Until about the middle of the 3rd millennium BC the ruler of a country often also commanded the rank of a god. The rapid rise, however, of the administration classes in Egypt, for instance, led to a gradual shift of power and the pharaoh, formerly god-king, henceforth was no more than god’s representative on earth. And the correlation continues to persist if we, in a radical/neo-constructivist sense, deﬁne god as the “external observer” constituted within the inner world of society and from there projected onto the outer world – an authority, that is, overlooking everything while remaining invisible itself. The corresponding form of a social practice is the “Panopticon” scheme that Michel Foucault, in his book Discipline and Punish, analysed as a particular way of arranging power centres and channels in order to perfect the execution of power.
God, quite simply, is the synonym of power and in this sense he also stands at the dawn of world society. There is at least one person who, even today, carries weight as the highest authority in the name of god – the Pope. On May 3rd, 1493 – Christopher Columbus had only returned to Spain from his ﬁrst voyage of discovery about three weeks before – Pope Alexander VI, in his bull “Inter cetera”, awards the sole claim to power over the newly discovered world in the West to Spain. The Pope is a Borgia, which is to say he hails from a family that has not gone down in history for its selﬂessness. To this disposition the Portuguese, too, possibly owe their claim to power over parts of those territories in the West. For the very next day a second, revised “Inter cetera” is issued in which Portugal’s claims are also taken into account. It is the ﬁrst paper handed down to us in which whites, at the negotiating table as it were, bargain over their claims to power over foreign lands. And throughout there is not the least indication of self-doubt whether it might not be a sin against god’s creation to seek to rule over foreign lands and peoples.
Pope Alexander VI’s proclamation in the name of god initiated a tradition that continues to this our 21st century. In the course of the expansion of European-Atlantic society – other European states subsequently also raised claims to the new worlds, be they in the West, the South or the East – in the course of overseas colonisation, in other words, a ﬁght of everybody against everybody erupted. In numerous wars colonial empires emerged, borders were drawn up without consideration for the homelands of the societies in question, respectively their social, historical or ethnic afﬁliations. In a word, “for centuries nearly the whole world has belonged to the whites while the coloureds have had basically nothing” (Paczensky 1979: 10). The so-called big problems of the world and the global economic system of today’s network society with all its implications, all this is not only inextricably linked to colonialism and imperialism, but structural processes of this kind are continuing untamed under a neo-liberal ﬂag and with the resources to match. Even the ﬁrst phase of the expansion of the European-Atlantic society, namely the period from 1450 to 1640, was characterized by conquest, exploitation and genocide and would not have been possible without strategies for the networking of resources.
The gold, used by the Mexican Indians of those days merely for the production of jewellery and ornaments, to the Conquistadores meant much more than wealth. What mattered to them ﬁrst and foremost was the signiﬁcance of gold in the service of power (cf. Salentiny, 1980). “The people, having survived such enormous dangers and the strains of the long sea voyage,” a chronicle remarked, “wanted to grab the great chance of their lives and to pile as much gold as possible.” (Paczensky 1979: 89) The atrocities they committed in the process were documented from very early on, as for example by the Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas (1474–1566).
Even though, between 1503 and 1660, the Spaniards took 185,000 kilograms of gold and 16 million kilograms of silver from the entire continent and brought it to Europe (cf. Galeano 1981: 33) the conquest of the New World in the name of the Spanish crown was not an altogether lasting success. The patrons in the remote territories did not take the raising of taxes all too seriously and were keener on seeing, for instance, the tithes of the smallholders ﬂow into their own pockets. The 1542 edict “Encomienda” by the Spanish queen Isabella –“This Encomienda (Recommendation) was the ﬁrst step of colonial exploitation and dealt with the recruitment of forced labour” (Weber 1982: 158) – was repealed in 1784 by the Spanish court and the church put in charge of collecting taxes. With disastrous consequences: the power of the church increased enormously and it became the biggest slaveholder and landowner. The Spanish crown, on the other hand, soon found itself deeply in debt. Spain and Portugal by and by were degraded to the role of middlemen. In 1543 already 65% of the entire royal income went toward the paying back of debts. At the end of the 17th century Spain controlled no more than 5% of the trade with the American continent. The French were in control of about a third of the total volume, followed by the Dutch with a quarter, the Genoese were in charge of more than 20%, the English of 10%, and the rest remained to the Germans (cf. Galeano 1981: 34f.). End result of the Spanish colonial enterprise: because Spain, just like Portugal, was not able to hop on the train of the industrial revolution with the other European nations, the population remained poor. Only the military, the aristocracy and the church proﬁted from this expansion.
“A hierarchy, an aristocracy is about being in ﬁrst place. Like in most aristocracies power is measured in land owned. Trade is of no importance. What mattered was who was in control of the resources to lay claim to the most valuable pieces of land – through the occupation of space by means of trademarks, the establishment of a commonly known name, the creation of identity.” The quote is taken from a book by Michael Wolff entitled Vom Überleben in der wilden Welt des Internet-Business (On Surviving in the Wild World of the Internet Business, not translated into English), published in 2000. Wolff, from ﬁrst-hand experience, knows what he is talking about. He was one of the ﬁrst entrepreneurs on the Net. His company, based in New York from 1994 until 1997, quickly became one of the leading content providers, attracting incredible amounts of venture capital. His “burn rate” was remarkable. Every month half a million Dollars were “burned” this way. “We people from the Internet industry,” Wolff remarked, “want others to think the best of us. Optimism is our capital, imagination our product, press releases our good name.” Wolff relied on the thesis by Louis Rosetto, the founder of Wired magazine, proclaiming that technology would become a transparent and cheap commodity. Through advertising, marketing partnerships, direct marketing, and through the multiplication of contents, turnover would be generated. Standing opposed to this view, though, were the demands of the Wired fan community, among others, for a free access to information. However, the consumers could not be convinced to pay for content. The venture capitalists ﬁnally called a halt and dropped Wolff’s New Media LLC. Almost at the same time as his enterprise went down Wired magazine too was sold to a publishing giant. David Kuo put his ﬁnger on it when he confessed in his book dot.bomb: “We should pull the Internet stunt: go in, change the world, get rich and get out again.”
Geert Lovink, in his mega-essay “Nach dem Dotcom-Crash: Der Internethype und die Kunst der Geldvernichtung” (“After the Dotcom Crash: The Internet Hype and the Art of Destroying Money”), has this to say on the subject: “The dotcoms fell prey to their own speed religion … The dogma of hyper-growth and the urge to take control of the then emerging e-commerce sector pushed the most basic principles of economic behaviour into the background … The dominance of venture capital over the business models of the dotcoms is a truth not yet proved wrong. Dotcoms were dependant on the money markets, not on their own clientele.” (Lovink 2002: 49)
Not only was he the English mathematician on the books of the British secret service who, together with his colleagues and with the help of an electro-magnetic apparatus, broke the encryption code of the German army. Alan M. Turing is also regarded as the father of modern computer hardware. His Turing machine (Turing, 1936) is a logical-operational model that represents, rather than a purely mathematical-formalistic one, a mechanical calculation method. The Turing machine is an abstract machine existing only in theory. The succession of internal states does not refer to the movement of an apparatus but merely to the conﬁguration of characters. With the model of the Turing machine the metabolic machine, as a mechanism of transmission, was turned into a movement without substance. Just think of the key technology in the late 18th and the 19th century, the steam engine. With the Turing machine the second law of thermodynamics, i.e. the entropic progress toward chaotic collapse (end, death), lost its terror. Within the communication theoretical model of the machine the problem of loss of heat is transformed into nothing but “white noise” technically controllable.
As a pre-condition of cybernetics the Turing machine takes up a special place in history. The public laying of the cornerstone of cybernetics, meanwhile, was done by Norbert Wiener in the summer of 1947 when he deﬁned the newly founded discipline as a “theory of communication and of the control and regulation mechanisms in machines and living organisms” (cf. Wiener, 1992). Wiener’s model of the machine according to the theory of communication on the one hand is conceived, just like the thermo-theoretical one, as a regenerated closed-loop control system, yet it does not rely on movement as heat being transformed but on movement as control and transformation of characters. In Wiener’s cybernetic model of a machine there is a premonition, already, of a future social production of reality via Internet transmission. We may even perceive it as the foundation stone of present-day information industry. Let us remind ourselves not only of the global mass media systems but equally of the calculating of, for example, demographic and environmental data, of calculations in connection with game theory models for the prognosis of all kinds of future developments, such as in market prices, or of the nowadays virtualised and automated economy in general. Norbert Wiener’s claim to unite engineering and social sciences in cybernetics marks – and this is evident today – a technical as well as a philosophical re-orientation. Wiener, and the same goes for other protagonists of this branch of research, endeavoured to unify research projects from the ﬁelds of telecommunications, psychology, biology, and – as the emergence of the bio-sciences show – medicine as well.
In order to arrive at insights into our present-day reality it is necessary to also understand the categories of that thinking, respectively of those models of thinking which have contributed – albeit not exclusively – to the shaping of our world. As far as current models of thinking go these have to be traced back, at least, to cybernetics, and their interdisciplinary development put into focus in which approaches taken from control technology, mathematics, neuro-biology, bio-physics, psychology, and sociology have been integrated and subsequently – since about the early 60s – subsumed under the heading “cognition sciences”. The models of thinking these disciplines are rooted in not only have deeply rattled our traditional ideas of subject and world. They also – and I would like to emphasise this in opposition to any sweeping condemnation – have provided new options by way of a promise that we might be able to face up to the developments of our modern, and ever more complex, society and solve its problems.
His whole life long Turing was obsessed with the idea of bursting open borders, the “crazy” was his measure. Borders, to him, were parts that would not be swallowed by the whole. These resistances he wanted to answer with an intelligent machine. Primarily he was interested in “crazy problems” like the Gödel theorem that his machine – so his dream went – would solve. The theory of embryonic cell division, which he also worked on, he referred to as “interplanetary voyage”. For his suicide in June 1954 a number of reasons have been forwarded. One of them is that, after a trial in 1952, his homosexuality had become public and that henceforward he was tainted with the stigma of being “emotionally unstable and open to blackmail”. He was thus no longer acceptable to the British government as a person with security clearance. Turing, in this light, was another victim of the cold war between the power blocs USA and USSR.
Another hero of the history of technology and science, Norbert Wiener, equally had access to sensitive information in the ﬁeld of the military and the secret service. He solved the problem of the border by way of the term coupling. Wiener, in 1948, introduced the concept when establishing the foundations for cybernetics. It is a formalism that makes it possible to combine hitherto incompatible systems. Since then, with second-order cybernetics, general systems theory or radical/neo-constructivism, the term has come to be used ever more widely.
It was another leading ﬁgure, an engineer with the US census ofﬁce named Herman Hollerith, who constructed a punch card machine with the help of which the census of 1890 could be counted within two and a half years instead of the seven to eight years previously required. This new speed of identiﬁcation strategies simultaneously marks the beginning of the rationalization of governmental techniques. Hollerith consequently founded his own company that, in 1924, was re-christened “International Business Machines”, i.e. IBM. The subsequent informatics expansion also implies the transition from the disciplinary to the control society. The “forms of permanent control in the public domain”, as Gilles Deleuze put it, turned out to be another achievement of the so-called neo-liberal revolution.
“In the 30s the mathematician Emil Post combined the method of the algorithm with Fordian assembly-line work. The executor of his algorithm was not, as it was with Alan Turing, the machine but a worker. (…) Post’s worker performs the same operations as Alan Turing’s machine head. (…) The machine programme of work by the mathematician Post is the mechanical dream of the simultaneity of command and execution; the mechanical dream of a work automat promising the technocratic solution to the question of class.” (Reichert 1996: 141)
For more than two decades now, beginning with Reaganomics and Thatcherism, the structural hegemonic conﬁgurations have been rearranged on a worldwide basis with the help of the strategic instruments of neo-liberal economic policies under the heading “Liberation Struggle for the Capital”. And quite some force has been applied in the process, no doubt. A crucial role, in this context, has been played by the international economic organisations: the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Entire states are taken hostage by the new International of Capital. They are threatened, for example, with a ﬂight of capital in order to extort substantial tax reductions as well as vast amounts of subsidies or thus to exact the free use of the infrastructure. At the same time the wage levels of their tax-paying employees are being pushed lower and lower. It is also the new International of Capital that ultimately decides on the pros and cons of states as business locations by, for instance, declaring proﬁts only in countries with low rates of taxation. This may lead to a lack of funds for public spending. Yet there still is, after all, the cure-all of privatisation including the peculiar readiness to expose even people’s retirement funds to the economic interests of private ﬁrms.
Through control of capital, currency, loans, banks, and through the mechanism of public debt the developing countries continue to be kept in perpetual dependence. If a state falls into excessive debt the ﬁnancial police of the IMF and the World Bank enter the scene and prescribe certain measures like rigorous saving, the freezing of wages, more privatisation, favourable conditions for foreign investors, the devaluation of the local currency, etc. Should the state not abide by these orders it will receive no more loans. There is no escape from the global network society. All business is conducted via the western currencies and the only law that counts is the one of those wielding the power over the capital and the currency. This superiority of the capital is a joint product of colonialism and industrialisation. It entails the transformation of the conditions for the exchange of goods from commodity for commodity, via commodity for money for commodity, and ﬁnally to money for commodity for money. A development further enhanced by the virtualisation of the economy. The factors labour, capital and raw materials, the triad a long time regarded as a guarantor for the growth of capital, has long since lost its clout. An unhampered anarcho-capitalism between offshore and derivatives trade today enables the super-rich investment funds and global conglomerates to economically paralyse whole nation states. Right now we are witnessing the greatest concentrations of capital in the history of mankind. Already the ﬁve richest banks in the world have more assets at their disposal than the US, Japan and Germany taken together (cf. Martin, Schuhmann, 1997). And it is, not least, mechanical information networks that are playing a crucial role in this context. The political models for controlling the economy in an era of a somewhat democratically tamed capitalism, models that proved successful in Europe up to the 70s, such as Keynesianism and monetarism, for instance, have been undermined also by digital capital and have, in fact, become inoperable under present-day circumstances. After the reforms of the social democratic century there now occurs a backlash of historical dimensions. Borders now are nothing but parts that will not be swallowed by the whole. The breaking-down of borders and the process of coupling have attained hitherto undreamt-of dimensions.
The holy warriors of al-Qaeda do not lead a struggle for liberation against oppression but, closing ranks with the holy warriors of conservative political thinking in the west, a struggle for liberation in the name of the capital. Neo-liberal holy warriors hold up the banner of individual adaptability; they are terrorists in one shape or another, e.g. as stock exchange guerrillas, as dot.com revolutionists or as neo-liberal revolutionary guards, in other words: politicians against welfare state and civil rights. So everything that claims existence is structurally coupled to the market and a twisted concept of revolution; which then takes the name, for instance, of a neo-liberal revolution, a digital revolution, the biotech revolution or Revolution Business Marketing. Looked at more closely, all this turns out to be a pasticcio of revolutions. There are many different vectors here to a single movement, accelerating and delaying it at the same time.
Let us consider an early modern networker like Count Schimmelmann. Not only was he the Treasurer of Denmark, minister and plantation owner but also manufacturer of sugar, coffee, spirits and riﬂes and purveyor to the Prussian army (cf. Datta 1985: 28f.). Moreover, he was a major shareholder in the trading companies. His achievement consisted in drawing the highest possible proﬁt from networking all these activities. He transported riﬂes, spirits and cloths to Africa, bought slaves with the proceeds, shipped them to America and sold them, and with the money thus earned again acquired commodities like sugar, rum and cotton that he brought back to Europe. Above all thanks to his social position the Count was able to conduct his ﬁnancial transactions very proﬁtably. Seen in this light, he is an early prototype of all the multi-national conglomerates of a later date.
During the no more than 19 years of his colonial trading – Schimmelmann died in 1782 – 15 million black people were shipped as slaves to the USA. On the question as to how many people overall Africa lost through the slave trade the specialized literature contains estimates of between 40 and 200 million (cf. Paczensky 1979: 165). The African continent thus was deprived of the better part of its workforce and, consequently, its means of existence. Yet the slave trade as a three-way operation between Europe, Africa and America was not an invention by said Count. It was only a continuation of what “the Spanish and Portuguese colonialists had begun (and) the other European colonial powers had taken over, reﬁned, systematized and even raised to the level of a principle” (Datta 1985: 22). This three-way trade no longer had anything to do with the traditional understanding of trade, as it was subject to the dictates of the European colonial powers. The expansion of the European-Atlantic society was also made possible by the new technologies in shipbuilding thanks to which the hegemony of the Arabian merchants on the old trading routes between Europe and the Orient was broken. And the development in weapons technology did the rest – instead of doing business with distant countries they were simply conquered.
With the three-way trade a systematized proﬁt machinery, of an hitherto unseen efﬁciency, came into being that, at the same time, is the foundation stone for the “achievement” that is our present-day economic system. “The rise of European capitalism, therefore, resulted in the uneven development and in an ever more pronounced division of the world, namely into developed and underdeveloped countries, into exploiters and exploited ones. The triumph of capitalism toward the end of the 18th century sealed this development.” (Hobsbawm 1978: 221) The deliberate de-industrialisation of the colonies logically perpetuated this policy.
Strictly speaking the term “network” is a product of modern global society. Looking back on the so-called “long 16th century” historians and sociologists, cultural scientists and others keen on founding social theory in communication theory, ﬁnd common ground. The global society, accordingly, has its roots in the period between 1450 and 1640 in which one of the social systems would no longer accept that there were others beside it and, by virtue of its instruments and resources, transformed “this non-acceptance into structural reality” (Stichweh 2000: 249). And it was also during this period that the process of expansion of the European-Atlantic society began to take shape, an expansion characterised by the conquest of countries, partly former trading partners as in Asia, by colonisation, exploitation and genocide. Global society, obviously, has not been inspired by the desire that people may come together across all barriers and in mutual respect after all.
Seen from a systemic point of view, the so-called “long 16th century” may equally be taken for the starting point of global society, as it was then that society, to put it very succinctly, switched to functional differentiation as the determining principle of the overall order. And there is nothing in this world that could survive permanently outside of it. Functional differentiation is the primary differentiation of global society that, in every single instance – politics, law, economy, religion, science – brings forth a system of functions realising a speciﬁc and a global context of communication at the same time.
It is not by pure chance that the beginning of the expansion of the European-Atlantic social system also coincides with the invention of the letterpress in 1445. In the four centuries following, after all, there was no invention, in the ﬁeld of communication technology, of comparable signiﬁcance – not until the 19th century, that is, and telegraphy, respectively telephone and computer-based communication in the 20th century. And, equally, it is not at all surprising that the literary scholar and adept theoretician of the early modern media revolution, Michael Giesecke, in his latest publication is able to produce an abundance of evidence to prove that the current cultural change, expressed in the new electronic media, echoes processes of technical and cultural innovation that took place, once before, in Gutenberg’s days (cf. Giesecke, 2002). The same argument, basically, is brought forth by Paulina Borsook in her book Cyberselﬁsh where she describes the rise and fall of Silicon Valley. At a conference of Public Netbase (www.t0.or.at), held in Vienna in 2002, she even drew parallels between the present and early Byzantine times, a truly dark historical chapter: old knowledge was lost and little new knowledge created; supra-regionally operating kleptocrats lined their pockets; while the rich became very much richer and the poor very much poorer, warlords and their hordes ransacked the remainders of civilisation. Borsook compared the thieving clans of Byzantine days with contemporary trans-national business. Microsoft, she remarked, corresponds with the erstwhile introduction of Christianity as a state religion. She made out indications that a post-dotcom-crash/post-9/11 era had begun, as well as a progressive colonisation of the info-sphere, not least on the Internet, through the new International of Capital.
Today it is not only multinational enterprises that proﬁt from the processes of globalisation but also non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other civically oriented groups mobilising a critical public against the strategies of the hegemonic preservation and extension of power. Operating on the same basis there are a number of user communities, like media-proﬁcient user groups, so-called “nicht-vermachtete Akteure” (i.e. players not tied up in power structures; cf. Schmid 1997) – keyword: net culture – who are forming socio-technical ensembles of associated heterogeneous elements and who prove their potency only as networking effects. Protagonists of net culture, who emerged during the heyday of the tactical media in the 90s, now are demanding that globalisation “from above” be counteracted with a sort of globalisation “from below”.
Perceived from the perspective of systems theory, globalisation processes on the one hand belong to the category “global diffusion of institutional patterns” – according to Stichweh this is a theory of long-distance effects as there is no direct contact necessary, for the observatory and comparative relations, between those observing each other – and, on the other hand, to the category of “global interrelation” or “global networking” – according to Stichweh a theory of short-distance effects corresponding to networking theories, systems theory, but also to Anthony Gidden’s globalisation theory. Within the model “global interrelation/networking” the individual communicative acts gain relevance by being regarded as network-ties embedded in other network-ties. Globalness here happens locally “through the networking of communicative events or the networking of ties … that postulates a local propagation of effects becoming operative globally” (Stichweh 2000: 257). “Maybe it is for this very reason,” Stichweh writes, “namely that, under no circumstances, it could be transformed into a global system of interaction, that a small world functions as the effective infrastructure of global interrelation” (Stichweh 2000: 258). System of interaction here means reciprocity of perception, “response presence” (see Goffmann, 1983; Luhmann, 1975). And this is exactly where there is potential for a globalisation “from below”; this is where horizons open up for the “digital multitudes” deployed by Lovink and Schneider in reference to the “empire” of Negri and Hardt.
The network concept represents, within world society, a speciﬁc form of structural creation in which communication is freed from conditions of spatial proximity and interactive co-presence. Accordingly, the network nowadays is a concept of de-contextualisation replacing, under the altered conditions of the virtualisation of the social, conventional terminology for phenomena of medium range such as group or community.
*Stefan Bidner, Thomas Feuerstein (Eds.), Plus ultra. Beyond Modernity?, Frankfurrt/Main 2005, p. 167 - 191, translated by Daniel Ostermann.
• Datta, Asit (1985): Welthandel und Welthunger, Munich.
• Foucault, Michel (1977): Discipline and Punish – The Birth of the Prison, London.
• Galeano, Eduardo (1981): Die offenen Adern Lateinamerikas. Die Geschichte eines Kontinents von der Entdeckung bis zur Gegenwart, 9th edition, Wuppertal. (Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent)
• Hobsbawm, Eric J. (1978): “Vom Feudalismus zum Kapitalismus”, in: P. Sweezy, M. Dobb, K. Takahashi, R. Hilton, et al. (Eds.), Vom Feudalismus zum Kapitalismus, Frankfurt/Main. (“From Feudalism to Capitalism”, in: The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, 159-164. London, 1976)
• Kuo, David (2001): Dot.Bomb. My Days and Nights at an Internet Goliath, London.
• Lovink, Geert (2002): “Nach dem Dotcom-Crash”, in: Lettre International, No. 57, II/2002.
• Martin, Hans-Peter; Schuhmann, Harald (1997): Die Globalisierungsfalle, Reinbek bei Hamburg.
• Paczensky, Gert von (1979): Weiße Herrschaft. Eine Geschichte des Kolonialismus, Frankfurt/Main.
• Reichert, Ramón M. (1996): “Die Arbeitsmaschine. Dokumente zu Sozialtechnologie und Rationalisierung”, in: Brigitte Felderer (Ed.), Wunschmaschine – Welterﬁndung, Vienna; a book accompanying the exhibition bearing the same title.
• Salentiny, Fernand (1980): Santiago! Die Zerstörung Altamerikas, Frankfurt/Main.
• Schmid, Ulrich (1997): “Medien – Innovation – Demokratie: Zu den Entwicklungs- und Institutionalisierungsprozessen neuer Medien-Kulturen”, in: Barbara Becker/Michael Paetau (Eds.), Virtualisierung des Sozialen, Frankfurt, New York.
• Stichweh, Rudolf (2000): Die Weltgesellschaft. Soziologische Analysen, Frankfurt/Main.
• Weber, Hartwig (1982): Die Opfer des Kolumbus: 500 Jahre Gewalt und Hoffnung, Reinbek bei Hamburg.
• Wiener, Norbert (1992, ﬁrst edition 1948, revised edition 1961): Kybernetik. Regelung und Nachrichtenübertragung im Lebewesen und in der Maschine, Düsseldorf/Vienna/New York/Moscow.
• Wolff, Michael (2000): Vom Überleben in der wilden Welt des Internet-Business, Munich.