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Smash the Technorealist State 

Wednesday, Mar 18 1998
On March 12, a self-organized system of writers and pundits proclaimed themselves "Technorealists" and posted a manifesto on the World Wide Web to explain what that means (http://www. technorealism.org). Among its signatories are writers I respect, thinkers who in various contexts have always sounded right to me: Paulina Borsook, who wrote the ultimate assault on cyber-libertarians in an article for Mother Jones called "Cyberselfish" and will soon publish a book on the same topic. Doug Rushkoff, author of Cyberia, a book that good-naturedly reminded its readers of modern computing's truly anti-establishment origins. Steve Silberman and David Shenk, who are, among other things, the authors of one fine Deadhead dictionary, Skeleton Key. Two editors from the Webzine Feed, another from The Nation and the editor of Meme. So why is it that the Technorealist manifesto makes me so uneasy?

To have a newsworthy band of individuals make a pitch for technology as neither panacea nor poison, for balancing our attitude between free-market enthusiasm and Luddite dread, seems altogether wholesome, urgently necessary and, on some level at least, unassailable. With the Esther Dysons and George Gilders of the world dominating the discussion in the Op-Ed pages, and Bill Gates given ample opportunity to look harmless crooning nursery tunes to Barbara Walters, the opposition is in dire need of bigmouths with even more aggressive self-promotional instincts than Matt Drudge, critical thinkers to remind us that the software corporations of Silicon Valley do not, in fact, love us as passionately as their ads suggest. Except for an unfortunate formulation in the Technorealist doctrine that states "Information Wants To Be Protected" (Yes? And who will do the protecting? The FBI?), its essential tenets seem sound: "The Internet is revolutionary, but not Utopian"; "Government has an important role to play on the electronic frontier"; "Wiring the schools will not save them." Perhaps too sound. Even people who stand at the extreme poles of opinion for the sake of argument would argue that we need government funding to maintain the wires that the Internet relies upon, legislation to promote international trade, and working bathrooms in the schools in addition to Macs.

Maybe it's my vestigial hippie impulses that make me react with suspicion to anything that comes off quite so reasonable as Technorealism, especially something slated for an official unveiling at Harvard (on March 19; http://cyber.har vard.edu/technorealism.html). But the irony here is almost frightening to me: Rebellion used to mean rising up against the authorities, resisting the draft and Steal This Book! Now it means holding hands with the President and coaxing the government toward a sort of technobenevolence. The Technorealist doctrine is, for my taste anyway, a bit too nice - too optimistic about the government's motives and seriously short on the kind of radical wake-up call that might shock a complacent public, lulled into happyland by Windows icons, into examining the knee-jerk consumerist choices being ordained by an increasingly monopolistic media.

The Technorealists seem to see social order as some sort of vague, overarching force that will protect us all from the ravages of rampant commercialism, when in fact the social order as we know it, including our federal government and the allegedly randy guy at the top, is ineluctably involved with those self-same commercial interests. Principle number three states both that "it is foolish to say that the public has no sovereignty over what an errant citizen or fraudulent corporation does online" and that "the state has the right and responsibility to help integrate cyberspace and conventional society." Which seems to suggest that the only way the public can exercise sovereignty is with the protection of the state. Which seems to ignore that some of the most energetic libertarians on the Internet, people who would ban censorious blocking software from every library and believe we have nothing to hide from the marketplace, have done the most to teach individuals how to filter the junk out of their mail.

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In all fairness, the current technological climate, rife as it is with misinformation and ridiculous goals, is not a good place for reasonable debate. It's not the Technorealists' fault that President Clinton poses for the cameras speaking of the need to "connect every classroom in the country to the information superhighway," or that rock star Marilyn Manson dreams that one day laws will be made to prevent people from using the Internet to spread rumors (careful, dude - ever heard of a slippery slope?). Or that a nutcase known as the Unabomber has been allowed to define the outer fringes of Luddism. But it is their fault that in the roiling controversy over whether to legislate the Internet into safety or set technology free into anarchy, theirs is an argument so eminently respectable that it's hard to believe anyone will be provoked to disagree. Or listen.

Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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