Frank Hartmann on Wed, 22 Jul 1998 10:46:23 +0200 (MET DST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Towards a Data Critique (for zkp5)

[this is one of the first texts for the zkp5/nettime bible which came in.
please send us your texts, drafts and suggestions to:]


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

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 information".(3)

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 themselves. 

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 interactivity? 

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 'unification').(15)

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


(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, p.242

(2) J.R.C.L. Licklider, Robert W. Taylor: The Computer as a Communication
Device, in: Science and Technology 1968

(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 1996

(9) Arthur Kroker, Michael A. Weinstein: Data Trash. The theory of the
virtual class. St. Martin's Press 1994

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

(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 []

(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 []

(18) 'Technoimagination' and 'Communicology' are Flusser's terms to
complement the technological process; cf. Vilem Flusser: Kommunikologie,
Mannheim 1996

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

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: