Reflections on Cyber-Culture and Information Societies

The documentary we watched last Wednesday gave an broad overview of the debate on cyber-culture and information societies. Different academic discourses problematized the impact of new information technology on society and culture, respectively: cybernetics, cultural studies and philosophy. During the film and the following discussion some interesting aspects of the issue were highlighted. I want to focus two, from my point of view, more important points mentioned last week: the problem of determinism and the evaluation of trends towards an so-called information society and cyber culture.

The statements of the “cybernetic fraction” made it clear: Those, who are involved in the process of creating new forms of media, technological devices etc., seem to see in technological progress the determining variable in social and cultural development. However, this techno-determinism has been criticized as a rather unreflective perspective: It is highly debatable if technology alone shapes our social and cultural environment. This sort of mono-causality simplifies far more complex correlations. The step towards a kind of cultural determinism should thereby be avoided, too. It seems to be more appropriate to speak of a complex interaction of several factors in society, culture and science, influencing each other. There is no teleological development and it is impossible to predict the future course of mankind – especially not by focusing on a single aspect exclusively. Sir Karl Raimund Popper demonstrated this in his book  The Poverty of Historicism over 50 years ago.

As long as the technological infrastructure is based on limited resources, we cannot speak of one information society in general – access is restricted and the term is applicable only to developed capitalistic(-democratic) states. However, some of us are constantly surrounded by technology and information products. Thus living in a kind of information society is for certain parts of world`s population a simple fact – if this is “good” or “bad” should not be the question. It is more important to accept the changes in everyday life,  to face the challenges and to find orientation. The individual decides for which purposes he or she uses the possibilities of new media. A key term is here, I think, “media competence (or capacity)”. This means: learning to understand the possibilities, limits, merits and demerits of new communication and information technologies; to be able to evaluate and use new media effectively and to avoid possible dangers concerning privacy / sensible data.  The right education might provide an appropriate preparation, before one enters the ever-flowing data stream of the internet.

Concerning “Cyborgs”: Actually, we are all to a certain extent connected with machines – this discourse for instance is constituted by the usage of computers to express our thoughts and exchange opinions. We connect, chat, discuss, fight, praise, shop, date and play online. Some have a one or more online identities. Others even live their sexuality in cyberspace. Our eyes, ears, (mouths) and minds are extended by computers and the internet. Effects of cyber identities on the “real-life”-existence have appeared already – and some of them are rather negative: 70% of U.S. human-ressources officers admitted, that they have rejected job applications due to inappropriate info material they have found on social networking sites (Time Magazine) . One can find plenty of examples in the web:

Girl Sacked Afte Boss Sees Ranting Facebook Status Update (The London Paper 14/08/09)

Worker Sacked over Facebook Comments on ‘Boring’ Job (Personnel Today 27/02/09)

FACEBOOK FIRED: 8% of US Companies Have Sacked Social Media Miscreants (Mashabel The Social Media Guide)

Therefore, actions of a digital effigy can cause consequences in “real life”.

Another important question deals with the aspect of hegemony: Who has the power in the world wide web? Who controls access? Which sources are independent? Where are hidden agendas? How “free” is information really? Who evaluates and defines the reliability, i.e. the worth of information? What shapes the virtual reality? People seem sometimes to forget, that the first page showing hits on google reveals only a very small part of the vast spaces we call the internet.

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