Cyberspace as space: the ideology of the Internet

While new technologies offer activists new tools to use for union activity, it is important to conceptualise cyperspace as space, and to understand activity taking place there as being in a new realm with its own possibilities, ethics and practice. Peter Waterman feels that most trade union use of new technology

“…represents a belated response to ICT as instrument (faster, cheaper and further reaching), not as cyberspace (another kind of space, with unlimited possibilities for international dialogue, creativity and the invention/discovery/development of new values, new attitudes and new dialogues).”

Richard Barbrook writes extensively about the culture of cyberspace, and in a highly evocative and challenging work argues that ICTs facilitate “cyber-communism – the spectre of communism is haunting the Net”. Barbrook’s argument is that because cyberspace makes sharing easier than commerce, and the rewards of sharing so great, this creates an online “gift economy”, and that most people in cyberspace practice “cyber-communism” – by freely giving what they have, and taking what they want – even if they have not considered the implications of their actions. While not all commentators draw conclusions as radical as this, there is wide scale agreement (Tapscott and Williams; Shirky) that ICTs facilitate a culture of sharing, cooperative work and iconoclasm – a finding that is congruent with ‘distributed discourse’.

For many workers in the new information economy – Barbrook calls them ‘digital artisans’  – cyberspace is a workplace. This has been largely neglected by trade unions, and there has been very little attempt to organise workers here, although Diamond and Freeman (pdf)  mention the (failed) attempt by the French employees of video game manufacturer UbiSoft to create a virtual union for themselves in cyberspace. Freeman (pdf) has several examples from the US of ‘open source’ union forms, largely as cyber branches of existing unions. In addition, the UNI-Global strike in online virtual reality Second Life is an interesting and innovative example that attracted a lot of attention. Barbrook argues that ‘digital artisans’ need to resist being co-opted into the “new aristocracy” of the cyber-elite, and organise collectively: “a virtual trade union should emphasise new principles of labour organisation: artisanal, networked and global”.

Barbrook analyses in great detail the ideological underpinning of the development of the Internet. He argues that the development of new technology has largely been a right wing project to form a “high-tech aristocracy” to reconcile economic expansion with social stasis, by forming a new elite of “venture capitalists and media stars”. This neo-liberal bias – Barbrook calls it The Californian Ideology – has presented our post-Fordist future as a utopian information age, giving unprecedented personal freedom. While this triumphalism was damaged by the dot com crash, this is still the dominant ideology of cyberspace. Barbrook points out that this techno-utopia “remains dominated by the hierarchies of the market and the state”, and that there is a tension between elite interests, and of ordinary users defending the Internet as a ‘Digital Commons‘.

Networked communities within the ‘gift economy’ produce goods of profound complexity. These include the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia – produced by the freely given collective labour of tens of thousands of users – and the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement. By working collectively on tasks, users have moved beyond distributed discourse into distributed production.

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