increasingly complex new world, we need to greatly expand and rethink education and literacy and to devise strategies to use technology to strengthen and democratize education.

The dangers are, first, that existing inequalities will be reproduced by the increased importance of computers and technological literacy, which will privilege existing elites at the expense of others. Secondly, there is a danger that the values and cultural forms of the infotainment society will permeate education, as well as every sphere of culture and everyday life, rendering education more and more a form of entertainment, of multimedia interaction, in which consumption of media material will replace active study, practice, and experimentation. This need not be the case, of course, interaction with multimedia can be as active and as creative as with book and print material, and the modes of popular entertainment can to some extent serve valuable educational purposes.

Technopolitics and the New Public Spheres

Since new technologies are in any case dramatically transforming every sphere of life, the key challenge is how to theorize this great transformation and how to devise strategies to make productive use of the new technologies. Obviously, radical critiques of dehumanizing, exploitative, and oppressive uses of new technologies in the workplace, schooling, public sphere, and everyday life are more necessary than ever, but so are strategies that use new technologies to rebuild our cities, schools, economy, and society. I want to focus, therefore, in the remainder of this section on how new technologies can be used for increasing democratization and empowering individuals. In previous articles (Kellner 1995, 1996, and 1998a), I have argued that new technologies are creating a new public sphere, a new realm of cyberdemocracy, and are thus challenging public intellectuals to gain technoliteracy and to make use of the new technologies for promoting progressive causes and social transformation.

Given the extent to which capital and its logic of commodification have colonized ever more areas of everyday life in recent years, it is somewhat astonishing that cyberspace is by and large decommodified for large numbers of people -- at least in the overdeveloped countries like the United States. In the U.S., government and educational institutions, and some businesses, provide free Internet access and in some cases free computers, or at least workplace access. With flat-rate monthly phone bills (which I know do not exist in much of the world), one can thus have access to a cornucopia of information and entertainment on the Internet for free, one of the few decommodified spaces in the ultracommodified world of technocapitalism.

Obviously, large sections of the world do not even have telephone service, much less computers, and there are vast inequalities in terms of who has access to computers and who participates in the technological revolution and cyberdemocracy today. Critics of new technologies and cyberspace repeat incessantly that it is by and large young, white, middle or upper class males who are the dominant players in the cyberspaces of the present, and while this is true, statistics and surveys indicate that many more women, people of color, seniors, and other minority categories are becoming increasingly active. Moreover, it appears that computers are becoming part of the standard household consumer package and will perhaps be as common as television sets by the beginning of the next century, and certainly more important for work, social life, and education than the TV set. In addition, there are plans afoot to wire the entire world with satellites that would make the Internet and communication revolution accessible to people who do not now even have telephones, televisions, or even electricity.

However widespread and common -- or not -- computers and new technologies become, it is clear that they are of essential importance for labor, politics, education, and social life, and that people who want to participate in the public and cultural life of the future will need to have computer access and literacy. Moreover, although there is the threat and real danger that the computerization of society will increase the current inequalities and inequities in the configurations of class, race, and gender power, there is the possibility that a democratized and computerized public sphere might provide opportunities to overcome these inequities. I will accordingly address below some of the ways that oppressed and disempowered groups are using the new technologies to advance their interests and progressive political agendas. But first I want to dispose of another frequent criticism of the Internet and computer activism.

Critics of the Internet and cyberdemocracy frequently point to the military origins of the 'net and its central role in the practices of dominant corporate and state powers. Yet it is amazing that the Internet for large numbers is decommodified and is becoming increasingly decentralized, becoming open to more voices and groups. Thus, cyberdemocracy and the Internet should be seen as a site of struggle, as a contested terrain, and progressives should look to its possibilities for resistance and circulation of struggle. Dominant corporate and state powers, as well as conservative and rightist groups, have been making serious use of new technologies to advance their agendas and if progressives want to become players in the political battles of the future they must devise ways to use new technologies to advance a progressive agenda and the interests of the oppressed and forces of resistance and struggle.

There are by now copious examples of how the Internet and cyberdemocracy have been used in progressive political struggles. A large number of insurgent intellectuals are already making use of these new technologies and public spheres in their political projects. The peasants and guerilla armies struggling in Chiapas, Mexico from the beginning used computer data bases, guerrilla radio, and other forms of media to circulate their struggles and ideas. Every manifesto, text, and bulletin produced by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation who occupied land in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas in 1994 was immediately circulated through the world via computer networks. In January 1995, the Mexican government moved against the movement and computer networks were used to inform and mobilize individuals and groups throughout the world to support the Zapatistas struggles against repressive Mexican government action. There were many demonstrations in support of the rebels throughout the world, prominent journalists, human rights observers, and delegations travelled to Chiapas in solidarity and to report on the uprising, and the Mexican and U.S. governments were bombarded with messages arguing for negotiations rather than repression; the Mexican government accordingly backed off their repression of the insurgents and as of this writing in January 1998, they have continued to negotiate with them.

Moreover, a series of struggles around gender, sex, and race are also mediated by new communications technologies. After the 1991 Clarence Thomas Hearings in the United States on his fitness to be Supreme Court Justice, Thomas's assault on claims of sexual harassment by Anita Hill and others, and the failure of the almost all male US Senate to disqualify the obviously unqualified Thomas, prompted women to use computer and other technologies to attack male privilege in the political system in the United States and to rally women to support women candidates. The result in the 1992 election was the election of more women candidates than in any previous election and a general rejection of conservative rule.

Many feminists have now established websites, mailing lists, and other forms of cybercommunication to circulate their struggles. Younger women, sometimes deploying the concept of "riotgrrrls," have created electronically-mediated 'zines, web sites, and discussion groups to promote their ideas and to discuss their problems and struggles. African-American women, Latinas, and other groups of women have been developing web sites and discussion lists to advance their interests. And AIDS activists have used new technologies to disseminate and discuss medical information and to activate their constituencies for courses of political action and struggle

Likewise, African-American insurgent intellectuals have made use of broadcast and computer technologies to promote their struggles. John Fiske (1994) has described some African-American radio projects in the "technostruggles" of the present age and the central role of the media in recent struggles around race and gender. African-American "knowledge warriors" are using radio, computer networks, and other media to circulate their ideas and counter-knowledge on a variety of issues, contesting the mainstream and offering alternative views and politics. In addition, activists in communities of color -- like Oakland, Harlem, and Los Angeles -- are setting up community computer and media centers to teach the skills necessary to survive the onslaught of the mediazation of culture and computerization of society to people in their communities.

Obviously, rightwing and reactionary groups can and have used the Internet to promote their political agendas as well. In a short time, one can easily access an exotic witch's brew of ultraright websites maintained by the Ku Klux Klan, myriad neo-Nazi groups including Aryan Nation and various Patriot militia groups. Internet discussion lists also promote these views and the ultraright is extremely active on many computer forums, as well as their radio programs and stations, public access television programs, fax campaigns, video and even rock music production. These groups are hardly harmless, having promoted terrorism of various sorts ranging from church burnings to the bombings of public buildings. Adopting quasi-Leninist discourse and tactics for ultraright causes, these extremist groups have been successful in recruiting working class members devastated by the developments of global capitalism which have resulted in widespread unemployment for traditional forms of industrial, agricultural, and unskilled labor.

The Internet is thus a contested terrain, used by Left, Right, and Center to promote their own agendas and interests. The political battles of the future may well be fought in the streets, factories, parliaments, and other sites of past struggle, but political struggle today is already mediated by media, computer, and information technologies and will increasingly be so in the future. Those interested in the politics and culture of the future should therefore be clear on the important role of the new public spheres and intervene accordingly.

Some Concluding Remarks

In the light of the projects of technocapitalism to dismantle the Welfare State, it is up to citizens to create new public spheres, new politics, and to use the new technologies to discuss what kinds of society we want and to oppose the society we don't want, to demand more education, health care, welfare, and benefits from the state, and to struggle to create a more democratic and egalitarian society. But one cannot expect that generous corporations and a beneficent state are going to make available to citizens the bounties and benefits of the new information economy. Rather, it is up to individuals and groups to promote democratization and progressive social change.

Thus, to globalization from above of corporate capitalism, one could support a globalization from below, from individuals and groups in struggle using the new technologies to create a more egalitarian and democratic society. Individuals and groups all over the world are using the new technologies to advance progressive goals and the new public spheres of cyberspace are more open to cultural and intellectual intervention than the media spaces controlled by the giant corporations. Social struggles ranging from native peoples in the Mexican state of Chiapis, to dockworkers in London, to anti-corporate campaigns worldwide against McDonald's and Nike, have used the new technologies against the dominant corporate powers. Moreover, groups like African-Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians, and others excluded from the democratic dialogue are using new technologies to promote democratization and advance their interests (see Kellner 1995 and forthcoming).

Of course, the new technologies might exacerbate existing inequalities in the current class, gender, race, and regional configurations of power and give the major corporate forces powerful new tools to advance their interests. In this situation, it is up to the people, to us, to devise strategies to use the new technologies to promote democratization and progressive social change. For as the new technologies become ever more central to every domain of everyday life, developing a progressive technopolitics in the new public spheres will become more and more important.

Changes are certainly happening, we are undergoing a Great Transformation, but we are, I believe, too early in the beginnings of this adventure to determine its structure, social relations, cultural forms, and effects. It is clear, however, that a technological revolution is going on, that it will have massive effects, and that it is a great challenge to us concerning how we will theorize and actually use the new technologies -- or whether they and the forces that control them will themselves use us in their projects. Thus, it is not only a challenge to social theorists to theorize the new technologies and their effects and to activists to devise strategies for using the technology to promote progressive political change, but it is a challenge to each individual to determine how they will live the new technologies and cyberspaces, how they will themselves deploy them, and whether they will ultimately be empowering or disempowering, and democratizing or democratizing. For as long as human beings have vision, goals, and autonomy, they can design, shape, and restructure their technologies, as well as being shaped and constrained by them.


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