Frank Hartmann on Tue, 29 Apr 1997 14:45:03 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Data Critique

[I wrote this piece, with some 'sociological impatience', as a
contribution for the ZKP4 proceedings]

Global Information Economy in Different Worlds? Towards a Data Critique

Frank Hartmann

With IT, the new 'information technologies', the end of this century
provides the first world with a thorough and disorientating crisis
concerning the role of work, education and entertainment. While some 96%
of the first and 99% of the rest world population is not online -– the
information highway has no turnoff to their house and home and maybe
will never have –- the electronic commerce is exploding and the emerging
Virtual Class takes their advantage of the bit business, "the
production, transformation, distribution, and consumption of digital
information." - William Mitchell (1) Is there a task for critique in
this process, aside from cheap falsifications of the techno hype, or
from simply articulating fear?

But what are we speaking about? The complex social and cultural matrix
of change is not properly known; in the present discourse, cyberspace as
the emerging social space is perceived merely by technological metaphors
and a market-driven development of the broadband IT infrastructure. Not
without a particular reason: the European communications market
currently ranges at a total value of ECU 304 billion, and sees an
average national per capita investment in Western Europe of ECU 347
(source: European Information Technology Observatory)(2). While Internet
access still is between 10 and 100 times more expensive in Europe than
in the USA (by hourly costs of a local telephone connection over the
month), CEC propaganda sees Europe as the coming "heartland of
electronic commerce", pushed by those investments and numerous IT-policy
"action plans".

New media are little more than the figleaf of a failed transition of
modernity towards a more social society. Judging from various
programmatic papers, the social impact of the broadband media
applications are very modest. In the Bangemann-report(3), people in the
end only exist as the representation of solid markets under the command
of an ideology of total "competition" within the first world(s). With
this "new techno-utopia of the emerging global market capitalism" (Group
of Lisbon)(4) the sole principles of market liberalisation, deregulation
and privatisation are applied. In consequence, the recommendations and
the proposals of the Bangemann "High-Level Expert Group" (5) seem to
serve more to the benefit of the attending companies in the EC and in
this group itself.

The lack of proper understanding for a new information economy beyond
competition also derives from an uncertainty or even a crisis of the
intellectual position and the role of theory within it. The bit business
does not need a media theory. The same goes for the new "Virtual Class",
that social segment which -– according to Arthur Kroker's
observation(6)-- benefits most from the virtualization, and which
defends information against any contextualization, with its goal of a
total "cultural accommodation to technotopia"  exterminating the social
potential of the Net.

While thousands of websites blossom, most intellectuals feel
instinctively uncomfortable with this process. Traditional Homo
Academicus, all ash and sack, has no clue to what is going on online. 
On the other hand, ASCII fetishists become the new iconoclasts of the
Net. Having invested in all that textualism, and having formed this
distinctive usenet community, now coping with the masses again, with
those impositions of the World Wide Wedge - accompanied with an 
unquenchable thirst for new software, new applications, more pictures,
more entertainment, and more prefab interactivity?

In terms of cultural technique, the computer itself substantially
changed, as well as our relationship to the machine, in a relatively
short time, from numbercruncher to wordprocessor to thoughtprocessor
(Michael Heim).(7) Moving from mainframe to PC to NC, now all of a
sudden computers as we know them seem to vanish again. Not only they
become less significant parts of an integral whole, but also widely
integrated into everyday's appliances as in "intelligent" household
machines, shoesoles, and the like. Culture moves towards a state of
ubiquitous computing, where these machines form an integrated part of
the new environment. Amongst many other things, this indicates new forms
of social integration and a new involvement in societal relations.
Kant's transcendental subject seems to exist not longer in terms of
common categories of perception and logical thought but those of the
global electronic infrastructure. Which brings to mind McLuhan's phrase,
that "in the electric age we wear all mankind as our skin."  

All mankind, one world? Should this be the heritage of the age-old
philosophical dream of a universal language and a common understanding
come true? The misleading term of the Global Village forgot to discuss
the severe social constraints which determine life in a village. There
is a possibility that the information society becomes as culturally
homogeneous as a village lifestyle is. But we will never forget that we
live in different worlds. 

The ideology of individual liberalism, on the other hand, can be seen as
a cultural movement from West to East, a doctrine of salvation, which
sells the benefits for a technocratic elite of the Virtual Class as a
paradigm for the global social sphere. The electronic frontier is a
retro-movement across the Atlantic towards Europe, which proceeded
within Europe towards the East with considerable delay. The relatively
homogeneous character of "Cyberspace American Style" was perceived
critically from a European perspective, where the loss of cultural
diversity was and still is feared. Besides demographic factors, there
are several other hindrances for coping with this specific change. The
problems with the new electronic boundaries between East and West are
not of a mere technical but also a cultural nature. Cultural differences
express themselves through different use of communication and
techniques: a technical interface always also is a cultural one. 

Basically, IT is grossly overestimated as a tool or instrument of
change, especially when its brief history (with an open end) is being
considered. Will technology change people, or are new media already the
expression of change? But then, technology is always only a part of the
problem. In the end, we have to ask what will determine the shape of
Cyberspace: Asian hardware and American software alone? Cyberspace holds
political, socio-economical and cultural issues as well, all of which
are up to thorough scrutiny by social and political science – I would
like to promote this as a specifically European task. As there is
cyberspace, what does it mean for "us", living in a fragmented world?

Needless to say, that task is a critical one. Why? It once was argued by
philosophers that the bourgeois utopia of a democratic, participatory
society was the "natural child" of absolutist sovereignty. The critical
task of enlightenment was being performed in a time of societal crisis,
and thus took on some hypocritical measure. The object of critique
firstly being texts and their social implications, e.g. the Bible,
enlightenment failed in its task to replace these texts with new content
when its critique explicitly was extended towards politics and society
as a whole. The benefits of enlightenment meant business for some.

In his critique of aesthetic reason, Kant argued in train of the
biblical prohibition of images for an enlightenment which is "just
negative" in respect to its task: he not only carried on the age-old
quest of intellectuals -– defending their cultural privileges, i.e.
textual against any easier accessible cultural techniques, wanting to be
the "true" mediators against any kind of "deceiving" media -- he also
refused to name what this non-pictorial 'Denkungsart' should be, if
simple demystification (of the "childish apparatus" provided by religion
and corresponding politics to keep people as their subjects) would not
do. Ages before Kant, nominalism already failed to win its battle on
content, which started with the intention to distinguish real content
from mere noise (flatus vocis), and true thought from ideology by ways
of, let's say, a proper information economy. Now history shows that a
simple purification filter –- from thoughts to words, from images to
texts, from texts to programs -– is not the way it works. Such
self-righteous critique easily becomes delusive. This happened to the
bourgeois filter of "content" against "transcendence", as the
Encyclopédie necessarily failed to be the new Bible for modernity.

Re-thinking enlightenment? An academic endeavour. Re-programming
society? A fading socialist dream. The elements of a data critique are
at hand: a task not to be left to the neo-luddites.(8) Critique,
according to Kant, concentrates on the form versus the content, on the
realisation of "negativism". As critique always means differentiation, a
data critique follows the modulations of information within a process of
circulation. It works on the level of subjectivity, while this
implicates some sociological sobriety, some demystification, some
diversity. Since digitalisation is not the issue, the question is
whether there are alternatives within the pretentious information
society project?

Friedrich Kittler fantasizes of an operating system beyond any control
functions, without hierarchy and with analogue computing. Philip Agre
imagines intelligent data as he puts forward the idea of "living data"
by thinking through all the relationships data participate in, "both
with other data and with the circumstances in the world that it's
supposed to represent".(9) Geert Lovink and Pit Schulz establish the
notion of a Net Criticism, introducing the fuzzy concept of something
like ESCII, a European Standard Code for (critical) Information
Interchange.(10) Elements of data critique are there. If this is not all
about creating context, and defining the conditions. About the new power
of imagination (Einbildungskraft) as Vilém Flusser announced it. And
content, what content? The Net is a part of creating and/or reinventing
cultural context as form, not as content. Its problem is that the social
motive which made it possible is seen totally detached from the
technological process, and vice versa. While deconstructing illusions,
the age of enlightenment produced some illusions of their own. What we
need is a renewed epistemological agnosticism of sorts, an anti-dualism
set against the notion of that 'inner nature' of things which leads to
any 'true' forms of representation.


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