Infobahn as Theater
While it may be true that all the hype and hand-wringing over “convergence” may be part of an enormous group ego trip on the part of technology developers, the invocation of “the needs of the nation’s poor” does point to a major blind-spot in the analysis. While it may be true that the overt purpose of this massive “wrestling match” may be to promote and provoke consumption-as consistent with the tacit economic rules of post-modern society-what’s missing is the fundamental and inextricable purpose that underlies the net-that of a means of free exchange for the purpose of self-expression and inquiry. The challenge is to get the issue of building an infrastructure that at its core promotes self-expression and inquiry for a vast portion of society “on the mat”, and cast the images of the sequin-coated “managers” with $100 bills lining their top-hats.
In a world in which the volume of information content is growing rapidly, what’s missing is the capability to simply dwell in necessary inquiry. American society is addicted to cheap closure-the rapid fire exchange on this list demonstrates this perfectly. Returning to the invocation of “the nation’s poor”, I look at the needs of all those suffering the shocks of the ’90s as being brought on by factors that don’t stand up to cheap closure (straining population growth, familial and community dislocation). Given the bankruptcy of the assumptions that undergird society (which served to develop and industrial era), we need to develop a means to involve society at large in a broad inquiry into value-the values that will succeed the declining industrial paradigm. This is why convergence is important. I’ll explain why.
As I observe the state of the world, the simplest measure I can take is that the fundamental question in play across society’s is simply this: What to do? It is the inability to maintain this question in play in a balanced sense that has the former-Yugoslavians at each other’s throats. Likewise throughout the former Soviet empire, or in India and Pakistan, or in the South Bronx or South Central L.A. What to do-how do we define ourselves by purposeful actions when the context for performing those actions is no longer valid? And the more profound question-which is the role of the network in a futuristic sense-is how do we connect with the work that needs to be done. Obviously there is an enormous amount of work to be done. There is no work shortage, per se. What’s missing is the guile and the will and the INFRASTRUCTURE to coordinate and connect. We must step back from the narrow debate about whether or not to let the net devolve into a consumptive medium, and address the more fundamental question of what kind of medium does it need to be. We can’t parse the purpose of the net in terms of what it is not, or cannot be, or how it fails to suit the paradigm of those investing in putting together parts of it. Now of course, in the grand style of cheap closure, all the netrepreneurs say Well how do you make money at building THIS ‘net? Our commercial models and capital business plans don’t ascribe sufficient value to this endeavor. Well what is the value of 911 when your child or spouse is choking? What is the value of a lifeline service-a global lifeline- that connects people in such a way that their response to a shift in local circumstances does not reflexively end up in an armed response again those in the surrounding locale? Look up and around you-there is plenty of potential capital around being squirreled away-benefiting no one but bond sellers. Beyond that, it becomes clear that we need to redefine our relationship with public interest and public trust investments so that they are not automatically viewed solely in terms of being agents to justify useless bureaucracies. There’s a middle ground that’s being missed here-and each day that it’s missing, it costs us.
Convergence could mean putting a terminal in a village in Indian village so that they can coordinate their crop growth with that two villages over-a capability that has not existed before. Convergence is the means to allow people to build increasing amounts of flexibility into their schedules- breaking down the rigidity of the 9-to-5 workday by providing people with direct connection to the administrative and coordination facilities of their workplace. This flexibility, in turn, can be reinvested in both expanded leisure and cultural activity and in continuous, location-independent reeducation self-investment. Convergence means people who are now economic and social refugees in Eastern Europe or central Asia developing a profile of the skills and backgrounds of the people who are now without work, and to profile the existence of unused factory or agricultural resources, and then instantly post this profile to a global list which may include capitalists looking to fulfill similar needs, and looking to “globalize”. None of these are new ideas (See Bucky Fuller, Alvin Tofller, E.F. Schumacher, etc.) But where is this signal amidst all the noise of narco-TV on demand?
There are certain background assumptions at play here that need to be examined. First is the assumption of the exclusivity of data processing and its underlying purpose as primarily as means to support commercial transaction and production. The purpose is already designed into the network. The debate about the net and the NII and the GII has devolved into occurring within the narrow frame of how technology supports will continue to commercial activity-activity based on a large extent on industrial models. The debate maintains hierarchy and scarcity as givens-not to be examined. If there is some movement to justify its existence outside of the model-certainly outside the narrow rows and columns in which that investment bankers live-then it is attacked simply to close the issue before it makes anyone really dwell on the deeper implications.
The business models we inherit, and apparently cherish, will fail to justify investments in a net that allows redefinition of society’s (global society) founding assumptions. This is my great fear. The net, at its heart, is designed to accomplish this-at its heart is an interactive and adaptive medium for exchange and expression, based on consensus standards. That is all you need. Those with the most to lose-those most closely tied to industrial models-will act as noise agents, closing off real inquiry before it makes inroads into the design process. This is the kind of theater to which we are all too accustomed.
- “The modern world tends to be skeptical about everything that makes demands on man’s higher faculties. But it is not at all skeptical about skepticism, which demands hardly anything.”
- E.F. Schumacher