2009-12 Implications of the Internet

“Using specific examples, consider the social and cultural implications of the Internet.”

The birth of the Internet was a turning point in the evolution of communication and media. It has provided humanity with a powerful tool of great potential. We witnessed the emergence of a tangible form of cyberspace, a “notional environment in which communication over computer networks occurs” (New Oxford American Dictionary, 2005-2009). The concept of cyberspace was no longer exclusive to Science-Fiction; and it has over time become a major element in our everyday life. The internet is now a mass medium, and since its breakthrough, discussions have arisen concerning its implications for society.
Can the effect of the Internet on society be seen as positive or negative? What consequences does it have on individual and communal levels? Is the Internet’s potential too weighty?
Firstly we will look into the benefits of this system and consider the aspects of the Internet as a tool for freedom and information. Secondly we will observe the harms the Internet causes and the danger it poses to social structures and human relations. We will focus mainly on the examples of real-time communities and multi-user domains in the light of politics and psychology.

The internet was quickly considered by some as an important tool for change in politics and society. This is what can be referred to as the civic networking movement. While “technological innovation alone does not facilitate social and political change” (Tsagarousianou, Tambini, Bryan, 1998; p. 2), the hopes of the movement rely on certain technological developments that improve the Internet’s potential for change. These include the introduction of high-speed connections, digital compression technologies and the digitalisation of data. The belief is that this new media helps “reverse the decline of public communication due to commercialisation and bias” and that it offers “new possibilities to surpass all that was previously achieved using old media” (Ibid., 1998; p. 6).  The main arguments are the efficiency and ease of direct access to information and the possibility of participation in communal matters. In this sense, the public has more power and “talk about moving from centralized to decentralized systems is usually characterized as a change from autocracy to democracy” (Turkle, 1996; p. 178). We can talk of the concept of ‘teledemocracy’. (Tsagarousianou, Tambini, Bryan, 1998; p. 6)
The Internet caused the birth of electronic communities where large numbers of people can interact in real time. One example of these communities is the Digital City of Amsterdam whose principal aims were to “stimulate democratic processes and participation” and to “contribute to the development and dissemination of knowledge” (Ibid., 1998; p. 24). An important matter with these types of communities is the permeability of their borders to the ‘real’ world, the fact that they can contribute and support people in their ‘off-screen’ lives. One electronic community called WELL saw for example three different doctors from three different physical locations discuss CAT scan images of a child with a tumor in order to confer about a possible medical treatment. (Turkle, 1996; p. 246)
We can therefore notice the potential for interaction that the Internet offers. This is a service that official organisations make more and more use of. The use of the Internet can “improve the responsiveness of political institutions and allow for more direct citizen participation in public affairs” (Tsagarousianou, Tambini, Bryan, 1998; p. 125). Governments and many organisations praise the Internet for its “potential for broadcasting” (Ibid., 1998; p. 147).
The “democratising effect” (Ibid., 1998; p. 134) that the Internet has causes an important increase of the diversity of content available to the public. One can access information from a wide variety of sources and can therefore be introduced to a larger selection of opinions. One example is Alex Jones’ news website called http://www.infowars.com which provides the reader with alternative views on current affairs and reveals information that might not be available in the mainstream media.
The fact that the content of the Internet is hard to control can definitely be seen as a positive aspect since it supports freedom of expression. The Digital City of Amsterdam shows off the proverbial Dutch tolerance by applying “freedom of expression and self-regulation” (Ibid., 1998; p. 36) as basic philosophy.

When people are interacting and navigating on the Internet, they are no longer alone and passive, they are trying to ‘retribalize’, as Marshall McLuhan said. (Turkle, 1996; p. 178) Online one can correspond with people from all over the world, through e-mail, bulletin boards, chat forums, etc. We can connect with people “who would otherwise be inaccessible” (Ibid., 1996; p. 247). The Internet becomes a global social network.
Multi-User Domains (or MUDs) are text-based games in which thousands of people create their own characters and lead complete virtual lives. Everything is customisable, from the physical appearance of a character to the layout and functions of a room. (Ibid., 1996; p. 10-11) This is a very different level of network community. This is a place where people “can gather for the pleasure of easy company, conversation, and a sense of belonging” (Ibid., 1996; p. 233), in the words of anthropologist Ray Oldenberg about the “great good place”. Here they can be part of a community, sometimes to make up for a lack thereof in ‘real’ life. It is a form of psychological escapism and entertainment in the same way women often enjoy reading romance novels to compensate for the lack of fulfillment in certain domains in everyday life. (Ibid., 1996; p. 241)
Other people connect to these MUDs in terms of resistance, also linked to the limitation of the ‘real’ world. Rather than for a matter of compensation, they express their views in this environment in order to feel “political empowerment” (Ibid., 1996; p. 242). Citizens in these virtual worlds can band together to run local governments and be in complete control. (Ibid., 1996; p. 243) There is a real sense of Teledemocracy and it is a great source of community building as people get more understanding of how things work. This is “the symbol and tool of a postmodern politics” (Ibid., 19986; p. 243)
In a virtual community, people seem to be more confident and free. Many people are more prone to be themselves as they don’t have the pressure of direct physical contact with their interlocutor. (Ibid., 1996; p. 179) In this sense, they have the potential of getting to know themselves better.
Furthermore, users can create any identity they want. Identity is seen as “a set of roles that can be mixed and matched” (Ibid., 1996; p. 180). This construction and reconstruction of self characterises postmodern life. (Ibid., 1996; p. 180) We no longer exists as unitary selves, but as “terminals of multiple networks” (Baudrillard, 1987; p. 16).

Although the Internet presents a huge potential, both politically and socially, it does have a considerable amount of drawbacks. A major issue, which applies especially in the use of the Internet in a political context, is the problem of exclusion. Indeed, “even the Internet has a fast lane and a slow lane” (Tsagarousianou, Tambini, Bryan, 1998; p. 15). Certain groups of people cannot, or simply do not, participate in civic networking or even general Internet usage. It is often a problem of social and economic inequalities among citizens. “The terms and conditions for access to information technology ‘increasingly define one’s right of access to information per se … information that is particularly useful, relevant, timely information, is increasingly tied to complex electronic technology’” (Ibid., 1998; p. 170). People don’t necessarily have access to, or the skill to use, computer and internet technology.
Another issue (this time indeed a problem) is the difficulty in controlling the flux of information on the Internet. There is a very high level of obscene and illegal material on the World Wide Web. The main example is the pornography industry, both legal and illegal. For the Digital City of Amsterdam, the problem is not pornography, but copyright and racism. (Ibid., 1998; p. 36) There is however a very fine line between trying to control information and infringing on freedom of expression. We enter here on the domain of censorship. In the context of electronic communities, filters are sometimes used to block specific types of information and access is often even refused to people behaving ‘inappropriately’. Furthermore, the Digital City occasionally blocks the accounts of certain citizens using false identities. “A controllable name and address is now a first prerequisite” (Ibid., 1998; p. 37) All personal information is therefore stored on a database. This could be seen as an invasion of privacy. This applies to the largest part (if not all?) of the World Wide Web, as the security of personal details is often questionable (especially concerning popular social networking websites).
Moreover, on a political level, the Internet’s potential is not fully exploited; “politics in this form remains more of a model of convincing through the dissemination of information than of communication and discussion” (Ibid., 1998; p. 174). There is therefore a severe lack of democratic content. This use of the Internet by political parties and other organisations implies that “it is a monologue not a dialogue which is being facilitated by technological developments” (Ibid., 1998; p. 12). This undermines the concept of teledemocracy.

Our Internet use is controlled in a subtle indirect way. We are subjects to power in the form of discourse; this power is, according to Foucault, “the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society” (Foucault, 1987; p. 93). In the context of the Internet it is applied through laws, censorship and self-surveillance, since “modern society must control the bodies and behaviors of large numbers of people” (Turkle, 1996; p. 247). Since traffic on the Internet is constantly monitored with the use of databases and filters, in the way that a city is monitored by CCTV, what matters, according to Foucault, is not how often censorship is used, but people’s knowledge that “the possibility is always present” (Ibid., 1996; p. 248). One applies the power of self-surveillance and self-censorship. This censorship takes three forms: “affirming that such a thing is not permitted, preventing it from being said, denying that it exists” (Foucault, 1987; p. 84). Therefore, “power is everywhere” (Ibid., 1987; p. 93) because it comes from everywhere. Following these principles, the Internet can allow for change, but only in a limited way. Foucault states that “where there is power, there is resistance” (Ibid., 1987; p. 95); but since one is always “inside” power, resistance is thus similarly always within the works of power. One can argue that resistance is merely an illusion.

Sex has been placed by power and discourse in a binary system, differentiating the licit and illicit, accepted and taboo, etc. (Foucault, 1987; p. 83) This applies also in electronic communities such as the Multi-User Domains where characters (people?) can have virtual sex with each other. But there are indeed other facets to this; some users manage to ‘hack’ into another user’s commands and virtually ‘rape’ that person’s character. (Turkle, 1996; p. 251) There have been discussions concerning the seriousness of these acts and their consequences, and the argument emerged that in MUDs “the body is the mind” (Ibid., 1996; p. 253). This shows that this type of games tend to be taken too seriously as people get strongly attached and addicted to the virtual world. This points to French social theorist  Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the ‘Disneyland effect’, that “Disneyland […] is there to conceal the fact that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America, which is Disneyland” (Ibid., 1996; p. 234). Our perceptions are relative as we make denatured and artificial experiences seem real. For example, “after playing a video game in which your opponent is a computer program, the social world of MUDs may seem real as well” (Ibid., 1996; p. 236). The boundaries between representation and reality become porous. Thus, people turn to the Internet and electronic communities in search for an easy fix, replacing off-screen life and face-to-face interactions with a seemingly more satisfying and pleasurable virtual world. This applies to personal and social everyday problems, as people avoid them and choose to live in unreal places where they feel safe and successful. “The personal computer revolution, once conceptualized as a tool to rebuild community, now tends to concentrate on building community inside a machine” (Ibid., 1996; p. 244). A new reality within reality.
In this age of computer networking, the individual is placed in a figurative bubble, isolated, “in a position of perfect sovereignty” (Baudrillard, 1987; p. 15). The physical human body thus becomes superfluous, according to Baudrillard. We are, just like the schizophrenic, victims of the world’s obscenity and transparency, due to our “absolute proximity to and total instantaneousness with things” (Ibid., 1987; p. 27).

The Internet has proven to be a greatly useful tool in the dissemination of information and in interaction between people. Whether for just navigating the web, taking part in real-time electronic communities or seeking pleasure in entertaining Multi-User Domains, the Internet has brought a positive change in human relations and our access to information. Anyone and anything are accessible at anytime; this broadens our access to knowledge and assists us in community building. This virtual re-creation of reality moreover promotes the discovery of the self.
We have seen the Internet to have, however, a number of disadvantages. This freedom of expression can tend to materialise in the form of obscenity and illegality; this often leads to organisations violating people’s privacy and infringing on freedom of expression. We find ourselves in the works of censorship. Furthermore, the opportunity for pleasure that the online communities and virtual worlds offer, can easily become addictive; people then find themselves renouncing the real world and instead centering on easy online fixes.
The postmodern reality of cyberspace blurs the boundaries between the real and the virtual. We are in a world where any ‘reality’ can become our reality.
Although the Internet finds itself in a position combining benefits and harms, one has to find a balance in the middle: appreciate what the Internet has to offer whilst acknowledging and avoiding the damage it may cause. The balance is therefore set not in just a single reality, but equally distributed over the multiple facets of postmodern life.

Bibliography

Baudrillard, Jean (1987). The Ecstasy of Communication (trans. Bernard Schutze and Caroline Schutze). New York: Semiotext(e).

Foucault, Michel (1987). The History of Sexuality. England: Peregrine Books.

New Oxford American Dictionary (2005-2009). Version 2.1.1 (80.1). [electronic] Mac OS X, Apple Inc.

Tsagarousianou, Roza; Tambini, Damian; Bryan, Cathy (1998). Cyberdemocracy: Technology, cities and civic networks. London: Routledge.

Turkle, Sherry (1996). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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2009-11 High/Low Culture

“Is it still possible to distinguish between ʻhighʼ and ʻlowʼ culture? Referring to examples from art and/or media.”

The concept of culture is something that has always been in the center of human society. Its meaning is now more than ever brought into question. Culture is generally considered to be defined as “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively” (New Oxford American Dictionary, 2005-2009). It is seen either as something that determines our social environment, or, in the opinion of the Frankfurt School, as something that is determined by society. Over the course of history, the understanding of culture has been under constant change and theoreticians came to make distinctions between different levels of culture. We saw the emergence of the concepts of High and Low culture.
How can one define these ideas? Is it still possible today to make a clear distinction between the definitions of High and Low culture? These concepts cover a broad area of study and we could look into many themes, including Bourdieuʼs ideas of cultural capital. We will however focus on certain aspects of the subject matter. Firstly we will explore the traditional definitions of High and Low culture, their connection with the audience and how they can be differentiated. Secondly, we will analyse the effect of technological reproduction, the potential links between High and Low culture and the grey areas in between.

The differentiation between levels of culture is generally seen as an elitist perception of culture. High culture is considered to encompass a set of products, especially in the arts, of a higher status, held in the highest esteem. On this cultural level “the emphasis is on the workʼs cultic value” (Benjamin, 2008; p. 12). Products of High culture are mostly viewed as belonging to the long-established forms of art, such as painting and sculpting. Examples of these products include paintings by Michelangelo and symphonies by Mozart.
On the other hand, there is what is commonly referred to as Low culture or in a less derogatory term, Popular culture. On this level the emphasis is instead on the workʼs “display value” (Benjamin, 2008; p. 12). It is considered the lowest form of art, often completely lacking in creativity. The most obvious examples of Popular culture include Pop music and reality television shows. This level of culture can also be associated with Mass culture or, as Theodor Adorno calls it, the “Culture Industry” (Adorno, 2001; p. 98) as it is created not by the masses but for the masses.

We can see that the main difference between High and Low culture is their content and the original purpose and meaning behind their respective products. According to Benjamin, creations of high culture are intended for immersion, they call for the viewer to enter the work with a critical and reflective perspective. (Benjamin, 2008; p. 33) The effect they have on the audience is meant to be one of enlightenment and conscious development. Works of Low culture on the other hand are, as Benjamin puts it, source of “distraction” (Benjamin, 2008; p. 33), which is what the masses look for. The effect of Low culture (or ʻCulture Industryʼ) on the viewer is one of “anti- enlightenment” (Adorno, 2001; p. 106).

The idea of conscious or even spiritual development can be most directly represented with products of religious (or sacred) art. Indeed, symbols have played a major role in human belief systems throughout history. The Cross for example is best known in the Western world as a Christian symbol, but it has been widely used in the rest of the world for different reasons: as a symbol of the Earth for the Chinese, as a representation of the Assyrian sky god Anu, etc… (Fontana, 2003; p. 85) Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung argued that symbols are “abstract shapes, which arise directly from the unconscious without any allusion to the natural world” (Fontana, 2003; p. 84-85). A major example is the connection Jung makes between the Buddhist diagram called mandala and the shapes spontaneously drawn by people in psychotherapy. These shapes (combinations of triangles, circles and squares) are thought to be attempts by the conscious mind to access higher material of the unconscious. (Jung, 1978; p. 169) These designs, widely present in Eastern religions, are used to meditate upon in order to access and become aware of deeper levels of meaning. (Fontana, 2003; p. 99. – Jung, 1978; p. 267-268) In Buddhism it is believed that the best mandalas are given to a disciple directly by an enlightened teacher who creates the mandala himself after undergoing a period of fasting and meditating on its design. (Santiago, 1999; p. 10) This uniqueness and genuineness is what Walter Benjamin calls a workʼs “aura”, something that the work would lose if it were to be reproduced using technological means. (Benjamin, 2008; p. 7). We can therefore view these creations as definite forms of High culture; they are representations of the epitome of human creativity.

According to Theodor Adorno, Low culture does the exact opposite: we are witnessing a ʻdumbing-downʼ of the masses with the constant increase of mass culture, in particular mass media. This is a product of capitalism, where all that matters is profit, to the detriment of quality and substance. “The customer is not king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object” (Adorno, 2001; p. 99). Mass corporations create culture, mass media is used to make the public conform and buy into capitalism and specific ideologies. As Adorno puts it: “each product of the culture industry becomes its own advertisement” (Adorno, 2001; p. 100). In modern days we experience the never-ending growth of mass media, and comfort and ease become the main points of focus: people can have access to hundreds of television channels without having to leave their homes. Low culture is more widely and more regularly available, with for example the soaring popularity of television reality shows. We are constantly bombarded with new ideas and trends that the masses adhere to: ”the power of the culture industryʼs ideology is such that conformity has replaced consciousness” (Adorno, 2001; p. 104).
However, the concepts of High and Low culture cannot solely be considered in such a black and white manner. There are indeed some exceptions and grey areas.

With the modern age of technological reproduction, we have reached new levels of art and culture. Works of art have always been reproducible, various methods have been used throughout history, from casting and embossing to etching and lithography. (Benjamin, 2008; p. 3-4) It is with the invention of film and photography that the meaning of art took a new step. Although photography was at first seen by some as “soft, gutless painting”, Weston affirmed that it is a matter of “revealing to others the living world around them […] showing to them what their own unseeing eyes had missed” (Sontag, 1979; p. 96). Photography holds the power to show the public works of High art that they might not have access to otherwise. It therefore widens the availability of such creations. Photography can even, using enlargement and other techniques, show certain aspects of a work of art that might escape the naked eye, to the point of going “beyond natural optics” (Benjamin, 2008; p. 6). This is especially true today with the use of highly advanced equipment and software, people can analyse works in great detail and become more familiar with products of so-called High art.
This leads us to another aspect of photography as an art form in itself. With the use of both film photography and digital imaging, there is the possibility of unlimited reproduction, making every copy the same. This therefore undermines the concept of ʻauraʼ, as we cannot talk about the ʻoriginalʼ of a photograph. The “aura is bound to […] here and now; it has no replica” (Benjamin, 2008; p. 19). This applies to other sorts of technologically reproduced art forms as well, such as film and music, with platforms like DVD, CD, MP3, etc… The reproduction of works of art “makes it possible for the original to come closer to the person taking it in” (Benjamin, 2008; p. 6). Today one can buy a recording of an orchestra performing a Mozart symphony and listen to it at home, or even download the piece from the Internet and listen to it on the bus. This goes beyond financial and social obstacles as it “frees the work of art […] from its existence as a parasite upon ritual” (Benjamin, 2008; p. 12). Technological reproduction therefore brings into question the definition of High culture, making it less of an elitist exclusivity.

In modern days we witness a merging of what is considered High and Low art forms. The most common form of such merging is the act of copying an existing High culture product into/onto a Low (or popular) culture product, such as putting a picture of the Mona Lisa on a T-shirt or sampling a piece of classical music into a hip-hop track. There are nonetheless artists that find themselves somewhere in the middle, or rather in both levels of culture at the same time, by originally creating a piece that incorporates both elements of High and Low culture. One example is Rhys Chathamʼs Guitar Trio 1977 which is a musical piece that combines elements of Punk Rock with aspects of contemporary classical music.
Furthermore, the cultural status of a work of art can be variable over time. We associate different meanings with certain works depending on their historical and geographical context. As Walter Benjamin puts it: “Tradition itself is of course something very much alive, something extraordinarily changeable” (Benjamin, 2008; p. 10). Jazz for example used to be considered a very Low type of music when it first emerged, it was seen in white America as the ʻblack peopleʼs musicʼ; it is now however regarded as a respected High culture music genre. Indeed, “the manner in which human sense perception is organized […] is dictated not only naturally but also historically” (Benjamin, 2008; p. 8). This also applies to the use of symbols, whether it is for artistic purpose or not. The swastika for example, which has existed for thousands of years, is still regarded by Hindus and Buddhists as one of the most sacred symbols ever created, whereas it is now associated in the West with Nazism and fascism. Meaningful symbols are in fact often used in advertising and political propaganda to attempt to influence people; the outcome and level of influence can nevertheless not be calculated in advance. (Jung, 1978; p. 240). Furthermore, sacred symbols often become mass culture fashion accessories, with for example Pop singers wearing crosses or other religious symbols for solely aesthetic purposes.

The concept of High and Low culture is in itself an elitist perception of culture in general. Some individuals associating themselves with High culture may show disdain towards works of what they call Low art by pure snobbism and prejudice, and vice versa. The definitions of these cultural levels (or arguably subcultures) are questionable and can be regarded as solely subjective. In both of these extremes there are cases of works of good and bad quality. A lot of High art has been created for aesthetic reasons alone, while some Low art has been produced with cultic or spiritual ideas in mind. One example is Rhonda Byrneʼs highly popular book The Secret which has been mass produced and even made into a documentary film; although it shows the signs of a Low culture product, it contains more meaning and spiritual material than most contemporary High art creations.
“Watching television or the latest Hollywood movie is not a sign that one has, after all, lost the capacity for reflection; that one can simultaneously see through the manipulation at work and sustain a critical distance from what is on offer” (Adorno, 2001; p. 12). There is a wide range of works of art and cultural products within the so-called Low culture, especially within the media, from TV reality shows to Hollywood blockbusters and smaller independent films. Many can be directly linked to Mass media, others however have more substance and can even after a while be considered ʻcultʼ, and therefore join the High art spectrum. The film Easy Rider can arguably be an example of that.

We can look at the concepts of High and Low culture in different ways. Firstly they can be seen from a strictly elitist perspective, with High culture containing the most ʻintelligentʼ, meaningful and usually long-established works of art, and Low culture encompassing all aspects of Mass media and Popular culture, grouped under Theodor Adornoʼs label ʻCulture Industryʼ. This pictures the audience of Low culture as naive victims of capitalism, with no conscious autonomy. Secondly, High and Low culture can be regarded as unclear and subjective cultural statuses that vary and merge over the course of history. Technological reproduction, as expressed by Walter Benjamin, is seen as a positive evolution in bringing the two cultural levels together.
There is no definite answer to where one should draw the line between High culture and Low culture, or even define a middle ground. Meaning and sense can be found on both sides of the spectrum. A work of art may use elements from both High and Low culture, but its status cannot be confirmed until it receives a social response. Although a difference is made in society between High and Low culture, that difference only exists because the public has allowed it to be made. In the end, all that matters is that individuals maintain a certain autonomy of consciousness, or the ʻCulture Industryʼ will prevail and widen the gap all the more.

Bibliography

Adorno, Theodor W. (2001). The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. London: Routledge Classics.

Benjamin, Walter (2008, orig. 1936). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, ʻGreat Ideasʼ (trans. J. A. Underwood). London: Penguin Books.

Fontana, David (2003). The Language of Symbols: A Visual Key to Symbols and their Meanings. London: Duncan Baird Publishers.

Jung, Carl (1978). Man and his Symbols, conceived and edited by Carl Jung, written with M. -L. von Franz, Joseph L. Henderson, Aniela Jaffé and Jolande Jacobi. London: Picador.

New Oxford American Dictionary (2005-2009). Version 2.1 (80). [electronic] Mac OS X, Apple Inc.

Santiago, J. R. (1999). Sacred Symbols of Buddhism. New Delhi: Book Faith India.

Sontag, Susan (1979). On Photography. London: Penguin Books.