November 29, 2000

Our Bad Attitude

Bad Attitude In the interest of full disclosure, we thought we ought to say something upfront about whybother.org principles and practices, especially for those many, but not all, first-time visitors who seem so genuinely distressed by the "rude," "unrealistic," and fundamentally "non-commercial" browser and download requirements of our site, not to mention the come and go glitches as we constantly change the thing, or the pervasive anti-information, rambling prose style that almost invariably "buries the lead."

Admittedly, we're tempted just to say, "Hey! Wake up, folks. What did you expect when you typed 'whybother.org' in your browser's address bar?" It's not exactly a promising name if you're looking for just another generic, corporate MacInternet site, over 10 billion fleeced and served. But then, who admits to be looking for that? That, nevertheless, it's come to be the near universal expectation of Internet users today, shaped by the forces that have dominated and commercialized Web, is very much a factor in our "bad attitude." Why do so many otherwise reasonable people seem to throw tantrums when those expectations, surely not consciously their own, are even the least frustrated? Isn't it bad enough that your word processor knows how to spell MacDonald's but not Gramsci?"

If you're not tempted to follow the cryptic Gramsci link, or know well enough who Gramsci was, consider instead that the "vision" -- a suspect word if ever there were one -- driving this site, affecting both its anti-corporate media stance and aggressive technology usage, is in some sense "cyberpunk." Or at least it's closely related to that long line of Sci-Fi literature and film to which belong the stories and novels of Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, and the string of hit Sci-Fi Noir films with which everyone is familiar, from "Blade Runner" to "The Matrix."

Cyberpunk means a great many things to a great many people, and there's been a lot of discussion over the years about what it really means. But it's the common ground that concerns us here. Cyberpunk distinguishes itself from other science fiction by offering a clear, compelling vision of a future in which high-tech corporations rule the earth, using the information and bio technologies they create to generate enormous wealth and privilege for their owners, managers, and the relatively small class of the most essential "knowledge workers," be they human or machine or a bit of both; and using the very same technologies to dazzle, distract, and dominate the rest of humanity, relegated to living in relatively or absolutely lo-tech, impoverished ghettos. In other words, the cyberpunk vision of the future is pretty much a dark representation of the world as it is today, dressed up with a few more menacing toys.

Consider that, for nearly half a century, the average American has been going to work or school and coming home to consume the the rest of his or her waking hours watching TV, averaging over six hours a day. Now, increasing numbers spend those hours and more, at home and at work, plugged in to the commercialized Internet, in many cases via the same AOL/Time Warner cable that delivers their TV feed. There, online, most are herded through portals and search engines owned, controlled or dominated by pretty much the same corporate-financial-entertainment entities providing much of the Web's most "popular" content, as well as almost all TV entertainment and news, in short, nearly everything America and increasingly the entire globe sees and hears. And if, for a "change," we decide to "go out for the evening," it's typically to consume more mass media entertainment, movies or rock concerts, produced, owned, distributed, and controlled by the same corporate financial networks from whose TV and Internet fare we're supposedly taking a break.

Cyberpunk is not simply science fiction. From a certain, very real point of view, we Americans, at least, already pretty much live and die plugged into the illusory reality of The Matrix, our labor energy crudely harvested to drive the system that keeps us asleep in the comfortable belief that it's not really happening or is simply inevitable, natural, the way of the world, and perhaps relatively worth it. Not surprisingly, the same apparatus for which we work away our lives vainly trying to "improve ourselves" and "our position" in the face of inescapable human mortality, daily inundates us with happy-face consumer images. Everywhere media figures intimate or outright declare "unhappiness," "negativity," "stress" -- all things you get if you "think too much" -- to be serious long-term physical health risks. As if the saying "In the long run, we'll all be dead" only applied to dissenters and doubters.

What is to be done? If the real Matrix is indeed already everywhere, where's the escape, where's the "outside"?

One possible answer is an updated version of the 17th century Luddite response to the dawn of machine production: turn it off, drop out, smash it, avoid all technological participation, and hide yourself, your life, and all your activities and thoughts as far away from the Net and general media as possible. But the impediments to this response are at least as many today as in the 17th century. And the central impediment is, still, that it's impossible to achieve purity: Luddism is always some degree of compromise with technology and the culture it propagates.

Few of today's many neo-Luddites pretend to be purists. The largest, most significant group includes, according the recent estimates, nearly half the American public, who believe they can "take it or leave it"; that is, use the Net without getting caught in it or by it, provided they stick, with grim determination, to antiquated machines and software, and religiously avoid downloading or installing anything new.

But if Bill Gates is the Great Satan in the neo-Luddite cosmogony, theirs is a peculiar kind of "half-way covenant" with the Devil, since there's almost no escaping some generation of Microsoft software. Among neo-Luddite PC Windows users, surely by definition in league with the Devil from the get-go, this half-way covenant gives rise to perhaps the most curious of contemporary retrograde delusions: "Windows 98 is safer than Windows 2000, Windows95 even better than that, and Windows 3.1 was wonderful. If only we weren't forced to do without DOS....."

Take it from someone who's been around that long: any notion that DOS, Windows 3.1 and Windows 95, at least, weren't every bit as buggy and awful as Macheads said they were at the time is simply ludicrous. The only thing buggier than new Microsoft software is old Microsoft software. Better a real Luddite purist, retiring completely to paper and pencil, than this sort who defend their imaginary distance, immunity, and indifference to the Evil of the Net on a moving treadmill of inevitable technological purchases, gifts, and even finds on the scrap heap.

There is simply no such thing as sticking to old technology. "Old technology" is a purely relative term. And the pace of development is such that what counts as little more than a desk anchor today was a server node driving the Net only five years ago. Come the day after tomorrow, the antiquated safeguards of the half-way covenant crowd will be more powerful and capable than anything on the market today.

It's not that cyberpunk science fiction doesn't occasionally dream of a Luddite "Return to the Garden of Eden" solution, but that its basic vision of the future precludes this possibility. There is nowhere to hide; or, more complicated, "hiding" depends on using rather than refusing technology. And it is here that the general cyberpunk vision gets interesting, because "hiding" as a form of resistance becomes more than a matter of disguising yourself in the conventional sense of a fake identity. The act of "hiding" becomes a political and cultural agenda. Of necessity, "hiding" becomes an effort, individual and collective, to reopen a noisy and confusing public "free zone" within which it might again be possible to stand without concealment, because the cost/benefit ratio of tracking so many individuals in the chaos is too great even for the technological powers that be.

This effort is necessarily a continuous one, for the same reason that the neo-Luddite half-way covenant is delusory: the technological capabilities available to "the system" continue to increase, exponentially, through time. The effort to endlessly recreate a public "free zone" may seem daunting in this light, but no more so than the individual and collective effort always required, since the beginning of human history, to gain or regain any other basic human right or freedom. Only the toys have changed; the essential game of domination, submission or resistance remains the same.

So whybother.org? Why the heavy download requirements? Why the pervasive and almost exclusive use of "Evil Empire" technologies? Why not a "more democratic" site accessible to old browsers and older machines?

In the game, as we are forced to play it today, there are no easy choices, and many strategies have at least plausible validity. Particularly respectable is the vast, varied Linux/Apache/Mozilla/Open Source movement, although that movement, at the moment, is largely crippled by the media-fanned belief that Microsoft is "The Great Satan," the exclusive source of evil in the digital world. Related and equally crippling are various rationalizations of convenience that disparage web-based multimedia in favor of almost pure textual information delivery, at root because the work to develop truly fast, capable multimedia subsystems, drivers, graphical interfaces, etc. is very difficult and never done. The two, combined, tend to bubble up a truly weird ideological brew of elitist neo-Luddites, who look down on Windows and MAC slaves, while proving their anarchistic independence from the digital corporate world by plugging their archaic Linux boxes into AOL/TimeWarner cable feed. In other words, their radicalism extends only as far that special wall of their homebuilt cubicles, the one the mega-media giant's cable comes in.

In contrast, our whybother assumption is there is no purity to be had in the digital world. We, the people, will forever be cobbling together hardware, software and networking capabilities in the wake of a corporate created and dominated cutting edge. And Microsoft's leavings, the debris it scatters far and wide in its drive toward world domination, including, very importantly, its unmatched level of online developer documentation and resource kits, are as good if not better pickings as any other. Never mind that it doesn't do what it claims to do. It's simply good gomi for digital dumpster divers, almost as good as it gets.

And the fact is we've all paid for it already. Microsoft R & D and its worlds within worlds of "freely" available online materials are not driven by venture and IPO capitalization but by money we've spent over the years on operating and office systems. Where's the virtue in not using it all to other ends than picking up the pace of "productivity growth," a.k.a., firing people no longer needed to produce a profit at a given sales volume? And why not use the "free stuff" before we're charged for it, again, in the next new computer or software upgrade we purchase? Why wait? All it takes is a bit of downloading, and a bit of machine maintenance.... Dive right in.

As Hamlet says, "Ay, there's the rub." Both the Open Source movement and the whybother Imperial-parasite approach, which seem so antithetical, actually share a common cyberpunk premise, which in the end is much more important than any difference. Users must be active users.

More specifically, the line between users and developers must be blurred, again in the future as it was once upon a time during the Internet's early years. Independent users, like independent developers, must be aggressive deployers of whatever technology is freely or cheaply available. If not, if the general user population remains what it has become through the commercial hype of the Net as a finished thing, a ready-for-use "information superhighway" or, worse, "supermall", if users remain in their allotted role of passive consumers of point-and-click digital "experiences," then there is no hope the Net will ever rise to be anything other than yet another media of mass population pacification and control. The Net will remain The Matrix, the means by which the mass media of the early twentieth century are ever more accurately and effectively targeted, refined, and falsely "individualized" in the twenty-first century.

The difference between an active and a passive user is the difference between being a user and simply being used, fodder for the global high-tech, mass media-whipped production-consumption machine that's literally eating our planet alive. In the technology game we're all forced to play today, there is not much middle ground.

That, and nothing more, is our "Bad Attitude."

Thanks for embracing our aggressive technology requirements at least this far. Keep going. Learn to maintain your machine, with and without spending more money. Help others to do the same. And above all take the time to search out other sites like this one, outside the corporate media mainstream, that will enable you to exploit further and in other ways the truly marvelous potential of the powerful machine, however old, that is even now at your finger tips.

A CPU is a terrible thing to waste....

Posted by rri

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