This is an OPINION page. Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! [Archives:1997/47/Focus]

November 24 1997

THE INTERNET: Making Sense of a New ‘Myth”
By: Iskender Heck
The times of gaping at the internet are over – at least in Europe, or, who knows where around the world. The net is in an omnibus unmasked as a “myth”. The talk about the “World Wide Web” is also some kind of sense-making narration about complexibility.
After the party comes the headache, after the qat-session often comes disillusionment. After uncountable publications about the undiscovered, praised land of cyberspace, it seemed at times to be a manic, with endless loops of conglomeration of all our political (democracy online), economical (teleworld), personal (chat-rooms) or ecological (paperless office) problems. Now the above mentioned omnious-volume gives us a handful of aspirin. According to its editors, Stefan Mnker and Alexander Roesler, the internet spreads its biggest social effectiveness not on the level of its technical reality, but as a big ‘order’ and a sense-making narration: “the internet is in particular a myth.” It is the discourse, which the technique of global-netting of personal computers unleashed, and which fulfills the prodigical views and the integration of diametrical visions, such as the neo-liberal followers of friction-free capitalism up to ultra-basis-democratic net-utopists. One can speak of a myth, because the talk about the internet reacts in accordance with “complexities and difficulties of lucidity of the design of a new unit”. And on top of that, the emergence of the Web adds a “new history”. No matter how you look at it, it seems obvious that to the story of the ‘cyber trek’ in this new world, which is spiced with biblical rhetoric, a mythical quality has to be attached. The most favorable metaphors in use for the internet – like rhizome, trans-hierachical room without a center, “dimentionless U-Topos” or babylonic library… – present a complexity of the problem of relationships: for whom and in which way is the internet difficult to survey. That a user may get lost between the endless links of the HTML-documents does not necessarily justify a new, or even a hypercomplex quality of the net. After all, some people even get lost in the streets of Sana’a. Instead of simply pre-supposing the complexity of the Web and afterwards dismantling its discourse as a myth, one should initially question its complexity. The usual mention concerning the indefinite amount of data, which no one seems to be able to survey, is – last but not least – not an invention of the information age. That life is too short to get to know everything, was already clear to Horaz for example, an ancient Roman writer. And if something appears chaotic at times, this could also be in connection with the individual view of the spectator and his or her expectations.
The task is to deconstruct the internet as a myth, and that is what most of the publications do not do. But this is not of any hindrance to the volume, because on the borderline, there are interesting articles about economy (William J. Mitchell), history of media technic (Jay D. Bolter), active possibilities for literary reading and writing (Uwe Wirth), internet in focus as an expression of art (Eduardo Kac) or about the fortress architecture of wired cities (Florian Rtzer). But some of these dedicate themselves to the myth. Saskia Sassen confronts the proclaimed disbandment of space and time in the cyberspace with the materialism of its technical circumstances: “What I figure to be interesting and politically significant but not considered too seriously is that the leading telecommunication enterprises keep neutralizing the distance to facilitate telecommunication services. One is therefore in need of a real access to land, because the main technology up to now relies still on glass fiber, which itself is material.” Since land is needed and it still belongs to states, therefore governments still have judicial regulatory means – and are firmly realistic. Sassen indicates further: “Within the growing rhetoric of de-materialization” the above mentioned factor is getting lost. Political sovereignty could mean, in an exceptional case, to cut the cables.
“The short summer of net-hype will pass by” say Geert Lovink and Pit Schulz. The euphoric phase of the so called E-culture is characterized by those two Web-activists in the form of a rather funny compilation of the known phrases of Web commercials from the ‘data-highway’ to the ‘cyberspace’ up to the ‘digital nomads’. All of those expressions show, that the metaphors in use, which stems out of different areas, is already known. Windows 95 turns its user-windows into an office-world, a desktop with documents, attachments and files, the street metaphoric suggests the colonization of a naturally grown data-world. The metaphor in use serves to generate some kind of issue, just to stimulate its selling. They help to change the strange into familiar even though it remains – like heaven and hell – really strange since nobody knows what a computer really does once we have connected our E-mail attachment. And they function as commercial formulae because of their ability to be-witch the user: Whoever wants to take on the information super highway, needs to have the Pentium Pro-Chip, whoever does not feel like getting stuck in the congestion, needs Ethernet-entry or an ISDN. Future-enterprises sell exactly that: THE FUTURE SOON, or even NOW! Soon EVERYTHING will become quicker and easier. Up to now, the hype is still not over. Out there are still some self-appointed cyber-pioneers and pilgrim fathers who cross the bridge on their own just to offer the ones that remained behind narrations with ‘religious’ experience and zeal. The proselytzing is still on. But soon the Web may turn into a boring lot, when the net belongs to T-online and AOL, which may create a digital Biedermeier (former furniture design, which avoided any squiggles). The net will then be secure and clean. Dirt and violence will be left in front of the doors of byte-cities. It will be buried in exclaves of which no media will report. At this point the web-critics of Lovink and Schulz willbecome mystic themselves because these narrations of isle-like byte-cities in a sea of waste and ghetto-barbarism will merge with the cyberpunk-genre of the science-fictions.
Another myth is the belief that the decentral structure of the internet is automatically democratic. With the internet, a new technology has been created, which promotes decentralization and thereby democratic communication structures, says Mark Poster. Likewise, Eduardo Kac does not have any doubt about the firm democratic belief and decentralisation as well as about free access of information. What does democracy mean if decentralisation is already enough? The German model of elected representatives of the people for example, obviously does not correspond to the E-democracy, with regards to the latter. On the other hand, what is democratic if the subversive medium (poster) of the internet on which completely decentral operating facists from the White Arian Resistance can agitate? That any kind of technology has a political influence and consequence and that any T-on line customer with ISDN linkage will become a grown up citizen are naive. At least, they are correctly reflected understatements. Alexander Roeler is right by saying: “One of the most favorable myths of the internet is the one of virtual community and its blessing effects on democracy and public life.” It is, nevertheless, obviously difficult to avoid it.
*Iskender Heck , a free-lance ournalist has an M.A. in Islamic Studies from the Social Sciences Faculty at Humboldt University in Berlin. His dissertation was entitled : “The Situation of the North Yemeni Women between 1961 and 1984”. He is presently working on his PHD here in Yemen.