Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 248 | Marzo 2002



Cyberculture: Challenges and Unknowns

How much are the new technologies changing our way of working, thinking and feeling? What politics and what ethics arise out of cyberculture? The inequalities between "info-poor" and "info-rich" are creating ever-widening gaps. One way to go would be to comprehend and share.

Manuel G. Guerra

Like it or not, we are immersed in a revolution whose outcome is virtually impossible to foresee. The main instigator of all this change is a new technology that, with enormous flexibility, pulls together all the specific technologies that in turn comprise all forms of human communication: oral, written and audiovisual.

Interacting when and for as long as they choose, people are executing this conjunction of texts, images and sounds called "hypertext" over an open, affordable network with a planetary reach. By so doing, they are determining culture, understood as "information transmitted as social learning," that sum of cognitive elements, beliefs, norms and values of a given society. And that gives one pause.

Reality, always virtual,
is undergoing a revolution

In May 1979, Daniel Bell laid out the issue with his typical candor: "Communication technology, for better or for worse, is here; there is no choice." Years later, Melvin Kranberg updated that thesis: "Technology is neither good nor bad nor even neutral; it is a force that penetrates to the very deepest part of life and of the mind." And in 1995, Neil Postman went them both one better in the following assessment: "The problem lies not in how to use the new technologies but rather how they use us."
The multimedia system, which links telephone, computer and television as well as the digital technology supporting it, is fascinating not only for its benefits but also for its autonomous capacity for growth and for the virtual reality constructed within it. Reality has always been virtual given that we human beings perceive through symbols, and communication is based, quite rightly, on the production and consumption of signs.

What, then, is so revolutionary about the new media? Let’s borrow Manuel Castells’ description: "It is a system in which reality itself—that is, people’s symbolic material existence—is captured completely, fully submerged into a scenario of virtual images, into the world of make-believe where appearances are not only on the screen through which the experience is communicated but actually become the experience. All messages of all kinds are closed within the medium, because it has become so encompassing, so diversified, so malleable that the multimedia text itself absorbs the whole set of human experience, past, present and future."
This cultural imaginaire* generated by the new media is displacing the symbolic power of the classic transmitters—traditions, political ideologies, values, customs. It is also transforming the two fundamental dimensions of human existence—space and time. Space becomes "fluidity" (it has no locality) and time can be programmed (it is not linear). How far will this revolution go and what effects will it have on social behavior? Alexander King, cofounder of the Club of Rome, responded to the first part of the question in 1992: "We are in the midst of a long and painful process that, one way or another, is leading to a global society whose probable structure cannot yet be imagined."
As for effects, W. Russell Neuman is perhaps right in concluding that researching what he calls the "modest and moderate" effects of the now classic mass media can help us get a proper perspective on the historical cycle of moral panic we may be feeling about the implications of the "new media." But even if this were just another such cycle, it would not be wise to lower one’s guard.

The changes that the information society is producing in the model of knowledge are so important that the cybernaut spirit harbors the belief that the cultural world must be conceived in two great eras: before and after Internet. This belief ignores the historical perspective that teaches us that knowledge is not static but represents a great effort to overcome prejudices, authoritarianism and even common sense, a perspective worthy of respect given the intrepid rise of the irrational.

The thing is to "communicate"

We can randomly mention some of the cultural transformations that this new technological model is bringing about. One of them is the globalization of the communicative act. "Communicate" is the slogan, and no modern society is without its information networks. The information society helps accelerate the globalization process in all spheres, constituting on the one hand a complex multicultural framework of coexistence for different sensibilities and ideologies that could well favor dialogue. On the other hand, however, it encourages that magma inherent in the notion that there is only one way to think, which standardizes not only ways of living and thinking but also, in the name of realism, responsibility and what is right. It requires adhesion while undertaking to paralyze, perturb or deactivate any sign of dissidence.

By putting information above any other phenomenon, the dominion of multimedia has become a strategic topic in all areas, including culture. The cultural order has been seriously altered by instantaneous data transmission; the digitalization of texts, images and sounds; the recourse to cable and satellites; the computerizing of so many sectors of production and services; and the connection to global networks. This is happening both through successful attempts by those involved in commerce to control the cultural model and through the slide towards that species of supra-ideology made up of the vulgar, the entertaining and the sensational. Above all, it is happening because the process is changing the moral nature of power, with the risk of it its being absorbed by the huge international consortiums that are grabbing up the web’s transmission, access and expansion systems. This brings with it the following corollary: the possible supplanting of general interests by individual models of coexistence. Should that become true, communication would become the dominion of a cultured segment—the "educated" and the wealthy—of the developed countries. The future form of culture would thus contain, in its earliest states, an elite with a structural advantage that would determine the shape of the emerging society.

Between the planetary concept of existence and the standardization a la americana shamelessly hawked by the new media, many are facing the cultural crisis disoriented and with a frankly worrying lack of identity, which frequently triggers defensive reactions smacking of tribalism. In this regard, Edgar Morin has brought the cultural crisis in Europe to our attention, together with the need to maintain cultural plurality as a way to move beyond this crisis.

How can we use freedom in
such an informational downpour?

The idea that communication will automatically bring about social harmony among subjects who will supposedly be freer, more autonomous and peaceful because they are interconnected fits the neoliberal narrative like a kid glove. This idea stimulates a culture of individual autonomy favored by cooperativist authorship, fruit of the hypertext.

According to the logic of Liberal principles, individuals, as active subjects enthroned by the use of the new technologies, stretch their freedom of action and of option. Freedom of action is expanded in the traffic of horizontal transmission (in which all are both transmitters and receivers), although it is shaped by intermediaries (operators who try to control not only the contents), servers (that permit access) and those who possess the search engines (that ensure navigation). Freedom of option is enlarged by the possibility of choosing among millions of informational alternatives, though it is not idle to speculate on how to constructively use such an deluge of information since human will and desire are not infinite and abundant information does not automatically produce better or even better-informed individuals.

Individualism in the "electronic household"

The confusion between freedom of expression and the principle of the free flow of information, trusting in people’s good sense to freely value or choose what they want through free competition when a cultural product’s only marks are earned through success or failure in the market has sparked strong debate between the ideologues of trade and those of cultural identity. In this regard, studies about types of multimedia software offered and consumed give an emphatic advantage to entertainment products over all others. Anyone want to guess why?
Perhaps a more complex demand for issues of political participation, education, consultative materials, etc., paired with real choice about content and greater transmission capacity could lead to a social stratification of multimedia expressions. Meanwhile, having established that home—the electronic one—and individualism are the critical features of the emerging culture’s lifestyle, Castells has described the socio-cultural model fostered by multimedia as follows: 1) An extended social and cultural differentiation that leads to a segmentation of users/spectators/readers/listeners; 2) A growing social stratification among users, with two populations: the inter-actors and the inter-acted upon; 3) The integration of all messages into a common cognitive model in which educational programs look like video games, news programs look like audiovisual spectaculars and trials look like soap operas; and 4) the capturing within the multimedia domain of the bulk of the cultural expressions in all their diversity.

The Web Generation:
Children weaned on bytes

A cable, a parabolic dish, a couple of complementary audiovisual terminals, Internet apologists say, are all we need to become active citizens in the most diverse spheres—as professionals, consumers, money managers, receivers of information, planners of leisure—in a vast community with diffuse borders, a social hierarchy not yet established and norms still to be set. With this, all that is missing is certain economic means and appropriate apprenticeship.

The web—or better, a flexible network of WWW sites—is pegged to be the nervous system of the new economy of knowledge through the computer. It offers everything and to everybody. But the Web Generation knows best how to move through this worldwide tangle. Don Tapscott says that the technological revolution started in search of a generation, not of a problem to solve: the generation of children weaned on bytes.

The description of this generation’s members by an optimistic authority like Tapscott is worth noting: curious, independent, intelligent, motivated, adaptable, with great self-love and a global orientation, who will perceive the smallest and most complex world, have different ideas than their parents about work and seek immediate results. A generation born into a learning-game identity, it will be able to learn more as a generation than any previous one, will try to protect the planet from racism, sexism and other unacceptable residue, will share the wealth it creates and will want power in all spheres of economic and political life.

Unlike McLuhan’s galaxy, the information society technologically and culturally incorporates interactivity and, thanks to technology, communication acquires a hypertextual slant that transforms the web into the most sociable space: mail, debates, consultations, forums, etc., and all of it quickly, easily and cheaply.
Of course, cybernauts must create in cyberspace, that constant flow of "places," behaving as cyberspace dictates. They must participate in virtual reality itself: something is there because we are discovering it or creating it. Their language and general conduct will change given that friends, interests, preferences, even loves and hates, are encased within the screen. The virtual and distal compensate for the material and proximal.

How will multimedia change us?

We can interact with the world, organizing and generalizing data, thanks to a process of abstraction that involves neurological, physiological, perceptive and verbal systems. Among the other fruits of this process are norms, rules, laws and criteria. When we compose a sentence, we construct a world, rendering it socially and morally comprehensible and manageable. In turn, expressive forms change those of us who use them in such a way that the following question can be asked: How will multimedia reorganize our psychic habits, social relations, political ideas and moral or esthetic sensibilities? One of the ways to sketch out a response would be to compare three of the communication systems that have most influenced human behavior, each of which has been surpassed and integrated by the subsequent one.

The Gutenberg Galaxy facilitated learning. The Gutenberg galaxy fostered a typographic mind, or way of thinking, imagining and forming criteria and values. According to Postman, "typography represents the best possible direction for presentation: a sophisticated capacity to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially, high marks for reason and order, an aversion to contradiction, a great capacity for distancing, objectivity and tolerance of a postponed response."
The printing press made it possible to store historical memory, abstract its concepts, put intellectual operations into hierarchical order, do the same with knowledge to differentiate it from information, elaborate abstract thought, disseminate creative intuition and communicate it to others, and define not only cognitive but also behavioral, emotional and temperamental categories. Whole treatises exist on the impact of the printing press on the social and cultural order. In sum, it facilitated learning. And if we were to consider the revolution that its presence produced in the field of science, religion, social organizations, etc., the history of several centuries would be written.

The McLuhan Galaxy structured a collective consciousness. The introduction of the McLuhan Galaxy and its capacity to store, transmit and retransmit multiple messages and information equally and simultaneously to millions of people has become the collective’s nervous system in the past century. The mass media are indispensable components of the social and political structuring of people through the establishment of a morally recognized order—collective consciousness—and expansion of our sensorial faculties. And this has not been exclusively due to the mental laziness of the receivers, since the initial one-way communication ended up interacting with them—for example, personal videotaping—until the feedback produced between mass media and culture triggered mass society’s evolution toward a much more fragmented society.

The Digital Galaxy has sparked the chaos of the great conversion. The Digital Galaxy—the combination of telecommunications, databases, computer science, objective foundation of the info-paths along which texts, images and sounds travel—are improving and multiplying the amount of information transmitted by analog methods. At the same time, it is imposing a new way of working, doing business, playing and even thinking. The socio-cultural impact of this galaxy resides not so much in the amount of data circulating, however astonishing it may be, as in its interactive potential. The subject transmits and receives, establishes informal cells of dialogue and conferences without borders or control, and navigates through cyberspace in search of remote and unknown interlocutors who can propose anything and everything. There are millions of people out there whose ethnic, national, social or cultural composition can provide infinite variations. A universal and multiform dialogue system is established in which chaos could replace order and in which the previous norms, institutions, laws and customs are beginning to be inadequate for those submerged in it.

Will mere interactivity self-regulate that chaos? Won’t a code of conduct be necessary for both the suppliers of content and the Internet service providers? Will the very circulation of ideas in the Great Conversion automatically modify, cleanse and correct those ideas? Can a coherent culture be maintained that permits maximum freedom, equality and fair procedures in that global and diverse, single and fragmented perception of reality?

In the vertigo of fragmentation

Let’s add another element: the information society is rooted in the image culture. It is the kingdom of the screen, and we higher mammals respond to its luminous beam as if it were touching us. For its part, zapping incorporates into the virtual nature with which we connect at dizzying speeds a fragmentation of perception that destroys any known learning method. It is a perceptive decomposition over which, without excessive discernment, we pass from the direct to figuration, from fashion to war, from entertainment to religious services, from sports to a scientific documentary, from eroticism to death… At the end of the day, things exist to be seen. It is spectacle culture and a hypnotic one.

The prevailing use of computers in the world of work and everything related to it generates a symbolic isomorphism that, in addition to independence in managing time and space (the home computer), is being affected by the convergence of all dominions of activity into a single medium. At the same time it jumbles the codes of conduct belonging separately to each of them, as if they had been thrown into a blender.

Velocity and voracity in the
kingdom of the instantaneous

We are immersed in a high-speed torrent of information that overflows the geographies of knowledge, unified ideas and experiences and universalizes culture. For Dany Goodman the speed is what makes the digital phenomenon a revolution, which implies a risk for the sovereignty of a modern community because it imposes decisions that border on the improvised and impetuous.

Velocity does not make a good mate to reflection, is allergic to doubt, makes learning difficult, puts quick thinking before better thinking and establishes voracity and instantaneousness in our lives. Voracity leaves judicial, political, moral and even commercial norms in the dust, obsolete, while instantaneousness triggers the anguish of not being up to date. On the contrary, velocity fits well with effectualness. The value of the effort diminishes and time, as accumulated experience, is worth less and less, to the point that one wonders if the efficiency and speed of the "digital response" will not soon become a definitive quality of intelligence.

Data become anachronistic almost instantly. One requires ongoing education and updating. Lifelong. And the speed of the information flows—services, bank data, e-mail, Internet visits, all kinds of audiovisual messages—is generating a notable change of criteria, a certain informational cacophony that could be cleaned up through the adoption of judgments supported by essential criteria and values: defense of democracy, plurality, personal intimacy, capacity for dissidence, tolerance and openness, not to mention cognitive dissonance, that sense of humor supposedly capable of holding two contradictory ideas in the mind simultaneously. The following phrase by Bertrand Russell comes into full bloom in this formidable concentration of talent and triviality produced by the sum of new technologies and mass media: "The true aim of education is to help defend against one’s own eloquence and that of others."

Autistic or en-"web"-ed in the
kingdom of the ephemeral?

At the outset, when university professors and counterculture media in the United States began to get onto the web, the dream of a harmonious planetary community able to perfect individual knowledge and intensify intelligence was reborn. The web favors the cybernauts’ personal autonomy as against the system’s concentration of power. But the risk also exists that these universal dialoguers will succumb to a drive to turn inward that borders on autism. They belong to a universal tribe while simultaneously suffering the syndrome of isolation or of the self-taught searcher. The universal dialoguers navigate, program, discover and question, and the machine talks to them, welcoming them into a reality that demands few responsibilities, that is their confidant. Enclosed in the reticle with others of their kind and addicted to virtual reality, these self-taught internauts keep their own company, replacing themselves in the multitudinous solitude, processing and consuming information in physically and emotionally isolated conditions often not exempt from the most uninhibited participation imaginable.

In a system in which, as Edgar Morin describes it, individuals have access to the whole planet and the whole planet has access to them, in a system whose inherent qualities are ubiquity and omnivision, it is very hard to maintain one’s identity. Following the thread of this complication, one must wonder how much sociability is being established in the electronic networks, what the effects of this new form of sociability are, what kinds of different populations live and adjust to each other in the networked surroundings, what kinds of existence associate with each other under the ephemeral mode.

Grasping the diversity that is still our world

Given the complexity of the approaching world, in which uncertainty, strategy and innovation appear very linked, the main aim should be at least two-fold: comprehend and share.

Comprehend that "world culture" is galloping in on the back of the new technologies, which often act as this new culture’s loudspeaker. This world culture is a colossal homogenization of habits, attitudes, structures, institutions, identical consumption and entertainment patterns, self identity, the idea of a single civilization, the same TV movies, news, information, sitcoms, songs, ads, clothing and so much more. This is so much the case that it is becoming ever tougher to critically question the viability of such homogenization given the enormous economic, social and cultural differences that still exist, yet it must be questioned to prevent the commercial dream of taking control of the information society from being fulfilled.

It is equally recommendable that we shake off certain somnambulant attitudes toward the cultural, ethical, political and legal problems generated by the new media—and not only those caused by pornography or the instigation of sects. We need to acquire an independent mentality and critical thinking that is a prudent arm’s length from conventional frivolous and conformist realism. Coming to terms with the world as we find it assumes, just to give one example, comprehending something as simple as the fact that with so many hundreds of millions of people living without electricity, access to the Information Society is, as one would imagine, rather complicated.

And share before it’s too late

Comprehend... and share. The information society offers a magnificent opportunity to share certain almost universal issues and principles: social responsibility, empathy with the disinherited, rights and duties, the preservation of pluralism and diversity…in short, a space open to reflection, debate, dialogue and cultural interchange.
If Internet establishes a dual society in which the principle of equal access to knowledge is not primary and the information highways install tollbooths, if it favors the victory of some cultures over others or a crude syncretism between them instead of convergent diversity, the split in the Digital Galaxy will be irrecoverable.

* A concept, first researched in the 1960s by British and French intellectuals, referring to the cultural discourse about lifestyles and the ways subjects concretize these lifestyles, their social relations and intra-family links. It is “constructed” because it has to do with how the subjects themselves see their life, constructing a set of historically situated representations and assigning meaning to it.

Manuel G. Guerra is a communications expert. This article appeared in the May-June 2001 issue of the Madrid-based magazine Éxodo.

How free is free access?

Access to the Internet is like a passport—or at least a green card—into the new society. But how accessible is the Internet in a country like Nicaragua?
There are roughly 150,000 phone lines in the country for over 5 million inhabitants, only 44% of whom have even have electricity. And then there’s the question of costs: Internet service providers charge around US$30 a month, on top of which the phone company charges the equivalent of $1 an hour to use the line. So an aspiring internaut who logs on for, say, an hour a day would spend $60 a month, which is comparable to the country’s monthly minimum wage. Over the course of a year, this comes to $720, or approximately 1.5 times the country’s per capita GDP. For those who have no phone or computer—or electricity, for that matter—an hour in a cybercafé, in the few cities where they exist, costs 20 córdobas, or $1.45, an hour, which is precisely what an agricultural worker earns for a full day in the field.

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