<nettime> Consensus within the Bay Area elites?

From: Brian Holmes - Date: Fri, 23 May 2014 00:47:10 -0500

In 2008, a fellow named Mark Leonard published what was probably the most useful book of the year, entitled “What does China think?” With great concision he went through the country’s think tanks, one by one, with a five or six page summary of the people, the problematics and the major statements issuing from each. The book begins with the idealism of China’s New Left. It ends with generals plotting grand strategy (of which, for them, military strategy is only a small part).

On this list, with all our collective knowledge, contacts and capacities to learn, we ought to do a similar analysis of the tech companies in the Bay Area (and perhaps other major technology development hubs). How do the network elites see the future? How do they believe they can direct the global development forces which are already managed, day in day out, by the computational routines embedded in their products? What are their politics and geopolitics? And how do they “think” via cables, software, devices and infrastructure design? A deep and detailed understanding of what is being discussed by such elites today would be far more useful than the superficial critique so commonly produced on the blogosphere and conference circuit (let alone the bickering that Felix denounced).

As some of you know, I’m convinced that for better and for worse there will be a new economic growth wave rising in the next few years, in response to the current dead-end and generalized climate of fear and uncertainty. This is common sense among corporate elites, so they are quite interested in the subject. Following a suggestion by Örsan Şenalp, I have been looking at the latest writings of Jeremy Rifkin, an American tech and business guru who has set up shop in the EU and advises European governments, particularly Germany. I am listening right now to the talk he gave in the Google authors series. I recommend it. Beyond the deflatable hype about the “zero marginal cost” of production in a totally networked p2p economy, it is clear that tech elites and the governmental sectors they have in their pockets foresee an intensification and systematization of the wired and wireless economy, based on the multiplication and interconnection of microprocessors and analytic software apps (that’s the famous “Internet of Things,” hats off to Rob van Kranenburg for proposing to study its philosophy). Major economic and social consequences can in effect be expected from this interconnection.

On the one hand, you’re a thing: everything you do on the networks is tracked, surveilled, compiled, analyzed. Fair enough, on nettime we’ve had that aspect covered for years. On the other hand, every humble material thing is an entity in a network ontology: and far beyond the one-size-fits-all fantasy of ubquitous RFID chips, what’s emerging is a new logistics system for global distribution of energy, raw materials and manufactures (some of it is already built and operational). You can also throw in a new generation of assembly-lines robotics (including industrial maker-bots) and a new personal transport system (the driverless car, in which Google itself is so deeply invested). As Florian Cramer pointed out in a reply to Van Kranenburg, this kind of pervasively networked system not only opens up tremendous possibilities of horizontal cooperation (between persons, businesses and institutions) but also, huge security holes like the Heartbleed OpenSSL disaster: so the networked elites are very interested in how to govern the system they are creating.

Think a little bit about the Heartbleed-type problem, to the 10th power. The infamous book by Eric Schmidt and Jared what’s-his-name, the Washington security goon, is no accident. In American history, we lived through the capitalist development of the giant mass-production corporation, epitomized by the Ford Motor Co., from 1900 to 1940; and then, after those kinds of productive forces issued in the most devastating war imaiginable, we lived through the government orchestrated systematization of mass production, in the postwar “Fordist” period from 1945 to 1973. There is a dialectic here: the initial development of a productive system is followed by a major cisis; then that productive system is reworked, rationalized and integrated to a social order (or at least, the capitalist version thereof).

Under the long shadows of 9/11 and the 2008 crisis, the Bay Area elites, whether at Google, Cisco, HP or Apple, seem to be moving toward a fragile and probably untenable consensus that “something similar” will happen again. In other words, somehow, somehow, the US will find a social and governmental synthesis that allows techno-economic development to be guided by and for giant US corporations. And somehow (this is where the “thinking” gets extremely magical) this synthesis will be libertarian, user-friendly, horizontal, wild-west, and so forth.

As for Rifkin, he represents a more pragmatic East Coast version of the Californian Ideology (and he actually grew up in Chicago). Like many so-called progressive American intellectuals, he found a better reception for his ideas in Europe, where, since the days of Bernstein and early German social democracy, a left ideology is considered a necessary mask on capitalist development. Rifkin’s ideas about the smart electric grid and the Internet of Things now appeal to both the German and the Chinese governments. They appear to believe that recent technological developments can be fused into a new productive order, manifested in the extension of railways lines and development corridors across the entire Eurasian landmass (the giant free-trade/logistics project that the Chinese call “The New Silk Road”). They want to put German hi-tech, European consumption, and Asian manufacturing capacity together, and mitigate climate change along the way.

The green capitalism widely denounced on the eco-anarchist left coalesces here, in the concept of a Euro-Sinic (or perhaps, Euro-Sinical) production system whose green ideology would cover massive Chinese infrastructure investments, with Germany replacing the US as the key banker and technological and scientific partner. This perspective thinks big, on the scale of Eurasia. The aim is to use capitalist modenization to guide the largest part of the world’s population through the devastating first half of the twenty-first century, as inequalities grow worse and climate change takes hold. Of course the Euro-Sinical program itself will accelerate those same contradictions…

How do the Bay Area elites situate themselves within this emerging world-picture? What is their consensus, and where does it fall apart? Who has the greatest power to set the agendas? And to what degree do these tech elites remain unconscious and merely reactive? I do not claim to know the answers, certainly not in the necessary detail. The facile “critique” of this or that form of evil-doing is definitely blocking us from even grasping how Google thinks, and how Apple-Cisco-HP-etc thinks, and how they get together and think with BofA and Wells Fargo and Citi and the NSA and the DoD and so forth.

In short, I see two mistakes, dear nettimers. One is failing to see that the Bay Area elites and their interlocutors are fully engaged in the titanic project of imagining, designing and governing a pervasively networked social system on a global scale. The second one is the failure to see that they are not alone, and that similar problems are being dealt with by potentially more organized and more powerful forces, who do not think in purely communicational and financial terms, but instead deal also with large-scale industry.

best, Brian

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