Putting the body into “cyberspace”: imagining the experience of being an active agent in a wired world
This thesis was written as part of the requirements for a Master of Arts in Mass Communication through the Centre for Mass Communications Research at the University of Leicester, completed in 2000.
This thesis imagines the experience of a wired world (an expansion and development of existing technology) using the concept of embodiment developed by Hayles, Bourdieu’s theory of habitus, and Debray’s emphasis on historically situating the agent.
It develops new terminology to more accurate explain operations in that world, including that of “commissioners” (formerly surfers) who bring into being a unique paratext on each encounter with technology.
It concludes that the wired world will situate each commissioner at the centre of an extensive network of communities and will feature an explosion in the number of texts, including those generated between machines and humans.
This thesis is dedicated to my late mother, Joy Bennett, and to the members of CEL (the Copy-editing e-mail List) who as a community made a significant contribution to its contents.
This thesis attempts to examine the existing “wired world” and imagine the further development of already evident technological and cultural trends in developed nations, along existing directions. It assumes a continuation of development in those countries (which may be joined at that level of development by others) in current directions.
It is not an attempt to predict the future. It is acknowledged that many events might prevent developments proceeding in this way, from a major environmental crisis to widespread social breakdown.
Furthermore this thesis does not directly address national, racial, gender or other disparities in access to the technological, social and educational resources that might prevent large numbers of humans from joining these trends. These disparities are important, but they are not its subject.
This thesis is being written in October 2000, at a time when digital technology is, in the words of Houston (2000, paragraph 4), “in the infinite nanosecond after the Big Bang, an inflationary moment when all that matter spreads itself out. Now things start to coalesce.” In the last decade of the twentieth century, computers, the Internet, mobile telephones and many other forms of digital technology progressed from being expensive toys for enthusiasts to essential tools for everyday work and social and cultural life. Yet it appears that over the next decade the possibilities for development of these technologies, and accompanying changes to education, work, social and community life, far exceed what has already occurred.Over the next couple of years broadband networks will be rolled out in most industrialised countries. These will allow the transmission of vastly greater quantities of data, far faster, while developments in computing promise far great ability to manipulate, manage and control that data and mobile communications will ensure all of those facilities are available everywhere, every time.
Discussion of the cultural changes that will inevitably accompany the period after the ‘Big Bang’ have, however, been sadly limited. Most serious academic work has yet to even begin to catch up with the developments of the past decade, and given the time-frame of academic publishing, potential workers in the field face the serious problem that their work is patently out-of-date even before it is published. What work has been done has been heavily focused on issues of identities in “cyberspace”, an issue that I would suggest is profoundly overworked. More popular work has been distinguished by a sharp division into two camps – digiphobes and digiphiles, convinced either that society as we know it will be destroyed by the technological developments, or will be transformed into an endless utopia. Both conclusions are usually achieved without any real theoretical or material basis of analysis.
This work attempts to address this lack by tackling one element of the likely new world, the relationship between texts and the individuals who create and use them. Since texts will, this thesis argues, become an increasingly central, indeed all-pervasive, part of the “wired world”, this is one of the central relationships within it. In an attempt to avoid the many perils of futurology , it imagines what is essentially today’s world, although one in which existing technologies are more sophisticated and more widely utilised.
The relationship will be explored through three primary theoretical perspectives. The study draws the non-essentialised body into “cyberspace” through N. Katherine Hayles’ concept of embodiment and uses Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus to consider how the embodied agent will act in the new wired world. Elements of Regis Debray’s mediology concerned with the essentially material, historical nature of all texts will be used to examine the way in which even the “flickering signifier” is profoundly grounded in historical and material circumstance.
The thesis also draws on the work of Steven Johnson, who provides a refreshingly critical perspective as a commentator on the existing Internet structure. He says that many existing concepts and ideas do a “terrible injustice” to the realities of the Web (Johnson; 1997, 107). He rejects, as do I, the term surfing for navigating the Web, and argues that the hyperlink, not the fancy graphics or streaming video that obsess most commentators, is the key factor of the Web.
I situate myself within this work, not as a subject outside it looking at the “object” of the wired world, within which I am, of course, writing this sentence. I will therefore not sway away from the use of the personal pronoun, nor from the use on occasion of accounts of personal experiences where these inform my imaginative framework. My personal encounters with the wired world have largely been pleasurable and productive ones, and that I acknowledge inevitably has some impact on my conclusions. Such an acknowledgement does not, I believe, make this work less “objective” or less valuable, but situates the reader to enable her to read it more clearly.
The fact that we live now in only a partially wired world is illustrated by the material nature of this work: a thesis whose basic organisational and physical form that has changed little in the past century. Instead of hyperlinks indicating non-linear connections, I am forced to rely on far less user-friendly references and cross-references. Several trees will die for its production. I am, however, composing this work on a moderately advanced personal computer running Windows and Microsoft Word, which enables me to work on all of the chapters at once, which corrects my basic typing errors, and enables me to access the partially wired world of the Internet at the click of a mouse. This is an intermediate-stage product produced in intermediate-stage habitus.
The choice to “imagine” a wired world has been carefully made. The Cartesian legacy teaches a profound contempt for imagination, seeing it as far inferior to the formal elements of cognition. I would follow Margolis (1987, xxxix), however, in saying that imagination exist “in the no-man’s-land between the clearly demarcated territories of reason and sensation”. This “extended Kantian view of imagination as a capacity for ordering mental representations ? makes it possible for us to conceptualize various structural aspects of our experience and to formulate propositional descriptions of them” (1987, xxix). Since this work, as will be outlined in Chapter 2, is seeking to escape from the errors induced by the Cartesian mind/body split, and the related subject/object or subjectivity/objectivity divisions, “imagination”, rather than analysis or description, provides an appropriate methodology.
Chapter 2: The Habitus of an Embodied Agent
This chapter aims to outline the theoretical basis for the rest of this thesis, outlining the key aspects of the work of N. Katherine Hayles, Pierre Bourdieu and Regis Debray that will be used to imagine the wired world. These three writers approach their social analysis from three entirely different directions. Hayles is a professor of English in the United States, with advanced degrees in both that subject and chemistry. She considers issues of machine/human interfaces through a critical examination of information and cybernetic theory. Bourdieu’s complex philosophy has been developed out of, and still has a strong grounding in, sociology, and his intellectual lineage can be traced through Durkheim, Levi-Strauss and Wittgenstein (Cashmore and Rojek; 1999, 76). It has been described as a “subtle structuralism” (Margolis; 1999, 70). Debray has spent much of his life as professional revolutionary. His work still owes much to the historical materialism of Marx, yet he also adds an unexpected debt to McLuhan (Szeman; 1996).
The author against whom this text most often finds itself arrayed is Jean Baudrillard, in particular his claim that the world has entered a new order of reality, which he terms the “hyper-real”. He says that following a period in which constructed realities, Disneylands, became more “real” than that to which they referred, we have now entered a social life in which no reference back is possible, since the simulcra have replaced the real. We now have only simulcra or simulcra (Poster; 1995, 64). Through a stress on Baudrillard’s simulcra, Nichols suggests, for example, that the computer removes all reality, so that “a Grenadian and Libyan ‘threat’ appears on the videoscreens of America’s political leadership ? Ronny [President Reagan] pulls the trigger” (Nichols; 2000, 104). This is perhaps the most extreme position of disembodiment possible, since not only human bodies and tests lose their embodiment, but also all other aspects of the material world. Quite how any being breathes in this world is difficult to imagine.
Hayles (1999b, 202) acknowledges the usefulness of Bourdieu, who she says “illustrates how embodied knowledge can be structurally elaborate, conceptually coherent, and durably installed without ever having been cognitively recognized as such”. She uses the concept of “incorporating practice, an action that is encoded into bodily memory by repeated performances until it becomes habitual” (Hayles; 1999b, 198), that bears some resemblance to the concept of habitus. That concept lacks, however, the explanation of the impossibility of “the rule” contained within his concept of habitus, which I therefore prefer. There is otherwise no obvious dialogue between the three authors, yet from their very different points of approach they achieve similar understandings of the embodied agent, although only Hayles seriously attempts to situate that agent in the wired world.
(a) Restoring Embodiment
One defining aspect of Hayles’s work is her determination to resist what she describes as a “defining characteristic of the present cultural moment ? the belief that information can circulate unchanged among different material substrate” (1999b, 1). This she terms as disembodiment, which is exercised both on human bodies and on the “bodies”, the material substrate, of texts. Human embodiment, as a contrast to a focus on human bodies, recognises the heterogenous nature of human experience, splitting along “lines of class, gender, race, and privilege” (1999b, 195).
Hayles (1999b, 1) points back to the 1950s, when cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener suggested that it was theoretically possible to telegraph a human being. She says this privileging of information over material instantiation is one characteristic of a cultural belief in the “posthuman”. Other include that the body is the original prosthesis – so additions and changes is merely a continuation of an operation begun at birth; and, that the human can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines (1999b, 2-3). The erasure of embodiment, Hayles believes is also seen in the traditional liberal humanist subject (1999b, 4). Her aim is to “keep disembodiment from being rewritten, one again, into prevailing concepts of subjectivity” (1999b, 5). She imagines, instead of the disembodied posthuman, an embracing of technologies that also “recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival” (1999b, 5).
Hayles traces in some detail the historical development of disembodied information theories after the Second World War. She explains how Shannon’s theory defined information “as a probability function with no dimensions, no materiality and no necessary connection with meaning ? a pattern, not a presence”. A competing theory that linked information to a change in the receiver’s mindset was rejected because it required that psychological states be quantifiable and measurable – something barely imaginable even now (1999b, 18). Shannon himself cautioned that his theory was meant to apply only in certain technical situations, not to communications in general, but the cultural environment “was ripe for theories that reified information into a free-floating, decontextualized, quantifiable entity that could serve as the master key unlocking secrets of life and death” (1999b, 19). Hayles describes how postmodern critical theory has supported this understanding of the body as information. She suggests that future generations will be stupefied by the “postmodern orthodoxy that the body is primarily, if not entirely, a linguistic and discursive construct” (1999b, 192). She points to Baudrillard as one of the chief offenders, but notes that some authors have gones even further than he, noting particularly Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, who write of “second-order simulcra” and “floating body parts” heralding the disappearance of the body into a changing display of signs (1999b, 192).
Seeking to restore embodiment to its proper place in cultural understanding, Hayles begins from Elizabeth Grosz’s observation that “there is no body as such: there are only bodies — male or female, black, brown, white, large or small” (1999b, 196). The concept of embodiment thus seeks to avoid normative concepts. In contrast, “embodiment is contextual, enmeshed within the specifics of place, time, physiology, and culture, which together compose enactment ? whereas the body is an idealized form that gestures towards a Platonic reality, embodiment is the specific instantiation generated from the noise of difference.” (1999b, 196) While the situations of the different instantiations are not the topic of this book, understanding of this point is important to avoid essentialising embodiment in the same way in which the body has been essentialised.
Hayles (1999b, 288) adds to this concept of embodiment a profound criticism of the liberal humanist subject, grounded in a vision of conscious control as the essence of human identity. She says that “mastery through the exercise of autonomous will is merely the story consciousness tells itself to explain results that actually come about through chaotic dynamics and emergent structures.” Hayles applauds Edwin Hutchin’s interpretation of John Searle’s Chinese room , which concluded that the room in fact does know Chinese, and that modern humans are capable of more sophisticated cognition than cavemen because they have constructed smarter environments. Hayles says “every day we participate in systems whose total cognitive capacity exceeds our individual knowledge” (1999b, 289).
Understanding the genuine nature of the subject is, Hayles says, vital, to avoid a panic, evident in both theoretical and fictional works, that “if the boundaries are breached at all, there will be nothing to stop the self’s complete dissolution” (1999b, 290). Hayles uses the term “posthuman” to describe the embodied, socially embedded subject. This term, I would however suggest, contains within it some (unintended by Hayles) unhelpful implications of disembodiment – of “vritual” bodies. The term subject, with its long connections with the liberal project, is similarly unhelpful. Instead I wish to refer throughout this work to “embodied agents”, referring to a being that is created from, learns from, and acts upon, its environment (Hayles; 1999b, 236). This is also the term used by Bourdieu (1990, 37) as a term for the actor “playing the game”. The agent is seen “not primarily as the locus of representations, but as engaged in practices, as a being who acts in and on a world” (Taylor; 1999, 33).
(b) The habitus of embodiment
The key concept that Bourdieu provides for this study is given in the following passage: “The conditionings associated with a particular class of conditions of existence produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposing to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them.” (Bourdieu; 1990, 53) In the increasingly wired world, the conditions of existence are changing, and since we have some awareness of the nature and direction of that change, we can imagine the way in which the structuring structures will also change.
The concept of habitus is so valuable because it insists on a social ground for meaning, language and all signifiers and signifieds (Shusterman; 1999, 4-5; 16-17); and because Bourdieu recognises how “our bodily know-how and the way we act and move can encode components of our understanding of self and world” (Taylor; 1999, 34) Bringing these together, commenting on Bourdieu, Taylor suggests that he explains a couple dancing. “Every apt, coordinated gesture has a certain flow. When this is lost ? one falls into confusion” (1999; 35). That is an apt analogy the operation of an embodied agent interacting in a wired world.
Bourdieu highlights the importance of the sense of the “feel for the game [a sporting metaphor] ? the almost miraculous encounter between the habitus and a field, between incorporated history and an objectified history, which makes possible the near-perfect anticipation of the future inscribed in all concrete configurations on the pitch or board” (1990, 66). Belief, he says, is not a state of mind, or the adherence to a set of doctrines, but a state of the body. “Practical sense, social necessity turned into nature, converted into motor schemes and body automatism, is what causes practices ? to be sensible, that is, informed by a common sense. It is because agents never know completely what they are doing that why they do has more sense than they know” (1990, 69). Bourdieu stresses that while there is nothing wrong with an observer developing models of “the game”, they are “fake and dangerous as soon as they are treated as the real principles of practices” (1990, 11). Gestures or actions are made, he says, not to express something, but because they make sense at the time (1990, 37).
Habitus effectively explains why GOFAI could never work. Traditional artificial intelligence relies on reducing all social action to rules, but habitus explains that this is an entirely inadequate explanation of the real social environment. Hutchins (1997, 364), without explicitly using the concept of habitus, takes this further, in explaining that computers were modelled on one particular “highly elaborated and culturally specific world of human activity [habitus]: that of formal systems”. Attempts to make “intelligent” computers on this model (or indeed to attempt to explain human actions by reference to computer models) fall down because it is only a relatively small and limited part (and a culturally specific one) of the many human habitus.
The concept of habitus is also useful for the consideration of the wired world in understanding the persistence of practices that appear ill-adapted to current circumstances. Groups tend to maintain practices because “they are composed of individuals with durable dispositions that can outline the economic and social conditions in which they were produced” (Bourdieu; 1990, 62). Equally, objects may be adapted for a variety of purposes. Bourdieu (1990, 201) cites Laoust’s account of the use of the spoon among the Mtouggas as “an instrument ideally suited to the gesture indicating the desire to see rain fall. The opposite gesture ? is what the wife of a fqih does ? to ward off imminent rainfall”. New inventions may change the habitus, but the habitus also changes the inventions (and directs which will succeed or fail). One of the latest commercial developments is an MP3 “wristwatch” (which records around an hour of music in computer format and allows its playback through small earplugs linked to the watch by a cord). The parallels to the wildly successful Song Walkman are obvious. The question, however, that habitus might prompt us to ask include: Is that cord and earplug likely to be considered uncool? Is the watch too heavy to be comfortable? Does it take too long to download? Is it too expensive compared to its competitors? How will it be promoted? The inherent usefulness of the technology, its “cleverness” or “innovativeness”, its “power”, are not what will determine its success or failure, but its ability to fit within, and change, existing habitus.
For Bourdieu, a collective habitus is constituted in things and minds (1990, 147). Coming from a different perspective, Debray shares a similar view. He suggests that it is useful to consider not to say “I have an environment”, but instead “I am my environment” (Debray; 1996, 111). Because this particular approach presents a danger of embodiment disappearing, however, I prefer Bourdieu’s.
(c) Historically situating the embodied agent
Debray maintains much of the traditional un-reflexive attitude of French academe to what he perceives as a dumbed-down “wired world”, offering a “prophecy of doom with an excessive grandiloquence” (Biro; 1996). In his criticism of semiotics and communications studies, and his attempt to establish the alternative of mediology, he offers however an important corrective to their key faults, arguing, more strongly and clearly than do Hayles or Bourdieu (although both would agree with his claim) that their study of texts has been ahistorical. Like Hayles, he is also determined to see that the material nature of texts is recognised. He sees the ultimate materiality of the message in the role of the physical materiality of Christ in the rise of Christianity: “The Word cannot transmit itself without becoming Flesh, and Flesh cannot be all love and glory; it is blood sweat and tears. Transmission is never seraphic because incarnate.” (1996, 5)
Debray (1996, 53) argues that all communication must be understood in a “historical continuum that had found its start in the Neolithic”. He sees the original Marathon runner as the carrier of the first “scoop” (and its first victim), and says studying television requires considering it in perspective “against the light surrounding the Byzantine icon” (1996, 12). He takes this determinedly historical perspective into consideration of the texts, and authors. The latter concept, he maintains, is very much historically situated, or at least standardised in, “industrial modernity”. ” ‘Author’ and ‘text’ are results and not givens.” (1996, 73)
Chapter 3: Embodying the Wired World
Many writers hope that in a wired world, “the body” will disappear. The most extreme proponent of the anti-“meat” school is Hans Moravec. In his Mind Children, he proposes the transplantation of individual human “minds” into a computer, removing “our biggest handicap, the limited and fixed intelligence of the human brain” (1988, 109). And it need not just be one sort of body. He continues: “if you found life on a neutron star and wished to make a field trip, you might devise a way to build a robot there of neutron stuff, then transmit your mind to it. Since nuclear reactions are about a million times quicker than chemical ones, the neutron-you might be able to think a million times faster. (114)” Moravec says that what he is arguing that “pattern-identity” is what makes an individual , not “dull body-identity” (117). He says that his essence is “the pattern and the process going on in my head and body, not the machinery supporting that process. ? The rest is mere jelly. ” This is a pure example of the body as information school.
Less extreme is a writer such as Sobchack, working from a Marxist, phenomenological framework. In approach that is representatives of many approaches from critical leftist theory epitomised by Baudrillard, she writes that media technologies together: “? form an encompassing electronic representational system whose various forms ‘interface’ to constitute an alternative and absolute world that uniquely incorporates the spectator/user in a spatially decentred, weakly temporalized, and quasi-disembodied state. ?the electronic is phenomenologically experienced not as a discrete, intentional and bodily centred projection in space, but rather as simultaneous, dispersed, and insubstantial transmission across a network.” (Sobchack; 2000, 149)
These ideas have penetrated far beyond academe. Thus a letter writer to the Guardian newspaper in 1995 said: “It used to be impossible to relate to anyone without your body coming into it somewhere, even if just as your handwriting or your voice. But in these dimensions [the Internet], you can relate to people in all sorts of ways just by using your mind”. (Quoted in Burkitt; 1999, 134) The penetration has reached the highest levels of the US Government. A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age, which was co-authored by Alvin Toffler and sponsored by Newt Gingrich, then the Speaker of the House of Representatives said: “The central event of the 20th century is the overthrow of matter.” (Quoted in Hayles; 1999b, 18)
(a) Rescuing Embodiment From the “Natural”
That selection of examples illustrates the reach of anti-body, anti-embodiment, themes have reached. With the help of Hayles I want to demand notice of what Bynum (1999, 267) calls “the stuffedness of the body”. To re-embody the wired world, it is necessary first, however, to consider the body in the pre-wired world, something we falsely think of as “natural”, as part of “the often taken for granted dichotomy between nature and culture” (Mascia-Lees and Sharpe; 1992, 3). The “Western” body approves certain shapes for each gender, hair in some places and not in others for each gender, and privileges certain body shapes and colours as the “ideal”. Those who seek to shape their own body as a prosthesis in the current Western environment (for example by body-building and plastic surgery) usually seek to accentuate that utterly cultured model (Balsamo; 2000, 496).
It is only through change that we are coming to recognise the important role of the body in many actions that had been considered “natural”. For many, writing is now a difficult, unnatural process: “a kind of drudgery pen and paper [are] well suited for jotting down a telephone number, but not much beyond that” (Johnson; 1997, 140). Writing once seemed “natural”, but its creation through the cultivation of individual and societies’ habitus can now be more clearly recognised. So, perhaps, reading a book. Using those books that adapt existing forms most easily to cyberspace – dictionaries, encyclopedias and the like – already seems clumsy when I am forced to revert to the codex.
Lanier suggests that virtual reality makes it difficult to define the boundary of the body (Featherstone; 2000, 612). This claim, however, ignores the reality of the embodied agent. Certainly proprioceptive coherence may mean that agents come to perceive their bodies’ boundaries to be in different places to where their current, but still “non-natural” boundaries are envisaged. An implanted heart valve, be it from a pig or made of plastic, is certainly within the boundaries of the body – something that very quickly becomes a harmonious part of the body, even if maintained by drugs. So to a hip joint. Beyond that, this writerly body already feels that a keyboard is in some sense within its boundaries, something that can be used as an extension of their fingers considerably more easily than a pen. It is not hard to imagine a courier who relies on goggles that provide directions on which way to turn feeling them to be part of her body. Bodies’ boundaries have, however, always been constructed by practice and habitus.
(b) Sensation in a Wired World
Kroker and Kroker (2000, 98) claim that the “virtual class” is forcing “a wholesale abandonment of the body, to dump sensuous experience into the trashbin, substituting instead a disembodied world of empty data flows”. This does not, however, correspond to experiences in our current partially wired world, in which pornography sites are among the most commonly visited and sought. Estimates suggest that the online porn business is worth around $US1 billion annually (Batista, 2000, para 5). While the Krokers might like to dismiss this as nasty, commercial data flows, it would certainly seem to be associated with sensation. Even simple text messages can also carry a charge of sensation, as Griscom (2000), says, in defending the value of the e-mail love letter, in comparison with more image-rich possibilities. Suggestions that the involvement of “technologies” (from the quill pen to the violin) in sensation is something new can be rebutted by long accounts of social and technical involvement in human sexuality (Slaton, 2000). Again, there is no such thing as “natural” sensation (or sex).
As the e-mail love letter makes clear, sensation is as much a matter of (if any distinction can be made at all) mind as body. Sismondo (1997, paragraph 11) is one of the few writers who embodies what he calls virtual realities. He says that they are: “ideally tactile environments, full of sensual experiences. More centrally, the technology makes use of body knowledge, our ability to respond physically to situations, to communicate using more than our vocal chords or the tips of our fingers. VR treats us as fully embodied creatures and then stimulates and trains our bodies in ways that are appropriate to the virtual environment.”
We need only look at the origin of much of our present “wired” technology to see the embodiment and relation to sensation. The first webcam was invented by two Cambridge scientists who wanted to find out if their coffee-pot was full without walking down the stairs (Balkin; 2000, paragraph 3) – definitely an embodied usage: sensation — thirst. I order my groceries at home on the Internet because I prefer the sensation of sitting in my study to that of walking around the supermarket exposed to screaming children. Patrons of a backpacker’s Internet café anywhere in Asia are enjoying the sensation of returning, briefly, to a wired environment that feels something like home.
(c) Embracing Death
Reading the work of those who like to imagine themselves as information, “pattern-identity”, rather than as living bodies, what stands out is the desperate desire for transcendence arising from a fear of death. Moravec (1988, 4) says “too many hard-earned aspects of our mental existence simply die with us” and suggests under his scheme “if the machine you inhabit is fatally clobbered, the tape can be read into a blank computer, resulting in another you” (1998, 112). He looks for “schemes that would allow an entity to restructure itself so as to function indefinitely even as its universe ended” (1998, 101).
We are, however, mortal bodies, and so we will remain. It is not possible to extract a “pattern-identity” from our bodies, because it is inextricably contained in our “body-identity”. Habitus cannot arise in a bodiless vacuum. This is more than a harmless fantasy: there is a serious danger in this view of technology – particularly “virtual reality” — as transcendent. As Haraway (who however ironically has promoted the cyborg – still situated within a body – as an escape, particularly for females) said: “it produces death through the fear of it ? [disavowing] ? we really do die, we really do wound each other, that the earth is really finite” (Quoted in Land; 1995, 209). The “meat” is where we live, and where we will die.
Chapter 4: Texts in a Wired World
(a) What is a text?
In considering the position and nature of texts in the wired world, I will start with a definition. It is astonishing that reading so much of the work of semiotics and cultural studies the concept “text” is so widely used, yet so rarely explicitly defined. Two main forms of definition would appear to be useful: the material and the functional.
McKenzie (1986; 5) begins with a material definition. He says: “I define ‘texts’ to include verbal, visual, oral and numeric data, in the form of maps, prints, and music, of archives of recorded sound, of films, videos, and any computer-stored information, everything from epigraphy to the latest forms of discography.” He stresses, however, the limits of such material definitions, because of the real nature of “texts”. Looking back to the Latin origins of the word – textere, to weave – he says “the primary sense is one which defines a process of material construction. It creates an object, but it is not peculiar to any one substance or form.”
The material definition is useful in its provision of a reminder that a text can take any form. This leaves us, however, with a problem of deciding again what IS a text. McKenzie (1985, 35) again offers us a very useful definition: “What constitutes a text is not the presence of linguistic elements but the act of construction. As Roland Barthes says of texts as the materials of myth, all that is required is that they ‘presuppose a signifying consciousness’.” He illustrates how the material nature of text can vary, noting the dangers of cultural limitations that may prevent us from seeing a text right under our nose. The example he gives is of the Arunta Aboriginal people of Australia, for whom every feature of the landscape has a textural function, telling the story and supporting “in detail the characterization, descriptive content, physical action, and the symbolic import of a narration” (1998, 31-32). This text has played an important role in the achievement of land rights, rejecting the Western inclination to consider the landscape as something merely “natural”.
Fiske, approaching texts from a “traditional” cultural studies perspective, also sees the need for a signifying consciousness, to provide the signifiers in the text. He adds, however, the need for a recipient, one to apply signifieds to the signifiers (1987, 84). This, however, leaves us in something of the position of the riddle of the noise made in a forest by a falling tree when there is no being to hear it. It would suggest that once the signifiers have been used, whether or not signifieds are added is irrelevant in consideration of the definition of a text.
In an alternative approaching arriving at a similar conclusion, Searle (1984, 30) says that a computer message, a series of strings of zeros and ones, has no semantic content, while minds “are semantical, in the sense that they have more than a formal structure, they have a content”. I would not go so far as John McCarthy, the inventor of the term “artificial intelligence” who argues that the simplest machines are semantical: “My thermostat has three beliefs — it’s too hot in here, it’s too cold in here, and it’s just right in here.” (Quoted in Searle; 1984, 30). What he is in effect arguing for here, is what Guattari (1995; 36) calls the a-signifiying semiotics (? equations and plans which enunciate the machine and make it act in a diagrammatic capacity? )” When humans communicate with computers, however, whether the computer or the human originates the “conversation”, there is a semantic content. So, I will argue, that a text is created whenever semantic content is transmitted and received, or where signifieds are applied to signifiers.
Signifiers and Signifieds
Although I quarrel with the views of what Hayles describes as the “poststructuralist turn” (2000, paragraph 6) in its rejection of the materiality of texts (and often also of bodies), some aspects of their studies are worth of recovery. In particular, it must not be forgotten that while signifiers carry guides to signifieds, and can put limits on the extremes of signifieds, they do not have a direct relationship. Audiences apply signifieds of their choice. Alternatively expressed, different “decoders” read the codes of a text differently.
The opposite view is that often adopted by cyber-critics, who see the wired world as providing Aldous Huxley’s soma. Direct descendants of the hypodermic needle media theories, they believe that authors of lexias and lexia-groups will control the minds of their commissioners through their texts. Stein is typical: “When immersive games, interactive television and on-line entertainment come into their own, they will be incredibly powerful (And in the service of those who don’t mind having people controlled.) Anyone with eight- or nine-year-old children at home who watches them play in front of a game screen for half the day can attest to the attractions ? If the name of the game is control, then these technologies are really good for it.” (Stein; 1999, 205) This approach fails, however, to understand that the signifieds, the meanings, that those eight or nine-year-olds will put on those games – those texts-are not under the control of the “authors” (or the salespeople), but the children themselves. Some suggest that any computer text is inherently imbued with “the logocentric geometry of regulated time and space” (Bolter; 1991, 278). Yet again, this approach is ignoring the role of the decoder, the audience-member, the commissioner, in allocating a signified to the signifier.
The nature of digital text is such that it is composed of what has been called the “flickering signifier” (Hayles; 1999b, 47). Landow has described a similar concept in the “fluid text”. He focuses on the ease with which it can be “refigured, reformatted, rewritten”, while Hayles at a point at which I depart somewhat from her understandings, says that the transient nature evokes “the suspicion that all contexts, like all texts, are electronically mediated constructions” (1999b, 47). Since virtually all books now published in the Western world have at some time existed in the form of flickering signifiers, Hayles (1999b, 43) suggests that they must bear marks of that form. She points to If on a winter’s night a traveller, a text that explicitly bears the imprint “as if the text remembers the moment when it was nothing but electronic polarities on a disk”.
I would argue, however, that the flickering signifier is historically not new. Its chemical formulae may be different, but in the caves in which paintings of hunted animals were dimly lit by flaring torches, humans tens of thousands of years ago experienced the flickering signifier. A newspaper tomorrow is “fish ‘n’ chip paper”, a protester’s banner may be destroyed by police seconds after it is finished, but those texts existed in material form, just as does the lexia that sits on a computer screen, even if it is only there for a few seconds. The information is in a material base, as it must be to exist.
Paratexts and Their Commissioners
Many writers are stuck in the old, technology-specific idea of a text as a fixed, unvarying object, indeed feel that it provides a sense of stability whose removal can be seriously threatening. We are attached to what Florian Brady (1999, 146) describes as the “fetish character” of a bound book. Literary theories are full of “unrecognized assumptions specific to print” (Hayles; 2000). This acceptance of unrecognised assumptions is the mistake made by Nichols (2000, 96), who argues that “in cybernetic systems, the concept of ‘text’ itself undergoes substantial slippage. Although a textual element can still be isolated, computer-based systems are primarily interactive rather than one-way, open-ended rather than fixed. ? the mode is fundamentally interactive, or dialogic”. It is not the concept that is slipping, but the technology that is changing from one form to another. How then, would he imagine the performance of a traditional epic poem in a crowded marketplace in a society with predominantly oral traditions?
Because the concept of text is so grounded in old technology, we need, as was discussed in Chapter One, new terms. Lexias, for individual bodies of texts, and lexia groups, provide us with a basic framework for delimiting elements of texts in the wired world, but what of a number of lexias commissioned, brought together by a user in a particular session? The answer is to be found in a concept developed by G?rard Genette, who refers to the paratext — “the materials and discourses that surround the narrative object” (Lunenfeld; 1999, 14). He was writing in a barely wired world, and applied the term to books, saying the a paratext included not only the “text”, but the cover design, the packaging, publicity materials, etc. Lunenfeld extends this concept for the digital age, saying that packaging can no longer be distinguished from the “text” when it is all streams of data in the same medium. Additionally, he says, the backstory, how for say a movie, it is promoted by the stars, by merchandising (which the movie itself also promotes), but competitions and soundtracks, may be more important – at least to the producers’ economic interests, than the movie itself (1999, 15).
The only “centre” in a hypertext is the commissioner, which for these purposes might also be considered as a point of view, since it is situated for the period of commissioning within the text. The commissioner creates, enables, sets up the circumstances for the paratext to exist. In that way she is like a Renaissance art patron. She is, certainly, more active than that patron in the process of actually creating the work (although one can well imagine a Medici leaning over a great artist’s shoulder and saying: “couldn’t you have a bit more red in that corner”, even if that was not the most common practice of the habitus). The analogy is not a perfect one, but it gives us a starting point to consider the modern commissioner.
We can begin by considering a commissioning session today, as one person sitting down at their computer to “surf” the Net. In our partially wired world, the full possibilities of the commissioning of paratexts is as yet far from developed. Technological constraints still limit the ways in which the commissioner can choose her path, or the framework in which it occurs, or the appearance of the lexias she encounters. As for the content of lexias, or the lexia-groups, beyond a small avant-garde, there have been few attempts to develop modes and styles suited to the new technological environment. This is not surprising. As Harper (1998; 47) wrote: “Radio news started with announcers reading newspaper articles over the airwaves. Television started by doing radio plays.” In this period fractionally after the Big Bang, almost all Internet sites are “doing radio plays”.
Nevertheless, if we consider what I can do on my computer tonight, we can begin to see how each commissioning session can create a unique paratext. The desktop of a computer is part of the paratext and even now commissioner can choose to alter it at any time (Mitchell; 1999, 126). I can choose to have a toolbar sitting on the page, with a variety of programs to which I could flick with one click of the mouse. I might encounter an unfamiliar word and flick to the dictionary, or if I were of an artistic bent I might have a draw programme sitting reading to record my impressions of the preceding lexias. Either would form part of the paratext I am commissioning. I can choose, quite simply, to have the text at a variety of sizes; I can choose to remove all advertising from my paratext (Blinn; undated); I can choose to have graphics switched on, or not; I can choose to contribute to a huge variety of chat groups, newsgroups and similar structures on which I will see my contribution appear instantaneously; I can choose instead to only read one entire newspaper, or I can use a search engine to see multiple perspectives on a particular news item; I could continue. All of those choices will shape the single paratext that I will commission in one “surfing” session.
The reality of the wired world, then, will be the existence of the possibility of an infinite number of paratexts (any commissioner could add any lexia on any subject in any way she chose). What will be created is a finite, but extremely large, number of actual paratexts, that will be generated in any interaction involving the wired world.
How then, can Kroker and Weinstein (2000, 122) say: “What appears as ’empowerment’ is a trompe l’oeil, a seduction, an entrapment in a Baudrillardian loop in which the Net elicits information from the ‘user’ and gives it back in what the selectors say is an appropriate form for that user”? I have in one session, in the existing limited wired world, what is effectively an infinite number of possibilities arrayed before me to commission a paratext. If I do not like what I find on say a particular news topic, then as a commissioner of the paratext I have the opportunity to add my own lexia to it (and others’ paratexts) through the many interactive forums available.
The chief technological limit at present is in the limited ability to record that paratext. The technology we now have developed almost accidentally, certainly not as a serious attempt to exploit the possibilities of hypertext (Mitchell; 1999, 116). The “back” button or the “history” section in programs such as Explorer or Netscape provide only a clumsy tool for recording one such commissioning, and the nature of the Net means that as links fall out or are changed, the text created is unrecoverable. What has been posited, and surely will be developed, was, curiously enough, first sketched out in 1945 by Vannevar Bush, who proposed – before electronic computers were invented – what he called the memex, which was based on the “tying together” of items of information (lexias) from a wide variety of sources (Bush; 1945). The mechanical suggestions he provides are quaint today, but what he was proposing was in effect the modern Internet (although in individual form). He saw it as producing “trails” through a long succession of data sources, trails that would, in my terms, be produced by the commissioner and would be thereafter available for the commissioner to retrace at her convenience. His commissioner could annotate those “trails” as desired and, as Johnson (1997, 122) points out, the “system grows smarter – or at least more associative – the more you use it”. The ability for commissioners to create their own, pervasive, links, is one of the frontiers of the developing wired world that has yet to be effective breached.
The power of every individual to generate paratexts can be situated historically in a general trend that has given individual “readers” greater power over their texts. This has been a result of social, economic and technological changes which have provided a transitional stage on the way to commissioning. One hundred years ago, a book was a precious item (writing paper and other supplies were also not readily available to everyone). Books have become relatively far cheaper and more available, and we have been able to appropriate them in new and increasingly efficient ways. When I first went to university, photocopying was readily available and relatively cheap, but it required the use of bags and bags of small coins. Now, a single card, which can be recharged with any cash denomination (or a credit card) is generally available. Consider too the technology of the highlighter pen, that grants a reader greater power to mark, in effect to alter by use of emphasis, the text, than earlier technologies. In researching this thesis, I have also been able to use “Stick-it” notes, another rather basic form of technology, but one that enables me to create my own systems of cross-referencing on “fixed” book texts (without creating permanent marks, so that it can also be used on library books). The trends towards commissioning began even before the hyperlink was developed.
Those who suggest that imbuing hypertext with some possibility in fundamental change in the relations between the commissioner and the text is “hard” technological determinism” can be referred to Murray, commenting on her (book) anthology about the lives of Victorian women: “Frustrated by the constraints of producing a single book with a single pattern of organisation, I filled my collection with multiple cross-references, encouraging the reader to jump from one topic to another. I simply wanted the reader to understand Mary Taylor’s exhilaration in opening a dry goods store in New Zealand in the context of her friendship with Charlotte Bronte as well as in relation to the range of Victorian opinion on women’s work.” (Murray, 1997, 4) The need and desire for hypertext has always existing, it was just that the technology of the book was only able to fulfill it by the inferior mechanism of referencing and cross-referencing.
We have arrived at something like the much-vaunted post-structuralist “death of the author”, but, as Landow (1999, 156) says, not through “the absence of someone writing, contributing, or changing a text that we encounter, but rather the absence of someone with full control or ownership of any particular text”. Authors are not “dead”, they will go on composing lexias, but it is commissioners who will put those lexias together into paratexts.
The Habitus of Paratexts
Lanham (1993, 4) is only one of many authors who find what he describes as “pixeled print” intrusive. At the risk of being ageist, it seems that here is a question of generation. So too with Gibson (1996, 49), who discusses possible changes in academic habitus with the coming of a wired world. He says that books are closely linked to academic’s personal identity: “Such a lot can be invested in the tattered copy of Brown’s Freud and the Post-Freudians, or the compact, comforting and densely annotated copy of Hart’s Organic Chemistry … could the shiny CD-ROM ever have the same emotional charge or homely feel? If it does this will be a signal that hypermedia will have become integrated into cultural transmission in a deep and significant way.” Whilst the CD-Rom has largely had its day, I would suggest that a similar wired record, in whatever form it will be saved, will of course have a similar charge.
Lunenfeld suggests that the “habitus” of exploration is the “meander”, but says that this is a “distracted” form of motion. This, I would suggest, is a culturally specific, modernist conclusion. The commissioner might not be driving towards some predetermined point like Roald Amundsen for the pole, but at the base of commissioning is interest, not distraction. The purposeful wandering of the derive is a potentially useful model (discussed in Chapter Five).
Habitus are already developing in terms of a “sense of the game” that allows individuals to act appropriately in on-line communities. Most quickly learn (or are told) what it is appropriate (or not) to particular communities, with penalties including flaming or banning very clear (Balsamo; 1995, 229). If communities become too much of a free-for-all, often a small group will move elsewhere, creating a community with stricter rules, while the original takes on a different form.
There are also very clear habitus evident in design. Even with a new computer program, or a new website, most experienced users will be able to find their way around quickly and easily. Basic operations such as saving files, moving files, clicking on hyperlinks, finding menus, have tended to evolve towards one habitus, rather than divurging in different communities, making it simple and easy to move across lexias, sites, programs and communities.
Deciding the boundaries, and shaping the relationship with the technologies that create the text, will be shaped by habitus. Friends of mine recently bought what is described as a “strawberry” Macintosh computer. They decided the “strawberry” label was “a bit prissy”, so they declared it to be rasberry-coloured, and named it “Ruby the Mac”. In choosing a Macintosh they were making certain social choices (as well as economic and technological ones), as was their decision to place the Macintosh in their living room, their most public space, while the household’s PC was relegated to their bedroom. Their “sense of the game”, the way their social inclinations are shaped, indicate that exhibiting a Macintosh is a good social choice, as is displaying a sense of irony in the selection of its name.
The Explosion of Text
I began this chapter with an exploration of the nature of text, because I want to consider the possibility that as the wired world develops, the number of texts will multiple enormously. The beginnings of this move are already clear. Once upon a time, when the house ran low on food, I drove to the supermarket and wandered around it picking up items. Now, I shop on the Internet, generating each month a detailed shopping list, complete with prices. On the store website is a list of my “favourites”. I also buy clothes, furniture and books on the Net, in each case generating not only the purchase texts, but also a near-flood of communicatory emails. The massive potential volume, from pre-existing and developing habitus, is already clear.
It is possible, however, to imagine much further, to a exponential expansion of texts that involve much more of the human lived environment. In 1998, Kevin Warwick had a computer chip embedded in his arm. It communicated with the office in his building, activating a greeting message when he walked through the door, switching lights on and off appropriately, and other similar practical actions (Warwick, 1999). Implants might not be the future choice, but it is not hard to imagine perhaps a wrist-watch-like device that might perform similar functions. Voice-activated technology is also spreading, with complex systems planned for vehicles, telephone ordering and even ovens (Bailey; 2000, 51). All of these activities will generate huge numbers of texts.
Some might argue that talking to your door is an action, not a text. Certainly, if we imagine your embodied self now pushing the door open, that is an action, not a text. I would say, however, that once that door is part of the wired world, in your choice to open it signifiers are being generated and signifieds applied to them. Whether the application of signifieds is made by humans or non-humans is not relevant to the status of the text. The processes that will certainly be recorded (so that the machines can “learn from them”, and if necessary their signifieds be adjusted), thus all of the requirements for “a text” will have been met.
Chapter 5: Putting Bodies and Texts Together
Technology often develops before its producers, or even its purchasers, understand how it will be used, and further developed, by the societies and times in which it is situated. Its habitus develop over time. When an engineer proposed that Intel produce a personal computer, he was stumped by the question “what were people going to do with these personal computers?” His answer was to store cooking recipes (Johnson; 1997, 148). Living in an early, partially, wired world we are perhaps little better situated. Still, having considered the nature and reach of texts in the wired world, and the characteristics of the embodied agents that will commission them, we can begin to imagine the resulting interactions and constructions — the new habitus that will develop.
(a) The Embodied Agent Self
Bolter and Grusin (1999, 232) suggest two models of the self are possible in the wired world. They are virtual reality enthusiasts, and such one model as that of “a point of view immersed in an apparently seamless visual environment”. I reject the possibility of widespread “virtual reality” and would suggest that point of view has been available ever since the oral narrative was invented. I do, however, support their second model of what they call “the hypermedia self ? a network of affiliations which are constantly shifting”. Its logic is that of “being interrelated or connected”. The result will be, as Bolter and Grusin (1999; 251) suggest: “The key is to experience the world as others do, not to retire from the distractions of the world to discover oneself as a thinking agent…. It does not learn by scientific study in a subject-object relationship, but by “immersion” which produces empathy and identification.” This is the connected embodied agent, embedded in a wide variety of cultural environments, and thinking and learning in a manner somewhat different to that of today – developing new habitus probably more networked, less “individualised”, in thought and relations, than today’s.
Landow (1997, 221) suggests that in a wired world “exploratory” or “linear” learning my dominate, with “implicit” learning dominant, so that study involves not a direct drive towards a topic, but a meander around it that provides a far more contextual, networked understanding. Such a change is likely to cause hysteria in many traditional education circles. They might be referred to the historicised nature of learning and thinking. These too have habitus that vary in time, place, society and body. As Paul Saenger pointed out in “fourteenth-century universities, private silent reading [was] forbidden” for fear that students would, if left to themselves, misconstrue the meanings of texts (Quoted in 1997, 268). From a different perspective Braunstein (1999) makes a similar proposal, that lateral thinking will replace, or at least supplant, the “vertical” thinking that has dominated in the West in recent centuries. He argues that this is essential to manage the wealth of knowledge generated in even our partially wired world (see page 55).
(b) Navigating the Wired World
The term commissioning, I have suggested, explains the relationship between individuals and texts, but what about the relationships between an individual and those she meets in the wired world, or with the communities in which she participates? The streets of the great cities of the industrial revolution Johnson (1997, 62) says, had “an improvised, organic quality”, with streets developing according to their users’ needs and desires “created by the countless daily acts of individuals following their routines”. It seems likely that the wired world will develop in similar ways, with communities and individuals evolves habitus that meet their needs. One technique, developed for those industrial cities, which offers a model of how that might be explored is that of the derive. It arose from the Situational International movement and involved transient passages through “varied ambiences” with “playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects” (Knabb; 1981, 50). It is, its proponents are at pains to point out, not a stroll, but a purposeful, if carefully little-directed, exploration. One of its discoveries was that there are effective distances between points in the city that have nothing to do with the ground distance, (Knabb; 1981, 53) a pre-imagination of the nature of the wired world. The derive bears some resemblances to the claim of McLuhan (1984, xxii) that in a world of electronic media citizens would be replaced by “nomads”.
Jones (1997) suggests that the hugely popular game/hypertext Myst established, within the closed, limited world of a single CD-Rom, something very like a derive. He says: “Like stumbling into someone else’s dreamscape or stepping into a quiet surrealist painting . . . this game encourages the suspension of disbelief in one’s freedom to navigate. The paths fork and you must choose, but there is no default motion sweeping you along: you stand still until you click. No one dies in this game ? the user tends to relax into the rhythm of aimless wandering, a flâ®¥ur without the crowd, strolling, alert and yet dreaming.” (1997, paragraph 12)
As the theory of the derive anticipates, and as habitus implies, knowledge of the artificially (inaccurately) imagined “rules” of the wired world can be a positive disadvantage. As Ronnett said: “It took scientists a decade to see what was obvious to every kid the first time he touched a video game – the power of interactive computer graphics.” (Quoted in Rheingold; 1991, 24) And there were, of course, those PCs to store recipes. The sense of the game is held often best by fiction writers, who can “play” with the setting in a way that goes against academic cultures and understandings. Among those who have most effectively explored the wired world are a group collectively labelled “cyberpunk”, including Gibson, Pat Cadigan, Bruce Sterling, Lewis Shiner and Greg Bear (Featherstone and Burrows; 1995, 7).
(c) The Economic Wired World
The term commissioner, from its Renaissance antecedents, makes certain suggestions about the relationship between an embodied agent and the texts that she commissions. This might seem to be at odds with the fact that “information is not a materially conserved quality” (Hayles; 1999a, 78). The key question, she says, is access, not ownership. This is true, certainly, of the lexias of the wired world, but what will be individual, in some sense “owned” by its commissioner, is the pathways navigated through it. Assuming that in the future commissioners will be able to store and transfer their recorded navigations, then they will “own” them.
What that “ownership” means will depend on other social and political relations. Imagining such paths in the current environment, then most individuals would be “alienated”, in the Marxist sense of the term, from many of their paths, because they would be constructed in “work” time and would therefore be the property of their employer. It would seem that the natural inclination, the tendency, promoted by the technology of the wired world, is for these paths to be personally owned, for they will be personal objects – many of the links being “jumps” following personal logic and intuition that will be meaningful only to an individual agent who has a particular knowledge set and understandings.
What then of the “authors” of lexias? I discussed in chapter 4 how while individual commissioners will produce texts, lexias will still have authors as writers. What will be lacking is ownership (copyright) as we now see it. No one will have full control of any particular text, or the ability to say “Leave my text alone!”(Landow; 1999, 156). In this area, it would be tending into futurology to make any predictions about the economy of the wired world because of the many potential directions and forces.
(d) Insufficient data: (Not)understanding the Wired World
Above, I have been able to imagine some aspects of the wired world. Many areas, however, are difficult or impossible to imagine due to a lack of critical research into the cultural forms of the technology. One obstacle lies in the fact that, as Latour (1996, viii) puts it “people who are interested in the souls of machines are severely punished by being isolated in their own separate world, the world of engineers, technicians and technocrats”. He argues that machines are cultural objects worthy of study, and has made such a study, of an automated train system, “Aramis”. At work here is another result of the traditional Cartesian division of material/ideal. Since the ideal is privileged, studying the “material” is poorly regarded.
Latour’s Aramis study indicates another obstacle to studying the wired world, in its rare deviance from traditional models. His study takes a narrative form traditionally associated with fiction, and blends fiction and non-fiction into what the author describes as “scientifiction”: “a young engineer is describing his research project and his sociotechnological initiation. His professor offers a running commentary. The (invisible) author adds verbatim accounts of real-life interviews along with genuine documents, gathered in a field study carried out from December 1987 to January 1989. Mysterious voices also chime in and out, drawing from time to time on the privileges of prosopopoeia, allowing Aramis to speak”. (1996, x) Yet the reality of academe, and of the corporate-funded study, mean such creativity and exploration are available to few. The traditional, linear narrative is still the only recognised form, alternatives might be acceptable for artists, but not those seeking to climb the academic greasy pole.
Even areas which it might be productively examined by traditional methods are curiously empty. Much ink has been spent on the issues of children in a wired world, yet little has been seriously academic and almost all is dragged down by an essentialist approach that mimics the broader utopia/dystopia frameworks. Thus “electronic media are seen to have a unique power to exploit children’s vulnerability, to destroy their innocence and to undermine their creativity” or “children are seen to possess a powerful form of ‘media literacy’, a spontaneous natural wisdom that informs their dealings with the media and which is somehow denied to adults”. (Buckingham; 1998, 557)
I find it difficult to imagine the development of the embodied agents in a wired world from early childhood, because although the exposure of children to wired technology, albeit in basic form, has been occurring for decades, there has been very little research into its impacts. Tantalising hints are provided by one valuable piece of work which seriously explores (albeit in a small and limited form) the issues which cry out to be addressed is that of Sherry Turkle. She begins from the theories of Jean Piaget, who “showed us the degree to which it is the business of childhood to take the objects in the world and use how they ‘work’ to construct theories – of space, time, number, causality, life, and mind” (Turkle; 1998, 317). Using this approach Turkle has observed and interviewed “hundreds” of children interacting with “computational objects”, including computer programs and robots. She found that when children encountered still quite simple computer games that “spoke, strategized and ‘won'”, the children asked questions about whether these machines had a psychology, did the machines know what they were doing? (Turkle; 1998, 318) The children Turkle studied invested the machines with a kind of consciousness, and thought that they were in some sense “alive”. Piaget, by contrasted, in the pre-wired age, found that children associated life with “moving of one’s own accord”, which later came to be refined to focus of the “life motions” of breathing and metabolism. (Turkle; 1998, 319) She argues that games and “toy” robots are “significant actors for provoking a new discourse about aliveness” (320).
Conclusion: Living in ‘Total Perspective’
Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed “hero” of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series is forced into the “Total Perspective Vortex … the most savage psychic torture a sentient being can undergo”(Adams, 1980; 51), designed to demonstrate the smallness of the individual in the universe: “The infinite suns, the infinite distance between them, and yourself an invisible dot on an invisible dot, infinitely small.” The first person on whom it was tried “saw in one instance the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it … the shock completely annihilated her brain” (1980; 62-64). The embodied agent in the wired world will be in a somewhat similar position to Zaphod, seeing themselves at the centre of a vast network of fellow humans (and machines) which can be commissioned (but not controlled) by the commissioner. The explosion of texts extends those connections across time, space, and the living/non-living barrier.
The negative approach to this situation is set out by Baudrillard, who suggests that each person sees themselves as an isolate, with perfect sovereignty over a machine that is their world (Wells; 1997, 257). Other critics suggest that hypertext produces an entirely self-centred “reader” who can “initiate endlessly self-satisfying circuits in which subjective desire itself becomes both process and product” (Wells; 1997, 250). “She or he mistakes the immediate actualization of desire as liberation (251).” Yet what they are ignoring, or are unable to see is the fundamentally connected nature of the wired world.
Some authors, have, however, seen this. “If cyberspace teaches us anything, it is that the worlds we conceive (the spaces we inhabit) are communal projects requiring ongoing communal responsibility” (Wertheim; 1999, 302). Turkle suggests that the Internet fosters the relations of the many to the many (Kember; 2000, 104). Heim (2000, 41) says that the wired world as a place where the dialectic exists “as the art of permanent exchange”. “Inside the little box are other people.” (Stone; 2000b, 167) So discovered David Bennahum (1998, 217), who in his autobiography with the subtitle “Growing Up in Cyberspace”, records how he concluded that his early years on very basic computers in school were cyberspace because of their collaborate element “all jacked in together”. ” The point was to play together. That was the key thing. Together.”
Gumpert and Drucker (1998, 423) are among many who see that in the last century, the home was transformed from “sanctuary to communications hub”. Yet along with many others, they fail to understand that “sanctuary” concept is specifically historically and cultural situated in that century, in some Western countries. The traditional Chinese shop-house, still thriving in many parts of Asia, sees what is by day a workspace translated into a living space at night (and frequently also a sleeping space, at least for the servants). Concepts of privacy and personal space are, even in the West, historically a recent development. Few have ever had the luxury of that “sanctuary”.
So to the concept of the private body, which some also feel is invaded by some aspects of the technology of the wired world, particularly webcams. Commentators are often horrified at “voyeuristic” sites on which text creators (usually young women) put their entire lives (clothed and naked, eating and sleeping) on display for all to see (McVeigh; 2000, 12). Yet again, they are failing to recognise the historically situated nature of their shock. In Britain, before about 1660, research has found that the human body was perceived as a public spectacle (Stone; 2000, 516). Instead, it came to be constituted in texts (books), such as Samuel Pepys’ diary. The wired world is still creating texts by which the body is displayed, it is just that the form is different.
The lack of authority figures, of “foundational, fundamental” truths in the wired world concern many, of all political and social persuasions (Dean; 1999, 1072). Yet spreading the power of authority, the power of believability, has, in other contexts been welcomed by many. As Dean notes, it is only recently, and not everywhere, that a women’s testimony has been trusted as much as a man’s (1999, 1074). In the wired world each commissioner is her own authority.
From the popular press, to serious commentators many also see the complexity of the data-rich wired world as a problem, even a critical one. “How will we cope with the information overload?” they lament (Brunn; 1998, 12). How will we make sense of the “mass of disconnected and unverified information that floods cyberspace” (Black; 1998, 11).Civin (1999, 488) sees this as “social saturation”, with individuals exposed to so many others that they cannot know them, or even themselves. Again, a historicizing perspective offers another view. In the past, humans, as collectives and individuals, suffers from an information shortage. Information had not been collected or developed, and that which had was often available only to a very small number limited by time, space, education, and habitus. In the wired world, there is a plenitude of information. Organising, marshalling, arranging – commissioning – it in the most effective ways will be a challenge, but a challenge that arises from wealth and possibility.
The inclination of the technology of the wired world is towards connection and community. That does not, of course mean, that the society that develops in, and develops, the wired world WILL take that direction. Technology can be twisted against its natural inclination by economic, political or social forces. As Page (1998, 88) says “it is a far cry from the ability to link all information to the willingness to do so.” The possibilities, at least, however, are there. Mitchell (1995, 24) says: “The network is the urban site before us, an invitation to design and construct the City of Bits (capital of the twenty-first century)”. Stein (1999, 203) calls for us to think of ourselves as ethical ancestors for the wired world, saying “it is up to us to take the technological base of our society and to build on top of it the structures we want to build.”
The wired world offers us the possibility of a connected, social habitus. It awaits our efforts to create it.
The Top Five
On the Internet today
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