Thomas Hylland Eriksen's very occasional, and abandoned, diary on web publishing and web culture, soon to be integrated into NETWORK... or maybe elsewhere...

 
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4 June 1998

What follows is an interview undertaken by the bilingual Swedish art/avant-garde journal SCRAM. The lecture referred to in some of the questions was presented at the conference "Culture in the virtual city", Lund (Sweden), 3-5 April 1998. The interview took place, if such an expression be tolerated, via email, and the interviewer was Malin Krutmeijer.

Part I

MK: In your article [in Oscar Hemer and Jan-Olof Nilsson, eds., Den virtuella staden],you put forward the idea that the virtual world encourages modes of thought similar to "pensée sauvage". At the same time, the web represents a movement from the concrete ("real") to the abstract (virtual). How, do you think, will these tendencies and this associative ("primitive") mode of thinking affect (transform) our identites and culture(s)?

THE: In order to grasp the transformations taking place at the moment, it may be useful to take a step back and consider major changes, earlier in cultural history, which were also fuelled by technology. It then turns out that technological change, not least in the field of information technology, always has major repercussions in a variety of fields. Frequently, a new technology is introduced for a specific purpose ­ the clock was devised to help monks keep praying hours; writing was chiefly used an aid in book-keeping and ritual. Sometimes, inventions are misunderstood completely in their time of their introduction: The telephone was considered by many to be little more than an advanced toy, and in the mid-1950s, an IBM director, according to legend, infamously stated that the world needed about ten computers.

The point I want to make is that the main social and cultural consequences of technological change are frequently unintended and unexpected. Little did Gutenberg know that the printing press would be a chief element in the subsequent Protestant reformations and, later, in nationalism and nation-building. Print-capitalism, as Benedict Anderson and others have shown, was a powerful tool for the creation of homogeneous cultures in the age of nationalism. My notion -- which is not particularly original, as it was foreshadowed already by McLuhan -- is that if print-capitalism created modern individuals and homogeneous cultural communities, then web-capitalism or hypertext literacy will lay the foundations for something else, the content of which we can only now begin to probe cautiously. Unlike the sequential order of a book, a web text, hyperlinked, encourages what I call horizontal or paradigmatic thinking; associative, poetic, metaphoric thinking which develops unexpected connections and is indeed crucially dependent on its ability to create links between disparate texts; whereas the book does that for the reader through its very materiality. The form of reasoning emerging from the hypertext mode is actually quite similar to pre-literate thinking as described by Lévi-Strauss and others; as the anthropologist David Parkin once remarked, "tropes don't work in the tropics" since non-literate peoples do not distinguish between metaphorical speech and literal speech like we do. McLuhan spoke of this transformation in terms of brain hemispheres, where he envisaged a reappraisal of the right hemisphere associated with grasping wholes, poetry and metaphor.

From my point of view, one of the most exciting possible outcomes is a transformation of the sense of causality and order. It could be said that in our day and age, we no longer live in space, but in "timeless time", that is total global simultaneity. When everything is simultaneous -- on the news, on the Web, through e-mail -- notions of causality collapse. The word "because" may become a rarity in abstract discourse. Rather than looking for causes and effects, the future may find us searching for connections and patterns.

MK: In your lecture you pointed out international migration and the electronic revolution as the most crucial factors for the cultural change that we (at least in Europe) are in the midst of. Could you develope this idea, and maybe give some concrete examples of changes that these two factors will produce, or have already produced?

THE: I think this is extremely important. I may be exaggerating those two elements, but I believe that if we are able to see them as dimensions of the same space, as two sides of the same coin, then we have grasped something fundamental. Both the Internet and migration lead to a bracketing of space; cultures are moved "out of place" and transformed almost beyond recognition, information becomes disembedded: it is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. This does not merely concern the Internet, incidentally. If you ask, Where does my bank keep my money? -- the answer is, in cyberspace. Cyberspace is where the bank keeps your money! So global capitalism disembeds people, giving them the freedom, or forcing them, to move where there are opportunities to work and consume; at the same time as the electronic media disembed information.

Some changes at the level of identification have already been evident for some time. The traditional order, where one was born into a community, a religion and so on, is gone forever. Even the modern order, where one was taught to belong in an unambiguously constructed imagined community which was seen as rather constant in space and time, is becoming very difficult to uphold. The immediate consequences are dual: Some persons -- many persons -- take on the new freedom with great enthusiasm and develop flexible, many-stranded identifications; some of them spatial -- my hometown; some of them based on say, religion -- my Indian guru; some of them based on interests or political views. To them, the nation eventually means little more than a football team you support whenever there is a major tournament. To others, globalisation and disembedding feels like a threat; and they would accordingly do their best to strengthen and re-construct the old fixed, stable identifications. A particularly nasty version of this strategy, of course, is ethnic cleansing; another might be various forms of fundamentalism trying to enclose the universe and shut the whirlwind of change out -- which may be a perfectly legitimate thing to do, by the way; it all depends on how it is done. These identity processes result from both international migration and the electronic revolution. In sum, I would say that the current turmoil -- where the well-established dimensions of identification associated with modernity are under heavy pressure -- highlights one of the perennial tensions of human existence: that which obtains between freedom and security.

MK: It seems to be a common idea that the net is anti-authoritarian, anti-hierarchical in its structure. But its users nevertheless live in a socially and culturally stratified world, and are also positioned in that world. Will we not bring these ways, in which we have learned to think and unreflectively grasp the world around us, into the virtual world, to an extent
at least as large as the virtual world will change our way of thinking? I, for one, imagine that the net will have something like what Pierre Bourdieu calls "the linguistic market", where certain ways of expression and discourses are highly valued, while others are ranked lower. There might be more "markets" of this kind, and they may possibly be more diversified, but still. What is your opinion? Could you say something about the power-dimension in this sense, who will have the power to define and categorise in the virtual culture?

THE: First of all, it is extremely unlikely that the Net and related technologies will do away with social and cultural stratification, although access to knowledge -- if you know what to do with it -- should not be underrated as an antidote to excessive gulfs between the haves and the have-nots. Remember that Chinese emperors have in the past actively sought to keep the masses illiterate in order to avoid riots and revolutions; the French Revolution would probably have been unthinkable without print-capitalism; and today, grassroots movements do use the Net actively to promote their causes.

But that was not your question? Well, I must admit that I doubt whether an analysis of the Bourdieu kind will be particularly fruitful if applied to the Net, since that kind of thinking presupposes agreement over scarce values within a field. His notion of the linguistic market presupposes that there is agreement over the rules governing that market. On the Web, I do not see any such rules emerging. Of course, in restricted and enclosed backwaters of the Internet, such as Usenet groups, you will find linguistic codes and expressions of symbolic power based on the mastery of particular codes; but the Web is too vast and too varied for a uniform mode of evaluation to emerge.

What is clear, however, is the fact that other people's attention is a uniformly scarce resource on the Web, no matter what you are up to -- whether you are trying to sell ladies' underwear, to persuade Internet denizens to become Christians or anarchists, or -- as I do -- simply publishing some of your written work on the Web. In this sense, the Bourdieu kind of model may be useful, even if it would reduce the multiplicity of voices and structures of relevance to quantified scores. Marketing people do not know a lot about how to catch people's attention on the Web yet; how to create the virtual equivalent of a large neon ad on Times Square, as it were. Search engines become important in this respect, and Alta Vista, HotBot and the others are, for obvious reasons, among the most frequently visited sites.

Probably, the best human search engines will have the most of the power you refer to, but I am convinced that the Net will continue to be pluralistic and disorganised. It has room for a lot of elites which are not in direct competition with each other; and it may thus be pluralistic in the same sense as successful multi-ethnic cities, with a large space for variation within a common framework.

Of course, not everyone will take part on an equal basis. Of course, the Net is also, in addition to everything else, just another market place. But it has some unique qualities as well, which are missing both in other fields of human interaction and indeed in our established ways of thinking, and we should encourage those.

MK: And finally to a more concrete reflection: through which criteria do you think we will be able to "read" each other socially and culturally at the web, when we can not see the person we meet and in most cases we do not speak our mother-tongue, but some kind of "web-English"?

THE: Confronting this question, I must admit to some conservatism. There are some fundamental and universal dimensions of human existence which will, for the vast majority of us, continue to be relatively unaffected by the electronic revolution. Such as kinship, love, sex, confidence and trust in others; these change in actual content, but still, they remain human constants. Psychologically, we have just emerged from the cave. I have little faith in the most high-strung visions seeing future humans living their lives more or less exclusively on the screen, although it would not be difficult to find a few handfuls of individuals who do so even now. Most of us live our lives largely off-line and cherish the real life experiences deeply. I mean, if you go to a conference on cyberspace with all the digerati and VR people; what do they do in the evenings? They drink, dance and chat each other up. Just like the guests in Plato's Symposion. Although a lot changes, everything does not change.

The fact, which you point out, that many do not even write in their mother tongue on the Internet, is also a reminder of the difference, which remains important, between life on the screen and life off the screen. The Web, like other media, is inherently reductive: it does not provide enough information for us to get to know others well. A few weeks ago, I received a mail from someone who had browsed through my Web pages, and he concluded, among other things, that I was probably not a very musical person. Well, he was wrong. What the Web does provide, therefore, is a skewed, fragmentary, incomplete vision of other people; often misleading, and very explicit. Now, much of what we know about others is implicit; much of culture is implicit. A glance, a gesture, a tone of voice, a peculiar smell; we take in much more information about our surroundings than we are aware of. On the Web, this is stripped down to text and images. That is one aspect of the Web that McLuhan would not have liked, as he was deeply critical of our over-dependence on the faculty of vision in Western civilization. So, to communicate over the Internet is better than nothing, but it will remain different from communication in real life. I do not see its main potential as an alternative to real life interaction -- and here I can understand Paul Virilio's pessimism -- but as a repository of knowledge, ideas, visions to be applied to real lfe situations. I mean, even if the Nicaraguan peasant can get important information about plant diseases and seed types over the Web, he still has to go out and cultivate his field; and even if I communicate with scores of colleagues over the Internet, I know them only after I've shaken their hands. Perhaps this view will be obsolete in some years; I hope not.


Part II

MK: As I wrote in my previous email, I find the idea of a revival of "pensée sauvage" in a new electronic era very interesting (partly, I guess, because of the simple fact that Levi-Strauss' book made a really strong impression on me when I first read it some years ago, like I know that it has done on many other anthropology students). I also like the notion of international migration and the electronic revolution as "two sides of the same coin", since they (among other things) put cultures "out of place". To me your ideas seem to (correct me if I am wrong!) insist that culture is equally flesh (for example concrete people moving their culturally constructed bodies across the globe, to put it somewhat bluntly), technology, and mind, and that there are no clearcut boundaries between the three; they all in a sense have to be "lived", given meaning in human interaction.

When I then think of bringing these aspects (international migration and the electronic revolution bringing cultures out of place, and a mode of thought similar to pensée sauvage) together as features of an overall cultural change, the scenario is even more intriguing.

On the one hand, you claim that "the traditional order, where one was born into a community, a religion and so on, is gone forever". The reactions to this change stretch from re-constructing fixed, stable identifications like in ethnic movements, to embracing the possibility to develop flexible identifications. On the other hand, there is the move that you describe towards a "horizontal", "paradigmatic" thinking, which resemble pensée sauvage. But is not primitive cosmology based on kinship and clan as more or less fixed entities? So, while territory, place, loses its significance, a mode of thought, originally
connected with life in pre-literate, small-group, kinship- and clan-based societies has a somewhat unexpected revival for the disconnected, up-rooted, de-traditionalised person of today.

Well, what I actually wanted was to ask you to further develop the ideas or reflections you have around these particular aspects of cultural change, and the possible connections between them. And one, more concrete, question crosses my mind: "Searching for connections and patterns" in the "primitive" sense preserves the social order ­ maybe it could be said to stand for "security" ; what functions could this mode of thinking have in today's very different world that have so long been interested mainly in "causes and effects"?


THE: This is a very complex set of questions, and you must forgive me for not responding adequately to all of your queries. To begin with, there is the map-and-territory problem. As Gregory Bateson was fond of pointing out, the menu is not the food; it is a more or less accurate reduction, or representation, of the food. The food always contains more information than the menu, and the territory is always more complex than the map. I think it was Borges ­ it ought to have been Borges anyway ­ who wrote a short story about a society where the leaders decided to have their cartographers draw the perfect map, which revealed everything and was true to the complexity of the territory. When it was rolled out, the map, of course, covered the entire country. This very basic insight entails that any given real world situation will contain an indefinite number of possible interpretations and, accordingly, different courses of action. Partly for this reason, unifying symbols are important for social cohesion in any society ­ to create a semblance of homogeneity. In our societies, the print media have played a central part in creating this cohesion by exposing most of the inhabitants to similar messages. This is now bound to change because of the more fluid, flexible and fundamentally democratic nature of the new media.

The main point in this context, however, is that a new territory ­ such as that implied by globalising processes that blur boundaries ­ gives rise to a variety of new maps. Cosmopolitanism is not the only viable solution in an age of globalisation ­ on the contrary, new localisms may be seen to be just as strong. Even cattle nomads ­ perhaps especially cattle nomads ­ cherish their genealogies which place them safely in a particular corner of the cosmos. So there is no contradiction between globalisation and localism. Indeed, what we could label fundamentalisms, that is ideologies which provide complete world-views with simple, unambiguous answers to complex questions, are having a field day amidst the flux and flurry of blurred boundaries. Nobody would need to talk evocatively about roots and bounded traditions if they were given.

Others find their fixed points elsewhere, but fixed points as such ­ around which our world may revolve ­ are both indispensable and scarce. I would suggest, in a modest vein, that everyday experiences may provide such a fixed point. I mean, the world is dizzying and often confusing, but if we can find predictability and security in our day-to-day routines, that may be enough to prevent us from falling off, and it would be an antidote to fundamentalism. The problem is that for many people, that predictability cannot be taken for granted. But if you feel secure in your private life, you can easily find ontological security in abstract connections and patterns. There is no reason to believe that the nation-state, or the so-called world religions, are necessary for human fulfillment, and in this, there is a lot to be learnt from nonliterate peoples.

This brings me to your earlier comment about "vertical" versus "horizontal" thinking. Obviously, humanity is never going to give up the category of causality entirely: many of our lived experiences are necessarily felt to be causal. What goes up must come down; day follows night; we grow perceptibly older; etcetera. The great narrative of human life -- conception, birth and death -- is a causal one, and we know that. However, just like exchange-value and a certain calculating mode of reasoning, as Habermas correctly pointed out decades ago, spreads into erstwhile protected spheres of life, the category of causality has become an obsession in modern societies. As someone remarked, the obsession with rationality (and causality) is as strong in the West as the obsession with purity in India. This faith in explanations and cause-effect relationships is clearly being undermined for better or worse. That does not preclude a basic identification tied to groups which are perceived as more or less timeless and fixed, nor continued advances in science; but it provides us with structures of relevances where it becomes possible and sometimes necessary to question causality. Take contemporary dance music, for example: it is a repetitive form of rhythmic music which does not profess to "tell a story"; it doesn't have a beginning, a middle and an end. It resembles tribal music or, perhaps, Indonesian gamelan music -- not Beethoven's symphonies or Led Zeppelin's blues numbers, those typical expressions of a modern sensibility. Or take the global youth cult whereby increasing numbers of people undergo cosmetic surgery, not because they believe it will extend their lives, but because it makes them look younger. They, like participants at all-night raves, refuse to acknowledge that everything must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Similarly, knowledge is being organised in ways that may best be described through metaphors of networks and flows, rather than sequences and cumulative development. This, if anything, is postmodernity: the loss of the belief in history's direction, sequences and causal laws ordering the world. These constituted the hybris of modernity, and there are good reasons, I believe, to hope that a future acknowledging flow and flux as basic features of the world will be somewhat less awful.

 

21 April 1997

Dear denizen,

In my grandparents' time, there wasn't enough information to go around. Books were scarce. Radios were new and expensive. Public lectures were crowded. A lot of people were convinced that education would enable them to understand the world. The more knowledge, the better. Today, the situation has changed irremediably: There is too much information, not too little, and we feel relief, not disappointment, when we come across a book or a journal article which appears bad, boring or irrelevant. 80,000 scientific journals are published regularly. Even small disciplines have hundreds of them. With trillions of signs at our fingertips through the Web, it has become evident beyond doubt that we urgently need new ways of storing, classifying and processing information. Nonlinear techniques: Gutenberg man was a mere intermediary figure, and we are headed for the light at the end of the tunnel.

 

5 December 1996

Dear reader,

I began to develop this site about eight months ago, and as the reasons for this move are described on the index page, I won't repeat them here. As I have been involved in all conceivable forms of publishing over the years -- beginning in my teenage days, sweating over the old Roneo machine (remember those, anyone?), through a lengthy period dominated by involvement in underground magazines (notably Gateavisa, the notorious anarchist monthly) and later, in various forms of mainstream publishing; as editor, columnist, essayist, academic writer, polemicist, pamphleteer and populariser -- the Web was irresistible, despite the chronic struggle against time constraints typical of my life. The Web was no less than a new textual medium, and a democratic one at that! So I made a selection of my own texts available along with links to other resources, and there are more to come.

This new page is devoted to reflections over web publishing. As always, I am keen to hear your views on these issues. Allow me some initial musings, to start this off:

Writing for the Web, like writing for the print media, is usually a lonely activity. Direct feedback is rare. However, the global character of the Web makes for nice surprises. During my time as a web publisher, I have been engaged in interesting discussions with readers from remote and obscure places such as the USA, Britain, etc.

Reading lengthy texts on the Web is not a common activity yet; reading Web pages for pleasure is rarer still. This is obviously due to the still unpractical and slightly uncomfortable technology used. It is eye-straining and physically tiring. As Douglas Adams would have put it: --You are supposed to be reading this in the bath!

So far, I have written very little exclusively for the Web. This is not because this kind of publishing is unpaid (at least in my case), but simply because there is no clearly defined public sphere relating to my site. Having no idea of the readership (who are you -- teenage nerds, middle-aged lawyers, anthropology students, German pensioners or Japanese language learners?) I don't know who I'm communicating with. This, hopefully, will change quite soon.

Writing for the Web can be extremely liberating. Nobody checks your grammar, ortography or content. Everything you do is strictly non-commercial (at least in my case).Yet you have potentially thousands of readers through this strange, labyrinthic mass medium. Borges should have lived to see this. Another detail: I have done a few commercial assignments, writing reviews for Internet publications. Unlike in the printed press, there are no constraints concerning length here. Readers are free to stop reading, but a few kilobytes extra do not create an editorial problem.

And we are still waiting for greater bandwidth to become available, are we not? "Greater bandwidth NOW!" -- how's that for a slogan?

* * *

The design of this web site is changing these days, not least because of enhancements within HTML (and increased HTML literacy on my part). Browsing on the site, you will notice variations in the page layout: some of them are temporary, while others are permanent (to the extent that anything can be permanent these days). The changes are partly meant to enliven the site, but the main ambition is to make it more readable. The Web is still a textual medium, and as far as I'm concerned, Java applets are a nuisance. Perhaps the main problem is speed, we shall see.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen


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