Making Sense of the Net, Making Sense of Ourselves

Alex Edelman

The technology that enables the net calls for a change in the way an individual thinks, from concrete and linear to theoretical and interactive. Critics cite that those who undertake the advancement of new information technologies do so with no regard for the societal consequences of their creations. The core of the critics' argument, it seems, is rooted in a sort of nostalgia for a simpler society, one where an individual's position was known, stable, and tangible.
The chaotic and exponential growth of the net betrays the old-fashioned notion that a rigidly-structured hierarchical system of operating is the only way to get something accomplished. The lack of closure and the inability to predict future expansion is vital to the net's interface with society. To the critics, the sea of information is sensory overload that deluges society with useless facts, trivia, and the rants and raves of individuals. They see the net as an unordered waste of time.
The flaw in their thinking is really nothing more than a lack of understanding of the potential that exists in a chaotic system. The net's lack of order and the impossibility to predict its future keep it open for opportunity, a frontier for both the individual and -- as I will discuss later -- future communities.
The net is a chaotic system, and must remain so for it to succeed and for its potential to be tapped. The phenomenon of "the net" -- a collective and generalized term for the decentralized, independent computer network that allows such information services as the World Wide Web, newsgroups, file transfer, and e-mail -- has always been chaotic, and was not mapped out very much in advance of its implementation. What began as a small conglomeration of government computers is now a major consumer industry, and it is the net's biological expansion that keeps it so exciting. There is no central "hub" or "center" to the net, to which all computers must link or through which all the information must pass. Rather, the sub-networks and clusters of computers add on and link with each other as necessary. This unpredictable growth makes it exceedingly difficult to order and catalog the net. Such chaos seems counter-intuitive to what constitutes the net: computers, ultimate machines of order. But the growth and linking of these machines is done by people who use the computer for what it really is, as a tool to extend an individual's consciousness and to link it with others.
Ultimately, it is individuals who enable a concept like the net. The technology alone collects dust without people who will use it for their ideas. As the needs for the net and the new technology grow, the net itself grows bigger and faster. The net remains a success because its focus is always on the individuals who access it, the users, and not on any other abstract "central authority." Neither the government nor any one company or institution controls the size or behavior of the net. Each individual user is, in his/her own way, participating in the future and life of the net, much in the same way that every cell in a human body contributes to the overall life of the body in addition to maintaining its individual life. Unlike a human cell -- which has a pre-ordained function -- each user on the net establishes his/her _own_ role and place in the community.
What use is there, the critics ask, for an unpredictable, (mostly) disorganized network of information that has no established standards for the information's quality or quantity? The net's strongest critics focus on its lack of overarching order and its untidiness. How, they argue, can one glean any real knowledge from the net when one considers its current state, with its redundant information, lack of deep content, and mostly un-moderated, childish exchanges of irrelevant opinions?
This enormous chaos and lack of hierarchical organization is exactly, I argue, what is so crucial and exciting about the net. The net as a public forum for thoughts and ideas does two very important things: Firstly, it confers upon the individual the responsibility to meaningfully interpret and organize of this body of information; Secondly, the net in turn demands from the individual a much greater accountability for his/her opinions and thoughts. These two events are far from being mutually exclusive -- they are linked and feed each other in a constant process of evolution of both the mind and the community.
It is apparent how much agency and responsibility that a net-user possesses when compared with another medium for information delivery: television. While television allows the viewer a modicum of agency in choosing according to his/her preference, it is only at the most superficial level of the experience itself that the viewer's decisions are relevant to what is provided. For example, the viewer may select one channel or another, this program or that one, but after those decisions are made, what follows is completely out of his/her hands. Watching television is a passive experience. In contrast, every time a user accesses the net, they are made to choose and create paths for him/herself rather than follow pre-established ones.
Even the advanced indexing and cataloguing services on the World Wide Web, for example, are inadequate to allow for the full freedom of exploration that an individual enjoys when he/she is maneuvering through the information network. The indexing services are, at best, one of an individual's many tools for locating specific information once he/she knows what he/she is looking for. But the creative exercise of wandering, of not following patterns but rather personal interests and whims, is one of the keys to the net's potential. With the advances in computer technology rendering insignificant the physical space between different "locations" on the net, the user is in his/her own pilot's seat to navigate through any amount and type of information he/she desires. The important issue is the user's interactive, cerebral exercise of linking concepts and seemingly unrelated ideas in new ways. Each new connection is a new way of interpreting the raw information, a new schema for evaluating the veracity of ideas and how an individual relates to them. This is the stuff of better critical thinking abilities, and the net is the quintessential metaphor to realize it.
Whether it is nonspecific wandering around the net, or goal-oriented searching for information, the responsibility is in the hands of the user to make sense of that chaos. The user must, every time he/she enters the net, make mental connections between concepts and extrapolate the relevant information on a topic. It is up to the user to organize the information and to use -- or, where appropriate, create -- the tools for interpreting and coping with this information. Accessing the net depends on the active participation of the user in order to glean any meaningful information from it. The net's lack of order and hierarchy ensures that it remains a tool and not a substitute for critical thinking skills.
Also, the sheer volume of information available powerfully and facilely serves these critical thinking and concept-connecting skills as individuals worldwide have access to not only greater but also higher quality resources on any imaginable topic. (In a later section I will discuss the notion of the "quality of content" of the provided information.) With the vague and overly-subjective concept of "related topics" replaced by a user-level schema for linking ideas, an individual better informs his/her own opinions and decisions. As members of an emerging world community, net-users consider their reasoning more gravely because of the plethora of information available for them. Educated decision-making is more efficiently accomplished with a better sense of the different options.
With this growing number of people in society who are better-informed on their decisions and better-educated on specific topics comes the second aspect of the net's power. Greater education brings, also, greater accountability for that knowledge. When one has the ability to see and make sense of the various angles of an issue, the position that he/she takes is a conscious one, one that he/she is theoretically prepared to defend with the totality of his/her thought process in arriving at that decision. The other citizens of the net community demand this accountability. An uninformed or narrowly-considered decision detracts from the dialogue, and doesn't utilize the resources of the net. The need for excellence of thought challenges individuals in their opinions, and asks that they respond with their persuasive writing. All of this contributes to an emergent landscape of positions for an idea. A stated position or a repository of information available is the sole responsibility of the author, and the success of one's ability to inform one's self is dependent on the complete representation of the available positions -- whether its a World Wide Web site dedicated to a specific topic of scholarship or a personal opinion posted to a Usenet newsgroup. The others who read and access that information demand that a user's personal contribution to the discussion be likewise worthwhile and well-informed. The responsibility, again, lies with the individual.
However, the success or failure of this idea -- and of the net itself -- necessitates a substantive base from which the rest of the community can grow and feed. Put simply: it is the _content_ that drives the net; it is the content of the net that will be the backbone for our future world community. All of these idealized things that I have been writing about are on the supposition that the content and depth of topic is actually out there. What I am suggesting is _not_ that the net community attempt to have every topic represented, even if it is in the most cursory manner. Such efforts are counter-productive and contribute to the mediocrity of content on the majority that the net seems to represent now. (This is what the critics attack.) What is needed is an awareness that the net holds tremendous potential for social progress and creative expression, and that potential can be tapped only if the net exists as an open forum for _all_ ideas. As of now, the relevant, well-established information present is only a small percentage of the total resources available. The rest of the net is, as mentioned before, mediocre to irrelevant. For the net to thrive, it must be a responsibly-updated resource; a locus for thought and expression created by a committed society. Those that desire for the net to be this are responsible for submitting their own information -- their own opinions and positions -- on any and all topics that they can intelligently write about. The quality of the content drives any concept, not the technology. The landscape of positions for an idea isn't a landscape until there is a critical mass of opinions that are thought out, independent, and are willing to both contend with and inform each other.
A factor that contributes to the potential success of the net is that the information that an individual provides does not need to conform to any standard of thought or consensus of opinion. To return to the television metaphor: it is not a simple task for anyone to have their program idea broadcast on national television. It is costly and relatively inefficient compared to the ease of publishing on the net. There is also a wealth of standards and ratings to which each program must conform. The net is not built upon such a vanilla-flavored rhetoric of information delivery; it is a worldwide studio for open expression. As such, it carries the opportunity to represent the full range of opinions and positions on every given topic. The virtue of safety and consensus is not a factor in the content of the net, and though that makes navigating it a slightly more perilous task for the uninitiated or the faint-at-heart, there can be no excuse in our contemporary society for ignorance or reductive thinking. The state of evolution of an organism, a society, or even an idea must be constantly evaluated and scrutinized, to ensure that all the stated goals and objectives are being accomplished.
Likewise, the evolution of the net takes place as the difference of opinions on various topics are explored and branch off into self-motivated communities and dialogues that push and stretch the net's boundaries, as well as the thinking of the participants. Though this constant growth makes it increasingly difficult to skim the surface of any topic, it is for the ultimate good because it enforces perpetual re-education of an individual. Also, it encourages the individual to design and create even more sophisticated tools to aid in the organization and interpretation of that information.
What I'm leading up to, what I have been hinting at here and there in my points and subtopics, is what I believe to be the strongest and most profound contribution that the net makes to our world society. In final analysis, what is really relevant about the fact that we have the technology that makes the net possible is the way in which the net creates community for its participants. New communities -- as part of the larger world community -- are created not only with individuals who have a communality of interest, but also and quite importantly those whose opinions differ, and whose positions run contrary to what may be the consensus. Virtual communities can no longer be regarded as subcultures or as fringe societies to the larger, "real" community. Such an all-encompassing community does not exist, it is merely an illusive reality based on arbitrary delineations of location, historical backgrounds, or ethnicities. The communities that create themselves on the net, and the many more that will manifest in the near future, have a greater chance of success because individuals enter into them voluntarily. Also, the members' positions, thoughts and expertise are, hopefully, more fully realized in the strength of the individual's rhetoric. That greater, deeper common pool of background and explanation (as discussed earlier) contributes to the faster and more fully-realized success of a community.
And what is this goal? What does it mean for a community, virtual or otherwise, to be successful?
Like the evolution of an organism, there is never a finished product. A current state of a community, however efficient or successful, is never perfect. The goal of any community should not be complete happiness and agreement -- such consensus breeds complacency of ideas and stagnation of the agency and inquiry that makes the net so powerful. The contention of ideas and positions keeps a community growing, ensures that it stretches and constantly re-defines itself. That is the success of a community: one who's members never stop re-evaluating and criticizing their own definitions of what the community means. A community is a dynamic system, one that should remain inherently non-hierarchical. From the chaos and disorder, the individuals who constitute the community -- through their own conceptual process -- establish order.
Each virtual community can be seen as a smaller net within the larger world net, both technologically and theoretically. Every educational institution is its own network of ideas and computers, and that net connects and integrates itself, in infinite ways, to the rest of the net. We, as members of our own community -- or of many communities, for that matter -- _want_ to allow ourselves to get caught up in our webs. We want to fully inform ourselves of every possible angle and position in our community's network of consciousness and then in turn inform the rest of the community to our position. This sea of information and ideas is worthy of immersing ourselves in -- but, again, only insofar as the entire community holds itself responsible for the greatest possible depth of the content.
The flexibility of the net allows these communities to be destroyed just as easily as they expand. The agency always remains with the individual members to decide if the definitions or the theoretical framework of the community have grown irrelevant or outdated, just as a spider reconstructs its web if it becomes torn or otherwise useless. The strands that connect individuals in a community are strong when intricately woven, but likewise as individual strands they are not permanent. This is society at work, always evolving.
The networked computers and information technology's ability to create a multitude of communities, and the manner in which these communities inform, create, and contend against each other, is what the future of the net can be. The most important thing to keep in mind about this concept is wherein lies the power, agency, and responsibility in the communities: the individual. What is at stake is the collective consciousness of all the individuals of the world who see the potential for these communities, and the opportunity for increased self-examination. The communities that emerge on the net, both for themselves and as a model for physical communities, can and should tap into this collective visionary consciousness.
With exposure to the myriad beliefs, thoughts, and positions that constitute the landscape of human understanding comes questioning and contention. From that comes greater understanding of the individual constituents, as well as a greater responsibility for the completeness and agency of one's own self. The growth of the communities contributes to the increased strength of our society. We, as citizens of a world society, both deserve and are responsible for participating in the success and quality of it. This is our task as we enter our net communities. This is our task as we sit down to compose our thoughts and opinions. This is our biggest challenge for the 21st century: to realize our potential for expression and community, and to assume the greatest responsibility for our actions, our beliefs, and ourselves.
Copyright CrossConnect, Inc. 1996