Netspace, the final frontier…

(1)Exploring the net is exploring humanity. I tried to make this point before, in my first blog post, but without being particularly clear. From my point of view, there is no great discontinuity between information technology (IT), or the IT revolution (STR)(2), and preceding human culture. Of course there’s the inevitable dichotomy between two points of view, with two breaths of scope, one geared-in-on-the-grain close-up, and the other, the general picture wide angle shot (3). There is no a priori superiority of one point of view over the other. So it remains to be explained how I feel comfortable advancing this idea that there is “no great discontinuity” in this era of an IT economy (4).

I said in my first post:

” Whatever happened to my mindstate, I log. On the web. Exploring the space of my mind, as simple as that […] One could of course argue that the web is an extension of the mind: this point is being made by countless authors treating the internet as the technological revolution behind an upcoming change in modes of thought (1). I’m more inclined to think of it in terms of Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell franchise of manga and anime. In this world, cybernetic brain implants enabling people’s brains to be directly connected to the internet or any network, creating a social rift between those who have or don’t have this capacity. However, it engages humanity to face a new type of threat: ghost hacking, or the computer hacking of the biological brain. […] I was always inclined to associate the [discussion topic] (replacing the biological body with a technological one) with the image (the skyline): what if all of human technology, all of human civilization, could be understood as a public, social memory bank? I therefore see the Internet as a particular case of this paradigm. [The film points out that] genes and computers are memory banks for humanity. But I don’t mean to speak only of information technologies but of all technologies. Buildings. Roads. Sewers. Aqueducts. Monuments. Irrigation. Vehicles. Tools. […] A collective testament. […] A narrow corridor makes you move differently than a wide one, you want to use it less, you avoid taking it, you brush up against the wall, you slow down. Different people will take on similar ways of acting, of living, of thinking, within the same cities and societies. New York makes you cynical. Paris makes you romantic. San Francisco makes you liberal. There is something there that transcends the individual, that resembles sharable knowledge, or at least shared behavior.”

This is the point of view I’ll attempt to develop further, the one that should explain continuity from pre-IT human culture to post-IT human culture. But first I want to talk about the IT revolution, and about revolution (from the latin, revolutio, rotation, turn around) in general. There are political revolutions (a change of regime, of constitution, coups, communist revolutions, etc.) and there are social revolutions that don’t fundamentally change the official structure of power (politics). Both turn out to be organisational types of revolution (either a change in the economic, political, educational or technical cultures), which eventually have a lasting impact on cultural norms and values, that is, sociological and psychological effects on the people (I.e. the way people think, behave, organize their priorities, and what not).

For instance, Ken Robinson frequently makes the point that our education system is typical of the industrial revolution. Foucault also made the point that our prison system (albeit without the changes of the last 40-50 years) didn’t really evolve in their logic or rationale since the 18th century, but rather perfected the project of their task as it was imagined in that faraway time, one of manifesting upon the prisoner the sovereignty of the law. Prisons are not the locus of humanitarian reform, but of the breaking of the human spirit, of the most precious possession a man can have in the modern age, freedom (5). But the point is that pre-industrial societies had little use for prisons or universal educational institutions. Executions (or public torture) and transmission of knowledge from father to son (or expert to apprentice) sufficed.

I’ll try to illustrate a sociological principle: that the organisation of society and the organisation of thought are closely inter-related. It’s relatively well known that the invention of writing brought around several significant possibilities for civilization. The same goes for bows and arrows or agriculture, or totemic exogamy. In the teaching style of one of my favorite university professors, I’d like to exemplify this by weaving a myth. Imagine man, primitive (6), at the end of the ice age, several thousand years before the beginning of civilization (7). As the world flourishes back to life in a great thawing of snow caps, man, equipped with the inventions that will make him the deadliest of hunters, the bow and arrow, begins a never-ending expansion across the globe, and an increase of population that also has yet to cease. The main source of food for these omnivores is hunting and gathering, the latter of which provides the majority of ingested foods. But the proximity of man to other animals, the complexity and ingeniousness required to hunt in groups, the dealing with the difficult emotions of killing and seeing blood and death regularly, and the importance of protein make the results of the hunt a prized food, and the hunt itself a locus of cultural import and ritual activity. This type of hunting andd gathering implies nomadic lifestyles. This doesn’t mean exodus or meaningless wandering: nomads knew the lands they were travelling, most of the time. They had to move around to avoid depleting the environmental resources, to follow the shift in the seasons, in rainfall, to catch the migrations of herds, etc. However, there seems to be an incentive in not moving too far from known areas, to profit from knowledge of the lay of the land, of local species and the climate cycles, etc. Their very survival depended on their familiarity with the natural order. So a given group, or tribe, would move within a confined hunting area, where specific resources were available and where specific adaptation needs could be met through tools, skills and practices. These hunting areas could be incredibly large and widespread. They could hold many more humans than a single tribe could hold members, and there were therefore usually several different nomadic tribes sharing a common hunting territory. They could obviously meet or cross each other’s paths, probably shared a language or had linguistic similarities, they in all likelihood also shared diets and perhaps exchanged mates (exogamy). In this context, property has little import, and the same goes with land property. What seems more important to such cultures is the link with wild animals and plants, seasons, the lay of the land, interpreting the signs of shifts in climate and seasons, negotiatiating inter-group exchanges, arranging marriages, hunting expeditions, and resolving conflicts and violence, both within and between tribes. We’d expect a certain type of culture to emerge from such a society which would be quite different from that of a civilization. As Justin Smith pointed out, they’d have little interest in the difference between a republic and a constitutional monarchy, because such questions have no relevance to their way of life.

When we think of civilization, we think of a sedentary lifestyle society with a complex structure. As people live in cities, they practice landscaping, separating the lay of the land into urban and agricultural, two purely cultural, and not natural, categories. Either practicing herding or crop farming, they also require more durable building materials and therefore develop new techniques for new materials. Quarries, mines, etc. make their appearance. These and other specialized tasks require a specialized workforce, and people begin identifying themselves to their trade, and a social division of labour becomes more complex as it goes much further than sex-based or age-based divisions. The population density is increased, peoples are more isolated and interact less with their neighboring societies. Interactions between different cities or polities require the innovation of politics and diplomacy. The complexity of commerce is managed thanks to writing and contracts. The legal system is born when writing is used to make the laws explicit, public, universal and unchanging. The transcription of myths, traditions, rituals, and other traditionally oral elements of culture generate a caste of custodians of these sacred cultural records, and religion becomes a part of society. These legal systems and religious institutions also have a common founding in the growing importance of morality. Indeed, in nomadic tribal societies, in-group conflicts could always be resolved by splitting the group. The cost for such a solution was low, as group size had to be controlled anyways. In a sedentary lifestyle, the cost for leaving a city and pioneering a new colony is very large. New lands are not always available. The question of the property of land, and of right to land, also therefore becomes an issue in these societies. And so on. The points of view of these people would also significantly be affected by their society’s structure.

This was a myth. Not that it was necessarily false, though it’s probably got a skewed perspective on history. Not all civilizations started out like this, not all had the same features, the sequence was probably very different. The nomadic cultures themselves could be of varying complexity. Some societies could become sedentary without ever developing writing or a civilization, yet be still gradually refining and expanding their structure. Some nomads practiced station-based agriculture, moving between far-away patches of planted crops they did not tend to. It wasn’t a myth because of these errors, though it isn’t a valid scientific account because of these errors. But it was a myth because it referred to no specific spatiotemporally localizable events or facts, and was embedded in a narrative structure with a capacity for explanation that functions with “concrete universals”, a universal explanation based on concrete examples that are yet not really connected to any specific facts, like a case-study might be.

On top of illustrating a general point about sociology, that social structure determines the organisation of thought, this was a lead-in to the concept of myth. Myths are mnemo-technical narratives. Writing also serves a mnemo-technical purpose. Public monuments often commemorate a past event, public figure or hero that has long-lasting political or cultural importance. The lay of roads and of city walls tells the story of how a city was built, spread and sprawled. So do the evolution of construction techniques and differences in architecture. The city names also commemorate the past. Important streets have important names. I remember noticing that latin american streets sometimes have a date as a name. Heraldric symbols, coats of arms, emblems, seals and flags all have meanings and references. The entire civilization tells a history of political decisions, alliances, invasions, innovations, radical shifts, etc. It is part of the external memory of mankind, and we have specialists who decode it: historians, archeologists, symbologists, anthropologists, urbanologists, and sociologists. But this memory isn’t only accessed by experts who seek the truth behind the code. The fact we live, with our physical bodies placed in such a society, also affects our behaviour, our moods, what we think about and what we know or have heard about, albeit in a much less extensive and much more subconscious manner. We are living in history, and are very much affected by it. There is a continuity in our society, and it is not the mortal people that it is composed of, but the transmission of all its externalities, what the people have built that is durable outside of their own persons, from mortal generation to mortal generation. This is a memory system.

And now, while our bodies navigate one memory system, our minds navigate another, our computers, electronic media devices, and the Internet. This memory system, like others, holds cultural information, and culturally significant information about the real world. It seems strangely appropriate to a world where the value of knowledge is high, where academics are prised, as are advanced learning degrees, and it seems to generate disembodied minds, people who are entirely devoted to using their bodies and their senses to interface their minds with the network of other minds. Pure intellectuals. But not really, not only. Most Internet users are not intellectuals or academics, and they far outnumber them in their activity. They are social, linguistic creatures, not interested only with the link between minds and ideas, but between people, with the idea of sharing and of expressing themselves. So as there is a form of novelty in the Internet, also there is a form of return of nomadism and tribalism, where communities of equals meet to do things together, or just be together online, and where chance encounters of very different peoples wandering about on the same location are not only entirely possible, but commonplace. And the Internet generates a pure unmediated enjoyment of whatever we seek. This is why it is seen as dangerous by some, and revolutionary by others, because we don’t have to ask permission… Futuristic? Nan…

(1) No, I did NOT say Netscape… though I was a fan of Netscape before Explorer 5 kicked it out of orbit. Or rather, before webmasters abandoned it for the shiny shine of some Explorer 5 solutions to current web problems. Or maybe it was because AOL got involved. But enough about web browser politics…
(2) Most people don’t talk about an IT revolution but about an informational or information revolution. True, information is available today in much larger quantities than in previous eras, but it is not information alone which brought about this change, because information in large quantities is hard to manage. It is the corresponding development of information technologies which brought about a form of revolution, by making the massive amounts of information to be gathered, stored, shared, managed, etc.. As always, technology is seen as linked with science, usually described as the direct result of it. The term “scientific and technological revolution” (SRT) captures this sentiment, but without making specific reference to IT.
(3) “You’re thinking too small”; “Look at the big picture”; “Don’t get hung up on the details”; “Read the fine print”; “Go over it with a fine-tooth comb”… We don’t lack instances where people are encouraged to adopt or abandon one of these “points of view” because of their “scopes”. It seems quite commonsensical, or even simplistic, yet… In philosophical literature this simple dichotomy has a long history. Aristotle’s definitions, a part of his logic, were structured in a combo of genus + specific difference, which together defined an essence. This definitional logic that had a long duration in biology. Given a subject, if one were to consider its genus properties (the ones it shared with other members of its genus), one would find the subject to be identical to other members of the genus. If one were to consider its specific difference alone, one would find that it has nothing in common with other members of its genus. In his rhetoric, Aristotle advanced that the metaphor identifies what is common or shared by things of very different essences. At around the same time, Zhuangzi in China was advancing that if one were to consider only the specifics (the point of view of difference), very similar things would always be miles apart, while if one were to consider only the large picture (the point of view of similarity), the diverse things of the world would seem homogeneous. I remember reading something to that effect from Jean-Jacques Wunenberger’s earlier theoretical works on imagination and metaphor, but I believe he was quoting someone else. I don’t intend to rummage through my research notes to figure this out any time soon, so don’t wait for a follow-up… Anyway, this trope of scope (I like the ring of the name) loses some of its bite when we see that it can be applied as a critique of just about anything. At the same time, it seems to be always necessary for a philosopher to begin an answer with “Well, it depends on how you define X…”. So, is it another sign of the uselessness of philosophy? By experience, I’d say this is done because it’s obvious most people no longer worry about definition: they function, or think they function, or act as if they function, with only one version of every concept. They know what truth, justice, science, love and humanity ARE, so they don’t need to define them when they ask someone else a question. And philosophers are no exception, they take definitions and meaning for granted, but are perhaps more sensitive to the question and rapid to recognize that they have done so. When they do their job at least. Philosophers would not only have to examine what everyone takes for granted, but also remind everyone of basic truisms they seem to ignore.
(4) Many say we are either in a knowledge economy (knowledge is a commodity that we pay for) or a knowledge-based economy (an economy that uses knowledge as a tool to produce plus-value). This, again, seems only possible thanks to the vast amounts of information out there. If the information is so readily available, however, why is knowledge required? The simple answer is that part of the management of information depends on knowledge about said information, about how to obtain it and use it, knowledge which is embodied in human beings, not in IT.
(5) I have to make the necessary concession that I have not yet finished reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, and only little of his other writings (some 100 pages of various works perhaps). Though part of his work deals with the constant changes brought on the prison systems of France through time, and as a very thorough historian he probably notes important shifts, I doubt the main aspects of disciplining the prisoner, breaking his will, humiliating him, and removing all forms of freedom possible have ever disappeared from the prison system, either in reality or in Foucault’s account.
(6) By primitive man, I mean to use primitive in the same sense as primitive elements in mathematics, something original from which derived versions are built. One culture is no better than another. What makes a culture primitive relative to another is that the features of the latter are derived from features of the first, and not the other way around. Bartering is not derived from the stock market. Writing is not derived from blogging, but the other way around, and so on with other cases. A simple, primitive culture is simple and primitive only by contrast to another, more complex culture, and then again with no value-judgment meant by the comparison. I feel like I’m walking on egg-shells by using this term, but the concept would be the same with any other label, so lets stay honest and precise.
(7) By civilization, I mean a society that employs writing and builds monuments and infrastructures that allow the sedentary lifestyles of its people to build on the achievements on the past. I do not mean that civilizations are better than other societies. I only mean to clarify the concept of civilization.
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About annotatedgabbs

I have books and computers. I doodle and I write. I laugh and I cry. I think and I speak. I eat and I sleep. I live and I die.
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