Karl Marx was a creature of the industrial revolution. Colossal productive forces were unleashed during his lifetime, which swept over and altered every form of human relations. An irreparable breach opened like a wound between nineteenth-century Europe and its own past. Marx, a revolutionary, observed with an admiring eye the cultural disorientation – the cosmic vertigo – induced by the destructive energy of the group he mislabeled “the bourgeoisie.”
Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.
Industry, like science, Marx believed, had been built by a ruthlessly materialistic class of men, stripped bare of illusions and ideals. He erected his theory of history and revolution on the same principle. Power meant control of production: all else was utopian fairy dust. Literature, the arts, religion, even politics and the law rode submissively behind the great locomotive of material production. Social life resembled work in the spinning mills of Manchester: predetermined, bounded by stuff, and necessarily exploitive. Revolution was a question of understanding impersonal forces – a scientific enterprise.
Eleven years after the passage in the Communist Manifesto cited above, Marx sought to explain his method:
In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.
Granted that Marxism, as a science, has been wrapped in a plastic bag and dumped in the garbage can of history, it remains a deeply evocative specimen of the psychology of the industrial age. Everything real Marx believed to be material: hard, weighty, quantifiable, massive in scale. I find it fascinating to contrast this mindset with that of our own wildly transformative moment in time. We, too, feel that a breach has opened between ourselves and our immediate predecessors, the “weary giants of flesh and steel.” The Old Ones worshipped solid matter. We imagine we have outgrown such simplicity, but are transfixed by information – the flow of immaterial data bits through multiple devices and platforms. Reality hasn’t changed, only the historical context.
If I brought Marx back to life, the first question he would ask is, “Who owns the means of production?” I would answer indirectly, by trying to explain about the Fifth Wave of information now battering established authority in every domain. The protagonist of the story, I would note, isn’t the proletariat but the public – a motley if rebellious crew of niche-dwelling amateurs. New technologies have allowed the public to seize command of the means of communication – and, to everyone’s astonishment, it turns out that authority lapses into a state of crisis unless it can monopolize the conversation. This is true of government, science, education, business, mass media: top-down, heavily accredited structures all.
The resurrected Marx, still following a materialist thread, would stroke his bushy beard, then sit at my laptop and tap it. It makes a solid sound. “Isn’t information produced by machines assembled in factories?” he would ask. “Don’t the means of production trump, and even control, the means of communication?”
That, I am forced to admit, is a very interesting question.
The global information sphere – that churning, boiling stream of uncontrollable content – is not identical to the web, but depends on it. The web in turn depends on devices for access and communication. The device from which the web first emerged like a butterfly from a caterpillar was the personal computer: the lowly desktop began a world historical convulsion that has toppled governments and upended industries in its earliest phase. Yet the spread of the PC meant the triumph of software over hardware, of data bits over physical products, of Bill Gates and Microsoft over PC manufacturers like IBM.
Did Gates, with his near-monopoly on operating systems, control the shape of available information? To some extent, he did and still does, as I can plainly see when the MS Word autocorrect kicks in. Gates’ most distinctive contribution to communication was doubtless PowerPoint, which persuaded millions of otherwise peaceful persons to converse by aiming bullets at one another.
But did Gates command the deep “economic structure of society,” while PC users populating the web frothed on the surface of things, mere “superstructure”? I think the reverse was more nearly the case. Microsoft’s only significant product for the web, the IE browser, was epiphenomenal to the great migration of the public into the digital universe. It was superstructure. More generally, cheap PCs powered by Microsoft helped make the gateway to the web personal rather than institutional, and the web itself a mustering place for armies of amateurs on the march against structures of authority – not least Microsoft itself.
The company profited mightily but controlled very little.
The same holds true for Apple. Unlike Microsoft, Apple kept control over its devices, for which it spawned a flood of applications. But control of content remained with a variegated public. The alleged genius of Steve Jobs – like that of Bill Gates – consisted in helping the public move in the direction it wished to, at a price. Easily hidden and multi-connected, the smart phone became the ultimate anti-authority weapon: it has seemed illegal to American cops and customs officers no less than to Arab dictators. Apple’s iPhone added to this cluster of subversive capabilities but did not invent it, nor can the company direct or control its use.
It could be argued that Google and Facebook, keepers of vast server farms, own the means of production for information. But this confuses transmission with production. The large web platforms depend entirely on the public to produce their content. Most are free, and can be abandoned at no cost the moment they fail to satisfy the public’s purposes. Because web companies trade in user information, some believe the public is really a dupe, a victim of false consciousness. I consider this a moral judgment, not an interpretation of reality. It presumes that the public should want other than it does, and dismisses the remorseless assault on every temple of authority as a charade to grow Google’s profits. Maybe so: but the argument has to be made.
In the end, I would turn back to my resurrected Marx, and deliver the bad news: vulgar materialism can’t explain the Fifth Wave. The concepts of the industrial revolution hang awkwardly on a digital age, obscuring far more than they reveal.
Here, in a nutshell, is why bits differ from mills.
The global information sphere was unplanned and unintended. The system it has formed is dynamic and massively complex, and long ago slipped beyond the possibility of control by any player in it – including those who own the means of production for the devices and the software which make the system possible. This is the case for good or evil. Pro-democracy demonstrators and vile pornographers alike promote their messages with relative impunity on the global information sphere. The forces at work resemble the weather more than a cohesive culture, much less commercial or ideological propaganda.
I suspect Marx would buy none of it. He would allude, as he often did, to the kingdom of necessity: “How do you feed people with data bits, much less overthrow rich capitalists protected by the physical force of modern governments?” he would demand. “What is the power in pure information?”
Another good question, I acknowledge. The answer has something to do with the human need for narratives to explain the world, and with the sense of rupture, of loss of faith, which seizes the human heart when narratives of authority are trampled before our eyes. In other words, the power of information depends on the public’s consciousness of reality, conditioned by social existence – itself revolutionized by the new technologies.
Marx, an inflexible old goat, might disagree with my explanation – but he could not dispute my method without quarreling with himself.