Connectivity, and the Fate of the Unconnected

07.12.1999

The digital Network provides a new corridor of infringement and trespass which the infringed may not always be privileged to broach.

For cultural practitioners, the Net functions on several, different levels. As a medium it can be manipulated to realize an entirely new category of cultural products and situations. It also functions as a vehicle for the conveyance, distribution, and critical evaluation of such cultural forms and contexts. Third, the Net enables communication and collaboration between artists as well as between artists and other content producers outside the cultural arena. It also serves as a means of information and commodity exchange, in other words as an increasingly important element of the global trade in cultures.

In the heady excitement with which the network is often narrated, sight is sometimes lost of two crucial facts. One is the fact that there is no network unless someone is connected to it, unless one is a part of it. In other words the network is contingent on one condition: connectivity. The second is the fact that this condition in itself implicates a whole array of other equally intricate social and historical conditions, an elaborateness of exigencies that hinge on factors and circumstances largely unconnected to and beyond the control of the network itself.

Despite the admonition to simply connect, only a tiny fraction of humanity can.

In the early stages of its elevation to a mass media, the fervor that surrounded the spread of the network was summarized in a very popular epithet by one of its earliest propagators, Nicholas Negroponte. The epithet was "only connect". With or without intention, this little injunction and other like rhetoric, created the impression that all it took to become part of the new information age, and to partake in its new, language of digital communication [commerce was yet to enter the picture] and exchange was to up and connect. Just as quickly, a new rhetoric of advocacy whirled up, creating in its wake an exponential body of literature that in the main affirmed, as indeed it continues to, the exhilarating potentials of the new medium. Soon it seemed-at least in the rhetoric of this advocacy-as if only those who are connected, those who belong to the community of the network, truly represent our moment in history. The rest were dismissed as persons of no account.

In time, however, we have come to acknowledge that the requisites of entry into this network involve a little more than simply connecting. Many now recognize that connectivity carries with it a string of conditionalities, and in order to connect, the average individual must meet these conditionalities most of which many are ill disposed to fulfil. In other words, despite the admonition to simply connect, only a tiny fraction of humanity can, including artists.

Often the predilection is to couch this discrepancy in purely geopolitical terms, that is to say, some tend to believe that only in certain parts of the world are individuals unable to attain connectivity. Almost inevitably, sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia, China and Latin America, come to mind. The premise, upon which this conclusion is often reached, is the fact that in the named polities, prerequisites of the network infrastructure such as telecommunications either do not exist, or exist in a largely compromised or mediated state. Although this is true of many such areas, the realities and conditionalities of connectivity are nevertheless more elaborate and complicated. 1920

In addition to an operational and fairly reliable telecommunications infrastructure, connectivity also requires that the individual have requisite skills as well as privileges of social and economic location in order to gain access to the network. In addition to the basic condition of having access to a computer or terminal, these also include a certain level of literacy because unlike television or radio, Internet is pretty much what I call a literacy-dependent medium requiring a comfortable disposition to or familiarity with text. It is this conventional literacy or familiarity with text that in turn enables the individual to acquire or develop the requisite skills for computer-mediated communication, or computeracy.

Closely related to this is the psychological disposition of the individual to engage new and fairly complex technology, and it is the situation that many are debarred from the network by their fear or loathing of technology, or technophobia. Exceptions not withstanding, in many instances this condition is not unrelated to lack of proper education or early and adequate exposure to technology, or the absence of social conditions necessary for individuals to develop a healthy and rewarding relationship with new technology. All these mean that a great number of people in the most industrialized nations are as unlikely to simply connect, as many in the less developed regions of the world, a fact that is increasingly supported by emerging statistics. Such individuals are effectively unable to function either as producers or consumers of content in the network. To this extent, despite the increasing numbers of networked individuals, and despite hyperbolic claims to the contrary, the digital network or Internet is yet to become a full-fledged mass medium like radio, television or print journalism.

It is the case that this discrepancy can be spatially or demographically delineated, such that individuals from certain communities, social strata, geographic locations, even faiths, are less likely to have appreciable presence in the network, than others. This is certainly the case with the less industrialized world, and the fact that Africa lags behind in levels of connectivity may be attributed to the above factors. Even so, the same obtains within the highly industrialized nations although disparities are considerably mediated by such factors as the existence of advanced communication infrastructures, and most important of all, by access subsidization especially from the state.

We find a good illustration of how state intervention may considerably mediate such disparities in one of the early forms of digital networking, the French government-sponsored Minitel which brought networked communication to one in every four French homes between 1984 and the early '90s before its popularity declined. Conceived in 1978 and introduced to the French public in 1984 by the state-owned French Telecom, Minitel was a networked system of video content and service delivery based on the established residential and public telephone infrastructures that Telecom already had in place. Packaged as an extension to regular telephone service, Minitel presented a new service of appreciable appeal, especially when at the height of its popularity, it was taken over by the sex industry and turned into a marketing vehicle for soft-sex and voyeurism. Opposed to this would be the example of China where state intervention through surveillance and other means, is reported to impede citizens' access to the network. In its more recent form, state and corporate inducements in highly industrialized nations take the form of subsidized access at work or school. As statistics reveal, the greater percentage of networked individuals in America and Europe only have access at work or school, and a considerable proportion of such users are otherwise unable to afford regular connectivity at home or by themselves. Needless to say that those sections of the citizenry who are less represented in the workplace or at school do not fare too well with access to the digital network.

The digital divide

A divide emerges, then, what we may call the digital divide, between those who belong within the network and are thus able to partake of its numerous advantages, 1921 and those who are unable to fulfil the conditionalities of connectivity. It is increasingly evident that as we connect, we become part of a new ethnoscape, 1922 what one might call a netscape or cyberscape where information and individuals circulate and bond into a new community. And as this community broadens in spread and significance, we are effectively implicated in the relativization 1923 of the rest who remain on the outside of its borders. Inconsequential as it might seem, this situation nevertheless has broad cultural implications not only for individuals and groups already in the network, but even more so for those others who exist on the outside.

For one, populations on the outside are effectively excluded from the myriad conversations taking place in this enclave of power and privilege, some of which have significant bearings on or consequences for their condition or wellbeing. As a result the network often breeds representation within itself, on behalf of such polities. By default it readily locates or fabricates voices within who assume the authority to speak for the Other since, quite often, parties and individuals are not in short supply who would ride on the event to appoint and delegate themselves as representatives of the absent. Today such individuals and groups abound across the capillaries and nodes of the Net; lone campaigners and make-shift pressure groups, organizations of concerned friends and self-appointed revolutionaries, messianic figures coming to the rescue of the helpless, anarchists in search of preoccupation and activists left-over from failed causes eager to find new ones that might assuage their passion to serve.

Sometimes, there is a genuineness of purpose behind these acts of self-delegation. At other times the driving passion fails to rise above a self-righteous desire to attract attention or find prominence through such acts of supposed good intention. Often there is little or no contact, communication, consultation or mechanism for reciprocal exchange between such delegate voices and the constituencies that they elect to speak for on the Net. Like free agents, they inhabit the nooks and crannies of the Net and engage in innumerable activities and negotiations on behalf of groups and cultures who are essentially unable to deny or withdraw the authority that such representatives appoint unto themselves.

If the Net empowers us to possess the voice or invent the narrative of the absent, does it not by so doing also enable us, to scar his body?

Whatever the intents or contexts are, humanitarian or otherwise, certain very crucial questions are raised, nevertheless, other than merely the ethics of representation. 1924 Among them is the issue of the apparent vulnerability of the unconnected. Within the vast territories of the Net, populations on the outside obviously do not possess the privilege of agency because they can neither speak on their own behalf, nor are they able to exercise control over the dynamics and dialectics of the network. While they may and indeed do have agency within their own spaces and lives as a critical attribute of their existence, this agency is however impacted on when a new force such as the Net emerges with the ability to encroach upon that space. 1925

With its enormous capabilities as an emergent global, social system, one is forced to ask: might the network perhaps further disenfranchise or incapacitate these populations already battling their way out from under the avalanche of progress and its debatable consequences, by moving the posts of modernity even as they struggle to grapple with it? Has the network made it easier for entities and individuals privileged to possess its empowering devices, to displace such populations by appropriating their voices and purloining their identity in an arena from which they are effectively debarred? Given the relative ease with which participants in the network can generate and disseminate information, sometimes on a bewilderingly vast scale, has this medium entrusted some of us with the power to fabricate and disseminate possibly fictive and potentially injurious constructs and narratives of the Other to the rest of the world, when such populations have no equally enabling devices to encounter, evaluate, critique, challenge or seek to invalidate images and representations of their selves and their state of being? If the Net empowers us to possess the voice or invent the narrative of the absent, does it not by so doing also enable us, to scar his body?

A recent case from outside cyberspace may indeed illustrate quite cogently, the dangers that this power of self-delegation portends. In April 1996, a white South African artist and curator staged an exhibition at the South African National Gallery, on the history and material culture of the Khoisan, one of the country's indigenous peoples. The largely ethnographic exhibition which featured mostly archival images and documents on European colonial affront on and near extermination of the Khoisan, nevertheless involved strategies of construction and realization that caused offense to the group. After viewing the exhibition, a representative forum of the group, the Griqua National Conference, denounced the exhibition, describing it as a "questionable and active contribution to furthering the marginalization of the first nations of Southern Africa." 1926 While pointing out the curator's failure to consult the group, and the absence of Khoisan participation in what was an exposition of and about them, the forum condemned "non-indigenous people's persistence in hijacking and exposing our past for their own absolution." Another forum of the Khoisan, the Hurikamma Cultural Movement equally condemned the exhibition as "yet another attempt to treat brown people as objects." 1927 "At the exhibition", they wrote, "we were exposed to yet another attempt to treat brown people as objects."

The digital Network provides a new corridor of infringement and trespass.

A considerable body of literature already exists on the debacle related here. 1928 As a demonstration of the importance of agency on the part of the represented, the critical response and intervention of the Khoisan succinctly defined and positioned the event itself, as well as erased the authority to represent, which the curator had arguably, involuntarily appropriated unto herself. Irrespective of her intentions genuine or not, hers could no longer be mistaken for a voice for or on behalf of the group. This crucial intervention was possible, however, only because the group was aware of the exhibition in question, had access to it, and therefore the opportunity to witness, engage, and evaluate it. Let us imagine a like situation where, contrary to these conditions, the discourse in question is staged on the Network, in a virtual gallery, for instance, or a net-forum, or worse still in any of the several thousand, limited access forums now operating on the Net. Further, let us imagine that the group whose bodies and history are paraded, are also unconnected. Let us imagine that they have no route to the information disseminated on and about them, supposedly on their behalf or in their perceived best interest. Not only would they have no opportunity to engage that information, worse still, they would have no way to register, as the Khoisan most forcefully did, their disapproval and disdain.

In effect the digital Network provides a new corridor of infringement and trespass which the infringed may not always be privileged to broach. Within this corridor, opportunities abound for misfeasance, even maleficence. With such rampant and unbridled possibilities at the disposal of the networked, is it the case, perhaps, that the unconnected are set up for digital violation? 1929

Today the network is not only a powerful ethnoscape as pointed out above, it has also become a formidable knowledge system. Its repositories of information are complemented by the ready accessibility of content providers, experts, and quacks. Once ensconced in the intricate relays, addictions and cushions of the network, many increasingly rely upon it for information and knowledge of the world beyond their own door. Information gathered on the Net becomes our readiest access to other cultures and sections of society as it inveigles us in the lazy preoccupation of going through its own portals of voices and informants for our knowledge of the unconnected. More often than not, despite voiced skepticism, such information is taken by many on its face value. Indeed, the truth-value of information gathered from the Net is reinforced rather misleadingly by its essentially textual proclivity and in turn by the fact of text's historical and scriptural association with truth especially in the West. 1930 Increasingly, many are quick to site information from the Net as authoritative, but even more disturbing, they are quick to turn to it rather than look outdoors. With this in mind, one cannot but wonder, should the network continue to displace other knowledge systems as it seems bound to, should its participant-citizens continue to tune in to it as their priori source of information especially on those who are considered otherwise remote and inaccessible because they are unconnected, might it not become a barrier instead of a bridge? Might it not preclude proper and meaningful contact and exchange, by encouraging the false notion that we know the Other and that the Other is in fact part of the new global community that we take for granted? Might it not impede rather than facilitate our reach for genuine interaction across social and cultural divides by creating simulacral rather than real contact and exchange? Somehow, one wonders: in the end, might the Net not come between us and the Other we do not know? 1931

The network as a global channel for the circulation of cultural products.

Not to be ignored is the fact that the global information infrastructure has become perhaps the most significant mechanism for the on-going process of globalization. If traditionally we understood this process to comprise principally in the dissemination and imposition of western culture and cultural products around the world, we must now also factor in a reverse flow in form of the possession and uploading of goods from beyond the perimeters of the West. In other words, it is valid now to speak of a truly global circulation of cultures and cultural produces. The network in all its forms and manifestations is a formidable channel for this global traffic. It is estimated that USD 327 billion worth of goods will be shifted via Internet alone by the year 2003. 1932 With trade occurring through other global communication networks factored in, this statistic rises to an even more astronomical figure. Of the goods and services involved in this global trade, an increasingly substantial portion consists of cultural products, especially objects of material culture. This, too, has its implications for populations on the outside of the network.

First, for as long as they are unable to gain entry into the network, such populations are effectively debarred from exercising control over any significant aspects of this traffic, albeit it that a sizeable portion of the goods circulating in this trade, is obtained or purloined from within their territories. In the absence of any such participatory agency, not only are they relegated in the hierarchy of transactions, this condition also means that they are increasingly precluded from any substantial part of the proceeds from their own material culture. Even more disturbing is the fact that as the accessibility of these products becomes more apparent, so does the desire grow, to locate, acquire and circulate them without significant involvement of those on the outside. So does the desire to obtain and own them without the traditional encumbrance of physical travel and transportation.

For instance, the number of internet sites dedicated to the market in African art objects has exploded from single digits a few years ago, to several hundred in the past year, and the indication is that such sites and the trade they ply will continue to grow. Some of the objects traded on this network marketplace, are of little historical value. Others are of immense cultural and historical importance, and often, these are obtained illicitly. It is tempting to think that the open platform on which a good deal of this exchange now occurs would improve the chances of monitoring illicit trade in cultural products. One must point out, however, that this is not necessarily the case. On the contrary, through the numerous secret passages which the Net provides, dealers and collectors are even more able to trade in objects, exchange information, or hatch conspiracies aimed at further depleting the material cultures of Africa, which are then funneled into private and private collections especially in the West.

On a philosophical level, we are faced with the advent of an exponential craving and readiness to locate and consume the Other in the form of material and visual symbols, without the moral or social responsibilities contingent on a physical encounter with that Other. Entire worlds geographical and corporeal, are opened up for the privileged to explore and possibly purloin and ravage without once having to leave the comfort of their home-office or confront the possible ramifications of their adventures.

On purely social and material levels, this desire to locate and consume that is facilitated by the network, exposes such populations to the unscrupulous machinations of traders desperate to satiate a growing demand. In effect, unwitting peoples whose material cultures service this demand, are made vulnerable to plunder, thanks to the driving machinery of a networked exchange system. Moreover, because of their exclusion from the system, they are left largely at the mercy of players in an intricate game outside their realms of comprehension or agency.

How the situation can be improved

These are some of the realities which the Net constitutes for those who are unable to heed the injunction, only connect. Not only are they relegated on the outside of a powerful, global machinery, they are equally laid bare to the rapacious potentials of this machinery. The question then arises as to what can be done to correct or ameliorate this situation, and this is a question that must engage not only those who debate the merits and future of the Net, but those who propagate expansion of the network society, also.

We began this brief exploration by observing that the global digital network has become an inescapable part of the machine of progress at the millennium. It is the logical conclusion to a century of relentless assaults on the fort of knowledge and the frontiers of possibility. Whatever its demerits, it is nevertheless irreversible. We also observed ways in which cultural practitioners may put it to use, indicating that it may not be approached only as a system to loathe or condemn. Indeed, for those who are already situated within it, its myriad possibilities make it a most endearing facility for survival in a new age. To contend with the realities outlined above, therefore, we may look in only two directions.

The first is to encourage a different kind of activism within the network itself, an activism which aims to engender a culture of sensitivity and responsibility within the Net. There is a nascent if inchoate morality already developing in the network, and this could be extended to include awareness of and a conscionable relationship with those who are on the outside. This is an area where artists and other cultural practitioners could play a useful role corollary to their tradition in regular society. Not only do they need to inject a certain criticality into their own practice with regard to the place and fate of the unconnected, they could also help to raise the awareness advocated here across the platform of the network.

Additionally, though the issue of regulations within the Net remains moot, even incendiary, it is valid to suggest that the network, like any other community, be subject to a level of enforceable regulation to protect individual freedoms within and outside its constituencies. Such a social apparatus recommends itself most especially on the evidence that the moral of individual self-regulation most favored by the network community has not worked, and cannot possibly sustain so vast and variegated a human system. The idea of the Net as a sacred corridor of limitless freedom is not only ludicrous but dangerous, also, as its history amply and cogently demonstrates. 1933 A combination of cultural and political work, and a negotiable modicum of statutory regulation, is needed in order to reverse the predatory proclivities of the network.

The second, inevitable challenge is to engage those sociopolitical, cultural and technological strategies that will bring a greater proportion of humanity into the new, global community of the networked. In the few years since a discourse began to develop around the implications and prospects of connectivity especially as it relates to the unconnected, it has become customary for some to pose it against supposedly more pressing concerns such as global hunger, deprivation and disease. However, this rhetoric of invented priorities is a mistake, in so far as it fails to acknowledge that these conditions are not implacable, but only testimonies to a global lack of will to address easily containable blotches on our claims of progress. It is beyond dispute that we already possess the means and technological know-how to provide food, literacy and global network access to the majority of humanity without necessarily prioritizing one above the other. And we will need to apply that wherewithal to those tasks.

As long as some remain outside the burgeoning new world which the network has introduced, and as long as the balance of power is in favor of this new world, it is impossible to achieve that "unified global field of awareness" which McLuhan once called for. 1934 Ultimately we will have to contend with not simply the possibility or viability, but the necessity of a more cohesive digital age whose fundamental technologies are at the service and disposal of the greater majority.

I would like to mention my indebtedness to Jordan Crandall and Gilane Tawadros, both of whom read this contribution in the making and offered very useful advise, and to the staff and residents of the Rockefeller Study and Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy where it was conceived and written.

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