by John Ziebell
Las Vegas Mercury
March 3, 2005
The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu is credited with noting, sometime around the 6th century B.C., an interesting social conundrum; as societies develop more rules, they simultaneously create an increasing number of criminals. If there's a central tenet to Jensen and Draffan's book Welcome to the Machine, it's probably a contemporized extrapolation of that ancient political truism: As we continue shaping ourselves into a culture of obedience, we generate--or should generate--a growing core of freedom-loving individuals who aren't going to surrender any more control.
So what's this Machine that wants to run our lives? The short answer is "them"--that nebulous cabal of government and corporate conspirators striving toward the pure power of absolute omnipotence. The authors write from the perspective that social regulation is never an issue of communal welfare, but one of control applied by the heavy side in a disproportionate power relationship. We willingly modify our behavior, the book implies, by bowing to an altar of consumerism and technology that controls us by dictating our desires. Technology isn't neutral, the authors argue, and using it is not free; simply existing in contemporary society is a deal with the devil that renders us all inmates of the new Panopticon.
The original Panopticon was a perfected prison designed in the late 18th century by that great liberal humanist Jeremy Bentham, of whom the English were so proud that he's preserved in a glass case at University College. (In an ironic note, Bentham's glass crypt is monitored by a surveillance camera that sends an updated image to the Internet every five minutes.) If there's a philosophical figurehead for "The Machine," it may well be Bentham, champion of conformity and an enemy of all things revolutionary, who insisted that "rights" were never inherent but always the result of social legislation. The physical manifestation of Bentham's principles have been re-idealized in the sterile cubicles of today's for-profit "control unit" prisons, but the scarier application of his philosophy can be seen, as the late Michel Foucault pointed out, in its more banal applications--that bureaucracy and blind obedience imprison us much more handily than bricks and bars.
Matrix parallels are not unexpected, but what the Machine sucks from us is information, not energy. "The quest for privacy develops as a response to oppressive relationships," the authors state, and a combination of seduction and fear persuades us to surrender what fragile retreats we can carve out of contemporary life. The book offers a host of examples in the exercise of control, from grain-sized silicon chips designed to identify single cans of soda to DARPA's latest feats in the field of unmanned surveillance and attack drones. And while technogeeks seem categorically unable to recognize their own excesses, some of these ideas are really creepy; consider ex-NASA scientist Alexander Bolonkin, who seriously argues that humans can achieve near-universal immortality by "moving from our biological substrate"--downloading our brains into the silicon memory of artificial bodies, becoming "E-men" who access data files for "the opportunity to enjoy sex with a beauty queen, experience the enjoyment of a sports victory, to take pleasure of power and the like."
The book is very accessible, conversational in tone, and it's refreshing to see the authors subvert the unapologetic, quasi-accurate rhetoric of right-wing cheerleaders. "There are now more automobiles than people in the United States" is the kind of statement that should provoke thought, no matter what its statistical validity. At the same time, nothing sounds as sullen and bitchy as politicized moral indignation. I'd love to agree with its ethos, but a sentence such as, "The candy bar that takes thirty seconds to eat comes wrapped in an insidious plastic-aluminum amalgam that will flutter about the landscape decades after the candyeater is dead of diabetes" makes me reflect upon my limitations, and in the end, buy a Three Musketeers rather than boycott the Apex landfill.
October 15, 2004
Using philosopher Jeremy Bentham's "panopticon" as a central lens of observation in their eagerly awaited investigation of today's technology-dominated information society, critically acclaimed radical writers Jensen and Draffan (coauthors, Strangely Like War) explore shifting relations between the masses and the powers that govern them, namely, government and corporations. They note that the globalization of industry and capital, made possible by advances in information and communications technologies, is centralizing power through ever-increasing surveillance capabilities (e.g., biometrics, identity chips), thereby creating a
society of pawns in a mechanized, dysfunctional civilization obsessed with consumption. Although this book is well researched and intelligently written, the overwhelmingly negative tone distracts from the message. The rebalancing of power is not as completely one sided as the authors preach, and they surprisingly ignore the role of "code warriors" in today's revolutionary times. For larger public and academic libraries.
-James A. Buczynski, Seneca Coll. of Applied Arts & Technology, Toronto