April 9, 1998
The Virtual Class
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 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 corporate and creative environment
and the difficulties of creating community. 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.
2. Arthur Kroker's 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 Kroker's 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 Kroker's views in his
own words and in a form that might be grasped more quickly than
the articles or Data Trash.
Kroker's 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 You're 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.
Kroker's 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 - 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 the interviews he has given, 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.
Much of Kroker's 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 Kroker's 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
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.
Marx's Capital or Durkheim's Suicide begin from
a single argument or proposition 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. He also uses short
sketches, photographs, and artistic works to illustrate his points.
In that sense, his approach is that of the virtual world - television
or the web with their juxtaposition of images, ideas, and issues
- 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. Kroker's 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 Kroker's 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. Kroker's 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 major influences in the work of Kroker.
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. Kroker's 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
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 don't watch television because it's bad." Well, how can you analyze your culture if you don't watch TV? It's the same thing for what's 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 Kroker's Analysis
There are a number of shortcomings in Kroker's analysis, and that
of other postmodernists. Some of the limitations would seem to
7. The Virtual Class
a. 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 info highway with global access and global communication)
and this feeds on the view that technology can create utopias
and humanism. But by the mid1990s, 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."
Kroker's 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
b. 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 -- 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" (Data Trash, p. 15, top).
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
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 - manufacturing,
communications, service industries, government, etc. Note that
this is somewhat different than the classical Marxian analysis,
in that this new class is attempting to control and profit from
information, so that the material basis is somewhat different
than earlier capitalist classes. It is not yet clear whether all
of this information can be turned into the commodity form, although
the virtual class is attempting to do this. But this is what various
companies are attempting to do with commercialization of the
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 - 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. 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.
Brook, James and Iain A. Boal, editors, Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information, San Fransisco, City Lights, 1995.
Kroker, Arthur and Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash: the theory of the Virtual Class, Montreal, New World Perspectives, 1994.
Rosenau, Pauline Marie, Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights,
Inroads, and Intrusions, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992.
Two chapters from Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash: the theory of the virtual class (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994) are available on the internet. These are:
Chapter One, " The Theory of the Virtual Class."
Most of Chapter Four,
The Political Economy Of Virtual Reality:
Pan-Capitalism," pp. 66-93 of Data Trash.
CTHEORY is an international journal of theory, technology and
culture. Articles, interviews, and key book reviews in contemporary
discourse are published weekly as well as theorisations of major
"event-scenes" in the mediascape. Edited by Arthur and
Notes from April 9, 1998. Last revised on April 14, 1998.
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