Terror-communication Acts

02.02.1996

The seductions of cyber-culture, the emerging electronic crisis of dispersion, disavowal, the disappearance of the public sphere, the disembodiment of the self, are already contained in a deeply regulated system in which consensus, representation, and politics are happily abandoned in favor of tele-presence and fallacies of ubiquity.

NY Times frontpage Headline: Congress Votes to Reshape Communications Industry, Ending a 4-year struggle.

NY Times frontpage Headline: 3 Boys Used Internet to Plot School Bombing Police Say.

NY Daily News frontpage Headline: Online Adultry, Real Divorce: Hubby catches wife in cybersex fling with stranger.

NY Post frontpage headline: Cybersex Divorce: Husband charges adultery over E-mail love notes.

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The passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the establishment of deregulated regulations (or self-regulation) by the American broadcast media, the organization of the RSAC (the Recreational Software Advisory Council), the implementation of the V-Chip, the Decency Act, Terror-communication Acts, data seizures by prosecuters in Munich, the move by the Singapor government to legislate network material, the powerful regulations for internet use by the Chinese government, etc., will reverberate through the network as far more than the growing pains of the most potent communications system in the history of civilization. They will stand astride the incorporation of the network as the circulatory system for economic development and targeted international audiences.

The twin issues of the deregulation of competition and the regulation of behavior, language, and images makes it clear that the network has profound possibilities for unmediated commmunication and that the re-implementation of cold war tactics of "repressive tolerance" in terms of command, control and communication continue to operate in decisively insidious ways. Indeed, the end of the millenium has brought a dazzling array of reactionary responses ranging from "crash" literature, cinema, media, and technology to the attempt to re-legitimate the authoritarian models of broadcast politics in a kind of telephobic modernity lurking in the "liberal democratic" correctness of little annoyances like Surfwatch, and background "guardian" surveillance systems scrutinizing e-mail and web based communications. Conjoin the utopian assumptions about the era of "being digital" and the "city of bits" with the politics of communication technology, the libertarian "ideals" of the cyber-paradise, the linking of computing and biology, and the imperialistic infrastructural initiatives of service providers, and the complexities of the allegedly "autonomous" network are revealed.

The Telecommunications Act is, in many ways, the legitimation of the network as the focal point of the economic interests by the broadcast, cable, and computer industries. Indeed, many of the preposterous frontier assumptions still enveloping so much of network thinking will be easily revealed as the veiled manifest destiny of the incorporation of cyberspace. And as the libertarian responses to the regulation of the net mount (the blackening of backgrounds on web pages, the Cyberspace Independence Declaration, by John Perry Barlow, the blue ribbon campaign, an e-mail onslaught for Attorney General Janet Reno), the constitutionality of part of the Act has already been successfully challenged by the ACLU. Indeed, Judge Ronald Buckwalter issued an order prohibiting reinforcement of the ban on "indecent"content, but not material considered "patently offensive."

At best, a slight victory. Forced to the defend ambiguous community standards in an international network, the attempts to put a few dents into the monolithic Telecommunications Act is like attempting to sink the Titanic with a few ice cubes. But in the end, well meaning but indefensible proclamations like "I declare the global social space to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.... It is an act of nature," (Barlow), will serve to embolden a well organized effort to annihilate the freedom of information. Patrick Henry must be rolling over in his grave...'Give me cyberspace or give me death...We have not yet begun to fight!' The more serious legal challenge will undoubtedly make for some strange alliances between the born-again counter-culture and the born-again Christian right, both defending an anti-legislative position.

Of course, such antics sidestep the development of urgent issues about the economics of data distribution and property while it is coerced into skirmishes over content. And if the rush to legislate suggests as much uncertainty as it does protectionism, it is partially because of the exaggerations of both the industry and the so-called wired generation haplessly touting the net as the completion of the project of modernity! Underneath all the very real concern, though, are some very problematic notions about the network. On the one hand there's The Magna Carta for the Information Age(published by The Progress and Freedom Foundation, closely affiliated with Newt Gingrich) a document that outlines a feudal approach to the geography of cyberspace that obviously still stultifies historians unable to shed presumptions about the relationship between space ("Cyberspace is the land of opportunity," "Cyberspace is the lastest American Frontier.") and matter ("The central event of the 20th century is the overthrow of matter."), an illogical position also posited by Negroponte in Being Digital as the shift from "atoms" to "bits." One has the sense too that conjectures like Negroponte's suggest that while terrorist atoms blow victims to bits, that we can be all snug and warm in the knowledge that "being digital is different." And, on the other hand, there is the loose affiliation of civil libertarians still sceptical about the network but convinced that cyberspace is worth defending. Indeed, the ursurpation of the issue of the network by the right from the techno-enthusiasts like Al Gore, reminds us that the issues of unregulated capitalism go hand and hand with resumptions about free speech.

Is it at all astonishing that the so-called freedom of speech will increasingly signify speech that is unregulated, that depictions of "accurate violence" are permissible while "wanton mayhem" will be repressed, that the inversion of the real and the fictional has been accomplished, that the relationships between reception and behavior, morality and politics have found common ground in the attempt to devastate creativity in the name of fundamentalist cliches of ethics masquerading as ambiguous archetypes modeled on the speech-as-act theory, all in a veiled "social" space in which power is as omnipresent as it is invisible?

It cannot be a surprise that the panoptic metaphors of Bentham and Foucault are re-invented in the cybersphere in the guise of "agents" and filters. No doubt much of the problem is rooted in the reinvention of McLuhan's work in the often erratic inebriation of wired culture. No patron saint, McLuhan's iridescent rationale of imperialism as globalization mirrored the multinational development that grounded the merging media of the 1960s. Joining televisual and informational technologies was the basis of a social transformation in which broadcast media seemingly swept across the 'global village' at the same time providing what Hans Magnus Enzensberger rightly called a "reactionary doctrine of salvation." But the McLuhanization of media did not then and will not now, salvage the imperatives of the collapse of Modernity so much as it serves as a patch linking utopic dispersions of media with the broad corporate and political objectives in which these technologies were developing. Indeed the absent discourse of McLuhan was that of politics, a discourse so cryptically present in the net criticism and theory of the 1990s. The effects of the dispersal of information, power, coherent politics, the redirection of military research and development into cybertechnologies has led to renewed chaos in which virtualization supplants illusion and in which the deployment of technologies (bio, neuro, info, geno) is masked as an communications revolution.

Enzensberger once wrote that "no avant-garde has thus called for the police to rid it of its opponents." Yet in the frenzied inversions of corporate and avant-garde intentions, it is clear that times have changed. Afterall, resistance is almost wholly reliant on software implementations developing precisely to serve models of distribution firmly rooted in corporate interest. Far too often we fall into the trap of the mystification of universalization, not remembering that deterritorialization is not always a signifier of nomadic empowerment. In the agencies of communication, the illusions of power can be as seductive as the fall into utopia. As Debord remarked so cogently: "Secrecy dominates this world, and utmost as the secret of domination." At the end of their speculations about the question of cyberspace, The Critical Art Ensemble ask: "How can technological decentralization return sovereignty to the individual rather than taking it away?" They partially answer, by "meeting information authority with information disturbance." (Elec Dist pp 135/6.)

It certainly wasn't by sheer coincidence that the story in The New York Times just below the articles on the passage of the Telecommunication Act outlined a "plot" by several 13 year old students to make a bomb with information gathered from the network. Juxtaposing this kind of story with the necessity to regulate behavior was a clear signifier justifying the kind of legislated caution that is outlined in the Telecommunications Act itself. Indeed, the information on the making of bombs from fertilizer and fuel, common knowledge in the farming community in which they live (and to the Oklahoma bomber as well), is neither unique to the network or inaccessible in many other publications. The story though heightens fears that uncontrolled access will only lead to violence and, by implication, to terrorism.

And if the passage from the sublime to the ridiculous can be understood in terms of media coverage, the full front page articles in The Daily News and The NY Post, further complicate the perception of the use of the network as a site for illicit behavior. The Daily News headline is supplemented with the notice: "Full Interactive Story: See page 3." The Husband of the woman accused of on-line adultery filed for divorce on two counts: "The first count alleges extreme creulty based upon the transmissions, the second is alleging adultery." The woman's lawyer responds: "To have adultery you have to have intercourse and you can't have intercourse over the computer."

The conflation of the looming finale to the millenium and the crescendo of technologies, anxieties, and excesses of the past decade (let alone the past century), has opened the floodgates of everything from calculated rumination to desparate illusion. The seductions of cyber-culture, the emerging electronic crisis of dispersion, disavowal, the disappearance of the public sphere, the disembodiment of the self, are already contained in a deeply regulated system in which consensus, representation, and politics are happily abandoned in favor of tele-presence and fallacies of ubiquity.

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