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<nettime> From Fama to Information Society
Pit Schultz on Fri, 25 Sep 1998 18:55:39 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> From Fama to Information Society


FROM FAMA TO INFORMATION SOCIETY
Of Prophets, Gods and the Nettime server demon

Florian Cramer


The concept of information society not only focuses new media
prophecies, politics and business. It also seems central to "net
criticism" and "net culture" as they are discussed in "Nettime." In
the archives of the mailing list, "information society" is typically
referred to as an either present or emerging reality: a reality to be
reassessed with alternative, critical or at least non-corporate
visions.

As a social utopia, information society however predates the
Internet and its prophets and critics. In the 17th century, the
protestant scholars Johann Valentin Andreae, Jan Amos Comenius and
Samuel Hartlib developed a general program to inform mankind. Their
project was outlined in Andreae's 1619 pamphlet *Turris Babel*
("The Tower of Babel"), a dialogical satire on Rosicrucianism. The
Rosicrucian reformation of mankind had first been proclaimed five
years earlier in the *Fama Fraternitatis* among whose anonymous
authors had been Andreae himself. He soon had to witness how his
fiction took up a life of its own. More than 150 replies appeared
until 1619 whose authors sought to get in touch with the hermetic
brotherhood.

With *Turris Babel*, Andreae joins the debate and mocks the
craze he had created. But instead of declaring himself the author of
the *Fama*, he brings up 75 allegorical protagonists who each
pronounce their own opinion about the Rosicrucians. In chapter 16,
three characters enter the scene, the "reformator", the "deformator"
and the "informator". While the deformator wants to do away with all
traditional ties and institutions including church and state, the
reformator hopes for their restoration through the Rosicrucians. The
informator finally supersedes their debate by demanding to
"inform" mankind so that "the divine law will be saved from the
deformator's corruption and the reformator's eagerness and become the
constitution of this world".

"Information" refers to its Latin root here; it reads as
"impregnation", "shaping", or "instruction". The informist is an
agent of a new *Christiana Societas* which the final chapter of
*Turris Babel* and Andreae's subsequent writings proclaim. The
Rosicrucians give way to the Christian Society, and fama is followed
by information, or, education. In the ideal state of this information
society, Andreae's utopian republic *Christianopolis*, all
knowledge is denoted in public mural paintings. The information and
impregnation of society follows, one could say, the logic of a push
channel. Pedagogics becomes the master discipline of this project
because it provides the programming tools. In 1620, Andreae writes
his educational treatise *Theophilus*; but it were his disciples
and confr&egrave;res Comenius and Hartlib who succeeded in rewriting
pedagogics into a new universal science. With the plans of the
*Christiana Societas* failing last in England, Andreae's
followers rescue the technologies of their information utopia into
public education. Comenius turns the "view houses" of Christianopolis
into an *Orbis pictus* ("The World in Pictures"), the first
illustrated children's primer. Until the late 18th century, the
*Orbis pictus* remains the canonical schoolbook in Europe.

What does the post-Rosicrucian information society have in common
with the postmodern information society net prophets and "net
critics" describe? Defined against de-formation, re-formation and
fama, Andreae's in-formation is not only loaded with pedagogics and
theology; more than that, its definition is radically performative.
It implies that information is only what has an impact, reaching and
impregnating its recipients. This notion is surprisingly modern in
its affinity to Shannon's definition of information as
anti-redundance. Here, information is not a self-referential
plaything. It implies a vertical power relation between informants
and the informed, between source and receivers. Information comes
from the source, it is radically original. To speak originally, the
informant must avoid redundant overlapping with the knowledge of the
informed; he must speak from a remote place and dwell outside
society. Unlike other information societies, Andreae's *Christiana
Societas* makes no attempt at concealing this place, but labels it
"heaven" and calls the informant "God".

Andreae's information society does not inform itself, it is being
informed. But is this also the case in contemporary information
societies? Can an information society be made a society of
informants, instead of a society of the informed? According to the
Latin etymology of the word, society is a body of companions
("socii") who follow ("sequi") each other. Society thus rests upon
smoothed out paths. If smoothing out implies redundance whereas
information translates, according to Andreae and Shannon, as
anti-redundance, it follows that information and society are
contradictions. Andreae's Christian information society resolves this
contradiction by secluding the informant from itself. A society
founded upon its self-information however - that is, a society
founded upon radical originality instead of redundances or a remote
informant - cannot communicate. It would not be a society.

Perhaps those who speak of information society today don't use the
word "information" in Shannon's or Andreae's rigorous sense, but
identify "information" with "signs". As "signs", "information" would
comprehend noise as well as signals, fuzziness as much as focus. But
in this case, "information society" would no longer make a
difference. It would not describe any departure from the habitual
signal-noise-economics of "society"; it would exhaust itself in a
buzzword. But perhaps the question is not whether "information
society" is only a buzzword or whether a self-informing information
society would be a contradiction in itself. If one acknowledges that
the concept of "information society" has political impact
nevertheless, then the more relevant conclusion is that no
"information society" which is more than a buzzword can do without
transcendental informants.

When presupposing information society as a present or emerging
reality, "net criticism" and "net culture" do not only operate with
the same theoretical dispositive as net prophecy. They also
participate, nilly-willy, in the political theology inscribed into
its very concept. "Net critics" and net prophets coincide where they
pretend to do without transcendental informants, but continue to
employ them. When Geert Lovink and Pit Schultz presented their
concept of "net culture" and "net criticism" in a panel speech for a
congress that accompanied Documenta X in summer 1997, they defended
"the net" against traditional academia all the while calling upon
academics to go online. Given the academic surrounding and
sponsorship of the event, the audience interpreted this as undeserved
polemics. It failed to recognize that, instead of a university
lecture, it had witnessed a perfect re-enactment of the Rosicrucian
*Fama*, its bold rhetoric, its general critique of culture and
its final appeal to the scholars of the world. The speakers had
furthermore observed the Rosicrucian rules of curing everyone without
charging money, wearing innocuous clothing and speaking the local
idiom in each country they visit in order to keep their theological
mission under the hood.

The next logical step after the *Fama* is "Nettime" writing
itself as a dialogical satire of its own discourse. When the
discourse of "net criticism" generates the very critical "net
culture" it reflects, and when the discourse of net prophecy
generates the very affirmative "net culture" it reflects, and vice
versa, it seems as if the "information societies" addressed both in
"net prophecy" and "net criticism" are, first of all,
self-descriptions. They emerge as romantic symbols: demonic and
divine hieroglyphs, shining bright in the rigorous sun of
Telechristianopolis.
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