Golem: Her Lower Nervous System

(Distance-Independent Communication and Decentralization)

        64.  A higher form of public utility than transportation is the telephone, which extends the nervous system through the ear, and by its electric web helps link us into a common yet highly decentralized body. By its nature, the phone network demands construction and operation as a unified whole, around local needs that are everywhere fairly evenly distributed. Once such a network is established, distance essentially vanishes as a factor in communication through it. If it is regarded as integral, rather than as divided into arbitrary "local" and "long-distance" components, the real cost of any call depends mainly on time. Thus this technology's natural social embedding is as a free-access network maintained through the state, or in an unsocialized economy through a uniform time-use tax.

        Here, we have nothing of the sort; access is not a function of need, and accumulated power enjoys more of the system's benefits at a sharply preferential rate. Economically and politically, this technology is regulated by the Government for private profit. The social contradictions inherent in this scheme are so blatant that no corporate body in Amerika is so universally hated as the phone company. Thus its "property" meets the people in an interface of theft. The very codes that give business and other powers access to the network's more highly organized potentials are easily stolen, liberated for general access (as through publication in underground papers). As it becomes more sophisticated, the power of phone technology will become even less guardable, given sufficient technical knowledge among the people at large. (Even a visually transmitted thumbprint access code could be ripped off and spread around by photograph or videotape.)

        65.  If the Government didn't outlaw free use of technology. the contradictions maintained by private power would be unprotected and would diminish by our cooperation.

        Consider the Wide Area Telephone Service the Phone Company offers to businesses. A WATS line costs $2,500 a month, for which you can call anywhere in Amerika twenty-four hours a day. So form a public corporation. Rent five WATS lines, run them through a storefront switchboard into cozy booths. Total cost for rent/operation/administration: $450/day for 120 hours of person-to-person calls across the nation-at three-quarters use, that's 8¢ a minute. In contrast, Bell charges you 45¢/a minute during the day, half that at night, plus $2 for person-to-person.

        What matters is less finance than how we are enabled to change our ways. You won't rap for half an hour today with your brother in Detroit, it would cost you $13.50. Tomorrow the People's Phone Ripoff would charge you $2.40. Would you have a cup of tea while waiting in line for that, or sign up on a list while downtown shopping? On your left will be a room with cushions: a little black box -- with $40 worth of components, some friends of mine are selling it -- that lets you and five people anywhere talk with each other simultaneously; and a cheaper gadget that amplifies conversation into the whole room. At certain hours, your family or group can use this room to talk in conference with groups in any five other cities, for the collective price of $24 per hour (less apiece for three hours than a movie).

        Many scattered groups of people might talk together: organizers at Army bases and G.I. coffee-shops, free universities, black militants in the industrial unions, blind people and old people, Krishna chanters and musicians -- all have their reasons, and would discover more if they had the chance. Or consider a media scenario: Each day reporters from the six main underground papers and radio stations in the San Francisco Bay Area meet together orally with their counterparts in five other major metropolitan areas. For an hour a day of live news-sharing and three on Sunday, each enterprise would be charged $27 a month. (9)

        66.  The force of this rustic example must be understood in the light of the conversion of phone technology to videophone, now a decade away if advertising and avarice hold true. This fuller medium -- extending the eye, our principal information sense -- will be as accessible to simple public invention (and doubtless as thoroughly guarded from it by Ma Bell and Uncle Sam).

        An image for 1984. You are sitting in the People's Videophone Office with a number of others, sprawled on low cushions in a soft room, drinking and smoking. On each of the four walls you see, life-sized and in color, into another room somewhere. Your five groups are meeting together, for about $30 an hour. Brought within common means, such technology of group communications has revolutionary implications for the forms of political, social, and economic organization that depend upon group cooperation.(10)

        67.  Brought within common means, such technology of group communications has revolutionary implications for the forms of political, social, and economic organization that depend upon group communication.

        Roughly speaking, if such technology extends fully to the neighborhood level, these forms of our organizing become distance-independent. (12) This condition is precisely achieved when any person or group has refusable access to any other through unrestricted use of a vivid communications system -- one in which transmitted sense impressions cannot be distinguished from present ones by the unaided senses. Vividness in eye and ear is achievable by extension of present technologies (holograms, ear-baffled microphones and speakers); the other senses will require new means, presently conceivable.

        We are still at the mercy of physical distance, which forces us to abstract our broader relationships and conduct them through centralized intermediating agencies. The authoritarian forms of our educational system and our political agencies reflect this equally. To the extent that a communications technology is vivid, ample, free, and distance-canceling, it is an essential technology for enabling the democratic socialization of decision-making and learning processes. In this is reflected its nature as a collective nervous extension. And the fuller glory of our development along this technological line will be realized only as, through it, our politics, our learning, our industrial invention, etc., are transformed into fully decentralized and self-determined processes.

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