Constructions of Authority in Cyberspace Cultures

CONTENTS

K22

This dissertation focuses on constructions of authority in cyberspace cultures, particularly the cyberculture of the Xenaverse. Many claims have been made for egalitarian freedom and democratization in cyberspace (Nelson, Bolter, Landow, Coover, Ess, Faigley, Moulthrop). More recently, technology critics have warned that cyberspace has the potential to be dystopian, panoptic, and oppressive (Postman, Zuboff, Birkerts, Selfe & Selfe "Democratic Social Action,"). In the introduction to this sector, I discussed how my own early forays into cyberspace and cyberspace research led to me to consider a dichotomy of active and passive media forms. In that dichotomy, I imagined that the spirit of cyberspace cultures, unlike current electronic mass media-influenced cultures, would lead to a more interactive, engaged citizenry. In this node, I suggest that those claims are quite shortsighted and overly reliant on technological determinism. They simply do not hold up to scrutiny and may be too simplistic.

 

K23 A more complicated model is offered by notions of social constructions of authority across media and social movements, an analysis of how authorities are being created and sustained in the seemingly authority-less spaces of the Internet. This issue is yet to be resolved as commercial interests and democratic activists struggle for influence in cyberspace. Thus, the issue of whether panoptic authoritarianism or more critical, humanistic values will affect the prevailing ethos in this space is still actively discussed. The consequences for an authoritarian result can be seen when cyberspace is compared to the often-criticized somnambulist cultures influenced by television programming, which appears to subject viewers to a passive "banking model" of authoritarian "education" (Freire 58). Media critics such as Lawrence K. Grossman in The Electronic Republic: Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age have documented the "dumbing down" of the populace through passive "authoritarian" media programming. Socially-created forms of authoritarianism, he shows, tend to work against a democratic ideal of a critical and creative, interactive, engaged citizenry. Authoritarianism can still be reinforced or inhibited by specific features in particular interfaces and communications technologies, but the character of the social groups hold the dominant influence, not the technology itself. In this section and in my subsequent data descriptions and analysis of the Xenaverse culture, I hope to show that cyberspace is still neither egalitarian and democratizing nor authoritarian and panoptic. Instead, I argue that the effects appear to be predominantly social, with the influence of the technology playing a secondary role to cultural roles and assumptions brought in from outside to be honed and shaped by social forces in online forums. This would seem to suggest that the medium of cyberspace is still under contention, and potentially a receptive site for radical democratic activism.

 

 

 

 

K24 It remains then to develop a working conception of authority in the medium of cyberspace to use as a frame to investigate the claims frequently made about various communications technologies, including how do the technologies that undergird the ongoing conversations in the Xenaverse influence and activate authority--and authoritarianism--in that culture. How do they influence and activate resistance to authority and authoritarianism in the Xenaverse, and by extension, the rest of cyberspace? That frame of authority and authoritarianism will be applied to three different cultural traditions of communication: (1) oral/aural forms, (2) alphabetic print forms, and (3) developing electronic forms which often combine elements of the previous forms plus additional dimensions, such as time/space/sequencing and simulation, associative, interstitial hypertextual linking and meaning-making, multiple windows, and multi-threaded dialogism.

 
K25 Authoritarianism manifests itself in almost all social organizations, from families and small towns to totalizing systems, philosophies, and governments--a spectrum that ranges from the epistemological quest for certainty or at least a nominally contingent way of knowing to the dystopian nightmares of George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut--the possibility that a totalitarian, technologically-mediated panoptic government or dictator could monitor and control most aspects of our lives. Radical democracy, as framed by C. Douglas Lummis, is the "antithesis" to authoritarian power. Lummis writes, "Democracy is a critique of centralized power of every sort, charismatic, bureaucratic, class, military, corporate, party, union, technocratic" (25). Yet authoritarianism is not a term heard often today. With a concern for combatting fascism, members of the Frankfurt School and particularly T.W. Adorno, focused their work on The Authoritarian Personality (Adorno et al). Jürgen Habermas has also taken a strong ethical-political stance against fascism in forming his theory of communicative action and discourse ethic, which attempts to make the sometimes utopian claims for democracy explicit in a formulation of an "ideal speech situation." Charles Ess and Susan Herring have found the theories of "democratic polity" developed by Habermas to be a useful way of evaluating the democratization claim for computer-mediated communication (CMC). However the work of the Frankfurt School and Habermas has been criticized by postmodernist theory as heavily invested in the search for generalizable universals associated with modernism.

 

K26

In a quest for responsible, engaged, critical and creative human agency, it is too easy to cast power and authority as instruments of oppression. In his conception of relations of power, Foucault frees power/knowledge from easy dichotomies. Power can accomplish good and bad things. Agency itself can be a form of power, and radical democracy celebrates the empowerment of the masses. Foucault's understanding of the disciplinary gaze and issues of domination within complex relations of power (viz., Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality Vol. I.) is particularly valuable to this study because of the panoptic issues raised in cyberspace and in the Xenaverse in particular. The lack of overt, controlling social structures in cyberspace means that we must look beyond the surface in order to understand the complex and interrelated ways power and authority are negotiated. Foucault's critiques of power give us a model for understanding the complicated and coercive forces of authoritarianism in which the "authority figures" and those submitting to them both are accomplices in the relations of power. In "Two Lectures" in the collection Power/Knowledge Foucault writes

Power must b[e] analyzed as something which circulates, or rather as something which only functions in the form of a chain. It is never localized here or there, never in anybody's hands, never appropriated as a commodity or piece of wealth. Power is employed and exercised through a net-like organisation. And not only do individuals circulate between its threads; they are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising this power. They are not only its inert or consenting target; they are always also the elements of its articulation. In other words, individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application (98).

 

 

 

K27

Some have had difficulties with Foucault's emphasis on the interactive relations of power. From a Marxist perspective, one could say that Foucault downplays overmuch the helpless position of the economically oppressed. Others find Foucault's apparent relativism troubling. As Joseph Rouse writes,

Foucault framed his investigations as an alternative to the preoccupation of political thought with questions about sovereignty and legitimacy. Many of his readers have found this critical concern troubling, because they worry that it undercuts any possible stance from which Foucault might be able to criticize the modern forms of knowledge and power that he has described (93).

 

K28

Richard Bernstein, in The New Constellation: The Ethical-Political Horizons of Modernity/Postmodernity, has done much for resolving this seeming impasse between critical frameworks, refusing to fall into "Enlightenment blackmail" from either side as he attempts to forge a "constellation" for criticism where modernism and postmodernism both contribute to a new dynamic beyond rationalist foundationalism and postmodern relativism. Bernstein addresses the concern that Foucault's ethics are "confused, incoherent, and contradictory" (149). He claims that Foucault uses a "rhetoric of disruption that is the source of Foucault's critical sting" (154) "...deliberately using hyperbolic rhetorical constructions in order to compel us to disrupt and question our understandings of these key concepts" (155). How does Foucault's "rhetoric of disruption" figure in with relations of power which include authoritarianism, control, surveillance, and potential domination in cyberspace? Much of Discipline and Punish concerns itself directly with the disciplinary effects of authoritarianism and hierarchical controls, which, along with the technology of the panopticon, generate the two kinds of knowledge in a disciplinary society: the "systematic knowledge of individuals through the connected practices of surveillance, confession, and documentation" and practices of "normalizing judgement" (Rouse 97, 98). Awareness of this subtle, unobtrusive force inspires outrage and resistance in readers, yet Foucault's complex understanding of relations of power requires us to also resist simple oppositions, requires us to recognize our own complicity in domination. In defending Foucault's "rhetoric of disruption" as a source of strong critique even in a context of contradictory ethics, Bernstein places Foucault in his "constellation of modernity/postmodernity" that requires "Both/And" thinking in order to resolve "critique as a philosophical ethos" (164, author's italics). Bernstein sees the contradictions in Foucault as "hyper-oscillations," and suggests they can be used "positively," as Foucault

...forces us to ask hard questions about our most cherished beliefs and comforting convictions. He shows us novel ways in which our bodies are controlled and made docile. He consistently refuses to allow us the illusion of easy solutions and alternatives. He has a remarkable ability to compel us to ask new sorts of questions and open new lines of inquiry. He unmasks illusions. To read him as only revealing the way in which global power/knowledge regimes supplant each other and completely determine what we are is to misread him. For it is to screen out the many ways in which Foucault is always focusing on instabilities, points of resistance, specific points where revolt and counter-discourse is possible. (164)

 

 

 

 

K29

Foucault disrupts conventional political theory when he extends his theories of power beyond governmental power, or "sovereign" and "juridical" power. Yet even without a monolithic concept of power as a thing, Foucault writes of resistance, of a "multiplicity of points of resistance" (History of Sexuality 96) that creates

...cleavages in a society that shift about, fracturing unities and effecting regroupings, furrowing across individuals themselves, cutting them up and remolding them, marking off irreducible regions in them, in their bodies and minds. Just as the network of power relations ends by forming a dense web that passes through apparatuses and institutions, without being exactly localized in them, so too the swarm of points of resistance traverses social stratifications and individual unities. And it is doubtless the strategic codification of these points of resistance that makes a revolution possible, somewhat similar to the way in which the state relies on the institutional integration of power relationships. (96)

 

K30

This study extends Foucault's views of power and authority even further, to the relations of authority on the Internet, which embraces participants from the hierarchies of Hollywood production companies to the exclusions and inclusions of lesbians, bisexuals, and heterosexual women and men in Xenaverse discussion groups and web sites. Foucault's more complicated understanding of authoritarianism applies. This dissertation focuses on multiple points of resistance in the Xenaverse as well as very subtle effects of observation and control. At present there are not many fences demarking territories on the Internet. If there were, the struggle for influence in cyberspace would not be so contentious, and the findings of my study would be more clearly optimistic or pessimistic. If the outcome were sealed there would be little point to call for activism, which is the goal of this web.

 
K31

A last consideration of "authority" is relevant. It concerns the part of the rhetorical triumvirate of logos, pathos, and ethos: ethos, which some scholars automatically translate as authority (Bizzell), both in the context of direct speech-making and in more mundane, day-to-day social situations. A more complicated construction of the term is "credibility" or an audience's perception of the speaker/writer/artist's character. As Mikhail Bakhtin suggests, ethos is constructed dialogically; a rhetor does not "adopt" an ethos and an audience does not hand it to her on a platter. Michael Halloran deepens the use of the term in his article on "Aristotle's Concept of Ethos...or Somebody Else's." Ethos, he suggests, is not so much something developed by a rhetor as it is a more historically-situated understanding of the term--as a habitus, or a familiar, communal place. From this, Halloran establishes a link to thinking about collective ethos, and to ethos applied to an audience or to a professional group.

K32

Both Laura Gurak and Kevin Hunt build on Halloran's concept of communal or group ethos in their computer-mediated communication (CMC) research. In her study of the online protest movement which effectively blocked the release of the software "Lotus MarketPlace: Households," Gurak demonstrates the failure of Lotus to adapt its rhetoric to the "ethos" of the online protest movement. Instead Lotus responded with traditional public relations documents released online, documents prepared according to what Gurak calls a "logical, detached, and impersonal ethos," with an emphasis on the "hard facts" that did not leave room for dialogue (177). This is a primarily authoritarian appeal from the hierarchical, coordinated, "top-down" corporate environment. Lotus' communication style was ineffective in the face of the evolving ethos and the "uncoordinated" and "nonhierarchical" online discussion groups. As Gurak points out, it was what one user calls the "high and mighty tone" used by Lotus, discourse that fell well within the prevailing corporate ethos, that got Lotus flamed (122).

 

K32a

Kevin Hunt's article on "Establishing a Presence on the World Wide Web" begins to discern specific features of communal ethos on the Web which distinguish Web ethos from the more professionally-oriented, print-based, technical writing ethos. Hunt has also examined the White House Home Page and found that in some ways it was misreading the ethos of the Web. Hunt writes, "On the Web, establishing ethos involves situating the organization's values in a specific social context, a context in which those values, experienced and shared by users who 'enter' into the organization's virtual site, become realized." Ethos is a somewhat more palatable concept than the more overused (in the Rheingoldian sense) term "community." The overuse and misuse of the idea of community also concerns Steve Doheny-Farina. I will be using "ethos" more to signify "habitus," the communal character and beliefs of groups and speakers than as a substitute for a more general concept of "authority." This dissertation examines what I found when I looked at the communal ethos of various cultures and communities in the Xenaverse in order to discern the prevailing levels of authoritarianism as a dynamic and interactive web or social construct.

 

 

K33

Cultural Ethos of Communications Technologies

As George Landow has written, few scholars "recognize the power of information technologies upon culture."

I have frequently heard humanists use the word technology to mean 'some intrusive, alien force like computing,' as if pencils, paper, typewriters, and printing presses were in some way natural. Digital technology may be new, but technology, particularly information technology, has permeated all known culture since the beginnings of human history. If we hope to discern the fate of reading and writing in digital environments, we must not treat all previous information technologies of language, rhetoric, writing, and printing as nontechnological. (Hypertext 26)

I would include in that mix the "technologies" supporting oral cultures as well, although they are much less obvious as technologies: the stage, the chorus, the crier, the bard, for instance. In examining the ethos of communications technologies, I want to review claims made about the "Great Divide" between orality and literacy, criticisms of the authoritarianism of print culture, and projections for the future of interactive media cultures. Can totalizing authoritarianism manifest itself in any form or tradition of communication? Conversely can critical questioning and divergent, creative thinking also manifest itself in any form or tradition of communication? While answers to some of these questions may fly in the face of some of the traditional assumptions often made about communications technologies, they permit us to look at the social and political effects of communication technologies.

 

K33a

As Langdon Winner points out in The Whale and the Reactor, artifacts do have politics, and some types of technologies are more authoritarian or democratizing than others. Winner's criticism of technology is powerful. He believes we are not at the mercy of some mysterious technological determinism and myth of progress as long as we can formulate a philosophy of technology, and create a literature of technology criticism. For instance, nuclear power virtually requires a totalitarian central control just to insure crucial safety issues. Solar power, located in each home, distributes power in many senses and thus is democratic. However, looks can be deceiving. Electricity was touted as a decentralizing force in society, yet now we find we are all wired in to a central control. Winner argues that the Internet could go the same direction. We may feel it is decentralizing and empowering, only to discover too late that we have television's monologism re-invented.

K33b

Winner illustrates his thinking with Robert Moses's bridge design in New York City, showing that technology can still be a powerful influence (23). Moses designed his overpasses on roads to suburban areas in Long Island with a low overhead clearance, just low enough to keep buses out. This had the effect of inhibiting the development of mass transit, but more importantly preventing people who were not of the income level to afford cars or taxi rides from coming into the areas. The politics of the overpass technology enforced class segregation. I believe we have more clearance room for communication technologies to include an array of social forces than that afforded by those overpasses. However, in this dissertation I will have to pass over discussion of the most important form of class segregation in new media, simply because it is outside the scope of my argument: the issue of access to cyberspace by the wider populace. As for that political issue, all I can say is "Low bridge ahead."

K34

Most histories of communications technologies begin with oral/aural cultures. How, then, do constructions of authority appear within the medium of orality? We can delineate two views. One comes from the more traditional "Great Divide" theory of orality and literacy found in the works of Ong and McLuhan. This view is also supported by Havelock, Goody and Watt, and many other committed language teachers around the world. Ong traces some of his insight into orality from the work by Milman Parry on Homer. Parry was able to distinguish language characteristics for a primarily oral culture from the "texts" of Homer. Havelock's work also runs along these lines, although Ong seems to immerse himself more totally in the idea of an oral culture, while Havelock appears to be more interested in showing how thinking patterns became more abstract and superior with the advent of print culture. Ong relishes the comparable strengths of oral cultures, the amazing memorization patterns, prosody, improvisation, and nonlinear structures and formulae (anacrisis, syncrisis, parataxis, antithesis). But Ong also reiterates certain assumptions about oral culture communication styles: assumptions that they incline toward unthinking repetition of what has been repeated many times before, that proverbs and maxims are repeated without questioning the wisdom of their proscriptions, that the words of the "poets" (mythos) are treated as the words of gods, at least in Greek culture. In other words, Ong is critical of oral culture's ability to critique and resist authority.

 

 

 

K35

These characteristics of orality are confirmed by other diverse sources. For instance, Scribner and Cole's study of the Vai in Liberia also revealed the methods of memorization, recitation, and unquestioned and reverent teaching of Arabic, through the Koran, among the Vai. Their findings were matched by Goody in Africa, who also noted similar authoritarian features in Muslim religious instruction. Arabic was learned in an authoritarian classroom, with an emphasis on reverence, memorization, and recital. Myron Tuman's Preface to Literacy also discusses a similar carryover from oral cultures into literacy practices in the traditional, authoritative classroom in the United States, once schools began to proliferate across the not-necessarily-literate countryside. In those cases, the focus was on the McGuffy Reader and the New England Primer, with memorization, recitals, and the repetition of homilies and Bible verses.

 

K36

Clearly this characterization of oral cultures shows a social and political bias towards authoritarianism and perhaps even rigid indoctrination. The majority of the evidence points this way. However, as people deeply entrenched in print literacy "sense ratios" (McLuhan), we may be guilty of superimposing our limited perspective on a culture we have never really experienced--a preliterate oral culture uninfluenced by print technology. There is a second, often overlooked position on the "authoritarianism" of orality. The immediacy and face-to-face interaction of orality also gave us dialectic- an interactive oral mode of questioning, responding, collaborating, changing, and narrating. Most would acknowledge that Plato's Socrates is not the "real" Socrates. A number of scholars are reexamining the simple aligning of Plato with Platonism as constructed by Enlightenment neoclassicism--Plato as standard bearer for Ideal Totalizing Truth wielded like an authoritative club. Jim Zappen's "Bakhtin's Socrates," for instance, highlights a different Socrates, "a Socrates who speaks and listens to many voices, not just one; who is more concerned with living than he is with knowing; whose 'rhetoric' is a means of testing people and ideas rather than a means of imposing his ideas upon others" (66). Zappen traces this perspective through Bakhtin and Derrida, and it can be found as well in the work of Jasper Neel and Gregory Clark.

 

 

 

 

K37

Zappen, Bakhtin, Derrida, Neel, and Clark and many others have tried to look inside the contradictions of Plato to find hints of the historic Socrates, a man inaccessible to us directly because his approach was utterly steeped in orality. The main outcome of this research is to rethink Plato's dialectic as perhaps something, in some version, that may have appeared in Athens contemporaneous with Socrates (which is about as much as anyone can say for sure). Bakhtin, for instance, can find in Plato's dialectic a precursor to dialogism (made most perfect by Dostoevsky). For Bakhtin, the preconceived persuasion of rhetoric was definitely monologic, but there are traces in Plato's early dialogues of a more open-ended dialectic, of what Bakhtin develops into dialogism. We know that in many of the more dogmatic later dialogues, Plato's Socrates never asks a question to which he doesn't already know the answer. This would be extremely difficult to carry off in a truly ORAL exchange. One can never anticipate the co-participant's response perfectly in an oral exchange, and orality was the preferred medium for the historical Socrates. According to Zappen this is "the Socrates of many voices, living in a carnivalesque world of everyday life, repeatedly testing his own and others' ideas and selves in search of responses to the practical problems of life" (75).

 

K38

Susan Jarratt and others re-visioning the sophists (Aristophanes lumped the historic Socrates in with the sophists) are finding interesting characteristics of oral reasoning features in sophistic texts- rhetorical figures such as antithesis, brought into seemingly "poetic" narrative speeches, and parataxis, an oral form of nonlinear linking related to mythos, found in sophistic arguments (21-27). Jarratt sets herself strongly against the orality/literacy assumptions of Havelock and Ong, claiming that rhetorical figures found in sophistic texts reveal that the audience was not lulled into a blind acceptance of whatever the speakers had to say, redeeming the harsher characterizations of mythos and nomos as completely authoritarian or completely relativistic, respectively. She writes, "At one end of the historical continuum, we find argument and introspection in the epic; at the other, we examine the role of myth in sophistic contributions to the rational revolution" (31).

 

K39

So it is possible to present a counter-view to the prevailing assumptions about the authoritarianism of orality. Yes, orality CAN be distinctly authoritarian. However, orality, through Socrates, also gave us a notion of open-ended dialectic, an interactive oral mode of questioning, responding, collaborating, changing, narrating, that people from Gregory Clark, Jim Zappen, Susan Jarratt, to Freire have noted as a vital way of challenging authority.

 

K40

Alphabetic traditions are often set off in opposition to orality, especially by such authors as McLuhan and Ong. Havelock idealized print's ability to enhance certain styles (as the works of Scribner and Cole and Vygotsky show) of thinking and reasoning, thae ability to reflect, reorder, and revise. They link the development of syllogisms and other logical features to the development of print literacy. The "Great Divide" theories of orality and literacy tend, in the end, to privilege the superior thinking styles that supposedly are spawned by literate cultures, implying that print literacy is an unqualified good which enhances critical, abstract thinking ability, and thus gives us tools to resist authoritarianism.

 

K41

However, an examination of the development of alphabetic forms, which David Porush cites as developing in the Sinai desert with the Hebrew alphabet technology suggests a different view. Previous systems of writing, including hieroglyphics, murals, pictographs, hardened mud tablets carved with a stylus or rolled with a "signature" seal imprint, and the Chinese system of glyphs, were characterized by their complexity and being difficult to learn. This was a job for the elite high priests, who then told the people what they needed to know. There were no public schools to emancipate the masses and teach them the 2,000-character system of writing.

 

K42

Porush's thesis highlights two aspects of the alphabet. One, with the development of the Hebrew alphabet and subsequent phonetic syllabary of limited characters, an emancipation of sorts could be achieved. The masses could learn a 22 character system, thus bypassing the high priest gatekeepers and opening potential avenues for subversive and revolutionary communication among the slaves of that time. Alphabets, then, are anti-authoritarian. Two, the Hebrew alphabet, with its lack of vowels, also posed an interesting problem that will have implications for hypertext as well. Without vowels, words did not have a definitive interpretation. A grouping of letters could potentially represent several different words, depending on the context. Porush claims that this factor affected people socially and cognitively; the Hebrews became a culture with a high tolerance for multiple understandings, doubt, and dialogic, hermenuetic, and hypertextual analysis. Sacred texts like the Talmud were not valued for their literalism as much for the layers of interpretation written around the text in the margins. An ambiguous language system then could also be considered intrinsically anti-authoritarian, even as it erected its own authority.

 

K43

However, we must establish an important counterpoint to these characterizations of print and alphabetic writing cultures. In the present day, the medium of print is under attack as a vehicle of authoritarianism: the authority and permanence of print. The attack was begun by Marshall McLuhan, but carried forth by postmodern electronic media theorists such as George Landow, Richard Lanham, Jay Bolter, Stuart Moulthrop, and Michael Joyce. These claims made about print forms of communication focus on the permanency of the text and the monologic style of many authors. This style, which supposedly grew out of alphabetic, print cultures, is said to be strongly modernist (in the philosophical and positivistic sense, not the literary sense; that is, it seeks totalizing systems of meaning and description). By subjecting print texts and their social uses to a postmodernist critique, these scholars set up another opposition. McLuhan claimed we are moving from Ong's concept of a secondary orality (orality shaped by print literacy technologies) to a "global village," meaning the new electronic culture will likely be a modified return to some of the social characteristics of orality- its tribalism, sense of commitment, gestalt perceptions, and aural-dominated "sense ratios" (ear-dominated as opposed to eye- and line-dominated through lines of type, "continuous and c-o-n-n-e-c-t-e-d") on a world stage connected by electronic audio. Other scholars, now after McLuhan's passing, can adjust the vision to include the Internet, or in Moulthrop's terms, "secondary literacy," a literacy thus modified by the "orality" of electronic forms of communication. McLuhan's prophetic sense was uncanny, even if some of his claims, rooted in the development of television, are technologically deterministic, dated, or simply unsupportable.

 

 

 

 

 

K44

On one hand, print literacy can be seen as liberating the mind (with the attendant loss of memory skills) in order to accomplish greater reflection and intellectual analysis, leading to other key anti-authoritarian social factors. The same can be said for the historically ancient development of the phonetic and syllabary alphabets--again anti-authoritarian. On the other hand, when contemporary critics point to the permanency of the printed text, they cite the authoritarian consequences of a monologic, individualistic author speaking as the unquestionable voice of authority. The printed text has a permanence and a sense of closure which also confers authority on it over time. As long as words are cast into print, the message on the page is frozen in time. Through this particular lens then, print is an oppressive tyrant in its totalizing authoritarianism.

 
K47

Electronic media cultures represent an odd amalgam of communication forms, and interfaces are still being created. There is wide range of opinions on how interactive media will evolve. Neil Postman and Howard Rheingold represent opposite ends of the spectrum. Postman is a cynic who fears what will be lost with the advent of new media. Rheingold happily celebrates the new communities sustained through a channel of narrow bandwidth. Myron Tuman finds the claims of the electronic media theorists (Lanham, Landow, Bolter) about the freedom, interaction, and collaboration in cyberspace overstated, and he brings in a unique view with a substantial argument againstthe presumed authoritarianism of the printed text. Noting the value of the reflective privacy of reading, and how elements of the industrial age robbed people of their privacy, Tuman claims the nineteenth century tradition of the diary and private reading gave people a haven for critical thinking and interacting in their minds in dialogue with the authors, a haven lost in this age of collaborative everything. I've heard similar criticism about electronic chat rooms, where the flurry of quick posting and reading leaves little space for "listening," deliberating, and reflecting. Tuman idealizes the privacy of reading in contrast to electronic dystopias like Orwell's 1984, where Winston Smith had to hide in order to claim some private time outside of the omnipresence of Big Brother. I don't agree with Tuman that everyone is an individual in those private transactions, a distinctly modernist position. But there is something to be said for the social construction and inner dialogism of intimacy, something that we lose by embracing what could become a panoptic network that would make Orwell's vision seem mild. I have to agree with a number of Tuman's points, even if I cannot place my ideas in his overall framework. And on the other side of the coin, highly critical media theorists like Postman have worried that sitting alone with a computer terminal all the time is too socially isolating. One would think that those private moments of reading and letter-writing online would help a person become just as critical and reflective as her nineteenth century counterpart with a Victorian novel and a Commonplace Book. It remains to be seen whether the net amount of human contact will increase or decrease through time spent sitting at a computer terminal.

 

 

 

 

K48

Hypermedia is the wildcard in the equation, a potentially new way to organize information and interact imaginatively with texts. Hypermedia seems to represent the ultimate loss of control for authors, and thus is anti-authoritarian. The idea for hypertext was first introduced by Vannevar Bush in 1945 in the Atlantic Monthly, as he proposed a new way for scholars and scientists to stay abreast of the information explosion. He envisioned a Memex machine where knowledge could be archived and associationally-linked, implying a kind of deference to the authoritative knowledge that came before, while giving the user the autonomy to define and shape searches. Theodor H. Nelson gave this system of associational links a name, "hypertext," and called a network of such texts, such as his proposed "Xanadu," a "docuverse" (Literary Machines). As personal computers became more widely available, literary theorists speculated extensively about the revolutionary, democratizing, and anti-authoritarian potential of these hypertexts to enact postmodern critical theory. George Landow, one of hypertext's leading proponents, directly linked hypertext forms to "textual openness," "intertextuality," "multivocality," and "decentering." Landow applies Barthes's conception of a "writerly" text where the reader is "no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text" (S/Z 4 qted in Hypertext 5). The reader/user's interaction with the associationally-linked hypertext would add meaning-making to her activity and thus overthrow authoritarian control. Jay David Bolter proclaims the "End of Authority," because of this technology:

As long as the printed book remains the primary medium of literature, traditional views of the author as authority and of literature as monument will remain convincing for most readers. The electronic medium, however, threatens to bring down the whole edifice at once. It complicates our understanding of literature as either mimesis or expression, it denies the fixity of the text, and it questions the authority of the author. ...Electronic authors work with the necessarily limited materials provided by their computer systems, and they impose further limitations upon their readers. Within those limits, the reader is free to play. The text is not simply an expression of the author's emotion, for the reader helps to make the text. Two subjects, author and reader, combine in the text. (153)

 

 

 

 

K49

Michael Joyce takes the interaction between author and reader a step further, distinguishing two potential types of hypertext: exploratory and constructive. Most hypertexts, including the World Wide Web, are primarily exploratory, meaning they are used as a "delivery or presentational technology" which "encourage[s] and enable[s] an audience...to control a body of information to meet its needs and interests" (41). Constructive hypertexts, much harder to find, allow a reader to "talk back" in a number of different ways (an example of which can be found at my "Xenites Talk Back" sector). According to Joyce, constructive hypertexts allow "scriptors" to

develop a body of information that they map according to their needs, their interests, and the transformations they discover as they invent, gather, and act upon that information. More than with exploratory hypertexts, constructive hypertexts require a capability to act: to create, to change, and recover particular encounters within the developing body of knowledge (42).

At the most basic level on the Web, users become constructive as they craft their personal bookmarks list or establish their preferred interests at personalized news services. This isn't exactly what Joyce has in mind, however, because the user does not have the power to affect or write to the actual product they are navigating. Web pages which use interactive forms, guestbooks, graffiti walls, threaded bulletin boards or chat rooms do offer the users some way to effectively "talk back," but that back talk does not necessarily restructure the hypertext.

 

K50

But how effective are these hypertextual discursive formations? David Kolb, in "Socrates in the Labyrinth," questions whether hypertexts can do argumentative work, work that usually requires the support of a linear argument. While Kolb finds some conventional uses for annotations and citations, he is really asking whether a linear argument can admit nonlinear variations in such a sharply delimited discipline as philosophy. He writes,

It is true that for expository convenience the parts of the argument may come in any order in the text, but the argument will be present only when the underlying linear abstract structure is indicated in some manner. It is also true that some arguments have multiple beginnings and branches that jointly support conclusions or diverge from premises, but these still arrange into a unidirectional abstract structure with beginnings, middles, and ends. (327)

However Kolb does see a way through for rhetoric, proposing that "the hypertext would perhaps be an accumulation of words and images and considerations that persuade the reader to adopt an attitude or a course of action, but this persuasive effect would not be controlled by a line that provides a route for criticism and rational evaluation in terms of the goal of truth rather than the goal of persuasion" (328). By referring to the traditional philosophical quest for epistemological "Truth," Kolb testifies to the difficulty of establishing authority in hypertextual spaces. Yet scholars from the hard sciences to postmodern theorists have issued serious challenges to the viability of epistemological certainty and universal "truths." Ironically, invoking a standard of "truth" has lost much of its scholarly credibility. The interface of this dissertation is intended to be a demonstration or instantiation of Kolb's practical suggestions on "gestalt-like awareness" through a seepage style of argument and persuasion.

 

K51

In this view, this dissertation joins the discussion about, and is intended to test, the viability of hypertext in the service of narrative, or rather the undermining of the (authoritative) narrative line. While Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck announces the coming of the "Cyberbard," ambitious hyperfiction from such accomplished writers as Michael Joyce, J. Yellowlees Douglas, Nancy Kaplan, and Stuart Moulthrop has had difficulty catching on with a wider audience, whether literary or popular. Could it be that, as Coover worried, the experiments in branching nonlinear plots suffer from being so "slackly driven as to lose their centripetal force"? On the other hand, the Xenaverse version of hyperfiction is alive and well, generating some of the highest hit rates in the Xenaverse.

 

K52

For all intents and purposes, the case in hypertext for freedom of form, the tearing down of boundaries, and de-emphasizing the role of the author seems to be well-made. Hypertext has strong interface and built in structural features allowing for the claim to be made that it is anti-authoritarian and perhaps even democratizing. But it may be wise to recall Marshall McLuhan's theory of media reversals: "Any word, or process, or form, pushed to the limits of its potential, reverses its characteristics and becomes a complementary form..." (Global Village 19). He cites an example from the field of information theory: "data overload equals pattern recognition." Another example is how "[m]oney as hardware, pushed to its limit, reverses into the lack of money--credit (software or information)." According to McLuhan, the pushed word, process, or form reaches a "break boundary" or breakthrough point (Understanding Media 38).

 

 

K53

Already on the Internet we can see ominous portents of this reversal, particularly in site design structure and web marketing techniques. In a response to the potentially boundless freedom, many web sites have become intensely hierarchical in their site structures, effectively reducing the navigational possibilities to the equivalent of maneuvering around a traditional print outline, with little cross-linking except in the nested outline structure. When I taught my first web design course, it was strongly suggested to me that I should help students design for interface clarity and focus on helping them make good site outlines. Where should nonlinear and associative connectivity such as advocated by Vannevar Bush fit into this picture? In many cases not at all. Meanwhile, the prevailing wisdom in mass media marketing is to control your consumer. The Internet could easily make such marketers very nervous, except that many are finding clever ways to steer and nudge users down prearranged paths, and even more subtle ways to control consumers in this chaotic medium, with such simple trapping devices as "Frames designs" and navigational maps deliberately set up so they only give the illusion of choice. Site tracking of users has gotten more and more aggressive, and if users choosing not to accept cookies are hounded constantly with cookie screens, until they are bullied into taking the cookie or abandoning the site. With growing panoptic control comes more effective and invisible discipline, as Foucault might be the first to point out.

 
K55

Clearly, the cultures created by electronic communications are wide open at this stage. Many theorists have cast electronic forms as either liberatory or oppressive, in line with their pet paradigm. These simple dichotomies suggest an ongoing need to continue political analysis of power relations and authority in cyberspace. The electronic cultures will likely have both anti-authoritarian AND authoritarian elements, radical democracy and disciplinary panoptics. We are poised at a kind of fulcrum point analogous to the intervening years between the invention of Gutenberg's movable type and Martin Luther's nailing his (dialogic) ninety-nine theses on the church door. The press itself was not automatically democratizing. Its use could have been taken into many different directions, perhaps even used directly in the service of the aristocracy exclusively. Dispersal of bibles helped circumvent the need for a priest, and Luther would eventually help that along too with his German translation. But Luther was an unlikely radical democrat. Did he know someone would print a broadsheet of his theses that would make it all the way to the Pope? Who knew that a printed broadsheet could do those things? That it would help trigger a social revolution that would eventually overthrow the highest secular and religious authority in the land? I've often wondered (and it actually keeps me up nights) if Gutenberg would have happened without Luther; if Luther could have happened without Gutenberg; if, then as now, direct action and dialogic interaction could make the difference to steer an alternative course.

 
K56

The icon of Xena's Sword discusses scholarly and methodological issues in this dissertation. The icon of Gabrielle's Staff tells the story of my evolving understanding of hypermedia theory before the influence of the World Wide Web. Continuing on the path of Xena's Breastplate takes you on to "The Xenaverse in Cyberspace" data sector of my study. As always, the Chakram takes you to the Navigational Map, which can take you anywhere in this dissertation. Feel free to chart your own path.

 
 

 


The Ballad of the Internet Nutball: The Xenaverse in Cyberspace


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