Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom


An interview with a cyber-enthusiast

Excerpts from interview with Michael Joyce:

AG: Can free flow of expression on the Internet prevail? Do you see the internet as an instantiation of democracy? Can an equal distribution of power among the voices on the net exist? Or is it likely to become subsumed under hierarchical control --- by means of, say, advertising,censorship, and general plutocratic tyranny?

M J: No, the free flow of expression cannot of itself prevail, nor has it ever. It has always required that we sustain it by a constant renegotation of our cultures, our notion of "freedom," "expression," "medium" and so on. Stuart Moulthrop pointed out a long time ago in hypertext history (ten years) that hypertext could in fact be a force for hegemonic control in which we would be encouraged to exercise our "freedom" by a central authority which sustained hypertext (or now the web, the network as networks) as a dissipating mechanism.

Let me go back to Haraway's situated knowledges which she says require us to consider "how to have simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects... and a non-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a 'real' world (187)" Flow is the key here. The disproportionate flow in the net (upstream dribble, downstream flood; credit card info up, HotWiredTimeWarnerDisney down) is where we have to set our sights (again distribution and access rather than counting votes in an empty primary). Haraway: "the alternative to relativism is partial, locatable, critical knowledges sustaining the possibility of webs of connections called solidarity in politics and shared conversations in epistemology [that is], ...a doctrine and practice of objectivity that privileges contestation, deconstruction, passionate construction, webbed connections, and hope for transformation of systems of knowledge and ways of seeing."

AG: What we can hope to expect from this potential paradigmatic shift:


If there is a paradigm shift I think it is one toward a rethinking of coherence in terms of the forms things persist in taking and I think it can be found in one I have called elsewhere the shift toward successive attendings, i.e., "in an age like ours which privileges polyvocality, multiplicity, and constellated knowledge a sustained attention span may be less useful than successive attendings." Increasingly it is not the substance of what we say but its expression and construction (literally its location and our embodiement in that location) which communicates.

What follows from my suggestion that we recognize a shift toward successive attendings is, I think, a necessary recalculation of what we could mean by democracy in such a settings. "Equal distribution of power," itself a radical and never attained view of democracy, i.e., a narrative of governance, is likely to be replaced by something like what rhetoricians call "amplitude," a sense that our presences are sufficiently distributed or, if not that, sufficiently accessible as to be able to be recognized. Not a majority vote by a recurring presence, a possibility. The net has clearly been apprehended (or better still repossessed) by the same forces of advertising, publishing, commerce, education, and infotainment who hold the culture at large as their hegemony.

You'll forgive me again, I hope, for quoting myself again (it's the nature of hypertext and thus the net: self-reflexive, spatio-temporal meaning making through recurrence) but in remarks I'm making for a panel at Hypertext'96 next week I speculate that

meta-sites have moved from utility to commodity and seem poised in fact to become the medium. Netscape's decision to evict Yahoo to an offscreen barrio below the scroll in order to sell high-rise screen placement demonstrates how supposedly neutral tools and interface aspects are not merely C++ code but the other kind of programming that spews from the box of televised light on the wall. The notion that we must filter out the mass of information, of course, implies a hierarchy of information and of human beings, and suggests an immanence of cultural values rather than a culture which is constructed by human presence, discussion, and community. Yet as meta-sites become the medium, we will more than ever need a community (which is to say an embodied presence among others) where we can say what we see. It has been argued that it was a web of coffeehouse culture and public spaces which led to the emergence of "readable" editorial sensibilities and publishing houses in the eighteenth century. Whether a newly resocialized web of virtual public space can invert cultural evolution and reverse the degeneration of editorial sensibility into tradestyle or the collapse of publishing house into branded conglomerate remains, quite literally, to be seen.

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