The Anxiety of the Future and Internet Technologies

Posted by Nishant Shah at Nov 03, 2008 08:15 AM |
Nishant Shah and Sunil Abraham attended the "Writing the Future" conference organised by the Humanities Department at the IIT Delhi, and supported by the CIS and the Kusuma Trust. Nishant made a presentation at the conference entitled "Some Knowledge in Search of Authority: Cyberspace, Collaborations and Confusions".

The Anxiety of the Future and Internet Technologies


Shashi Deshpande, one of the first generation Indian writers in English, at her plenary speech at IIT Delhiś “Writing the Future” conference,  made, to my mind a startling statement: “After all”, said Deshpande, “everybody who writes a blog eventually only wants to publish a book”. In itself, the statement appears to be in resonance with the mainstream discourse around the relationship that Internet Technologies have with the processes of writing, publishing and distribution. Even in some of the more sophisticated scholarship around cyberspatial forms like blogging, it is common practice to posit the blog in opposition to the book – more specifically to the novel form – and the spaces of knowledge production online as simulations of or threats to existing authoritative forms of knowledge. Despite the fact that we are publishing and writing more than ever before (in almost all languages of the world, but especially in English), that more people are reading (the very act of reading – emails, blogs, BBS, discussion forums, descriptions, manuals – in the rapidly transforming Information Societies), and that there is a significant rise in the circulation, distribution and consumption of books and newspapers and other print forms, there is a very consistent paranoia, across various disciplines, but especially in English Departments in the Universities, that believes writing is a dying art and that we will soon live in a bookless world of mediocre writing by uncensored and untrained authors.


The tone that Deshpande adopted in her plenary speech persisted through the various presentations we heard from emerging and established writers, poets, publishers and distributors from the Asia Pacific region who had come together to talk about the idea of the future and the future of ideas. There seemed to be, scattered across the panels, a series of alarms, anxieties and apprehensions which were specifically to do with the role technologies, and especially the digital technologies, play in shaping the future of the written word.  And I think it is time to look at these anxieties  and see them for what they are – symptomatic of a larger fear and misunderstanding of digital and information and communication technologies and the forms that have emerged therein.


All technological innovations, but particularly those technological innovations affecting knowledge production, bring a new set of anxieties and concerns. Lynn Truss, in her hilarious book on the history of manners, for example, talks about how, in the early years of telephone use, there were guidelines issued which said, “When you speak to the person on the other end, keep the receiver at a distance of two inches from your ear, lest the other person, if he suffers from germs, transfer them to you.¨ She subsequently illustrates how the anxieties about the physical and moral well being in the public and academic discourse of that time, around the telephone, were symptomatic of the anxiety about coping with conversation which was not face to face, and sometimes indeed, with strangers. The internet technologies also evoke similar anxieties, which I am going to caricature to ensure that they are, if not resolved, at least redundant.


Here is a list of the top three questions I have been asked in the last three months by students, researchers, journalists, or panellists at conferences:


Q. Is the internet going to replace books?

No. The internet does not compete with books.


Q. Is it going to shut down newspapers?

No. The internet does not compete with newspapers.


Q. Can we believe what we read on the internet?

Can we believe anything we read anywhere?


I use this glib mode to locate in the arrival and emergence of cyberspaces, the anxieties that also marked earlier technologies like print and especially the emergence of the book. These are the anxieties that fruitlessly emerge when we start subscribing to the idea that a blog is an extension of a personal diary or the simulation of a novel (that everybody who blogs basically wants to write a book), the website is a digital brochure, the internet relay chat is merely accelerated passing of notes, the social networking systems are replacing earlier ways in which people made friends, and the Wikipedia is just messed up knowledge.  


In my presentation, I urged to that we move beyond these anxieties, to realise that historically, all new technologies have evoked similar anxieties and questions about authorit and credibility. The pre print period and the mode of reproduction of manuscripts are usually characterized as being full of mistakes and incredibly unreliable. This absence of certainty in the early history of the book was attributed to the mistakes made by scribes who had to copy by hand over many hours and were prone to making mistakes, since there was no fool proof method of ensuring the accuracy of the scribes methods.


One of my favourite jokes, about the Bible and its rule of law, is about a scribe who was making copies of the Bible from other copies. The original was locked up in the monastery cellars. The scribe asked the Abbot, ‘Master, I have never seen the original. How do I know that what I am copying is correct and faithful to the word of the lord? If I make mistakes, isn’t it possible that there were mistakes in the first copy of the original and nobody would know of it because nobody sees the original?” The Abbot, after some thought, went down into the cellars to check the validity of the question and compare his copy with the Original Bible. For ten days there was silence except for the rustling of pages and the careful squeaking of the quill. And on the eleventh day, everybody heard loud cries and groans of despair coming from the cellar. When they rushed down to find the cause, fearing the worst, they found the Abbot, almost in tears; he said, “It says Celebrate; Not Celibate. Somebody missed out an R and changed the E”.


Lawrence Liang, in his fantastic essay on “The Brief History of the Internet in the 15th and 16th Century” points out that the typographical fixity that is assumed for books did not always exist. In the first 100 years of print culture, errors were rife in printed books, Papal edicts against “faulty bibles” were issued, forgeries were rampant, manuscripts (as Jon Cook pointed in his excellent Plenary on the first day) were pirated or counterfeited. Print in fact opened up the floodgates of diversity and conflict and at the same time threw up questions about the authority of knowledge which could not easily be addressed.  It is this open ended nature of print in making that I am interested in, since it seems to have many parallels with the information revolution that we call the internet. “ Liang’s point about knowledge as not intrinsic (automagically produced, presumed, imagined and installed in a book) but as transitive (constructed, deliberate, established through a knowledge apparatus that concretises the knowledge in a particular object – the book, the movie, the visual etc.) is one of the best responses to these anxieties.


 As new technologies of writing and knowledge production and distribution emerge, we need to engage with the questions of authorship, possession, writing, dissemination, circulation, distribution and consumption because these concepts have a clear bearing on the notions of intellectual property, piracy, plagiarism, research and knowledge production. More interestingly, just as we do not confuse the writer with a film maker or a visual artist, it will be a fallacy to presume that the writer that emerged with the print culture is the same writer that is also using words on the digital medium. The conference, which was also supported by the Centre for Internet and Society, was extremely fruitful for us, making us acutely aware of the kind of anxieties we have about the future.


And perhaps anxiety is a good thing; it stops us from being smug and content in the dominant discourses of shining glories; it makes us stop to think about the way in which the world as we know it gets dismantled and deconstructed and how the past (and perhaps history), even though we might have announced its death, still haunts the idea of the future, as well as the future of ideas.

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Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and board member of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and is a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, and is Dean of Research at ArtEZ Graduate School, the Netherlands.