Works and Days 23/4 Spring/Fall 94 61-78

Wired World, Virtual Campus: Universities and the Political Economy of Cyberspace

by Peter Childers, Paul Delany

Introduction: Two Versions of Cyberspace

It is said that William Gibson's original idea of cyberspace was "what goes on behind the scenes when you withdraw money from a cash machine." In the work of Gibson and other cyberpunk writers, cyberspace consists of the proprietary communications networks and databases supporting and indeed constituting the totalitarian power of transnational corporations. It is a terrifying and unknowable place controlled by-who can say? The only force ranged against faceless systems of control (albeit enthralled to the same technological gadgetry) is a criminalized and aestheticized hacker subculture seeking to preserve a remnant of freedom, to enjoy if only for brief moments what Hakim Bey has called a "temporary autonomous zone," by mounting guerrilla raids on the corporate knowledge-fortresses (Bey).

Ten years after the publication of Neuromancer in (significantly) 1984, narratives of cyberpunk and cyberspace have become, in Fredric Jameson's view, "the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism then of late capitalism itself." (Postmodernism ix) Transcending the level of mere fiction to attain what Baudrillard and Eco have called the hyperreal the term or concept of cyberspace has become a "media virus." (Baudrillard 138) Hype about the "information highway," "interactive TV," "the fibre household," and so forth has oversold the technology in ways that may easily lead to backlash and poor policy. Even "insider" publications like Mondo 2000 and WIRED have failed to articulate that cyberspace has already become a complex environment of different cultures and institutions. In what follows we try to reach a higher degree of specificity in discussing the political economy of cyberspace.

There already exist two very different, and largely antagonistic, informational economies within cyberspace. One, corporate cyberspace, still has many features that are congruent with Gibson's paranoid vision. It consists of privately operated communications networks with state-of-the-art speed and functionality. The relatively simple cash machine of 1984 is now able, in less than a minute, to take my card in rural England, connect with a network data center in the U.S., verify my identity, query my bank account in Vancouver B.C., and dispense pounds sterling against a Canadian dollar balance. Measured in sheer computer power, dollars invested, or access to bandwidth, this kind of corporate cyberspace delivers a much higher level of networked communications performance than anything available on the Internet.

In the early 70s both conservatives such as Daniel Bell, and Marxist economists such as Ernest Mandel and Michel Aglietta began to identify features of a post-industrial, post-modern, or late capitalist society. The emergence today of the information network as a dominant category of production confirms their predictions that we have entered a more advanced or "later" stage of capitalism, characterized by a post-Fordist tendency toward "generalization of a new mode of work organization in which the principle of mechanization is subordinated to the principle of information, with fragmented work giving way to the semi-autonomous work group and the procedure of hierarchical directives to the overall constraint of production itself." (Aglietta 385) The rise of infotech has shaken the old forms of capitalist organization to their foundations, so that economist Robert Heilbroner can speak of "post-capitalism" and of "capitalism's last stand." Modern corporate cyberspace is largely a post-Fordist extension of the original industrial infrastructure of canals, railways, roads, and airports (Solomon 16). It is primarily used for exchanging financial records and the "visible figures" or analogs which constitute the entire value system of the late capitalist political economy. It permits corporations to gather knowledge, exert power, and invest capital (which is really just information or "knowledge capital," as Peter Drucker instructs us) instantaneously and globally, at any distance from the corporate center. Corporate networks are designed to serve the business entity exclusively and contribute to a specifiable "bottom line"; they are proprietary, and are jealously (although not always successfully) guarded against intruders. As such, corporate networks that support cash machines (or similar functions such as purchasing or inventory control) are primarily dedicated to automated transmission of numerical data between CPUs and databases, and not to human-to-human communications involving non-numerical (dare we say "literary"?) communication between human processing units, known as "brains," "souls," "selves," or, to use the up-to-the-minute term, "wetware."

This brings us to the second major form of cyberspace, which is roughly co-extensive with the Internet. In its original incarnation as ARPAnet, the Internet was the product of a Pentagon vision of computer-mediated warfare; it was thus an extreme case of Gibson's dystopian or even paranoid model of cyberspace. ARPAnet was built on the principle that if nodes or links were knocked out, surviving nodes would reconfigure the network by searching for new transmission routes. In the Gulf War, Allied forces found it much more difficult than they expected to knock out Iraq's command and control network, because it was based on commercial routers that automatically seek alternative paths when a node is lost. Since the war, these routers have been embargoed by the West.

The ARPAnet demonstrated that a monolithic purpose-destroying the enemy-was best achieved by decentralising intelligence and encouraging local adaptibility. By the law of unintended consequences, these features of the network architecture made it a cheap and effective solution for a completely different problem: supporting extended communication within the worldwide university culture. Non-military scientists and other academics, after 1983, flocked to take advantage of the Internet's potential for general-purpose enhancement of academic communication. Very soon the parasites took over the host, and the Internet became an open channel for anyone with an account on a university computer. Meanwhile, thanks to the well-known security breaches and crashes to which the Internet was vulnerable, the most critical military research installations-such as the Livermore weapons laboratory-felt compelled to disconnect their vital computers from any network at all.

The Internet has thus mutated into an unforeseen and unplanned information space. Its virtues can all be attributed to its collegial political economy: in a word, its openness. Internet's most important features are its relatively small hardware investment, a weak (but not ineffective) central administration, little censorship, and an absence of specifiable "bottom-line" objectives. Its explosive growth in the last few years confirms the dynamism of a collegial cyberspace culture in which millions of users exchange information, collaborate on creative projects, and have their say on any subject they care about. The most intriguing feature of this culture is its inversion of the military values on which the Internet was founded. Something that began as rigidly goal-oriented and instrumental turned into a system without any definable aims. One thinks of a "cat's cradle" manoeuvre, where a structure persists, but is also reversed into a new pattern. The Internet has become a domain of mere "play"; yet, as we will try to show, in postmodern society "play" can acquire extraordinary privileges and strategic effectiveness.

The Origins of University Cyberspace

The emergence of university cyberspace belongs to the long story of the gradual diffusion of control over information, text, and narrative of all kinds. If narrative is socially symbolic, as Kenneth Burke and Fredric Jameson have shown, then control of information is inseparable from political and social control. However, such control is not a simple matter, since information has a tendency to dissolve institutions that attempt to contain or monopolize it. This has been true since the Dark Ages, when two kinds of fortresses, the castle and the monastery, dominated the European landscape. Castles protected the aristocracy or Lords Temporal, who controlled political power, and the monasteries protected the clerics or Lords Spiritual, who controlled knowledge-using the "information technology" of the quill pen and parchment. As virtual monopolists of literacy and the written records of culture, the monasteries were the primary knowledge-based institutions. They preserved and copied manuscripts; gave instruction to the aristocratic class of Lords Temporal; and corresponded with other centers using the standard communications protocol of Latin-the IP (Internet Protocol) of its time.

The advent of print technology with Gutenberg rendered the monastery obsolete as a place where sacred information was conserved and distributed. This revolutionary democratization of access to information led in turn to the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and modern liberal democracy (Eisenstein). In place of the monasteries there developed the modern university: still a "conservative" institution in its mission of preserving and distributing knowledge, but much more worldly than the monastery.

The modern university is thus a product of print culture. Over its 500 year history, it has proven resilient and flexible enough to adhere to its essential mission while adjusting to many subsequent information revolutions: the replacement of canons of sacred knowledge by an ever-growing array of secular canons and specializations in literature, science, and politics; the advent in the 19th century of the high speed rotary printing press which permitted knowledge to disseminate on a truly mass scale and granted access to the canon of literary texts by anyone within or outside university walls; the rise of mass culture and modern consumerism as rivals to both sacred and secular high culture; coeducation; the claims of marginalized and dispossessed cultures for representation in curricula and on faculties; the establishment of much closer relationships with industry and government than previously tolerated; and, finally, with the crisis of the public sector and the welfare state, the postmodern demand that universities operate like business organizations and "pay for themselves."

Through all these changes, universities have tried to maintain a separateness from the world of daily life, and especially of business. Western cultural hierarchy was established by the Platonic model, where the highest object of human desire was a disembodied "form" and the lowest was material gain; the philosopher was at the top of society, the administrator in the middle, and the merchant or artisan at the bottom. Early Christianity reinforced this hierarchy by making the contemplative life superior to the active one, and the soul superior to the body. The monastery was a physical manifestation of these Platonic and Manichean ideals. While university teachers are no longer required to be priests or to remain celibate, the monastic ideals of autonomy and of independence from either the "curse of trade" or the even more baleful curse of politics are still upheld by many within the contemporary university, against the grain of history.

Yet even a cursory glance at the "real" history of North American universities will reveal that they have never enjoyed anything like complete independence from either commerce or politics. One crucial university tradition that has undermined the ideal of the ivory tower is the culture of disputation. This tradition-derived from the medieval city-universities, and opposed to the static contemplation of eternity in a Trappist or Tibetan monastery-required scholars to advance a thesis and defend it against all comers. The subjects under dispute may have been abstract enough, but they generated an intense communicative field that extended across local and national boundaries, and that encouraged the free flow of ideas. Through its commitment to disputation, the university has demonstrated an ability to adapt to the needs of contemporary society and even, at times, to become a powerful engine of social and economic change. Its most important achievement has not been any single discovery, but rather the successful preservation of a certain political economy of information-a collegial culture of research, interpretation, and dissemination of information that is becoming more, not less valuable in a postmodern economy.

The Future of Universities in a Wired World

The university today faces the possibility of being itself transformed by the cyberspace culture generated by its computing centers and networks. Just as the printing press spelled the demise of monastic institutions and ushered in the modern university, cyberspace may dissolve the bricks and mortar campuses of today into a de-centered knowledge culture, a networked "virtual" site of intellectual exchange that renders obsolete old ivied quadrangles as well as institutional and political borders, creating something akin to H.G. Wells's vision of a "World Brain."

Universities have always been centralized information resources, and this made sense at a time when books and manuscripts were too expensive for widespread private ownership and people had to live where the information was stored. Like a castle, a university commanded a certain territory; it regarded other universities as rivals, and measured its prestige by the size of its library. We still look to central libraries as places of pilgrimage, with information resources much larger than we could ever have at home. Bringing information home still means, for most people, the transportation of a physical object, such as a book or a CD, which we will then store for an indefinite time.

But the growth of information networks and of global capitalism have resulted in the corporatization of universities and the emergence of something we can now identify as the "research-industrial complex." Jean-Marie Guéhenno's formula for this process of global postmodernisation is "unification without a center" (13). Since the early 1980s, networked communications have extended the university's information culture into the world beyond the ivory tower. Universities have become pioneers in exchanging information with the home because they already have the computer systems in place, and a high proportion of information workers are already linked to a university community. Universities also have a tradition of flexible patterns of work, blurring the strict distinction between home and work that usually prevails in the business world. Students and faculty are increasingly accessing information resources through dial-up network connections, inaugurating an era of decentralization and even location-independence for intellectual work. The university is no longer confined to a place, with known physical boundaries; it is a system for information exchange, and also a sub-system that is integrated into the global information culture.

As individual residences link up to the Internet, home delivery of information and education will become a routine university function, offering knowledge resources to a wider and wider clientele-analogous to the long-established extension programs of land-grant universities. For its primary mission of teaching and research, the university will inevitably take advantage of the new technology and political economy of information that it itself originated. It will grow interfaces that deliver its educational services across space and time. It will have its knowledge tapped by people and institutions far away, and develop better ways to deliver, over interactive high bandwidth lines, many services that were formerly delivered in-person.

This networked university extension could have transformative forces in opposite directions. The actual campus will become less important-at least as a central place to which people must come in order to access the knowledge stored in its libraries and in the minds of its staff. Individual faculty members may also become less intimately connected to their campuses, and less loyal to them. But the total university system-physical and virtual-will become more important as the model of how an emergent cyberculture is best structured; it could colonize the information infrastructure of the twenty-first century and make itself the most strategic institution of postmodern society, the regulator of "knowledge about knowledge."

Cyberspace and the Business World: The Virtues of "Virtual Communities"

The university is not the only institution that faces transformation in the age of networked communications. It is ironic that corporations today are rushing to emulate the university-model of networked collaboration. The image of the out-of-touch academic continues to receive a drubbing in the media, but at the same time business literature extols the "virtual corporation" and the "horizontal organization"-concepts that emerged from an awareness of the creative potential of the collegial teams fostered in universities, laboratories, and on the Internet. Even the largest and most tradition-bound businesses are increasingly seeing the benefits of decentralized, team-based, networked management structures rather than vertical hierarchies and enormous functional units connected only at the very top. A corporate headquarters is now called a "campus." Management philosophers such as MIT's Peter Senge have declared the dawn of the age of "The Learning Organization"-an age in which businesses finally recognize that their productivity and quality will improve only if they approach every task much as a scholar would, focusing on processes, innovation, and information sharing rather than on maintaining rigid hierarchies and management-by-objective.

The networked "virtual community" that is the Internet is only just beginning to be theorized by philosophers, sociologists, ethicists, and cultural critics. According to theorists such as Guéhenno, Deleuze and Guattari, Lyotard, and Poster, the network is becoming the central metaphor for our present condition. Capital becomes less and less tangible and differentiable from knowledge itself, and in the new economy value is not created by "working up" raw materials but by "hooking up" (la mise en réseau) to the network (Guéhenno 24). Personal identity, even, becomes a product of external relations, and Descartes' "Je pense donc je suis" is replaced by "Je communique donc je suis" (109).

A useful metaphor for the economics of cyberspace may be found in Bataille's theory of "general economics", which distinguishes between a "strictly economic" realm of material reproduction, based on the prudent and private consumption of the bourgeoisie, and a "prestige" realm of irrational and conspicuous spending. The latter realm, aristocratic rather than bourgeois in spirit, includes luxury, the arts, religion, warfare and, by analogy, non-genital sexuality. (Bataille) There are two possible connections between Bataille's general economics and the economics of cyberspace. One is that the prestige system assigns status by such values as access, display, reputation, and circulation, rather than the private enjoyment of material goods. Wealth, in this system, is not measured by a financial bottom line, but by fame: the popularity of a politician, the ranking in citation indexes of a thinker. Even in the utilitarian world of business, we now see the emergence of cult figures who stand for more than just business-such as Bill Gates, John Malone (head of TCI), Luciano Benetton. It hardly matters how substantial their practical achievements are; what counts is that they put themselves on display and enter their names and personae, along with their commodities, into the culture's circulation of images and signs. The sudden success of the populist businessman-politician, like Ross Perot or Silvio Berlusconi, is sustained by regression to a prestige culture in which images of charisma, accessibility, sympathy, and effectiveness are the stock in trade. Are these the first cyber-politicians?

Secondly, just as religion for Bataille is the means for disposing of society's surplus, so may cyberspace become a realm of meaning and of symbolic consumption that "floats above" the everyday material world. Kevin Kelly has spoken of:

a vision that nearly every member glimpses, if only momentarily: of wiring human and artificial minds into one planetary soul. This incipient techno-spiritualism is all the more remarkable because of how unexpected it has been. . . . Nobody expected a new culture, a new thrill, or even a new politics to be born when we married calculating circuits with the ordinary telephone; but that's exactly what happened. . . .

The Net (and its future progeny) is another one of those disrupting machines and may yet surpass the scope of all the others together in altering how we live. (Kelly 24)

One definition of modernity is the deliberate separation of the religious from the secular; but cyberspace may reunite them, by integrating practical concerns with play and the search for meaning. The economy of the Internet recognises no laws of scarcity or limits to growth; its central virtue would seem to be precisely that it is not commercialized or Taylorized, and that activities within and across Internet cyberspace need not be monopolistically consumed or rationalized in business terms. The university's contribution here is to uphold the values of free access to information and protecting those aspects of cyberculture that are most valuable and vulnerable.

Net Wars: The Scramble to Commercialize Cyberspace

But there may not be much time to wax philosophical or to write cultural criticism about the Internet. The universities and the Internet both are under increasing pressure from the commercial world to legitimize themselves in the marketplace. Yet the aspects of their culture that are most prized by users are most at risk when subjected to market rationality. In the era of likely deregulation of telecommunications and information technology industries, universities and the wider Internet community have a large stake in the push by business organizations to appropriate the growing networks.

Hearkening to the media babble of anticipation about the "information superhighway," powerful organizations outside the academy have decided to stake a claim on it. In general, their aim is to "marketize" the Internet-their strategic goals are either to charge by the bit, or to amass "content assets" that will give them the advantage in running proprietary wires to residential customers. With their immense financial resources, and proven expertise in giving average consumers what they want, these conglomerates might overwhelm university-based cyberculture. They could also gain control of the Internet through political maneuvers to legitimize their claim to "manage" cyberspace: by providing finance, by setting standards, or by providing most of the content. Even the U.S. government's professed desire to mandate universal and affordable network access may prove ineffective when media giants control more attractive high-bandwidth services, and sharpen their knives to carve up cyberspace for their own ends. There is reason to fear such a scenario, and to believe that there is a great deal at stake; for everything that we have said so far assumes that universal access to Internet-type cyberspace has the potential to transform social, cultural, and political life.

Conclusion: The Third Path?

While cyberculture philosophers such as Mitch Kapor and Nicholas Negroponte are right to regard large corporate interests with suspicion, there is reason to doubt that they could ever really contain the emergent culture of the Internet. The electronic frontier, we believe, will not lend itself to enclosure and containment in quite the same way that physical enclosures and primitive accumulation brought about an end to earlier forms of communal life, or what was once known as the Commons (Hardin). A third path may emerge, one that corresponds to the Internet's own decentered structure, even as it extends through the entire territory of post-industrial society. The future will be shaped by the convergence of the three major information appliances-the telephone, the television, and the computer-and by "the harmonization of information systems with each other, with systems across national borders, and with other social systems." (Gilder; Braman 133) This coming era may not realize a millennium of Jeffersonian ideals, but neither will it easily be subjected to corporate rationalization along proprietary lines.

The most remarkable feature of the Internet is that no single institution funds, controls, or manages it. It has become "the fastest-growing social construct on earth" without having either a profit incentive or central government direction. From design features intended to survive nuclear warfare, the Internet has developed other kinds of resiliency. Neither capitalist nor socialist, it is infiltrating existing institutions and quietly revolutionizing them. Yet the dynamism of the Internet stems from its lack of specified goals-other than facilitating innumerable intellectual projects and fostering global connectivity (Morningstar). Recent efforts by would-be marketers to use the Internet for mass marketing have been met with hostility and electronic countermeasures such as the deployment of hacker-authored "cancelbot" programs that seek out and destroy advertisements.

These aspects of Internet will make it difficult for corporate giants to realize their hopes of capitalizing on cyberspace. They may be handicapped by their focus on a specific and profitable use for the network, such as video on demand. The loss of market share by the three major TV networks may be only a harbinger of still greater fragmentation and unpredictability in the impending 500-channel universe. It may prove impossible for even the most powerful players to "steer" cyberspace, since network culture spawns myriads of niche-markets that change far too rapidly for commoditization. Or, corporate high-bandwidth networks-burdened with the enormous capital service required by the current wave of mergers-may simply be unable to reach break-even so long as the traditional Internet provides a cheaper and more open alternative.

But a more important reason to take heart has nothing to do with the anti-nuclear or anti-corporate survivability of the Internet. The large corporate model itself may be a Jurassic life-form, already gasping to keep up with technological change and the cultural transformation of a networked world. The decline of IBM is only the most spectacular example of the crisis of the modern corporation, epitomised in the conflict between "proprietary" and "open" systems. We can imagine the success of an anarchic model-Bulletin Board Culture writ large-in which the network extends itself through self-generated information resources and myriads of small entrepreneurs, taking advantage of the relative cheapness of computers in North America. Information producers who maintain flexibility and a low cost structure may undermine the corporate giants. The resultant de-centralized information economy might, like the traditional university, resist many of the controls and property laws of the business world.

These contradictory trends in the growth of networks are part of the general postmodern era of confused struggle between universalism and particularism, globalization and nationalism, corporate consolidation and dispersal. The situation recalls an earlier momentous clash of social models in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Continental absolute monarchies, especially France, were possessed by a vision of perfected central control of economic and political life. In Britain, conversely, the invention of mechanical feedback control-self-regulation and adjustment to optimize performance-became the model for such social analogs as the market economy and pluralist democracy (Mayr). These early feedback machines foreshadowed the theories of self-reproducing automata and cybernetics that led to modern computing machinery.

Norbert Wiener defined feedback as "controlling a system by reinserting into it the results of its past performance." (Wiener 61) In the eighteenth century feedback was conceived in mechanical terms, and self-regulation translated into such quantitative responses as counting votes or producing more goods. Now, the Internet world has created a gigantic feedback system for a "technology of the mind," whose continual self-adaptation will not produce fixed or stable outcomes. Just as the printing press and its accompanying ideologies of freedom and conscience brought about the disintegration of medieval institutions in both Church and State, so the university model of cyberculture may colonize and eventually replace corporate cybercultures that continue to rely on strategies of information containment.

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Peter Childers ( is co-author, with Roger C. Schank, of The Cognitive Computer (1984) and The Creative Attitude (1988). He teaches American literature, media theory and cultural studies at the University of British Columbia.