Book: Class Warfare in the Information Age
Source Mark Jones
Date 99/05/01/18:46

> /* Written 2:42 AM Mar 22, 1998 by in igc:misc.activism. */
> /* ---------- "Book: Class Warfare in the Informat" ---------- */
> Michael Perelman's new book, Class Warfare in the Information Age has
> come to hand. It fills an important need as a corrective
> to the now almost universal Net-hype.
> Net-hype ranges a broad spectrum from the pompous (and often vacuous)
> theorising of Manuel Castells (Tony Blair's favourite philosopher) --
> to the Wired hysterias of Kevin Kelly -- to the imbecile moral panics
> (net-crime, net-gambling, net-pedophilia, net-surveillance) which the
> mass media manage to mix with uncritical enthusiasm (the Net as the
> future of post-human, genetically-enhanced humankind, immortalised in
> virtual worlds; the Net as improbable panacea for Third World poverty;
> the Net facilitating Athenian-style direct democracy; the future as
> a permabulation through virtual malls, etc.)
> Net-hype even extends to Net-Insurrectionaries, Harry Cleaver's espousal
> of sub-comandante's virtual Zap revolution being a prime example.
> All this hype needed a god debunking. So it is useful to be reminded, as
> Perelman does, that 'the reality of the information age falls considerably
> short of the futuristic vision of the information age. In fact, the imaginary
> dystopias of science fiction seem to be closer to the truth than the
> fantasies of the champions of the coming information age.'
> His critique does not stop there.
> There has been much recent research to suggest that informatics has
> not exactly been the productivity boon the corporations had expected.
> Nor has labour fared any better: the much-heralded workless society
> has coincided with speed-up, longer hours, casualisation and the
> three-job anti-social family.
> So what is going on? What's behind the hype?
> Perelman wants 'to make sense of this welter of conflicting claims and
> accusations in the context of the information revolution.'
> His conclusions: that the information revolution is 'overblown', that
> in any case we are not educating people to make sense of it, that most
> new employment is not connected with it, and that its most useful
> attribute is to perfect capitalism's command and control. According to
> Perelman, what informatics really creates is the Panopticon society,
> after Bentham's notion of the perfect prison.
> The real subordination of labour to capital is the true name of the
> game, even when it comes at the expense of the massive glitches and
> crashes which the emphasis on command-and-control instead of decentred
> networking often entails.
> A major theme of Perelman's book is the privatisation of society's
> knowledge-base which, like DNA and even the carbon in the atmosphere,
> is one of the last great commons capitalism has left to enclose. What
> the information age will bring may actually be a lack of information.
> Knowledge will still be power, and access to it will be strictly
> controlled. Information will be commoditised, regulated and rendered
> much less accessible.
> All this will surely be true to some degree, despite the generalised
> promise of the Net and of things like Project Gutenberg. Yes, it will
> bring an ocean of culture, books, art, knowledge and as bandwidth
> grows, moving images, into everyone's lives, as television once did
> and movable type before that. But the apparent plethora will conceal a
> drastic diminution of opportunity, a reduction in the democracy of
> knowledge which robber barons like Dale Carnegie once tried to extend
> to the masses. The really important things will be more inaccessible
> than ever, shut away behind strong cryptography, archived on orbital
> satellites beyond the ken of governments.
> Class Warfare in the Information Age is more extended essay that
> kilometric, Castells-style exposition. It is portable. But as a tour
> d'horizon it's as good as they come. Perelman's strength is that his
> overview is historical as well as social.
> Frances Yates' great book, The Art of Memory, described how the
> invention of alphabets and writing in antiquity, displaced an
> attribute of civilised discourse which had taken generations to
> develop. It thereby privileged the masses against the leisured class
> which had time to develop such skills, expressed in phenomenal
> memory-feats by poets and orators from Homer to Cicero -- and
> even Shakespeare.
> Non-coincidentally, these were mostly cultural conservatives. Perelman
> reminds of this but his conclusion is not the obvious one that the
> Information Age presents similar subversive possibilities to writing.
> Conservatives from Plato to TS Eliot were fearful of the consequences
> of massifying knowledge, objectifying it and making it available to
> the unscrupulous masses. According to Perelman, they would be less
> fearful of the 'information revolution' which may have the opposite
> effect, making knowledge (as opposed to information) less accessible,
> reinforcing authority and hierarchy.
> The meat of Perelman's extended essay is his discussion of corporate
> strategies for privatising the gold in people's minds. Quoting Kenneth
> Arrow: 'embedded information... [as] capital depends on slow mobility
> of information-rich labor', he reminds us of the infamous treatment
> meted out to researcher Petr Taborsky, who invented, in his own time,
> a form of sewage-purification of potential value to his employer,
> utility holding company Florida Progress. Taborsky patented his ideas
> and was rewarded by being convicted (in 1990) of grand theft of trade
> secrets, for which he was sentenced to a year's house arrest, a
> suspended prison term of 3 1/2 years, probation, 500 hours community
> service .. and when he continued to insist on his right to his own
> ideas, Taborsky was assigned to a chain gang for two months.
> Be warned, knowledge-workers, you are the feudal servitors of the
> Information Age.
> Mark Jones

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