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<nettime> Wolfgang Schirmacher on Net Culture
geert lovink on Tue, 6 Jan 2004 10:05:50 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Wolfgang Schirmacher on Net Culture

Wolfgang Schirmacher: Net Culture, in: Poiesis 3. EGS Press. Toronto, 2001.

Culture Between Conformity and Resistance

The human individual is a cultural being that with the aid of linguistic
symbols creates a world not provided for by nature. We are 'artificial by
nature,' as the philosophical anthropologist Hellmuth Plessner emphasized,
and our cultural achievement consists in technological ingenuity, in the
constructs of institutions; it reveals itself ideally in media and art. With
culture we create a human sphere and establish realms of private and public
encounter. In the last few years a cultural phenomenon has developed with
the Internet which seeks its equal in history in its intellectual
consequence and incomparable power to generate and foster communal
belonging. Not even in their golden ages did the world religions possess
such global force of attraction, allowing a world culture to hold sway and
rendering regional differences obsolete. In the Internet, cultural
imagination meets with the material conditions of many varied societies and
transcends these. The long dominant difference between public and private
sphere has been suspended, and the Internet has become the universal venue
of encounter. The functioning of society at a very basic level is affected
here, one which usually escapes our attention. The cultural change effected
through the new media cannot be overestimated, but it is yet uncertain where
it will lead.

European reaction to the Internet fluctuates between euphoria and rejection,
and for a long time it was the more educated among those scornful of the net
who most dramatically conjured up the digital devil. But Internet use in
Europe has in the meantime caught up with that in the United States, and it
is conceivable that in the near future no one under 80 will be without
Internet access. Being a netizen is not a matter of age, merely a question
of becoming accustomed. The net culture has to be learned - like any new way
of life. At first this doesn't even appear difficult, as the Internet
increasingly offers a doubling of our familiar reality. For one, it meets
our habitual needs in its capacity as gigantic department store and
well-stocked, diverse flea market, fulfilling our expectations. Shopping
online is designed to be convenient and save time, but its virtuality ends
as soon as you give your credit card number. The real world does the rest,
since all purchases still need to be delivered. Even where illusion is for
sale, as with interactive Cybersex, the customer must be satisfied in the
end with self-service. In short, with regard to its materiality, Internet
culture offers very little that is truly new, if one discounts the lack of
hierarchical structure by virtue of which the familiar and the little known
exist side by side (for a fee, of course, search machines will list one's
website among the first 50).

If the Internet culture is not defined by new products, then we're left with
the lifestyle to which the net clearly beckons. Popular and high culture
blend together in the net to become a media culture which seems to follow
only one's personal tastes. Nevertheless, it cannot be overlooked that
Nietzsche's appraisal of the herd mentality in humans retains its validity
even under present conditions in the Internet. Internet critics Geert Lovink
and Pit Schulz [www.fiveminutes.net] see in it the workings of a
"multi-cultural mass conformity, full of micro-practices and management of
the self." And in view of the perpetual stream of information, how is it
even possible to form a standpoint? Paul Virilio calls for us to slow down -
a provocation in a culture committed to speed. But the "will to connection"
(Lovink/Schulz) is probably divided from the start: we want to belong but
not at the price of self-abandonment. The me-generation learned its lesson
well, words of advice from the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm: You have to love
yourself before you can love another. But this cannot be reversed; Richard
Sennett's versatile human is incapable of adaptation in this one sense: the
autopoietic self is as essential as the Other. Life would be intolerably
boring otherwise.

Net People Like You and Me

Isolated monad or receptive net citizen - what type peoples the Internet
today? It is clear that the era of the anarchic net is past, and the hacker
ethos figures chiefly in films nowadays. The World Wide Web with its simple
use has insured that one needn't possess specialized knowledge to be able to
play the game. And with the affordable flat rates being offered, no one has
to tap into another's telephone line to take full advantage of the netlife.
More and more real women are turning up in chat rooms so that the virtual
"Marilyns" of the early years have become rare. For the first time, in the
spring of 2000, more women than men were online in the United States. The
normalcy of human relationships has also reached the Internet culture, with
all its advantages and disadvantages. The fact that the male of the species
lapses into mating behavior as soon as he reads a female name and would like
nothing better than to meet privately with the obscure object of his desire
is nothing new (only as embarrassing as ever). This proves merely that
netizens are not better people, the net culture is not a higher cultural
form, we simply now find human-all-too-human foibles in electronic form. The
Internet is a mirror of existing conditions, and Internet culture cannot
make up for what education and self-development have neglected. Instead of
making possible the venturing forth toward new horizons, security is a high
priority in the Internet, and the unexpected I LOVE YOU mail turns out to be
a potent computer virus (what's so astonishing is how many romantic souls
fell for it).

Will the Internet become a virtue machine? Visual sex still remains the item
of greatest demand, and the porno hawkers, as usual, come up with the
technologically most sophisticated websites. But the more people who make
their appearance in the Internet and through their sheer numbers rouse the
desirability of economy and politics, the cleaner the net will become.
Moralists have an easy task when it comes to solving the problem of control,
for the programs which allow us unlimited access also record where we have
been and what we have done. Privacy, in its traditional sense, no longer
exists, transparent human becomes reality in Internet society. If we lock
ourselves in, we lock ourselves out. Fortunately it is no longer a problem
in the 21st century to live privately as we do publicly, since the
institutions which once punished deviant behavior and even thought crimes
have been decisively weakened in their sanctioning powers. You have to be
Catholic nowadays - and that voluntarily - to commit a mortal sin, and the
postmodern critique of morality has, to a large degree, destroyed the
consensus on what society considers unacceptable. This however does not
hinder those in positions of power from attempting to constrain persons
within their limited reach: parents install the NET NANNY program, employers
read their employees' e-mail, and moderators of discussion groups make sure
insults and obscenities are avoided. But of course security programs can be
outwitted, e-mails securely encoded, and verbal S&M practiced in private
chat rooms. But by the same token Internet culture is in this practical
sense a deeply tolerant culture, since restrictions that can be so easily
evaded are hardly suited to enforcing virtue.

Educators are not wanted in the net, and when they do turn up they have to
seek their own pupils. But there is indeed a great need for intelligent
helpers, i.e., programs which, like a good butler, know the tastes and
preferences of their employers and work independently to ensure that
everything needed is at hand. An outstanding butler (Sir Anthony Hopkins
would certainly play him on the screen, that is, when he's not busy eating
people) corrects his master inconspicuously, and, according to the principle
of a self-fulfilling prophecy, raises his level. Internet butlers and
netizens would soon become ever more alike, consequently, the educational
process would change over to a self-directed method. It cannot be too highly
stressed that the net culture strengthens self-initiative and rewards
creative interaction with the new media. Those who prefer a passive mode
with the Internet instead of moving within the net as an imaginative artist
squander most of what the net culture can offer. As much as it may reflect
our everyday culture in real life, net culture is distinguished by certain
qualities through which it becomes genuine and heralds a different life.

In Praise of Undefined Life

>From first-hand experience garnered in his Hollywood exile, Theodor W.
Adorno once accused the American cultural industry of transforming the
pursuit of enlightenment into an operation of mass deception. He saw
sacrificed in serial production precisely that which distinguishes a work of
art from its social environment: criticism of existing conditions. But not
in his wildest dreams could the leading philosopher of the Frankfurt School
have imagined the fury with which comedians in the United States would come
to attack the American way of life. Whether Jerry Seinfeld or Eddie Murphy,
Beavis and Butthead or South Park, whether films such as Kids or American
Beauty, no taboo is sacrosanct, and the critical eye is merciless. The net
culture carries on with what the media giants were unable to prevent in
their programs - a culture without reverence for which the busy sex life of
a president is material as welcome as the slow death of a cardinal. No
masses are being deceived here, each piece of information is freely
accessible and begs to be used. The problem of the net culture is not the
repression of information, but rather the selection from a sheer
overwhelming glut. The noise never ceases, barely glimpsed, the image, the
text, the message disappears without ever really registering. Cultural
critics such as Jürgen Habermas deplore the blurring of contours and
definition which paves the way for indifference to criticism; they charge
postmodern culture with diffuseness, not asking themselves whether this
endless flow and the return of the eternally same isn't much closer to the
reality of the life we live than symbolically constructed culture. Niklas
Luhmann, on the other hand, appraises the media world in its most clearly
expressed form as net culture more coolly. This insightful sociologist has
observed we are not first and foremost merely passive consumers in our
dealings with the media, instead, we organize a selection of information
suited specifically to the respective individual. This selection follows a
"limited rationality," not aiming for totality, and for this reason is often
disdained, for only in retrospect do we feel we are putting it all together.

But isn't it precisely the advantage of the Internet culture that it starts
from the limitations of human reason and that of our social involvement
rather than setting impossible standards which will necessarily be
disappointed? If one interprets the will to net power as the insight into
the futility of our grand designs, the exciting prospect of net culture's
innate possibilities opens up. For instance, life technologies are practiced
as if natural, they exhibit nothing spectacular, yet they give new direction
to the project of the human individual (not to be confused with the once
highly touted project of modernity). Humans who grow up in the Internet
culture learn to deal confidently with their artificial nature prophesied by
Nietzsche: the human being is the undefined animal, a transition, the arrow
of Zarathustra. Would-be breeders of humankind, irrespective of confession,
whether gene- or education-oriented, need remember that, unlike the
existence of our fellow creatures, "natality" (Hannah Arendt) and mortality
do not mark beginning and end of the human individual; they are instead the
existential techniques generating our entire lives. We are always capable of
dying, and the individual's death - as renunciation, parting, flight,
change - annuls even the best education. Even more powerful is the creative
side of human beings: the designing of worlds, the ease with which we can
forsake what is given us as legacy and task. Because the human being is a
finite event, as Heidegger noted, his openness cannot be limited and the
extent of her horizon is unbounded. No determination with its directness can
restrain a fulfilled life whose theories are developed subsequent to living
and abandoned cheerfully at the moment of their generation. Those who can
join in the praise of a manifold life, as Gilles Deleuze reminds us, have no
fear of information pollution, they take unreserved pleasure in the primary
flow of the World Wide Web.

Internet technology is unobtrusive, our legitimate interests nomadic, and
the community we build with others is indirect. The fact that technologies
become human only after they are no longer noticeable is the basic principle
of a post-technological era, as proclaimed by the visionaries of the
Internet. Our technical equipment, from nanocomputers in the bloodstream to
superjumbo jets, will be interlinked and manage the care of vital processes
too circuitous to have need of our watchful decision. It is a senseless
waste of human intelligence to act as overseer of processes which with the
aid of internal feedback function smoothly. The software will be outsourced,
found instead in the Internet, removed from individual view, and the
childlike rejoicing at each new technical variation will abate at last. In
post-technological times the best machines will be in operation and no one
will find this in any way remarkable. Anyone who finds this observation
unbelievable should take note of how rarely in social discourse the wonder
that is our organic existence is spoken of - we take for granted our
breathing, the many functions of our skin, a soothing gesture of the hand.

The Internet culture encourages a nomadic lifestyle. But these are nomads
who are at home everywhere, who practice sustainability in their dealings
with their environment. Nomads of earlier times who were not at home
anywhere, pulling up stakes and moving on without regret after laying waste
to their surroundings, are not welcome in the net (there are such parasites
in the net, to be sure, and they will invariably be attracted by "free"
offers). We bring our whole self into the virtual culture, from our own
individual website to our innermost desires and we are surprised at what we
discover we hadn't yet desired. Were there many critical voices in the early
years of the Internet accusing cyberspace of being hostile to the human
body, today such claims are made only by superficial observers. The so
complex and alien equipment with which body artists wanted to make their
contribution to cybersex have already become museum pieces. Anthropologists
of the virtual world such as Sandy Stone from the ACTLAB at the University
of Texas, Austin, have successfully demonstrated that human body awareness
is nowhere needed and used more than in surfing the Internet. It seems not
everyone has heard that sex is a product of our imagination, its biological
expression becomes stimulating only through artful application. Thought
bereft of sensation is pedantic and boring. In order to even hold our
attention the offer on the screen must evoke life in all its fullness. How
else might this be possible but through the presence of our unconscious
biography, through the immediate summoning of sentient qualities which have
enriched us since the womb. To borrow from Hegel, sustained consumption
takes place in the nomadic netlife, for our own production exceeds external

Generation of Friends

Perhaps the most significant feature of the Internet culture is its
intensification of social life. Often under fire for being a solipsistic,
isolating medium, the Internet has in truth revived a traditional form of
communal life which can be objectively described as a circle of friends. An
individual is not accepted into the virtual community through the process of
socialization, but rather, having learned the basic techniques of netlife,
each person seeks his/her own circle. Belonging to such a group does not
mean giving up one's individuality, on the contrary, the expression of one's
own specialness is the prerequisite for being received as a friend. Net
culture makes possible a social intercourse once reserved for the cultural
elite, in that each individual is at liberty to choose from an extensive
pool of potential partners those persons with whom he/she wishes to
communicate. There is a certain relief in having the option of being able to
talk only with those who are of kindred spirit, and the quality of such
relationships is unrivaled. This has nothing to do with elitism since anyone
can find and/or open a discussion forum and mailing list of one's
preference. The danger of cultural exclusion is negligible since in the net
culture we are constantly in an in-between stage and friendships take on a
certain lightness of being. This kind of indirect communication corresponds
to the openness of connection and the ease of passage between net worlds, a
communication which perceives and appreciates the Other but does not
overshadow. Avital Ronell has analyzed such empathy in the rhetorical act of
greeting and she stresses that our strongest bond of friendship exists where
we retain a certain distance. The rehabilitation of politeness as social
gesture is wonderfully compatible with net culture.

Can this quality of friendship also embrace the solidarity which should
extend to the disadvantaged and those we have all but given up on?
Schopenhauer's ethics of compassion shows us how fragile is the distinction
between happiness and misfortune, an ephemeral moment at best. But this
warning against the illusory belief we can be spared the misery others
endure speaks for the generating of friends who deal with each other in a
very human manner without patronizing, without direct interference. This
respectful restraint, quite typical of net culture, will be considered
offensive by all those who feel compelled to dictate to others how they
should live a better life. Yet it is probably the only way which will appear
acceptable to a netizen whose freedom of choice can no longer be withdrawn.


Adorno, Th.W. : The Culture Industry. Ed.J.M.Bernstein. London: Routledge,

Deleuze, Gilles: The Fold. Transl.T.Conley. Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1993

Fromm, Erich: The Art of Loving. New York: Bantam Books, 1963

Habermas, Jurgen: Thee Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Transl.
F.Lawrence. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1990

Luhmann, Niklas: The Reality of the Mass Media. Transl. K.Cross. Cambridge:
Polity, 2000

Plessner, Hellmuth: Crying and Laughing. Transl. J.S.Churchill / M.Grene.
Evanston: Nortwestern University Press, 1970

Ronell, Avital: The Sacred Alien: Heidegger's Reading of Hölderlin.The

Avital Ronell Reader, ed. D.Davis (forthcoming)

Schirmacher, Wolfgang: Privacy as an Ethical Problem in the Computer
Society. Philosophy and Technology II. Ed. C.Mitcham / A.Huning.. Dordrecht,
Reidel, 1985

Sennett, Richard: The Corrosion of Character. New York: W.W.Norton, 1998

The Virilio Reader. Ed. J.Der Derian. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers,

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