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<nettime> Towards a Data Critique

NETTIME. Autonomedia, New York


Frank Hartmann

     "Data is the anti-virus of meaning"
           --Arthur Kroker

     "There is no information, only transformation"
           --Bruno Latour

The digital datasphere affects all major aspects of
cultural production. Is there still a task for critique
in this process, aside from cheap falsifications of the
techno hype, or from simply articulating fear? What
could be the task for a data-critique then, which could
succeed to reveal the hidden agenda of the proclaimed
'information society'?

After critique

According to some commonsense view, we have already
entered an era beyond enlightenment and critique: the
new media reality creates a symbolic totality, an
inclusive environment--a perspective from which any
critical discourse seems an irresponsibility of sorts.
With this new media reality, the level of theory and of
its object becomes undistinguishable, and what we need
therefore to grasp cyberspace is not a critique of
ideology but a more systematic description of media, an
analysis of its infrastructure, and an archaeology of
the apparatus. This positive view now aligns
intellectuals as well as activists and artists under
the efforts of technology.

Critique is negative indeed, and that firstly means it
is all about limitations. While net-criticism as an
activity indicates the limits of the Internet with all
its disappointed hopes from the 60ies ideology,
data-critique deals with the philosophical and social
assessments of digital technology. Necessarily invoking
some spirit for the enlightenment which became
unpopular after the recent 'death of the subject', the
aspects of data-critique are reaching beyond any
single-handed notion of progress within the inclusive
form of new media.

Philosophers, within their academic discipline, fall
short to grasp the meaning of new information and
communication technology, as they keep to the beaten
track of reading, interpreting and redistributing texts
within their classical frame of reference. The academic
community, at least the humanities, still largely
depends on the gratifications of the paper medium, and
that means on traditional 'print-publishing' through
'publishers'. To be media literate otherwise, they
consider none of their business. There are several
reasons for that ignorance. A quite profane one is
'fear of the machine', which can take on very
sophisticated forms: from straight neo-luddism to a
moralistic, protestant information-ecology with its
apotheosis of the pen and the typewriter. These
positions for one, seem to make clear - insisting on
their professional identity, the so-called humanities
tend to exclude any non-humanist discourse in favour of
their quest for autonomous 'subjects' and their
hermeneutic priviledge of 'making sense'. But there is
no way in falling for a Heideggerian promise which
supposes to reveal an order of things that still could
go undisturbed beyond any stirring by 'media'. There is
no such tranquility of being once after 'care' has
crossed the river for good.(1)

Global Information Economy in Different Worlds

A range of sociological questions supersede the
technological ones. With the new information and
communication technologies [ICT], the end of this
century provides the first world with a thorough and
disorientating crisis concerning the role of work,
education and entertainment. The reason for this is a
postmodern condition at one hand, a global marketing
strategy for these technologies on the other. When in
1995 the National Science Foundation's funds for the
Internet backbone structure in the USA finally ran out,
new sponsorship was due from somewhere. By going
international and also by leaving academic boundaries
behind, the providers of the 'net' found their new
strategy for economic survival. An American concept was
ready to become "the boom to humankind [that] would be
beyond measure", pulling everybody into "an infinite
crescendo of on-line interactive debugging".(2) While
some 96% of the first and 99% of the rest world
population is not online--the information highway has
no turnoff to their house and home and maybe will never
have--the electronic commerce is exploding and the
emerging Virtual Class takes their advantage of the bit
business, "the production, transformation,
distribution, and consumption of digital

And again, what are we referring to? For the society in
transition, the complex social and cultural matrix of
change is not properly known; in the present discourse,
cyberspace as the emerging social space is perceived
merely by technological metaphors and a market-driven
development of the broadband ICT infrastructure.
Especially in Europe, yet not without a particular
reason: the European ICT-market currently ranges at a
total value of ECU 300 billion, and sees an average
national per capita investment in Western Europe of
approximately ECU 350.(4) While Internet access still
is between 10 and 100 times more expensive in Europe
than in the USA(5), the European Commission's
propaganda sees Europe as the coming heartland of
electronic commerce, pushed by those investments and
numerous ICT-policy action plans.(6)

New media and the prophecy of an information society
are little more than the figleaf of a failed transition
of modernity towards a more social society. Judging
from various programmatic papers, the social impact of
the broadband media applications are very modest. In
the so-called Bangemann-report(7) people in the end
only exist as the representation of solid markets under
the command of an ideology of total competition within
the first world(s). With this "new techno-utopia of the
emerging global market capitalism" (Group of Lisbon)
the sole principles of market liberalisation,
deregulation and privatisation are applied.(8) In
consequence, the recommendations and the proposals of
the Bangemann paper seem to serve more to the benefit
of the attending companies in this Expert Group

The lack of proper understanding for a new information
economy beyond competition also derives from an
uncertainty or even a crisis of the intellectual
position and the role of theory within it. The bit
business does not need a media theory. The same goes
for the new "Virtual Class", that social segment
which--according to Arthur Kroker's observation(9)--
benefits most from the virtualization, and which
defends information against any contextualization, with
its goal of a total "cultural accommodation to
technotopia"  exterminating the social potential of the

Intellectual discomfort

While thousands of websites blossom, most intellectuals
feel instinctively uncomfortable with this process.
Traditional Homo Academicus all ash and sack, has not
much clue to what is going on in the flashy online
world. Further to their distance, random ASCII
fetishists become the new iconoclasts of the Net.
Having invested in all that textualism, and having
formed this distinctive usenet community, now coping
with the masses again, with those impositions of the
World Wide Wedge - accompanied with an  unquenchable
thirst for new software, new applications, more
pictures, more entertainment, and more prefab

In the beginning, there was the word, then there was
programming. In terms of cultural technique, the
computer itself substantially changed, as well as our
relationship to the machine, in a relatively short
time, from numbercruncher to wordprocessor to
thoughtprocessor. (10) Moving from mainframe to
personal computing (PC) to net computers (NC) and now
all of a sudden computers, as we painfully learned to
know them, seem to vanish again. Not only they become
less significant parts of an integral whole, but also
widely integrated into everyday's appliances as in
"intelligent" cars, household machines, shoesoles, and
the like. Culture moves towards a state of ubiquitous
computing, where these machines form the new
environment. Amongst many other things, this indicates
new forms of social integration and a new involvement
in societal relations. Kant's transcendental subject
seems to exist not longer in terms of common categories
of sensual perception and logical thought but those of
the global electronic datasphere. Which brings to mind
McLuhan's phrase, that "in the electric age we wear all
mankind as our skin."

All mankind, one world? Should this be the heritage of
the age-old philosophical dream of a universal language
and a common understanding come true? The misleading
term of the Global Village forgot to discuss the severe
social constraints which determine life in a village.
There is a possibility that the information society
becomes as culturally homogeneous as any village
lifestyle is. But we will never forget that we live in
different worlds.

The ideology of individual liberalism can be seen as a
cultural movement from west to east, from north to
south, a doctrine of salvation, which sells the
benefits for a technocratic elite of the Virtual Class
as a paradigm for the global social sphere. The
electronic frontier actually is a retro-movement across
the Atlantic towards Europe, which proceeded within
Europe towards the East with considerable delay. The
relatively homogeneous character of "Cyberspace
American Style" was perceived critically from a
European perspective, where the loss of cultural
diversity was and still is feared. Besides demographic
factors, there are several other hindrances for coping
with this specific change. The problems with the new
electronic boundaries between East and West are not of
a mere technical but also a cultural nature. Cultural
differences express themselves through different use of
communication and techniques: a technical interface
always also is a cultural one.

Winds of change, battle on content

Basically, ICT is grossly overestimated as a tool or
instrument of change, especially when its brief history
(with an open end) is being considered. Will technology
change people, or are new technologies already the
expression of change? But then, technology is always
only a part of the problem. In the end, we have to ask
what will determine the shape of Cyberspace: Asian
hardware and American software alone? Cyberspace holds
political, socio-economical and cultural issues as
well, all of which are up to thorough scrutiny by
social and political science--I would like to promote
this as a specifically European task. As there is
cyberspace, what does it mean for "us", living in a
fragmented world?

Needless to say, that task is a critical one. Why? It
once was argued by philosophers that the bourgeois
utopia of a democratic, participatory society was the
"natural child" of absolutist sovereignty. The critical
task of enlightenment was being performed in a time of
societal crisis, and thus took on some hypocritical
measure. The object of critique firstly being texts and
their social implications, e.g. the Bible,
enlightenment failed in its task to replace these texts
with new content when its critique explicitly was
extended towards politics and society as a whole. The
benefits of enlightenment meant business for some.

In his critique of aesthetic reason, Kant argued in
train of the biblical prohibition of images for an
enlightenment which is "just negative" in respect to
its task: he not only carried on the age-old quest of
intellectuals-- defending their cultural privileges,
i.e. textual against any easier accessible cultural
techniques, wanting to be the "true" mediators against
any kind of "deceiving" media -- he also refused to
name what this non-pictorial 'Denkungsart' should be,
if simple demystification (of the "childish apparatus"
provided by religion and corresponding politics to keep
people as their subjects) would not do.(11) Ages before
Kant, nominalism already failed to win its battle on
content, which started with the intention to
distinguish real content from mere metaphysical noise
(flatus vocis), and true thought from ideology by ways
of, let's say, a proper information economy. Now
history shows that a simple purification filter--from
thoughts to words, from images to texts, from texts to
programs--is not the way it works. Such self-righteous
critique easily becomes delusive. This happened to the
bourgeois filter of content against transcendence, as
the Encyclopedie necessarily failed to be the new Bible
for modernity.

Virtual intellectual task force

Re-thinking enlightenment? Still an academic endeavour.
Re-programming society? A fading socialist dream. The
elements of a data critique are at hand: a task not to
be left to the neo-luddites.(12) The Virtual
Intellectual--a new figure discovered by Geert Lovink
-- will be constituted through his/her specific mixture
of local and global cultures: "The Virtual Intellectual
is conscious of the limitations of today's texts,
without at the same time becoming a servant of the
empire of images." Critical activities, being the
heritage of the textual realm, "will now be confronted
by the problem of the visualisation of ideas."(13)

Critique, according to Kant, concentrates on the form
versus the content, on the realisation of 'negativism'.
As critique always means differentiation, a data
critique follows the modulations of information within
a process of circulation. It works on the level of
subjectivity, while this implicates some sociological
sobriety, some demystification, and some diversity.
Since digitalisation alone is not the issue, the
question is whether there are alternatives within the
pretentious information society project?

Philosophically, it keeps its sceptical distance
towards ontological questions concerned with 'truth',
and similar traditional encumbrance. In a kindred
spirit, Peirce's pragmaticism -- stating the fact that
"We have no power of thinking without signs"(14) --
made clear that because sign and signified differ
according to an ever changing 'interpretant', we rarely
have a chance to recall qualities in communication
which relate to anything beyond actual sign-use and
therefore, media-practice. Thus, the irrelevance of any
metaphysical 'meaning' as in 'true representation' of
ideas through texts becomes a notion of enlightenment
revised, for generations after the overwhelming
encyclopedic project of a thesaurus with all available
knowledge (as cognitive possessions), or even the
notion of 'unified science' (further to d'Alembert or,
more recent, Charles Morris, Otto Neurath and others
who historically struggled to create a new symbolic

Information on information

Hypermodern communication tends to synchronise all
aspects, and under these conditions to publish, means
instant access to all utterance. The immediacy of media
is getting scary. Thoughts are phrases made while
having media presence. Simulation and speed are the two
concepts which dominate media philosophy. Language is
but the soft currency in an economy to increase the
turnover of the information industries. After texts
there are documents, after structure there is HTML,
after style there is VRML. Meanings are offset in dot
com. All content is but chunks of inert digital
information, waiting for the copy pirates. At any
common workplace, no material objects are being
processed, but information. What are the resources of
information work? When information becomes
decontextualised, as it does, then what we need is more
information on information.

Any information which is not contextualised is
worthless. Phil Agre imagined intelligent data as he
put forward the idea of "living data" by thinking
through all the relationships data participate in,
"both with other data and with the circumstances in the
world that it's supposed to represent".(16) Geert
Lovink and Pit Schulz established the notion of a Net
Criticism, introducing the fuzzy concept of something
like ESCII, a European Standard Code for (critical)
Information Interchange.(17) One could further
elaborate on this list; elements of data critique are
there. A data critique, in terms of the announced
information society, is not. It may be all about
creating context, and defining the conditions. About
the power of techno-imagination (Einbildungskraft), as
media philosopher Vilem Flusser (18) announced it. And
content, what content? The Net is a part of creating
and/or reinventing cultural context as form, not as
content. Concentrating on the form means to keep up
cultural tradition. The Nets's problem is that the
social motive which made it possible is seen totally
detached from the technological process, and vice
versa. While deconstructing illusions, the age of
enlightenment produced some illusions of their own.
What is needed is not a New Enlightenment through
technically enhanced individuals, as Max More suggested
for the hypermodern age(19), but a renewed
epistemological agnosticism of sorts, an anti-dualism
set against the notion of that 'inner nature' of things
which leads to any 'true' forms of representation. Why
not call it a data-critique?


(1) Cf. Martin Heidegger's quote of "an ancient fable
in which Dasein's interpretation of itself as 'care'
has been embedded", Being and Time, Oxford ed., 1962,

(2) J.R.C.L. Licklider, Robert W. Taylor: The Computer
as a Communication Device, in: Science and Technology
1968 [http://www.memex.org/licklider.html]

(3) William Mitchell: City of Bits. Space, Place, and
the Infobahn, MIT Press 1996

(4) Source: European Information Technology Observatory

(5) Estimated by hourly costs of a local telephone
connection over the month; before the privatisation of
the telekom with the beginning of 1998, the Austrian
PTT e.g. flexed its monopolistic mucles once more by
raising telephone costs for private users up to one
third in Nov. 1997

(6) Martin Bangemann: "The opening of Europe's
telecommunications markets is the key to the door of
the Information Society", Information Society Project
Newsletter, Telecoms Special Issue, Nov. 1997

(7) High-Level Expert Group: "Europe and the Global
Information Society. Recommendations to the European
Council", Brussels 1994

(8) Group of Lisbon: Limits to Competition. MIT Press

(9) Arthur Kroker, Michael A. Weinstein: Data Trash.
The theory of the virtual class. St. Martin's Press

(10) Michael Heim: The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality.
Oxford Univ. Press 1993

(11) Immanuel Kant: Critik der Urtheilskraft
[1790/1793], A124/125

(12) Thomas Pynchon: Is it O.K. to be a Luddite? The
New York Times Book Review, 28. Oct. 1984

(13) Geert Lovink: Portrait of the Virtual
Intellectual. On the design of the public cybersphere.
Lecture at the Documenta X, Kassel, July 1997 -
distributed via nettime-l [http://www.desk.nl/~nettime]

(14) Charles S. Peirce: Philosophical Writings of
Peirce, ed. by Justus Buchler, Dover Publ., 1955, p.230

(15) D'Alembert, Jean LeRond: Discours Preliminaire de
l'Encyclopedie [1751]. Morris, Charles W. / Neurath,
Otto (et al.): International Encyclopedia of Unified
Science. Foundations of the Unity of Science. The
University of Chicago Press [1938-39]

(16) Phil Agre: Living Data

(17) Geert Lovink, Pit Schultz: Grundrisse einer
Netzkritik [http:www.dds.nl/~n5m/texts/netzkritik.html]

(18) 'Technoimagination' and 'Communicology' are
Flusser's terms to complement the technological
process; cf. Vilem Flusser: Kommunikologie, Mannheim

(19) Max More: New Enlightenment. European Origins -
American Future?, in: Telepolis
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