Is the Internet a Rhizome?

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...”
— William Gibson, Neuromancer

BEFORE it even existed, cyberspace was being hijacked. The US Federal Government's need to work out a way to allow all the incompatible computers being used for government research to communicate with each other - a task which they set ARPANET to solve - was hijacked by the myth of protecting computer networks against nuclear attack. When packet switching came to California on the back of the PC industry, it was hijacked first by the "hackers", who wanted a temporary autonomous zone, then by the WELL and its denizens (including an infant Wired magazine), who wanted a new space for "true" democracy and Enlightenment ideals - for a new American frontier. As soon as it became apparent that people were into it, the burgeoning Internet was hijacked by the politicians and their "information superhighway", then by Microsoft with their "Internet strategy", and now - as online transactions become a reality, and as the Net melds with the mass media - by corporate culture in general.

None of this should be particularly surprising to us. After all, what is all that different about Cyberspace? It is a space, an arena, a milieu. It affords the possibility of interaction and communication. It presents evolutionary and expansionary opportunities. It is open to the thermodynamics of power, of resistance, of control. It has levels of apparency and levels of indeterminacy; it affords various possibilities for movement and interpretation; it is complex and unquantifiable. Whilst cyberspace functions very differently from the spaces we are used to, that does not make it somehow more real, less real, hyperreal. It has an environmental impact (the total material cost of a car during its lifetime is 25 tonnes of matter; that of a PC is 19 tonnes (Wupperthal institute)). Electrons must travel down wires; must whip through processors and, most importantly, must be accessed by humans - in order for it to exist. To give in to thinking of cyberspace as solely a consensual hallucination is precisely to give in to thinking of cyberspace as a product of modernity - something of which Gibson is more or less guilty, and which has led him to the conclusion that the rise of cyberspace necessarily entails the promotion of the "mind" and the denigration of the "meat". Yet cyberspace is a consensual hallucination in much the same way that the game of chess is: it exists in myriad minds to a greater or lesser extent as a series of moves, power plays, possibilities for interaction, but it still needs a physical interface, even if that physical interface is a computer screen, even if a computer is playing one side of the game. And just as chess is more than the logical sum of all possible moves, so cyberspace is more than the logical sum of all possible computer connections. This is why it terrifies (post)modernity, because (post)modernity can only see it as precisely that: instant, logical, mental - hence Baudrillard's notion of the "hyperreal". It cannot see that cyberspace is real because of the fact that it has outgrown its logical parameters. It may be a human artifact, but part of its fascination is due to the fact that it is one which demands that we invent the concept of "artificial life".

This is as much to say that cyberspace is invested from the start with a set of libidinal energies. It is not about being analogue or digital - a dubious distinction at the best of times - but about the new speeds and possibilities becoming available as we construct ourselves an infosphere, an infosphere which will not only envelop computers as we think of them today, but all forms of media - from the telephone and the mail to CCTV networks and spy satellites. The marriage of television with the Internet through the set-top box and the digital satellite delivery system is the thing that will really bring cyberspace to the "masses"; what we need to understand about this development is not just what the psycho-social impact will be, not just whether it's arrival is a good or a bad thing, not just whether it threatens existing moralities and micro- & macro-political structures - although these questions have their place and are worth the asking - but: what are the new flows which are being opened up, how are people organising themselves around these flows, what are the new configurations of power and control which are becoming possible as a result?

As Virilio has pointed out, there is a powerful relationship between speed (and cyberspace is in many ways simply an increase in speed) and the state. But speed does not entail the state; for that to happen, speed needs to be catured, channelled and controlled. This means that during periods when new vectors and speeds are being introduced into society we need to be aware that it is then that we are then at our most vulnerable. A fable: the discovery and development of the technology of irrigation in the Nile basin introduced a new series of vectors and speeds into the the society of the time. It is obviously impossible to say for sure but one would imagine that the farmers concerned welcomed this development: it gave them more control over the growing of their crops, reduced their dependency on the elements, freed them from the back-breaking toil of carrying water. But whilst liberating them on the one hand, it laid them open to a new kind of oppression on the other. The priest class which which controlled the technology also controlled the flows of water and, by extension, the farmers, who had become dependent upon those flows. On the back of this new configuration of control a new state formation came into being, one which eventually enabled the awesome power of the Pharoahs and all the horrors of their rule.

At the end of the twentieth century, speeds are changing even more rapidly, and cyberspace is the plane upon which the new vectors are operating. To be banal, cyberspace is a new irrigation system, and governments and nations - the key statist power formations that we have lived with all our lives - are as tribal formations strung out along the Nile basin, waiting for the priests to arrive. Already, there are potential pharoahs waiting in the wings - Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch. We know their names. They may or may not be evil men; that is not the point. But when the dust settles and the pipelines are in place and we're all using them because it's easier for us and more fun that way, suddenly we're going to find that these people control what we need to survive and that the option we had way back when to get along without them is no longer there.

What we need, right now - not in 10 years time, because by then it will be too late - is our own set of tools. We need to be able to reengineer cyberspace as quickly as it is manufactured by the corporate entities. We need to find a vocabulary in which we can discuss these changes and these new terrains apart from the overcodings supplied for us by governments, media giants, software hegemonies. We don't need a perfect overview - let the pharoahs chase their tales seeking that. We need strategies of blockage and avoidance, ways to diffuse and short-circuit the state when the state begins to instantiate itself amongst us. Mounting a direct challenge may not be possible and it may not be what we want - we do not want to try to found a state system of our own. What we need to do is what we can do: cut new channels, create new temporary autonomous zones, defuse cathecting power.

What's all this got to do with the work of Deleuze and Guattari? Simply this: that they have provided us with the best toolbox around. I don't have space here to explain why that is; it would take a whole book, so you might as well go and read one of theirs, rather than one of mine, and make up your own mind. How long will those tools be effective? It's difficult to say. But at the moment they are clearly superior to anything the molar organisations have got, or for that matter to anything else that other theoreticians have offered up. Most of academia is only just getting over the loss of their precious authenticities; they still think that Hegelmarx is going to give them an economic strategy, and that a botched humanist politics will do the rest. But it won't do; these conceptual structures are not capable of thinking about transnational capital in an information age. Deleuze and Guattari's are; that is why they're what we need to think about cyberspace in the closing years of the twentieth century.

mute Issue 7, Winter 1997