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Cyberwalden

by John M. Phelan

John M. Phelan, Ph. D., is Founding Director of the McGannon Communication Research Center and Professor of Communications and Media Studies, Fordham University, New York City.  He came to Fordham as Chairman of the Communications Department to redesign the curriculum when Marshall McLuhan was Professor of Communications there.  He is a media reform activist who works with many public interest groups.  Phelan's writings include:

Communication Control (ed.)  New York: Sheed & Ward, 1969.  Readings on the structures and motives of censorship from psychoanalysis to Chinese thought reform to the First Amendment.

Mediaworld:  Programming the Public.  A Continuum Book.  New York: Seabury, 1977.  Essays about the effect of modernization and industrialization on politics, leisure, art and religion through the media.

Disenchantment: Meaning and Morality in the Media.  New York; Hastings House, 1980.  Essays on censorship, ethinic programming, pornography, popular religious practices, media criticism, effects research, ritual and transmission models of communication.

Commercial Television Campaigns and the Public Interest.  New York: McGannon Communication Research, 1991.  Monograph on the genesis and ethos of public service campaigns; principles and case studies. Cyberwalden


Summary:

Cyberspace is a new field for old dreams. It is the latest meeting place for both doing things together and trying to figure out, as we never cease to do, where we really are. Where the word comes from will help us to understand where we might be going with it.

 

Norbert Wiener, the child prodigy and mathematical wizard who formulated the basis for the engineering of "feedback" into so many of the devices we associate with computer assisted living, from cruise control to the "smart house," gave his pathfinding book, The Human Use of Human Beings, the prescient subtitle of Cybernetics and Society

Wiener, who had wanted to become a medical doctor, found he was unable to properly slice sections for up-to-standard microscopic slides (an essential task for all medical students in those days). He could not do so not because he had unsteady hands, but because his vision was very poor. His eureka was to realize that his hand and eye formed a loop of control and adjustment; a feedback loop, he called it, realizing it was an essential component of all activity, because all activity is interactivity (Wiener 1954). Feedback then began to be consciously engineered into all sorts of devices and was used metaphorically in the social sciences and group psychology. But it is important to note that the essential note of feedback is one of control-effect. Hence the term Cybernetics. The Greek root, guber-, also forms the gov- in government. Cyber indicates control-effect through interactivity.

This is the essential note of cyberspace: people controlling devices through computers that give them the feeling of feedback as if the devices were parts of their own bodies. The defining characteristic of the later notion of virtual reality is not its visual verisimilitude, but its feedback and its acceptance of our manipulations. We can see a brilliantly realistic HDTV rendering of rainbow populated coral reefs, but we can have the illusion of swimming and catching fish inside the rather crude representations of much lower-bit renderings of Virtual Surfing. We just don’t witness it, we live in it. That’s what makes it more "real" than the admitted greater vividness of HDTV.

Projection of our own body parts into inanimate tools and devices is an essential human experience of feedback, since our senses always strive to be transparent. Anyone who drives knows that a sedan "feels" different from a hot sports car because it "responds" more sensitively to our control. The gears translate gas pedal pressure more immediately and delicately to engine rpm’s. Transparent tight feedback is a sign of control. The machine is part of us. So, too, in sports. The better the athlete, the less mental distance between her and racquet or golf club. The best athletes transparently project their intentions to the flying tennis or golf ball after they have lost any "real" contact with it. It is like breathing or walking for them. Likewise, great performers so project personality out from the stage that they devour the audience.

Once computers, through video screens, began to give real-time feedback to operators, this sense of feel, of self-projection, inevitably followed. That’s one of the main reasons we demand so much more speed from our chips than we need (for most of the programs actually used): the immediacy of the response makes it more transparent, more like a bit of ourselves, and thus greatly enhances our own interior neural net’s natural tendency to integrate with the machine. Anne McCaffrey, over twenty-five years ago, wrote of immense space ships that had handicapped and otherwise helpless human beings hard-wired into their central computer control so that the ships could be seen as either enormously bionic humans or wetware operated hardware (McCaffrey 1969).

This neural integration is getting tighter and tighter in cyberspace. Although most of the net is accessed today through a kind of super DOS-hell of maddeningly slow menu selections and arcane command strings and absurdly unmemorable E-mail addresses, three developments are changing it. First is the growth of friendly GUI (Graphic User Interfaces) started at Xerox Parc twenty years ago, used by Apple for the past decade, and now coming to the PC world through NT Windows™ and its successor, called for now Chicago. The exponential explosion of microchip speed and sophistication (Pentium™, Power PC™ and beyond) gives enough speed and power to enhance these GUI’s from sort of primitive kindergarten sketches to the more sophisticated graphics of full-motion video and superpaint toolbox stations. Finally, the building of the so-called Information Superhighway is providing sufficient bandwidth on most links to accommodate such heavy signal loads. Once the interface philosophy of America On Line , Mosaic and Pipeline is teamed up with the full access to the net denied on most commercial services and humanizes the nerdland of TCP/IP and other gateway software, the illusion of being plugged-in to some kind of world will be hard to resist.

These technologies then enable us to experience control ("cyber-") as a projection of self out of our center, from our wills, into something else. That something else, that field of activity, is space. It is real because it is independent of us but paradoxically more real because it also responds to us. It has dimensions that are real only because they can be probed. There is no perfect tee-shot without a green to go to.

The sense of projected bodily power onto a field, so readily grasped in sports, is thus naturally best and most easily translated into a game on a screen. From there it is a short reach to make the screen the world or environment for all action. This feature was one of the first to be exploited after video games — the adventure or story world in which the reader became a participant. The game player becomes the role player — but an active one whose moves, as in a game, will certainly affect the outcome of the story. And so the real-time responding screen becomes a field where one’s actions produce outcomes and further enhance the metaphor and the illusion of control through or in a space — cyberspace. The wedding of two old activities — game playing and vicarious living through fiction — transforms each. Fiction not only becomes interactive, it becomes collaborative, a kind of team sport.

The word cyberspace in its roots thus well describes any space that is a field for human effects through environmental interaction. But it has in fact been restricted to a certain type of human effect field — that of computer-mediated electronic tele-effects, most of them in the form of symbol exchange. "Cyberspace" is not unlike "technology" in that respect. Technology properly refers to any human organization of tool use, from chipping flints in the cave to cadcaming microchips in Silicon Valley. But it is almost always presumed to mean high technology of recent vintage. Also like "technology" , "cyberspace" evokes a shared space of common goals, for the human world requires both witness and collaboration, surveillance and competition.

Some years ago, commenting on the seminal work of Innis, McLuhan, Havelock, Ong and others, I suggested that television and radio in communicating through what Ong called Secondary Orality, had created a world of Secondary Tribalism (Phelan 1980). That is, observers and call-ins on broadcast material participated without really being present and had the illusion of social interaction while remaining alone and, in any true political sense, impotent. My point at the time was that what was being touted as a brave new world of possibilities was in many ways a reduction of social life and real political participation to a pale substitute. What was a public, I said in the seventies, was becoming an audience (Phelan 1977).

Subsequent studies have borne out this view (Abramson et al. 1988, Herman and Chomsky 1988, Entman 1989, Chomsky 1991, Dahlgren and Sparks 1991, Greider 1992, Barnet and Cavanagh 1994, Krugman 1994), From 1972 to 1992 there has been a steeply rising curve of money and time spent on political campaign media, especially television, and it has directly matched a descending curve of actual political participation (Phelan 1992). Granted the hopeful presence of PeaceNet, EcoNet, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the alleged role of the Internet in getting news out of Iraq, Iran, China, Russia and Mexico during recent crises, there is overwhelmingly greater evidence of big players and governments gaining net control the old fashioned way: by buying it and licensing it. Governments have more direct methods of control: the Clinton Administration has proposed the Clipper chip — a pre-installed opening for the US Feds to tap all communications, however encrypted. The Saudis, more traditionally, have already outlawed all private satellite downlinks and are putting their oceans of cash into a totally government controlled Wired Islam.

This dramatic conflict of empowerment hope in the face of disenfranchising reality is being played again, it seems, by telecomputed MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons [= fantasies]/Dimensions) and MUSES (Multi-User Simulated Environments.) Imaginatively, the Markle Foundation has funded Maxis to develop SimHealth as a device to educate the masses about the complexities of national healthcare policy; let’s hope it helps. But we already have the dispiriting paradox of our real inner cities and suburbs sinking into a Grimpen Mire (the grim foggy bog haunted by the Baskervilles’ hound) of actual ungovernability, as more and more bright people score brilliantly on SimCity. If real politics has degenerated into image management, who needs to bother with the real thing?

So we see the paradox of cyberspace, which enhances the illusion of images as reality because we can move and change the images and thus are deluded into thinking we are effective in the real world (Phelan 1984, 1988).

 Cybercells

In his trademark bizarre irony, Franz Kafka once wrote a letter to his betrothed imploring her to give up such obsessive correspondence with him, referring to a previous request in his last letter sent two hours earlier (Kafka 1987). I note that the ever-resourceful cyberworld has an on-line self-help usergroup for those who feel they are addicted to being on-line.

So a few fall a bit too deeply into the well, as one pioneering gathering place of disembodied scripts substituting for living presences is called. It affords not only a shared place of imagined story, as in MUDs, but an ongoing real-time conversation with a large number of globally scattered participants (IRC — Interactive Relay Chat).

What accounts for the stunning popularity of going on-line?

There is the magic of mysterious connection with the enchanted distant — something felt by youngsters in the 1920’s (like young Richard Feynman in Brooklyn) who manipulated the old crystal sets under the blankets when they were supposed to be asleep, pulling in signals from ships at sea and from dance bands in Cleveland. There is the desperate need for contact among the marooned, like ham radio operators in snowbound Alaska or isolated islanders in the Pacific. Some of those obsessively hooked by Electropolis, as it has been called, are undoubtedly of this stripe. But there are not enough socially uneasy adolescents or cut-off adults to account for the wild popularity of Internetting on Usenet, IRC, MUDs and other variants.

Not ignoring that over one-fourth of all American households have but a single occupant (not a misprint!), and taking due account that more and more people flit from one workplace to another since there are far fewer long-term employments, I think a catalytic ingredient in the on-line explosion is the growing number of adults who, either in an office or increasingly at home, work in front of a monitor screen all day. Like it or not, it is their workplace: a relentlessly no-nonsense workplace with no water cooler, no stair landings, no snack room, no commuting buddies in car pools, trains, or even elevators.

Just as those glued to their television sets for six or seven hours a night reasonably prefer sets with PIP (picture in picture) which let one see the action of more than one channel at once, to enhance surfing (at the loss of coherence, if you value that), so, too, do workers chained to computer monitors for eight or more hours a day naturally prefer to have a large screen with 16 million possible shades and hues of color, with a number of programs opened at once. This affords the equivalent of a room with a view, a corner office, lots of windows to look through with all sorts of action going on. If one can wave to friends out the window, even talk to them and get answers back, so much the better. That the window can see as far as Japan or Tahiti is a thrilling plus. Distance apart, cyberspace is a humanizing device for creating a kind of ersatz office/pub/common room/public square area for those deprived, rather cruelly, of one or more versions of the real thing. There are friendly conversations in bars and then there are those who observe scripted conversations at Cheers. If you can’t get to the former, you can at least, as it were, enter the set and talk back: CyberCheers.

A poignant note sounded by those engrossed in threading through cybertalk is how they are forced to use words to substitute for all the other physical cues of face-to-face conversations and IRL (in real life) settings — no mood music, no roaring sports fans, neither candlelight nor disco strobes. They thus have resorted to typographic signals like :—) (a smiley, look at it sideways). This is seen as an achievement and in a way of course it is. But it is stated in a context of reinventing the wheel. Shakespeare, who didn’t have special effects to create battle scenes or regal pageantry or mysterious moors to put on high-tech stages, instead put words in auditing ears, the listeners, the audience.

All creative writers are liberated as well as confined by words. Joyce managed to create an entire inner world as well as to evoke everyday Dublin only with words. Using words to create worlds is what literature does: it requires great skill, it has standards, it is richly varied, it is available without a connect fee, it can be taught; with great effort and talent you can learn to do it, or at least appreciate it. Like reading a musical score, reading literature requires not only education, but some sensitivity training, a developed sense of nuance. These powers must be brought to the keyboard. However long one’s days and nights in the blue glare of the screen, one cannot reach in and pull them out.

None of these rejections of thoughtless infomania and net-nuttiness is meant or felt to come from any Olympian height. Since the schools have imitated the old media in embracing marketing — reaching the most at the lowest cost for the highest possible price — one can see that young people, desperate for stimulation, gladly flee from the therapy-over-learning classroom to happily cruise on the Net, in the not unreasonable hope they might meet somebody more interesting.

I am on the Net and I have been using various parts of it for the last seven years. It is a remarkably efficient tool for tracking down bibliographic reference and vetted research citations (Knowledge Index™ is one of the best). When I can get an on-the-spot report of a riot in The [Johannesberg] Star over the net, it sure does beat driving two hours to the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale to get a day-old copy of the paper at best. But, like Samuel Florman, who fears that "flights through cyberspace, however energizing they may be for the imagination, may weaken the objective rationality needed to do good engineering", I agree with Alan Cromer that the formal linear thinking needed to do science "goes against the grain of traditional human thinking, which is associative and subjective" (Florman 1994).

Not just science, but literary and other studies, assuredly associative and serendipitous, are also largely linear. Literature is linear. We are led down a path by a master, a wizard, a sorcerer. He leads us to a wider world than we might ever know otherwise and we are permanently changed. One used to hear that Vietnam was still awaiting its novelist: meaning that the tangled confused hypertext of millions of disparate defeats and small victories and lies and photo-ops and press conferences make no emotional sense until some Tolstoy can lead us through the emotional and factual jungle to a deeper truth.

In this broader cultural context, cyberspace can in some ways be a step backwards. True, it enables us to do some things better than we can do in libraries; it can substitute for a laboratory if we don’t have one; it can get us to resources we might not otherwise find. But it is no substitute for guided linear thinking, for friendship, for travel, for learning the craft of writing or the equally daunting task of critical reading of demanding texts. Although cyberspace can be a place to go and get things to use, a place to ask questions and give answers, it is not a world of primary experience.

From this perspective, the tendency of some observers to reify an immense collection of unevenly useful databases and switched telecommunications links into a world where one "navigates" suggests a return to an earlier worldview long associated with primary orality and its well attested affinity for religion.

 

Back To The Future

 Over the centuries there has been a basic human desire for some kind of invisible mental or spiritual atmosphere which connects in some mystic way all the minds and hearts of mankind. Although often allied with religion (Christianity’s "Mystical Body"), this yearning goes back at least as far as the Pre-Socratics and their preoccupation with the One and the Many. For the medieval schoolmen mining the classic philosophers (not the Bible), there was the Agent Intellect, that part of the mind which enabled it to apprehend essences. A power within each individual mind, it nevertheless existed by sharing in one Great Agent Intellect, that was a kind of animating soul of the world. Hegel, much later, spoke of the Geist, not only of the Zeit but of the Welt (Kaufmann 1966, Olson 1992). In post-war France and later the rest of Europe and America, Teilhard de Chardin brought these ideas back for a while by resurrecting the Greek notion of nous (the conceiving and communicating mind — opposed to pneuma, the animating spirit) and speaking of the global "noosphere" (Teilhard 1959). In more recent years we have the newly fashionable "Gaia hypothesis" that the planet earth has a kind of intrinsic ecosystem-soul that keeps it in balance.

More than a decade after Teilhard’s phrase "everything that rises must converge" had been on English-speaking lips, the debut of Telstar, the first of a shining silver constellation of communications satellites, established a quotidian engineering footing of sorts for the grand mystic vision.

Further developments in the real world of affairs increasingly bolstered this originally airy notion of "convergence." The space program and the stunning pictures of earth, at first grainy black-and-white shadows of the great shapes familiar from maps, gave further impetus to the idea of convergence, of one world.

In less exalted terms, international trade and marketing abetted a growing trend toward a common popular culture of advertising, film, blockbuster books, and top tunes. The World’s Fairs in Brussels, New York, Osaka, Seattle, marching with the development of mass jet travel the world over, accelerated the internationalization of leisure pursuits and fashion through the sixties and seventies. Finally, the explosion to satellite communications in the eighties matched in the most recent years with fiberoptic switching systems and computer processing of cash, words, images, and data — the internetting of global consciousness — has swept up most human endeavors from local names and habitations into the global context of international trademarks, common credit cards, shared diets, world class athletics, and intercontinental rock concert tours.

Nowhere is this more true than in the spectacularly converging field of communications technologies, communications corporations, software standards and their correlative hardware open architectures.

In technology, we have phones that show pictures, computers that listen, keyboards that paint. We have books on tape and on disc, movies zipping along not only close to the speed of light but encoded in the form of light. Not only do Japanese manufacturers of tv sets and vcr’s own rock stars and movie vaults, but Apple and IBM have collaborated with Motorola in creating a new generation of microchip. Microsoft, still firmly on the desktop, is moving into the cable boxes atop tv’s.

Mainframes, long identified with monolithic, isolated and hierarchical megacorporations, have given way to PC’s, which in turn have formed local area networks, patched into wide area networks, using netware newly rendered interchangeable. The new arrangements have forced smart work on both management and labor. Editors have access to little more information than lights up the screens of the rest of the newsroom. The shopfloors of Toyota and Chrysler alike bristle with interfaces demanding decisions, once reserved for supervisors, from line workers.

In fact, the ubiquity of by now well established world pop culture, world finance, world trade, world tourism into one headless network has made the very idea of convergence so commonplace that we cannot see clearly the microstitching in the seemingly seamless garment. Like a Mandlebrot set, the picture of the whole diverges from the tiny iterations of detail but yet depends on them. If we miss the trees, we will be lost in the forest.

So a paradoxical merging of quite old and hoary concepts with modern industrial developments have informed the current enthusiasms and misconceptions about cyberspace. (Defined by Gibson with unconscious irony as "consensual hallucination." ) These influences are nowhere more evident than in the tendency of many otherwise hardheaded writers to describe cyberspace as "non-physical."

Everyone is aware that without computers, silicon, copper, plastic, fossil fuel for energy production, and many other humbly tangible physical things, the net could not be constituted nor even exist. But many forget that those magnetic or photonic ons-and-offs are physical, just as the electromagnetic wave forms of analog broadcasting are physical, although it must be granted their physicality is tenuous relative to the colossal freight of meaning they incrementally embody.

So deeming the content of Cyberspace "non-physical" presumably is thought to indicate that messages, designs, commands; in short, language itself and the entire symbol world, are meaningless without the interpretations of minds "plugged in" to the net. But in this sense, of course, all human action is "non-physical" from sex and singing to tea parties and rock concerts. Flesh, sound waves, tea sets, and megaboom-boxes are all just substrates that permit cultural and symbolic nets to have somewhere to land. But somehow many take typing on a screen as less material than whispering in a lover’s ear.

There is an irony here in that at the same time many take the headless mass of interconnected computer-neurons as some sort of world-soul and personify "it," many scientists (Crick 1994) and philosophers (Dennett 1992) forthrightly pronounce that there is no mind, no soul, only neurons within each individual. Neurons may be organized in the brain, but there is no Organization ordering the brain.

Are the positivist scientists out of sync with the latest intellectual fashion? Do all those formerly hard heads, once wired, go soft? Have the souls of Christianity and the tutelary spirits of wind, water and sacred grove once invoked by pagan Greece and Rome come back as software and information, which never diminish however often they are used?

Stay tuned.•

 

Bibliography

 

Abramson, Jeffry B., F. Christopher Arterton and Gary R. Orren (1988). The Electronic Commonwealth: The Impact of New Media Technologies on Democratic Politics. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Barnet, Richard J., and John Cavanagh (1994). Global Dreams: Imperial Corporations and the New World Order. New York: Simon & Shuster.

Chomsky, N. (1991). Deterring Democracy. London: Verso.

Crick, Francis (1994). The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. New York: Macmillan.

Dahlgren, Peter, and Colin Sparks (1991). Communication and Citizenship: Journalism and the Public Sphere. London: Routledge.

Dennett, Daniel (1992). Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little.

Entman, Robert M.  (1989). Democracy Without Citizens: Media and the Decay of American Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Florman, Samuel C. (1994). The Humane Engineer. Technology Review 97/3. (p. 65).

Greider, William (1992). Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy. New York: Simon & Shuster.

Herman, Edward S., and Noam Chomsky. (1988). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon.

Kafka, Franz (1987). Letters to Felice Bauer. (Eds.: Erich Heller and Jürgen Born.) New York: Schocken.

Kaufmann, Walter (1966). Hegel: Reinterpretation, texts and commentary. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Krugman, Paul (1994). Peddling Prosperity: Economic Sense and Nonsense in an Age of Diminished Expectations. New York: W.W. Norton.

McCaffrey, Anne (1969). The Ship That Sang. New York: Walker.

Olson, A.M. (1992). Hegel and the Spirit: Philosophy as Pneumatology. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Phelan, John M. (1987). Apartheid Media: Disinformation and Dissent in South Africa. Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill & Co.

______________ (1977). Mediaworld: Programming the Public. New York: Continuum Books.

______________ (1980). Disenchantment: Meaning and Morality in the Media. New York: Hastings House.

______________ (1984). Surfaces in the Mediaworld of Political Fashion. Media Development 31/4. (pp. 12-13).

______________ (1988). Communing in Isolation. Critical Studies in Mass Communication 5. (pp. 347-51).

______________ (1992). Media. Dictionary of Theology and Society. (Eds. Paul A.B. Clarke and Andrew Linzey.) London: Routledge.

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre (1959). The Phenomenon of Man. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Wiener, Norbert (1954). The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

 


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