The Californian Ideology
Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron
"Not to lie about the future is impossible and one can lie about it at will" - Naum Gabo 1
As the Dam Bursts...
At the end of the twentieth century, the long predicted convergence of the media, computing
and telecommunications into hypermedia is finally happening. 2 Once again, capitalism's
relentless drive to diversify and intensify the creative powers of human labour is on the verge
of qualitatively transforming the way in which we work, play and live together. By integrating
different technologies around common protocols, something is being created which is more
than the sum of its parts. When the ability to produce and receive unlimited amounts of
information in any form is combined with the reach of the global telephone networks, existing
forms of work and leisure can be fundamentally transformed. New industries will be born and
current stock market favourites will swept away. At such moments of profound social change,
anyone who can offer a simple explanation of what is happening will be listened to with great
interest. At this crucial juncture, a loose alliance of writers, hackers, capitalists and artists from
the West Coast of the USA have succeeded in defining a heterogeneous orthodoxy for the
coming information age: the Californian Ideology.
This new faith has emerged from a bizarre fusion of the cultural bohemianism of San Francisco
with the hi-tech industries of Silicon Valley. Promoted in magazines, books, tv programmes,
Web sites, newsgroups and Net conferences, the Californian Ideology promiscuously combines
the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies. This
amalgamation of opposites has been achieved through a profound faith in the emancipatory
potential of the new information technologies. In the digital utopia, everybody will be both hip
and rich. Not surprisingly, this optimistic vision of the future has been enthusiastically
embraced by computer nerds, slacker students, innovative capitalists, social activists, trendy
academics, futurist bureaucrats and opportunistic politicians across the USA. As usual,
Europeans have not been slow in copying the latest fad from America. While a recent EU
Commission report recommends following the Californian 'free market' model for building the
'information superhighway', cutting-edge artists and academics eagerly imitate the 'post-human'
philosophers of the West Coast's Extropian cult. 3 With no obvious rivals, the triumph of the
Californian Ideology appears to be complete.
The widespread appeal of these West Coast ideologues isn't simply the result of their infectious
optimism. Above all, they are passionate advocates of what appears to be an impeccably
libertarian form of politics - they want information technologies to be used to create a new
'Jeffersonian democracy' where all individuals will be able to express themselves freely within
cyberspace. 4 However, by championing this seemingly admirable ideal, these techno-boosters
are at the same time reproducing some of the most atavistic features of American society,
especially those derived from the bitter legacy of slavery. Their utopian vision of California
depends upon a wilful blindness towards the other - much less positive - features of life on the
West Coast: racism, poverty and environmental degradation. 5 Ironically, in the not too distant
past, the intellectuals and artists of the Bay Area were passionately concerned about these
Ronald Reagan v. the hippies
On 15 May 1969, Governor Ronald Reagan ordered armed police to carry out a dawn raid
against hippie protesters who had occupied People's Park near the Berkeley campus of the
University of California. During the subsequent battle, one man was shot dead and 128 other
people needed hospital treatment. 6 On that day, the 'straight' world and the counter-culture
appeared to be implacably opposed. On one side of the barricades, Governor Reagan and his
followers advocated unfettered private enterprise and supported the invasion of Vietnam. On
the other side, the hippies championed a social revolution at home and opposed imperial
expansion abroad. In the year of the raid on People's Park, it seemed that the historical choice
between these two opposing visions of America's future could only be settled through violent
conflict. As Jerry Rubin, one of the Yippie leaders, said at the time: 'Our search for adventure
and heroism takes us outside America, to a life of self-creation and rebellion. In response,
America is ready to destroy us...' 7
During in the '60s, radicals from the Bay Area pioneered the political outlook and cultural style
of New Left movements across the world. Breaking with the narrow politics of the post-war
era, they launched campaigns against militarism, racism, sexual discrimination, homophobia,
mindless consumerism and pollution. In place of the traditional left's rigid hierarchies, they
created collective and democratic structures which supposedly prefigured the libertarian
society of the future. Above all, the Californian New Left combined political struggle with
cultural rebellion. Unlike their parents, the hippies refused to conform to the rigid social
conventions imposed on organisation men by the military, the universities, the corporations
and even left-wing political parties. Instead they openly declared their rejection of the straight
world through their casual dress, sexual promiscuity, loud music and recreational drugs. 8 The
radical hippies were liberals in the social sense of the word. They championed universalist,
rational and progressive ideals, such as democracy, tolerance, self-fulfillment and social
justice. Emboldened by over twenty years of economic growth, they believed that history was
on their side. In sci-fi novels, they dreamt of 'ecotopia': a future California where cars had
disappeared, industrial production was ecologically viable, sexual relationships were
egalitarian and daily life was lived in community groups. 9 For some hippies, this vision could
only be realised by rejecting scientific progress as a false God and returning to nature. Others,
in contrast, believed that technological progress would inevitably turn their libertarian
principles into social fact. Crucially, influenced by the theories of Marshall McLuhan, these
technophiliacs thought that the convergence of media, computing and telecommunications
would inevitably create the electronic agora - a virtual place where everyone would be able to
express their opinions without fear of censorship. Despite being a middle-aged English
professor, McLuhan preached the radical message that the power of big business and big
government would be imminently overthrown by the intrinsically empowering effects of new
technology on individuals.
'Electronic media...abolish the spatial dimension... By electricity, we everywhere resume
person-to-person relations as if on the smallest village scale. It is a relation in depth, and
without delegation of functions or powers... Dialogue supersedes the lecture.' 10
Encouraged by McLuhan's predictions, West Coast radicals became involved in developing
new information technologies for the alternative press, community radio stations, home-brew
computer clubs and video collectives. These community media activists believed that they
were in the forefront of the fight to build a new America. The creation of the electronic agora
was the first step towards the implementation of direct democracy within all social institutions.
11 The struggle might be hard, but 'ecotopia' was almost at hand.
The Rise of the 'Virtual Class'
Who would have predicted that, in less than 30 years after the battle for People's Park, squares
and hippies would together create the Californian Ideology? Who would have thought that such
a contradictory mix of technological determinism and libertarian individualism would
becoming the hybrid orthodoxy of the information age? And who would have suspected that as
technology and freedom were worshipped more and more, it would become less and less
possible to say anything sensible about the society in which they were applied?
The Californian Ideology derives its popularity from the very ambiguity of its precepts. Over
the last few decades, the pioneering work of the community media activists has been largely
recuperated by the hi-tech and media industries. Although companies in these sectors can
mechanise and sub-contract much of their labour needs, they remain dependent on key people
who can research and create original products, from software programs and computer chips to
books and tv programmes. Along with some hi-tech entrepreneurs, these skilled workers form
the so-called 'virtual class': '...the techno-intelligentsia of cognitive scientists, engineers,
computer scientists, video-game developers, and all the other communications specialists...'
Unable to subject them to the discipline of the assembly-line or replace them by machines,
managers have organised such intellectual workers through fixed-term contracts. Like the
'labour aristocracy' of the last century, core personnel in the media, computing and telecoms
industries experience the rewards and insecurities of the marketplace. On the one hand, these
hi-tech artisans not only tend to be well-paid, but also have considerable autonomy over their
pace of work and place of employment. As a result, the cultural divide between the hippie and
the organisation man has now become rather fuzzy. Yet, on the other hand, these workers are
tied by the terms of their contracts and have no guarantee of continued employment. Lacking
the free time of the hippies, work itself has become the main route to self-fulfillment for much
of the 'virtual class'. 13
The Californian Ideology offers a way of understanding the lived reality of these hi-tech
artisans. On the one hand, these core workers are a privileged part of the labour force. On the
other hand, they are the heirs of the radical ideas of the community media activists. The
Californian Ideology, therefore, simultaneously reflects the disciplines of market economics
and the freedoms of hippie artisanship. This bizarre hybrid is only made possible through a
nearly universal belief in technological determinism. Ever since the '60s, liberals - in the social
sense of the word - have hoped that the new information technologies would realise their
ideals. Responding to the challenge of the New Left, the New Right has resurrected an older
form of liberalism: economic liberalism. In place of the collective freedom sought by the
hippie radicals, they have championed the liberty of individuals within the marketplace. Yet
even these conservatives couldn't resist the romance of the new information technologies. Back
in the '60s, McLuhan's predictions were reinterpreted as an advertisement for new forms of
media, computers and telecommunications being developed by the private sector. From the
'70s onwards, Toffler, de Sola Pool and other gurus attempted to prove that the advent of
hypermedia would paradoxically involve a return to the economic liberalism of the past. 14
This retro-utopia echoed the predictions of Asimov, Heinlein and other macho sci-fi novelists
whose future worlds were always filled with space traders, superslick salesmen, genius
scientists, pirate captains and other rugged individualists. 15 The path of technological
progress didn't always lead to 'ecotopia' - it could instead lead back to the America of the
Electronic Agora or Electronic Marketplace?
The ambiguity of the Californian Ideology is most pronounced in its contradictory visions of
the digital future. The development of hypermedia is a key component of the next stage of
capitalism. As Zuboff points out, the introduction of media, computing and
telecommunications technologies directly into the factory and the office is the culmination of a
long process of separation of the workforce from direct involvement in production. 16 If only
for competitive reasons, all major industrial economies will eventually be forced to wire up
their populations to obtain the productivity gains of digital working. What is unknown is the
social and cultural impact of allowing people to produce and exchange almost unlimited
quantities of information on a global scale. Above all, will the advent of hypermedia will
realise the utopias of either the New Left or the New Right? As a hybrid faith, the Californian
Ideology happily answers this conundrum by believing in both visions at the same time - and
by not criticising either of them.
On the one hand, the anti-corporate purity of the New Left has been preserved by the advocates
of the 'virtual community'. According to their guru, Howard Rheingold, the values of the
counterDculture baby boomers are shaping the development of new information technologies.
As a consequence, community activists will be able to use hypermedia to replace corporate
capitalism and big government with a hi-tech 'gift economy'. Already bulletin board systems,
Net real-time conferences and chat facilities rely on the voluntary exchange of information and
knowledge between their participants. In Rheingold's view, the members of the 'virtual class'
are still in the forefront of the struggle for social liberation. Despite the frenzied commercial
and political involvement in building the 'information superhighway', the electronic agora will
inevitably triumph over its corporate and bureaucratic enemies. 17
On the other hand, other West Coast ideologues have embraced the laissez faire ideology of
their erstwhile conservative enemy. For example, Wired - the monthly bible of the 'virtual
class' - has uncritically reproduced the views of Newt Gingrich, the extreme-right Republican
leader of the House of Representatives, and the Tofflers, who are his close advisors. 18
Ignoring their policies for welfare cutbacks, the magazine is instead mesmerised by their
enthusiasm for the libertarian possibilities offered by new information technologies. However,
although they borrow McLuhan's technological determinism, Gingrich and the Tofflers aren't
advocates of the electronic agora. On the contrary, they claim that the convergence of the
media, computing and telecommunications will produce an electronic marketplace: 'In
cyberspace..., market after market is being transformed by technological progress from a
"natural monopoly" to one in which competition is the rule.' 19
In this version of the Californian Ideology, each member of the 'virtual class' is promised the
opportunity to become a successful hi-tech entrepreneur. Information technologies, so the
argument goes, empower the individual, enhance personal freedom, and radically reduce the
power of the nation-state. Existing social, political and legal power structures will wither away
to be replaced by unfettered interactions between autonomous individuals and their software.
These restyled McLuhanites vigorously argue that big government should stay off the backs of
resourceful entrepreneurs who are the only people cool and courageous enough to take risks. In
place of counter-productive regulations, visionary engineers are inventing the tools needed to
create a 'free market' within cyberspace, such as encryption, digital money and verification
procedures. Indeed, attempts to interfere with the emergent properties of these technological
and economic forces, particularly by the government, merely rebound on those who are foolish
enough to defy the primary laws of nature. According to the executive editor of Wired, the
'invisible hand' of the marketplace and the blind forces of Darwinian evolution are actually one
and the same thing. 20 As in Heinlein's and Asimov's sci-fi novels, the path forwards to the
future seems to lead back to the past. The twenty-first century information age will be the
realisation of the eighteenth century liberal ideals of Thomas Jefferson: '...the...creation of a
new civilisation, founded in the eternal truths of the American Idea.' 21
The Myth of the 'Free Market'
Following the victory of Gingrich's party in the 1994 legislative elections, this right-wing
version of the Californian Ideology is now in the ascendant. Yet, the sacred tenets of economic
liberalism are contradicted by the actual history of hypermedia. For instance, the iconic
technologies of the computer and the Net could only have been invented with the aid of
massive state subsidies and the enthusiastic involvement of amateurs. Private enterprise has
played an important role, but only as one part of a mixed economy.
For example, the first computer - the Difference Engine - was designed and built by private
companies, but its development was only made possible through a British Government grant of
17,470, which was a small fortune in 1834. 22 From Colossus to EDVAC, from flight
simulators to virtual reality, the development of computing has depended at key moments on
public research handouts or fat contracts with public agencies. The IBM corporation only built
the first programmable digital computer after it was requested to do so by the US Defense
Department during the Korean War. 23 Ever since, the development of successive generations
of computers has been directly or indirectly subsidised by the American defence budget. As
well as state aid, the evolution of computing has also depended upon the involvement of d.i.y.
culture. For instance, the personal computer was invented by amateur techies who wanted to
construct their own cheap machines. The existence of a 'gift economy' amongst hobbyists was
a necessary precondition for the subsequent success of products made by Apple and Microsoft.
Even now, shareware programs still play a vital role in advancing software design.
The history of the Internet also contradicts the tenets of the 'free market' ideologues. For the
first twenty years of its existence, the Net's development was almost completely dependent on
the much reviled American federal government. Whether via the US military or through the
universities, large amounts of tax payers' dollars went into building the Net infrastructure and
subsidising the cost of using its services. At the same time, many of the key Net programs and
applications were invented either by hobbyists or by professionals working in their spare-time.
For instance, the MUD program which allows real-time Net conferencing was invented by a
group of students who wanted to play fantasy games over a computer network. 24
One of the weirdest things about the rightwards drift of the Californian Ideology is that the
West Coast itself is a creation of the mixed economy. Government dollars were used to build
the irrigation systems, highways, schools, universities and other infrastructural projects which
makes the good life possible in California. On top of these public subsidies, the West Coast hi-
tech industrial complex has been feasting off the fattest pork barrel in history for decades. The
US government has poured billions of tax dollars into buying planes, missiles, electronics and
nuclear bombs from Californian companies. For those not blinded by 'free market' dogmas, it
was obvious that the Americans have always had state planning: only they call it the defence
budget. 25 At the same time, key elements of the West Coast's lifestyle come from its long
tradition of cultural bohemianism. Although they were later commercialised, community
media, 'new age' spiritualism, surfing, health food, recreational drugs, pop music and many
other forms of cultural heterodoxy all emerged from the decidedly non-commercial scenes
based around university campuses, artists' communities and rural communes. Without its d.i.y.
culture, California's myths wouldn't have the global resonance which they have today. 26
All of this public funding and community involvement has had an enormously beneficial -
albeit unacknowledged and uncosted - effect on the development of Silicon Valley and other
hi-tech industries. Capitalist entrepreneurs often have an inflated sense of their own
resourcefulness in developing new ideas and give little recognition to the contributions made
by either the state, their own labour force or the wider community. All technological progress
is cumulative - it depends on the results of a collective historical process and must be counted,
at least in part, as a collective achievement. Hence, as in every other industrialised country,
American entrepreneurs have inevitably relied on state intervention and d.i.y. initiatives to
nurture and develop their industries. When Japanese companies threatened to take over the
American microchip market, the libertarian computer capitalists of California had no
ideological qualms about joining a state-sponsored cartel organised to fight off the invaders
from the East. Until the Net programs allowing community participation within cyberspace
could be included, Bill Gates believed that Microsoft had no choice but to delay the launch of
'Windows '95'. 27 As in other sectors of the modern economy, the question facing the emerging
hypermedia industry isn't whether or not it will be organised as a mixed economy, but what
sort of mixed economy it will be.
Freedom is Slavery
If its holy precepts are refuted by profane history, why have the myths of the 'free market' so
influenced the proponents of the Californian Ideology? Living within a contract culture, the hi-
tech artisans lead a schizophrenic existence. On the one hand, they cannot challenge the
primacy of the marketplace over their lives. On the other hand, they resent attempts by those in
authority to encroach on their individual autonomy. By mixing New Left and New Right, the
Californian Ideology provides a mystical resolution of the contradictory attitudes held by
members of the 'virtual class'. Crucially, anti-statism provides the means to reconcile radical
and reactionary ideas about technological progress. While the New Left dislikes the
government for funding the military-industrial complex, the New Right attacks the state for
interfering with the spontaneous dissemination of new technologies by market competition.
Despite the central role played by public intervention in developing hypermedia, the
Californian ideologues preach an anti-statist gospel of hi-tech libertarianism: a bizarre mish-
mash of hippie anarchism and economic liberalism beefed up with lots of technological
determinism. Rather than comprehend really existing capitalism, gurus from both New Left
and New Right much prefer to advocate rival versions of a digital 'Jeffersonian democracy'.
For instance, Howard Rheingold on the New Left believes that the electronic agora will allow
individuals to exercise the sort of media freedom advocated by the Founding Fathers.
Similarly, the New Right claim that the removal of all regulatory curbs on the private
enterprise will create media freedom worthy of a 'Jefferson democracy'. 28
The triumph of this retro-futurism is a result of the failure of renewal in the USA during the
late '60s and early '70s. Following the confrontation at People's Park, the struggle between the
American establishment and the counter-culture entered into a downward spiral of violent
confrontation. While the Vietnamese - at the cost of enormous human suffering - were able to
expel the American invaders from their country, the hippies and their allies in the black civil
rights movement were eventually crushed by a combination of state repression and cultural co-
option. The Californian Ideology perfectly encapsulates the consequences of this defeat for
members of the 'virtual class'. Although they enjoy cultural freedoms won by the hippies, most
of them are no longer actively involved in the struggle to build 'ecotopia'. Instead of openly
rebelling against the system, these hi-tech artisans now accept that individual freedom can only
be achieved by working within the constraints of technological progress and the 'free market'.
In many cyberpunk novels, this asocial libertarianism is portrayed by the central character of
the hacker, who is a lone individual fighting for survival within the virtual world of
The drift towards the right by the Californian ideologues is the helped by their unquestioning
acceptance of the liberal ideal of the self-sufficient individual. In American folklore, the nation
was built out of a wilderness by free-booting individuals - the trappers, cowboys, preachers,
and settlers of the frontier. The American revolution itself was fought to protect the freedoms
and property of individuals against oppressive laws and unjust taxes imposed by a foreign
monarch. For both the New Left and the New Right, the early years of the American republic
provide a potent model for their rival versions of individual freedom. Yet there is a profound
contradiction at the centre of this primordial American dream: individuals in this period only
prospered through the suffering of others. Nowhere is this clearer than in the life of Thomas
Jefferson - the chief icon of the Californian Ideology.
Thomas Jefferson was the man who wrote the inspiring call for democracy and liberty in the
American Declaration of Independence and - at the same time - owned nearly 200 human
beings as slaves. As a politician, he championed the right of American peasants and artisans to
determine their own destinies without being subject to the restrictions of feudal Europe. Like
other liberals of the period, he thought that political liberties could only be protected from
authoritarian governments by the widespread ownership of individual private property. The
rights of citizens were derived from this fundamental natural right. In order to encourage self-
sufficiency, he proposed that every American should be given at least 50 acres of land to
guarantee their economic independence. Yet, while idealising the small farmers and
businessmen of the frontier, Jefferson was actually a Virginian plantation-owner living off the
labour of his slaves. Although the South's 'peculiar institution' troubled his conscience, he still
believed that the natural rights of man included the right to own human beings as private
property. In 'Jeffersonian democracy', freedom for white folks was based upon slavery for
black people. 30
Forward Into the Past
Despite the eventual emancipation of the slaves and the victories of the civil rights movement,
racial segregation still lies at the centre of American politics - especially on the West Coast. In
the 1994 election for governor in California, Pete Wilson, the Republican candidate, won
through a vicious anti-immigrant campaign. Nationally, the triumph of Gingrich's Republican
party in the legislative elections was based on the mobilisation of 'angry white males' against
the supposed threat from black welfare scroungers, immigrants from Mexico and other uppity
minorities. These politicians have reaped the electoral benefits of the increasing polarisation
between the mainly white, affluent suburbanites - most of whom vote - and the largely non-
white, poorer inner city dwellers - most of whom don't vote. Although they retain some hippie
ideals, many Californian ideologues have found it impossible to take a clear stand against the
divisive policies of the Republicans. This is because the hi-tech and media industries are a key
element of the New Right electoral coalition. In part, both capitalists and well-paid workers
fear that the open acknowledgement of public funding of their companies would justify tax
rises to pay for desperately needed spending on health care, environmental protection, housing,
public transport and education. More importantly, many members of the 'virtual class' want to
be seduced by the libertarian rhetoric and technological enthusiasm of the New Right. Working
for hi-tech and media companies, they would like to believe that the electronic marketplace can
somehow solve America's pressing social and economic problems without any sacrifices on
their part. Caught in the contradictions of the Californian Ideology, Gingrich is - as one Wired
contributor put it - both their 'friend and foe'. 32
In the USA, a major redistribution of wealth is urgently needed in the long-term economic
well-being of the country. However, this is against the short-term interests of rich white folks,
including many members of the 'virtual class'. Rather than share with their poor black or
hispanic neighbours, the yuppies instead retreat into their affluent suburbs, protected by armed
guards and secure with their private welfare services. 33 The deprived only participate in the
information age by providing cheap non-unionised labour for the unhealthy factories of the
Silicon Valley chip manufacturers. 34 Even the construction of cyberspace has become an
integral part of the fragmentation of American society into antagonistic, racially-determined
classes. Already 'red-lined' by profit-hungry telcos, the inhabitants of poor inner city areas are
prevented from accessing the new on-line services through lack of money. 35 In contrast,
members of the 'virtual class' and other professionals can play at being cyberpunks within
hyper-reality without having to meet any of their impoverished neighbours. Alongside the
ever-widening social divisions, another apartheid is being created between the 'information-
rich' and the 'information-poor'. In this hi-tech 'Jeffersonian democracy', the difference between
masters and slaves endures in a new form.
Cyborg Masters and Robot Slaves
The fear of the rebellious 'underclass' has now corrupted the most fundamental tenet of the
Californian Ideology: its belief in the emancipatory potentiality of the new information
technologies. While the proponents of the electronic agora and the electronic marketplace
promise to liberate individuals from the hierarchies of the state and private monopolies, the
social polarisation of American society is bringing forth a more oppressive vision of the digital
future. The technologies of freedom are turning into the machines of dominance.
At his estate at Monticello, Jefferson invented many clever gadgets for his house, such as a
'dumb waiter' to deliver food from the kitchen into the dining room. By mediating his contacts
with his slaves through technology, this revolutionary individualist spared himself from facing
the reality of his dependence upon the forced labour of his fellow human beings. 36 In the late-
twentieth century, technology is once again being used to reinforce the difference between the
masters and the slaves.
According to some visionaries, the search for the perfection of mind, body and spirit will
inevitably lead to the emergence of the 'post-human': a bio-technological manifestation of the
social privileges of the 'virtual class'. While the hippies saw self-development as part of social
liberation, the hi-tech artisans of contemporary California are more likely to seek individual
self-fulfillment through therapy, spiritualism, exercise or other narcissistic pursuits. Their
desire to escape into the gated suburb of the hyper-real is only one aspect of this deep self-
obsession. 37 Emboldened by supposed advances in 'Artificial Intelligence' and medical
science, the Extropian cult fantasises of abandoning the 'wetware' of the human state altogether
to become living machines. 38 Just like Virek and the Tessier-Ashpools in Gibson's 'Sprawl'
novels, they believe that social privilege will eventually endow them with immortality. 39
Instead of predicting the emancipation of humanity, this form of technological determinism can
only envisage a deepening of social segregation.
Despite these fantasies, white people in California remain dependent on their darker-skinned
fellow humans to work in their factories, pick their crops, look after their children and tend
their gardens. Following the L.A. riots, they increasingly fear that this 'underclass' will
someday demand its liberation. If human slaves are ultimately unreliable, then mechanical ones
will have to be invented. The search for the holy grail of 'Artificial Intelligence' reveals this
desire for the Golem - a strong and loyal slave whose skin is the colour of the earth and whose
innards are made of sand. As in Asimov's 'Robot' novels, the techno-utopians imagine that it is
possible to obtain slaveDlike labour from inanimate machines. 40 Yet, although technology
can store or amplify labour, it can never remove the necessity for humans to invent, build and
maintain these machines in the first place. Slave labour cannot be obtained without somebody
Across the world, the Californian Ideology has been embraced as an optimistic and
emancipatory form of technological determinism. Yet, this utopian fantasy of the West Coast
depends upon its blindness towards - and dependence on - the social and racial polarisation of
the society from which it was born. Despite its radical rhetoric, the Californian Ideology is
ultimately pessimistic about real social change. Unlike the hippies, its advocates are not
struggling to build 'ecotopia' or even to help revive the New Deal. Instead, the social liberalism
of New Left and the economic liberalism of New Right have converged into an ambiguous
dream of a hi-tech 'Jeffersonian democracy'. Interpreted generously, this retro-futurism could
be a vision of a cybernetic frontier where hi-tech artisans discover their individual self-
fulfillment in either the electronic agora or the electronic marketplace. However, as the
zeitgeist of the 'virtual class', the Californian Ideology is at the same time an exclusive faith. If
only some people have access to the new information technologies, 'Jeffersonian democracy'
can become a hi-tech version of the plantation economy of the Old South. Reflecting its deep
ambiguity, the Californian Ideology's technological determinism is not simply optimistic and
emancipatory. It is simultaneously a deeply pessimistic and repressive vision of the future.
There are Alternatives
Despite its deep contradictions, people across the world still believe that the Californian
Ideology expresses the only way forward to the future. With the increasing globalisation of the
world economy, many members of the 'virtual class' in Europe and Asia feel more affinity with
their Californian peers than other workers within their own country. Yet, in reality, debate has
never been more possible or more necessary. The Californian Ideology was developed by a
group of people living within one specific country with a particular mix of socio-economic and
technological choices. Its eclectic and contradictory blend of conservative economics and
hippie radicalism reflects the history of the West Coast - and not the inevitable future of the
rest of the world. For instance, the anti-statist assumptions of the Californian ideologues are
rather parochial. In Singapore, the government is not only organising the construction of a
fibre-optic network, but also trying to control the ideological suitability of the information
distributed over it. Given the much faster growth rates of the Asian 'tigers', the digital future
will not necessarily first arrive in California. 41
Despite the recommendations of the Bangemann Report, most European authorities are also
determined to be closely involved within the development of new information technologies.
Minitel - the first successful on-line network in the world - was the deliberate creation of the
French state. Responding to an official report on the potential impact of hypermedia, the
government decided to pour resources into developing 'cutting edge' technologies. In 1981,
France Telecom launched the Minitel system which provided a mix of text-based information
and communications facilities. As a monopoly, this nationalised telco was able to build up a
critical mass of users for its pioneering on-line system by giving away free terminals to anyone
willing to forgo paper telephone directories. Once the market had been created, commercial
and community providers were then able to find enough customers or participants to thrive
within the system. Ever since, millions of French people from all social backgrounds have
happily booked tickets, chatted each other up and politically organised on-line without
realising they were breaking the libertarian precepts of the Californian Ideology. 42
Far from demonising the state, the overwhelming majority of the French population believe
that more public intervention is needed for an efficient and healthy society. 43 In the recent
presidential elections, almost every candidate had to advocate - at least rhetorically - greater
state intervention to end social exclusion of the unemployed and homeless. Unlike its
American equivalent, the French revolution went beyond economic liberalism to popular
democracy. Following the victory of the Jacobins over their liberal opponents in 1792, the
democratic republic in France became the embodiment of the 'general will'. As such, the state
was believed to defend the interests of all citizens, rather than just to protect the rights of
individual property-owners. The discourse of French politics allows for collective action by the
state to mitigate - or even remove - problems encountered by society. While the Californian
ideologues try to ignore the taxpayers' dollars subsidising the development of hypermedia, the
French government can openly intervene in this sector of the economy. 44
Although its technology is now dated, the history of Minitel clearly refutes the anti-statist
prejudices of the Californian ideologues - and of the Bangemann committee. The digital future
can be a hybrid of state intervention, capitalist entrepreneurship and d.i.y. culture. Crucially, if
the state can foster the development of hypermedia, conscious action could also be taken to
prevent the emergence of the social apartheid between the 'information rich' and the
'information poor'. By not leaving everything up to the vagaries of market forces, the EU and
its member states could ensure that every citizen has the opportunity to be connected to a
broadband fibre-optic network at the lowest possible price.
In the first instance, this would be a much needed job creation scheme in a period of mass
unemployment. As Keynesian employment measure, nothing beats paying people to dig holes
in the road and fill them in again. Even more importantly, the construction of a fibre-optic
network into homes and businesses could give everyone access to new on-line services and
create a large vibrant community of shared expertise. The long-term gains to the economy and
to society from the building of the 'infobahn' would be immeasurable. It would allow industry
to work more efficiently and market new products. It would ensure that education and
information services were available to all. No doubt the 'infobahn' will create a mass market for
private companies to sell existing information commodities - films, tv programmes, music and
books - across the Net. At the same time, once people can distribute as well as receive
hypermedia, a flourishing of community media and special interest groups will quickly
emerge. For all this to happen, collective intervention will be needed to ensure that all citizens
are included within the digital future.
The Rebirth of the Modern
Even if it is not in circumstances of their own choosing, it is now necessary for Europeans to
assert their own vision of the future. There are varying ways forward towards the information
society and some paths are more desirable than others. In order to make an informed choice,
European hi-tech artisans need to develop a more coherent analysis of the impact of
hypermedia than can be found within the ambiguities of the Californian Ideology. The
members of the European 'virtual class' must create their own distinctive self-identity.
This alternative understanding of the future starts from a rejection of any form of social
apartheid - both inside and outside cyberspace. Any programme for developing hypermedia
must ensure that the whole population can have access to the new on-line services. In place of
New Left or New Right anarchism, a European strategy for developing the new information
technologies must openly acknowledge the inevitability of some form of mixed economy - the
creative and antagonistic mix of state, corporate and d.i.y. initiatives. The indeterminacy of the
digital future is a result of the ubiquity of this mixed economy within the modern world. No
one knows exactly what the relative strengths of each component will be, but collective action
can ensure that no social group is deliberately excluded from cyberspace. A European strategy
for the information age must also celebrate the creative powers of the hi-tech artisans. Because
their labour cannot be deskilled or mechanised, members of the 'virtual class' exercise great
control over their own work. Rather than succumbing to the fatalism of the Californian
Ideology, we should embrace the Promethean possibilities of hypermedia. Within the
limitations of the mixed economy, hi-tech artisans are able to invent something completely
new - something which has not been predicted in any sci-fi novel. These innovative forms of
knowledge and communications will sample the achievements of others, including some
aspects of the Californian Ideology. It is now impossible for any serious movement for social
emancipation not to include demands for feminism, drug culture, gay liberation, ethnic identity
and other issues pioneered by West Coast radicals. Similarly, any attempt to develop
hypermedia within Europe will need some of the entrepreneurial zeal and can-do attitude
championed by the Californian New Right. Yet, at the same time, the development of
hypermedia means innovation, creativity and invention. There are no precedents for all aspects
of the digital future.
As pioneers of the new, the hi-tech artisans need to reconnect themselves with the theory and
practice of productive art. They are not just employees of others - or even would-be cybernetic
entrepreneurs. They are also artist-engineers - designers of the next stage of modernity.
Drawing on the experience of the Saint-Simonists and Constructivists, the hi-tech artisans can
create a new machine aesthetic for the information age. 45 For instance, musicians have used
computers to develop purely digital forms of music, such as jungle and techno. 46 Interactive
artists have explored the potentiality of CD-rom technologies, such as Sass's Anti-Rom. The
Hypermedia Research Centre has constructed an experimental virtual social space called J's
Joint. 47 In each instance, artist-engineers are trying to push beyond the limitations of both the
technologies and their own creativity. Above all, these new forms of expression and
communications are connected with the wider culture. The developers of hypermedia must
reassert the possibility of rational and conscious control over the shape of the digital future.
Unlike the elitism of the Californian Ideology, the European artist-engineers must construct a
cyberspace which is inclusive and universal. Now is the time for the rebirth of the Modern.
'Present circumstances favour making luxury national. Luxury will become useful and moral
when it is enjoyed by the whole nation. the honour and advantage of employing directly, in
political arrangements, the progress of exact sciences and the fine arts...have been reserved for
our century.' 48
Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron are members of the Hypermedia Research Centre of the University of
Westminster, London. We would like to thank Andrej kerlep, Dick Pountain, Helen Barbrook, Jim McLellan,
John Barker, John Wyver, Rhiannon Patterson and the members of the HRC for their help in writing this article.
For the theory and practice of the Hypermedia Research Centre, see: http://www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk/
1 Naum Gabo and Anton Pevsner, 'The Realistic Manifesto, 1920', in John E. Bowlt (ed.), Russian Art of the
Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism, London 1976, p. 214.
2 For over 25 years, experts have been predicting the imminent arrival of the information age, see Alain Touraine,
La Socit post-industrielle, Paris 1969; Zbigniew Brzezinski, Between Two Ages: America's role in the
Technetronic Era, New York 1970; Daniel Bell, The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society, New York 1973;
Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave, London 1980; Simon Nora and Alain Minc, The Computerisation of Society,
Cambridge 1980 and Ithiel de Sola Pool, Technologies of Freedom, Harvard 1983.
3 See Martin Bangemann, Europe and the global information society, Brussels, 1994 (available through
http://www.echo.lu ) and the programme and abstracts of the Warwick University's 'Virtual Futures '95
4 See Mitch Kapor, 'Where is the Digital Highway Really Heading?' in Wired, July/August 1993.
5 See Mike Davis, City of Quartz, Verso, London 1990, Richard Walker, 'California Rages Against the Dying of
the Light', NLR 209 January-February 1995 and the records of Ice-T, Snoop Dog, Dr Dre, Ice Cube, NWA and
many other West Coast rappers.
6 See George Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: a Global Analysis of 1968, Boston 1987, p. 124.
Jerry Rubin, 'An Emergency Letter to my Brothers and Sisters in the Movement' in Peter Stansill and David Zane
Mairowitz (eds.), BAMN: Outlaw Manifestos and Ephemera 1965-70, London 1971, p. 244.
7 For the key role played by popular culture in the self-identity of the American New Left, see Katsiaficas, op.
cit., and Charles Reich, The Greening of America, New York 1970.
8 In a best-selling novel of the mid-'70s, the northern half of the West Coast has seceded from the rest of the USA
to form a hippie utopia, see Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia, New York 1975. This idealisation of Californian
community life can also be found in John Brunner, The Shockwave Rider, London 1975, and even in later works,
such as Kim Stanley Robinson, Pacific Edge, London 1990.
9 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, London 1964, pp. 255-6. Also see Marshall McLuhan and Quentin
Fiore, The Medium is the Massage, London 1967; Gerald Emanuel Stern (ed.), McLuhan: Hot & Cool, London
10 See John Downing, Radical Media, Boston 1984.
11 Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash: the theory of the virtual class, Montreal 1994, p. 15.
Back in the '60s, some New Left theorists believed that these scientific-technical workers were leading the
struggle for social liberation through their factory occupations and demands for self-management, see Serge
Mallet, The New Working Class, Nottingham 1975. In contrast, futurologists thought that members of these
professions as an embryo of a new ruling class, see Daniel Bell, op. cit..
12 See Dennis Hayes, Behind the Silicon Curtain, London 1989, for a description of contract work in Silicon
Valley. For more theoretical examinations of post-Fordist labour organisation, see Alain Lipietz, L'audace ou
l'enlisement, Paris 1984; Mirages and Miracles, Verso London 1987; Benjamin Coriat, L'atelier et le robot, Paris
1990; and Toni Negri, Revolution Retrieved: Selected Writings on Marx, Keynes, Capitalist Crisis & New Social
Subjects 1967-83, London 1988.
13 For McLuhan's success on the corporate junket circuit, see Tom Wolfe, 'What If He Is Right?', The Pump
House Gang, London 1968. For the use of his ideas by more conservative thinkers, see Alvin Toffler, op. cit.,
Ithiel de Sola Pool, op. cit., Daniel Bell, op. cit., and Zbigniew Brzezinski, op. cit.
14 Heroic males are common throughout classic sci-fi novels, see D. D. Harriman in Robert Heinlein, The Man
Who Sold the Moon, New York 1950, or the leading characters in Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy, New
York 1953, I, Robot, London 1968, and The Rest of the Robots, London 1968. Hagbard Celine - a more
psychedelic version of this male archetype - is the central character in Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, The
Illuminati Trilogy, New York 1975. In the timechart of 'future history' at the front of Robert Heinlein's novel, it
predicts that, after a period of social crisis caused by rapid technological advance, stability would restored in the
1980s and '90s through '...an opening of new frontiers and a return to nineteenth-century economy'!
15 See Shoshana Zuboff, In the Age of the Smart Machine: the future of work and power, New York 1988. Of
course, this analysis is derived from Karl Marx, Grundrisse, London 1973; and 'Results of the Immediate Process
of Production' in Albert Dragstedt (ed.), Value Studies by Marx, London 1976.
16 See Howard Rheingold, Virtual Communities, London 1994, and his home pages on
17 See the gushing interview with the Tofflers in Peter Schwartz, 'Shock Wave (Anti) Warrior', Wired, November
1993, and, for the magazine's characteristic ambiguity over the Speaker of the House's reactionary political
programme, see the aptly named interview with Newt Gingrich in Esther Dyson, 'Friend and Foe', Wired, August
18 The Progress and Freedom Foundation, Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the
http://www.pff.org/position.html, p. 5.
19 See Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: the New Biology of Machines, London 1994.
20 Progress and Freedom Foundation, op. cit., p. 13. Toffler and friends also proudly proclaim that:
'America...remains the land of individual freedom, and this freedom clearly extends to cyberspace', op. cit., p. 6.
Also see Mitch Kapor, op. cit..
22 Simon Schaffer, Babbage's Intelligence: Calculating Engines and the Factory System,
23 The Dream Machine, Palfreman and Swade, London 1991. See pages 32 - 36 for an account of how a lack of
state intervention meant that Nazi Germany lost the opportunity to build the world's first electronic computer. In
1941 the German High Command refused further funding to Konrad Zuze, who had pioneered the use of binary
code, stored programs and electronic logic gates.
24 See Howard Rheingold, op. cit..
25 See Ann Markusen, Peter Hall, Scott Campbell and Sabina Detrick, The Rise of the Gunbelt, New York 1991.
26 For an account of how these cultural innovations emerged from the early acid scene, see Tom Wolfe, The
Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, New York 1968. Interestingly, one of the drivers of the famous bus was Stewart
Brand, who is now a leading contributor to Wired.
27 Dennis Hayes, op. cit., points out that the American computer industry has already encouraged by the Pentagon
to form cartels against foreign competition. Gates admits that he'd only recently realised the 'massive structural
change' being caused by the Net, see 'The Bill Gates Column', The Guardian, 20 July 1995.
28 See Howard Rheingold's Web pages, op. cit., and Mitch Kapor, op. cit.. Despite the libertarian instincts of both
these writers, their infatuation with the era of the Founding Fathers is shared by the neo-fascist Militia and Patriot
movements, see Chip Berlet, Armed Militias, Right Wing Populism & Scapegoating, on
29 See the hacker heroes in William Gibson, Neuromancer, London 1984, Count Zero, London 1986, and Mona
Lisa Overdrive, London 19889, or in Bruce Sterling (ed.), Mirrorshades, London 1988. A prototype of this sort of
anti-hero is Dekker, the existential hunter of replicants in Ridley Scott's Bladerunner.
30 According to Miller, Thomas Jefferson believed that black people could not be members of the Lockean social
contract which bound together citizens of the American republic. 'The rights of man...while theoretically and
ideally the birthright of every human being, applied in practice in the United States only to white men: the black
slaves were excluded from consideration because, while admittedly human beings, they were also property, and
where the rights of man conflicted with the rights of property, property took precedence', see John Miller, The
Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, New York 1977, p.13. Jefferson's opposition to slavery was at
best rhetorical. In a letter of 22 April 1820, he disingenuously suggested that the best way to encourage the
abolition of slavery would be to legalise the private ownership of human beings in all States of the Union and the
frontier territories! He claimed that '...their diffusion over a greater surface would make them individually happier,
and proportionally facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation, by dividing the burden on a greater
number of coadjutors [i.e. slave-owners]', see Merill Peterson (ed.), The Portable Thomas Jefferson, New York
1975, p. 568. For a description of his life on his plantation, also see Paul Wilstach, Jefferson and Monticello,
31 For California's turn to the Right, see Richard Walker, 'California Rages Against the Dying of the Light', NLR
209, January-February 1995.
32 See Esther Dyson, op. cit.. Esther Dyson collaborated with the Tofflers in the writing of The Peace and
Progress Foundation's Cyberspace and the American Dream, op. cit., which is a futurist manifesto designed to win
votes for Gingrich from members of the 'virtual class'.
33 For the rise of the fortified suburbs, see Mike Davis, City of Quartz, London 1990 and Urban Control: the
Ecology of Fear, New Jersey 1992. These 'gated suburbs' provide the inspiration for the alienated background of
many cyberpunk sci-fi novels, such as Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash, New York 1992.
34 See Hayes, op. cit..
35 See Reginald Stuart, 'High-Tech Redlining', Utne Reader, 68 March-April 1995.
36 See Paul Wilstach, op. cit.
37 See Dennis Hayes, op. cit..
38 For an exposition of their futurist programme, see the Extropians' FAQ on
39 See William Gibson, op. cit..
40 See Isaac Asimov, op. cit..
41 See William Gibson and Sandy Sandfort, 'Disneyland with the Death Penalty', Wired, September/October
1993. Since these articles are an attack on Singapore, it is ironic that the real Disneyland is in California, whose
repressive penal code includes the death penalty!
42 For the report which led to the creation of Minitel, see Simon Nora and Alain Minc, op. cit.. An account of the
early years of Minitel can be found in Michel Marchand, The Minitel Saga: A French Success Story, Paris 1988.
43 According to a poll carried out during the 1995 presidential elections, 67% of the French population supported
the proposition that "the state must intervene more in the economic life of our country", see 'Une majorit de Fran
ais souhaitent un vrai "chef" pour un vrai "Etat"', Le Mond