The Ideology of Immateriality
Intro to the Alternative Strategies panel at the Tulipomania.com conference
Amsterdam, Frankfurt a.M., June 2-4, 2000
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More than 10 years ago, George Gilder forged the basic credo of what we now call the new economy when he wrote: "The central event of the twentieth century is the overthrow of matter...Today, wealth comes not to the rulers of slave labor but to the liberators of human creativity, not to the conquerors of land but to the emancipators of mind."
At the time, such an statement sounded quite outrageous, but in the last 10 years this simple idea has been repeated so many times and in so many variations that it not only can pass as profound insight but also common sense. Gilder, that influential champion of the new economy, fused together two ideas that are now almost universally accepted. The first one lies in what he says, the second in how he puts it.
Gilder and all his followers claim that the physical is no longer valuable, that what really matters lies in the immaterial realm of ideas, of information and knowledge. And that with this shift we find ourselves in an information age where our economy is suddenly supposed to be knowledge-based. This epochal shift is supposed to bring about a liberation of the mind from the deadweight of the body, with all the religious undertones that such a promise entails. We will, so we are told, enter even an era of creativity that will free humanity from the drudgery of manual labour. Machines will do for us everything that is repetitive and straining, so that we can fully concentrate on cultivating knowledge and hatching out new ideas. Also this promise of an imminent man-made golden age of abundance and freedom of has a long history.
The second idea is hidden in the matter-of-fact way of stating the central event of the century. The way Gilder describes it , this is a development without actors and therefore inevitable. It unfolds itself due to its necessary inner logic. Confronted with such a tidal wave of change true wisdom can only seek understanding and seizing opportunities by quickly abandoning what would be rendered obsolete sooner or later anyway. The sooner we adapt to this single necessary future, the less pain we will suffer. All we can do it help history shed its skin without damaging its still fragile new body. This message of inevitability has deeply affected politics to a point where now the unimaginative administration of the down-sizing of the public sector passes as an alternative third way, as it is being celebrated this weekend in Berlin.
Underpinning the new economy, then, is what one could call an "ideology of immateriality". It says that the privileging of the immaterial over the material is a necessary, actorless or technology-driven process that will reconstitute society to fulfill our true human potential. Its greatest danger comes from unduly interference of those not willing to adapt fast enough.
I use the word ideology on purpose because what masquerades as common sense, is indeed a deliberate distortion of of reality to protect the interests of a minority.
The privileging of the immaterial over the material is far from liberating humanity rather it serves to add to the material wealth of an emerging global elite at the expense of the majority which is either simply left out, relegated to what Manuel Castells calls "the black holes of informational capitalism" or reduced to minimum wage existence in production, service and maintenance of the material underpinning of the new economy. It creates, sharper than ever before, a distinction between those how operate computers and those who assemble them.
I use the term ideology on purpose because it is not an actorless unfolding, but the result of intense pressure and lobbying on all levels with the explicit goals to remove barrier for the flows of immaterial goods and services and to hollow out democratic institutions that might slow down these flows. There are actors, they have addresses and headquarters, they meet in conference centers and its possible to go and visit them. Seattle and Washington has demonstrated that on a global scale. Most of all, I use the term ideology because there is more than one future and nothing is inevitable.
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