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 Prometheus Wired
There is a mantra among those invigorated by the emergence of network technology. John Perry Barlow, formerly a songwriter for the Grateful Dead and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, expresses it this way: "Everything we know is wrong." Recently, I appeared as a guest on a television show to discuss the question "Are we becoming cyborgs?" and, after referring to Frankenstein as a potential source of instruction about the perils of dabbling in human creation, I was upbraided by a learned colleague and co-panellist for being mired in "old narratives" that were "useless" in the present context. Similarly, after putting forward my considered criticisms of the "teledemocracy" program developed by one of Canada's major political parties, a party MP informed me that "most of what you have been taught about traditional politics will be of little value in the years ahead ... The old ways don't work any more." What follows is based on nearly the opposite assumption to these -- namely, that a great deal of what we already know is not wrong, and is therefore still useful. Even if the advance of network technology fundamentally alters social, economic, and political structures, and even if it radically affects the way we communicate and perceive ourselves or our world, this does not necessarily mean that our amassed knowledge -- in particular, what we already know about technology and politics -- is an unsound basis for understanding or forming judgments about these changes. In short, we know quite a bit, and it can't all be wrong. In the chapters that follow, I will attempt to bring some of what we already know about technology and politics to bear on a number of the questions facing us as we head into the age of networks. The movement of digitized information over computer networks is, according to Barlow, "the most profound technological shift since the capture of fire." Judging by the many volumes heralding the onset of a new "information society," the rush of governments to dispense public resources in developing digital infrastructure, the reconfiguration of education systems in observance of perceived technological imperatives, and the sustained buzz emanating from mainstream media, Barlow is not alone in thinking so. Predictions such as this capture our attention because of their audacity, but the comparison of computer networks to fire is interesting for another reason. Fire, of course, is at the very heart of the modern technological mythology. The myth of Prometheus the fire-giver is an ancient one, but the drama it depicts illuminates much about the modern technological spirit. Basically, the story is as follows: After being insulted by Prometheus, Zeus exacted revenge by punishing his rival's human children. Zeus "hid the livelihood of men ... hid the bread of life ... and hid fire." Seeing the toil this deprivation caused, Prometheus concealed a flame in a fennel stalk and "stole again for men" the instrument that had been taken from them. The theft did not concern Zeus enough for him to punish Prometheus directly, and he worried so little about humans possessing fire -- after all, humans had used fired instrumentally well before the gods starting playing games with them -- that he did not bother to retrieve it. Instead, out of spite, he visited evil upon men in the form of Pandora, the "all-gifted" female who released among the Titans all the grievous gifts of her pestilence jar, save one: "Only hope abode within her unbreakable chamber under the lips of the jar, and flew not forth." Deprived of hope, human beings could make little use of the fire that had been restored to them. It was at this point that Prometheus -- whose name translates literally as "forethought" -- was moved to commit the crime that ultimately brought the wrath of Zeus upon him:

Prometheus: I caused mortals no longer to foresee their own doom.
Chorus: Of what sort was the cure thou didst find for this affliction?
Prometheus: I caused blind hopes to dwell in their breasts.
For this, Prometheus was chained to a rock, his ever-regenerating liver to be devoured in perpetuity by an insatiable eagle.

Why was this such a heinous crime -- indeed, more heinous than the theft of fire itself -- and what does it have to do with the modern technological spirit? Fire illuminates the physical world, but it is hope that relieves people of their spiritual limits and entices them to impose themselves, blindly, on the future. When beings who are mortal by nature no longer foresee their own death, they begin to regard themselves as immortal: as having no natural limits, like gods, which they are not. Hope thus seduces human beings into overestimating and overreaching themselves, with tragic consequences. Beings who recognize their limits can use instruments such as fire (or computer networks) in a healthy and responsible way; but instrumental, hopeful beings who believe themselves to be free of limits are dangerous to themselves and, ultimately, to their gods. Fire was a significant instrument, but without the added fuel of hope its flames could be contained. With hope in their breasts, and brandishing a fiery torch, human beings thought themselves free to light the way to their own destiny, and would act accordingly. The dominion of Zeus was doomed.

Hope enlightens, but it also blinds. It lights the way to the future but, unmoderated by reason, it renders progress toward our self-made destiny reckless, delusional, and dangerous. Just as hope causes us to regard ourselves as more than we are, it also thrusts us into the future as irrational, that is, as less deliberative and reasonable than we are capable of being. Blindness is an extreme condition: blind hope is an immoderate, feverish, and desperate substitute for prudent, thoughtful, responsible deliberation. We hope for the best when we are unable or unwilling to think about what is best. Despair -- the absence of hope -- has its own pathological consequences for human agency in the world, but this does not mean that blind hope is the best, or even a good, disposition for beings in a world that gives them access to very powerful technical instruments. Far better would be a modest appreciation of the abiding human appetite for a good life, and prudent deliberation about appropriate means for achieving that end.

Nevertheless, it is hope that has consistently animated humanity's collective and public approach to the development of technology. It is not without reason that the Prometheus myth has been so resonant for those who have thought about the technological spirit of the modern age. Francis Bacon, the father of modern science, felt the need to recast Prometheus as a hero rather than a warning; Karl Marx, the great "progressive," invoked the Promethean creed in his earliest work; Mary Shelley, the romantic, subtitled her cautionary tale "The Modern Prometheus"; Friedrich Nietzsche, who saw clearly into the heart of modernity, found Prometheus waiting there. It comes as no surprise that one of the most influential studies of the Industrial Revolution -- the cradle of technological development in the West, referred to by the author as a "new age of promise" -- bears the title The Unbound Prometheus. In the modern era, Prometheus has been released from his chains, his spirit set free. The story of modern technology is the story of Prometheus's people writ large: the story of humanity blindly wielding instruments to command and transcend that which is given, in the hope of creating its own future. It is my contention that network technology is part of, rather than a departure from, this trajectory. In the age of digital networks, Prometheus is certainly unbound, but he is also wired. It is, I would suggest, imperative that we subject our hopes for this technology to the sort of thoughtful consideration that, in moderating hope, befits our nature as rational beings. ...

In the chapters that follow, I examine the political implications of network technology with a view to determining whether this technology and the world it makes are likely to live up to the hopes for change and democracy suggested by the discourse supporting it. This discussion is predicated on the understanding that technology and democracy share a relationship that is essentially ambiguous in character. In some respects, there is a strong affinity between technology and democracy: the technological urge arises from the human appetite for mastery and control of the future; genuine democracy does not specify any content to what is considered good, beyond that which people decide for themselves, as sovereign masters of their own future. Thus, in hope, technology and democracy seem to share common ground. However, there is also a crucial antagonism between democracy and technology: democracy does not require substantial expertise as a qualification for participation in decision making, but it allows for government by mass ignorance; technology, as it becomes increasingly complex, requires for its control and deployment levels of expertise that exceed the capacity of most citizens and, thus, it defies democratic governance. As Ronald Beiner has put it, "the possibility looms that technological society makes a nonsense of democratic theory. We are mocked by our own technical powers, while the very idea of democracy lingers on only as an embarrassing recollection." Apparently, though both democracy and technology spring from the hope for mastery, somewhere along the way their respective hopes cause them to collide. In what follows, I attempt to sort out where computer networks are situated in terms of the complementary and contradictory aspirations of democracy and technology, and to determine whether the present situation represents a significant change from previous technologies.

I begin by exploring the writing of five political philosophers -- Plato, Aristotle, Marx, Heidegger, and Grant -- all of whom thought deeply about the relationship between technology and politics. Blind hope attached to technology is essentially an opinion about what the outcome of our encounter with that technology might be; since its origins in ancient Greece, political philosophy has always presented itself as a means for proceeding from belief to understanding by asking questions of opinion. If understanding is our goal, the questions asked by these philosophers about politics and technology are the questions we should ask of the opinion that the politics of network technology are, and will continue to be, democratic and revolutionary.


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