In approaching his valuation of emerging networks, Lyotard makes a really interesting assertion: “Data banks are the Encyclopedia of tomorrow. They transcend the capacity of each of their users. They are ‘nature’ for postmodern man.” (p53) A handy footnote further clarifies that he is here implying that organized mastery of the databank has become “the major challenge for the advanced poles of humanity in the coming decades” as the task of mastering the material world is “already assured” (see ref to Nora and Minc, p 98-99)
This is particularly striking for two reasons. To begin with, the phrasing itself seems rather prophetic ; the internet as we know it, having arisen as one of the primary frameworks connecting the databanks of electronically stored knowledge, contains within itself many separate instances in which new “realities” are created. Organizations like 2nd Life, World of Warcaft, and various other MMORPGS have become worlds in themselves in which very real (anchored within the “real world”) capital, time, and emotional energy is spent. The network has become a place where new worlds do exist in which we invest ourselves. And for many people, these “cyber realities” are becoming increasingly more ‘real’ (in the sense of their import) than those of the naturally existing world we inhabit.
Beyond the creation of a second “nature” or reality to explore, however, I’m also intruiged by Lyotard’s jump in metaphorical thinking – his image of the databank moves from one of an encyclopedic collection of accumulated knowledge (pertaining, I’d assume, to the natural world) to a distinct totality whose relation to this world has been largely effaced. This transformation of databank from storehouse “descriptive of this world” into a domain whose challenges supplant and superceded those of this world seems like quite an enormous one. And this linguistic shift begs the question: what place does the world-within-the-network actually occupy within our own world (that is, this world of traditional reality, this traditional domain of “nature”)?
If the network turns in on itself, generating new knowledge whose referents are increasingly within the network themselves - will the amount of knowledge within the network actually pertaining to the “real” world eventually become proportionally nil? At what point does the derivation of the network’s value diverge from its anchoring within the real world? Have we already crossed that line? If not, will we soon?