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<nettime> Heim's Anxieties 4 (the Interface and the Human face)
Diana McCarty on Sun, 7 Sep 1997 19:09:55 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> Heim's Anxieties 4 (the Interface and the Human face)



 7. The INTERFACE and the HUMAN FACE

A global network stretched across large populations will amplify
the herd instincts of society.  Computers have already linked
reporters and journalists so closely together that the independent
mind seems threatened.  A herd mentality can stampede the
search for truth.  The writer today is wired-up for constant
connection with all the same information services everyone else
is using, and the writer has instant access to most of the other
writing currently being done on a given issue.  The more powerful
the information technology, the more likely the drowning of the
independent voice.  One example of this is the pack journalism
recently acknowledged by the media itself in the case of the
McMartin Pre-school trial.  Journalists reporting and commenting
on the case worked in constant linkage with all the media so that
they could cross-check with what the other reporters were
writing.  The thought consensus beat to the same tempo of the
instant news.  As a result, those who played the game of media
access (the prosecutors in the case) were able to control public
sentiment.  Some of the best journalism about the case
(acknowledged recently and with regrets by the LA Times) was done
by the local alternative newspaper (the Easy Reader in the South
Bay area of Los Angeles.  The Easy Reader is a low tech,
low-budget independent operation.

The computer network brackets the physical presence of people,
and our physical bodies are the front line of our individuality. 
Computer communication removes the physical face from
communication.  The primal source of responsibility is the body,
especially the face.  With computers, the windows of the soul
disappear behind monitors.  Face-to-face communication bonds
people.  The long-term loyalty of computer-mediated communities
has not yet been tested.  Computers still offer a sense of
belonging to an elite cadre of pioneers, and this sense supports
the common group goals.  With such a bond, there is little
likelihood of treachery.  But how long and how deep can personal
relationships be when they exclude our primal state of embodied
awareness?  The face is more basic than any machine interaction.
The face is the primal interface.  Our physical eyes are the
windows that establish the neighborhood of trust.  The trust I am
speaking of goes beyond exchanging notes.  Some philosophers,
such as Levinas, argue that without the direct experience of the
human face there can be no ethical awareness.

Examples of computer treachery abound.  John Coates,
spokesperson for the Well BBS in northern California says: "Some
people just lose good manners on line.  You can really feel
insulated and protected from people if you're not looking at
them -- nobody can take a swing at you. On occasion, we've
stepped in to request more diplomacy.  One time we had to ask
someone to go away, (cited in Electric Word magazine, November/December
1989, p. 35).  On the far end of irresponsibility is computer
crime.  The machine interface inserts the amoral into human
relations.  It eliminates the need to respond directly to what is
taking place between humans.  Participation is optional.  With
direct human presence, participation is not optional.  As a global
network expands, we could expect communal trust to diminish
and a cynical anomie could spread.

With an expanding network, there is a corresponding loss of
innocence.  As online culture grew wider geographically, the
sense of community diminished.  Shareware worked well in the
early days, and so did open Bulletin Boards.  As the user base
increased in size, the village community spirit was lost, and,
like the rest of the world, the villains began to appear.  Hard
disks were formatted remotely by hackers, and companies like
Procomm terminal software moved over to the commercial world.
When we speak of a "global village," we should keep in mind that
there are villains in every village, and when civilization
reaches a certain degree of complexity, it may revert to the
barbarisms of real tribes and villages. The tribe shuns and
punishes the independent thinkers without regard to their
individuality or personal presence.  A global village could
create an unprecedented barbarism.

One of the first things the humanist notices with on-line writing
is the lack of formality.  The electronic medium is unlike the
traditional book insofar as the book protects readers by
following rules that set up expectations.  Electronics is informal. 
No rules, no sure way of receiving content.  The lower-level
network replaces the legitimizers (publishers).  The usual guides
found in printed materials fade away in place of private
recommendations, personal endorsements, and spontaneous
verifications.  The process requires considerable trust among the
networked individuals.  And, if we extrapolate from the other
large-scale media, the computer networks will need to learn to
"grab the attention" of a critical mass of people.  Otherwise no
one will pay attention.  Flashy liveliness and currency will
replace depth of content, and sustained attention will give way
to fast-paced trends.  One British humanist spoke of the HISTORY
forum on Bitnet in these terms: "HISTORY has no view of what it
exists for, and of late has become a sort of bar room courthouse
for pseudo-historical discussion on a range of currently topical
events.  It really is, as Glasgow soccer players are often
called, a waste of space."

The on-line reader faces problems of choice similar to the
formidable obstacles of navigating and managing huge networks. 
The traditional book industry provides the reader with many
clues for evaluating books.  In choosing what to read, we find
clues that affect our willingness to engage ourselves with the
ideas in the books.  We note certain criteria that are lacking on
line: editorial attention, packaging endorsements by
professionals or colleagues, book design and materials, and the
value of the publisher's imprint.

The traditional publishing is like a medieval European city,
where the center of all the activity, the cathedral or church
tower, serves to guide and gather all the communal directions
and pathways.  The spire radiates visibly to all members and
draws the other buildings toward a central model.  Traditionally,
the long and involved process of choosing which texts to print
serves a similar function.  The book culture channels our
reading selections.  The central model in the form of a well
made book gives us a channel to tune into.  The new publishing,
on the contrary, resembles more the modern megalopolis, which
is often described as a concrete jungle if it is New York City or
as the sprawl if it is Los Angeles.  A maze of activities and
hidden byways surrounds us, with no apparent center or guiding
steeple.  This architecture is philosophically equivalent to the
absence of the religious absolute.  In the electric element, the
problem of discrimination and of new metaphors for selecting
information becomes urgent if not fatal.

The vastness of the global network can be both dehumanizing
and confusing.


8. The THROW-AWAY CULTURE

Information is an ephemeral aspect of knowledge.  Information
changes with the changing interests of a culture.  At the same
time, the knowledge that is based on our experience remains
relatively stable.  Even further back in our minds is the wisdom
that provides a background for both information and knowledge. 
Only with wisdom can information and knowledge make sense. 
Perhaps the most important humanistic criticism of
computerized language is that, as we become an information
society, we turn our attention less and less to the background
knowledge or wisdom that organizes information.  From time
immemorial, the written word has stabilized language and
rendered thoughts more permanent, more open to critical
analysis and revision.  With computers, language becomes stored
as information, making words more fluid and more flexible --
and more ephemeral.  This language technology may be related
to our manic obsession with data over knowledge, what some call
infomania.  At least, so things seem to the eyes of the humanist.

Consider the nature of the electronic library of the future. 
Already we have, on the campus of California State University
Long Beach, a new phenomenon: the library without books.  Just
a month or two ago, Governor Deukmajian of California broke the
ribbon on a new building on campus.  The building houses the
world's first no-books library.  It is a large structure with
comfortable furniture and many places for students and faculty to
study.  In lieu of bookshelves, however, the building has
terminals and electronic workstations.  You can get texts,
alright, like Shakespeare's works, online, and you can use the
terminals to order books from the south campus library.

This building suggests the direction of the future, a direction
not all humanists relish.  Cicero may had something when he
said, "A room without books is like a body without a soul."   A
computer terminal just does not fill the bill.  Maybe we could
paraphrase Cicero, "an electronic library is like a robot without
human awareness."

We still have a strong sense of the contemplative nature of
books.  Two days after the new library opened, an editorial in
the student newspaper took a stand which most humanists would
endorse:

 "LIBRARY MORE OF A DATA CENTER

Searching for information is always a tedious task, and with the
opening of the new $50 million North Campus Library, that job
just got easier.

But while it will be much easier to gather information through
the use of computers, we hope that not every future library will
be like this.

Libraries have always been the homes of books, not computers.
Books are, and have always been, the keys to knowledge and
truth. We hope that never changes.

A library that does not have the musty smell of old paper and
book stacks piled to the ceiling cannot really be called a library.

Therefore, we suggest that the new structure on Lower Campus
not be called a library, but an information center that will
streamline the painful process involved in doing research papers.

If a person cannot find a good book to sit down and read in this
new building, it is not actually a library."

Something is indeed lost if electronics replaces books.  Even if
we support the ever more inclusive expansion of media and want
to have it all, there are always limits on human awareness and
attention.  The student editorial recognizes an important
difference, the difference between information and
contemplation.  When we contemplate something, we place it in
its larger experiential background, we savor it in its context, we
appreciate and ponder its significance.  Information, on the
other hand, is a unit of knowledge which by itself has only a
trace of significance.  Information presupposes a significant
context but does not deliver or guarantee one.  Because context
does not come built in, information can be handled and
manipulated, stored and transmitted at computer speeds.  Word
processing makes us information virtuosos, as the computer
automatically transforms all we write into information code. But
human we remain.  For us, significant language always depends
on the felt context of our limited experience.  We remain
biologically finite in what we can attend to meaningfully.  When
we pay attention to the significance of something, we cannot
proceed at the computer's breakneck pace.  We have to ponder,
reflect, contemplate.

Infomania erodes our capacity for significance.  With a
mentality fixed on information, the attention span shortens.  We
collect fragments.  We become mentally poorer in overall
meaning.  We get into the habit of clinging to knowledge bits
and lose our feel for the wisdom behind knowledge.  In the
Information Age so me people even believe that literacy or
culture is a matter of having the right  facts at our fingertips.

We expect access to everything NOW, instantly and
simultaneously. We suffer from a logic of total management
where everything must be at our disposal.  Eventually our
madness will cost us.  There is a law of diminishing returns: the
more information accessed, the less significance is possible.

Already in the 1950s, long before microcomputers, Heidegger
saw a growing obsession with data without an equal concern for
significance. He wrote:

"Today nothing takes root in us any more.  Why?  Because we
lack a thoughtful conversation with a tradition that invigorates
and nurtures us. Instead, we consign our speech to electronic
calculating machines, something that will lead modern
technology and science to completely new procedures and
unforeseeable results that will probably shove aside reflective
thinking as useless and superfluous."  (Page 32 in Der Satz vom
Grund).

Using computers for writing, we experience language as
electronic data, and the machines reinforce information over
significance.

Richard Saul Wurman is the author of the recent book
Information Anxiety.  Wurman does not approach the information
problem as a humanist but rather as someone seeking to facilitate
the way we absorb information.  So Wurman provides an insight
into the nature of information -- not necessarily showing us the
limitations and dangers of information as such.  When we listen
to him talk about the way he wrote his book, we essentially zoom
in on the nature of information.

About his book Wurman says:

"INFORMATION ANXIETY is organized into short, digestible
little pieces.  This is because today we get things in bite-sized
pieces.  A hundred years ago, I could get a newspaper once a
week, or have long conversations with people.  Now our habits
are different.  We have huge amounts of information coming at
us daily -- from television, radio, newspapers, and magazines. 
But it's overwhelming because we can't possibly consume and
understand all that we want or need to.  I wanted what I had to
say to be read and understood.  INFORMATION ANXIETY is
arranged the way it is so you don't have to read it sequentially.  
You can open to any chapter and read forward or backward. 
The text and the marginalia can be read together or
independently.  You can read the last chapter first or read only
the even-numbered chapters.  You don't read a magazine all the
way through.  And in that sense this book is more of an
information magazine."  (From an interview in ALDUS
MAGAZINE, January/February 1990, p. 30.)  Later Wurman
adds, "If a book is not entertaining, it's not going to
communicate.  People wont be interested in looking at it, reading
it, or learning from it."

These are some of the keynotes of the information age, what I
call the psychic framework of information: short, non-sequential,
and entertaining (light enough to elicit immediate response). 
Wurman claims that his books are written to communicate at the
level of a 12-year-old child.  This trend toward information seems
connected to our technology (or do we invent machines that seem
needed by our psyches?).  And here is where the humanist gets
nervous.  For we are talking about a shift away from the more
contemplative, linear thought processes of the book.  The shift
may be subtle, nearly imperceptible at close range, but the trend
may be part of what observers call the "dumbing of America."

Simple clarity and direct communication are not always
compatible with clear knowledge.  Though it may be based on
certain information, clear knowledge is not always a simple
thing.  Sometimes it gets complicated.  Knowledge often demands
more than an assembly of clear bits and pieces, since a pile of
fragments does not constitute the integrity of knowledge.  Years
ago, the Ramist educational reforms may have produced a more
inviting and engaging batch of textbooks, but serious knowledge
goes beyond outlines and encyclopedic diagrams.  (See Walter
Ong's Ramus and the Decay of Dialogue).

On the value scale of our emotional experience, computerized
information is the lowest level of expression.  Information skims
off the richness of our total experience.  Rating experience
levels humanistically, giving them monetary value, we get a scale
where data is at the bottom.  At the top, the most expensive, and
emotionally most impressive communication is the tactile
expression, the touch.  We travel thousands of miles by jet to
touch or kiss a relative or a person we love.  On another level,
we will also travel great distances to see with our own eyes and
in full presence a great piece of sculpture or some architectural
monument in Italy, France or Egypt.  The tactile expression and
the direct visual presence are the highest.  The close-up direct
view with your our eyes can be nearly as expensive as the tactile
experience.  On the lower levels, the televised photo is far less
expensive, and never so fascinating, as the direct vision with
physical presence.  Finally, the least expensive, and most
emotionally valueless of all experience, are the magnetic signals
on the disk of the computer.

I will close this section by citing the words of a full-fledged
humanist who speaks from a great deal of experience in matters
of on-line values. Willard McCarthy at the University of Toronto
has hosted and edited the HUMANIST forum on Bitnet for over two
years.  At the 1989-90 meeting of the Modern Language Association
in Washington, D.C., Willard described the reaction of most
scholars to the Bitnet network as follows:

    "All members seem reasonably clear that Humanist is not a
serious venue for professional advancement. We may want to bemoan
the unofficial, peripheral status of the electronic seminar, but
this status may well be a blessing in disguise. Where in the
modern academy, I ask, is there room for the `serious play' that
is at the core of humane teaching and learning and which is
consistently said to be one of Humanist's most valuable
characteristics? As I suggested, the value of what transpires in
the electronic seminar is difficult to assess because it is so
transitory. True, the conversations on Humanist are
automatically saved, but until truly intelligent retrieval
software is widely available, Humanist's archive will continue
to be more a graveyard than a repository. In February of this
year, as part of a continuing effort to provide some form of
collective `memory' for Humanist, I began to assemble topical
collections, many of which are now available on the file-server.
Nevertheless, the behavior of most members suggests that the
ephemeral nature of and-mail remains uppermost. Thus, one member,
echoing many, remarked that "most of my daily ration of Humanist
gets zapped after I've read it".

Here is the humanist's anxiety in a nutshell.  Not only does
throw-away information erode the wisdom of a society, but the
remains of the Humanist forum gets zapped by the remaining
Humanists.

 ____________________________________________________________________
|                                                                   |
|                                                                   |
|    Glitch about to sign off.                                      |
|                                                                   |
|    Such are the worries in the humanist brain.  But don't         |
|    let these worries send the pioneers off into a dead end or     |
|    byway.  Use the energy of the anxieties to fuel your           |
|    constructive work.                                             |
|                                                                   |
|    We are in the process of building something but we don't       |
|    know what yet exactly.  We are building something like         |
|    a new language or new structures to house our language.        |
|                                                                   |
|    The language we are building allows us to sail onward,         |
|    we know not where.  Nor do we know how well-built              |
|    our ship will turn out to be.                                  |
|                                                                   |
|    The humanist seeks whatever guidance is scrawled on the        |
|    scraps of history and past writings.  The humanist looks       |
|    to the fading stars of a past whose physical existence is      |
|    long gone but whose light continues to glimmer.  For           |
|    us, the glimmering, half-dead traditional forms are not        |
|    terribly enlightening.  But, in the twilight of their past     |
|    glories, they offer comfort and courage because they           |
|    teach us what kind of questions to ask of our future.          |
|                                                                   |
|    Glitch off.                                                    |
|                                                                   |
|                                                                   |
|___________________________________________________________________|


             Copyright (C) 1997, Michael Heim





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