January 03, 2011

On the Internet as the Locus of the Digital Culture

This text is an experiment. I am by all means no expert on the following subjects. Except that I have witnessed them and my experience allows me to critically assess, what I think is not theorized enough. Before theorizing however, I tried to contextualize a little, what can be described as the "digital culture". This frame of reference is outlined and elaborated upon below and by all means not complete, merely a first attempt.

Today I was discussing with a friend, or perhaps I was rather listening to a chain or arguments spanning from Fordism to today's digital age, where the question of privacy and internet as a medium is a result of a larger process of industrialization that is accompanied by a constant and developing technologization. Furthermore the state of today's society is a result of this processes and developments and thus questions such as privacy, or the transparent citizen (whose digitized information is freely available to his government, in German the translation of this concept is a commonly used terminology; "der gläserne Bürger"). So to use the metaphor of a 'sock', the digital and related subjects are at best at the the very end, or tip of sock, or the least at the inside. It is a result of a development, but nothing more than another issue of the larger phenomenon, a particularity, a sideshow so to speak.

I suppose this is where I have to take issue. My usage of the metaphor would be to turn the sock inside out, where now the digital wraps around everything else.
Firstly I should mention, that with the digital, I mean the Internet and networking in general. We are in a state which is (still) beyond comprehension, because we have created something that is about to fundamentally change, well, many things, because if you cannot comprehend the extent of the phenomenon, it is difficult to assess how it will affect us, except with very particular examples. The Internet and the digitalization of our lives, is a phenomenon difficult to fathom, especially by people who are merely immersed in that "medium" and solely its users.

To illustrate my point I have to take a small excursus. People who were born in the seventies or the early eighties, have witnessed at a more or less young age the shift from a analog to a digital world. Where internet and networking was possible by a very few people, some would call it the elite others simply geeks, contrary to today, where even grandparents enjoy the grandchildren's trips via chat, webcam or blogs. This generation has actively witnessed the time before internet, or more precisely the World Wide Web, and the currents state. Which will become dominated by what are called the "digital natives", who from a very young age have experienced and used digital technology and thus have become proficient users.

(The Blur, Diller + Scofidio for the Expo.02, 2002, Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland; via: http://www.eikongraphia.com/)

The reason one has refer to very particular examples is, that the greater narrative has not been written yet and the small innocent examples can hint us at how to understand and begin to comprehend, what a fundamental change the internet and digital technology is. The digital natives are users of applications and highly designed tools, that are either tools satisfy individual desires and/or problems, or they offer a critical hybridization of not too many — but just enough — elements to maintain a simplicity of usage. This hybridization, inherent in smart phones or in particular the iPhone, is a manifestation of said hybridization. But in fact that does not mean anything else than networking/network-ability of single elements/tools that start working together as a compound entity (in other words a network, or straightforward the internet itself). The iPhone thus becomes an (hardware) extension of the internet so to speak. The digital natives are continuously using more such highly developed tools. The simpler (and easier, but at the same time cleverer!) the networked elements work together, the faster will they be adopted and used in favor to older, less networked tools and applications (-> AppStore).
This development in which the digital natives are immersed in, the previous generation is experiencing with a tad less immersion. The competence of using such networked tools is very high with the digital natives. Pretty much any pre-kindergardeners will without much hesitation take an iPhone and figure it out how to use it. It is interesting to observe an adult talking to his child, about having to install an app so she can play the piano on the iPhone. What an absurdity of abstract terms one might think, but in context and considering the level of immersion of the digital natives, such technological concepts and terminology one does not need to know about , in order to be able to use.

The cleverly networked and designed tools reduce knowledge to a negotiation of intuition in order to allow a smooth adaptation.

Now the previous generation firstly had to deal with inferior digital tools, that where far less intuitive and the "learning curve" was very difficult to master. Hence only a very few achieved this level of mastery and immersion exactly because there was no precedent. These individuals where exactly became the precedent for the digital native. A very elite part of such people where the early hackers, mostly benign in nature they simply spent lots of time working their way into this digital realm. Intuitive design of digital tools, simply means that they are accessible, they are open to use in manifold ways. Such doors the hackers had to find for themselves, they had to hack (type into the computer) a program, and application because there simply was none before. Obviously by far not everybody has been a hacker of the generation avant the digital natives, but surely the competence in terms of how the digital technology is made, comprised and how it works is higher, than simply knowing how to use it.

Professor Rolf Pfeiffer of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Lab at the University of Zurich is researching toward the intelligence of the limbs. Contrary to Prof. Pfeiffer's research, in Japan for instance, robots as an application of artificial intelligence are centrally controlled by a computer, that steers all its functions, similar to our brain. However Prof. Pfeiffer argued and research in Biology has shown, that our brain in fact does not control every process, but certain reactions are subsidized, locally induced. His argument is that nowadays hardly a computer can achieve both, miniaturization of the computer and it's computing power can be combined in order to centrally command a robot it all it's complexities it is supposed to mimic human behavior - be artificially intelligent. Thus Prof. Pfeiffer breaks down the intelligence. How a limb is designed impacts it's function, thus less computing power is needed.
I am not an expert on AI research, but at least as a metaphor it could have value to my argument. The cleverly networked tools the digital natives use demand only a little intelligence to understand how they work, we can interact instantaneously and thus focus our intelligence on actually using them. The design is intelligent, thus we can relocate knowledge and intelligence to other things.

I have mentioned two generations, the digital natives, born at the end of the eighties to pretty much nowadays and beyond and the previous generation.
Where the latter had to painstakingly y acquire the competence in using digital technology, the former is immersed in digital technology that offers a plethora of intelligently designed (cleverly networked) tools and thus can focus on the application than onto "howto".

This rather long excursus should not have been in avid, but rather important to get to the next point. People in politics and those who are in charge of our societ(-ies)y are predominantly of that previous generation or even older ones. The consequence is, that the general understanding on what a profound meaning the internet has is fundamentally lacking. The questions that should be driving us, in order to understand what the immersion of the digital natives means and in more general terms the ubiquitous availability of information. Current developments in computer science and information technology are working with the notion of the "could", cloud-computing. Where information is no longer stored locally, but in the cloud, the internet. Much more than just a reiteration of the net-computer that Sun was advertising in the 1990's, this similar concept describes the cloud as omni-present entity, where I can access my stored information anywhere and anytime. Ubiquitous computing becomes the ubiquitous information, which is instantaneously available. There is only one precedent which comes to mind to this concept, our brain.

If you as a politician or policy maker have only a faint understanding and a vague notion what the digital and the internet is, how should you be able to define digital politics (policy, DIgitalpolitik)? How can you address such problems such as the digital divide? I think there is a cultural disconnect, which is unfortunately is difficult to describe and to anticipate how it will develop, except that it will further effect everything we do.
Certainly it is an important question to ask, that we perhaps should not offer all of our private information, that the government should not save our patient data on the internet. But what is the notion of privacy in a time, where the digital natives do not care firing away personal information on the internet. On the contrary, the information you disclose, the better will you be networked and the smoother applications work, individualized and adapted.

Such concepts and arguments can be repeated about pretty much everything, it seems we have to renegotiate everything.

This is neither solely a phenomenon at the end of industrialization, nor a contemporary sideshow. I would boldly suggest, that this hints at a new culture. Its locus is the internet,the cloud is too hard to locate, but ubiquity suggests placelessness.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for sharing.you are really a great one of this subject