A Prisoner of Hope in Cyberspace

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The ontological nature of new media technology is in process and will remain so for generations.
Tim Jackson

Issue #37, March 1998

In virtual reality, traditional philosophical questions are no longer hypothetical. What is existence? How do we know? What is reality? Who am I? These are aesthetic issues with engineering consequences. They are certainly not remote or esoteric, given the possibility of creating artificial experiences that are as compelling as the real ones....
— Myron Krueger, forward to Metaphysics of Virtual Reality
New technologies = new perceptions. Reality is a man-made process. Our images of the world and of ourselves are, in part, the models resulting from our perceptions of the technologies we generate as products.
— John Brockman, Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite
I am a prisoner of hope.
— Cornel West, from a speech at Penn State, 1998

New media technologies such as the Internet, CD-ROM, digital audio and video, and various forms of interactive multimedia technologies are shaping our world and world view on an unprecedented scale. These new media are becoming an ecological force engaged in a dynamic dance between natural and synthetic systems. Given this context, I would like to suggest an obvious principle: that new media technologies should ultimately enrich rather than depreciate the quality of our personal and collective lives. The following is an attempt to offer a few considerations toward such a goal. In order for us to attempt to realize this goal, we first must be able to envision the systemic implications of new media technology and content.

Despite the hype, it is clear that technological and social developments in the last two decades of this century have indeed presented our global community with an ontological shift, a shift in the way we think of existence and the nature of reality, inaugurating a new reality and new ways of thinking about multiple realities. Questions about the nature of existence must be reframed by the new media generation to address the nature of existence today. Put philosophically: new media are a metaphysical problem with ontological significance.

Ontology refers to that branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of existence. It relates to the nature and study of "being," which can be understood either as the essence of things and systems, or as an abstraction. "The science of being" is the literal translation of ontology (although by the nature of its practice it is more of an art). Ontology distinguishes between the appearance or illusion of reality and more genuine or authentic forms of existence. Ontology is therefore concerned with the level of reality present in certain events and objects, but more importantly with the systems which shape our perceptions of these events and objects. These perceptual systems are important because they apply values which attribute meaning to such objects and events. Michael Heim describes this as:

The study of the relative reality of things. An ontology ranks some things as "more real" or "actually existing," as opposed what is unreal, phony, fadish, illusory, ephemeral, or purely perceptual. Ontology locates the difference between real and unreal and then develops the implications of that way of differentiating the real from the unreal. Traditional ontology studies the entities or beings by observing the conditions under which we ascribe reality to beings. Ontology in the existential sense goes beyond traditional ontology by noticing the holistic background against which entities appear. The existential "world" in which entities appear also changes over time. The ontological shift constitutes a change of context according to which the realness of entities must be recalibrated.

The ontological nature of new media technology is in process and will remain so for generations until our physical bodies begin to adapt to life in cyberspace and our creative cognitive abilities rise to the level of our capacity for making tools. Simply stated, our technologies evolve fast, our minds not quite as fast, and our bodies at a much slower rate. It is certainly too early to tell whether these changes will be evolutionary or devolutionary in a qualitative sense, but it is likely that human life on the planet will never be of the same scale or enjoy the historical cultural stability of prior generations. Despite the seductions of a futurist utopian vision, we should not be tempted to relinquish our primary world (the physical world) to the possibilities presented by virtual worlds. Rather than abandoning this complex, contradictory, problematic, and splendid primary world to the thin construction of less complicated virtual cosmologies, we should work toward the integration of these worlds based upon a shared goal. I believe that the most compelling world exists in a synthetic and symbiotic relationship between the two. It is in new media interfaces that transformative possibilities exist.


New media interfaces are sites of cultural work. The discoveries that occur at these interfaces between the physical and the virtual worlds will have tremendous impact on how we shape our conceptions of the social, moral, and ethical realities of our personal and collective future. The depth of the changes brought on by the new media ontological shift calls for a set of firm beliefs or principles through which new media innovations may be critiqued, assessed, and evaluated.


New media is a part of our global ecology. Our technologies impact the environment and our relation to it in ways which would have been unimaginable to previous generations. The illusion that new media technologies somehow operate outside of the limitations of our environment must be dispelled in order to more fully understand the systemic relationship of new media to other sets of systems. The mind/body and human/nature binaristic splits (among others) must be abandoned for models which recognize the relationship of things to their systemic contexts. This position requires a systems view of the physical and cognitive world(s), as well as our personal and collective forms of consciousness about the possibilities of worlds within worlds. We might consider such an approach a form of green media, which suggests that how our technologies are produced is connected to how they are used, and for what purposes. We must therefore be held individually and collectively accountable for the implications of this process upon our environment.


New media technologies and content shape consciousness and identity. They provide an increasingly important technological matrix for information dissemination and identity engineering in late capitalistic societies and societies under capitalistic cultural and ideological siege. It is imperative that cultural producers and consumers be critically aware of the power which these technologies exert, the motives underlying their use, and the nature of their appropriate and inappropriate integration within contexts relevant to the formation of personal and collective identities. While new media offers new possibilities and sites for transforming the power base of information production and dissemination, it simultaneously provides new means of reproducing dominant subject positions and power relations. Within identity politics, new media can function to enhance and/or restrict the growth of critical consciousness.


New media is symbiotically linked to aesthetics (the philosophy of the senses). Our present ontological shift is a rupture with our previous perceptual relationship to the world. New media technology and content harness human desire through aesthetic means. A new media ontology is therefore aesthetic by nature, as aesthetics is concerned with how ideas are formed, shared, and contested through the senses. New media is an aesthetic, a form of art-making. However, it presents new challenges for negotiating meaning through sensory input by providing new types of experiences and forms of art production and consumption. In light of the new media ontology, the field of aesthetics should return to its original breadth of meaning as the branch of philosophy dealing with the senses. This definition must also be restated in light of the political dimension of new media aesthetics.


New media allow for the synthesis and reproduction of previous technologies and content, and introduce new forms of communication (including new art forms), that require a critical method grounded in a theory that can accommodate complexity and contradiction without being reduced to relativism. The project of developing a theory and criticism of new media must therefore respond to a number factors in order to meet these new demands. These synthetic relationships require the field of new media to be linked in symbiotic relationships with other more traditional media forms in subtle though important ways, rather than be seen as a replacement for previous technologies. Indeed, there has been a significant growth in the volume of print media since the rise of the Internet and CD-ROM distribution of various texts.


New media functions as a pedagogy. While the use of digital educational resources, simulations, gaming models, interactive communications, and other applications of new media technologies may offer a variety of benefits to education, they must also be evaluated carefully regarding their content and the complicity of their instrumentalist uses in schools and other pedagogical sites. The potential benefits of new media include access to enormous databases and other content which will dwarf the offerings in even the best school libraries, interaction with other learners and learning communities from a diverse range of cultures and classes, the empowerment brought about by actively constructing learning materials and environments through hypertextual and hypermedia webs, and the ability to communicate electronically with individuals and communities which would be inaccessible under other conditions. While these transformative possibilities offer new ways of teaching and learning, they also raise some critical questions for pedagogical consideration. A new media pedagogy should therefore be held to the goals of a critical pedagogy.


Our relationship to our world requires metaphysical grounding. The proliferation of virtual environments, simulations of primary world experiences, and multiple forms of identity made possible through new media communications tend to confound such a grounding. While our personal conceptions of reality and realities will indeed remain varied, our collective metaphysical grounding should exhibit patterns of a shared vision of what the public policy of new media technologies is, should, and will be.


New media develops faster than our ability to adapt to the conditions it occasions. By contrast to the timeline of our exponential technological evolution over the past two centuries, our bodies — and to a lesser degree our minds — are ancient and require much longer periods to adapt to our contemporary needs. For example, many of us today require the simulation of work through exercise in order to avoid physical atrophy and to reduce the impact of stress upon our physical and mental health. In this sense we are already cyborgs in many ways, and our dependence upon machines to amplify our physical limitations and to accelerate our evolution is growing at an alarming rate (on a metaphysical scale). I believe we should become more comfortable with — or rediscover — our ancient physical, spiritual, and social needs, and be suspicious of any attempts to digitally disrupt these analog rhythms in any sweeping or totalizing manner. We are analog beings who require the continuity of analogic life in order to maintain our physical, emotional, and psychological health.


New media benefits some cultures and populations more than others. In What Will Be Michael Dertouzous, Director of MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science (the home of the World Wide Web Consortium) warns us that "left to its own devices, the Information Marketplace [the Internet, World Wide Web, and Intranets] will increase the gap between rich and poor countries and rich and poor people." Similarly, the dominant culture emerging as the primary force in cyberspace speaks a particular language (indigenous to Silicon Valley and its environs) and shares a particular futurist ideology. This is not meant to suggest that cyberspace and other sites of new media technology cannot be used in transformative ways, but rather to indicate the current state of affairs. We should therefore work toward a community in cyberspace which more closely resembles the composite diversity of our global population and cultures rather than the elitist representation of contemporary conditions.


New media is a force of both liberation and oppression. Unlike the context of Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, where one could more clearly distinguish the oppressed from the oppressor, in our contemporary global society the oppressed and the oppressors participate in a dynamic system of power relations with less distinguishable borders. Given our contemporary situation in the United States in particular, most of our citizenry are both complicit and compliant as the oppressors and oppressed. This complicity extends to the producers and consumers of new media. While the technologies of new media offer new possibilities for uses which can serve to rupture oppressive conditions, they can also impose new forms of oppression. We must therefore try to distinguish the power relations present in particular new media texts, and work to provide ruptures in more oppressive forms of new media ideologies based upon shared visions for the development of critical consciousness.


New media technologies and content should be evaluated in light of their transformative potential rather than the most recent speed rating of a CPU processor, the cool graphics available in a new computer game or digital film, or utopian predictions which romanticize new work conditions in cyberspace. In the same way that new media is not one single thing but a number of elements which as a dynamic system embody more complexity than any one new media text, the complexity of the new media ontology should not be considered equivalent to a collapse of meaning.


Any text that attempts to prognosticate the future implications of a technology runs the risk of over-or under-determining the set of outcomes based upon the current state of affairs. Although I take a decidedly critical look at new media, I believe that the ontological shift occasioned by new media technologies offer profound possibilities for transformative and positive changes in our personal and collective lives. The project of developing a vision for a promising and sustainable future is a required condition for negotiating the appropriate relationships for technological growth over the next century and beyond. This goal will help us determine where our tools and technologies should take us, and why it is important for us to be there. I hope that we may begin to see technology as a vehicle which can help us travel to such a location, rather than considering our technologies the destination of our individual and collective journeys.

Our technologies are the vehicles for our metaphors, dreams and nightmares. The question I would like to propose is, "Where do we want these technological vehicles to take us, and why?" Our vision for the future or the lack thereof will have profound consequences for the quality of human and other forms of life on this planet. Our challenge for the present and the future is to develop a vision which can be shared by diverse global cultures. This vision will be shaped through aesthetic means using new media technologies. I therefore believe that the project of developing a progressive vision for a more personally rewarding, socially equitable and ecologically sustainable future should be a central concern for research in the field of new media technologies and content. This is a vision of a future we can all live with.

Timothy Jackson is New Media Coordinator and Affiliate Professor of Art Education at Penn State University. He teaches new media studio and theory and is the co-director of Vis Viva, a research group for artists and engineers. An example of some current work can be found at http://cac.psu.edu/~taj2/vv/matos.html. You can contact him at taj2@psu.edu.

Copyright © 1998 by Tim Jackson. All rights reserved.

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