Translations of Liberty. Internet as Communication Tool in the Anthropological Perspective

[współautor: Michał Derda-Nowakowski]

Test został wygłoszony na IIIrd Global Congress International American Studies Association (IASA), „Trans/American, Trans/Oceanic, Trans/lation”, Lizbona 20-23 września 2007, IASA i Faculdade de Letras, Universidade de Lisboa (Portugalia)

The predominant objective of the anthropology of new media, a specific and rather new research area, is to indicate and analyze social interactions on the Web and its various cultural implications. The Internet is nowadays the most interesting area of informal—but still organized in a specific, both technologic and narrative way—communication.

Being media anthropologists highly interested in various acts of communication, we consider these networked micro-narrations to be the fundamental source of the anthropological research in the globalizing world. On the Internet there appears a problem similar to the one present in the traditional field work—how to observe human expressions regarding obstacles described by Bronislaw Malinowski in his diary years ago (Malinowski 1967). Nowadays to be a “participant observer” means to become a user of new technologies, or even more—to become an active user and a co-creator of new media.

The Internet is often regarded as the natural environment of pop-culture. However, the analysis of informal narrations on the Web enables us to treat this platitude of understanding the medium as a serious misinterpretation. In the anthropological perspective the Internet is a real space of symbolic exchange and the most important way of contemporary communication.

The problem is that the Internet is in fact the American technology. Each medium has its own language which depends on the culture of its origin. Therefore, the fact that the Internet is the American technology results in various forms of representation of American ideologies in the medium. This is a unique form of colonialism which can be regarded as a positive process. In the case of Internet—the American Dream as a cultural and economic myth has been reconstructed and instantly deconstructed. The language of the Internet is based on libertarian ideologies and the necessity of “connective” (De Kerckhove 1995) exchange of senses and data.

The architecture of intelligence is the architecture of connectivity. It is the architecture that brings together the three main spatial environments that we live in and with today: mind, world and networks. […] The appearance of cyberspace which is supported by Internet and the World Wide Web invites us to reconsider the previous two kinds of space we had become accustomed to. (De Kerckhove 2001, 7).

One may ask if technology itself can provoke libertarian tendencies or whether the process of technological development leads to the form of technology aimed to offer a new area of freedom. Never ever before—even on ancient Agora—has such an open and transformable sphere of human communication existed. The space of freedom can be seen differently. For extreme libertarian communities the freedom of the Net should be infinite. For those who as Electronic Frontier Foundation develop from libertarianism to liberalism—it should be strengthened as much as it is possible but without breaking the law. On the other hand, the law should evolve. The problem is that people need to rebuild their understanding of the social contract. From the beginning of the Internet, and especially after the 11th September, the visible tendency is that the US and EU governments try to control the Web on behalf of the mission of defending citizens from both defined and undefined threats. Never before in a normal democratic political system has an authority controlled private or informal communication process. Citizens used to be free to think whatever they liked. Nowadays such thoughts are registered by the mythologized Intelligence Systems Echelon and Carnivor and can be the fundaments of suspicions or even accusations directed toward a citizen. Therefore, the sphere of informal communication is interfering with the official discourse—to the detriment of privacy. This is the official translation of liberty.

However, there exist alternative translations. The Net, founded as a space of open exchange of data rapidly became the space of overuse of the freedom. The belief in perfect user—stemming from the Rousseauvian idea of man—has been undermined by the multiple acts of electronic violence. One of the most radical organizations defending the rights of citizens on the Web—Electronic Frontier Foundation—has come to the conclusion that the innocent user is not existing, and in fact this idea has been a kind of a myth of cyber society (EFF website [1]). Therefore, the necessity for the networked society is to provide rules and limitations of liberty. The early individualism of the Web is now replaced with social activities on various levels.

From the Internet to the iPod, technologies are transforming our society and empowering us as speakers, citizens, creators, and consumers. When our freedoms in the networked world come under attack, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is the first line of defense. EFF broke new ground when it was founded in 1990—well before the Internet was on most people’s radar—and continues to confront cutting-edge issues defending free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights today. From the beginning, EFF has championed the public interest in every critical battle affecting digital rights. (EFF website [2])

But the Web is, first of all, its users. Today the dream of Ted Nelson, the inventor of hypertext, is beginning to fulfill at last (Nelson 1966). The Internet content is nowadays not the collection of static, linked data but the dynamic knowledge construction being constantly rebuilt or remixed by Internet users. “Social networking” seems to be now the indicator of participating in contemporary information society. This participation results in users’ tendency to share their knowledge, in activities of discursive type, but first and foremost, in transmission of the concept of common influencing and changing the paradigm of intellectual property.

On one hand the popularity of projects like Wikipedia indicates the importance of social communication and collective construction of knowledge. This kind of “connectedness” is in a vivid contrast to pop-cultural transmission of senses. The idea of Wiki or Creative Commons is fundamental for “understanding media” (McLuhan 1964) nowadays. “Wiki” means that knowledge is created in an open electronic environment and anyone can become the creator of encyclopaedia (Wikipedia [1]). It means as well that knowledge is distributed quickly and directly to interested groups and can become the object of discussion. Knowledge is therefore a social construct and depends on the level of engagement in sharing and communicating—it is in fact a process of dialogue. Openness is here a kind of freedom and ability to control the discourse. Discussions and votings are the basic rules of common monitoring of the content. Authorship is thus the power of sharing knowledge, not keeping the position of authority. “I write about things I am fond of because then I know that I won’t come a cropper and I search for even more passionate fans and I infect them with the mem of developing Wikipedia” (Wikipedia [2]).

These ideas correspond with Peter Berger’s and Thomas Luckmann’s meaning of social constructivism (Berger, Luckmann 1966). Ideas expressed by Wikipedians are clearly showing constructivist consciousness of this community—where leading ideas are to build the social construct of human knowledge of a particular time in an appropriate form and with all consequences. Society is regarded by Berger and Luckmann as the product of communication and interaction. They claim that objective reality is always a social construct, the result of inter-human connections, and that man is a social construct as well. This implies the mutual dependency between an individual and a society. Creators of Wikipedia are aware of these problems, and the product they are creating is regarded by them as a kind of process of negotiation of senses.

Wikipedia is both the product and the process. It may seem at the moment not to be very valuable as a product but it is now a very promissing process, which is continuously developing and which has quite a big chance to become a valuable product. It’s worth to remember that the nature of the Wikipedia process is that the continuous growth is connected not only with the quantity of articles but with their quality as well. Each article is being continuously changed and improved, so it has a chance to become really perfect in the end. Usual encyclopaedias are already finished products and a once written entry doesn’t have the chance to be improved. (Wikipedia [3])

The idea of Wiki is used not only to create encyclopaedia. It serves as well to construct bases of knowledge by groups of experts. Technologies of Wiki are used for example in very complex procedures connected with design of web applications. In this discipline knowledge is often disseminated and the only way to gather it is to combine the ideas of a specific group of people possessing different competences and experience on the subject. However, such Wikis are not available for external users. This is the continuation of former economic order where the knowledge is the consumer goods. Wikipedia is—in opposition to closed analogue and digital knowledge networks—the tool of decommercialization of human knowledge. Moreover, this is a non­political idea and its principal purpose is to participate in the process of common and independent semiotic mapping of the world.

Creative Commons is another idea extremely important for “understanding media” in networked contemporariness. It revolutionizes the way of thinking of property, especially intellectual. Lawrence Lessig understood that culture development means remixing its contents freely, operating on masterpieces of previous epochs, rebuilding and reconfiguring texts and images of both well known and forgotten artists (Lessig 2004). Creative Commons movement works in opposition to American system of law-protected knowledge distribution. Paradoxically, it is also an American idea based on tradition of citizens’ liberty.

(…) for almost half of our tradition, the “copyright” did not control at all the freedom of others to build upon or transform a creative work. American culture was born free, and for almost 180 years our country consistently protected a vibrant and rich free culture. (…) Free cultures, like free markets, are built with property. But the nature of the property that builds a free culture is very different from the extremist vision that dominates the debate today. Free culture is increasingly the casualty in this war on piracy. In response to a real, if not yet quantified, threat that the technologies of the Internet present to twentieth-century business models for producing and distributing culture, the law and technology are being transformed in a way that will undermine our tradition of free culture. The property right that is copyright is no longer the balanced right that it was, or was intended to be. The property right that is copyright has become unbalanced, tilted toward an extreme. The opportunity to create and transform becomes weakened in a world in which creation requires permission and creativity must check with a lawyer. (Lessig 2004, 172-173)

Creative Commons fundaments can be found in the concept that each artistic creation can be free or open to remix if its author allows other people to do this (CC website). Instead of closing an art piece in a gallery armored with alarm systems and protected by guards and lawyers specialized in copyright—authors can distribute their works freely and without restrictions or with some only. The change is significant—authors often feel imprisoned by the law which disrupts contact with the audience. The aim is to free contemporary electronic culture. Lessig claims that a free culture can develop faster than a closed one—which is positive both for artists and recipients (Lessig 2004). What is also important, in this kind of interaction artistic (and economic) goals are gained as the transmission of senses and creating of the social construct is accelerating. Creative Commons lets artists leave mediators and distribute the art directly to the audience. This kind of activity provokes of course strong disapproval among lawyers and media owners.

This is why Web 2.0 open projects like Creative Commons or Wikipedia can be regarded as a global proliferation of democracy. This seems to be a paradox as the dissemination of democracy—worked out mainly by American diplomacy—was a very important element of the development of modern societies up to “the end of history.” However, the side effects of this process can still be observed. Currently societies stand on the edge of the next step: Internet indicates a new way. What does it mean?—As Derrick de Kerckhove says, “the problem is the Internet has the room for everything” (De Kerckhove, Maj, Derda-Nowakowski 2006). The development of democratic tendencies means that the term “democracy” becomes open to the metamorphosis of the meaning. Today, the broadcast of information cease to be managed only by media corporations—the second important power is “the blogging world”. Although it does not mean that corporations will fall or dissappear (not at all, in fact they are even better than ever before), it means that they are no longer the only power distributing senses. To paraphrase Lessig’s term—commons became creative.

The other important fact is that the Internet is today the most powerful tool to collect knowledge and retain memory of mankind. Projects such as Internet Archive put emphasis on the storing aspect of the Web. It is not simply a digital library or museum—the logic of this storage is different from the traditional one. This idea is to ensure the open access to cultural heritage on both levels of canon texts and informal narrations. This is the translation of freedom from the perspective of the mankind memory.

The Internet Archive is working to prevent the Internet – a new medium with major historical significance – and other “born-digital” materials from disappearing into the past. Collaborating with institutions including the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, we are working to preserve a record for generations to come. Open and free access to literature and other writings has long been considered essential to education and to the maintenance of an open society. (IA website)

On one hand the Internet is the biggest archive of semiosis, and on the other—its main problem is the usability of enormous amount of accessible data. David Weinberger suggests that the Web is contradicting the Aristotelian order of things (Weinberger 2005, 76-78). In fact he means Web 2.0 and the order of folksonomy (in opposition to taxonomy). Messiness, which is according to him a kind of structuring power of the Internet, seems to be important for the contemporary Web influenced by so-called “social tagging.” Weinberger emphasizes the variability and multiplicity of possibilities of the human reordering of things by the action of an individual tagging. Therefore, the Web logic is indicated by:

Links, not containers: A page is what it points to.
Multiple tags, not simple meanings: A thing gains more meaning by having multiple local meanings.
Messiness, not clean order: The best definitions are ambiguous. (Weinberger 2005, 77)

In this approach “the most webness” (De Kerckhove 1995) seem to be services such as Flickr or, where possibilities of tagging and bookmarking data are almost infinite. Social bookmarking means giving some ideas of interpretation of the particular texts of culture and linking them with the network of other ideas. Hence, construction of inter-semiotic network is beginning. becomes a data base of recommended content of the Net—according to its users and regarding the folksonomic order. Flickr gives the possibility to store, publish and exchange photos and to discuss on this subject by blogging or placing notes on images. There is also a possibility of tagging and geo-tagging photos and of creating ambiguous definitions of the world.

But social networking is not limited to such services. MySpace or FaceBook show an individual aspect of Internet mediated communication. Bursts of self-expression exposed here seem to reach exorbitant scale and provoke the proliferation of communicational activity. The Web repository connects the cultural heritage with the contemporariness and with—the most interesting from the anthropological point of view—the sphere of informal or even intimate narrations.

On the other hand projects like Internet Archive try to direct the group energy rather towards common work, not play or talk. Internet Archive is the space where the Web becomes a value in itself and where all texts of culture are treated as a kind of priceless source of knowledge, important as the element of cultural memory of the mankind. Moreover, Internet Archive with its Wayback Machine gathers past memories of the Web—old versions of web pages, early search engines etc. This is a fragment of a dynamic museum of electronic culture. It preserves the Web from being forgotten (IA website). Vilem Flusser suggests that the cultural memory is even more important than the genetic one (Flusser 1999). Cultural memory enabled people to contradict the natural order of things in the world where the information tends to fall into oblivion, simply disappears. Internet Archive is therefore marking significant points of electronic culture to let it exist in the future.

The described American projects produce communities of net-activists who work on the creation of rules of the electronic society in general. However, they are not working chaotically—they respect procedures, create structures and standards. This kind of common creation means obeying laws of the language and keeping the neutral point of view, following rules of publishing, public monitoring of the content and discrediting inappropriate behaviors. Therefore, this is a social control of the content and of other citizens, and thus—the activity of forming a new knowledge and society. This idea is in fact a kind of a new myth connected with the ideal of the Web and the better new humanity cooperating in the name of common benefit. This myth is the most important translation of American freedom into the environment of electronic culture.

Today the Web becomes the area of bricoleurs. This phenomenon, in which social portals are playing the most important role, is called the Web 2.0 (O’Reilly). However, Wikipedia is the opposition to the spontaneous and informal activities of bloggers or taggers. This is a kind of Web meta-reflection concentrated on searching the directions of development of the socially constructed discourse on the Web. This is a kind of the official language of net communities.

On the other hand, the so-called “social bookmarking” or “social networking” are in fact realizations of Derrick de Kerckhove’s dream of global human “connectivity” or “connectedness” (De Kerckhove 1995), the idea which was expressed earlier to some extent by Marshall McLuhan. Even if “the global village” is only a theoretic concept of humanity deprived from traditional way of living, the Internet is the first medium of real social collaboration. Translations of cultural paradigms are fundamental for this process.

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