[Paleopsych] Hedgehog: Mike Featherstone: The Citizen and Cyberspace

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Mike Featherstone: The Citizen and Cyberspace
The Hedgehog Review - Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

          The growth of "global cities"--megacities at the heart of the
    information networks of the global economy--and the continued
    development and spread of information technologies raise profound
    questions about public life and the civic engagement necessary for
    citizenship. Will there be a progressive privatization of public life,
    Featherstone asks, with the replacement of the citizen by the
    consumer, a McCitizen without means or basis for association? On the
    one hand, Featherstone argues, if we conceive of the public sphere, as
    Habermas does, as essentially a dialogical one, with individuals
    interacting in a shared locale as equal participants, then the
    prospects for new spaces of participation and citizenship appear to be
    dim. On the other hand, the new information technologies also appear
    to have the potential to create new forms of solidarity and bases of
    deliberation, suggesting a need to rethink citizenship in a broader
    key. Featherstone considers both the possibilities and problems of
    cyberspace for generating the trust and empathy necessary for
    democratic community.

          Mike Featherstone is Professor of Sociology at Nottingham Trent
    University. He is the editor of the journal, Theory, Culture, and
    Society, as well as the author and editor of many books, including,
    most recently, Undoing Culture: Globalization, Postmodernism and
    Identity and Consumer Culture and Postmodernism.

          John Thompson's book The Media and Modernity was published in
    1995, yet it fails to discuss the Internet and the development of
    cyberspace. These are important developments in terms of his typology
    of face-to-face interaction, mediated interaction, and mediated
    quasi-interaction.[3]^1 The Internet is clearly a form of mediated
    interaction, sharing some of the characteristics of the letter and
    telephone. Like the letter it is a scriptural form, yet it is almost
    like the telephone in that the exchanges between parties can be almost
    instantaneous and relatively simple to initiate. It is like a
    conversation, except that it uses the written word; it is also
    possible for multiple users to participate in the same "conversation."

          Yet the next stage of the Internet, which we are just seeing
    emerge, really deserves a classificatory category of its own; for
    simplicity we can call it virtual interactivity, although this only
    captures limited dimensions of its characteristics. It is a multimedia
    form, combining text, speech, music, video, and images; hence it has
    the combined characteristics of the telephone, radio, video,
    television, newspapers, books, etc., yet with a massive potential
    difference from the conventional media in the extent of programming
    and archive material available for access through increased
    "bandwidth." Also important is the capacity to configure material in
    databases, which can be accessed and searched rapidly from many points
    of view. The data is hypertexted or hyperlinked so that non-narrative
    modes of investigation entailing jumps within and across texts become
    the habitual mode, in contrast to the linear mode we are used to with
    reading books and other texts. New discontinuous, parallel-accessing
    modes of reading and viewing akin to channel-hopping with television
    are in the process of being developed.

          In the first place, these developments promise the fulfillment
    of a long-held dream of humanity, that of completeness--every piece of
    written or recorded knowledge (image/music/text) will be immediately
    available. Yet the corollary is the problem of navigation,
    selectivity, and sense: now that everything is available, where do we
    go and why do we go there?

          But along with completeness there is an important second feature
    to this next stage of the internet: interactivity. This does not mean
    that the Internet can be used like a telephone, but that the material
    downloaded, or used in conversational mode, can be edited and
    reformed. With text it is possible to write in the middle of other
    people's text--to effectively become a co-author--which threatens to
    make available a whole mass of co-written hybrid versions of texts, as
    well as to undermine the authority of book writers and intellectuals.
    In addition similar possibilities of co-production are possible with
    imagistic forms--it will be easy to alter, morph, and reconstruct
    existing film and television output, or construct new output which is
    not based on montage, but mixing or morphing through digitalization.

          A third and potentially radical feature of the new medium is the
    possibility of three-dimensional representation and fuller sensory
    replication. There are already three dimensional programs available on
    the Internet that have the potential to reconfigure the existing flat
    page format to a move-through data-architecturally constructed space
    (VRML, it is predicted, will replace HTML). Yet the potential of
    cyberspace, by incorporating virtual reality into the process, is to
    simulate a highly realistic space, which offers a high degree of
    instantiation or immersion--a space which one can rapidly move or
    "fly" through, which is highly realistic and transmits not only aural
    and visual information, but touch and feelings of force or gravity.

          What are the implications for public life and citizenship? In
    such a (parallel) world there are clearly new possibilities of public
    space. In the first place the prospects of a Habermasian public sphere
    emerging with the Internet and cyberspace do not look very good. How
    can one have public interaction when one will never meet the other
    interactants, when the routine tests of sincerity or goodwill we
    operate with in everyday interactions become impossible? How can trust
    be generated?

          Yet there are those like Rheingold[4]^2 who argue that virtual
    communities can revitalize citizenship democracy. People will form
    personal relationships in cyberspace; indeed it is interesting to read
    the accounts of BBS (bulletin board), MOO, and MUD (multi user domain)
    friendships, where people develop intimate, emotionally rewarding
    attachments with complete strangers, reversing some of our long held
    sociological assumptions about primary and secondary relationships.
    For Rheingold the loss of community which many bemoan in contemporary
    societies will now be regenerated through BBSs and MOOs, which have
    relatively democratic access and modes of address undistorted by
    external power and authority.[5]^3 One can rediscover one's
    citizenship rights and involvement in a whole range of issues. One can
    escape from the rigid interdependencies and power balances within
    which one is normally placed and escape the significant others and
    superiors who "know what you think" and feel entitled to "speak on
    your behalf." Violence--both actual and symbolic--which silences the
    voices of the less powerful becomes more difficult to operate. New
    forms of trust may become generated. In a society where many of the
    major dangers are cumulative and invisible--e.g., ecological threats,
    pollution, radiation, AIDS, etc.--we rely more and more on information
    about them. A technology which is in part a "super-telephone" can aid
    verification of information by the ease with which it can be exchanged
    and checked.[6]^4

          These are the conditions for the development of what some would
    call the postmodern public sphere[7]^--a notion that contests the myth
    of the extendibility of the Enlightenment public sphere and asks us to
    see the democratic potential of the mass media and cyberspace forms.
    Hartley asks us to reflect on and reconsider an intellectual tradition
    which has favored production over consumption, urban over suburban,
    masculine over feminine, authority over the popular, truth over
    desire, word over image, and the printed archive over the popular
    screen.[8]^6 The Internet and cyberspace, then, may well force us to
    rethink our notions of citizenship and public space.

          Yet there are also clear problems with this pioneering and
    subversive vision. In conventional terms, as we have just mentioned,
    trust is generated over time as we get to know people, as we digest
    their actions and words and observe their gestures and bodily
    betrayals in co-present interactions. Liminal moments are usually well
    circumscribed, at least if one lives in Anglo-Saxon, North European,
    or North American cultures, although consumer culture and advertising
    generate a wider range of liminoid repertoires and sense of the
    constructability of persona and performing selves, which invade
    everyday life. In the Habermasian discourse on the public sphere,
    masks and disguises are misinformation to be filtered out; they are
    resonant with the lack of seriousness of the carnival, or with the
    artfulness and deception of the courtier in the court society, to be
    contrasted with the solid, serious, purposeful bourgeois
    gentleman--the clarifier of truth.[9]^7

          The Internet and cyberspace will make masking and disguise both
    easy and routine. Already we see that in MOOs and BBSs there is the
    phenomenon of computer cross-dressing: age, gender, ethnicity are all
    seen as reconstructable. Indeed there are also accounts of people
    interacting on the Internet with `bots' (computer programs which
    masquerade as persons, being coded up to give a sophisticated and
    flexible range of responses).[10]^8 If one develops regular
    interactions with a person who is in disguise, or with a machine, how
    does this effect trust? There are clearly gains as well as losses to
    be considered here, for example, the loss of the ideal of pure
    communication, of complete truthfulness and trust: a romantic ideal of
    complete and self-sufficient identity which draws on Rousseau and
    others. Instead of the masculine and bourgeois ideal, there may well
    be more realistic possibilities for communication and participation by
    accepting masking and performance as part of everyday life and not
    seeking to eradicate it. Many academics and intellectuals often
    inhabit the tradition of Rousseau and have a long-standing prejudice
    for sincerity over acting.[11]^9

          Likewise, it has been argued that the Internet and cyberspace
    will encourage us to accept the notion of multiple selves.[12]^10 The
    Windows format many of us operate with when using personal computers
    already encourages parallel processing, carrying out many tasks at
    once. The lack of a strong identity, the possibility of fragmentation
    and splitting into multiple selves, formerly regarded as a pathology,
    it is argued, is now increasingly normalized and brought into the
    psychological orthodoxy and surfaces in the popular psychology
    how-to-do-it literature.[13]^11

          There exists a further problem in terms of the generation of the
    "civic bodies" Sennett speaks about.[14]^12 The simulated puppet
    bodies we use to represent ourselves in virtual reality seem a long
    way from the body in pain, the aging body which reminds us of our
    common human fate and vulnerability. One can know little about the
    body in pain from the representation the person chooses to employ: it
    could well be a sick and invalid person who chooses a youthful, active
    body to represent him-or herself. One can seemingly escape the lived
    body and interact only with the virtual body, something which, it has
    been argued, reveals a continuity between the cyberspace aficionados
    and the idealistic tendencies of Western thought with its long-held
    preference for the mind over the body. Cyberspace offers the seductive
    possibilities of pure, unencumbered mind, able to travel and transform
    itself, to float free of the messiness and disgust of decaying bodies,
    of what is contemptuously referred to as "the meat."[15]^13 It offers
    a technological dream of mastery, of the elimination of death and
    suffering bodies, which Sennett is critical of in respect to the urban
    plan: the city swept clean of the refuse of human misery. Yet it may
    well be that the new forms of association have potential to go beyond
    the type of opposition Sennett speaks of and that technological
    mastery of the planned kind ceases to have a coherent world view
    anymore in a time of greater pragmatism and syncretism. Indeed, some
    of the dichotomies between human beings and nature, humans and
    machines, are being actively deconstructed by social developments and
    theoretical formulations. We may well develop respect and emotional
    solidarity with a range of pre-and post-human natural and mechanic
    forms and fusions[16]^14--something which points to a range of
    citizenship possibilities and takes us away from the unitary models.

    [17]^1 See John B. Thompson, The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory
    of the Media (Cambridge: Polity, 1995). ] [18]^2 See Howard Rheingold,
    The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier
    (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993). ] [19]^3 Jim McGuigan, Culture
    and the Public Sphere (London: Routledge, 1996) 182. ] [20]^4 Lynn
    Hershman Leeson, "Jaron Lanier Interview," Clicking In: Hot Links to a
    Digital Culture, ed. Hershman Leeson (Seattle: Bay, 1996) 51. ] [21]^5
    See John Hartley, Popular Reality: Journalism, Modernity, Popular
    Culture (London: Arnold, 1996); and Mark Poster, "Postmodern
    Virtualities," Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of
    Technologial Embodiment, ed. Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows
    (London: Sage, 1995) 79-97. ] [22]^6 Hartley 156. ] [23]^7 See Jürgen
    Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An
    Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge: Polity,
    1989). ] [24]^8 Lynn Hershman Leeson, "Sandy Stone Interview,"
    Clicking In: Hot Links to a Digital Culture, ed. Hershman Leeson
    (Seattle: Bay, 1996) 105-115. ] [25]^9 Norbert Elias's The Court
    Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983) is an important correction to this
    tradition; see also the discussion in Richard Sennett, The Fall of
    Public Man (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976) and in
    Gerhard Vowinckel, "Command or Refine," Theory, Culture & Society 4
    (1987): 2-3. ] [26]^10 See Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity
    in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995). ]
    [27]^11 See John Shotter, Cultural Politics of Everyday Life: Social
    Constructionism, Rhetoric and Knowing of the Third Kind (Milton
    Keynes: Open University Press, 1993). ] [28]^12 See Richard Sennett,
    Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization (New
    York: Norton, 1995). ] [29]^13 See Mike Featherstone, "Post-Bodies,
    Aging and Virtual Reality," Images of Aging: Cultural Representations
    of Later Life, ed. Mike Featherstone and Andrew Wernick (London:
    Routledge, 1995) 227-244; and Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows,
    introduction, Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of
    Technological Embodiment (London: Sage, 1995) 1-20. ] [30]^14 See Mike
    Featherstone, "Beyond the Postmodern Future? Posthuman Development and
    the Question of Citizenship," ISS Global Futures Lecture, The Hague,
    June 19, 1997; and Mike Featherstone, "Global Networks and the
    Question of Technology: Some Considerations Arising from the Work of
    Norbert Elias," Elias 100 Years Conference, UNICAMP, São Paulo,
    November 21, 1997. ]

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