(This essay appears as Chapter 2 in my book The Second Media Age
On the eve of the twenty first century there have been two innovative
discussions about the general conditions of life: one concerns a possible
"postmodern" culture and even society; the other concerns broad, massive
changes in communications systems. Postmodern culture is often presented
as an alternative to existing society which is pictured as structurally
limited or funda mentally flawed. New communications systems are often
presented as a hopeful key to a better life and a more equitable society.
The discussion of postmodern culture focuses to a great extent on an emerging
new individual identity or subject position, one that abandons what may
in retrospect be the narrow scope of the modern individual with its claims
to rationality and autonomy. The discourse surrounding the new communications
systems attends more to the imminent technical increase in information
exchange and the ways this advantage will redound to already existing individuals
and already existing institutions. My purpose in this essay is to bring
these two discussions together, to enact a confrontation between them so
that the advantages of each may redo und to the other, while the limitations
of each may be revealed and discarded. My contention is that a critical
understanding of the new communications systems requires an evaluation
of the type of subject it encourages, while a viable articulation of pos
tmodernity must include an elaboration of its relation to new technologies
of communication. Finally I shall turn to the issue of multiculturalism
in relation to the postmodern subject in the age of the mode of information.
For what is at stake in th ese technical innovations, I contend, is not
simply an increased "efficiency" of interchange, enabling new avenues of
investment, increased productivity at work and new domains of leisure and
consumption, but a broad and extensive change in the culture, i n the way
identities are structured. If I may be allowed a historical analogy: the
technically advanced societies are at a point in their history similar
to that of the emergence of an urban, merchant culture in the midst of
feudal society of the middle a ges. At that point practices of the exchange
of commodities required individuals to act and speak in new ways, ways
drastically different from the aristocratic code of honor with its face-to-face
encounters based on trust for one's word and its hierarchi cal bonds of
interdependency. Interacting with total strangers sometimes at great distances,
the merchants required written documents guaranteeing spoken promises and
an "arms length distance" attitude even when facetoface with the other,
so as to affor d a "space" for calculations of selfinterest. A new identity
was constructed, gradually and in a most circuitous path to be sure, among
the merchants in which a coherent, stable sense of individuality was grounded
in independent, cognitive abilities. In this way the cultural basis for
the modern world was begun, one that eventually would rely upon print media
to encourage and disseminate these urban forms of identity.
In the twentieth century electronic media are supporting an equally profound
transf ormation of cultural identity. Telephone, radio, film, television,
the computer and now their integration as "multimedia" reconfigure words,
sounds and images so as to cultivate new configurations of individuality.
If modern society may be said to foster an individual who is rational,
autonomous, centered, and stable (the "reasonable man" of the law, the
educated citizen of representative democracy, the calculating "economic
man" of capitalism, the gradedefined student of public education), then
perhaps a postmodern society is emerging which nurtures forms of identity
different from, even opposite to those of modernity. And electronic communications
technologies significantly enhance these postmodern possibilities. Discussions
of these technologies, as w e shall see, tend often to miss precisely this
crucial level of analysis, treating them as enhancements for already formed
individuals to deploy to their advantage or disadvantage.
I. The Communications "Superhighway"
One may regard the media f rom a purely technical point of view,
to the extent that is possible, evaluating them in relation to their ability
to transmit units of information. The question to ask then is how much
information with how little noise may be transmitted at what speed an d
over what distance to how many locations? Until the late 1980s technical
constraints limited the media's ability in these terms. To transmit a high
quality image over existing (twisted pair copper wire) phone lines took
about ten minutes using a 2400 ba ud modem or two minutes using a 9600
baud modem. Given these specifications it was not possible to send "real
time" "moving" images over the phone lines. The great limitation then of
the first electronic media age is that images could only be transmitted
from a small number of centers to a large number of receivers, either by
air or by coaxial cable. Until the end of the 1980s an "economic" scarcity
existed in the media highways that encouraged and justified, without much
thought or consideration, the cap italist or nationstate exploitation
of image transmission. Since senders needed to build their own information
roads by broadcasting at a given frequency or by constructing (coaxial)
wire networks, there were necessarily few distributors of images. The s
ame economies of technology, it might be noted in passing, applied to processes
of information production.
Critical theorists such as Benjamin, Enzensberger and McLuhan envisioned
the democratic potential of the increased communication capacity of rad
io, film and television. While there is some truth to their position, the
practical model for a more radical communications potential during the
first media age was rather the telephone. What distinguishes the telephone
from the other great media is its d ecentralized quality and its universal
exchangeability of the positions of sender and receiver. Anyone can "produce"
and send a message to anyone else in the system and, in the advanced industrial
societies, almost everyone is in the system. These unique qualities were
recognized early on by both defenders and detractors of the telephone.
In the recent past the only technology that imitates the telephone's
democratic structure is the Internet, the government funded electronic
mail, database and general communication system. Until the 1990s, even
this facility has been largely restricted to government, research and education
institutions, some private industry and individuals who enroll in private
services (Compuserve, Prodigy) which are connected to i t. In the last
few years Internet has gained enormously in popularity and by the mid-1990s
boasts thirty million users around the world. But Internet and its segments
use the phone lines, suffering their inherent technical limitations. Technical
innovati ons in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, are making possible
the drastic reduction of earlier constraints. The digital encoding of sound,
text and image, the introduction of fiber optic lines replacing copper
wire, the ability to transmit digitally encoded images and the subsequent
ability to compress this information, the vast expansion of the frequency
range for wireless transmission, innovations in switching technology, and
a number of other advances have so enlarged the quantity and types of in
formation that may soon be able to be transmitted that a qualitative change,
to allude to Engels' dialectical formula, in the culture may also be imminent.
Information superhighways are being constructed that will enable
a vast increase in the flow of communications. The telephone and cable
companies are estimating the change to be from a limit of 60 or so one-way
video/audio channels to one of 500 with limited bidirectionality. But this
kind of calculation badly misses the point. The increase in trans mission
capacity (both wired and wireless) will be so great that it will be possible
to transmit any type of information (audio, video or text) from any point
in the network to any other point or points, and to do so in "real time,"
in other words quickly enough so that the receiver will see or record at
least twenty-four frames of video per second with an accompanying audio
frequency range of twenty to twenty thousand Hertz. The metaphor of the
"superhighway" only attends to the movement of information, leaving out
the various kinds of cyberspace on the Internet, meeting places, work areas,
and electronic cafes in which this vast transmission of images and words
becomes places of communicative relation. The question that needs to be
raised is "will this technological change provide the stimulus for the
installation of new media different enough from what we now have to warrant
the periodizing judgment of a second electronic media age?" If that is
the case, how is the change to be understood?
A discour se on the new communications technology is in process of
formation, one which is largely limited by the vision of modernity. The
importance of the information superhighway is now widely recognized, with
articles appearing in periodicals from the specializ ed zines (Wired and
Mondo 2000) to general journals (Time, Forbes, and The Nation). Essays
on the new technology vary from breathless enthusiasm to wary caution to
skepticism. Writing in Time, Philip Elmer-Dewitt forecasts: "The same switches
used to send a TV show to your home can also be used to send a video from
your home to any other paving the way for video phones... The same system
will allow anybody with a camcorder to distribute videos to the world..."
Key to the new media system is not only t he technical advances mentioned
above but also the merger of existing communication technologies. Elmer-Dewitt
continues, "...the new technology will force the merger of television,
telecommunications, computers, consumer electronics, publishing and infor
mation services into a single interactive information industry." (pp. 52-53)
Other observers emphasize the prospects of wireless technology. Writing
in Forbes, George Gilder predicts the spread of this system: "...the new
minicell replaces a rigid structu re of giant analog mainframes with a
system of wireless local area networks....these wide and weak [replacing
broadcasting based on "long and strong"] radios can handle voice, data
and even video at the same time....the system fulfills the promise of the
computer revolution as a spectrum multiplier....[the new system will] banish
once and for all the concept of spectrum scarcity..." Whether future communications
media employ wired, wireless or some combination of the two, the same picture
emerges of prof ound transformation.
Faced with this gigantic combination of new technology, integration
of older technologies, creation of new industries and expansion of older
ones, commentators have not missed the political implications. In Tikkun,
David Bollier un derlines the need for a new set of policies to govern
and regulate the second media age in the public interest. President Bill
Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore have already drawn attention to the
problem, stressing the need for broad access to the super highway, but
also indicating their willingness to make the new developments safe for
the profit motive. For them the main issue at stake is the strength of
the United States in relation to other nations (read especially Japan)
and the health of the indust ries involved. Bollier points to wider concerns,
such as strengthening community life, supporting families and invigorating
the democratic process. At this point I want to note that Bollier understands
the new media entirely within the framework of moder n social institutions.
The "information superhighway" is for him a transparent tool that brings
new efficiencies but by itself changes nothing. The media merely redound
to the benefit of or detract from familiar institutions--the family, the
community, the state.
If Bollier presents a liberal or left-liberal agenda for politics
confronted by the second media age, Mitchell Kapor, former developer of
Lotus 1-2-3, offers a more radical interpretation. He understands better
than Bollier that the informat ion superhighway opens qualitatively new
political opportunities because it creates new loci of speech: "...the
crucial political question is `Who controls the switches?' There are two
extreme choices. Users may have indirect, or limited control over when
, what, why, and from whom they get information and to whom they send it.
That's the broadcast model today, and its seems to breed consumerism, passivity,
crassness, and mediocrity. Or, users may have decentralized, distributed,
direct control over when, what, why, and with whom they exchange information.
That's the Internet model today, and it seems to breed critical thinking,
activism, democracy, and quality. We have an opportunity to choose now."
With Kapor, the interpretation of the new media returns to the position
of Enzensberger: socialist or radical democratic control of the media results
in more freedom, more enlightenment, more rationality; capitalist or centralist
control results in oppression, passivity, irrationality. Kapor's reading
of the information superhighway remains within the binaries of modernity.
No new cultural formations of the self are imagined or even thought possible.
While the political questions raised by Bollier and Kapor are valid and
raise the level of debate well beyond its current formation, they remain
limited to the terms of discussion that are familiar in the landscape of
The political implications of the Internet for the fate of the nation
state and the development of a global community also requires a ttention.
The dominant use of English on the Internet suggests the extension of American
power as does the fact that e-mail addresses in the U.S. alone do not require
a country code. The Internet normalizes American users. But the issue is
more complex. I n Singapore, English serves to enable conversations between
hostile ethnic groups, being a neutral "other". Of course, vast inequalities
of use exist, changing the democratic structure of the Internet into an
occasion for further wrongs to the poorer popu lations. Even within the
high-use nations, wealthy white males are disproportionate users. Yet technologies
sometimes spread quickly and the Internet is relatively cheap. Only grassroots
political mobilization on this issue will ensure wide access.
In some ways the Internet undermines the territoriality of the nation
state: messages in cyberspace are not easily delimited in Newtonian space,
rendering borders ineffective. In the TealeHomolka trial of early 1994,
a case of multiple murders including se xual assault and mutilation, the
Canadian government was unable to enforce an information blackout because
of Usenet postings in the United States being available in Canada. In order
to combat communicative acts that are defined by one state as illegal,
nations are being compelled to coordinate their laws, putting their vaunted
"sovereignty" in question. So desperate are national governments, confronted
by the disorder of the Internet, that schemes to monitor all messages are
afoot, such as the American government's idea to monopolize encryption
with a "Clipper Chip" or the FBI's insistence on building surveillance
mechanisms into the structure of the information superhighway. Nation states
are at a loss when faced with a global communication network. T echnology
has taken a turn that defines the character of power of modern governments.
The effortless reproduction and distribution of information is greeted
by modern economic organizations, the corporation, with the same anxiety
that plagues nation s tates. Audio taping was resisted by the moguls of
the music industry; video taping by Hollywood; modems by the telephone
industry giants. Property rights are put in doubt when information is set
free of its material integument to move and to multiply in c yberspace
with few constraints. The response of our captains of industry is the absurd
one of attempting vastly to extend the principle of property by promulgating
new "intellectual property laws," flying in the face of the advance in
the technologies of transmission and dissemination. The problem for capitalism
is how to contain the word and the image, to bind them to proper names
and logos when they flit about at the speed of light and procreate with
indecent rapidity, not arborially, to use the terms o f Deleuze and Guattari,
as in a centralized factory, but rhyzomically, at any decentered location.
If that were not enough to daunt defenders of modern notions of property,
First Amendment issues are equally at risk. Who, for example, "owns" the
rights to and is thereby responsible for the text on Internet bulletin
boards: the author, the system operator, the community of participants?
Does freedom of speech extend to cyberspace, as it does to print? How easy
will it be to assess damages and mete out blam e in a communicative world
whose contours are quite different from those of face-to-face speech and
print? These and numerous other fundamental questions are raised by Internet
communications for institutions, laws and habits that developed in the
very di fferent context of modernity.
II. Reality Problematized
Before turning to the issue of the cultural interpretation of the
second media age, we need to consider a further new technology, that of
virtual reality. The term "virtual" was used in compu ter jargon to refer
to situations that were near substitutes. For example, virtual memory means
the use of a section of a hard disk to act as something else, in this case,
random access memory. "Virtual reality" is a more dangerous term since
it suggests that reality may be multiple or take many forms. The phrase
is close to that of "real time," which arose in the audio recording field
when splicing, multiple track recording and multiple speed recording made
possible "other times" to that of clock time or phenomenological time.
In this case, the normal or conventional sense of "time" had to be preserved
by the modifier "real." But again the use of the modifier only draws attention
to non-"reality" of clock time, its nonexclusivity, its insubstantiality
, its lack of foundation. The terms "virtual reality" and "real time" attest
to the force of the second media age in constituting a simulational culture.
The mediation has become so intense that the things mediated can no longer
even pretend to be unaffec ted. The culture is increasingly simulational
in the sense that the media often changes the things that it treats, transforming
the identity of originals and referentialities. In the second media age
"reality" becomes multiple.
Virtual reality is a com puter-generated "place" which is "viewed"
by the participant through "goggles" but which responds to stimuli from
the participant or participants. A participant may "walk" through a house
that is being designed for him or her to get a feel for it before i t is
built. Or s/he may "walk" through a "museum" or "city" whose paintings
or streets are computer-generated but the position of the individual is
relative to their actual movement, not to a predetermined, computer program
or "movie." In addition, more t han one individual may experience the same
virtual reality at the same time, with both persons' "movements" affecting
the same "space." What is more, these individuals need not be in the same
physical location but may be communicating information to the c omputer
from distant points through modems. Further "movements" in virtual reality
are not quite the same as movements in "old reality": for example, one
can fly or go through walls since the material constraints of earth need
not apply. While still in th eir infancy, virtual reality programs attest
to the increasing "duplication," if I may use this term, of reality by
technology. But the duplication incurs an alternation: virtual realities
are fanciful imaginings that, in their difference from real realit y, evoke
play and discovery, instituting a new level of imagination. Virtual reality
takes the imaginary of the word and the imaginary of the film or video
image one step farther by placing the individual "inside" alternative worlds.
By directly tinkering with reality, a simulational practice is set in place
which alters forever the conditions under which the identity of the self
Already transitional forms of virtual reality are in use on the Internet.
MUDs or Multi User Domains have a devot ed following. These are conferences
of sorts in which participants adopt roles in a neomedieval adventure
game. Although the game is played textually, that is, moves are typed as
sentences, it is highly "visual" in the sense that complex locations, chara
cters and objects interact continuously. In a variant of a MUD, LambdaMOO,
a database contains "objects" as "built" by participants to improve upon
the sense of reality. As a result, a quasi-virtual reality is created by
the players. What is more each pla yer adopts a fictional role that may
be different from their actual gender and indeed this gender may change
in the course of the game, drastically calling into question the gender
system of the dominant culture as a fixed binary. At least during the fict
ional game, individuals explore imaginary subject positions while in communication
with others. In LambdaMOO, a series of violent "rapes" by one character
caused a crisis among the participants, one that led to special conferences
devoted to the issue of punishing the offender and thereby better defining
the nature of the community space of the conference. This experience also
cautions against depictions of cyberspace as utopia: the wounds of modernity
are borne with us when we enter this new arena and in some cases are even
exacerbated. Nonetheless, the makings of a new cultural space are also
at work in the MUDs. One participant argues that continuous participation
in the game leads to a sense of involvement that is somewhere between ordinary
reality an d fiction. The effect of new media such as the Internet and
virtual reality, then, is to multiply the kinds of "realities" one encounters
III. The Postmodern Subject
The information superhighway and virtual reality are communications
media that enrich existing forms of consumer culture. But they also depart
or may depart from what we have known as the mass media or the "culture
industry" in a number of crucial ways. I said "may depart" because neither
of these technologies has been f ully constituted as cultural practices;
they are emergent communication systems whose features are yet to be specified
with some permanence or finality. One purpose of this essay is to suggest
the importance of some form of political concern about how the se technologies
are being actualized. The technical characteristics of the information
superhighway and virtual reality are clear enough to call attention to
their potential for new cultural formations. It is conceivable that the
information superhighway will be restricted in the way the broadcast system
is. In that case, the term "second media age" is unjustified. But the potential
of a decentralized communications system is so great that it certainly
worthy of recognition.
Examples from the history o f the installation and dissemination
of communications technologies is instructive. Carolyn Marvin points out
that the telephone was, at the onset, by no means the universal, decentralized
network it became. The phone company was happy to restrict the use of the
instrument to those who registered. It did not understand the social or
political importance of the universality of participation, being interested
mainly in income from services provided. Also the example of Telefon Hirmondó,
a telephone system i n Budapest in the period before World War I, is worth
recalling. The Hungarians used the telephone as a broadcast system, with
a published schedule of programming. They also restricted narrowly the
dissemination of the technology to the ruling class. The process by which
the telephone was instituted as a universally disseminated network in which
anyone is able to call anyone else occurred in a complex, multi-leveled
historical articulation in which the technology, the economic structure,
the political ins titution, the political culture and the mass of the population
each played interacting roles. A similarly complex history will no doubt
accompany the institution of the information superhighway and virtual reality.
In The Mode of Information I argued that electronic communications
constitute the subject in ways other than that of the major modern institutions.
If modernity or the mode of production signifies patterned practices that
elicit identities as autonomous and (instrumentally) rational, postmo dernity
or the mode of information indicates communication practices that constitute
subjects as unstable, multiple, and diffuse. The information superhighway
and virtual reality will extend the mode of information to still further
applications, greatly a mplifying its diffusion by bringing more practices
and more individuals within its pattern of formation. No doubt many modern
institutions and practices continue to exist and indeed dominate social
space. The mode of information is an emergent phenomenon that affects small
but important aspects of everyday life. It certainly does not blanket the
advanced industrial societies and has even less presence in less developed
nations. The information superhighway and virtual reality may be interpreted
through th e poststructuralist lens I have used here in relation to the
cultural issue of subject constitution. If that is done, the question of
the mass media is seen not simply as that of sender/receiver, producer/consumer,
ruler/ruled. The shift to a decentralize d network of communications makes
senders receivers, producers consumers, rulers ruled, upsetting the logic
of understanding of the first media age. The step I am suggesting is at
least temporarily to abandon that logic and adopt a poststructuralist cultu
ral analysis of modes of subject constitution. This does not answer all
the questions opened by the second media age, especially the political
ones which at the moment are extremely difficult. But it permits the recognition
of an emergent postmodernity an d a tentative approach to a political analysis
of that cultural system; it permits the beginning of a line of thought
that confronts the possibility of a new age, avoiding the continued, limiting,
exclusive repetition of the logics of modernity.
Subjec t constitution in the second media age occurs through the
mechanism of interactivity. A technical term referring to twoway communications,
"interactivity" has become, by dint of the advertising campaigns of telecommunications
corporations, desirable as a n end in itself so that its usage can float
and be applied in countless contexts having little to do with telecommunications.
Yet the phenomenon of communicating at a distance through one's computer,
of sending and receiving digitally encoded messages, of being "interactive"
has been the most popular application of the Internet. Far more than making
purchases or obtaining information electronically, communicating by computer
claims the intense interest of countless thousands. The use of the Internet
to s imulate communities far outstrips its function as retail store or
reference work. In the words of Howard Rheingold, an enthusiastic Internet
user, "I can attest that I and thousands of other cybernauts know that
what we are looking for, and finding in som e surprising ways, is not just
information and but instant access to ongoing relationships with a large
number of other people." Rheingold terms the network of relations that
come into existence on Internet bulletin boards "virtual communities."
Places f or "meeting" on the Internet, such as "the Well" frequented by
Rheingold, provide "areas" for "public" messages, which all subscribers
may read, and private "mailbox" services for individual exchanges.
The understanding of these communications is limi ted by modern categories
of analysis. For example, many have interpreted the success of "virtual
communities" as an indication that "real" communities are in decline. Internet
provides an alternative, these critics contend, to the real thing. But
the opposition "virtual" and "real" community contains serious difficulties.
In t he case of the nation, generally regarded as the strongest group identification
in the modern period and thus perhaps the most "real" community of this
era, the role of the imaginar y has been fundamental. Pre-electronic media
like the newspaper were instrumental in disseminating the sign of the nation
and interpellating the subject in relation to it. In even earlier types
of community, such as the village, kinship and residence we re salient
factors of determination. But identification of an individual or family
with a specific group was never automatic, natural or given, always turning,
as Jean-Luc Nancy argues on the production of an "essence" which reduces
multiplicity into fixi ty, obscuring the political process in which "community"
is constructed: "...the thinking of community as essence ... is in effect
the closure of the political." He rephrases the term community by asking
the following question: "How can we be receptive t o the meaning of our
multiple, dispersed, mortally fragmented existences, which nonetheless
only make sense by existing in common?" (p. xl) Community for him then
is paradoxically the absence of "community." It is rather the matrix of
fragmented identitie s, each pointing toward the other, which he chooses
to term "writing."
Nancy's critique of community in the older sense is crucial to the understanding
of the construction of self in the Internet. For his part Nancy has chosen
to deny the significance of new communications technologies, as well as
new subaltern subject positions in his understanding of community: "The
emergence and our increasing consciousness of decolonized communities has
not profoundly modified [the givens of community], nor has to day's growth
of unprecedented forms of being-in-common through channels of information
as well as through what is called the "multiracial society" triggered any
genuine renewal of the question of community." (p. 22) Nancy denies the
relation I am dr awing between a postmodern constitution of the subject
and bidirectional communications media. The important point however is
that in order to do so he first posits the subject as "multiple, dispersed,
mortally fragmented" in an ontological statement. To this extent he removes
the question of community from the arena of history and politics, the exact
purpose of his critique of the essentialist community in the first place.
While presenting an effective critique of the essentialist community Nancy
reinsta tes the problem at the level of the subject by ontologizing its
inessentialism. My preference is rather to specify the historical emergence
of the decentered subject and explore its links with new communications
We may now return to the que stion of the Internet and its relation
to a "virtual community." To restate the issue: the Internet and virtual
reality open the possibility of new kinds of interactivity such that the
idea of an opposition of real and unreal community is not adequate to specify
the differences between modes of bonding, serving instead to obscure the
manner of the historical construction of forms of community. In particular
this opposition prevents asking the question of the forms of identity prevalent
in various types of community. The notion of a real community, as Nancy
shows, presupposes the fixed, stable identities of its members, the exact
assumption that Internet communities put into question. Observers of and
participants in Internet "virtual communities" repeat i n near unanimity
that long or intense experience with computermediated electronic communication
is associated with a certain fluidity of identity. Rheingold foresees huge
cultural changes as the effect of Internet use on the individual: "...are
relations hips and commitments as we know them even possible in a place
where identities are fluid?....We reduce and encode our identities as words
on a screen, decode and unpack the identities of others." (p. 61) In bulletin
boards like The Well, people connect wi th strangers without much of the
social baggage that divides and alienates. Without visual cues about gender,
age, ethnicity, and social status, conversations open up in directions
that otherwise might be avoided. Participants in these virtual communities
often express themselves with little inhibition and dialogues flourish
and develop quickly. Yet Rheingold attributes the conviviality of the Well
and the extravagant identity transformations of MUDs to "the hunger for
community that has followed the disi ntegration of traditional communities
around the world." (p. 62) Even for this advocate of new communications
technologies the concept of a real community regulates his understanding
of the new interactivity. While there may be some truth to a perspective
that sees "virtual communities" as compensations for the loss of real communities,
I prefer to explore the new territory and define its possibilities.
Another aspect to understanding identity in virtual communities is
provided by Stone. Her studies of electronic communication systems suggest
that participants code "virtual" reality through categories of "normal"
reality. They do so by communicating to each other as if they were in physical
common space, as if this space were inhabited by bodies, were mappable
by Cartesian perspective, and by regarding the interactions as events,
as fully significant for the participants' personal histories. While treatment
of new media by categories developed in relation to earlier ones is hardly
new, in this case th e overlap serves to draw closer together the two types
of ontological status. Virtual communities derive some of their verisimilitude
from being treated as if they were plain communities, allowing members
to experience communications in cyberspace as if t hey were embodied social
interactions. Just as virtual communities are understood as having the
attributes of "real" communities, so "real" communities can be seen to
depend on the imaginary: what makes a community vital to its members is
their treatment of the communications as meaningful and important. Virtual
and real communities mirror each other in chiasmic juxtaposition.
IV. Narratives in Cyberspace
Electronic mail services and bulletin boards are inundated by stories.
Individuals appear to enjoy relating narratives to those they have never
met and probably never will meet. These narratives often seem to emerge
directly from peoples' lives but many no doubt are inventions. The appeal
is strong to tell one's tale to others, to many, many othe rs. One observer
suggests the novelty of the situation: "technology is breaking down the
notion of fewtomany communications. Some communicators will always be
more powerful than others, but the big idea behind cybertales is that
for the first time the many are talking to the many. Every day, those who
can afford the computer equipment and the telephone bills can be their
own producers, agents, editors and audiences. Their stories are becoming
more and more idiosyncratic, interactive and individualistic , told in
different forums to diverse audiences in different ways." This explosion
of narrativity depends upon a technology that is unlike print and unlike
the electronic media of the first age: it is cheap, flexible, readily available,
quick. It combine s the decentralized model of the telephone and its numerous
"producers" of messages with the broadcast model's advantage of numerous
receivers. Audio (Internet Talk Radio) and video (The World Wide Web using
Mosaic) are being added to text, enhancing cons iderably the potentials
of the new narratives. There is now a "World Wide Web" which allows the
simultaneous transmission of text, images and sound, providing hypertext
links as well. The implications of the Web are astounding: film clips and
voice readin gs may be included in "texts" and "authors" may indicate their
links as "texts." In addition, other related technologies produce similar
decentralizing effects. Such phenomena as "desktop broadcasting," widespread
citizen camcorder "reporting," and digita l filmmaking are transgressing
the constraints of broadcast oligopolies.
The question of narrative position has been central to the discussion
of postmodernity. Jean-François Lyotard has analyzed the change
in narrative legitimation structures of the premodern, modern and postmodern
epochs. Lyotard defines the postmodern as an "incredulity" toward metanarratives,
especially that of progress and its variants deriving from the Enlightenment.
He advocates a turn to the "little story" which validates di fference,
extols the "unpresentable" and escapes the overbearing logic of instrumentality
that derives from the metanarrative of progress. Any effort to relate second
media age technologies with the concept of the postmodern must confront
Lyotard's skepti cism about technology. For Lyotard, it must be recalled,
technology itself is fully complicit with modern narrativity. For example,
he warns of the dangers of "a generalized computerization of society" in
which the availability of knowledge is politically dangerous: "The performativity
of an utterance...increases proportionally to the amount of information
about its referent one has at one's disposal. Thus the growth of power,
and its selflegitimation, are now taking the route of data storage and
accessi bility, and the operativity of information." (p. 47) Information
technologies are thus complicit with new tendencies toward totalitarian
control, not toward a decentralized, multiple "little narrativity" of postmodern
The question may be raise d, then, of the narrative structure of
second media age communications: does it or is it likely to promote the
proliferation of little narratives or does it invigorate a developing authoritarian
technocracy? Lyotard describes the narrative structure of tr ibal, premodern
society as stories that (1) legitimate institutions, (2) contain many different
forms of language, (3) are transmitted by senders who are part of the narrative
and have heard it before and listeners who are possible senders, (4) constructs
a nonlinear temporality that foreshortens the past and the present, rendering
each repetition of the story strangely concurrent and most importantly
(5) authorizes everyone as a narrator. Modern society, Lyotard argues derives
its legitimacy from narrat ives about science. Within science language
(1) does not legitimate institutions, (2) contains the single language
form of denotation, (3) does not confirm addressee as possible sender,
(4) gains no validity by being reported and (5) constructs "diachroni c"
temporality. These contrasting characteristics may serve, as Lyotard wishes,
to indicate the "pragmatics" of language. It would be interesting to analyze
the role of technologies in the premodern and modern cases, and especially
the change, within the modern, from print to broadcast media.
In any case, for Lyotard, the postmodern little narrative refunctions the
premodern language game but only in limited ways. Like the tribal myth,
the little narrative insists on "the heteromorphous nature of lang uage
games" (p. 66); in short, it validates difference. Unlike older narrative
forms, the little narrative emphasizes the role of invention, the indication
of the unknown and the unexpected. Lyotard looks to certain developments
in the natural sciences fo r his examples of such postmodern narratives,
but we may turn to the Internet and to the developing technology of virtual
reality. As we have seen, the Internet seems to encourage the proliferation
of stories, local narratives without any totalizing gestu res and it places
senders and addressees in symmetrical relations. Moreover these stories
and their performance consolidate the "social bond" of the Internet "community,"
much like the premodern narrative. But invention is central to the Internet,
especia lly in MUDs and virtual reality: the production of the unknown
or paralogy, in Lyotard's term, is central to second media age communications.
In particular the relation of the utterance to representation is not limited
to denotation as in the modern langu age game of science, and indeed the
technology encourages a lightening of the weight of the referent. This
is an important basis for the instability of identity in electronic communications,
leading to the insertion of the question of the subject and its construction.
In this spirit, Katherine Hayles defines the "revolutionary potential"
of virtual reality as follows: "to expose the presuppositions underlying
the social formations of late capitalism and to open new fields of play
where the dynamics have n ot yet rigidified and new kinds of moves are
For the new technologies install the "interface," the face between
the faces; the face that insists that we remember that we have "faces,"
that we have sides that are present at the moment of utt erance, that we
are not present in any simple or immediate way. The interface has become
critical to the success of the Internet. To attain wide appeal, the Internet
must not simply be efficient, useful, or entertaining: it must present
itself in an agree able manner. The enormous problem for interface design
is the fear and hostility humans nourish toward machines and toward a dim
recognition of a changing relation toward them, a sharing of space and
an interdependence. The Internet interface must someho w appear "transparent,"
that is to say, appear not to be an interface, not to come between two
alien beings and also seem fascinating, announcing its novelty and encouraging
an exploration of the difference of the machinic. The problem of the Internet
the n is not simply "technological" but para-machinic: to construct a boundary
between the human and the machinic that draws the human into the technology,
transforming the technology into "used equipment" and the human into a
"cyborg," into one meshing with machines.
In Wim Wenders recent film, "Until the End of the World," (1991)
several characters view their own dreams on videotape, becoming so absorbed
in what they see that they forget to eat and sleep. The characters sit
transfixed before their viewi ng devices, ignoring everyone around them,
disregarding all relations and affairs. Limited to the microworld of their
own dreams, the characters are lost in a narcissistic stupor. And yet their
total absorption is compelling. Visual representations of the unconscious--no
doubt Wenders has film itself in mind--are irresistible compared to everyday
reality, a kind of hyperreality.
One can imagine that virtual reality devices will become as compelling
as the dream videos in Wenders' film. Virtual realit y machines should
be able to allow the participant to enter imagined worlds with convincing
verisimilitude, releasing immense potentials for fantasy, self-discovery
and self-construction. When groups of individuals are able to interact
in the same virtual space the possibilities are even more difficult to
conceive. One hesitates to suggest that these experiences are commensurate
with something that has been termed community. Yet there is every reason
to think that virtual reality technologies will develop rapidly and will
eventually enable participation through the Internet. Connected to one's
home computer one will experience an audiovisual "world" generated from
a node somewhere in the Internet and this will include other participants
in the same way th at today one can communicate with others on bulletin
boards in videotext. If such experiences become commonplace, just as viewing
television is today, then surely reality will have been multiplied. The
continued Western quest for making tools may at that point retrospectively
be reinterpreted in relation to its culmination in virtual reality. From
the club that extends and replaces the arm to virtual reality in cyberspace,
technology has evolved to mime and to multiply, to multiplex and to improve
upon th e real.
V. Multiculturalism and the Postmodern Media Age
If the second media age constitutes subjects in a postmodern pattern,
critics have ascribed similarities between the politics of multiculturalism
and the culture of postmodernity. Political positions surrounding issues
of ethnicity and race are various and complex. But commentators have noted
a filiation between Lyotard's critique of pluralism in favor of the differend
and the multiculturalists' parallel attack on liberal pluralism. In this
connection, two questions are paramount: (1) what is the relation of the
second media age to ethnicity and (2) what is the relation between the
multiculturalist critique of modernity and the challenge to it by the second
In many respects, th e dissemination of second media age communications
systems is likely to dispense with the question of ethnicity with the same
disregard as has the first media age. In the absence of an effective antiracist
political movement, dominant institutions tend t o be constructed as if
white were the only race, Anglo-Saxon the only ethnicity and Christianity
the only religion. Participation in the information superhighway and virtual
reality will most likely be accessible to and culturally consonant with
wealthy, white males. In these respects the media reflect the relations
of force that prevail in the wider community. At another level, one may
ask if these media intrinsically favor one group over another. Is virtual
reality, for example, somehow white or somehow masculine? I believe these
questions are important to raise but that they cannot be answered at present
beyond a few brief remarks. The new technologies, even after two decades
of the new social movements, are likely to have been conceived, designed
and produced by white males. In that respect they are likely to conform
at some level to the cultural peculiarities of that group. The best example
of this may be found in video games. Beyond this uncomfortably vague statement,
one cannot at present say much more. The technoculture of the second media
age largely remains to be constructed.
With respect to the second question--the relation of multiculturalist
and second media age resistances to the modern--there is more to be said.
Multiculturalists cla im some affinity with critiques of the modern that
depart from the poststructuralist rejection of the Enlightenment view of
the subject. The rational, autonomous individual who preexists society,
as Descartes and Locke maintained, emerges after the critiq ue by poststructuralists
as a Western cultural figure associated with specific groups and practices,
not as the unquestioned embodiment of some universal. One may argue that
such attributes ought to be desired or realized by everyone. But then that
argume nt is one among others and has no presumptive claims to priority
over any other figuration of the subject. Multiculturalists also desire
to relativize Western values, to remove the patina of universalism from
what is no more than another ethnocentrism. In such critiques I can see
no important difference in the poststructuralist and multiculturalist positions,
both of which can be coordinated with the type of nonmodernist subjects
constituted by the new media.
Multiculturalists, post-colonialists and s ubaltern theorists sometimes
further claim certain privileges for the subject position of the "minority"
or "third world person" not simply as that of the oppressed but as affirming
the ethnic characteristics of the group. In my view such cultural politic
s are not critical of the modernist position but simply shifts the values
or relative worth of two terms in the binary opposition autonomous rational
universal/particularist non-rational other. To the extent that placing
value on ethnicity promotes a rece ntering of the subject, supports the
foundationalism or essentialism of the group in question, then the subject
position so articulated has little to do with postmodernity or the second
media age. In "The Jewish Question," Marx long ago effectively analy zed
the limitations of such special pleading for an antiauthoritarian politics.
For the chief characterists of the resistance of the new media to modernity
lie in their complication of subjecthood, their denaturalizing the process
of subject formation, t heir putting into question the interiority of the
subject and its coherence. I believe these traits of the postmodern may
contribute to a critique of the modern, may help to undermine the fundamental
cultural configuration of modernity, whereas the type o f multiculturalism
that celebrates a particular ethnicity does not achieve that end. These
hopeful possibilities are by no means guaranteed by the dissemination of
second media age technologies and the articulation of a commensurate cultural
Proponents of multiculturalism sometimes claim that poststructural
theory and concepts of postmodern culture systematically limit the understanding
of non-Western ethnicity by configuring it as the Other. While the "post"
theories may be effective in a c ultural critique of Western logocentrism,
they argue, such a critique runs aground to the extent that Western identity
is bound up with non-Western identity both at the levels of imperialist
politics and economics as well as in the cultural domain. No dou bt this
argument effectively indicates a limitation of poststructuralism, one which
postcolonial discourse may contribute to correcting. Indeed interpretations
of ethnicity often go far in this direction such as Rey Chow's formulation:
"Ethnicity signifie s the social experience which is not completed once
and for all but which is constituted by a continual, often conflictual,
workingout of its grounds." (p. 143) In this case multiculturalism is
a process of subject constitution not an affirmation of an e ssence. As
the second media age unfolds and permeates everyday practice, one political
issue will be the construction of new combinations of technology with multiple
genders and ethnicities. These technocultures will hopefully be no return
to an origin, n o new foundationalism or essentialism but a coming to terms
with the process of identity constitution and doing so in ways that struggle
against restrictions of systematic inequalities, hierarchies and asymmetries.
The relation of the second media age to multiculturalism is likely
then to be profoundly ambivalent: to some extent both contribute to a critique
of modernity and therefore to the dominant forms of oppression; on the
other hand the new media will no doubt work against the solidification
of e thnic identity and, it would appear to me, that traditionalists in
the multiculturalist camp are unlikely to look with favor on the information
superhighway and virtual reality. As these technologies emerge in social
space the great political question wil l be what forms of cultural articulation
they promote and discourage. One needs to keep in mind the enormous variability
of the technology rather than assume its determining powers. The example
of contemporary Singapore where a policy implementing advance d information
technologies is promulgated by an authoritarian regime should serve as
a warning against overly sanguine expectations.
1 See Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater
in Anglo-American Thought, 15501750 (New York: Cambridge University Press,
1986) for an analysis of the formation of this subject position and its
particular relation to the theater. Jürgen Habermas, in The Structural
Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge: MI
T Press, 1989) offers a "public sphere" of coffee houses, salons and other
agora-like locations, as the arena of the modern subject, while Max Weber
in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons
(New York: Macmillan, 1958) l ooks to Calvinist religion for the roots
of the same phenomenon.
2 See, for example, the discussion of new "interactive" technologies
in the New York Times on December 19, 1993. In "The Uncertain Promises
of Interactivity," Calvin Sims restricts future innovations movies on demand,
online information services, interactive shopping, "participatory programming,"
video games and conferencing systems for business. (p. 6F) He omits electronic
mail and its possible expansion to sound and image in networked virtual
3 I have not discussed the work of Marshall McLuhan simply for lack
of space and also because it is not as directly related to traditions of
critical social theory as is Benjamin's, Enzensberger's and Baudrillard's.
Also of int erest is Friedrich Kittler's "Gramophone, Film, Typewriter,"
October, 41 (1987-88) pp. 101-118 and Discourse Networks: 1800/1900, trans.
Michael Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990).
4 For an excellent essay on the economics of the Inter net and its
basic structural features see Hal Varian, "Economic FAQs About the Internet,"
which is available on the Internet at firstname.lastname@example.org (send message:
subscribe tap-info [your name] and in the Fall 1994 issue of Journal of
Economic Perspe ctives.
5 Kevin Cooke and Dan Lehrer, "The Whole World is Talking," The Nation
(July 12, 1993) p. 61.
6 Philip Elmer-Dewitt, "Take a Trip into the Future on the Electronic
Superhighway," Time (April 12, 1993) p. 52.
7 George Gilder, "Telecosm: th e New Rule of Wireless," Forbes ASAP
(March 29, 1993) p. 107.
8 David Bollier, "The Information Superhighway: Roadmap for Renewed
Public Purpose," Tikkun 8:4 (July/August 1993) p. 22. See also the cautionary
tone of Herbert Schiller in "The `Informatio n Highway': Public Way or
Private Road?," The Nation (July 12, 1993) pp. 64-66.
9 Mitchell Kapor, "Where Is the Digital Highway Really Heading?:
The Case for a Jeffersonian Information Policy," Wired 1:3 (July/August
1993) p. 55.
10 For the implicat ions of the Internet on world affairs see Majid
Tehranian, "World With/Out Wars: Moral Spaces and the Ethics of Transnational
Communication," The Public (Ljubljana) forthcoming.
11 For one report see Craig Turner, "Courts Gag Media at Sensational
Canad a Trial," Los Angeles Times (May 15, 1994) p. A4.
12 Robert Lee Hotz, "Computer Code's Security Worries Privacy Watchdogs,"
Los Angeles Times (October 4, 1993) pp. A3, 22.
13 Many writers prefer the term "artificial reality" precisely because
they w ant to underscore the privilege of real reality. Needless to say
this substitution will not cure the problem.
14 Julian Dibbell, "A Rape in Cyberspace," The Village Voice (December
21, 1993) pp. 3642. I am indebted to Rob Kling for making me aware of
15 Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About
Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford,
1988) especially pp. 222 ff.
16 For interesting examinations of this practice see Mark Dery, ed.,
"Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture" South Atlantic Quarterly 92:4
17 Howard Rheingold, "A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community," p.
61 in Linda Harasim, ed., Global Networks: Computers and International
Communication (Cambridge: M IT Press, 1993).
18 See Rheingold's comments, for example: "...I believe [virtual
communities] are in part a response to the hunger for community that has
followed the disintegration of traditional communities around the world.'
(`A slice of life in my Virtual Community': 62).
19 See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin
and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1983).
20. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, trans. Peter Conner
et al (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991)p. xxxviii.
See also the response by Maurice Blanchot in The Unavowable Community,
trans. Pierre Joris (Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill Press, 1988).