Information Does not Equal Knowledge: Theorizing the Political Economy of Virtuality
Department of Communication Studies, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC
This paper argues that causation theory has a role in discussions about knowledge in the virtual context. Drawing on cultural studies, it suggests that the fragmentation of rational knowledge in the postmodern world has produced a focus on information that is unaware of its history. A knowledge gap has been produced that needs careful consideration by those people and institutions advocating the use of virtual technologies. Virtuality is about a politics of convenience, where contemporary knowledge is characterized by two modes of action: mathematics and marketing. The paper suggests that contemporary capitalism fits well with this type of knowledge. It argues that other ways of conceptualizing causal relationships between information-knowledge are necessary in the virtual world.
There's a scholar in the UK with a balding head, a serious physical presence and an almost fetishistic interest in things past. The photograph of Christopher Norris on the jacket of [Spinoza and the Origins of Modern Critical Theory] shows him peering into the camera lens from the comfort of a bookish office. His visage is not exactly inviting, yet the light radiating off his prominent forehead suggests that this is a scholar to be taken seriously. Indeed he is. Unconstrained by the tie around his neck, his work revisits the elaborate intellectual structures associated with the last days of modernism, before the fallout of postmodernism rendered the modern problematic, before the fashion parade of explosive ideas and technologies of the postmodern pushed that approach to enlightenment into the background of contemporary discourse. Norris offers insights into the current state of theory, particularly as the title of the 1991 text suggests: the project of enlightenment knowledge has been delimited by postmodernism to an extent that the survival of knowledge itself may be questioned. This proposition is difficult to assimilate into the desktop versions of computerized knowing which mediate the everyday lives of very large numbers of people. Yet the diminishing knowledge quotient or knowledge gap is questioned by Norris in his turn to classical philosophy, as conceived in the tradition of rational constructions of reality.
Norris draws on the tradition of critical theory proposed most profoundly by Spinoza and to some extent revisited by the critical German tradition of the Frankfurt School (a point I am not going to elaborate on here). Norris challenges the evacuation of knowledge in postmodernism. He establishes a series of preferential strategies for revisiting the enlightenment, beginning with ‘structural causality’ [(Norris, 1991)]. Coined by Louis Althusser, it is a term that evokes the ‘relative autonomy’ of the order of relations between the economic-cultural-social-scientific domains. These relations, said Althusser (and Norris) need to be unpacked so that the ‘order of causal relations,’ the logic of their historical contingencies can be acknowledged. And knowledge is the rub. Norris advocates the critical intellectual strategy of ‘rational intelligence’ as the means of opening the door to knowledge, which is derived from ‘a process of rational critique’ which is in turn an extension of our experience [(1991)]. I want to use this starting point to suggest that awareness of causation theory can make a significant contribution to comprehending developments in the virtual world and add to the quality of debates on virtuality and theory [(Ess, 1994)]. I also want to suggest that the gap in knowledge that has emerged in the postmodern celebration of hyperreality can be addressed by considering the ways in which causation theory operates to link information to knowledge.
The Politics of Convenience
Those of us in positions of responsibility, whether researching, teaching, producing, marketing or promoting the virtual world of digital communication, could use a political economy critique to inform our engagement with the object of our affection. This is not always an easy thing to do. Academic work especially is premised on a relationship between ourselves and the career material with which we are ‘employed.’ While we may abstractly distance ourselves from some issues, competition in the workplace tends to force us to become uncritical advocates of the material we are employed to critique. Fashion dictates our tastes, while the newly mobilized marketplace of technology directs our careers. What once might have been the foundation stones of knowledge in society have been diffused by dissemination in the transformative Diaspora of mass-mediated change.
Separated from the certainty of history, technology seems only to have reinforced a ‘crisis of knowledge’, producing in turn a disconnectedness from rationality [(Connell, 1997)]. In this shifting territory of fading knowledge, the sensation that there is causation seems strangely vacuous. Information is utilitarianism in extremis, circumventing modernist proposals about where things come from. This knowledge gap is aligned with the absence of a structured critique, producing deep confusion in the surface discourses about information [(Roszak, 1994)]. In other words, as information moves rapidly across the surface of our everyday lives, its disarticulation from knowledge could be expected to produce a crisis. Remarkably, this seems not to be the case, as the contradictory nature of the emerged technologies produces an oscillation that swings between the appeal of information as a resource for the momentous remaking of contemporary society, to the unmaking of known relationships. The resulting new cultural, social and economic formations are things to which few people feel capable of responding confidently and critically. We are encouraged not to spoil the party with a challenge to the crisis of modernist knowledge.
Nowhere is this more obvious than with consumerism. Everything we want is available here and now (increasingly in flawless digital form) and so any consideration of cause (not to mention effect) is an inconvenience. The realization of this politics of convenience is a specific manifestation of contemporary capitalism. As I will suggest later, contemporary experience has been constructed by speed accompanied by uncritical consumption. That is, consumers are encouraged to enter into relationships with digital (and other) products with little or no concern for where those products have originated, the damage their manufacture may have caused, or the implications of their usage. Our everyday experience is removed from the history that asks questions. The everyday of contemporary capitalism does not encourage us to theorize our subjectivity, which would problematize life. This phenomena is clear enough when worked out in the non-digital world: driving cars is a polluting activity, nevertheless we continue to drive, mainly because we have to, despite the environmental consequences. In contrast, the switch to digital consumption is one step removed from the problem of breathing due to the vast amounts of carbon dioxide being pumped into the air. Using a computer seems innocuous, harmless and relatively passive, compared to driving a polluting automobile. Yet it is the dissociation from reality incorporated in virtuality that is precisely the issue. This dissociation from reality is part of the continuum observed in the disconnectedness from rationality, where causation evaporates as the links in the chain of history no longer join us to a sense of who and what we are, or where we have come from.
The elites with whom we socialize and participate are not concerned with such details but with further entering the digital domain which we and they advocate. In this newly esteemed digital domain, questions arising from traditional western forms of rationality have been reduced to two modes of action: mathematics and marketing. The immediacy of ‘science’ associated with these two fields of action are not so much rational as behavioral, indicated, for example, by Fred Moody's insights into how Microsoft develops new software [(1995)]. Moody showed how the company's executives examine new programmers, suggesting that problem solving of computer code is a practical game of mathematics. It must resolve the singular difficulties of specific knowledge hypotheticals that impinge on the formulas that operate for mathematically-based digital language. Yet this ‘language’ is a well-defined form of knowledge which in some respects is a metaphor for the cockiness with which computer people strut their stuff in the company of those without the knowledge. It is as if we all bask in the glory of our mathematcally literate colleagues in the computer sciences. Ironically, non-computing lay people rely on dissociated causality here, as the application of knowledge at a higher level of computing expertise is implemented by those using keyboards without knowledge of what makes it work. Non-mathematical computer users are confident to endorse whatever they are given. Largely, we have no rational or causal connection to the codes of mathematics behind the screen, but entrust that to knowledgeable computer scientists. This is nothing new. Ever since the division of labor accompanied the Industrial Revolution, this sort of alienation has been typical of social relations. The shift that has occurred with computer mathematics is in the return to basic productive activities with reliance on unseen forces of knowledge.
The second rational action is marketing, which has the purpose of connecting producers and consumers with each other through a celebration of mathematics. Hidden within computers, the code conveys considerable power: the power of the mystical ability of mathematics to enhance experience and solve problems. Marketers tell consumers (plus creative people developing interfaces for users) to trust the new technology. In an elliptical return to the politics of convenience, the message is that the hidden code of computer mathematics will improve our lives, making them better, easier and superior. Marketing seduces all virtual advocates with its smartness, drawing on the history of technology, constantly reinventing the story of how progress takes place. It puts history into a teleological mold for everyday use. Marketing and its articulation with mathematics consoles us with a narrative about the rationally anticipated progress of contemporary society. As each new application unfolds in a whirl of enthusiasm for the next big thing, advocates and consumers acknowledge their debt to the history of technological progress. It is difficult to know where this sensibility is grounded. However, there is no point disputing the fact that with each new development, the power of mathematical achievement is reinforced as the marketers' maxims are accepted and acted upon. Moody's year observing Microsoft, recounted in [I Sing the Body Electronic], itemizes the relationship between mathematics and marketing. While the challenges for new technologies are resolved by digital calculation, the implementation of this action produces (as it were) an opposite and equal reaction from those other crucial specialists who know the market. Furthermore, in Moody's account, Bill Gate's expertise is in marketing: in knowing that the details of rationally controlled and manipulated marketing and distribution are key to the success of the mathematical programs. Gates is the knowledge fountain: he knows the computing and he knows the market. A similar fetish has recently appeared with the rearrival of Steve Jobs at Apple Computing. Here too, we have the knowledge base of computer savvy exquisitely coupled with remaking Apple in the market. Undoubtedly it is convenient that these new mediators facilitate a transition from the mathematical form of rationality to the marketing form.
My argument is that a political economy of the virtual, in all its manifestations, will move beyond the limited perspectives generated by these two modes of action. One response is the quest to remake other elements of modernity as part of the enlightenment project, thereby invoking causation theory as the means to fill in the spaces created by the dominant mathematics-marketing nexus.
Such a project is more than the ‘portmanteau’ of terms and approaches within postmodernity [(O'Sullivan, Hartley, et al., 1994)]. The project of knowledge lives and breathes because this particular bag constructs meaning in a conscious and rational manner. ‘Modernist rationalization’ does not cease to exist because of the weight of the apparent failure of The Enlightenment [(Morley, 1996)]. It proceeds to another level, with its known history intact. This knowledge includes a history of ideology that is permeated by an engaged encounter with human experience. In this domain, human history takes on very real, temporal meaning – we touch, we see, we make love, we eat, we sleep, we recreate. Lived experience and its shifting boundaries is one of the components of culture and cultural studies, while it is also necessarily part of the enlightenment project of knowledge [(Frow & Morris, 1993)].
Cultural studies draws directly on modernist rationality to examine the known world of living subjects in a structured sense, where relationships are identified as entering and moving into a process of change and given meaning [(Grossberg, 1997)]. For its part, policy is the field in which this structure makes its most controversial statement, refusing to fall under the weight of that portmanteau, overloaded as it is with the bits and fragments of a dismembered commonwealth. These articulations within a structure of known experience are the contestable space in which cultural studies finds itself being political. And it is political in the sense in which Norris argued: knowledge is rational, historical and contested within the political framework of a struggle over the meaning of change in society. In other words, cultural studies takes its modernist sensibility very seriously, in that it recognizes the constraints of the math-marketing moment. Cultural studies critiques this moment and its limiting scope for emergent social and political action. Simultaneously, cultural studies also advocates those aspects of the emergent fields of action that need to be advocated. To do otherwise would be irresponsible to cultural studies' commitment to the prospects for democratic change in society.
In one very real sense cultural studies identifies how virtual worlds are at the forefront of a (limited) public imagination that is replete with an escape from enlightenment. This statement is perhaps best served by a more tempered perspective of postmodernity which itself struggles between the domains of the known world of rational identities and the uncertain worlds of fragmentation.
… a limited and dependable set of coherent identities have begun to fragment into a diverse and unstable series of competing identities. The erosion of once secure collective identities has led to the increasing fragmentation of personal identities. …we have witnessed the gradual disappearance of traditional and highly valued frames of reference in terms of which people could define themselves and their place in society, and so feel relatively secure in their personal and collective identities [(Strinati, 1996, p. 238–239)].
Fractured identity in contemporary society could produce coping strategy behaviors that seek to evade the rational knowledge of history. Cultural studies theorizes this search for identity as part of the political project of remaking identity, within the field of rational knowledge. Virtuality works across both the intensification of this identity and its disenfranchised, ‘decentralized quality and its universal exchangeability’: its fragmentary identity [(Poster, 1995)]. Both identity positions are heightened in the virtual domain and both can be addressed by a theory derived from the relationship between information and knowledge.
In the following discussion I will consider some issues arising from debates between advocates of the new world information order of the virtual and the old world of enlightenment rationality. In doing so I will propose a theory that suggests that the escape into virtuality has evaded knowledge, which has been replaced with non-enlightenment information. It is a political economy that is derived from, yet opposed to, the ‘cult of information’, where the informational and technological facts are anthropomorphized to ‘speak for themselves’, where information takes on a mystical form [(Roszak, 1994, p. 105)]. The necessary result is a political economy that critiques the speed, irrationally and misinformation of virtuality.
My view of cultural studies in relation to modernism and the virtual world is that modernism need not be an evacuated space, where postmodernism reigns supreme. This is despite textbook suggestions that “a postmodernist describes and usually champions imputed breaks in knowledge, culture and society, frequently attacking the modern while identifying with what they tout as new and “radical” postmodern discourses and practices” [(Best & Kellner, 1991, p. 30)]. Some of this radicalizing has had overly enthusiastic, even ignorant proponents. For example, De Landa and his advocates suggest “the human sciences are so fettered by many of their domain assumptions that they are simply unable to provide any useful analytic handle on the contemporary condition” [(Featherstone & Burrows, 1995, p. 14)]. Such bold assertions that entertain denials of knowledge, promoting instead the simulations of cyberspace in a newly invigorated ‘epistemology,’ seem to be blissfully unaware of the empowering weight of history within a modernist philosophy of knowledge. Indeed, much of the theory associated with postmodern celebrations of the virtual world often presents as poorly conceived, non- historical celebrations in a quest for the ‘new smartness' [(Ross, 1994)]. Here, the defining characteristics of the new world electronic order is ‘anti-intellectualism,’ which translates into the reification of the higher order of organizational computation in the digital world. It achieves its moment in an orgasmic blinding light of American pleasure, where the troublesome stuff of ideas, nature and even the flesh can be evacuated, by a mythical engagement with the mathematics of technology.
In some respects, it is precisely the celebratory and temporal nature of pleasure that makes a discussion like this so difficult. It begs the question: if digital and computational expertise can bring us to the point where human beings can become more human, more pleasured, more sensitized, then why complain? The body has become a site for remaking sensory experience, due to computers. Technologies enhance and enliven sentience, the argument goes. To reiterate the contradiction, the mind and the body can be constructed as limits on the capabilities of mathematics and should be deconstructed, even minimized, to facilitate the impending apocalypse of the temporal. In this scenario, technologically-mediated pleasure becomes the objective for society. ‘Posthumanism’ will become the benchmark of an engagement with the body that transcends the existing limits of the body as imagined by authors such as Bruce Sterling, and bio-futurists like Stelarc [(Dery, 1996)]. Postmodernism has lent itself to this anti-intellectualism, sometimes parading its hipness as the rejection of history, to which intellectuals are so fond of returning. Consequently a serious breech has emerged between the intellectuals of the historically informed cultural studies – cultural studies as a political project – and the anti-modernist, non-historical, hipster simulationists.
Mark Dery has attempted something of a negotiation of the hipness quotient in Escape Velocity, noting that new technology has propelled a subculture of technologistic provocateurs to attempt the remaking of humanism from within the terrain occupied by technology [(1996)]. Their efforts are increasingly at the heart of contemporary debates about such previously benign concepts as liberalism. For Dery, the project is more radical than this symbolic struggle. It is about identifying the ‘escape velocity’ of technology, as it seeks to remove itself from the gravity of history, into a posthumanist phase, while maintaining a semblance of the real.
Posthumanist visions of the mind unbound, of the Earth dwindling to a blue pinpoint in the rear view mirror, are a wish fulfillment fantasy of the end of limits, situated (at least for now) in a world of limits. The envisioned liftoff from biology, gravity, and the twentieth century by borging, morphing, “downloading”, or launching our minds beyond all bounds is itself held fast by the gravity of the social and political realities, moral issues, and environmental conditions of the moment [(Dery, 1996, p. 315)].
Attempts to escape, such as in technopaganism, Survival Research Laboratories performance pieces, cybersex and industrial music, are still located within the common sense of human history and cannot be jettisoned in their entirety. Projects like these that straddle the dilemma of virtuality are necessary for the interventionary challenge they pose to the anti-intellectualism of the digital. Dery's suggestion is that knowledge is grounded in the political and territorial struggles over the meaning of human experience. Escape velocity is constrained by everything from activist intervention, to the blatant ‘jamming’ of culture to stop the headlong rush into cyber stupidity. Such a position is not a reinvention of some sort of Ludditism. Rather, it draws hipness into the historical project of change, where the borders are negotiated according to the known world of history. Indeed, each of Dery's actor's in Escape Velocity enjoys an extended historical description in a play by Dery to link knowledge, history and activism to new technology's otherwise ill-informed fantasies. Disappearance into the hyper realm of the non-rational is, suggests Dery, just so much dumb hype.
In many respects hyperreality provides an extension of the fervor for irrational behavior, paraded as progress. Such fervor is premised on blind faith, somewhat like the messianic calling apparently experienced by the poor souls who committed suicide in San Diego in April 1997, as part of the Heaven's Gate group. “An obsession with cyberspace or outer space often indicates a stunted imagination, rather than a fertile and expansive one. Virtual or alternate or hypothetical realities are poor, synthetic substitutes. They're superfluous when reality…is saturated with holiness,” wrote Hal Crowther in Chapel Hill's Independent weekly [(1997, p. 11)]. (See also “Heaven's Gate: The End?”, this issue). While the critique of Heaven's Gate provided an easy target for all manner of commentary, in this case it confirms that in the US at least, rationality is threatened not only by virtuality, but by what appears to be an equally irrational appeal to the sacred. It is as if the implications of virtuality are escape from reality or some sort of jingoistic spirituality. (I am sure spirituality has a place in the rational world; just where remains to be known). In contrast, modernist concepts of rational organization encourage a notion of structural causality, which collides with the overpowering digital modes of mathematics and marketing. Consequently, the search for causal meaning may have limited application, as the modernist appeal to rational meaning cannot be clearly identified in the chaos of contending and irrational forces. This is not to suggest that the matter may be resolved by an appeal to some sort of higher rationality (or hyper-rationality), which may border on a closed set of criteria and a systematic regime of logic and control. Rather, it is to suggest that there is a goal involved in establishing the values, connections and causes through an appeal to a complex of theory building rather than blind faith in a single vision of information [(Mansell, 1996)]. In the next section I will suggest that fantasy about the potential of computerized communications helps reinforce the belief that rationality is an inconvenience.
It should be no surprise that confusion about rationality is heightened by the virtual, rather than resolved by it. In this context the conflation of information and knowledge has taken place under the guise of hyperreality and associated practices which promise an interactive immediacy that previous communication technologies could not offer. Before the desktop computer approached ubiquity, it was not possible to click on a television screen and receive a pizza: web television makes this sort of action seem everyday. In such a scenario, information has a remarkable power of its own, deriving its energy from its disconnection with the knowledge of production of the pizza. Credit cards offer a further step away from knowledge, offering purchasing power that is delinked from the need to work, and matched instead to immediacy of consumption impulses. Structures of meaning that once relied on a sense of history can seem remote, even irrelevant in the information context. Information appears to have made definitions obsolete, as users are encouraged to move with the speed of a ‘click’, leaving encounters unmediated by causal critique. This pessimistic reading of information in this postmodern configuration sees knowledge as an inconvenience that would stand in the way of the rhetoric of convenience. The fantasy of information is preferred.
Remarkable manifestations of this postmodern approach have gained considerable authority. Landow's original and groundbreaking text, used widely in undergraduate work, cites Bolter's 1990 book, Writing Space: “what is unnatural in print becomes natural in the electronic medium and will soon no longer need saying at all, because it can be shown” [(Landow, 1992, p. 3)]. Problematizing a statement such as this is necessary to reveal the enthusiasm for the irrational jettisoning of historically based relationships, logic and causation. Yet Landow presents this as a summary statement of the changing nature of textual criticism. It reveals something of the utopic sentiments that champion hypertext and associated hypes, including: the collapse of categories, the disingenuous proposals about nature, constructions about the value (or evaporating value) of verbalization, a newly hierarchical sense of the visual replacing oral forms of communication (ask a blind or dyslexic person for a response to that). Enthusiasm for written, perhaps even elite screen-based hypertext, undoes much of the theoretical work proposed by Ong's concept of ‘secondary orality’ which suggested the remaking of oral communication due to radio and television broadcasting [(1982)]. The suggestion is that the power of the ear and listening had reemerged in the new oral (media) environment of radio and television. It would be undone, in a potentially antagonistic move back to (written) screen-based text.
Landow's work has been important in placing literary and critical theory in the context of new ways of conceiving the writer/reader/author. His original contribution is less helpful in explaining the bridges between the information domain of the “nonlinear, or more properly… multilinear or multisequential” and the historical knowledge set of critique [(Landow, 1992)]. Indeed, the problem with Landow is largely a resort to the new authority of the technologist in hyperdrive: “networked hypermedia systems, in contrast (to book technology) record and reproduce the relations among texts, one effect of which is that they permit the novice to experience the reading and thinking patterns of the expert” [(1992, p. 143)]. The resort to the expert as authority becomes renewed against the better instincts of the democratic political project of new communications that could be defined by virtuality. Against a culture of new authority, Landow's cause celebre was the benefits of information technology that links users to multiple sites of information. This multiplicity is given high value for the way it extends research features associated with virtuality. It is precisely this remaking of new research techniques and unanticipated readings that cultural studies would endorse. Cultural studies would likewise challenge the uncritical advocacy of the expert author preselecting material for distribution.
Landow's comments were published in 1992, somewhat ancient history by contemporary standards. By 1994, Landow was able to advocate ‘electronic linking’, still actively pursuing the collapse of information into knowledge [(1994, p. 23)]. Without identifying the knowledge gap, Landow promotes a set of activities that includes the ‘creation,’‘converting,’‘adaptation,’‘hybridization,’ and ‘configuration’ of literary material and critical references knowledge [(1994, p. 13–14)]. Intertextuality, or ‘the relations between texts' is just one of the territories across which new textual meanings can be constructed, and Landow is aware of the benefits therein [(Frow, 1995, p. 37)]. The question is really about the fantasy associated with the belief that technology itself will magically fill the knowledge gap. All these activities are valuable tools for strategically remaking texts in the new media environment and rather than discredit attempts at finding new meaning, it is preferable to identify where new forms of meaning arise. Ultimately, this new media environment is informed by two constituents of virtual information: speed, and the (virtual/internet/web) author.
The resort to speed is a key feature of the contemporary communications mediascape. Paul Virilio has discussed this issue at length, recently describing “the end of the relative speed of mechanical transport and the sudden primacy of the absolute speed of electromagnetic transmission” due to state-of-the-art technology [(1995, p. 100) ]. Virtuality has served to heighten and individualize the speed at which information is gathered. What we cannot identify is where the information is grounded. This may be the most empowering, yet contradictory tool of the postmodern interface with new technologies: interactive virtuality. Alternatively, it may be the point at which more rhetoric is generated by vested interests, against the philosophy of knowledge [(Ulmer 1994, p. 348)]. In this respect, Landow's celebration of the new information order and its convenience is instructive.
Because CD-ROM technology exemplifies the ways digitized information increases the scholar's ability to access information quickly, it provides a convenient entrance to our subject. Using color images stored in the form of digital coding (or digitized), an art historian can use information in ways impossible with print technology, laser disc, or videotape. These new possibilities arise because digital technology permits virtually instant retrieval of images or other data from anywhere on a disk, because the search brings one directly to the location (the address) of an image rather than requiring a sequential scan through hundreds or even thousands of images [(Landow, 1994, p. 9–10)].
Scholarship may enjoy the benefits proposed by this sort of speed of access to digitized information. What that speed tells us little about are the organizing principles of the structures that bring the information to our screens and printers, research and publication efforts, not to mention the politics of our lives. In many respects, speed both empowers the user to gain access to pragmatic sources, while disempowering the critical apparatus of knowledge-history. It disarticulates one set of concerns – information retrieval and the recreation of author information sets in the virtual world – from the field of knowledge. This construction has been termed the ‘commonsense knowledge problem’ by Stuart Dreyfus and used to great effect by Gregory Ulmer (cited in [(Ulmer, 1994, p. 349)]. Additionally, intuition, the cousin of common sense, has its own place in the virtual when its linkages to causal structures of social and intellectual practice are acknowledged. Both intuition and knowledge are based in history, through their articulation with human experience and causality. Virtual speed evades these articulations, offering invigorated, yet unhistoricized simulations.
It is little wonder that American capitalism, indeed world capitalism is so enthusiastic for the speed of the virtual, with its plethora of ‘images' as commodity [(Yoshimoto 1996, p. 115)]. Similarly, middle class life is promoted as this Microsoft-like grab at the world – a la the Microsoft advertisement that asks “Where do you want to go today?”– in the comfort of a lounge room or desk in a digitized domestic environment removed from the experience of the sentient world [(Breen, 1997)]. When constructed as a set of experiential interests that explain causes, knowledge has a quite precise, perhaps destabilizing impact on consumption. Consequently, the disarticulation of knowledge-history from information generates a realizable model of profit making, devoid of the questions of philosophy and critique. Of course, new questions may also arise, but probably from the modernists. Is it little wonder that old questions of justice and social value are so difficult to ask in contemporary capitalism? Is it also unsurprising that so much new technology policy work remains undone? Where the economy is everything, virtual information serves as the uncritical means of disarticulation from the politics of it. The information economy is happily dumb to the politics of critique.
The author is remade in the new information economy. However, virtual readings of the author have been subverted by cultural readings that recognize the limitations of the cult of the individual author and the necessity of ‘culture’ as a social process [(Menser & Aronowitz, 1996)]. But the US obsession with privacy on the Internet is the simplest manifestation of a First Amendment Rights obsession with individual freedom. Conversely, a European version of community suggests how issues associated with a celebration of the hypertextual author challenge the cult of the individual, while recognizing the limits of virtuality.
Global networks create artificial environments, in which we become uprooted from our own contexts, become part of the virtual space, floating unconnected, adrift, living in our own virtual reality and utterly dependent on network technology for sustenance, survival and knowledge [(Gill, 1996, p. 12)].
The prospect of an information society without articulations to knowledge-history may leave the author dependent on the preordained ‘knowledge’ within the technology system. In yet another twist to debates about technological determinism, the ‘authors' of such systems may not always be willing for their knowledge to be observed, critiqued, used or shared for community interests.
An instructive attempt to identify the author's interests unfolding in the virtual communication domain has been attempted by Michele Jackson. Jackson identified the transition of the World Wide Web from being ‘once simply a means of accessing information’, to its current condition of ‘now a widely used medium for communication’ knowledge [(Jackson, 1997)]. “It is possible”, says Jackson, that “a new strategy for structuring communication…may carry unique implications for the nature and consequences of human communication” knowledge [(Jackson, 1997)]. Carefully documented within the description of the prospects for communication is the agency of the author. That is, every virtual environment has been constructed elsewhere, and is the result of a lengthy history of authorship.
The concept that Jackson proposes implicitly identifies the information-knowledge nexus, which becomes part of a broader sense of communication that acknowledges the originating author. Here, the Web author provides the links from some previously existing cognitive basis that are transformed by the author's hypertextual agency. It is worth reproducing Jackson's observation of web structures in full, while remaining cognizant of the slippage that takes place towards the author(ity) of the elite written text.
Thus the presence of a link reflects a communicative choice made by a designer. A link, therefore is strategic. The possible variations for structure are shaped by communicative ends rather than technological means. The use of the link in the creation of the Web structure enables the designer to control the potential ways the user can move through information. Web designers might choose to use a very limited number of links, or to use them in a traditional indexing fashion, or to use them to encourage linear progression through the material, or to use them conscientiously to approximate an associative experience for the user. Differences in structure reflect differences in communicative agendas [(Jackson, 1997, p. 8)].
Jackson suggests a modernist response to this agency: network analysis. Here, a “methodology” seeks to “reveal the structures present in social interaction” [(Jackson, 1997)]. Perhaps a more effective method that builds on Jackson's return to modernist structure building and knowledge is the invocation of the ‘valorization of diversity’ within societies, where the ‘coherence’ of local technology networks is based on an appreciation of interactive learning, resulting in a ‘broader knowledge base’ [(Gill, 1996, p. 20–21)]. The author is not lost here. Rather, the author returns, by a recourse to policy that sees the coherence of networks as cooperatively organized tools for knowledge and social life.
Virtuality, especially the newish variants described by the phrase ‘push technology,’ has tended towards the anti-epistemological. Rather than filling the knowledge gap, it has sought to sell and promote new immediacy in human experience, through the application of technological innovation. Like a model of pure capitalism, push technology is fast, irrational and offers the promise of instantaneous gratification. I have considered some background to the absence of conscious causality within hypertext and the disarticulation of information from knowledge. The intention has been to restate a modernist priority: namely that new technologies require information generated from within the human experience of knowledge-history. Almost 20 years ago, this shift was debated not so much in relation to new technology, but due to media in general. Umberto Eco identified the postmodernist context, suggesting that the premise upon which we communicate is the modus ponens: “the rule of reasoning (and hence the rule for a comprehensible and agreed discourse)” [(Eco, 1986, p. 130)]. If we can identify the articulation of this set of rules into each context and experience, virtuality may serve to extend the rationality of our ideas and behavior, rather than to emasculate it. These rules may be policy rules, built around the premise of common sense and knowledge-history within virtuality. Importantly, they will not be rules stipulating the end of the current primacy of mathematics and marketing. They may, for example include suggestions for rebuilding those modes into the everyday lives of rational action.
This is not to say that rationally would spoil the celebratory aspects of new communications technologies and virtuality. Its purpose is to question where the rules of reasoning may have been pushed to, or how they have been relocated. A theory that recognizes the break in the rules of reasoning will be capable of remaking them in keeping with the history of human ambition and achievement. The alternative is to suggest that information provides a simple solution to all problems, enhancing whatever it encounters, yet devoid of the historical lessons which are necessary for advancing civilization. Interestingly, the information technology industry is coming to recognize that the limits of information must be addressed. The New York Times summarized the issue in its headline: “New Breed of Worker Transforms Raw Information Into Knowledge” [(Richtel, October 15, 1997)]. In this model, information suffers not so much from the knowledge gap as from the need to make information “tangible, accessible and useful” [(Richtel, 1997)]. Such utilitarian methods of knowledge assessment are the first step in redefining information and the evaporation of causation theory.
Information and the industry marketing push that has accompanied it lead to the arguments I have made in this discussion for a continuing reassessment of knowledge and rationality, as part of a causation theory. Real world issues of how to appropriate information into the domain of knowledge are central to a discussion about the potential of information. However, structured models that map the shifts from the level of information production to history and knowledge will need to be responsive to changing social, economic and political circumstances. No simple reading of the knowledge gap will suffice. Rather, multiple levels of activity in the production and use of knowledge will require equally mobile and adaptable theories of causation.
For example, as I suggested above, in Jackson's work and in other locations, the concept building that links information to knowledge is taking shape. Elsewhere, Resnick suggests ‘constructionism’, via networks [(1996)]. Like the cultural studies project of articulation, constructionism identifies two central issues: people make ideas; new knowledge is constructed in an engagement with personally-meaningful products [(Resnick, 1996)]. The linkages between knowledge and the virtual world are identified and endorsed. This seems to me to provide another common sense option to approaching the knowledge gap in virtuality. In recognizing the historical building blocks that are part of an informed philosophy of knowledge in the virtual world, the prospects for rational engagement in the real world are greatly enhanced. This is a key aspect of the causation theory to which Norris has drawn attention.
A special issue of SPEED has recently championed the critical approach taken by Paul Virilio. Available at: http://www.arts.ucsb.edu/~speed.