Are We At
A Fork In The Information Superhighway?
Electronic communications over the past twenty years have changed dramatically. Social practices using computers have led individuals to connect to one another on the level of "pure meaning" (following Sorokin's definition). These practices take on symbolic constructions of meaning that are very often dualistic - themes of community found and community lost, unification and conflict, control and risk, or democracy and fascism. Discourses within the communities which people the Internet, as well as those "outside" of the Internet, often focus on these themes. But this essay suggests that the degree to which we have a choice in the direction that online life takes may be small, due to the fact that the Internet is a phenomenon with its own emergent properties which tend to be authoritarian and totalizing. In posing the question, "Is Resistance Futile?," the author suggests that any form of resistance to this trend tends to be co-opted by the impulse to totalize.
I. Electronic Communication and Community
The intersection of cyberspace and community is at once a real social phenomenon and an intangible philosophical abstraction. It is real because people are, in fact, relating to one another using electronic communication, finding shared interests or mutual discontents. People who have never met are enjoying each others "company" in chat rooms online. People who have been close all their lives, families, are keeping in touch through e-mail online. People who are the victims of tragic experiences are consoling and commiserating with one another on the USENET online. People are "going" to the mall online. People are having "sex" online.
But at the same time, this intersection of intercourses is a philosophical issue, perhaps even a fundamental transformation, regarding social processes as we have known them. The potential benefits and dangers of this new social arena seem enormous. What is at the root of these real-yet-virtual relationships?
The answer lies in the concept of communication. Communication is the essence of community. Not coincidentally, the two words 'communication' and 'community' have a common etymological root. Using new methods of communication, the online communities that have developed transcend territory, thus eliminating a fundamental mediating factor in the exchange of ideas. Physical territory has never been a necessary factor for this exchange to occur, but it has been until recently insurmountable. Charles Horton Cooley (1992/1902) recognized long before the first computers were operating that community exists not "out there" but in the locus of mind:
However, the means by which we facilitate this "relation among personal ideas", the "place" where we get together, has changed dramatically over the past several decades, even more so in the past several years. A consequent change has occurred in the meaning that we must give to the word "community." This meaning must be examined on an abstract level, and the inventions of computer mediated communication which are transforming this meaning must also be looked at philosophically. As I have said, the potentials and dangers are great. Community may come to have a meaning that is either liberating for the human spirit or collapses that spirit upon itself totally. It is my belief that we are at a junction in our social condition, a fork in the (information) highway to two competing futures. Rather than predict which road we will end up on, I hope in this essay to discuss the two directions that these roads lead and the perils and sanctuaries that exist along each of them.
II. The Two Faces of Community
In addressing the idea of community on an abstract level, it must be recognized that there exists a fundamental duality regarding the. Unification is the underlying basis for the meaning of community upon which this duality is built. It is a sense of togetherness, of commonality that binds people into a group, not necessarily physically but most definitely mentally, so that the combined efforts of the group are held to be beneficial for all. This is the communistic impulse, the ideal of a Marxist utopia. It encompasses the idea that there is some common goal or end to which (knowingly or unknowingly) all the members of the community contribute and thus share the benefits.
Of course, as Hannah Arendt (1958:44) points out, this "harmony of interests" was not unique nor original to Karl Marx, but was preceded by none other than those against whom he directed his critique, the liberal economists themselves. "It was not Marx but the liberal economists who had to introduce the communistic fiction, that is, to assume that there is one interest in society as a whole which with 'an invisible hand' guides the behavior of men and produces the harmony of their conflicting interests."
The duality of community exists, then, not in the concept that formulates action on its part, but in the actions themselves. The liberal economists argued that a free-market based on ownership of property would benefit this all-encompassing community, whereas Marx sought to dissemble the free-market and thus achieve a victory for community. These two strains have no qualms against arguing that the common goal is the premise of their systems of action. But this impulse for an ultimate togetherness is a fiction. It is this fiction, according to Arendt, that has laid the foundation for the "rise of society", or of the social space, and has made possible the destruction of the meaning inherent by private and public space.
The means by which society is massified, by which this destruction occurs and a common goal is reached, has largely been accredited to the ideologies of science. The scientific endeavor of modernity (a theoretical stance) and, more importantly, its practically applied counterpart, technology, has created a world in which the communistic fiction might become reality, but not without some serious side-effects. As recent postmodern social critics (as well as their forebearers of critique within the Frankfurt School) have pointed out, along with the ideal of an overarching, singular community comes a less desirable obliteration of prior notions of public and private space, and an accompanying crisis of personal identity. The movement of technology, especially with regard to the new forms of communication it offers to us, is a double-edged sword. The two faces of community that emerge from this modern social condition are represented in the ideal of togetherness that co-exists alongside the dehumanizing prospects of massification. Earlier in the twentieth century the dichotomy can be seen, politically, in the emergence and battles (both "hot" and "cold") between democratic and authoritarian regimes. But it is only within the past several decades that this duality has, perhaps, been recognized as ultimately socially derisive on both sides, as neither alternative seems to serve the interests of the individual, but have rather led to the reinforcement of social control by and for the interests of a relative minority. And both authoritarian and democratic states have used technology to reinforce those means of control.
Coinciding with what Arendt and many others identify as the rise of mass society is the rise in technologically mediated communication. Technologically mediated communication has existed since the first telegraphic signal was sent in Paris in 1794. It has evolved from this physically wired transmission of telegraph and telephones to the non-physical, airwave transmissions of radio and television. Today we have computers that use both of these technologies in the communicative process. Now, whether the rise in mass society or the development of new technologically mediated communications came first is a chicken and egg kind of question, and ultimately moot - this movement between science and society is a dialectical process, and cannot be discretely divided into minute points on a map of development. Rather, they should be considered events that occur simultaneously, without cause and effect implications. However, we can engage in a discussion about how new technologically mediated communications relate to older ones, and how they relate to previous (and possibly future) forms of societal formation. What then makes computer mediated communication (CMC) different and new compared to previous technologies? What makes the Internet unique?
The evolution of communication technologies has always focused upon collapsing the dimensions of space and time. First of all, the ability to gain information about the world outside of our "private" domain (our physical space in front of a computer screen in our home, or workplace, or local Internet café) has profound implications for changes in the notion of space. As Arendt has pointed out, the rise of the "social" has transcended old notions regarding the divisions between public and private. So has the rise of CMC. Using CMC we can communicate with not only one, but any number of people at nearly any point on the globe. However, it is important to recognize that despite the non-physicality of CMC's, the model for the construction of online communication is nonetheless geographic. "The virtual community is a construction existing in our vision and imagination, and it is significant that geographical and architectural terms are the primary metaphors used to describe the emerging electronic environment in which place and location are deemphasized in favor of speed of transmission" (Gumpert and Drucker, in Strate et al, 1996: 29).
Secondly, CMC's are bridging the gap of communicative time that previously laid between people in distant places. This is important because the faster we can communicate with one another, the greater is the amount of information we can internalize and use to adjust our cognitive frameworks, our attitude about the world, especially toward mediating our own freedoms with respect to the necessities of life. Gergen states that:
The impetus for the breaking of these barriers is control. The faster we can learn about and internalize the events of the "outside" world (whether that reality be physical or social), the greater control we might feel we have over that world of doubt and fear. CMC achieves an increased rate of information retrieval and communicative speed that is unprecedented, and thus the control we may perceive that we have over these realities may also seem to be growing.
With respect to manipulating social and physical realities to one's own will, this control is, of course, largely a perception only. In fact, the actual consequences of this mass gathering of information may have quite negative consequences in terms of self-control. The ability to gain information about the "outside" world has increased so much via these new technologies, in fact, that some have argued that it is having a profound (and disturbing) effect on our sense of individual identities. Gergen, for instance, notes that our selves are becoming "saturated" and "overpopulated" (1991). Our identities online are so malleable (I can easily portray myself online as having any of a number of essences, from six- foot black woman from Nairobi, to squat red-headed adolescent) that we contradict the selves that sit in front of the computer screen.
This duality between perceived social control and loss of actual self-control, or identity, is perhaps the micro-level analog to the previously mentioned duality of community: we seek a world that is complete or total in our minds, yet the consequences of this search is the (metaphorical, or sometimes even real) loss of our selves, the locus of mind.
In fact, within the domain of communications technology, these two faces become very clear. An increase in the scope of interconnectedness should, ideally, tend to make personal relationships stronger and thus reinforce cooperation between individuals, thereby reinforcing the skein of society. But, as we have seen, with this increase of scope also comes an eradication of previous meanings of the public and private. Grumpert and Drucker note that
However, I would add that those new modes of communication have left us with the impression of control where very little actually exists. Rather than escaping the public streets due to its risks, the movement to electronic interfacing brings those risks into the private home, thus destroying the very refuge that is sought from the storm. Giddens points out the origin of this "risk culture" in modernity:
The storm, the risks of the "real world" that Gumpert and Drucker delineate (the personal physical risks of mugging or drive-by shootings) are only the tangible, physical hazards of the world. These risks are, in fact, relatively minor (thus the perception that they are great is a fantasy). Furthermore,
Perhaps the greater risk that is being imported into cyberspace is this aspect of social control.
What is "social control"? Of course, it is not (yet) necessarily the complete control of every minute action of an individual, as if they were machines or robots that are manipulated by radio-command. Rather, it is conceived as a lack of creative response to the world, a disembowelment of the artistic impulse, whereby new institutions could spring forth almost spontaneously from those responses and impulses that stem from the "species-being" or an essential, authentic identity. This kind of control is indicative of a society that has few options from which to choose regarding the institutions that shape their lives. How are these options and choices manipulated? In physical space they have been manipulated largely through the commodification of culture. Culture, of course, is the elaboration in the social world of those artistic impulses weaved together. Culture is the lifeblood of the liberating face of community. The "rise of society" and consequent loss of a differentiation between public and private space has drained this lifeblood, this essence, from many communities that once had this liberating tendency. The human condition is, however, indomitable: new communities arise to replace ones that have been killed off by those interested in control. Cyberspace was one such arena of community. Originally developed as a means of military control in the event of nuclear disaster, the Internet was quickly overtaken by the "hacker ethic" of academia.
A rather odd coalition of two institutions that had very different internal social tenets existed in the 1970s - the defense establishment and the academic research community. The resolution of the conflict between the basic worldviews of these institutions came with a gradual subversion of the intended purpose of the network. The particular actions of individuals in academia that achieved this subversion (diverting funds from defense mission-oriented to pure-research projects, for example) helped to set the stage for the way the culture of the Internet developed (Giese, in Strate et al 1996: 129).
The development of Internet culture as a culture of resistance to totalizing societal institutions is significant, and this resistance is considered to house a democratic consciousness by many. However, cognizant of the fact that the Internet and CMC's have grown astronomically in the past decade, those who seek social control again are turning to this timeless and spaceless medium for a second stab. How, then, has the competition between these two conflicting philosophical worldviews shaped this new mode of communication?
There have been many advocates for the democratizing aspects of computer mediated communication (Zuboff, Toffler, Ogden, Abramson et al). Take, for example, the World Future Society's claim that "now for the first time in history, a possible answer to the utopian dilemma is emerging. By applying new technology and adopting a new perspective, we may at last be able to achieve a way of life that is personal yet communal, secure yet flexible, practical yet spiritually fulfilling" (Abramson et al, 1988: 9). Or Ogden's claim that "if we are to believe in the vision of cyberspace described by some, then [life] in cyberspace [could] shape up to be exactly like Thomas Jefferson would have wanted: founded on the primacy of individual liberty and the commitment to pluralism, diversity and community" (1994). Dertouzos understands democratic communications to prevail when "nearly everyone would be able to put his or her ideas, concerns and demands before all others" (in Ess, 1996: 198) Democracy, in this sense, is plebiscitary, allowing the free exchange of information between individuals to be facilitated by CMC for the purpose of political control (Abramson et al, 1988: 19). Of course, the enormous complexities of such a revamped system of governance have yet to be worked out (not to mention the fact that our representatives might be wholly unwilling to relinquish the control and power they currently hold). What is more likely, in terms of CMC facilitating the democratic impulse, is the Jeffersonian ideal of a pluralistic democracy which is "based on the principle of free competition among groups. Individuals join groups on the basis of some perceived group interest; the democratic process is the clash that results among these group interests" (Abramson et al, 1988: 27). Of course, this style of democracy "ignores the fact that there are many in our society who are excluded from involvement in politics because of poverty or prejudice" (Beamish, 1995). Equally as important as these considerations is the acknowledgment of indifference. For, as Mulgan points out,
In a society that so prizes democratic values ideologically, how can this kind of impotence emerge? The answer might lie in a recognition of the flows of power within contemporary society.
According to many social observers, the new 'coin of the realm' for those interested in the pursuit of power is knowledge. Zuboff optimistically recognizes that "because 'knowledge is power', because electronic information will spread knowledge into every corner of the [world], political influence will be more widely shared" (in Neustadter, 1991). However, other theorists have been more critical of the control of knowledge as a mediating force in society. Says Lyotard,
Ogden (1994) also notes that "the future [may] see an increasing gap between the information-rich and the information-poor." Knowledge and its control as a commodity is clearly central to the tension between democratization and authoritarianism via computer mediated communication. This tension was felt some years ago by the prescient social critic C. Wright Mills. "Knowledge," says Mills, "is no longer widely felt as an ideal; it is seen as an instrument. In a society of power and wealth, knowledge is valued as an instrument of power and wealth" (1956: 352). How has this instrument been wielded? What is the mechanism by which knowledge is transmuted into a commodity? It is transmuted through the geographical metaphor, through the use of the idea of intellectual property.
As I have noted, the significance of the importation of geographical and territorial metaphors onto the spaceless and timeless realm of computer mediated communications cannot be understated. This is because those very metaphors carry with them prior notions of property and ownership. Or, as Grumpert and Drucker put it, "the significance of the landscape orientation of cyberspace is not only that a prior spatial identity has been applied to a nonterritorially defined medium, but that the very process of naming redefines the earlier application" (in Strate et al, 1996: 32). Of course, the concept of intellectual property is not "natural", nor is it new to cyberspace; but it is, societally speaking a fairly recent development. "Intellectual property is not a self-evident proposition. Its history is short. It began slightly more than 500 years ago with the advent of printing and continues until now. This is not a long history, as histories go" (Kleinman, in Strate et al, 1996: 60). As the introduction of Gutenburg's new technology in 1450 changed the rules of property to include the locus of mind, or ideas, so are the rules being challenged today by Bill Gates et al, redefining the earlier application of the rules of intellectual property that have been held more or less constant for the past five-hundred and forty-six years. "The debate should remind us," states Kleinman, "that we are at a classic point in the evolution of technology and ideas when old models do not quite apply and new models have not yet been constructed." Computer mediated communication is the part of this process of redefinition that has shifted the focus of power from material-property-as-commodity to knowledge-as-commodity. Or, as Lyotard put it, "the scenario of the computerization of the most highly developed societies allows us to spotlight certain aspects of the transformation of knowledge and its effects on public power and civil institutions - effects it would be difficult to perceive from other points of view" (1979: 6).
This redefinition is apparent in the legal traditions of copyright. "In an earlier period the tensions between freedom and the need for control were far less apparent. Copyright was one of the means of removing control away from the dead hand of State and Church to the more decentralized control of the market" (Mulgan, 1991: 123). Today, however, the market of information and knowledge has become the center of control, the means of power. The monopolization of the means by which "copy", or intellectual property, is transmitted, in fact, "conflicts with two ideas at the core of Western ideas of freedom, the commitment to the free market, and the commitment to the free flow of political and cultural ideas" (Mulgan, 1991).
This monopolization of the new realm of intellectual property and the consequent commodification of knowledge and ideas has a profound relevance to the notion of free speech, a principle that lies at the very center of many governmental Constitutions and that is fundamental to the issue of social control. When language itself is considered nothing more than a currency, the meaning of discourse becomes shattered into a simple relationship between consumer and producer, buyer and seller.
With the elimination of responsibility in language, the method of social control becomes a method similar to that which has proven successful in the past, as the material commodification of past cultures have been subsumed into market relations. In those cultural realms, art died. In the new realm of CMC, discourse simply becomes a series of "language games" (Lyotard, 1979). It loses its essence of creativity that is so necessary for the liberating impulse. And in playing these language games and thus "reinforcing [this] technology, one 'reinforces' reality and one's chances of being just and right increase accordingly. Reciprocally, technology is reinforced all the more effectively if one has access to scientific knowledge and decision-making authority" (Lyotard, 1979: 4). This condition is the authoritarian turn in the development of cyberspace, a turn around which we are currently moving, a turn at which art may die again, only this time it will be the art of conversation, or discourse.
Of course, the "one" Lyotard refers to is not yet a literal "one". Those who would become this "one" are still vying for this power, both in government and commerce. An example of this authoritarian impulse took place on February 8, 1996, when the Telecommunications Reform Act passed through the United States House of Representatives and forbade certain speech acts within cyberspace. Considerable resistance was given to this law in that realm, including a "movement" to turn all world wide web pages black in protest, as well as a tract produced by a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, John Perry Barlow, declaring cyberspace a unique and independent realm that lay outside of the tenets of any one government (see Appendix for full text).
Perhaps more insidious (because of its ubiquity and its seemingly non-threatening application) is the current trend toward commercialization on the Internet. It is difficult to escape the presence of an Internet http:// address in the "free" market today, whether it be on a television commercial or the side of a delivery truck or seen on a billboard while driving to work. Furthermore, growing online databases of "market resources" (consumers) have led Poster to theorize about how information technologies extend social power prosthetically. Following Foucault, he notes that "electronic surveillance [of this type] can be thought of as a 'superpanopticon' that strengthens the power of knowledge" (in Lyon, 1994: 47). The totalitarian threat may be considered more substantial as it comes from this economic source and political forms of domination may be manipulated into line with capital as it inserts itself more forcefully into the arena of computer mediated communications. Regarding the notion of intellectual property once again, Beniger (in Strate et al, 1996: 58) points out that the commodification of ideas within a free-market perspective aligns itself well with capital interests:
But what of resistance to this bleak prognostication? Are there any prescriptions for positive change? Is there any movement that will animate the individualist that seeks refuge from this totalizing impulse? Seventeen years ago Lyotard (1979: 67) offered the idea that we "give the public free access to the memory and databanks" of the world's computers, to allow for the possibility of "full-information" so that any one person could be on an equal standing in the "language game." This move seems more than unlikely today: it seems hopeless.
Paradoxically, movements toward what seem like self-sufficiency on the net are, in fact, precisely the opposite. The image of the electronic cowboy forging a path into this new, boundless, spaceless, final frontier is fresh in the minds of people who have raced out to grab their own laptop computers, convinced by commercials from AT&T depicting a man "working" while enjoying the comforts of a Caribbean beach, or from M&T Bank, where he is doing his banking at the top of a scenic mountain. "The land [of this new frontier] would last forever; democratically minded, like-thinking colonies would form when and how they wanted, free from the risk and responsibility of physical presence," says Mark Slouka (1995: 93). However, he saw a different vision in these forthcoming projections of cyberspace culture. "I saw a technology with the power to erode what little individualism we had left. Where others saw the promise of America, I sensed a tremendous force for conformity." In other words, the movement away from a spatial reification of social control relations reinforces those relations rather than diminishes them. Even more disturbing to Slouka are the recent visions of "cyberists" (included among them the Electronic Frontier Foundation's John Perry Barlow), who argue quite blatantly for the destruction of the "myth of individualism", where the only community will be the community of the hive:
This mystical vision of the future seems to be "patently silly", according to Slouka, but there is a reason why we should not dismiss it as so much drivel and
It is based on the reality of the Internet as it exists today and as it could exist tomorrow. Here we return to the concerns of Arendt, the dissociation of public and private, the abolishment of these realms for one pure, total social whole. The argument against such a world rests on the conception of the individual as having a creative essence, an aesthetic sensibility that is worth saving from such a catastrophic global embrace as that envisioned by the cyberists.
The movement toward the global superorganism (or "Metaman", as Gregory Stock [1993: 137] calls this thing) is one which predicates a fundamental transformation in human nature. It is a movement that, according to the cyberists, will take us beyond Homo Sapiens (what follows, Homo Cyberneticus, Robo Sapiens?) to the next triumphant stage in human evolution (Slouka, 1995: 99). So much for Lyotard's conception of a move to petit narratives! Or is this his notion of "full-information", a breakdown of control over information, and likewise Habermas's "ideal speech situation", a communicative rationality that encompasses all alternatives into one grand truth? The differences are hard to pick apart.
However, I don't believe that these theorists had in mind the "global superorganism", or Homo Cyberneticus, with their alternatives to the modern social condition. I think rather that they would agree with Slouka when he argues that "homogeneity has always been a primary, and perhaps an indispensable, ingredient to totalitarianism, and today we're in the process of embracing a new technology that asks us to sacrifice our individual selves to an abstraction, a technology whose proponents no longer even pretend that the loss of individualism is something to be avoided" (1995: n.177).
In such a totalitarian existence, how would the work that we do have any aesthetic characteristic, any meaning to us as a product, an object delineating our selves? It could not. Why is this even important? This case for essentialism is made plain by Arendt who argues that
Thought is the critical dimension of personal and social life that is missing in "Metaman", the dimension that characterizes us as human, not automatons or Mills' (1959: 171) "cheerful and willing robots". This is the authenticity of humanity. "Like all forms of individualism and freedom," says Taylor (1992: 77), "authenticity opens an age of responsibilization, if I can use this term. By the very fact that culture develops, people are made more self-responsible. It is in the nature of this kind of increase of freedom that people can sink lower, as well as rise higher. Nothing will ever ensure a systematic and irreversible move to the heights." I see the desire for a global superorganism as "sinking lower" with respect to this ethic of freedom, a shirking of the responsibility (of language) laid upon us as we develop new technologies that can either build communities that are based upon this ethic of freedom and individuality, or build communities that are based upon totalitarian social control and the eventual elimination of the individual. However, the conflagration of the two faces of community makes it extremely difficult to delineate between these alternatives. Any form of resistance, as Kellner points out in a discussion of Baudrillard, tends to be co-opted by the impulse to totalize. The mass is seen as
It is a bleak vision. Hopeless. Perhaps, in light of this critique, the question regarding which direction we should take at the fork of this information superhighway can be supplanted: rather, what must be addressed is whether or not we have a choice in the direction. Have we already made the turn at this fork?
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