Beyond Cyberutopianism: Networks, Communications, and the Informational Slums of Tomorrow

With the concept of a system that describes itself and contains its own descriptions, we venture into logically intractable territory.

– Nicklaus Luhmann, Theory of Society

Harold A. Innis would see in the history of communications technology the interplay of conflict between freedom and empire over time. Innis did not live to see the age of the Internet, but dealt with the world of mass media in newspaper and radio. He saw governments like the United States as enforcing systems of mechanized communications and organized force. He would see limitations in both of these mediums as they began to produce a mechanized or machinic consciousness in its citizens. He believed that there must be a “determined effort to recapture the vitality of oral tradition”.1 In one of his succinct statements he felt that the bias of any government in its sustained use of any specific medium of communication would produce a specific cultural development of that civilization towards either an emphasis on “space and political organization or towards an emphasis on time and religious organization” (196). Against such tyrannies of communication technologies of control Innis believed that we must develop a “system of government in which the bias of communication can be checked and an appraisal of the significance of space and time can be reached,” only then could the problem of control and command, of empires be challenged and overcome.

Innis was a respected Canadian scholar in in the pre-war years before WWII would author such works as A History of the Canadian Pacific Railroad (1923), Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History (1930), Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy (1940).2 The commonplace that communications technologies mold the societies they inhabit is a truism today, but it was but a fragmentary intuition in Innis’s day. One of the guiding notions that Innis would propose is that new media were “pulled” into broad use by rising demand, not driven by rising supply. Demand comes first and supply follows. This theory has been validated by scholars studying the more general process of technical innovation, adoption, and dissemination.(Poe, KL 230) He would uncover the rules governing how new tools or media were invented or discovered, how they were used, and of their dissemination through society.

Rule 1: Groups of tinkerers discover new technologies. We know that a tinker was originally an itinerant tinsmith, who mended household utensils. The word is attested from the 13th century and may be of imitative origin. Some travelling people and Gypsies adopted this lifestyle and the name was particularly associated with indigenous Irish and Scottish Travellers. However, this usage is disputed and considered offensive by some. Tinkering is therefore the process of adapting, meddling or adjusting something in the course of making repairs or improvements, a process also known as bricolage. Rule 2: Tinkerers can only discover the technologies in their technome. The potential of tinkerers to invent new technologies is constrained by their “technome,” that is, the set of technologies (in the broad sense) available to them.(Poe, KL 250) Rule 3: Technological supply does not produce technological demand. Rule 4: Technological demand , if unfocused, does not produce technological supply. Rule 5: Only organized interests can produce the demand necessary to “pull” a new technology into mass use. Rule 6: When it comes to technological adoption, organized interests are reactive and not proactive. Rule 7: Organized interests are most likely to adopt new tools in response to fundamentally new economic conditions. Innis would consider this a “pull theory” of media adoption in which as new economic conditions arose, it would become apparent that existing technologies were insufficient, thereby producing a need within organized or institutional players a need for new technologies that would ultimately bring about new media technologies to meet their demands.

Yet, the rate of adoption is not always the same. The rate of adoption is a function of time. As to the nature of the technology adopted, there can be no doubt that some tools are naturally more appealing than others. To take another pertinent example, it took more than four centuries following the introduction of the printing press for mass literacy to develop in Europe; it took only a few decades for television to become a staple of everyday life. Reading is hard and not much fun; watching is easy and fun . The rate of adoption, then, is also a clear function of natural ease-of-use and enjoyment.(Poe, 297)

Beyond the adoption of “pull” of new media was Innis’ other notion of a “push” that brought about with each new media new forms of governance and control within societies that adopted these new media technologies of communication. As Poe argues each media, networks, and cultures each have their own type-specific attributes and that these attributes are causally related one to the other.(Poe, KL 306) Poe reminds us that at times we sometimes forget that we create media networks when we use media. His point being that when one medium is linked to another a media network arises: speaking creates speech networks, writing creates writing networks, printing creates print networks , electronic broadcast creates broadcast networks , and surfing (or any of the myriad things we do on networked computers) creates Internet networks (Poe, KL 361). Along with this emergence are eight specific attributes attached to this linkage: accessibility concentration, privacy segmentation, fidelity iconicity, volume constraint, velocity dialogicity, range extent, persistence addition, and searchability mappedness.

As an example we can see the touch points in which the internet is related to TV, such that television is a concentrated medium which is controlled at one end in the hands of very few individuals, while the internet is a diffuse network wherein control is dispersed throughout the network. When we describe the notion of privacy and segmentation we understand the notion of senders, recipients, and the exchanged data can be hidden from others; connected networks are those in which the identities of senders and recipients and the data exchanged cannot be hidden. One can think of the fidelity to a medium and the iconicity it engenders in the example of such older technologies as teletype which force the message sent to be encrypted by specific coded markers that would need to be decoded at the other end through laborious processes of transcription (symbolic networks), while newer computer networks based on iconicity can transmit messages do not have to be laboriously decoded by the recipient (they are simply recognized). The constraint on the volume of data that can be transmitted is based on cost producing both constrained and unconstrained networks. One can think of dialogical networks as those in which multiple parties can interact and share information and messages, while monlogical networks are constrained to a specific set of perimeters guiding the use and sharing of messages. The range of messages is based equally on a cost based on either extensive or intensive networks depending on the number of parties involved. The notion of persistence addition is one in which either messages are either additive or substitutive. In an additive network messages accumulate, while in substitutive networks new massages replace old messages. Searchibility is constrained by whether a network has been mapped or not:  it is easy to search, find, and retrieve stored messages in a mapped network.(Poe, KL  379-407).

If we put this in the context of the Internet we realize that the main backbone of the internet is piped through certain accessibly concentrated nodes. The Internet backbone may be defined by the principal data routes between large, strategically interconnected computer networks and core routers on the Internet. These data routes are hosted by commercial, government, academic and other high-capacity network centers, the Internet exchange points and network access points, that interchange Internet traffic between the countries, continents and across the oceans. Internet service providers, often Tier 1 networks, participate in Internet backbone exchange traffic by privately negotiated interconnection agreements, primarily governed by the principle of settlement-free peering.

 

When we think about the internet arising out of the controlled environment of the military systems of DARPA we begin to understand the link between concentration and hierarchicalization was established that allowed for the domination and monopolization of this scarce resource. The internet was always part of a movement toward its use as an instrument of domination, by establishing corresponding social practices. We know that concentration facilitates monopolization. In concentrated media networks, such as the internet we have begun seeing hierarchical social practices and an ideology – elitism – that legitimates them. Elitism is premised on the idea that some are superior to others. Conversely, the more accessible a medium, such as the internet is the more diffuse its network; the more diffuse a network, the more social practices realized in it will be equalized. Yet, we have also seen an opposite tendency in the internet as a medium: the notion that diffusion impedes monopolization. In diffuse media networks, such as the internet we should see social practices characterized by equality among group members and an ideology – egalitarianism – that affirms equality. Egalitarianism is rooted in the idea that no one is superior to anyone else. We see this in hacker culture and among underground and radical groups.

In our time privacy and segementation have been internalized as part of the control society. Through the power or securitization the government of the United States has developed its on internal private segmented systems of security and surveillance (see Top Secret America). We know that some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States. An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances. In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks. Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year – a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.

As one Washington reporter noted:

In the Department of Defense, where more than two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside, only a handful of senior officials – called Super Users – have the ability to even know about all the department’s activities. But as two of the Super Users indicated in interviews, there is simply no way they can keep up with the nation’s most sensitive work.

“I’m not going to live long enough to be briefed on everything” was how one Super User put it. The other recounted that for his initial briefing, he was escorted into a tiny, dark room, seated at a small table and told he couldn’t take notes. Program after program began flashing on a screen, he said, until he yelled ”Stop!” in frustration.

“I wasn’t remembering any of it,” he said. (see A Hidden World Growing Beyond Control)

 

That we are now living in a world of information overload or glut is a truism. In the modernist era universities, armies, corporations-outside their research laboratories and designated think tanks-all featured vertical chains of command, long-term employment prospects, clear distinctions between individuals and their professional positions, firm boundaries between the organization and the outside world, and reward systems based on some combination of merit and seniority.’ By the end of the twentieth century, however, these bureaucratic organizations had begun to lose their shape. In many industries today, and in some parts of military and academic life as well, hierarchies have been replaced by flattened structures, long-term employment by short-term, project-based contracting, and professional positions by complex, networked forms of sociability.3

But in our postmodern era of flexible liquid relations such techno-futurists as Kevin Kelley and Stewart Brand embraced the cybernetic vision of the world as an information system. Stewart Brand and the readers of the Whole Earth Catalog, like the libertarian promoters of the Internet thirty years later, began to imagine that the fluid play of embodied distinctions that characterizes the social world could be dissolved into an account in which all were equally patterns of information. To many in a generation who feared that their bodies would be destroyed by the mechanized armies and the massive missiles of the Soviet Union, this account was enormously appealing. (Turner, KL 3801)

For Norbert Wiener and those who followed his lead, the world consisted of a series of informational patterns, and each of those patterns in turn was also in some sense an emblem of every other. As taken up by the New Communalists, this vision produced two contradictory claims, one egalitarian and the other elitist. On the one hand, the fact that material phenomena could be imagined as part of a single, invisible whole suggested that an egalitarian order might obtain in the world. Human beings, nature, machines all were one and each should coevolve with every other. On the other hand, though, in keeping with the vision’s history as a universal rhetorical tool with which cold war researchers claimed authority for their projects, the fact that the social and the natural, the individual and the institutional, the human and the machine could all be seen as reflections of one another suggested that those who could most successfully depict themselves as aligned with the forces of information could also claim to be models of those forces. They could in fact claim to have a “natural” right to power, even as they disguised their leadership with a rhetoric of systems, communities, and information flow.(Turner, KL 3856)

One critic of this heritage of cyberutopianism tells us that currently we start with a flawed set of assumptions (cyber-utopianism) and act on them using a flawed, even crippled, methodology (Internet-centrism). The result is what he calls the Net Delusion. Pushed to the extreme, such logic is poised to have significant global consequences that may risk undermining the very project of promoting democracy.4 As one information philosopher and ethicist remarks:

…we are already living in an infosphere that will become increasingly synchronized (time), delocalized (space), and correlated (interactions). Although this might be interpreted, optimistically, as the friendly face of globalization, we should not harbour illusions about how widespread and inclusive the evolution of the information society will be. Unless we manage to solve it, the digital divide will become a chasm, generating new forms of discrimination between those who can be denizens of the infosphere and those who cannot, between insiders and outsiders , between information rich and information poor. It will redesign the map of worldwide society, generating or widening generational, geographic, socio-economic, and cultural divides. Yet the gap will not be reducible to the distance between rich and poor countries, since it will cut across societies. Pre-historical cultures have virtually disappeared, with the exception of some small tribes in remote corners of the world. The new divide will be between historical and hyperhistorical ones. We might be preparing the ground for tomorrow’s informational slums.5

 

 

1. Harold A. Innis. Empire and Communications. (Dunburn Press Limited, 2007)
2. Poe, Marshall T. (2010-12-06). A History of Communications (Kindle Locations 203-204). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
3. Fred Turner. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Kindle Locations 3549-3552). Kindle Edition.
4. Morozov, Evgeny (2012-02-28). The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (Kindle Locations 299-301). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.
5. Floridi, Luciano (2013-10-10). The Ethics of Information (p. 9). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

 

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