Monday, February 23, 2009

The Stuff of Life

Regular readers would have noticed last week that this blog’s masthead was blacked out in protest of section 92A of the New Zealand copyright amendment bill, a piece of legislation ostensibly designed to curb illegal downloads but fraught with a number of troubling shortcomings. It was a worthy enough cause to lend one’s largely symbolic support to, and I was happy to be a part of that. But I also came to wonder, as others did, why so many people in so many places - the protest reached as far as the shores of Stephen Fry - felt so strongly about an obscure and quite possibly unenforceable piece of legislation whose actual consequences are difficult to quantify or foresee. (Although those very difficulties are of course part of the problem.)

If I may dare to summarise: we* don’t like the principle, that one can be found guilty of a copyright infringement without a right to defence and due process, and we* don’t like the implications, in terms of who is empowered to regulate the circulation of information on the Net. I stand behind all that. But there is much symbolism besides, starting from the names of two foundations - one local, the other based in the US and very influential worldwide - strenuously opposed to this type of legislation: Creative Freedom and Electronic Frontier. There is a world of assumptions in those two names alone, to wit: that cyberspace is a new frontier, a space that can be and should be constructed and furnished according to new principles, a new idealism regarding how knowledge can be exchanged and for the benefit of whom. In Collective Intelligence, Pierre Lévy argues that this will be nothing less than ‘the major architectural project of the twenty-first century’ (p. 10). And again I am not opposed to any of that. But I did set out last week to ridicule the proponents of cyberization of the self and of digital immortality, and I think I need to account for the intersections of some of these assumptions, ours* and theirs. It is only fair.

We*, ours*, those are some densely packed pronouns, and therein the problem lies - hence the asterisks (hereinafter to be mentally supplied by the reader). We can talk of greater access to knowledge, democracy of ideas, the commons. But for whom? Not for my mother, I can tell you that. Her use of the computer is limited to the acts of switching on and then off - Windows and Skype load all by themselves. In the meantime her favourite newspaper might be in some strife due to the pressures put on that business model by the fact that I can read it for free from the opposite side of the world, so she might lose one of her principal ways of tapping into cultural debates - many of which have shifted decisively onto the Net anyway. It could be countered that she was simply unlucky to be caught at the wrong end of a generational shift, and that had she been born twenty or thirty years later a person of her background and experiences - a graduate, a teacher - would surely have caught the wave. But besides the fact that I think we should spare a thought or two for the people stuck in that particular generational crevice, such exclusions cannot be dismissed as an accident of transition, as if in the future everyone will be equally well-placed to make use of the digital and claim its privileges: education, aptitude, socio-economic conditions, professional vocation and geography will all play a part.

In characterising the debate about s92A and how heated it had become, Russell Brown pointed out last week that the ‘people on the web side of the argument… tend to regard connectivity as the stuff of life.’ And I can see myself in that statement, worryingly so in fact. I know all too well how little I can function, professionally but to an extent also socially, during an Internet outage. I can tell you exactly what proportion of my income - all of it - depends on the existence of a global interconnected network. I know how crucial for my life in New Zealand is the ability to keep a figurative foot in Italy and to take my work with me when need or whim demands that I visit there. Connectivity is the stuff of my life, there is no denying it. But doesn’t that put me in the camp of the Nicholas Negropontes and the Gordon Bells of last week’s invective? Aren’t I too a member of the digerati elite, the privileged vanguard who gets to have debates on the future of the networked society, whilst confidently waiting for it to become society, period? Who record ourselves in Twitter form and through blogs and on Facebook, a little more creatively than Mr Bell, sure, but perhaps with the same sense of unexamined self-importance and worth, and occasionally teetering towards the same misguided notion that the only experiences that count are those that can be digitised, and the only people who count are those whose name one can successfully Google?

It is easy to dismiss the silliness of Negroponte and Bell - nobody is digital, and nobody is data - but far easier to overlook, I would suggest, that this is truer for some of us than for others.

Harvest Bird reminded us of this with her poem in response to last week’s post, which impassionately suggested what’s wrong with the thinking of the digital immortalists: it’s not only that you can’t take it with you, but also whom you can’t take with you. I suggested as much in my dissertation, which like HB’s poem was also informed by a grandmother figure (you met her here) standing for all the people who don’t register and fail to be described in the new regime of information. This failure to describe reminds one of those whom the French call sans-papiers, the persons without papers who inhabit society illegally and who are a recurring presence in the late work of Derrida, as well as useful fodder for right wing parties a-scapegoating for the ills of society and anybody who might be looking for an ultra-flexible workforce.

Is that kind of life at the margins what the future holds in store for sans-bits? Not so, responds the digevangelists, salvation will come for them too; they might just have to wait a little longer, is all. Back in 2005 Dr. Ian Pearson of British Telecom reckoned for instance that rich people could expect to be able to have their minds downloaded onto machines by 2050, while the poor will ‘probably have to wait until 2075 or 2080 when it’s routine’.

Everybody will willingly take their place on the ark: of such convictions the cult of information is made. And doesn’t Negroponte advocate one laptop for every child on the planet just so that collective pronoun, that we, can lose any remaining asterisks or qualifiers, become a true WE, us, humankind? Perhaps. But it is myself and a rather differently situated and politicised we that I am addressing today, to warn of the danger of falling into that way of thinking, or one not too far removed, even for progressives who regard cyberspace as an instrument of social reconfiguration and change. Because as the debate itself moves online, from the raft of books published in the last fifteen or so years, its audience too changes, and its modes of production and articulation shift, making it harder to account for non-digital subjects and the non-digital real. But account for them and include them we must, striving to remember those parts of ourselves that reject the transition, as well as the persons - including scores of grandmothers - who are excluded altogether. Nobody I know has said it better than Pierre Lévy in the epilogue of Becoming Virtual, and most extraordinarily just as he is about to claim that the virtual is nothing less than ‘humanity’s new home’:
I love that which is fragile, evanescent, unique, carnal. I appreciate singular and irreplaceable beings and locations, an atmosphere that is forever associated with a situation or a moment. I am convinced that a major element of our morality consists simply in acceptance of being in the world, in not fleeing it, in being there for others and for oneself. But since the subject of this book is virtualization, I have written about virtualization. This does not imply that I have forgotten the other aspects of being, and I would ask the reader not to neglect them either. For the actual is so precious that we must, and at once, attempt to recognize and acclimate the virtualization that destabilizes it. I am convinced that the suffering that arises from submitting to virtualization without understanding it is one of the major causes of the madness and the violence of our time.

Pierre Lévy. Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace. Translated by Robert Bononno. Cambridge, Massachussetts: Perseus Books, 1997.
Pierre Lévy.
Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age. Translated by Robert Bononno. New York and London: Plenum Trade, 1998.

Update: The Museum of You (2): Somebody's Home in Leipzig

A correspondent in Germany got in touch to reveal the rest of the story of the man from the apartment as it has since emerged in the local press. She writes:
A Spiegel journalist found out what had happened to the guy who had lived in the flat. In the English article it just says that he was "a 24 year-old man who had been in trouble with the authorities" (not unusual for the GDR) but it turns out that he had as a 22 year-old apparently said to a border guard that he wanted to go West (as a kind of joke - see also Milan Kundera!) so the authorities (not surprisingly) locked him up for a year or so. His parents set up the flat for him and he lived there for a few months after his release but then he was thrown out of the GDR (put on a train with a one-way ticket to the West) in September 1989. In November the Wall fell and he visited his parents in Leipzig that Christmas. He had found a job as a carpenter in Lower Saxony. On the 19th of September 1990 he was on his way back to Lower Saxony from a building site in Hamburg in a minibus with colleagues when the bus crashed and he was one of those killed, dying of head injuries in a Hamburg hospital on September 21st 1990 aged 25. His parents still live in Leipzig.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


People with head injuries
will keep breaking our hearts:
the spinning of the wheels,
impending bank --

no traction.

We can say goodbye every day,
say it at breakfast and afternoon tea;
we can be on our death bed
and still not be done.


Philip McCabe, aged twenty-four,
came off his motorbike in '48:
that was that, but not for her.


no traction;
but no interaction.

no scan
can make the image of
that man.