Debatable futures

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
6 February, 2017
Editorial: 70
Fecha de publicación original: 6 mayo, 1997

Date of publication: 6/5/1997. Editorial 70.

Every cock crows on his own dunghill

As the furore caused by the Internet increases, it appears that a whole lot of dormice (and I say this with all the affection that this species inspires) are starting to rouse themselves and look around with surprise at surroundings which are changing without anyone apparently having asked their permission. As we know, this kind of thing can be very annoying especially for those affected. The history of the human race is littered with stories of conflicts caused by the difficulties that sharing surroundings brings. This problem has frequently given rise to legitimate protests, outcries and direct action in defence of personal territory but in some cases it has simply represented the right to kick and scream when one’s favourite toy has been taken away. Something of this kind is happening when questions such as “What is the Internet?”, “Where is it leading us?”, “What kind of world does it foreshadow?”, “What kind of societal model does it presuppose?”, etc., are discussed. In this case in particular, an important part of the discussion on what is, without doubt, a highly topical issue , is not enhanced by in-depth arguments, but, in fact, instead there is a lot of simplistic talk about the vertiginous growth of the Internet as though this factor in itself were sufficient basis for building the framework of a mature model for the future (or rejecting it). Loads of people fall into this trap and I think there is an explanation for this: as opposed to other more obvious models, in the case of the Internet, it is where it is viewed from that determines to a large extent the analysis of this phenomenon. The future of the Net can be discussed from without (without being connected) or from within (living in cyberspace). In this respect, our intellectuals are not free from what we could call the “lighthouse-keeper syndrome”.

I don’t think it is necessary to validate (or repudiate) the discussion on the Internet by making reference to appeals made on the sidelines by various gurus about “millennialisms” or utopias. The historical role of technology bears sufficient weight of its own without any reference to such side issues having to be made when discussing its cultural implications. It is true that, as Lucien Sfez says, sometimes these kinds of myths (which, it must be said, have been with us all through history), can empower those that govern and stimulate the obedience of those that are governed. However, we should not forget that the best recipe for obtaining both results is precisely desperation, a product which those in power manage to manufacture and market with great ease, as the manipulation of social inequalities to their advantage clearly demonstrates. The paradigm of this could be the so-called North-South divide, as a metaphor of the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few and the theory that it is impossible to change this situation.

There is no need to stress the fact that the discussion in ando about the Internet is held from “within”: for me, the exponential growth of Internet is of great importance, but it is totally secondary to the activity that is developed within it and the way that this modifies technology itself. In other words, what we are talking about is a cultural process created by all those that participate in the Net. It is this factor for a start that all intellectuals should bear in mind when examining the phenomenon of the Internet instead of so hastily categorising it as part of the history of the written media (or information technology) and its most recent innovations such as television. The Internet represents a different evolutionary branch, because for the first time its content (its cultural content) is not solely determined by the corporative composition of the big media groups, or, in other words, by the way power is vertically articulated. Instead, the fact is that among users on the Internet there exists a horizontality without precedent, although it might exist in its own way and in the midst of a general disorder (tastes differ as we know …).

The Internet, whether we like it or not, has altered the landscape of the relationship between technology and culture ( a landscape, by the way, never very quiet). If we accept that 20 years ago knowledge was already starting to be considered as the main asset of the governing capitalist class, the same holds true today, but under very different circumstances. The mere possibility of the transformation of the education system by means of the Net, and the enhancing of a – still incipient – symbiotic relationship between students and teachers raises the possibility of the production, acquisition and synthesis of knowledge in a way which has no historical precedent, unless we hark back to anthropological stories related to tribal life (and to a particular size of population). On the other hand, the fact that millions of people now have a voice (something that did not happen with the media based on the model “one source emits, the rest listen”), is beginning to change the paradigm of information technology currently in use. We cannot put what the Internet represents socially under the same umbrella as the attempts by corporations and states to try and regain their control over knowledge by means of digital TV, cables and all the other paraphernalia which the infrastructure –the vertical social institution– imposes on the activities generated by citizens. It is in this tension that potential criticism of the “status quo” and possible ways out or solutions, lie.

Stelarc, in the interview published in in May, which every internaut should read, maintains that the Internet allows us to work on what he calls debatable futures, quite the contrary to finding definite solutions based on an ideological and academic agenda. The gurus are those who paint a picture of what it will look like at the other side of the tunnel before it has even been excavated. But, for those of us that work on the Net in order to do things that we can now no longer do in our real world and, in addition, for whom the dividing lines between real and virtual space is diffuse (in other words we haven’t ruled out the possibility of experimentation), these debatable futures are not pipe dreams but rather the result of the tension in the present situation which, we should remember, is forged by the savage liberalism imposed by states and corporations.

In many debates on the subject of the Internet it is clear that “thought” has moved into an area which is too densely populated for the tastes of philosophers and other keepers of the pleasant fires of knowledge. Perhaps they are right when they warn that the Internet is all much ado about nothing. But they should remember that our world today is the product of the nothing that they themselves provoked and the great fuss that power caused thanks to their silent complicity. For this reason, I like the manifesto the Foments de les Arts Decoratives (FAD) recently made public in Barcelona, which concludes: “We declare that hackers, squatters, multi-media artists, disc-jockeys and other people who are pushing themselves to the limit, are closer to cultural activism than our intellectuals”. The same document asks the question as to the purpose of the democratisation of culture if we have only used it to empty it of content and turned into something which is tele-directed by those in power.

On the Internet, and one only has to connect to discover this, a cultural reformulation is taking place with a force hitherto unknown under capitalism, which proposes multiple debatable futures, all of them burdened with new, present and old risks. Perhaps it is this complex fate which millions of people unrelated to the academic world have taken on board that is making our intellectuals so nervous. If only for this reason, the phenomenon deserves more than a quick glance or being written off by a couple of strokes of the pen.

Translation: Bridget King.