I agree that "cyberspace" is a cliche that distracts us from the social and economic paradigm shift that has occurred in the post-industrial era. Frequently associated with avant-garde movements (cyberpunk fiction and music, for example) and radical individualism (the general ethos of "computer hacking" as countercultural and following its own "higher laws"), "cyberspace" invokes dreamy visions of collectivity, "free" communication, and resistance to the military-industrial complex. Lumped together with emancipatory movements in the old Soviet Bloc, contemporary China, and Africa that have taken advantage of new technologies, "cyberspace" suggests a profound revolutionary praxis that is often just a way to keep left intellectuals distracted while the real power over the new technologies is reconsolidated by megacorporations in the telecommunications and computer fields and right wing politicians.
We must keep in mind in all of our analyses of the new technologies that they are at the heart of a new economy. The postmodern economy relies primarily on the circulation of representations (not just "information") and seeks to maximize the time any given "representation" circulates, either by way of its discrete exposure or publicity (the time a feature film draws audiences in theaters and then the home-video markets) or by way of its capacity to warp into other representational networks (to stay with the same admittedly crude example: the marketing of consumer goods by way of a feature film, for example). All material production from consumer goods to "hardware" for this representational production is subordinate to the discursive practices and representational logics of this new economy. This fact does not mean we have been magically "liberated" from the dross of materiality -- Nietzsche's time, change, and becoming (and their ugly effects on the body); materiality is simply subordinated to a much more fluid and manipulable system of production.
How should we analyze the consequences of this new economy for social life and discrete subjects? I have proposed that we reconsider all the key concepts of the traditional leftist critique of capitalism, recognizing that each of these concepts (and their interrelations) will have to be redefined in terms of the new conditions of production, consumption, and constitution of social life. I am referring here to my essay, "The Writing Class," in POLITICS, THEORY, AND CONTEMPORARY CULTURE, ed. Mark Poster (Columbia University Press, 1993), pp. 41-82. If "labor" is defined today for many in terms of their relative abilities to communicate within a specific discursive field, then what constitutes "alienation" from one's labor? Rote data entry, for example, would be an obvious equivalent, but more complex versions (with interestingly different consequences) are also imaginable. Various forms of communicative efficiency, ranging from the routine completion of electronic forms (airline reservations, for example) to the routine legal plea-bargaining (by deputy district attorneys dealing with enormous caseloads), would also qualify as versions of workers alienated from their ultimate products and, of course, from fellow workers. Related concepts such as "reification" and "surplus value" would have to be redefined in similar ways.
What ought to emerge from such a socioeconomic analysis would be a better understanding of the class hierarchies that have emerged over the last half century. As my crude examples in the previous paragraph suggest, there would likely be surprising new members of the "working class" -- those with relatively little command over the kind of work they do -- and a new configuration of the ruling class and what constitutes its "capital." Capital will have to be rethought along the lines of discursive/ representational authority, and it will be increasingly understood as following my earlier principle for "communicative longevity." What is valuable is what can maximize its communicative range in terms of time and space, thus valorizing the diversity of a message's circulation. The most powerful is the one capable of commanding the most different discursive fields and "circulating" within as many of them as possible.
Such a new class analysis will leave the material worker in a position of near total alienation from the new productive means, virtually identifying that worker (whatever his/her pay or benefits or job security) with a growing underclass, the boundaries of which are determined by the relative computer/ technological illiteracy of its members. This would apply as well to the global configuration of First World nations to the "developing" nations and to the so-called Third World.
In short, the fantasy that the Internet offers us the possibility of rediscovering in virtual reality the communal space and life we were unable to realize in the Sixties remains a fantasy as long as we ignore the fundamental economic purposes served by the Net and new multimedia technologies. If we begin to interpret the social and economic foundations for the new technologies, then it is possible we will be able to register some sort of resistance (however small or necessarily bootleg) to what in the mid-1990s appears the ineluctable drive of international corporations to control the vast majority of the resources we associate with "Cyberspace."
John Carlos Rowe
Critical Theory Institute
University of California, Irvine