THE EFFECTS OF DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES ON OUR SENSE OF 'LOCALITY'

OR

LIVING SOMEWHERE IN A NOWHERE WORLD

OR

NEITHER HERE NOR THERE: AMBIGUOUS SPACE


Simply put; Location and all the trimmings of reality become of little relevance. Information is the currency of interaction; words and ideas the lone medium of socialisation.

The popularisation/population of technologies under the broad banner of the "internet" (including social spaces such as MUDS, MOOS, IRC etc) brings closer what Marshal McLuhan described as the "Global Village" and the arrival of what Toffler thought was a "Third Wave" of civilisation. Both perceive the integration of such technology into everyday social, political and personal existence as a central and powerful step in the evolution of society as it stands today, and will stand (or fall) tomorrow. The question here is not so much what will happen to our global village when the third wave breaks, but what is happening now; what effects have digital media had on us and in particular, what are some of the echos on some of our experiences of locality.

I would like to avoid (as much as possible) Howard Rheingold's romantic notions of the internet as an electronic nirvana. In the hyperbole of limitted cyberspeak however, it is hard to avoid cliche and generalisation. This, I hope is mainly a limitation of the space i have here and not a reflection of a state of mind on my part.

However, there are certain aspects of the use of this international network of computers linked by telephone wires and satellite dishes which strike at the heart of what it is to feel placed in a society/community today. There are certain things we rely upon a place or a society, and especially a community, to provide us with. Although they are not exclusive, the only way in which we can perceive the effects of digital technologies on our sense of some of these things is by seeing what it is that they provide us with, and what we lose when we move away from them.

The Hurricane Stirs

Recently it has been hard to pick up any publication without being bombarded with talk of information-super-cliches (or highways, or whatever) and their effects on the way we will live and think and feel in "the future". Already for years, people have been using the infrastructure to make a living and pusue research, but now it threatens to engulf even the most passive of audiences.

In a time of global television news exchanges, the general viewing public are more often bombarded with images from far away, they appear to be as acessible as if they were "here". From a intuitive sense of location, the here-and-now definition becomes less and less definitive. Thus some news networks and various other 'information' (infotainment? ED) services begin to serve "a global clientele" [Gurevitch, 1991, p182]. The "mass-ification" [Toffler, 1980, p166] of electronic media has lead to a transformation of our psyches which continues to evolve. Since technology has enabled an almost-instant access to information from most other places, people have been able to warp and mutate the boundaries of space in their everyday interaction with the world, their conception of time and space has evolved. With each of Toffler's "Waves" there comes a massive redefinition of what/where/how that society is attempting to be. In the midst of the "Third Wave" we are experiencing the seemingly contradictory effects of electronic technology on a personal and communal sense of "locality". I say contradictory because one would [**I would-ed] initially feel that the development of a "global village" would primarily reduce a sense of personal location, but in fact it may empower us to operate on a local level, enabling us to consider the global while remaining physically stuck in the local (and sometimes confused by that fact).

Places provide for the people who inhabit them a sense of belonging, a sense of participation in something unique to them. Space provides a medium through which we can define and limit our conception of reality and identity. This basic human behavioural trait can lead to the apparently "contradictory" effect of digital technologies on our sense of location [Featherstone, 1993, p169]. The person who knows only their immediate vicinity thinks that is all that exists. Following this logic, they cannot take reference from anything else, thus they do not live in any particular "place", they just live where they live, independent of the coexistence of other realities: floating in ambiguous space. Featherstone argues that the globalisation of the world serves to accentuate the fact that you live in only one "place", stressing the "finitude and boundedness" of our status on the planet [1993, 9169]. How does this relate to operation in the so-called "cyberspace", where people in England are not necassarily aware that they are interacting via phone line with someone from the U.S.A in a computer in Australia?

The spatial metaphor is obvious, but are the effects of its implementation more to increase our sense of placedness when we are on the phone, or to reduce the meaning of place in the "normal" context? Our sense of place is ultimately reduced to the psychological context; again the psyche is left to fend for itself in a post-modern world. The impact of digital communications technologies on these "online" communities is interesting in that the groups have made a consensual agreement to be in that "place" at that time. These people are not forced to notice location until such time as they require something other than raw information from each other. At the MediaMOO1 this evening, I witnessed a discussion between two people about meeting sometime: one of them was to give a talk at the other's university. It was only when a more solid form of information was required; physical presence (too solid for digital technologies to effect), that they realised they lived on different halves of the globe [see appendix 1]. When you want to move around in it physically, it's quite a big village. Thus communication technology enables us to partially transcend our physical form and boundaries and operate with(in) information alone (which we have greater control over). Featherstone notes that the link between time and space has become unfounded and debased. Communications technology is seen as subverting the habit we have of thinking that we sit at the centre of the universe. Such a post-modern reduction of what it is to exist has brought about a change in our images of the world, it has helped develop a "greater awareness of the plurality of history" [p171]. This invites what Sreberny-Mohammadi calls a "dynamic tension between the global and the local" [1992, p122]. It is this tension, between knowing that the rest of the world exists and has done so independently of each "individual"(s) world, which stops the glutinous homogenisation of culture into one big johnwaynemickeymousesupermandisneyland casserole.

For the village child, her internal village images are now of the world. The child growing up in the post-modern world has a much larger source of images with which to define itself: these are no longer restricted by where it is that they live. She can now identify with something not near her, she can also relate to it, take reference from it and manipulate it. Technology has extended her reach. Technology has taken on the role of a sensorial and physical extension of an individual. The telephone has extended the reach of the ears and mouths, the video has allowed our eyes to be somewhere else (both spatially and chronologically), the television has allowed our eyes be somewhere-even cross the planet, the car has extended the travelling capacity our legsäthe list goes on; certain dreamers see virtual reality technologies as extending the reach of our minds to transcend space altogether [e.g. Pimentel & Teixeira, 1993]. It is the information technologies which are most relevant here, their ability to change our relationship with information (including our physical relationships with the origins of information). In 1455 the applications of the printing press, and the subsequent massification of information, "changed peoples' sense of community and their relationship to information" [Pimentel & Teixeira, 1993, p20]. A part of this new relationship with information was peoples' opportunity to represent their own information outside of their immediate vicinity. Books strengthened the human conception of individuality and private thought, opinion and existence. Amongst the massification of media and globalisation of information, there lies what Toffler calls a "startling" change in the influence of mass (and largely electronic) media on society. Far from exerting more influence on the globalisation of the electronic/tv/video/news culture it has encouraged a new breed of "de-massified media". "Mass" media has now become so cheap and easy to make that it no longer relies on huge multi-national companies to support it hence the local community mass medium. The local radio and tv station is born and after it comes a locality-based interaction with information[p170]. Thie empowerment of the individual by access to cheap communications technology, undermines the monopoly of publishing companies, television stations, radio networks and other media bodies in the dissemination of information. Many of the writers which I have referenced in this essay will probably never be published but they have found a medium in which they can cheaply and easily voice their own views to a global audience, and interact with that audience within the same medium. This is obviously the antithesis of the type of media control which authors such as Sreberny-Mohammadi [1990] discuss where it becomes increasingly difficult for individuals to be heard over the super-turbo-boosted-xtra-loud-loud-hailers of Capital Cities, News Corp or the Yomiuri Group. However, these companies do recognise the power people have come to experience through mass-media. Perhaps, as suggested earlier, when people can more easily take reference from a defined "there" or "them" they can create a more sharply defined self-image and thus find watching the CNN international news an implicit reinforcement of that image. The awareness of such companies of "radical grassroots" slogans such as 'Think Globally, Act Locally' reflects the value of reinforcing the sense of the local within the context of global reference. Being somewhere in a nowhere world. Local media forms (local community TV stations, newspapers, special interest publications, talkback radio programmes etc.) allow the reinforcement of the 'authentic' local culture within a bombardment of (typically) Americanised images and stereotypes.

Space, time and information

International CMC systems such as the internet do not operate in the same context as local narrowcast media. In this context "cultures" are not bound by location, they congregate from a mutual desire to be 'somewhere' (either for social or practical reasons). In this electropolis, people are primarily 'there' and 'here' (i.e. consciously where they are) only when they are forced to be. Brzezinski has suggested that the electronic (r)evolution and "technotronics" will "[eliminate] the twin insultants of space and time" [Quirk, 1989, p115]. Quirk also cites Emerson, the seed individual of a previous societal (r)evolution as prophetically saying: Machinery and transcendentalism agree welläthe Stage-Coach and Railroad are bursting the old legislationäOur civilisation and these ideas are reducing the earth to a brain. See how by telegraph and steam the earth is anthropologized. [p120] Obviously without quite knowing the future of international communications, Emerson struck upon the essence of the cultural dimension of the internet and the notion of "cyberspace". The world is a 'brain', it is a conceptual field which is simply filled with information, memories, people, images, realities and a whole host of information-based structures. The size of the world has become merely a slight hitch in the development of intellectual space. The relationships between time, space and information becomes crucial here. In pre-industrial societies, they were all inexorably connected. With the advent of the telegraph came a loosening of these ties. Information is easy to release from it's earthly bounds, but societies and cultures, traditionally based in places, are harder to budge.

If all social and cultural interaction is conceived as the transfer of certain types of information from one person to another, then the capacity of the internet to create virtual communities is undoubted. What is at the core of the question of whether or not technology can take us into some transcendental state (a l· Emerson) is

a) the ability of information alone to immerse us in another place,
and
b) whether or not it is simply enough to feel less "here" in order to create a sense of being "there".

THE CYBER*SPACE* DEBATE

Whether or not bombardment with information and images about faraway places actually allows one to think that they are more 'there' or less 'here' is a matter of moot, probably requiring an examination of cognitive science as well as anthropology, mathematics, linguistics, sociopsychology. The debate over whether or not information in itself is enough to put you in another 'place' will be discussed later in terms of the validity of the now popular term "cyberspace". Hiemstra suggests that because the IRC (a public meeting place on the internet) was designed "specifically to affect the transmission of symbols and meanings", then it has the ability to recreate or synthesise some of the uniquely cultural aspects of living somewhere [Reid, 1991, p4]. It is this deconstruction of social, geographical, intellectual, economic, political (the list goes on) boundaries which makes the effects of digital technologies post modern phenomena.

Meyerowitz argues that the electronic media are destroying our sense of locality. Is it perhaps only creating a reduction in the importance of locality within our information spheres [Morley, 1992, p280]. The interaction of "local definitions and larger communications systems" is much less well founded than that involving television and video technologies. This is mainly because it depends on what is only now being established as a consensus, whereby when you are talking on a telephone, or interacting with people on a computer link, you are actually in a 'place'. This is perhaps due to the ambiguity of the difference between the immersive qualities of reading a book, sending and receiving letters via the post office and other traditional technologies which transfer information from another place/mind/culture and those of interacting (still text based at present) with people using email or 'talking' with them, real time.

A selection of email taken from the internet follows a thread of conversation regarding the debate of how appropriate the "space" metaphor is in the sense of "cyberspace". If it is not appropriate then it is simply a metaphor gone wild, a meme who, left unattended has mutated and evolved and taken on life of its own. If it is appropriate, then CMC's have the power to regularly transport individuals to another "place". This place is different to the place one would concievably enter when reading a book or a letter, due to it's higher levels of complexity and interactivity, it's response to action can be instantaneous and thus it has a greater capacity to function as a sort of "community". The reason why we feel placed in a particular community is that we have a function in it, we contribute to it. We can thus identify with the information coming from it and position ourselves in its information-spheres. When we hear/see information from another community, as argued earlier, we are able to further establish ourselves in our own location, by comparative reference to the "other" community or location. Thus in the case of an internet community (some people identify with many), it is possible to recreate the characteristics of a 'real' and 'placed' cultureäbut in "cyberspace". When operating in such a community, it is an act of individual interpretation to accept and internalise the metaphor of *space*. This is another of the post-modern symptoms of the technologies involved; it is left up to individual volition to define and affirm their own existence and space.

People are reluctant to immerse themselves in a reality of their own construction (much as individuals in normal communities today often do not identify with where they live or who they live with and do not identify themselves spatially or culturally). When definition comes down to a personal act, there is bound to be variation in the population. The range of responses to the suggestion that cyber*space* is space, reaffirms the deconstructionism which is taking place around us.

"If I get up to go to the bathroom, I am not leaving Cyberspace to take a piss, I am getting out of my chair in my room."

Being Somewhere in a nowhere world: It is not feeling anywhere in particular, feeling somewhere else. If people don't feel anywhere when they know no other place because they have no reference point, then when in cyber*space* we are immersed in nowhere things, will we develop a sense of somewhere if the information becomes richer? Is it simply that while on the 'net' we are 'nowhere'? Nowhere that is, until we need to refer to another place or incorporate other, space dependent information, at which point we are planted firmly back on the ground. This would support the argument that digital communications technologies dichotomously encourage a sense of foundedness and locale specific existence but only when it is forced onto us (similar to the idea of reading a book, becoming immersed and then being brought back "to reality" by your spouse calling you for dinner). Thus, in support of the emergence of a post-modern deconstruction of all boundaries and structures, our use of digital communications technologies (being wary to blame/pay tribute to the technology itself) is breaking apart our social and geographical structures and transferring some of them into a "psychological neighbourhood" [Morley, 1992, p280].

Thus the interaction of nowhere, somewhere and here is not only based on the individuals acceptance to internalise and manifest the hallucinogenic cyberspace metaphor, but also on their requirements of the "here" sphere intercepting with their desire to be in the "nowhere" or "somewhere". It is obvious that, yet again, we have tied ourselves in knots trying to describe a post-modern phenomenon.

"People call and ask, 'Is this the cyberspace?,'" he said. Indeed, it is---"the desert of the real," where the shreds of the territory, to invoke Baudrillard, "are slowly rotting across the map." Those who spend an inordinate amount of time connected by modem via telephone lines to virtual spaces often report a peculiar sensation of "thereness"; prowling from one conference to another, eavesdropping on discussions in progress, bears an uncanny resemblance to wandering the hallways of some labyrinthine mansion, poking one's head into room after room. "One of the most striking features of the WELL," observed a user named loca, "is that it actually creates a feeling of 'place.' I'm staring at a computer screen. But the feeling really is that I'm 'in' something; I'm some 'where.'" [Dery, 1993, p4]

It is obvious that the use of computers and phone lines merely articulates a larger change in a society prompted by the integration of technology into everyday culture. Each of the tri- conspirators, time, space and information, become less and less connected to each other. Cultures are able to form themselves wherever they wish, space and time are disentangled and we are capable of letting our minds travel in search of information or social interaction largely independent of where (or whom) we are. However, it will be a matter of time before the effects of this decentralisation of experience is felt.