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Critical review – ‘What Just Happened? a chronicle from the information frontier - Essay Example

This discussion will explore a number of key issues that Gleick raises in his book, ‘What Just Happened?”, that charts the decade of the nineties. As the book consists of individual essays, rather than a grand narrative, it represents a variety of different takes of technology and public consensus at different times. As Gleick acknowledges , this sometimes results in mistakes and oversights but overall, serves as an excellent spring board in exploring some of the wider issues.

This discussion will aim to place the events of the last decade within a cultural and chronological perspective and will question whether we are truly in the Information Age or whether still on the threshold. This will in many ways then, explore the postmodern era itself and to assess to what extent we are truly on the brink of something and if so what is it, and who does it affect. When we talk of The Information Age, we are discussing the Capitalist or First world. It is important to acknowledge the billions of people not on-line, who are to a large extent, unaffected by our ‘Information Age’.

“What Just Happened?” traces the telecommunication and global explosion that occurred in the capitalist world of the nineties. The birth of Internet technology had transformed the exterior: the work-place and also the interior of the individual; an individual who could connect to a world of instant access, information, freedom and diversity. Gleick describes the synergy of telephone and computer technology in 1992 as “conjoining to make something greater- a dyad” but questions whether we have truly reached the Information Age, pointing towards our still very unelectronic reliance on the document and use of paper. He asks whether people still frightened of too much information and why? Are we scared of too much money or too much happiness? Not necessarily, but what we are scared of it seems, is a loss of control.

As Gleick observes in the article Inescapably Connected “We are not alone. The network knows where we

are”. (GLEICK 2000:p282). He says that information is everywhere and as we know, not always as secure as we’d like. Cyber-terrorism, viruses, and credit-card fraud are a major concern and represent a threat to national security as well as to the individual. He calls this a “frightening intelligence built in to the electronic infrastructure that knows in an instant where you are, who you take calls/e-mails from, your credit rating, what kind of restaurants you like,”(GLEICK 2000:p 282). For convenience and innovation this may be a good thing, but do we need portable e-mail devices and pseudo artificial software that track us and predicts our movement. Gleick says these inventions are an invasion of our lives and privacy many people are not comfortable with phones or computer technology still. “We are still self-conscious about the unshackling of our phones and will use telephones as lifelines even more than in the past; will have to grapple with new questions of etiquette and social propriety”. (GLEICK 2000: p 62). Will the public use of cellular phone remain a sign of ostentation and antisocial rudeness?

This is the pressure of public speaking which many people wish to avoid and may be why many people refuse to leave answer phone messages or go outside to talk. Equally, this may be the reason why we will talk to a complete stranger intimately on-line but cannot bear the same in person and ultimately, why many prefer the electronic medium or even the written form? Not necessarily a lack of confidence in the person but in the verbal medium itself. Electronic communication is easier, it allows more time, removes the tension of proximity and risk of error. Consider the ‘Telephone transformed into almost anything” where Gleick describes the AT&T C.E.O who when his telephone rings grumbles “Why didn’t the caller use electronic mail instead. Voice is so retrograde, so intrusive. (GLEICK 2000: p27).

If this is the case, as society becomes even further fragmented then surely the spoken word may retreat even further. Text messaging has underlined this possibility as it seems, even more and more people are choosing to detach themselves from the pressure of public speaking. So is the information future out of control then not just as method of communication that isolates the user from real interaction but also as a commodity of late-capitalist ideology. In 1995 in Washington Unplugged, Gleick slates the charges being levied for access to information. He says that the Information age for the United States is worth billions and that most of it is locked away where you can’t get at it.

Therefore, with access to information, restricted in this way, one could question whether we are still in The Age of Paperwork rather than electronic Information, as the exclusion of the developing and Third World compound. For in this respect, whatever system we discuss, be it electronic or political, again we are always referring to the Western notion. It is possible to draw some striking comparisons between now and the Reformation of the 15th and 16th Century. In this way, as the decentralization of the printed press accelerated the pace of change within society, and seemed to empower the individual, so to does the Internet, appear to facilitate this function. When the Acceptable Use policy was dropped in 1994, allowing universal access to the previously academic and business network, it seemed the individual was like in the Reformation, given access to previously guarded knowledge.

However, just as with the printed press, it is important to recognize that again this environment is still controlled and is elitist. Before, it was education that allowed access to the knowledge and power within the printed word and if illiterate, this was denied. With electronic knowledge, as Gleick supports, this access has evolved within the capitalist framework so that finance=control rather than education. Most people can read and write, but not all can afford computers, modems and electronic subscriptions where knowledge has become a commodity. This is The Postmodern Condition that Lyotard coined in 1979 where he expressed his distaste over the mechanization of knowledge. This restructuring of how information is organized, and synthesized within society is only of benefit, if it can be accessed and is one of the reasons why the Internet is problematic. Lyotard sees knowledge as a, ” terrain for conflict between modernity and post modernity.” This is the result of the formation of late capitalist ideology that looks to individual progression and material gain, as the mechanisms that drive it.

So what is postmodernism and postmodern science itself? Postmodernism “stresses the relativity, instability and intermediacy of meaning,” (P180 Chaos and Entropy: Science as Culture) and favors a fragmented perspective. This is often a focus away from society and an analysis of the individual instead- this is a postmodern trait. Here the criticism and fear exhibited is of the ‘me generation’ that Tom Wolf coined in 1970 and the realization that it may be too late to change the world or system and ultimately, that only the individual can advance within a world they cannot change. “It abandons humanism, and although focusing on the individual, dismisses the idea of the self-governing and autonomous subject.” (Science as Culture p 192). Therefore man is not solely responsible for his actions and cannot be thought of within a rationalized method that is dependent on logic or reason.

Human imagination and freedom of expression is at risk by modernity and modern reasoning. It is in this way a repressive era. David Ray Griffin argues that “the continuation of modernity threatens the very survival of life on the planet” (GRIFFIN:Science as Culture p188). Postmodern social theorists reject this idea of modernity as an inventive and progressive era and instead see it as an age of mass-destruction and decay. Postmodernism, itself therefore, represents a “new historical period that has yet to be created”.

Pirogrine and Stengers argue postmodern theory strives “to reinterpret the universe as being constituted by forces of disorder, diversity and non-linearity. It sees’ nature, human beings and the relationship between human beings and nature as holistic” This is a theory that derives from holism- the idea that sometimes certain wholes can be thought of as greater or more significant than the sum of their parts. It emphasis on a modernity as an agent of cultural malaise requires a remodification of the deterministic universe itself. Therefore, the previously orderly and logical universe has become a fragmented one that can only be understood within a similarly displaced and fragmented theory.

The Internet is a good example of a post modern contradiction, within the appliance of science one could argue. It symbolizes the advanced and decaying modernized world one could argue (the effects of the social formation late-capitalism in the electronic age), whilst at the same time representing an optimism for the future where the fragmented world becomes one. It operates on precisely the same tenets as postmodern theory. As Gleick has observed, although built upon mechanisms of logic and reason, it is not linear and is a chaotic, self-evolving entity. There is no structure or ruling body within it. Time and space can be crossed almost instantaneously and cultural barriers negotiated with ease yet there is no set route throughout it and the ‘user’ is free to roam cyber space.

Modernity was the age of transportation and industrialization as a whole, where our notions of the world were redefined within a new spatial and temporal understanding. This was enabled by new technologies of vision to some extent, as well as new vehicles of transportation that redefined the relationship that man had with distance. In this first step, the world began to shrink. The age of post modernity therefore, it has been argued, represents an extension of this in an even more advanced guise. Here we are exploring the electronic frontiers of globalization and the virtual world of cyberspace and the world have shrunk even further.

But do we have an identity within it and particularly, do we have an equivalent cyber-identity that is truly of benefit to the individual? Or are we now slaves to an electronic system instead, immersed within a synthetic system that represses us, causes further fragmentation and enslaves us within a false reality. If this is designed to pacify and control us, then the Internet may be, to some extent, another example of an opiate for the masses? A illusion of a global community that is rooted in an isolated virtual experience where identity is also fragmented.

This can be seen within cyber space, as individual assume false identities, pseudonyms and multiple personalities. This schizophrenia may not be such a good thing in terms of suggesting we are all connected in a positive environment. The Internet itself is fragmented. It may be a wealth of information, but is arguably corrupted by the chaotic foundation it rests upon and therefore lacking any true organized power as Lyotard first implied.

In his book Virtual Culture, Steven Jones says, “The internet can be understood as another step in the evolution of the media of mass communication which, in the advent of the printing press and newspapers, first mixed together multiple realities in immediate fashion, giving the impression that multiple realities are of a single, time and space…The Internet is another in a line of modern technologies that undermine the traditional notions of civil society that require unity and shun multiplicity while giving the impression that they in fact re-create such a society. The Internet brings us together, but the best that we can do, overwhelmed by the vastness of all it seems to encompass, is to ask how to organize it, lest it disturb the fundamental idea of cultural order.”(JONES 1997: p25)

The Internet and science and technology as a whole, are ” proplasms’. They are forever mutating and changing shape. “it is an infrastructure that needs to be expanded and maintained and is not growing by design but by accretion. It resembles not a fat, linear highway but a protoplasmic organism, or colony of organisms. New bits are constantly floating along and adjoining themselves to the main mass and as they do the internet grows by another degree.(GLEICK 2000:p 4). What we see here is a living organism that is at risk then? Therefore, if a corrupted program were to integrate itself within this hive-like infrastructure, it may collapse.

It may one day threaten our existence as we grow to depend on it even more. Cyber-terrorism and Virus-infections risk the economic stability of the corporate world and the Y2K crisis, if nothing, affirmed the significance we place on our technology and how scared we are that it will decay or turn against us. We have recognized the threat of cyber-terrorism and equated it with Apocalypse to some extent. Is this why we have such invasive and ALIEN language for technology and the programs that it contains. This is a theme touched on by Gleick in ‘Chasing Bugs in the Electronic Village’ where he discusses the growth of Microsoft and de-bugging problems encountered. The words ‘BUG’ and ‘VIRUS’ are symbolic metaphors, Gleick proposes. But what do they represent? We have a notion that they are an invasion of the system, an electronic threat that at any time may attack your interface, as the language denotes. In this way we are reminded of our innate vulnerability within the cyber-world.

Consider the blocked message that appears on the Internet of my computer at home.

WARNING-YOU ARE BROADCASTING FROM AN UNPROTECTED SOURCE!!

I am at risk but from what? A virus that will disable the computers (my) assimilated knowledge or an invasion of my privacy? At the birth of the Internet it was reasonable to assume to mistakenly assume that it would be fairly easy to remain anonymous on the net. Time however has proved the opposite. We are reminded that we under surveillance when we are on-line, although inevitably some find a way to exploit it and avoid detection). But for most of us, the less gifted, our routes can be followed, our e-mails scrutinized and logged, our transactions and profiles observed. Gleick described his belief in the Internet as an “active, sentient creature” and I agree.

We are being watched and clearly if someone does commit a deviant crime on The Net they will be punished and the system that has been used for self-gratification, inevitably turns on the individual. This can be seen today within the worldwide ring of pedophilia that the Internet (OPERATION ORE) has exposed most recently. But even anonymity (if it can be achieved) on the Internet is a double-edged sword. It offers freedom from persecution and embarrassment and a idealized global democracy of sorts.

“Where everybody who has a keyboard, has a voice, and every voice carries far.” (GLEICK 2000: p252). On the other hand it also serves as a mask or veneer for criminal and anti-social behavior. These misuses of technology allow the potential for hoaxes, libel and fraud and are a force for deceit and confusion. What counters this then? If it is free speech then why has free speech has become unnamed speech. The issue of anonymity is of central importance then as it either a deviant or as is in many cases built upon insecurity and an inability to operate outside of an artificial medium. Gleick argues the use of a false identity and a mode of online address and behavior that signals a sense of “self-loathing” in the real world. The cyber-identity may not necessarily be an emancipative force.

So how does one interact within cyberspace or a virtual world? What is a virtual community? John Mided says in The Internet and The public sphere, that a, “A virtual community is a community of people who have never met, who may be hiding behind false identities, who meet in spaces that don’t exist in substance” Mided 2000: p70).

To some it is often a hermetic and isolated exploration of the imagined cyber-community. For Mided the internet is an excellent communicative tool but although it “offers something for everyone, it’s fragmented nature is not fertile ground for the unifying of divergent points of view.” He says it is a campaigning platform, a starting point but lacks any real consolidated power as, “political discussion exists in the form of discourses between people with set opinions” (Mided 2000:p 71). If used maliciously it becomes a weapon for the perversion of justice and can empower the deviant. How can we overcome this duplicity then? Gleick proposes that Internet providers request credit card details (This can be seen with A.O.L) and encourage ‘users’ to use real names for their public activity.

But deviant users would not subscribe if it were merely an alternative therefore it would have to be universal. This is problematic and again reverts back to the Post-modern condition where information is made a commodity and, in turn, undermines the global potential of the Internet as an educational tool. There are strong arguments that suggest the Net may even diminish certain freedoms. A recurring and quintessentially post-modern paranoia is our fear that the Internet can be used by Government to collate information that can be used to monitor and control us. “not the improved quality of dialogue, but an undermining of our privacy” (Mided 2000: p72). From Gleick’s western point of view, this is a typically American paranoia, infected with the intense fragmentation of the federal state system. This may be why Americans demand the Right to bear arms.

Towards the end of the Millennium the Internet and global electronic infrastructure itself was in jeopardy along with the financial stability of the world. We where under threat from the technology we had created but not in any aggressive way we were told-merely a oversight that a child could have spotted. The fear of the ‘Y2K’ Millennium Bug and ‘Doomsday’ crisis that encapsulated this period (although eventually exposed as mass-induced paranoia),was the personification of our deepest fears and the monster of science within perhaps it’s darkest. In Millennium Madness 1999 Gleick predicted the Y2K crisis would be a non-event and dismissed it with a fairly compact explanation- “That we always fret when confronted with these kind of round numbers.” This is something we will consider when drawing some central parallels between the and modern era and the past.

So for now that we know that we’ve made it past Doomsday and survived the threat of Armageddon. The relief is apparent, and the whole paranoia being exposed as precisely that, is to some extent, reassuring. But that does not detract from the ultimate reality then, what next? As the Western world mobilizes for War that will again, attack the Middle East we see history again reenacted. We have made it into The Third Millennium. Since the invention of mass communication we have clearly entered a new technological era. These can all be related to Aquarius. The Church has been displaced as a prime spiritual force for many countries.

This century brought the decline of Church power over most governments. They can only advise now. This is a decline in the force of Pisces and the Great Religions then. Since we are within a degree of a new age, are we sliding into the change gradually over a century? We are still at war, the world is still divided and tensions are escalating. This is an age of extreme fragmentation. Let us consider the social-political arena the present. The nuclear capability of the fragmented world has forced the super-powers to exist as agents of potential global oblivion. This has been compounded by a century of technological war where the destructive potential of science has been fully realised.

The threat of nuclear war and terror of Armageddon are now notions that we now live with as an accepted part of the modernized world. We reassure ourselves that these weapons of destruction are so terrible, that they cancel each other out, as they always have, but still we live with the fear that it could all go horribly wrong. This has been intensified further following Sept 11th and the rise of the Al-Queida. We are now faced with a recurring fear of terrorism that threatens to strike anywhere, amidst a religious war of fanaticism that believes the West should also be destroyed, but in the name of God.

We are now faced not with a self-contained nuclear threat of negation, but a chaotic and unpredictable global scenario where we could fall under chemical attack, suicide bombings, cyber-terrorism, amidst an unprecedented racial hatred. This division is a further terrifying trend as its shows an unprecedented split in humanity. If we are on the brink of something terrible (or wonderful) then can this time bomb be diffused in time? And if so, whose going to do it? Certainly not Bush, it seems. “You’re either with us or you’re a terrorist” he says. What the western system cannot assimilate it will destroy.

As Kellner and Best note in “The Postmodern adventure’2001

” a dangerous form of terrorism threatened the global economy and the Y2K problem pointed to the potential collapse of the networked society…At the same time a dangerously under qualified figurehead has assumed the presidency of the United States. Furthermore over development, overpopulation, rampant consumerism, ozone depletion, global warming, and rainforest destruction” had foretold a global crisis that threatened mass extinction of animals and ecological systems. ( Kellner & Best 2001:p3)

But do we always fret when confronted by these kind of round numbers as Gleick proposes. I would

say no as the regeneration and optimism of the Victorian period and ‘fin-de-seicle’ proved. Back then, we where on the threshold of a new era where science was trusted or revered. Now instead of the possibilities of science we are now faced with the persecution of science as it endeavors to explore increasingly abhorrent pursuits. Our faith in science has been stretched as it digs deeper and deeper into forbidden territory and fuels the devastation and decay around us. Today, it is quite common to see scientists proposing horrifying radical ideas: nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, cryonic suspension of the dead, downloading the contents of the brain etc. We already live, every day, through the means and possibilities of technological synthesis and ultimately fear may one day be consumed.

At the end of the twentieth century, and Second Millennium was easy to believe that we entering into a crisis that was entirely new. The growth of technology and science, combined with globalization, war and over-population can be seen to represent a crisis that we have attributed to the modern era. However, as Mike Jay notes in ‘1900- Fin-de-seicle-A reader 1999 PENGUIN ‘”we discover a parallel complex set of crises grouped under the term fin-de-seicle. Much of what we think of as new or modern crisis presents itself to us in similar form. The future of the human race, the apocalyptic possibilities opened up by science, crisis of faith, the multi-cultural global village.” (Jay 1999: p1-Intro). Our pre-millennium period was in many ways similar to the fin-de-seicle a hundred years ago but in many ways inverted.

Therefore the celebration of the new and optimism for the future that was crystallized at the turn of the 20th Century can be juxtaposed against the pessimism and rejection of the past in the next (still a hope for the future but a lot less assured). Jay argues the fin-de-seicle was in fact the true Millennium and that our modern day crisis are ” little more than the aftershocks of the fin-de-siecle amplified and diffused by an increasing overwhelming global media”. He underlines the most significant difference in that the core of the Millennium paranoia involved a “spectre of finality, of apocalypse- an imminent event or singularity that may spell doom.” (Jay 1999:p2-Intro).

To close, we may question whether we are truly immersed in a postmodern age and argue that instead we are within a pro-futura era. Therefore, we are still on the threshold of something yet to come, rather than an end. We may still be in the Age of Paperwork, as Gleick believes, and also on the verge of the real information frontier where true unity can be reached. From this we may surmise that only when information is pure knowledge, rather than a commodity or weapon, will it be free of suspicion and fear. As Gleick states “When someone offers you ten times the amount of information as you already have, and that makes you feel good, only then will we be in the Age of Information Transparency.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

BEST, S & KELLNER, D ‘The Postmodern Adventure-‘ 2001 ROUTLEDGE

BEST, S ‘Chaos and Atrophy-Metaphors in postmodern science’ (SCIENCE AS CULTURE JOURNAL)

CROOK, S ‘Post modernization-changes in advanced society’ 1992 SAGE

GLEICK, JAMES ‘What Just Happened?’ 2002 ABACUS

JAY, MIKE ‘1900-a FIN-DE-SEICLE-A reader1999 PENGUIN

JONES, S ‘Virtual Culture-Identity & communication in cyber society 1997 SAGE

LENGEL, l ‘Culture and Technology-Civic discourse for the Third Millennium 2000

SPRINGER, C ‘Psycho-cybernetics in the Nineties’ (ALIEN ZONEII) 1999 VERSUS

SPIEGEL, L ‘Close Encounters 1991 UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA

TANNO, D & GONZALEZ, A ‘Communication and Identity across cultures” 1998 SAGE