Sociology 304

April 8, 1999

Theory of the Virtual Class


1. Introduction

Many of the issues related to virtuality and cyberspace that we have considered in this last section of the course have been concerned with the micro, interaction, small group, or community level. Stone examines the meaning of individual identity and self and how these might be changed in the contemporary era. She also considers how individuals relate to the computer, interact with others in cyberspace, and create new forms of community. She notes some of the problems associated with this such as the contradictions between the profit making concerns of the corporate executives and owners and the potentially creative environment envisioned by early programmers and desired by many users. The difficulties of creating community given the corporate framework and other societal structures mean that the utopian world that seemed possible with the new technologies is unlikely to happen. At the same time, Stone generally considers the new technologies to be creating new forms of individuals and selves, along with changes in social organization. The exact direction of these changes cannot be predicted because, as the title of her book claims, there is a war between desire and technology, and the outcome is not clear. Recall though that Stone warns that the technologies themselves are not "going to change the world for us. We are going to have to do it." (Stone, p. 170).

2. Arthur Krokerís Analysis of New Technologies

A somewhat different perspective on the new technologies is presented by Arthur Kroker, the postmodern political theorist from Concordia University in Montreal. Kroker notes some of the larger societal or macro level changes associated with the new technologies and their promotion by what he calls the virtual class. The articles are chapters one and four of Data Trash, a 1994 book by Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein. While the book has two authors, I will primarily refer to this as Krokerís work, because Kroker is the one who is most closely associated with the theories and approaches outlined in Data Trash. Data Trash does not constitute theory in the usual sense of sociological theory, but is a statement by Kroker about some trends in contemporary society, with a focus on technology and the consequences for culture, social relationships, and political economy. The CBC interview with Kroker presents a summary version of Krokerís views in his own words and in a form that might be grasped more quickly than the articles or Data Trash.

Krokerís claim is that the digital, virtual, computer, and communications arena is no longer democratic (if it ever was) and that this realm has been taken over by a virtual class. The power and social basis for this class is in high-tech, the computer-mediated form of communication that has become widespread and, according to Kroker, dominant in many aspects of our lives. Kroker argues that this class has become extremely powerful in contemporary society. The representatives of this class claim that it is necessary for people to adopt the latest digital technologies and adapt to these or we will fall behind, become uncompetitive, and be bypassed by those who do adopt these technologies. adapting to these. "Adapt or Youíre Toast" is the title of a section on pp. 2-3 of The Theory of the Virtual Class.

Kroker argues that rather than technology being used to assist society and adapting to help human needs and social relationships, there is strong compulsion for humans to adapt to the digital technologies. Kroker points out how the virtual becomes identified with the good (Theory, p.1), but this is really a projection of the class interests of the virtual class into cyberspace (Theory, p. 2). He notes some of the negative consequences of this for human social relationships (loss of aesthetics and solidarity, Theory, p. 1), for society as a whole (loss of democracy and economic justice, Theory, p. 5), and for political economic realities (unemployment, dislocation) in the contemporary world and in the future.

At the same time as Kroker is a cultural critic, his approach is not that of a dispassionate, neutral observer, who stands back and makes judgments concerning the good or bad features of contemporary culture. He argues that the understanding of virtuality requires the critic to become immersed in the virtual world, to understand it from within. As a critic, he attempts to subvert it from within, not as a Luddite, to destroy it, but to alert people to what is happening to them and society. In many ways, Kroker favours the new technologies and argues that they could and should become more democratic, that they could become a way of helping to form communities and find meaning. But he considers the direction being pursued by those associated with the new technologies to generally be the reverse of this, with a tendency toward commercialization, domination by technology, and control by a technological elite or virtual class.

Krokerís message may appear very negative, with resistance to the virtual class being difficult. In Pan-Capitalism, he argues that there may be a new form of fascism developing Ė pan-capitalism and the recline of western civilization. In this way, his message may seem one sided, similar to that of some of the critical theorists such as Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man. However, in some of his writings and interviews, his message is less one sided and he discusses contradictions within the virtual class. There is also the possibility of subversion, of saying no, and of bringing morality back into politics.

Reading Kroker. Do not try to understand every word or sentence. Rather, read a section and attempt to understand what point Kroker is making. The ideas are not presented in traditional fashion, but Kroker provides a sketch or set of impressions to illustrate the issues that he is dealing with. Also, you may have to reread some sections. Further, it may not matter too much where you begin reading.

 

Much of Krokerís writing is diatribe, manifesto, and personal statement that open a number of issues that are important for each of us today and in the future, for Canadian society and for people in all parts of the world. Much of Krokerís writing is difficult to read and he uses a postmodern approach, developing new "jargons and vocabularies" (Roseanau, p. 18). New forms of jargon are often used by new schools of academic thought and particular subcultures, in an attempt to distinguish themselves and form a boundary between those with and without knowledge of the jargon. Rosenau notes that postmodern writers go beyond this and

they see little reason to make especially strenuous efforts to communicate exactly what they mean in any case. They argue that jargon, defined as playing with words, is interesting in and of itself. The generally relaxed post-modern temper makes for flexibility, but at the same time it contributes substantially to confusion and ambiguity. (Rosenau, p. 18).

Kroker provides a good example of this and a quick glance at the articles yields terms such as virtual class, crash culture, recline of civilization, abuse value, soft ideology, possessed individual, technotopia, cyber-flesh, post-modem society etc. Each of these makes some sense, although Kroker does not usually give exact meaning to them. Instead, the general meaning can usually be discerned by looking at the context and considering what Kroker is trying to get across. This approach can be frustrating but is at the same time interesting and carries considerably meaning and insight.

The writings of Kroker also differ from much other sociological writing in that they do not have a unilinear approach, working from some assumptions and hypotheses and developing an argument. Marxís Capital (even though using a dialectical approach) or Durkheimís Suicide begin from a well defined set of assumptions, arguments, or propositions and proceed to examine the consequences of this. Their approach is reasoned and logical, building a solid argument by using empirical data and theoretical reasoning, and continually going back and forth between them. Kroker is postmodern in that he skips from one topic to another, repeating the argument, and going at issues from other points of view. In some of his books he uses short sketches, photographs, and artistic works to illustrate his points. In that sense, his approach is that of the virtual world Ė television or the web with their juxtaposition of images, ideas, and issues Ė where there need be no unilinear form of development. For example, the web allows the individual to jump from site to site, and there need be no particular connection between these. This can be chaotic, but if there is some organizing principle the author has in mind, then the points get across.

3. Krokerís Background

Arthur Kroker (1945- , Canada), from Red Rock, near Thunder Bay in Northern Ontario, originally intended to be a priest. Kroker received a Ph.D. in Political Science from McMaster University in 1975 and was a professor at the University of Winnipeg from 1979 through 1981. While there, Kroker established the Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory. Since 1991, this journal has discontinued publishing in hard copy and was transformed into the electronic journal Ctheory (http://www.ctheory.com/). From this address you can get to the Krokerís own home page. Since 1981, Kroker has been a professor of political science at Concordia University in Montreal. He is a postmodern theorist who examines culture and technology in the contemporary world. He has written several books, has produced a disc of sampled and electronic sounds, presents lectures and performance art and has toured with a band Sex without Secretions.

Marilouise Kroker is an artist who collaborates with Arthur Kroker on many of his works. She is editor of the Cultural Texts series for New World Perspectives, a founding editor of Ctheory, and co-author with Arthur Kroker of several books.

4. Krokerís Influences

In addition to the literature on cyberculture, and the familiarity of Kroker with the major political and sociological traditions, there appear to be four or five major influences in the work of Kroker.

The earlier work of Innis, with its emphasis on technological conditions and the nature of commodities having important economic and social effects also is discernible in Krokerís work. Grantís anti-American concerns are also evident, recalling an earlier era when it might have been possible to build a different, conservative Canada. Grant was also a humanist, arguing for preservation of "some vestige of the dignity of human purpose," something which is being threatened by the will to technology of the later twentieth century (Technology and the Canadian Mind, p. 25). 

From CBC Sunday Morning interview: Kroker notes that there is a grim consolidation currently underway, but also a rebellion against the techno-hype of Silicon Valley. Kroker argues that we should develop a critical perspective on these new technologies but embrace their creative possibilities. For Kroker, there are no inevitabilities in human history and there is a human will to resist. Kroker is trying to develop a language for the new digital world of the 21st century, a language that portrays the will to resist. 

 5. Krokerís Approach 

Regardless of the exact nature of contemporary society and the trends in it, Kroker generally argues that the old ideologies, theories, forms of analysis, and political movements are no longer adequate or capable of dealing with contemporary or future realities. In this sense, Kroker is a radical postmodernist, who argues that the technological, social, economic, and political realities of the modern era are over, and we now have entered the postmodern ear. Individuals, groups, society, technology, and forms of analysis have all changed so new tools and new understandings are necessary for contemporary and future developments. Thus postmodernism is not just a new tool of sociological analysis but is also a new era. His comments on the disappearance of the main factors and relations of production (Pan-Capitalism, p. 3, bottom), the new process economy, and the new types of commodity relations (recombinant commodity) mean that he considers even an updated Marxian analysis inadequate to understanding and analyzing contemporary pan-capitalism. 

Not only is the virtualization of military culture under wasy, but the colonization of the globe is achieved by downloading American culture into the expectant orifices of local territorial space. It is not only the technological class that is against the working class, but a universal media class that is arrayed against local populations. (p. 33).  

Kroker also deals with other forms of culture such as visual art, music, and in Chapter discusses photographic culture. The glossary (pp. 158-163) also mentions crash culture (dead culture in the age of terminal shutdown and recline of the west), excremental culture (recycling), and virtual culture (a total environment for the virtualized body). In raising these points, Kroker is arguing that the old cultural referents and systems have disappeared and new cultures have emerged.  

Note that the Krokers publish an electronic journal, have web pages with lots of information about their work, and they issued a CD along with their last book. In the 1996 Wired interview, Marilouise Kroker argues  

Yet as our world changes, if you want to critique it, you have to keep up with it. Antitech people will say, "I donít watch television because itís bad." Well, how can you analyze your culture if you donít watch TV? Itís the same thing for whatís going on digitally right now.  

In the July, 1995 CBC interview, Arthur Kroker argues that you have to get inside the technology to be able to understand and critique it. Kroker operates within the electronic beast, becomes part of it, but uses this as a way of understanding the difference between technology and the experiences of his own flesh.  

From the CBC Sunday Morning interview: Kroker says that we cannot escape technology and we must get involved in it. If we express fascination for the techno-utopian model, the mind shuts down. Rather than fascination, Kroker himself is hyper-fascinated. His method is to always try to move into things intensely, and this means intense involvement in the new technologies. At the same time he adopts a critical perspective on these technologies, retains a distance from them and not does become a promoter of the virtual class. Kroker is critical of the later McLuhan, arguing that McLuhan's critical edge disappeared as he became a spokesperson for the new forms of media. Further, Kroker does not consider himself to be an abstracted intellectual but argues that we must live within the culture. 

6. Limitations to Krokerís Analysis 

There are a number of shortcomings in Krokerís analysis, and that of other postmodernists. Some of the limitations would seem to be: 

A. "The Theory of the Virtual Class" Ė Chapter 1 of Data Trash 

The first half of this section from Data Trash provides an overview of the theory of the virtual class. Here Kroker examines the claims of the virtual class and the position of the virtual class within contemporary capitalism. He provides an analysis of some of the ways in which the virtual class exerts power and influence on society. In the second half of this section, Kroker provides some short maps or guidelines concerning some of the ways the virtual class operates in the contemporary era. 

1. Promise and Reality. Kroker begins by noting the gap between the original vision of the utopians and the commercial realities of the information highway. Originally, many who worked with the new computer networks thought of the net as a realm of freedom, and a way of organizing new forms of social interaction, community, and a new social world. This could have been an anarchic form of self-organization, independent of corporate and state direction and control. But commercials have become part of the internet, the internet is used for commerce, and the aims of the virtual class dominate the culture and direction of the new forms of information technology. The virtual class "is devoted in actuality to shutting down the anarchy of the Net in favor of virtualized (commercial) exchange" (p. 3, top). Demands for meaning (p. 3, middle) contrast with the transmission of data and information that form the commercial basis for the virtual class. For the virtual class, content and meaning become problems in that they hinder the pursuit of commercial gain, profits, and corporate expansion. As a result the emancipation that could result from these new technologies is stifled and the new technologies are instead used in an authoritarian manner.  

Kroker also notes that ethics and human values play no role in the direction in which the new technologies develop. Instead of using the new technologies to promote creativity, solidarity, democracy, justice, and an expansion of human experiences, the virtual class promotes "a radically diminished vision of human experience and ... a disintegrated conception of the human good" (p. 2, middle). While Kroker argues that we should pursue ethical ends in considering how these new technologies will be use (p.1 , bottom), the will to virtuality means a "drive to planetary mastery," an "impulse to nihilism," and a movement "beyond good and evil" (top of p.2), where virtuality is identified with the good. That is, instead of a considered adoption of these technologies to improve the human condition, the drive to adopt all aspects of these technologies, to commercialize them, and to relentlessly pursue virtuality dominates. Kroker summarizes some of the effects on p. 2. 

Later in this paper, Kroker notes that human rights issues also take a back seat to the development of virtual technologies in China and across the globe (p. 13). Consideration of human rights issues could only slow the "circulation of virtual exchange" and so must be separated from economic and technological developments.

2. Digital superhighway or Media Net? pp. 2-4.

3. Illusions. p. 12.

4. The Virtual Class 

a. "Theory"

Alliance of technological class and capitalism. (Also, pp. 5-6).

Will to virtuality.

Ideology of facilitation Ė promise of benefits of new technologies.

Adapt or youíre toast. Threat.

Visions, promises, seduction, and power of this class. Top of p. 2.

b. CBC Interview. The following notes, giving Kroker's description of the virtual class, come from a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Sunday Morning broadcast of July 23, 1995. For Kroker, the virtual class is the new technological class. It came or is coming to power on the back of cyberspace or the internet. This is the class that expresses the dominant interest of information technology. Representatives of this class may claim that it is time for a real austerity budget. But this means bludgeoning the working and the middle class and shifting the economic pie so that more money goes into high tech industries, and there is no discussion of the consequences of this. For example, what happens when there is no work for much of the population? Virtualization means moving to a society that requires less labour and more and more people become surplus. More people become a surplus class and today there are some countries which could be considered to be surplus countries.

Alvin Toffler is a representative of the virtual class. Toffler proclaims a third wave, after the first wave of the Industrial Revolution and the second wave of capitalist industrial expansion following the Second World War and continuing through the 1970s. Toffler argues that those in the third wave have common interests and should cooperate, promoting cyberspace. In contrast, Kroker argues that the virtual class may speak the language of democracy but their real purpose is to have an ideology of facilitation (come on board the information highway with global access and global communication) and this feeds on the view that technology can create utopias and humanism. But by the mid 1990s, the time for the age of net utopia is over and now corporations such as Disney and Time-Warner claim that we need to make money on the internet. This will stop our relation as users and turn us into passive consumers.

The virtual class:

Brook and Boal quote Howard Rheingold on the imagined community of cyberspace. See p. ix of Brook and Boal, where they note "the wish to leave body, time, and place behind in search of electronic emulation of community."

Krokerís critique is that under the guise of being progressive and promoting creativity, community, and a better life, the virtual class ignores and destroys positive human values. The political and economic consequences of this are are to hurt people and communities through the austerity and deficit cutting measures that have become so widespread.

c. Structure of the Virtual Class. These are the social strata which represent the new technologies, promote them as a solution to problems of society and to our mundane existence, and who wish to speed up and intensify the process of virtualization by applying it to as many parts of society as possible. This class can be considered to have two parts, the technicians and the capitalists. Often these two are the same people, but there are two distinct sets of tasks that are carried out by this class Ė the development and application of the new technologies, and the commercialization of these technologies. See Map 4, p. 21 on the information elite. Also "There are pure capitalists in the cyber industry and there are capitalists who are also visionary computer specialists" ("Theory", p. 7, middle). The capitalists drive the system, but need the ideas, products, and methods developed by the visionary specialists. Kroker also lists a number of other subgroups that are part of the virtual class Ė the engineers, video game developers, programmers, etc. ("Theory" p. 7, bottom).

The language and discourse of this class, along with their power and control over the direction that technology takes, because of the importance of new technology, makes this class a powerful group in society. At the same time, this class is not all powerful, with many of the modernist forms of production and consumption still holding sway over much of society. But they are an emergent force, because this class represents the new technologies, and these technologies have a great influence on the direction of the economy and society, and could have an increasingly greater influence.

If the virtual class is to be considered a social class, what is the social basis on which this class is structured? The alliance of cyber-technologies with capitalism would appear to be the basis. This means the widespread application of these new technologies in a great variety of areas Ė manufacturing, communications, service industries, government, etc. In "Pan-Capitalism," Kroker notes that "the universal interests of the recombinant commodity are carried forward by the particular interest of the technological class" (p. 7, middle). This is similar to the Marxian approach to capitalism, where the universal power of commodities comes from particular capitalists organizing the production and sale of particular commodities. At the same time, the types of commodities are somewhat different than in the classical Marxian analysis. The virtual class is attempting to control and profit from information, so that the material basis is somewhat different than earlier capitalist classes. Kroker notes that this creates a process economy rather than a good producing economy (although the latter has not entirely disappeared). It is also not clear whether all of this information can be turned into the commodity form, although the virtual class is attempting to do so. The companies that advertise on and use the internet are examples of this trend toward the commercialization of the internet.

Marxists might object that the virtual class is not defined primarily by the connection to the means of production. However, it is necessary to recognize that in capitalism historically and currently, there are many different branches or fractions to the capitalist class, e.g. industrial capital, finance capital, agricultural capital, etc. The virtual class can be regarded as one such branch of the capitalist class more generally. However, the virtual class is becoming thoroughly enmeshed and integrated with other forms of capital, and operates on a global basis.

Also note in the article by Armitage, that he argues that "human labour is not longer central to market-driven conceptions of business and political activities." In contrast, in the virtual era, "technology is now the only factor of production." (Armitage, p. 1). While this is arguable, one of the characteristics of post-modernity is that much of the production of goods has reached a point where direct inputs of human labour have been minimized. Certainly increasing the use of human labour and the massive use of human labour that characterized early industrialization, is no longer the primary driving force of capitalist expansion. Increases in productivity by applying new forms of technology may take precedence over increasing the input of human labour or increasing the rate of exploitation. (See also p. 7 of "Pan-Capitalism").

d. Class struggle also takes a different form in that it is a struggle (i) between the virtual class and a variety of individuals and groups who attempt to prevent the virtual class from having such great control over the new technologies and the flow of information, and (ii) with large sections of society and the world rendered irrelevant or surplus. As Kroker noted in his CBC interview, many of the effects of the new technologies are to render people, groups, and whole nations surplus. Unlike imperialism, which was a grand system of theft for poorer countries, the virtual economy is one of neglect Ė one that does not require the resources of the poor countries. The expansion of the industrial technologies (1750 - 1980) and service industries (after World War II) created a need for more people and more resources. While the new technologies need some people, and there are expanding parts of the labour force as a result of these, these technologies overall seem to result in a lower level of employment. This was also true of the more productive manufacturing technologies in an earlier era, and that the growth of those resulted in dramatic changes in society. The question is how the cyber-technologies will lead to changes in society. Kroker seems to be arguing that these new technologies change the whole nature of political economy and possibly society.

2. Kroker Ė Political Economy of Virtual Reality.

a. Virtual capitalism. pp. 1-2.

b. Virtual economy (tumour economy).

c. High-speed backbone.

d. Cyber-bodies.

e. Virtual class and class war.

f. Virtual colonialism. pp. 9-10.

g. Recombinant fascism. p. 11.

h. Virtual politics and pan-capitalism. pp. 12-14.


Notes from April 8, 1999. Last revised on April 9, 1999.

Return to Sociology 304, Winter, 1999.