Date: Tue, 29 Apr 1997 14:42:17 +0200
From: Frank Hartmann

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 Global Village (a misleading term) forgot to discuss the severe social constraints which determine life in a village. There is a possibility that the information society is becoming as culturally homogeneous as 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 is always also 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 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 more easily 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 of distinguishing 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.