Monday, September 24, 2007

Language and Communication in a “Society of Control”

“The key thing may be to create vacuoles of noncommunication, circuit breakers, so we can elude control.” (Deleuze qtd. in Galloway 17)

Is noncommunication the only way to truly “elude control”? I believe that it is. Even the Internet, whose TCP/IP protocols are “anarchic and highly distributed” (Hall qtd. in Galloway 8) and which appears to be a society built on anonymity, relies for communication on rigid protocols like HTML and HTTP. “Web traffic must submit to a hierarchical structure (DNS) to gain access to the anarchic and radically horizontal structure of the Internet” (9), Galloway writes, casting protocols as the laws people follow in order to gain freedom of communication. “Protocol,” he warns, “is dangerous” (16).

IP addresses (which to me resemble social security numbers, those least anonymous of tags) can be traced; web pages are eternally cached. All online communication – indeed all language – leaves footprints that facilitate control.

In a sense, the Internet is an imagined community based entirely on language: words comprise websites, forums, and email while on another level written computer code allows online actions and transactions to function in the first place. “I attempt to read the never-ending stream of computer code as one reads any text,” Galloway writes, “…decoding its structure of control” (20).

Given that the imagined community of the Internet is a mecca of communication, and language is a means of control (as Benedict Anderson seems to suggest), is the Internet less or more controlled/controllable than other, more concrete communities?

Also on the subject of control, Galloway asserts that “the root servers…have ultimate control over the existence (but not necessarily the content) of each lesser branch” (10). By way of an example, he says dramatically that “if hypothetically some controlling authority wished to ban China from the Internet…they could do so very easily through a simple modification of the information contained in the root servers… China would vanish from the Internet” (10).

Intriguing to me is the idea that while the Internet is indeed a society of control, a given “controlling authority” cannot choose the manner of his power. He can delete China, perhaps, but he can’t really edit it. Users function differently: we can change the Internet’s content in our own small ways, but we can’t even delete a blog post once it’s been cached by Google. Which means of control is greater?

1 comment:

Mauro Carassai said...

The opposition between the two distinct forms of power described in Tess’ last paragraph (that I will call ‘information access’ and ‘information shaping’) is an extemely good point because it actually raise a crucial question about the status of the so-called internet ‘imagined community’. According to Benedict Anderson, the nation is a cultural artefact originating from the interplay between ‘a system of production and productive relations (capitalism), a technology of communications (print), and the fatality of human liguistic diversity’ (pp. 42-43). Within this theoretical frame the novel, meant as a synchronic form of representation, has played for Anderson a key role in imagining the nation as a ‘sociological organism moving calendrically through homogeneous empty time’ (p. 26). However, as Pheng Cheah writes in Grounds of Comparisons ‘[…] at a later historical age, once the nation has been born, more determinate and even ideological use can be made of the novel. Here, “representation” is more than the picturing/figuration of the form of the community. It is “thematization”. A particular nation and its characteristics can be made the referent and theme of the novel’s plot and characters’ (p. 7).
I am willing to argue that – increasing rapidity of technological innovations taken into account – twenty years can reasonably be considered, in Cheah’s terms, as internet imagined community’s ‘later stage’. As Alexander Galloway points out ‘In that year [1995], there were 24 milions internet users. Today, the internet is a global distributed network connecting billions of people around the world’ (p.6). It is probably not incidental that, compared to the precise data of 1995, Galloway leaves the current number of users overtly indefinite.
Since, as Tess implicitly let us notice, users might be said to differ precisely in owning either ‘information access’ power or ‘information shaping’ one, there is no way to know what type of new user is about to join the community today or tomorrow (this difference is oviously connected to relations of power that lie outside the realm of information and whose stability is undermined by the fluidity of Appadurai’s global ‘–scapes disjunctures’). As a consequence, there is no way whatsoever to produce any ‘picturing/figuration of the form of the community’. If, as Anderson points out, ‘the novelistic format of the newspaper assures the reader that somewhere out there the “character” Mali [or China] moves along quietly, awaiting its next reapperance in the plot’ (p. 33), Cheah’s concept of “nation thematization” in the case of the internet community can only take the form of an interactive fiction any user is contributing to inscribe in our ongoing present. Interactive fiction is probably the most appropriate metaphor to replace Anderson’s novel in our Internet nation ‘later stage’.
In other words, the editor might still be there but the reader has in the meantime become the writer of that same paper. For this reason I tend to think that none of the two means of control can rigorously be said to be greater: any reason to delete China would be today connected to the ideological use of an image of China which the editor knows to be unreliable just because it is also partly produced precisely by incontrollable users.