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Culturelink review, no.21/April 1997 - contents - imprint - archive

The Second Flood

Report on Cyberculture

The Second Flood, Report on Cyberculture, which has been produced under the auspices of the Council of Europe, addresses the cultural implications of the development of information technology and digitally-controlled communication. The report does not directly cover economic or industrial issues, problems linked to employment, or legal questions. The emphasis is on general attitudes towards advances in new technology, on the increasingly virtual nature of information and communication, and on the global changes in our civilisation as a result. The issues specifically tackled are new art forms, changes in the relationship with knowledge, education and training, the impact of new technology on the city and democracy in general, upholding linguistic and cultural differences, and the problems of social exclusion and inequality.

Since reference is often made to 'cyberspace' and 'cyberculture', it is probably useful to briefly define the terms. Cyberspace (also called the Net) is the new communication medium which has resulted from the world-wide interconnection of computers. The term designates not only the hardware infrastructure of digitally-controlled communication but also the ocean-like universe of information that it contains, as well as the human beings who swim in it and feed it. The neologism cyberculture, as used in this report, refers to all the techniques (material and intellectual), practices, attitudes, mind-sets and values which develop concurrently with the growth of cyberspace.

The first chapter raises the issue of the social and cultural impact of new technology. The four chapters that follow, forming most of the first section of the report entitled 'Definitions', are an overview of the main technical concepts expressed by and conveyed in cyberspace. Readers should remember that these techniques create new conditions and provide exceptional opportunities for personal and societal development, but automatically determine neither darkness nor light for the future of mankind. What follows is therefore a presentation in plain terms accessible to non-specialists.

The second section, entitled 'Propositions', is the longest and most central part of the report. It addresses in more specific terms the cultural implications of the development of cyberspace. It outlines cyberspace in terms of the new form of universality it has invented, the social movement behind its origins, its artistic and musical offsprings, the changes it has caused in our relation with knowledge, the necessary reforms in education that it implies, its contribution to town planning and policies, and the questions it raises in terms of political philosophy.

The third section, entitled 'Problems', explores the negative side of cyberculture, in terms of the clashes and criticisms it usually provokes. This final section discusses the conflicts of interest and power struggles that spin off cyberspace, from the often bitter tirades against the evils of virtuality to the more serious issues of social exclusion and upholding cultural diversity when confronted with political, economic or media imperialism.

For Culturelink, we have chosen the chapter that deals with the impact of new technology on the city and democracy (Section Two, Propositions).

Cyberspace, the City and Electronic Democracy

For a number of years town planners, architects and, in general, all those involved in managing and leading local communities have been confronted with the hither to unfamiliar problem of integrating new systems of interactive on-line communication into their professions. How does the development of cyberspace affect town planning and regional development? What active, positive approach and what kinds of projects can be implemented to optimise the use of the communication tools now available? Cybercity issues concern not only town planners, policians or regional developers, but citizens first and foremost.

Cybercities

Will the development of cyberspace be an opportunity for decentralising our vast city centres, and creating new forms of distributing work activities? It is worth noting in this respect that there is little chance of any reversal in the current move towards setting up and expanding giant conurbations (Cf. the remarkable work on economic geography by Pierre Veltz: Mondialisation, Villes et territoires (Globalisation, Cities and territories), PUF, Paris, 1996.). Statistical studies show that the highest number of 'hits', or density of access to cyberspace, and the greatest use of digital technology coincides with the main scientific research, business activity and financial transaction centres around the world. The spontaneous effect of the growth in cyberspace has been to increase the capability for strategic control by the traditional centres of power over technological, economic and human networks which are increasingly vast and dispersed. Deliberate policy action by the public authorities, local communities, citizens' associations and groups of entrepreneurs can make cyberspace serve the development of underprivileged regions by making maximum use of its potential for collective intelligence, such as valorising local skills, organising complementarity between the available resources and projects, exchanging know-how and experience, self-help networks, enhanced participation by the people in political decision-taking, planetary openness to various forms of expertise and partnership, and so on. This use of cyberspace does not automatically derive from the availability of hardware: it also requires a radical change in mind-sets, organisational practices and political philosophy.

What is electronic democracy?

Rather than focus on telecommuting and replacing transport by telecommunications, a new approach to regional development policies in conurbations could be based on the potential of cyberspace to promote the dynamics of recreating social links, cutting away the red tape from administrative services, real-time optimisation of city resources and facilities and experimenting with new democratic practices.

With respect to the latter point, which is often misinterpreted, I should like to point out that government propaganda attempts, indicating the E-mail addresses of political leaders or organising referendums on the Net are caricatures of electronic democracy. True electronic democracy consists in using the interactive and collective communication made possible by cyberspace to encourage as much as possible the expression and elucidation of problems in the city by the citizens themselves, self-organisation by local communities, participation in decision-taking by the groups affected by the decisions, open statements about public policy and their appraisal by citizens.

Various approaches have already been adopted by various actors, theorists and practitioners with respect to the relations between the city and cyberspace. Such approaches can be classified into four main categories:

  • firstly, by analogy between real and virtual communities,
  • secondly, by substituting or replacing conventional city services by the technical facilities available via cyberspace,
  • thirdly, by assimilating cyberspace into a conventional public utility or service in the city,
  • fourthly, by exploring the various ways of integrating city functions and the new forms of collective intelligence that are being developed in cyberspace.

After a critical analysis of the first three, I shall attempt to demonstrate that the fourth category, exploring ways of integrating the city and cyberspace, holds the greatest promise for the future.

Analogy, or the cybercity

Should virtual communities be designed in relation to conventional city models? One of the best examples of doing just that is the cybercity of Amsterdam, a free service on the Internet, in Dutch. The cybercity contains a sort of replica of the facilities and institutions of the conventional city: administrative information, opening hours of city services, library catalogues, and so on. Various citizens' associations also have the right to a 'place' in the cybercity, and they can disseminate information and organise teleconferences. Innovative newsgroups and electronic newspapers have also appeared in the cybercity, in which local political issues are obviously present. Finally, it is worth noting that Amsterdam's cybercity is open to all the other services available on the Internet, including the World Wide Web, E-mail, international newsgroups, and so on. Since its inception, the cybercity of Amsterdam has grown non-stop and met with remarkable popular success, which no doubt partially stems from the fact that communication itself costs nothing (except for telephone connection time), that it is in Dutch and not English, and that its content is free, in the liberal sense of the word.

Dozens and in all likelihood hundreds of cities or regions around the world will start up experiments of the same kind. Amsterdam's virtual city is therefore exemplary. There were two basic motivations for its creation. First, the aim was to enhance the awareness of political and business leaders of the new potential of large-scale digital communication. Secondly, the watchword implicit behind the project was 'access for all', with its connotations of reducing social exclusion and compensating for the imbalance between the info-rich and the info-poor. I have no intention of criticising the experiment or its aims. There is something dubious, however, about systematically duplicating real institutions in the virtual world, a trend which is to be found almost everywhere.

Virtual museums on the Internet, for instance, are often no more than paltry catalogues, when the very notion of a museum based on the preservation of collections is queried by the development of a form of cyberspace in which everything circulates with increasing fluidity and the distinction between an original and a copy no longer has any meaning. Rather than duplicate conventional exhibitions on Web sites, or interactive terminals, personalised visits could be organised or constantly redesigned by collective navigation through spaces which are totally devoid of any material collection. It would be even more useful to encourage new types of works in the form of virtual spaces to be invested and realised by their explorers.

Similarly, on-line services offer conventional magazines or newspapers with just a little more information than in their paper versions, in the form of automatic indexing systems and newsgroups which are only an enhanced type of readers' letters page. But it is the very structure of media communication - a central group transmitting to a passive, dispersed audience of receivers - which should be reviewed in cyberspace. If everyone can transmit to everyone else, take part in newsgroup debates between experts and screen the informational flood according to their own criteria (which is now technically possible), in order to keep with the times, is it necessary to make use of conventional journalists, who are specialists in reducing information to its least common denominator?

The relations between cyberspace and reality cannot be reduced to duplicating standard institutional forms in cyberspace and providing 'access for all'. Even if experiments like the cybercity of Amsterdam are essential, they must only be a transitional phase towards a general review of our conventional institutional systems of city administration, local newspapers, museums, schools, and so on. In each specific case, the tools available in cyberspace enable progress to be made towards systems which reduce the separation of the leaders and the led, the teachers and the taught, curators and curious, writers and readers. The main purpose of these new forms of co-operative organisation, currently explored in many local and international cyberspace systems, is to valorise and mutualise the intelligence distributed in the communities connected and to develop their synergy in real time.

Substitution

Substitution is mainly used today by 'regional developers'. Their argument is simple. The new tools for on-line co-operative work enable people to take part in the international marketplace from their homes or from convenience centres. This means that for a great number of activities no physical movement is necessary any more. The advantages are considerable: unchoked city centres, improved traffic, decreased pollution, better regional population distribution, the possibility for reviving areas affected by rural exodus and massive unemployment, and improving standards of living. Straightforward economic calculation shows that the overall social cost of a teleconference is less than that of real travel, that a telecommuting workstation is less expensive than a few square metres of city office space, and so on.

The reasoning applied to work can in almost identical terms be applied to higher education and adult training. Why build universities made of concrete instead of encouraging the development of teleteaching and interactive, co-operative learning systems accessible from every point across the country? These arguments are developed in the chapter on open and distance learning (ODL).

I have no criticism of the excellent intentions behind the idea of replacing transport and physical presence with telepresence and interactive telecommunication, but we should take into consideration a few facts in relation to that concept.

First of all, we need only look at the graphs to see that the development of telecommunications is parallel to that of physical transport systems: the relation between the two is direct instead of being inversely proportional. In other words, the more we talk, the more we travel. There are many cases in which one had replaced the other, but they are part of the global growth in interaction and relations, such that we end up by travelling more and more and the length of our trips increases.

The main telecommuters today are sales representatives, executive management, scientists and self-employed professionals who, by using cyberspace services and mobile communication and processing terminals, travel even more now than in the past, while remaining in contact with their offices, laboratories, customers or employers.

As to the possibility of living and working in the country, it is worth noting that the increasing delocalisation of business activities is, once again, parallel to an international trend towards an increase in the volume of emigration for economic or political reasons, or as a result of war. Growth in emigration flows involves scientists as much as it does low-skilled workers. The mobility of business activities and of the people they involve is part of the same historical trend of delocalisation: one cannot substitute for the other.

With respect to the hopes placed in regional development (aménagement du territoire) based on telecommuting and distance learning, delocalisation due to the increasing use of cyberspace is highly ambivalent. Delocalisation can, for instance, benefit the regions in Europe affected by the decline of industry or the rural exodus, but it can equally well accelerate the abandonment of these regions for new countries where labour costs are lower and employment regulations less strict. A good deal of data capture or programming work for companies in the Northern hemisphere is carried out by South-East Asian telecommuters. Distance learning companies, teleuniversities and on-line education or training services now target the international marketplace. Often originating in the Northern hemisphere, such companies are now making inroads into national and regional education systems, with all the economic and cultural implications that this entails. Far from restoring the balance between geographical areas, the increasing use of cyberspace can accentuate regional differences even more.

Cyberspace is a powerful factor for de-concentration and delocalisation, but it does not do away with centres altogether. Its main immediate effect is to make the middleman obsolete, and to enhance the capacity for control and direct influence by power centres over resources, skills and markets, whatever and wherever they may be.

I postulate that any true balance between regions will only be attained by regional policies and initiatives that are deliberately endogenous and open onto the outside world. Once again, making that possible depends on valorising and harnessing skills, resources and local projects rather than subjecting them unilaterally to the criteria, requirements and strategies of dominant geo-political and geo-economic power centres. Regional development depends on social ties and collective intelligence. Interactive communication networks are only tools to serve that form of policy. The tools in cyberspace, while naturally reinforcing power 'centres' by endowing them with the gift of ubiquity, can also support fine-grained strategies by setting up regional groups as self-organised economic agents. Computerised watchdog systems, resource highlighting, co-operation, and real-time decision appraisal can strengthen democracy and business initiative in underprivileged regions.

It is unlikely that contemporary urban problems may be solved by nice city-in-the-country projects, or more or less authoritarian people-placing in rural regions equipped with telecommuting systems. Policies for social housing, transport development, traffic limitation, use of electric cars, reduction in social inequalities, misery and ghettos are as vital now as before, whether cyberspace tools are used or not. I do not object to telecommuting which will develop anyway, regardless of whether there is official backing for it or not. But from the present point of view, priority should be given to using interactive communication networks to restore urban sociability, self-management of the city by its inhabitants and real-time guidance of its facilities, rather than using them to substitute for the concentrated diversity, physical proximity and potential for direct dialogue which, more than ever, are the main charms of living in the city.

Assimilation and the information highway

The third way of considering the relations between cyberspace and the city is by assimilating interactive communication networks to the type of infrastructure which already organises and urbanises the country: railways, motorways, water, gas and electricity distribution networks, cable-TV or telephone networks. The approach, which of course has the support of certain interested parties, has been put forward by political and administrative technocrats as well as by the leaders and 'communicators' of the large industrial corporations concerned.

From their standpoint, 'information highways' or the 'multimedia' are basically a new market for hardware, 'content' and services which also form the battleground for the telephone, cable, television, publishing and information technology industries. Newspapers desperately try to arouse our interest in these titanic power struggles. But if you have no shares in the companies in question, what interest can there be for the average man in the street? Cable or telephone? TV or computer? Optic fibre or wireless? Most of the time the only discussion is about who will reap the profits, and it very rarely involves debate about societal or cultural directions.

The term information highway was first employed as part of the National Information Infrastructure (NII) launched by the government of the United States. The project involved a fairly modest level of investment of public money ($400 million) to build optic fibre networks. But it sought first of all to set up the legal and statutory conditions necessary for the development of new communication services in the education and health sectors, a regulatory framework capable above all of supporting the high-speed expansion of the new, interactive, digital communication market. The anti-trust laws, network operating rights, and various other limitations imposed both on the cable-TV operators and on the telephone companies at a time when the media where clearly segmented, need to be updated in the light of new technology and the contemporary possibility of the convergence of all digital communication.

The term 'information highway' is unfortunate for several reasons. It implies that a new communication system has yet to be built when it is already widely used, in some instances since the beginning of the eighties. Access to data banks, teleconferencing, teleteaching, teleshopping are all daily activities on the Internet, just as they are on videotex systems such as the French Minitel. It is true that communication channels will have to expand with the growth in traffic and demand (if any) for communication via interactive video technology. But the increase in transmission rates is part of an on-going, long-lasting process. The real threshold event took place before the launch of the project by the American government: the start of the exponential growth in Internet subscribers, which occurred between 1988 and 1991. The project of the American government should be seen as a response to a social phenomenon of the expansion in cyberculture, comparable to that which channelled the first micro-computer explosion at the end of the 70's and the start of the 80's.

The term 'information highway' is also unfortunate because it only implies transmission speed, the physical infrastructure of communication. From the social, cultural and political standpoints, with which we are concerned here, and which concern the citizens affected by them, the technical supports are important only in that they condition communication practices. The new communication and information access modes are characterised by personalisation, reciprocity, lateral and hypertextual navigation, participation in varied virtual worlds and communities, and so on, none of which is implied in the highway metaphor. It refers simply to the transport of information or tightly controlled mass communication, rather than the interactive relation and creation of a community.

The term 'cyberspace', on the other hand, clearly implies the opening up of a space for communication which is qualitatively different from those we saw in the eighties. To my mind, the term is linguistically and conceptually more appropriate than 'multimedia' or 'information highway'. Understanding what cyberspace is and what it could be is the main subject of this report.

Approaching cyberspace by assimilating it to a technical infrastructure often hides the fact of critical importance, namely that, where interactive digital communication is concerned, the functional networks are independent of the physical networks. In other words, an interactive communication system which is fully reliable and coherent can use an indeterminate quantity of supports (terrestrial broadcasting, conventional telephone lines, coaxial cable, etc.) and coding systems (digital, analogue), provided that it has access to the proper interfaces and conversion systems. Interactive digital communication today is growing exponentially by using a whole range of already existing heterogeneous infrastructures. The on-going increase in channel transmission rates is only one of the keys to the growth in traffic. Data compression and decompression algorithms, which make use of the stand-alone computing power of smart terminals on the Net, are the second, complementary way of increasing communication throughputs.

The critical point is that cyberspace, the collective, interactive interconnection of all the computers and communication systems on the planet, is not an infrastructure: it consists, in a certain way, in using existing infrastructures and maximising the use of their resources with non-stop distributed inventiveness which is both social and technical.

Certain network operators imagine they have reached the ultimate in enlightened thought by stating that the important thing is the 'content'. But the separation of the carrier and the content is simply a market split: you sell your information, we'll bill our services. The Internet, to take the most famous example, was gradually and interactively constructed without any separation between content and carrier. A large number of the files circulating in the Net are software systems designed to improve it. But beyond all discussion of carrier or content, the main purpose of the network, once again, is the mega-community and countless micro-communities which make it live. The nerve centre of cyberspace lies not in the consumption of information or of interactive services but in taking part in a social process of collective intelligence.

To assimilate cyberspace to an infrastructure is to hide a social movement behind an industrial programme. It is a social movement since the growth in interactive digital communication was not decided by any multinational organization or government. The government of the United States has had a major supporting role, but it was not the driving force behind the spontaneous, international movement of yuppies which exploded at the end of the eighties. Besides public money and fee-paying services provided by private companies, the expansion of cyberspace is largely based on the voluntary work of thousands of people belonging to hundreds of different institutions in dozens of countries on a co-operative basis.

The way in which it has developed suggests that cyberspace is in no way a conventional industrial or territorial infrastructure, but a self-reliant, techno-social process which has been finalised in the short term by the categorical need for interconnection (interconnection being an aim in itself), whose more or less clearly defined purpose is an ideal of collective intelligence which has already been put into practice to a considerable degree.

The relation between cyberspace and the city, between collective intelligence and the territory, calls above all for political imagination.

Integration

The possibility I put forward here is neither analogy, nor substitution, nor assimilation, but the integration of two qualitatively different spaces, that of territory and that of collective intelligence.

A territory is defined by its borders and its centre. It is organised by systems of physical and geographical proximity. On the other hand, each point in cyberspace is in principle co-present with any other, and travel can take place at the speed of light. The difference between the two spaces does not depend only on their physical and topological properties, but also on their qualities in terms of the contrasting social processes that they involve. Territorial institutions tend to be hierarchical and rigid, while cybernaut systems tend to give priority to lateral relations and structural fluidity. Territorial political organisations are based on representation and delegation, whereas the technical possibilities in cyberspace would make new forms of large-scale direct democracy easily feasible, and so on.

In order to avoid any misunderstandings concerning electronic democracy, I wish to stress once again that it is not a question of having masses of people instantly vote separately on simple proposals that might be submitted to them by some telegenic demagogue, but to stimulate the collective, on-going elucidation of problems and their tangible, co-operative solution as close as possible to the groups of people involved and concerned by them.

Integrating the two spaces does not consist in eliminating territorial forms in order to replace them with a cyberspatial style of operation. The aim, as far as possible, is to compensate for the inertia, slowness, and inevitable rigidity of territorial systems by highlighting their real time in cyberspace, thereby enabling the solution, and above all elucidation, of problems in the city by pooling skills, resources and ideas.

Opting for collective intelligence not only demands a change in the operation of the city or region and its institutions, but also implies the development of cyberspace functions specially designed for that purpose. The following is a non-exhaustive list of some of them:

  • dynamic representation of resources and flows of all types;
  • virtual meeting place for skill, employment and training offers;
  • progress reports on the ecology, economy, education, health and other sectors legible by all, with direct input from the physical variables or activities which are themselves obtained from widely distributed transducers (thereby maintaining personal anonymity);
  • guidance of transport and communication systems based on real-time feedback from users;
  • user-based systems for facility and service evaluation (number of hits, opinions, suggestions), together with full information about budget allocations, which means that societal usefulness is measured by the people in society rather than by experts.

Each of these tools should be supported by teleconferences enabling opposing opinions to be confronted, suggestions for improvement to be discussed, and exchange of information and services between inhabitants. The cyberspace project to further collective intelligence aims as much as possible to make groups of people conscious of what they are doing together and to provide them with practical means to co-ordinate their actions in order to raise issues and solve their problems on a proximity and involvement basis.

Access for all, most certainly. But that does not mean 'access to hardware', simply by connecting people with the Net - which will be very inexpensive in a short while - or with its content, so that they can take in information or knowledge sent out by specialists. Access for all means access to the collective intelligence processes, to cyberspace as a dynamic, open, self-mapping system of reality, expressing singularities, elucidating problems, weaving social ties by reciprocal learning and free navigation on the paths of knowledge. The view presented here does not mean leaving dry land only to be lost in virtuality, nor does it mean that one reality should imitate the other, but that virtual reality should be used to help us live better lives on this planet, to help us become fully-fledged citizens.

We inhabit the environment with which we interact. We inhabit (or shall inhabit) cyberspace just as we inhabit a city, as part of our global life environment. Cyberspace development is a special sort of non-physical town planning or architecture, whose importance can only grow. The ultimate form of architecture is political in scope, however, and it involves integrating the roles of both spaces. Using collective intelligence as our guiding light to do that is to opt once more for democracy, to make it a reality by using the positive potential of the new communication systems.

Pierre Lévy