And now we turn to some pessimists…
Darin Barney analyzes the economic effects of computer networks, and their consequent political and societal effects (primarily in America, or other countries in the North–this being a term that replaces the antiquated “West”). He approaches network technology with a great deal of skepticism, offering a cautious, and even pessimistic, voice to the the many who hail technological progress with such enthusiasm. Barney seems to see computer networks as fueling the current capitalist system such that it transforms into a turbo-charged capitalism (see Luttwack on “turbocapitalism”). Automation via technology replaces human labor, thus eliminating jobs; even if these jobs are replaced by new jobs in the workplace of a different kind–creating the computer technology rather than physical manufacturing, for example–these new jobs do not necessarily allow displaced workers back into the labor force.
In fact, computer networks in the economy increased the need for what Robert Reich calls “symbolic analysts,” or skilled workers–those who program, design computers and related products, etc. The unskilled labor force (the manufacturers and laborers), however, decrease because of automation. Businesses increasingly call for those with higher skills and higher education–which can only be achieved if people have the money necessary to pass through college, training schools, and graduate schools. Those who lose their jobs not only lose their place in the labor force and income, they also lose the opportunity to rejoin the labor force, since they often lack the resources to become skilled workers.
The economy, then, seems to favor the rich–or at least the well-off. Sure, consumers win out in general with cheaper products, but does the cheapness of products outweigh the loss of income for so many members of society? Those with skilled labor, those trading stocks and running companies and designing chips and computers are winning out as consumers, workers, and investors. The division between the “bourgeois” and the “proletariat” seems particularly marked in this vision.
Barney also notes the way in which computer networks enforce such boundaries and the work system through electronic surveillance, mostly through the computer networks themselves. I know that at HP, where I work over the summer, the networks are monitored–though loosely–to make sure workers aren’t stirring up trouble online. To what degree might they take this surveillance? It is lenient now, but it could be used to dictate choices on the computer, force work and work alone–basically to reduce humans to machines themselves. In this sense, as Marx states (and Barney re-states), humans are “transformed ‘into a living appendage of the machine'” (p 133). Note the reversal from Hayles’s and Haraway’s ideas: the machine is not our appendage or an addition to our minds and bodies; rather, we are secondary, the addition to the machines.
Mark Andrejevic too sees such network surveillance as threatening to us in terms of labor, but also in terms of general politics and freedoms. He sees interactivity between individuals as democratizing to an extent (or on the surface), but ultimately the information we share online is given to those who control the systems of spreading and containing information. Think of Facebook: we share our information with whomever we wish in order to connect to friends and peers; but in the first place, we give the information to Facebook, to those who run and monitor the website. We do not just give it to them, we entrust it to them–people who are not our friends, not necessarily our peers, and not necessarily those who look out for our best interests. Everytime Facebook changes its policy, allowing more third party users to access pieces of its users’ information, it exhibits its power over its users. We may not like these new policies… but do we leave? Not often. Why? Because it is the hub for connecting with friends and family, and it knows it. We need it, and it can now abuse that power (whether or not it really does is up to debate).
Democracy seems tenuous if the initial step to egalitarian interactivity is based upon initial submission to a system or authority of power. The continued interactivity rests upon the prudent exercise of that power. Perhaps what is most anxious-making, however, is the way in which these controllers of informational-networks “spy” or survey our information without us remembering. It’s not quite the Panopticon because so many people forget how public their lives really are, and how many groups have control over key pieces of information. We are not constantly conscious of some “evil overlords,” but rather ignorant of them. Which is worse? Knowing that these system leaders see all, or pretending that they don’t?