Has the Internet enhanced knowledge?

Lovemore Ranga Mataire The Reader
Has the advent of the Internet made people more knowledgeable or have we become mere zombies of mediated information? Yes, the Internet is here but have we caught up with its implications for culture and everyday life?

These are some of the questions examined in the “Cultures of Internet- Virtual Spaces, real histories, living bodies” edited by Rob Shields.

Rob Shields is a lecturer in Culture and Communications at the University of Lancaster in England and also Carleton University in Canada where he is Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology. Shields is the author of “Places on the Margin and Henri Lefebvre: A Critical Introduction” and is also the editor of “Lifestyle Shopping” and co-editor with Adam Podgorecki and John Alexander of a book titled “Social Engineering: The Technics of Change.”

“Cultures of Internet” has an array of contributors dealing with different areas of interest concerning the impact of the Internet. One interesting contribution is from Dan Thu Nguyen and John Alexander titled ‘The Coming of Cyberspace and the End of the Polity.’

Nguyen and Alexander argue that far from creating knowledgeable populace, the Internet is making most people more detached from any common frame of reference.

“In simultaneously bringing back lost arts of chatting and letter writing, the Internet is fusing the oral and the written. People must judge you solely based on words you write.”

Indeed, unless one user is physically known to the other user, or unless someone has revealed his or her identity, it is difficult to know whether one is female, male, tall, short, a redhead, black, white, Asian, Latino or is on a wheelchair. It is for this reason that Nguyen and Alexander come to the conclusion that it is a myth that the more time one spends on the Internet translates to more learning as media communications are highly susceptible to deception.

In a rather alarmist way, the two contributors argue that the Internet poses as one of the singular agents for disabling and disordering human agency as it gives an illusion of consensus and equality in terms of freedom of expression.

“Our individual concreteness dissolves in favour of the fluid, homogeneous and universal. Once the palpable particularity of individual identity is lost, we become relational feedback units among endless arrays of refracted power.” (p.104).

A number of social concerns have since arisen due to the rampant spread and use of the Internet, warping of time accompanied the blurring of boundaries within the discursive space. There is no longer a clear demarcation between daytime – time of action, time for sleep and rest, peace and quiet.

JT Fraser (1987) calls this phenomenon the graying of calendar, evident in a time-compact globe. He writes: “We witness in our age a revolutionary recasting of the calendar; profound, silent and irreversible. It is done without government action or fanfare or even much public attention.” (p.106).

The thrust of Nyugen and Alexander is focused on the assumption that the Internet undermines political discourses centred on notions such as agency, action, territory, progress and development. Modernity seems to be breaking down giving in to such traits as user-ship, operation, non-linearity, recursivity and chaos.

The desire of the human race to reconstruct itself and its environment electronically has led us to a critical threshold. The historical reality that lies behind the human race are well-defined boundaries while on the other side of the Internet is nothing but fogginess. It is however, incumbent upon every individual to be able to look at everyday life from the point of view of both the old and the new.

In their analysis, Nguyen and Alexander state that the old boundaries framed an order in which people thought of time as flowing relentlessly forward, uni-dimensionally and irreversibly. Within that order, one could effectively enclose and control space.

“Within that frame of reference, states organised human affairs accordingly. They could segregate peoples within geographical borders. States could hand down political judgments based on arbitrary criteria selected out of the ‘progress’ of their own discrete civilisations.”

The questions that still vexes political players is whether nations can still protect the integrity of international borders when bits flow across them with total freedom, and governments can neither tax their value nor limit their content?

What is clear from ‘Cultures of Internet’ in general is that the old definition of space-time on which nation-based order rested is quickly becoming an archaic environment buckling to the new one. What is apparent is that the single-minded can find each other with the speed of light while in the old environment people met face to face and mutually compromised on the basis of shared everyday lives. Yet in cyberspace each precinct is virtual, and people only ‘meet’ in to talk about one specific thing. In cyberspace there is no centre-stage and is intensely decentralizing.

This is a critical book for policymakers, civic society and students of journalism yearning to understand the impact and future of cyberspace in the sustenance of societies.

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