Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh
Bit by bit, it's transforming our lives. Bit(e) by bite. B(y)te by byte. It's all around us. Or are we already inside it? Where's it taking us? Where are we taking it? In fact, the as we know it today has only been with us for a relatively short span of time, while the has been around for just over a decade, and has been widely available for far less time than that. Yet, if we agree on little else, amid the sprouting , the flurry of conversations and the (re-/de-)flowering of which seeks to regulate manners in the general rush of capitulation to , there seems to be a consensus of sorts that the transformation is (hyper-/virtually) real, and that our future, or part of it at least, lies in . But there's no need to talk just about the future; for it's our present as well. What exactly is it we are witnessing? Is this the fulfilment of all our dreams (always assuming that we dream the same dreams)? Is it our worst nightmare (assuming, again, that we're all assailed by the same demons)? Needless to say, you don't have to look far to find either of these views. Is it, in its own way, the acme and apotheosis of postmodernism - or, if you prefer, postmodernity - and a spectacular demonstration of Baudrillard's much-hyped and often hyperbolic concept of ? In vulgar terms: everyone can be anyone, right? And if it's all a game, does it matter? But if it's not a game, then perhaps it matters very much. It matters, then, who says what's on the Net and who doesn't. It matters whose voice is heard and whose isn't. And who is it that ensures that the right laws are made (assuming that laws and right(s) go hand in hand)? And is there politics in and do we get to realise our democratic aims there (assuming, of course, that our aims are democratic)? For that matter, who are we and what is ours to decide? Does the Net look the same to everyone, everywhere? Does it depend on the name of your or the colour of your skin or the size of your or the bank balance of your parents?
All of these questions, and many more besides, have been raised and debated, and a handful of them perhaps momentarily, temporarily, settled or set aside. All of them, and many more besides, are implicated in the matters being addressed in the current volume of Mots Pluriels. All of them, and many more besides, will be raised and debated here ... though whether they will be settled in the minds of any of our readers is another question altogether. Nonetheless, as an electronic journal which is in its fifth year, it seemed appropriate for Mots Pluriels to signal a pause for thought; to take a moment to step back and consider the medium which has given it life. For Mots Pluriels, five years seems like a certain coming of age. This coincides with a certain coming of age of the Net more generally and, beyond this, of speculation on and studies of the Net. The theme of this issue too, is, in its own way, about a coming of age. New Apprentices and Old Masters. Or: New Apprentices and Old Masters? A statement, or a question. Or both? Twin concepts. Plural words. Wordsconcepts which lead us to reflect on the ways in which power is constituted on, in, and around the Net, within it and without. Who are these Masters? Perhaps we have always known them. Perhaps in different guises. Is there room for New Apprentices and if so, what are they learning and who are they learning it from? Maybe the New Apprentices are not, after all, entirely unknown to us either. Maybe we have seen them before. And what happens when Apprentices come of age? Do they themselves, with time, become Old Masters? Who wields power (t)here in/on the Net, and how is that power fractured, how does it fold back on itself, how does it play out against itself? In which Foucauldian paradigms (o Master) lie the loci of co-operation, and where are those of conflict? Master contra Master. Master for Master. Apprentice vs. Apprentice. Master contra Apprentice. Master and Master vs. Apprentice and Master, all of them ensnared in a Net, a Web where the butterfly catches its wings ... and there's sunshine in the US and a drought in Africa and a tornado in China.
Whatever paths a consideration of these issues will shortly lead us down, and whatever further questions will be raised, it is apparent that the Internet has radically altered the everyday processes of academia, facilitating both research and communication more generally. The call for papers for this issue did not appear anywhere in print, but was posted on email lists and in electronic journals like this one. From this have sprung email conversations crisscrossing cyberspace, and many meetings in that shadowy virtual realm. If nothing else, the effectiveness of CMC, and the widespread appeal of discussing the Net, have been amply demonstrated by the veritable deluge of emails, drafts and, finally, papers which made their way onto my (electronic) desk(top). It's in cyberspace, too, that Mots Pluriels is now publishing the resulting essays and reflections. But such was the level of interest - and the number of submissions - that it has been necessary to divide the essays over two issues. This has been done thematically. The current volume, which is the first, commences with sociopolitical, legal and other theoretical approaches under the rubrique of Theories of the Net, before moving on to studies of the Internet's effects in specific locales around the world under the title Practices of the Net. Inevitably, any such thematic division and labelling is tentative/uous at best, and highlights certain features while downplaying others, casting up particular similarities - and particular differences. It is hoped that readers will have patience with such categorisations - and feel at liberty to range freely through the essays, in any order and, once the second issue appears, across both volumes. For all the differences, there are many points of convergence in these essays, and in the final analysis it may be that the connections, the overlaps and the similarities are just as interesting, if not more so, than the conflicts and differences.
Contemporary theorising about the Net seems to emanate principally from the the United States, with a somewhat lesser though by no means negligible interest being shown in the remainder of the Anglophone world, and a more minor interest in the non-Anglophone West. As pronounced as this trend is, it is hardly surprising, given the Internet's predominantly North American pedigree and its early extensive adoption there; given the dominance of English as the Net's de facto lingua franca; given that theorising about politics or the law requires a certain faith in - or at the very least a familiarity with - political and legal institutions and thought, and the freedom to critically examine old perspectives and advance new ones; and given that theorising about the Net or indeed any other sociocultural artefact demands the leisure to reflect upon these, a leisure which is only available in the absence of more pressing issues. And yet, though clearly not on a par with hunger, thirst or daily survival, it is perhaps true that, as suggested above, the evolution of the Net is among the most pressing issues of our time. Indeed, it is not unthinkable that in years to come it will impact on questions of hunger, thirst and daily survival, if it is not doing so already. On the other hand, just as striking as the relatively homogenous sociocultural origins of Net theory is a current thematic trend: namely a massive turning away from the utopian discourses of recent years. Of course, dissenting voices and troubled consciences have always made themselves heard in discussions of the Net; consider Susan Herring and Dawn Dietrich on women; consider Allucquère Rosanne Stone on (the) (disem)bod(y)/(iment); consider Lisa Nakamura on race; consider Susan Zickmund on cyberhate; consider the scathing critiques of Islamic scholar Ziauddin Sardar. Notwithstanding early mainstream political critiques, of which the work of Jan Fernback and Brad Thompson is a case in point, such dissent was primarily the prerogative of those writing from the Outside. Now, however, the unquiet has spread, as it were, from the margins to the centre. It is no longer only, or even primarily, the Others, the excluded, the ex-centric who doubt the Net. This does not mean that the sociopolitical mainstream has replaced its prophets of utopia with harbingers of doom, though the latter may well be growing in number; but that on the whole far more considered and tempered approaches are being explored. The party night is over, and things look different in the light of dawn; in place of pre-millennial euphoria, we find post-millennial sobriety; in place of an almost teleological mythical certainty, we find ambiguity and hesitation. And while some of the fears now being voiced are daunting, it is at least encouraging that they are being addressed on a broad scale.
We are warned by that the increasingly powerful filtering devices which personalise our web time are leading to a breaking of social bonds and a fragmentation of society; he stresses the urgent need for public fora to facilitate the exchange of information and sharing of experiences. agrees that shutting out those with whom we do not agree amounts to an undermining of the freedom of speech so essential to democracy. argues that more governmental regulation may be called for in order to safeguard the interests of all citizens on the Net. On the other hand, in the context of increasing globalisation, questions the ongoing appropriateness and applicability of the principles underlying Western politics - namely those ideals of universality handed down by the Enlightenment, and in particular the idea of the autonomous citizen. The latter, with its problematic cultural baggage, suggests Poster, should be rejected in favour of the netizen, a multiple and dispersed identity appropriate to a postnational, postterritorial age. It is also to the issue of globalisation that turns, arguing that the Internet is a vehicle for international economic imperialism and the spread of neoliberalism and, simultaneously and paradoxically, offers new tools to the anti-globalisation movement; Redden asks us to consider the possibility that, when all is said and done, the Net may well offer the relative advantage to the latter.
focuses on the nature of community in cyberspace, and its intersection with ideas of nationality, and, drawing on the work of Benedict Anderson, shows that the virtual communities of cyberspace are not in fact so far removed or different from the "real" ones with which we are more familiar - and must deal with the same issues. Meanwhile, examines the increasingly reified relations with the Other promoted on the Net and warns, like Sunstein, of the consequent danger of the complete fragmentation of any sense of community in cyberspace. Writing about the law, rereads the judgements surrounding the Napster case and advises that we take a fresh look at legal aspects of cyberspace, since current laws are not working in anyone's favour - but he also suggests that we can learn a lot from the past. After providing an overview of the development of the architecture of the Net, offers a dire warning about the way in which governments and corporations are instituting surveillance techniques to erode the liberalism so blithely taken for granted in the earlier utopian discourses of the Net. suggests that our contemporary era has more in common with the past than might at first be apparent, as she traces the history of linguistic and monetary exchange which has created the conditions of possibility for the Internet. Of course, as a number of these writers make clear, and as emphasises in a wide-ranging interview, all theoretical discussions of the Net amount to speculation, since it is impossible to tell, as yet, which predictions will be realised. There's a lot going on with the Net. It's up to us to participate in the conversation. It's up to us to share in the responsibility for the directions taken both by this conversation and, ultimately, by the Net itself. Therein lies the danger; and therein lies the promise.
A more detailed appreciation of some of the directions the Net has already taken can be obtained by surveying its international presence(s) and effects. Cyberspace, after all, is not populated solely by 18-year-old American male college students, or for that matter by English speakers, or even Westerners. Still, the digital divide remains great. Once called, rather disparagingly, the Dark Continent, Africa might be known today as the Unconnected Continent. Far removed, both geographically and culturally, from the economically privileged metropolises of the USA, Europe and the Antipodes, Africa is nevertheless also grappling with hyperreality - and is a surprisingly effective barometer of the international ramifications of the Internet. It is to this continent, and to its artists, scholars, businesspeople and other cybercitizens, that a number of our writers turn, while a teacher from the Maghreb is also interviewed. Other writers bring us reports from other corners of the Net: from Mexico, from the Caribbean, from China and from France, all of which are, to greater or lesser degrees, located beyond the centre of the Net. However, these mixed metaphors of centres, corners and nets are duplicitous in more senses than one, for to believe that there are centres and corners in a network of networks as dispersed as the Internet is to be labouring under a false impression. Or is it? This is a key question which, in one way or another, is touched on by all of these writers. Just as there are overlaps in theory and practice, and the following essays contain theory in various doses as the preceding essays discussed practice to varying extents, there are, more significantly, thematic convergences. If the sense of utopianism has waned in the Anglophone West, the reverberations of non-utopian effects have been felt around the world. Last decade, much of the world joined the Anglo-American celebration of the Internet's possibilities; but once again, though characterising it as dystopian would be overstating the case by a great deal, it is clear that the new millennium has brought more sober, and sobering, perspectives.
While five years ago the Internet could still be viewed as a golden opportunity for Africa to leapfrog several stages of economic development and begin to catch up to other continents, writes , it must now be admitted that by and large the Internet seems to be reinforcing rather than alleviating Africa's disadvantages; yet the race is far from run, and there are some positive signs of a developing African web presence. A concern over Africa's lack of connectivity is shared by , who focuses particularly on scholarly publishing; though he, too, refuses to see the future as completely bleak, placing some hope in Western-African partnerships. and , reflecting on the varying and ambiguous effects of the Net and globalisation on African state-society relationships, are generally more optimistic; while , on the other hand, writing from the Ivory Coast, details some of the huge problems hindering the spread of the Internet in Africa - and increasing the distance between Africa and the rest of the world. , writing from a Nigerian perspective, contrasts varying discourses surrounding the Net in the West and in Africa, suggesting that Africa's Otherness in respect of the Net need not lead it to reject the Net as a Western cultural imposition since, in one way or another, the Net turns us all into Others, and we all have much to lose and much to gain from it. Finally, an interview with the high school teacher allows an intimate insight into the benefits, the problems and the frustrations occasioned by the arrival of the Internet in one Algerian town.
Taking a look at other parts of the world, the picture becomes fuzzier - and yet oddly clearer - in that it is apparent just how complex and unpredictable the effects of the Net may be. and , examining the use of the Net in Mexico, and particularly by the Zapatistas, provide a striking illustration of Redden's aforementioned argument that this weapon of globalisation can also become a weapon with which to attack globalisation. Not only is it too early to decide which way power flows; but it is naïve to posit that it flows in only one direction. As demonstrates, a similar if less optimistic perspective is espoused by the Caribbean writer Édouard Glissant, who is aware that while the Net offers a voice to marginalised cultures, and encourages a mixing of all cultures, such a mixture tends towards superficiality, and the Internet equally promotes the increasing homogenisation of languages and cultures as part of the processes of globalisation. The idea that the Internet will lead to greater international understanding simply does not hold up to closer analysis, says who, in Singapore, was well-placed to observe the recent war of words between the US and China, both on and off the Net, in regard to the crash landing on Chinese soil of a US spyplane after its midair collision with a Chinese fighter aircraft. Finally, as we return to Europe, examines the situation of e-managers in France, a country certainly not excluded from the Net for political or economic reasons, but one which has long seen itself as a cultural bulwark against the advance of English and Anglo-American values; and she concludes that for all the hype about globalisation and homogenisation, French e-managers have proved remarkably resistant to imported attitudes.
And so ends our initial consideration of the Net, its Masters and its Apprentices. If, at this stage, anything can be said to be obvious, it is that little is obvious, and nothing sure: save that the potentials of the Net are both positive and negative, that for every advantage there is a disadvantage, for every drawback a benefit, and that for every opportunity to do things in a new way, there is a temptation to do things in an old way. The Old Masters and the New Apprentices, in their various guises and incarnations, may be playing for high stakes, but the outcome is far from assured, nor is it assured that thinking in either/or terms of binary outcomes is the best strategy. That a situation is not entirely hopeful should by no means be taken to mean that it is hopeless.
Of course, at the end of such a collection of essays as this, we are inevitably left with the question: where now? Fortunately, in this case, the answer is made easier by the fact that a second issue will be published, as mentioned above, in two months' time. Certainly there is much more to say, and we will next turn to the question of the Net as it is being discussed within the parameters of some of the most significant discourses of our time - discourses that in their own ways, well before the advent of the Net, were already posing challenging questions about the heavily value-laden cultural positions of Masters and Apprentices. It will be seen that theorists of race and ethnicity, of gender and sexuality, of religion and spirituality, and of pedagogy and knowledge will concur, to varying extents, with the broader sentiments expressed in many of the foregoing essays. But examining the Internet against the backdrop of particular discourses will also give the discussions a very different flavour; and quite different perspectives on the past, present and future of the Net may well emerge.
|Mark Pegrum is currently lecturing at Queen Margaret University College in Edinburgh, Scotland, having previously worked at various tertiary institutions and private colleges in Australia, England and Finland. He has taught in the areas of German and French language, culture and history, Cultural Studies and English as a Foreign Language. His most recent publications include Challenging Modernity: Dada Between Modern and Postmodern (New York: Berghahn, 2000); The Postmodern Buddha in Culture Clash, issue 4, January 2001; and Pop Goes (the) Spiritual in M/C, vol.4, issue 2, 2001. He has also written numerous articles about the internet and multimedia technology in teaching.|