Right now, all we have on the Net is folklore, like the Netiquette that old-timers try to teach the flood of new arrivals, and debates about freedom of expression versus nurturance of community. .... A science of Net behavior is not going to reshape the way people behave online, but knowledge of the dynamics of how people do behave is an important social feedback loop to install if the Net is to be self-governing at any scale.
     -- Howard Rheingold, quoted in (1)
     [On the net] your interactions with others take place completely in text. Being polite, then, is all about making your text approachable, intelligent, comprehensible, and respectful of those around you.
     [T]here are none of the usual visual cues to indicate smiling or frowning, laughter or anger, so you must learn to indicate the mood of what you say by how you write it. You should be aware of mistakes that can make what you have to say sound, even if on accident, obnoxious or mean-spirited. (2)
     While some have argued that computing via the Internet offers a vision of freedom and a shared humanity, others have claimed with equal vehemence that it may become the instrument of global surveillance and personal alienation.
     ...Newsgroup postings offer an opportunity for an anthropologist to do some "lurking" without the usual costs of time, money, discomfort, or political hassle associated with ordinary types of fieldwork. A disadvantage of Internet ethnography of this sort is that it is much harder to figure out what's going on when you can only observe what people say, and not what they actually do.
     -- Aycock (4)
     When research comes to study the very realm within which it operates, the results which it obtains can be immediately reinvested in scientific work as instruments of reflexive knowledge of the conditions and social limits of this work... [But we] have every reason to think that the researcher has less to gain, as regards the scientific quality of his work, from looking into the interests of others, than from looking into his own interests, from understanding what he is motivated to see and not to see.
     -- Pierre Bourdieu (3)

Instead of taking 'communication' as an established means to link to a 'real world,' what if we reconsider it as an internal process in its own right? If, instead of taking 'what people say, and not what they actually do' as a problem, we regard their expressions, their outputting of words, as merely reflection of an 'actual' experiential continual development of 'psychespace' (which after all is no more 'virtual' than the emergence of a person in the world ever was)? If, in place of anthropological observation, we reside in 'the very realm within which [we] operate,' admittedly restrained (largely by our upbringing as H. academicus bourdieunsis) to apply tools (language in particular) developed for, and through, exploring and understanding our environment?

Then, the merit of netiquette lies not merely in making what you say sound friendly and laid-back, as if it is your own mental equilibrium which is being judged, but in exercising some consideration in how you mess about in the other person's consciousness. Is hy ready for the impact of your contribution? Is hy even aware that hys mind is being changed by this kind of open-brain surgery? Are you? (Being unaware is commonly described as being 'at risk' -- the risk, that is, of losing track; of not knowing how one came to think so.) (See Free speech)

Thus the antinomy implied in Rheingold's phrase 'freedom of expression versus nurturance of community,' and between Aycock's 'vision of freedom and a shared humanity,' and the 'instrument of global surveillance and personal alienation.' can be resolved. When stated as an objective choice between one and the other one feels that there 'should' be something done 'out there' -- for instance, that computer networks should be designed to 'promote' one and 'control' the other - to 'solve the problem.' But, 'in here,' it's clear that it is the very power that 'offers a vision' which, in the same measure, operates the 'instrument.' Just as in any of our technological 'media' since fire and ice, more engineering does not, cannot, as the Johnny Mercer song says, 'accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative' of CMC for us. Call it netiquette, responsibility, judgement, consideration, tolerance, brotherhood, or love, it is virtue that makes the difference -- not in writing in cyberspace, but in the real-time exercise of composing the mind.

Lawley discusses Bourdieu's importance in the context of her proposed study of CMC environments, "since as an active participant in these environments, I must acknowledge my 'insider' role as necessarily informing my perspective on any research undertaken." (1) The point that I make here (and have made before) is that the converse, that outside experience equally necessarily informs, and neglecting the implications puts us all at risk. Regardless of the so-called 'content' of our messages, we participate in one another's perspectives. The question of self-governance turns on whether we can give up our privileged Bohrean status as atomistic purveyors of 'information' and become Maxwellian demons -- or Shrödingerian cats -- Mr In-betweens, every one (sic).




These materials are indexed at [ Anthropology, Gender, MUDs, MOOs, Cyberspace and related subjects].

(1) Elizabeth Lane Lawley, [ The Sociology of Culture in Computer-Mediated Communication: An Initial Exploration], 1994

(2) [ Claire ]

(3) P. Bourdieu. Homo Academicus Stanford: Stanford University Press (1984). Cited in Lawley, ibid.

The Journal of CMC:
(4) 1:2 [Aycock]

(5) 2:3 [Gordin]


Thinking and Learning

     Social accounts of learning and human knowledge [e.g. by Dewey, Vygotsky, Wittgenstein, Kuhn] have led to attempts to reorganize schools as learning communities. This paper examines the utility of the World Wide Web for aiding in the construction of school-based and work-based learning communities. An ordered list of interactions is provided to characterize the depth of students' entry into new learning communities...
    -- Doug Gordin (5)

     Work in cyberspace is schizophrenic in part because it gives the worker the delusional sense of being simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. As a result, working in cyberspace often leads to a withdrawal from the social relationships which are normal to workers within physical public spaces and communities.
     [...]The work of the body becomes eclipsed by the work of the mind. [...] Cyberspace opens up a distinctly new form of public space...
     -- Tim Jackson (6)
     The dethronement of learning is one of the most exciting intellectual frontiers we are now crossing.
     -- Kevin Kelly (7)

The change of perspective I am proposing directly applies to one of the profound upheavals of the century: the loss of the institutional legitimacy of education. My focus is not on libertarian arguments against compulsory schooling, but -- in parallel with the shifted emphasis of information -- on the the restoration of education as a mental process; as mentation. As we inform one another, the objective difference between 'teaching' and 'learning' dissolves; there are only different points along some scale of organization of experience. (Could it be that it is the insistence that there must be objective differences that has led to the polarizations of contemporary society, whether they be expressed in obsequious acceptance and 'consumerism' or incoherent rejection and 'delinquency'? See [Dialectical Education]; cf Ayal,TLS .)

Cyberspace is a new form of perspective. It is not simply the visual and auditory perspective that we know. It is a new perspective without a single precedent or reference: a tactile perspective. Seeing at a distance, hearing at a distance - such was the basis of visual and acoustic perspective. But touching at a distance, feeling at a distance, this shifts perspective into a field where it had never before applied: contact, electronic contact, tele-contact.
    -- Paul Virilio (8)
For the sake of description, let's pursue Virilio's metaphor.(9) After all, the critical difference between 'education' and simple experience is that the mentor 'shows and tells' what she knows -- and judges her 'mentee' according to his 'objective' ability to re-present (i.e. more or less on the same level), visually and orally, what he has gleaned from that process. In a 'tactile' perspective, we hold one another's hands as they glide over a body of knowledge. At one level of organization, we accept that there is a 'surface,' as of a book or a table; at another level, we might feel the equivalent of molecular structures or magnetic field perturbations, or even the 'up' and 'down' directions of electron spin. As our coupled (interdigitated? Escheran?) hands explore, they sense the same 'information field,' but interpret the experience/ integrate the effect differently, without 'grading' the levels as 'lower' or 'higher.'

The effect is more than merely metaphorical, however; the 'doors of perception' are suddenly found to be doubly-hinged. One's 'entry into new learning communities' is matched by a communal grope of one's interiority -- an 'invasion of privacy' as more politically-minded students would have it -- which will be disconcerting as long as that community consists only of objectivists. The challenge of connectivity is to get beyond the schizophrenia of being 'everywhere and nowhere,' not because there is (to quote an Australian version of the CDA) "drug misuse, crime, cruelty, violence or `revolting or abhorrent phenomena'" (10) out there on the net; not for our own (well-adjusted!) sakes, but for those who find themselves learning to bring an integrated personality out of their online/ in-here chaos. It may not have been an objectively planned or predicted 'project,' but we are performing neural surgery on one another, in real time, and we had better get good at it. (Walter Mitty, where are you now?)


Now it may seem ironic that an argument for tactility is being made in a medium whose stock in trade is visual (with the auditory spectrum not far behind), but this is to confuse the metaphorical with the substantial. Just as a teacher's 'showing' is more likely pointing, so too might this 'visual' medium more properly be described as a 'graphical' enhancement of plaintext (is reading not already an optical exercise?). However, I don't mean to merely put a nice face on the sad fact that instantaneous transmission of tactile, material objects is not yet possible, but (in pedagogical fashion) to point to the 'original' relationship of reading or talking about X to the actual experience of X.

That is, the 'meta' aspect of being 'about' or around something has been nearly ob-literated in hubristic faith that everything worth knowing could be defined and described. The visual metaphor (synecdoche, for the purist) has been reified; objectified in the name of progress - and Virilio's tactile metaphor is a simple aid in re-emphasising that meta-stasis, a reminder/ remainder/ maintainer of different levels of abstraction.

B/W butterfly behind bars Thus 'you know' that the image on your screen is not a material butterfly, but to the extent that it presents 'what a butterfly is' it relies on the fact that you already know (about) butterflies. The E-Lekh addresses what an image is, by relying on your knowledge of representation; specifically, that the essence of imagery is that it works in a different medium. A butterfly is not an image of a butterfly; the map is not the territory; how then can one talk about communication processes without 'collapsing' into the reality of one's own communication process? By representing or abstracting (some of) the characteristics of dialog in a metaphorical way -- a way that doesnt need talking about: mapping, don't you know.

Needless to say, I will add, "Needless to say, I will add a few further remarks."


Go play on the E-lekh

Reading and Risking In memoriam


(6) [ Working Cyberspace], in Bad Subjects #32 (April 1997)
(7)Out of Control, 1994, p.84, quoted by [Tom Abeles] and online at
(8) [Speed and Information: Cyberspace Alarm!] in C-THEORY #30 (27 August 1995).
(9) The remaining sensory alternative is of course, the 'Nasoscape.' Unfortunately, the vocabulary of pheromonal discrimination is somewhat stifled, although the onologists may have the last word.
(10) Dan Tebbutt, "States to Censor Online Services," PC Week Australia (13 December 95), p.8

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