New Year, New Challenges By William Bowles

1 January 2004

In theory at least, the arrival of the New Year is time for a change, a clear-out of the old to make space for the new, so I thought I’d start by clearing out this page. However, I’m a firm believer in tradition, so no radical changes in layout or look except that I’m publishing the latest essay on the home page first.

In strange return to where I started out back in 1979 when I bought my first computer, a Commodore for $200, starting up this Website in 2003, almost a quarter of a century later has brought me full circle, back to where I first started exploring the world of electronic communications from the perspective of social transformation.

My Commodore came with a free subscription to Compuserve. Now my background is the arts, design and of course, politics but from the minute I logged on to Compuserve I was hooked. Here was an entirely new world of communication that for me, opened up new horizons and new creative possibilities.

My first tentative step into the world of the Internet was a piece of theatre called online.pla and it used the chat rooms of Compuserve that were called CB and a group of people I neither knew who they were or where they lived. All I knew were their ‘handles’.

The story, set in the future and rather presciently as it turns out, was about a world where people only ‘met’ each other online. In this alienated world, there were also individuals who would ‘takeover’ online communications and fill, as it were, the online world with their own ‘anarchic’ messages.

To counter these ‘anti-social’ individuals, a new branch of law enforcement was created called the Online Police whose job it was to hunt down these people. I created characters for the ‘inhabitants’ of Compuserve’s CB chatroom and distributed the script such as it was, to them.

Needless to say, my attempts to direct the enterprise soon degenerated into anarchy, as each ‘actor’ had their own ideas about how the play should proceed. It was an object lesson not only for me as creative artist, but also illustrated the disadavantages as well as advantages of this new world of computer-mediated-communication.

But I was hooked and around 1983 I started up my first online publishing venture called New York On-Line and it ran on an Apple ][ that I bought at Macy’s of all places. It had all of 240K of disk storage. Initially, NYOL was no more than essays that I networked to other Bulletin Board Systems or BBSes as they were known. Most were run by rather socially isolated individuals and the major topics were ‘hacking’ and computer games. Aside from one or two other BBSes, the idea of using the Internet for politics was an alien notion to the computer sub-culture of the time. And for the left of the time, computers were considered the ‘tools of the devil’. Virtually all of my attempts to interest the progressive movement of the time ended in failure aside from a handful of people.

NYOL had a single phone line connecting it to the net (no leased lines for me in those days, when only corporates could afford such luxuries). In 1984 I bought my first Macintosh and setup NYOL as a fully fledged BBS that used the Fidonet system to connect to the thousands of other Fidonet systems around the world. I kept NYOL going as a labour of love until I left New York in 1992 and relocated to South Africa.

To my knowledge there were perhaps only two other BBSes that used the ‘net to publish news on current affairs that didn’t originate from corporate sources. One was called The Well, the other was the first truly networked computer system other than those owned by corporates or the state, Peacenet.

Peacenet grew out of the burgeoning environmental movement and the world of NGOs, non-governmental organisations and for obvious reasons as it was the first truly global movement, the use of the Internet as a tool of communication between the first and third world’s was a logical step to take. Peacenet was part of a global network of computer systems called IGC with one system in each country.

NYOL acted as a kind of ‘filter’ for news and information, mostly on the Third World and it originated around 22 newsgroups on a variety of related topics and I kept it going until 1992.

At the same time (1985), I started to think about the implications of computers and capitalism and so I started up a discussion group at a place called the Brecht Forum (or the New York Marxist School) on W 19th street in Manhattan called logically, ‘Computers and Capitalism’. Initially, we didn’t even know what questions to ask but it was clear that the arrival of the computer not only heralded a revolution in production for capitalism, it also had deep implications for any future socialism.

It was at this time that I came across the writings of Stafford Beer (see FanfareforEffectiveFreedom[1] and World in Torment), the innovative socialist cybernetician and also I went back to re-reading Karl Marx in the light of the changes taking place and discovered that Marx had, in his own Victorian-centred way, already laid some of the groundwork for the ideas we were exploring.

Generally however, the left wanted nothing to do with the ideas we were tossing about and considered for example, the idea of ‘information capital’ as I termed it at the time, as some kind of technocratic fantasy and thoroughly ‘un-Marxist’. How wrong they were!

In latter half of 1985 I met a South African journalist in London, David Coetzee who published a weekly journal on Southern Africa called SouthScan – A Bulletin of Southern African Affairs and perhaps the most authoritative publication on Southern Africa then (or now) available. David was looking to publish it in the US but the logistics of the process precluded such a low budget enterprise. However, we decided to see if we couldn’t do it via email over Peacenet, using Pagemaker, my newly acquired laser printer and a high-speed copier/binder.

In those days, email was very much a hit and miss affair especially between continents. David used the British component of IGC was called GreenNet and getting copy from London to New York electronically was no mean feat. But one way or the other, we succeeded in publishing the US edition and when everything went well, I could turn it around and have in it the post in four hours and by the end of the day, various electronic versions available to subscribers.

SouthScan broke new ground for the left, opening up vast new potential for liberation movements around the planet, a process that I found myself getting more involved in, not only with NYOL and SouthScan but also through my work in radio and a little later, video, where I attempted to incorporate the computer into radio and video production.

What is difficult to take in, even now, is the speed at which things changed, for in a little over a decade (1978-90), the Age of Information transformed pretty well everything. The rest as they say is history except of course, it’s not even history yet, as we are still only at the beginning of a process whose end product we can only guess at.

On one level it’s gratifying to know that from such small beginnings and amid such strong opposition from people who were supposedly on the same side, we are now harnessing this new technology for progressive purposes. However, the technology that so serendipitously fell into the hands of capital now threatens to enslave us in ways that make 1984 look positively amateurish. In 1987 I wrote:

“More’s the pity that for most of us, such potentially liberating tools will be used against us, making them objects of fear, and in the process imbuing them with almost mystical abilities as they apparently mimic aspects of human behavior. But like any window, the Macintosh window can be a view from a prison cell or open on to a new world waiting to be explored.”
The Macintosh Computer – Archetypal Capitalist Machine?

The ‘war on terror’ has created the pretext to use the awesome power of the computer to control us in ways that were, until now, the sole province of science fiction and to do it not only through the control of our labour but through the control of the means of communication and through the power of the state to regulate and spy on our movements.

Faced with this three-pronged assault, I think it’s accurate to say that the gauntlet has been thrown down and that 2004 will be a decisive year for all humanity and we will be forced to choose sides. If we don’t, to paraphrase the words of Len Deighton’s main character in “Funeral in Berlin” ‘If you sit on the fence, they’ll run the barbed wire right through you’.



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