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<nettime> Heim's Anxieties 3
Diana McCarty on Sun, 7 Sep 1997 00:42:51 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Heim's Anxieties 3


As I said, I identify particularly with humanists, not the sect
of true believers but thinkers whose primary concern is the way
humans interact.   Humanists have taken special interest in
language and the arts, because there we find human interaction
crystalized.  Humanists have what almost amounts to a fetish
about written texts.

I recall my own experience with Eugen Fink in Freiburg.  He was
an eminent philosopher teaching a highly-praised course in
Immanuel Kant's CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON.  When I entered his
seminar in Freiburg in 1972, he and a loyal group of students had
been working their way through Immanuel Kant's CRITIQUE.  They
had already spent ten semesters on the CRITIQUE.  I entered on
the first day of the 11th semester. They were continuing where
they had left off discussing the text the year before.  When I
sat down the first class, I was amazed when everyone opened their
texts to page 30 of the Introduction.  This is how far they had
gotten in five years time!

I can tell you we had not yet cracked Chapter One when I left
Germany two years later! (Of course, all the graduate students
had read the CRITIQUE on their own, perhaps even as
undergraduates, but this painstaking line-by-line analysis was
not uncommon in the traditional German university.)

Humanists try to judge the impact of computers on language and
on our psyche.  Is there some incorrigible crankiness in
humanism or are the liberal arts customarily laced with
"negative vibes"?   Not exactly.  Humanists traditionally study,
relish, and speculate on human language activity.  When they
notice long-range changes in our language and notice how these
changes connect with the changes in the technologies of symbol
manipulation, then they pay attention.  Humanists see language as
an indicator of our awareness of who we are as a species.
Humanists see the changes in language as indicating some shifts
in our self-concept.  The humanist is not stuck narrowly within
our present-day experiences.  As individuals, humanists are often
thrilled with the efficiency and power of computing machines. But
the humanist also tries to perceive the philosophical intent, the
long-range thrust of the computer.  The humanist tries to
understand the computer as it originated, as an idea.  If we
narrow our vision exclusively to the present tense, our views
would be obsolete in a couple years.  Only by going beneath the
surface, down to the philosophical roots, can we anticipate the
future and absorb its shock.

In other words, the humanistic study of digital writing takes us
back in time, whereas most people online today are turning
primarily toward the future -- as pioneers should.  Nevertheless,
as a humanist, I do believe we sometimes must go back to the
future.  The future is always steered by the expectations and
limitations of what we have inherited from the past.  So, by
becoming more deeply aware of the past -- making the past more
conscious, -- we gain greater freedom for the true novelty of the
future.  Otherwise we are doomed to repeat ourselves without even
knowing it.

So it is hard to be a humanist today when the rate of change
accelerates.  We end up being ambivalent, especially about this
medium we are using.  Most participants on this network are de
facto pioneers and partisans of the medium.  We are in the
process of creating a medium.  This is heady business.  Like any
group of pioneers, we can rightly brush criticism aside,
asserting our need to focus exclusively on the positive future we
are shaping.  In this light, negative criticisms seem ill-
mannered if not poorly timed.

Utopians try to achieve an ideal world through control and
through mechanisms of planning.  Dystopians are these who
attack utopians.  Neither utopian nor dystopian, the humanist
sees the spectrum of history and realizes that utopias belong to
our human man nature, that utopias lure us into fulfilling a destiny
that is uniquely ours.

Nevertheless, humanists take part in destiny by doing what they
do best, and that is to ask questions.  They ask not, How can we
continue doing what we are doing, or How can we do it better,
but instead they ask, Why should we at all do what we are doing?
What is the point of it anyway?  How does what we are doing
affect ourselves as human beings?  How do we match up to our
ancestors?  Such questions do not always make the humanist
welcome and may even make humanists seem mere annoyances, like
horse flies.  Isn't that what Socrates found out?


One of the strongest, most appealing qualities of computerized
writing is the construction of the networks we are using here and
which we are in the process of creating.  In our modern world,
communication technology holds a special allure.  This is because
the computer seems to give what technology in general has taken
away.  Oddly enough, computer networks promise to fill a void
left by other technological bulldozers.

Technology has increasingly eliminated direct human
interdependence.  Our devices give us a greater of amount of
personal freedom and autonomy, but at the same time they disrupt
the familiar and intimate networks of personal association.
Because our machines automate so much of our labor, we have less
to do with each another, or at least we can choose the degree of
our associations.  Because machines provide us with the power to
flit around the universe, the roots of our communities are
fragile, airy, and ephemeral.  Isolation is a major problem.  I
mean spiritual isolation, not physical isolation.  I mean the
kind that can plague individuals even on crowded city streets.
So the computer appears as a potential counter measure to
technological isolation.  In contemporary society, the computer
network appears to be a godsend by bringing people into closer
personal proximity.  Networks like "The Well" are just the more
well-known computer antidotes to the atomism of our society. They
become social nodes to foster those elective affinities that
everyday life does not offer by happenstance.  I see now that a
business in San Francisco is even arranging "buddies for lunch"
as a kind of computerized dating service applied to friendship.
The computer becomes an active or passive center for organizing

Despite the good intentions and the limited good effects of these
networks, there is a paradox here that troubles the humanist.

The humanist's anxiety takes a clue from the genesis of
computer networking.  The origin of computer communication
tells us something about the inner thrust of the tool itself.  What
seems to be a neutral tool, something available for good or ill,
may in fact inherently slant our psychic life.  It may tilt users
in a definite direction, a direction which contravenes their
conscious intentions.

Computers may at first liberate societies through increased
communication.  They may even help foment revolutions (I think
of the computer printouts in Tienanmen Square during the pro-
democracy uprising last year). but the even earlier inaugural
application of the tool may belie its short-range impact.  And
even prior to the first applications, the original design of the
tool may hide from us its long-range impact.  While de facto
computer conferencing is taking on a life of its own today, the
future may demonstrate how strong the inner direction of a
technology is, how powerful its inner guiding telos.

The original impetus behind computer mediated communication
was in maximizing the management and control of individuals. 
CMC originated with the Pentagon, and the basic research for
our conferencing and word-processing equipment was funded by the
U.S. Department of Defense (its ARPA project).  It is true that
the genesis of something does not necessarily determine its
ultimate purpose or its final use, but the genesis of a thing
often provides a good indicator as to where it may take us
overall.  Put simply, the origin of computerized communication
does not point to a deeply democratic tendency or to a grassroots
freedom movement.  Moving from the Pentagon to business
corporations, computer networks held out the promise of one or
another type of controlling network.  The military weaves a
tighter net of control than business corporations, but both use
the word "communications" in a way that alters what humanists
mean by the term.  When the theory of computer-mediated
communication (Harry Stevens and Murray Turoff) speaks of
"organizing people" and achieving more participation, we should
not imagine that this means a radical democratization -- except
in the vaguest terms.  We should instead think of businesses
managing their employees, all the better to make them more
productive, or we should imagine a more efficient military
chain-of-command in the government.  After all, this is the
original semantic domain from which the language of
"participation" and "collaboration" originally came into computer
networks.  To enhance organizations, is not of itself a
humanistic achievement.

Computers are powerful devices for collecting and centralizing
information.  Gee-whiz abstractions like "supernetworking
globally" may sound harmless now, like some exciting adventure
out of Star Wars or like a page out of The Inevitable Progress of
History by G.W.F. Hegel.  In the pre-glasnost, cold- war era,
terms like "global village" and the "Global Society" carried with
them a suggestion of peace, a promise of diminished confrontation
in a nuclear world.  But an actual global network may in fact
homogenize individual societies, forcing them into a common mold.
A "global village" can be a mask for exploitation under which we
hide the drive to render the entire planet a mere resource for
omnivorous human consumption.

Can you imagine the "softer than software protocols" that could
structure the "dialog" among millions and not at the same time
dwarf the individuals involved?  Isn't this the way the word
democracy has been used in this century?  -- by inherently
centrist forces?  We might piously hope that a global network
management might succeed at turning the passive TV audience
into an active, interactive group that exchanges information for
mutual betterment.  Still, we have seen how our most powerful
communications tools have become primarily sites for
entertainment (Neil Postman).  Welcome to "active lurking"! with
millions on line, we can expect to lurk. lurk, lurk.  And while
we're doing so, we might as well lurk actively -- whatever that
means.  Answering questionnaires will never give me a sense of
power or input.  The sheer number of participants excludes any
sense of involvement.  It's like a classroom: the larger the class
size, the fewer the serious questions.  One solution to the
pedagogical problem is to replace the instructor with A/V
equipment and canned lectures.  I think of a comment Paul
Levinson made when, as a lecturer on CONNECT ED, I complained of
the sheer abundance of textual material generated by computers
today.  He said, if you can't beat them, join them!  The problem
then becomes not one of what to listen to but how to get a word
in.  I must say that such a situation strikes me as irredeemably
nihilistic. nothing will get said when everyone is talking and no
one is listening.  Listening is an active receptivity, and it is
essential to real communication.  That is the Achilles' heel of
the large centralized systems, whether of business or the
military.  They offer only an illusory gesture of listening.  This
is because they must actively structure and organize -- even
while they are pretending they are receptively listening.  This
is where the bad taste comes in the connotations of the corporate
word "communication."  (It usually means one-way address.)  How do
you install silence and seriousness reflection on a global

Computer networks may usher in a post-industrial kind of
organization. But this does not mean that control of the
individual's life and time are not greater than in the industrial
era.  In fact, what better tool than the computer could be
invented to manage the individual's life -- even if under the
guise of allowing more individual "input."  A network is still a
net -- in which we are ensnared and our lifetimes captured.

Reflections Part Three

    Reflections Reflections                        the
    Reflections            on                   computer screen
    Reflections            on                   computer screen
    Reflections            on                   computer screen
    Reflections Reflections                        the
    Reflections Reflections Reflections

                                                by Michael Heim


Soon after learning how to use computers we get over our initial
worries. We no longer care to hear about general psychological
hazards like "technostress" (Craig Brod) or the fear of sprouting
a "second self" (Sherry Turkle) made in the image of the
computer.  Instead we begin to appreciate the power we have when
our reading and writing are computerized.  We see the positive
side of our digital language.

Digital language over the modem brings new kinds of personal
associations which seem to hold out the hope of integrating us in
an increasingly isolated world.  Soon we hear suggestions that
this network can expand and become an all-embracing world
wide "cotechnology" (Stevens).  We hear thoughts about a
"multi-dimensional organizational matrix."   Now we are getting
into big thinking, into system-building.  The system naturally
leads us to focus on integration, not on individuality and
uniqueness.  Of course, ideally we would have it all.  But the
trade-offs are inevitable. We are finite.  So we begin to argue
with ourselves.

Some people believe that a global network could solve many
problems: coordinate the technical skills of humanity so that we
could increase the standard of living of all, control excess,
reduce waste, improve the environment, halt the arms race,
provide more, not less, constructive employment, etc.  But to
others it is just as likely that these efforts and skills, in
certain hands, could increase the wealth of the wealthy through
the further subjugation of the powerless and oppressed in our
world, encourage excess and waste in the interest of profits,
collaborate to rape the environment in a Faustian bargain, etc.
(Weren't there similar utopian visions of atomic power?)  There
is no guarantee that we will use a global network to good ends.
Furthermore, there may be something about the medium itself which
favors a certain vision.

There is a certain vision in the medium itself.  And it is a
vision more likely to oppress individuals than any previous forms
of technology.  The computer network is not a neutral computer
application which works like a tool for either the morally
upright persons or the morally twisted.  The internal thrust of
the computer informs the networks that we can create on it.  The
internal thrust of the computer is distinctive and powerful.  We
can think of it as a spider's web, lying in wait for the deposit
of everything random and free.  As we focus on expanding and
integrating systems, we willy-nilly tighten the noose on
planetary diversity and individuality.  Because of the lure of
its power, the web will inevitably grow. What it spins is not
intrinsically liberating for humans.  The genesis of the computer
points to the internal essence of cotechnology.

The historical-philosophical genesis of the computer shows that
it was more than an instrument to serve any arbitrary or freely
intended purpose.  The original computers, those crude
prototypes by Leibniz and Pascal, contained the spark of total
integration and control.  Complete control over individuals was
there in the original idea.  Only now the idea dawns on us in
the full light of day.  Underneath the computer's calculating
power lies an inner core sprung from a seed planted two
centuries ago. The origin contains the core, the inner telos, the
half-forgotten truth about computers.

The initial germ for the birth of computers began with the
rationalist philosophers of the 17th century who were passionate
in their efforts to design a world language.  The notion of a
world language arose in the early modern period.  Gottfried
Leibniz (1646-1716) founded modern logic as the science of
symbols.  With his rationalism Leibniz placed his stamp on the
modern mindset.  His work envisioned a total text, a unified
language under a single controlling insight.

Leibniz's computer prototypes contained this vision only
seminally.  His monadological metaphysics, though, gives us a
clearer notion of what lay behind the crude prototype.  Leibniz
could build machines capable only of numeric calculation.  The
Leibnizean machines could do deductive proofs using Leibniz's
binary computational logic.  Centuries later -- after the
contributions of Boole, Venn, Russell, Whitehead, and Shannon --
symbolic logic could handle both deductive proofs and electronic
circuits.  Later, John von Neumann would use Leibnizean binary
numbers to develop digital computers at Princeton.  But what
Leibniz lacked in hardware he made up for in speculative

Leibniz's speculations revolved around language, specifically
around a universal emotion-free language.  On the practical side,
he was a courtier, a diplomat, and an ecumenical theologian.  He
strove to unify the European world.  His idealism brought him
to believe that, by focusing on the new physical sciences, the
national states of Europe could unite under a shared project,
namely, scientific research.  In an age of religious wars and
growing nation states, Leibniz imagined a world federation based
on common linguistic symbols.  He advocated a universal system of
symbols for all the sciences.  He hoped that a rational
scientific language might smooth the way for international

Leibniz believed that all problems are in principle soluble.  The
first step is to create a universal medium in which to
communicate.  With a universal language, you can translate all
human notions and disagreements into the same basic set of
symbols.  A universal character set (Characteristica Universalis)
can absorb every significant statement or piece of reasoning for
use in a logical calculus, a system for proving things true or
false -- or at least for showing them to be consistent or
inconsistent.  Through a commonly shared language, many
discordant ways of thinking can exist under a single roof. 
Disagreements in attitude or belief, once translated into
matching symbols, can yield to logical operations.  Problems that
before seemed insoluble can stand on a common ground.

In his search for a universal calculating language, Leibniz was
to some extent continuing a pre-modern medieval-scholastic
tradition.  That medieval tradition held that human thinking (in
its pure or ideal form) was more or less identical with logical
reasoning and argument.  To the partisans of dispute Leibniz
would say, "Let us put this into our common language, let us sit
down and figure it out, let us calculate."  He worked on a single
system to encompass all the combinations and permutations of
human thought.  He longed for symbols to foster unified
scientific research throughout the civilized world.  The
universal calculus would compile all human cultures, bringing
human languages into a single shared database.

Lurking behind Leibniz's ideal language is a pre-modern model
of human intelligence.  That model measures humans against a
Being who knows things perfectly.  Human knowledge models
itself on the way a divine or infinite Being knows things.  Finite
beings go slowly, one step at a time, seeing only moment by
moment what is happening.  On the path of life, a finite being
cannot see clearly the things that remain behind on the path nor
the things that are going to happen after the next step.  A
divine mind, on the contrary, oversees the whole path.  God sees
all the trails below, inspecting at a single glance every step
travelled, what has happened and even what will happen on all
possible paths below.  God views things from the perspective of
the mountain top of eternity, sub specie aeternitatis.  Human
knowledge, thought Leibniz, should emulate this VISIO DEI, this
omniscient intuitive cognition of the Deity.  no temporal
unfolding, no linear steps, no delays, limit God's knowledge of
things.  The temporal simultaneity, the all-at-once-ness of God's
knowledge serves as a model for human knowledge in the modern
world as projected by the work of Leibniz.

The power of Leibniz's modern logic made traditional logic seem
puny by comparison.  Aristotle's traditional logic was taught in
the schools for centuries.  Logic traditionally evaluated the steps
of finite human thought, valid or invalid, as they occur in
arguments in natural language.  Traditional logic stayed close to
spoken natural language.  When modern logic absorbed the steps of
Aristotle's logic into a system of symbols, modern logic became a
network of symbols which could apply equally well to electronic
switching circuits as to arguments in natural language.  Just as
non-Euclidean geometry can make up axioms that defy the domain of
real circles (physical figures), so too modern logic freed itself
from any naturally given syntax.  The universal logic calculus
could govern computer circuits.

The global network of cotechnology emulates a divine access to
things.  The global text of cotechnology will strive to become a
net that traps all language into something like an eternal
present. The net will place top priority on maintaining itself
and securing its power.  While the users will feel geographical
and intellectual distances melt away, the cost they pay will be
their ability to initiate what is truly new.  The sense of their
finite individual uniqueness will dwindle and their private
thought will be dwarfed.

The computer is an inherently unifying, integrating device.  But
this does not mean everyone will get involved.  Hegel once said
that, as far as Real Progress is concerned, the life of the
solitary shepherd in the countryside is meaningless.  People will
fall through or around the net, either because they stubbornly
resist the universal rationality or because their activity does
not merit recognition by Progress.  Today many people remain
isolated, many who could benefit greatly from telecommunications.
But they are simply not financially able to get into the loop.
Maybe they will help us keep a sensible perspective on the Big
Network.  Our high-tech labor-saving devices can lead us to
become a hive of drones steered by a power elite that runs the
technology.  We must be suspicious when organizers asks us to
trust their "pluralistic open elites" whose power is based on
deferring to competence without a basic emotional bond.  As
finite physical beings, we learn to trust what we directly and
intuitively feel.  Are we human beings ready for total
integration under the surveillance of Leibniz's Central All-
Knowing Monad?

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