Gurus of Digital' Revolution' Ignore Class Control of Technology, Society

George Kane
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Gurus of Digital 'Revolution' Ignore
Class Control of Technology, Society
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reprinted from the New Unionist, August 1995, page 4

Gurus of Digital 'Revolution' Ignore Class Control of Technology, Society

By George Kane

"Revolution" is in vogue these days. Government, economy and society are all so plagued with waste and injustice that everyone offering a political solution claims it is revolutionary. Even Newt Gingrich claims to have led a revolution last November by ending 40 years of rule in Congress by Democrats.

One more group of self-styled revolutionaries has sprung up in the last few years that is starting to draw attention to itself. They assert that advances in computer and communications technology will bring about a fundamental and "revolutionary" transformation of society. The prophets of this so-called "knowledge revolution" proclaim that the rapidly developing information superhighway is a liberating technology which will irrevocably transform every aspect of our life-education, culture, politics and even national identification.

It's easy to see what they are talking about. In the last decade, the computer has made enormous inroads into the life of America. The power of silicon circuitry has sparked a meteoric rise in business productivity and fueled America's transition from a manufacturing-driven nation to an information-based service economy.

Entire manufacturing industries, such as integrated circuit assembly, have moved abroad in search of a cheaper work force. The vacuum has been filled by highly-skilled programmers and computer technicians, and by lower-paid clerical employees whose data entry makes the new systems work.

Millions of Americans surf the Internet.

According to the latter-day McLuhanites, society in the 1990s is fracturing into two camps.On one side are those anachronisms with interests rooted in the old Industrial Age, and on the other are those who are building their future in the Digital Age. Of course, the clarions of technological revolution foresee only one possible result to this conflict between old and new.

With so many groups claiming to be revolutionaries, we have to step back and define terms. What is a revolution?

It is not, as Newt Gingrich would have you believe, a palace coup or a decisive election. Election results are ephemeral, and such "revolutions" are likely to reverse the next time votes are cast. Do you remember 1964 when Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory over Barry Gold water was supposed to bury forever the conservative wing of the Republican Party?

Consumer products, no matter how novel or widely distributed, also cannot constitute a revolution. Capitalism has been modified by "revolutions" in production such as the assembly line and Total Quality Management, and by the introduction of mass consumer technologies such as motion pictures, telephones and television. But these changes haven't altered the system's fundamental operations geared to making profit for the corporations that own the technology.

The true meaning of revolution is one class seizing economic and political power from another class.

Marx identified relationship to the means of production as the basis for defining economic classes. He saw that the emergence of capitalism fractured society into two predominant classes: the bourgeoisie, who owned the means of production, and the working class, who sold their labor power to the bourgeoisie.

The oracles of digital transfiguration overlook that the tools of the new technology do nothing to change these underlying relationships of capitalist production. That genuine revolutionary change can't be accomplished by any machine, however dazzling its technical capabilities. The relationships of production can be changed only by the human agency, by the working class organizing to make the technology its own.

The bourgeousie finds, in the consequences of any new technology, only bourgeois issues. A typical proof offered for the supposed revolutionary consequences of computer technology is that it will force a redefinition of property rights.

The most valuable computer commodity is software, the labor-intensive product of highly-trained teams of programmers. Once written, software can be reproduced in unlimited quantities for no more than the cost of diskettes.

To the digital-age prophet, the replicative productivity of the new technology requires legal and technological solutions to ensure that "owners" get compensated for the use of their information. In other words, digital information, which can be made so readily available for use by everyone in society, must be "privatized" to the profit of an owner.

This conclusion is circumscribed by the bourgeois view of the world. A truer picture emerges when we step outside this world view and look at the issue without the blinders of private interest.

When the industrialist hires workers to manufacture his product, that product loses the privacy of ownership that characterizes the work of a lone artisan. It becomes a social product, the product of the collective work of many people.

To production by hired workers add the public availability of information with the new communications technology, and it becomes undeniably a social product. The "privacy" of this property is a legal fiction. Converting it into the common property of all members of society changes the social nature of the product only by having it lose its class character.

The visionaries prating about a technology-based revolution suffer from a conceit characteristic of social philosophers. They all view the course of history as a linear ascent, culminating in the final triumph of their own nation, class or technology. Perhaps the most difficult act for any social theoretician is to step outside his particular class perspective and recognize the underlying forces governing the relationship between classes.

Digital Age revolutionists understand the new techology, and can even foresee why it will help some people and hurt others. But all the changes they predict amount to nothing more than the flourishing of some industries and the decline of others.

The dichotomy between Industrial Age and Digital Age systems is an internal conflict among the bourgeoisie. Unless there is a fundamental change in the relationship between capital and labor, talk of revolution is pure hyperbole.