Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 10. Nr. Juli 2001  

The Internet - a Barmecide Feast?

Herbert Eisele (Paris)


Communiquer n'est pas comprendre

What the ancients had in their head, the modern seek in the Net

Abstract 4. Knowledge

4.1 Knowledge and data

1. Information

4.2 Knowledge networking

2. The Internet platform

4.3 Collections

2.1 An alluring offer

5. The maze

2.2 The fallacious rule of technology

5.1 The Cheshire Cat's Smile

2.3 A positive inventory

5.2 Screening

2.4 A reappraisal of chances

6. The risk of material loss
3. Networking 7. Cultural Internet-users

3.1 The vices of text



The Internet represents a truly democratic challenge, ignoring hierarchy and centrality. Such an open communication circus has aroused cultural expectations and created opportunities which will be discussed in the following. A preliminary wink: the Internet is an exchange platform of information, not of knowledge! The implications of this distinction are shown, as well as the natural limits of the wish-dream of adepts of globality. A cyber-culture is bound to remain virtual, and the bridge from virtuality to reality remains to be built. A short inventory is made of Internet advantages and achievements for the scientific community and users at large. Networking and especially knowledge networking is scrutinised, and the ephemeral electronic advantages are contrasted with durability, which is a prerequisite of every culture. The Internet's real, not virtual potentials in the reserved domain of politics are also highlighted.
Berthold Brecht's Aquarian vision of little fishes trained to swim into big predators' festive wide-open mouths is more than a virtual hazard which the well-named Net can help make real in a fishy world aquarium like ours.


All virtuality is a Barmecide feast and Internet is virtuality par excellence. Hence, Internet is a Barmecide feast. This syllogism, although perfectly coherent as it stands, does not give the clue of what is inside the syllogistic box : the meaning. The message is encoded in a cultural reference frame and only this frame permits the disclosure of meaning. The message itself conveys meaning only to those who have access to the reference frame. If it is part of their culture, if they understand the allusion, they know what is meant, they can work out the message, but then the message is not information, since what it tells it is not new to them. The only novelty may be the metaphor extension, the link created between that feast and the Internet. However, the new relation is rhetorical(1), it does not appertain to either knowledge or information structures as will be examined hereafter.

1. Information

The Internet is an information network. It deals in and with information. What is information? The reply to this question will help answer what can be expected from the Web.

Tentative theories of information have been developed on the basis of a misapprehension typical of a concept that straddles several disciplines. It is not the place here to start from R.V.L.Hartley's founding article published in 1928 on theory of information transmission, when in the development of comments and controversies the word transmission was eventually dropped, giving a free hand to philosophers, semioticians, mathematicians, cyberneticians to fill the concept of information with what they thought fit.(2) Redundancy should be avoided. So we better stick to our purpose.

Information tends to be pre-eminently a consumer item. It is an object which looks for a subject. It purports to tell something new to who cares. It reports on factual relations, presumed unknown and presented for cognizance. To inform is to call attention to, and tell details about e.g. an event, i.e. a happening of the actual world, involving people, things and relations between them. Information evolves in a reality of a second order, that of reports, tales, comments(3): a reality represented in and by language. A third order is involved when information turns on information, but unlike reflection, no self is involved.

Re-presentation is to be taken at face value: reality as presented a second time with all the risks of misrepresentation, aggravated by the uncertainty of its vehicle, language, which diffracts reality into pieces of interest sorted by discretionary relevance to sender or receiver of information. Hence language gives a twist of intent to reality which reality actually cannot have, because things do not mean anything. Meaning is always second hand or inferred over conscience from opinion. Meaning is a matter of interpretation, and so is information. The discourse nature of information is perverse. It does not share the therapeutic effect of active discourse in the sense of speaking up to let the soul's steam off. Information is no literature. The in-flowing discourse of information accounts for its saturating, Nürnberger Trichter effect.

Information, encoded in language, reflects on-going things that may be relevant to people. Contrary to a widespread belief, Information is not knowledge.(4) Information is nothing but an offer to learn something about something. Information could be false, on purpose or by negligence. In this case, the offer may be a hoax, a bait or a mistake and, if accepted, would produce pseudo-knowledge, if not a deception. If it is correct, it is liable to produce knowledge, if the information is accepted as correct. This clearly shows that information needs a knowledgeable mind to be of any use. That is why most information is totally uninteresting to the mass. To sell information, it has to be consumerized. Like salad, it needs a dressing. Info-dealers know this very well, since they will refine "raw" information to make it palatable. News dealt out to the world daily is the result of this. Agencies and the media select and "shoe-shine" information for easier acceptance. Manipulation and censorship are not far off. The control of the flow of information is a political issue, in particular as regards withholding, selecting, and presenting information. Similarly, information available via the Internet needs scrutiny.

Acceptance is always an act of volition with or without reserves. The proof of correctness is given by a generally recognised authority : journalists known for living up to their professional standards (checking of sources), well-reputed news agencies, periodicals, institutions (professionals, research communities &c), established experts &c. It is only after the double condition is met, of verified seriousness of the offer and its unreserved acceptance, that a piece of information will become a piece of knowledge. The Internet does not have this authority. It does not constitute an authorised source, even though it can reflect authorised sources. But here again, authority is second hand. People tend to forget this.

The described process implies a transaction by which the general offer of a piece of information meets an individual demand, in the form of a specific curiosity (the will to learn), prepared to take over that piece with a view to using it in the build-up of a subjective picture of the world. In this sense, information is a virtual tessera(5) of knowledge, a gateway to knowledge.

The original meaning of "inform" should not be lost sight of, viz. to give form to, i.e. to express, here in language, a perception through a mould or model or type of current usage, to coin it for circulation by word of mouth or print. Communication thrives on common patterns of perception and acceptance by resorting to common conventional signs, words, language. Behind language is thoughts just as behind information is data. Information is data offered for communication. In the Internet, the data follow given electronic formats abiding by the binary code. Eventually, information, in its rudimentary form, conforms to a fundamental numerical ambiguity (0-1), even before it is transduced into language, which offers an additional occasion for deforming reality, so that, in the end, the improbable outcome is fed into a network under the name of information. The slippery object is likely to be given more attention than it deserves, be it only for its constituents, only because of a market craze. Consider what a shaky pillar society rests on, not to mention culture! If an "information-culture"(6) is not just nonsensical, the word marks the end of mankind's age of reason.

A last distinction : information is discourse based on fact, not on opinion. Since facts are hard to come by, opinion had traditionally replaced facts. This was a question of authority. Authoritative statements have for centuries formed traded "knowledge". This is how dogmas and taboos came about, and how the confusion between knowledge and information must have arisen, opinion being, "formed" or given out for unverifiable facts. This state of "information" still prevails to-day. Science continues to propagate simple assumptions as truths or facts which future generations will deride, just as we shake our heads over Byzantine disputes or the fuss over the Ptolemaic system.

2. The Internet platform

We have seen that the Internet is rife with information, but it is also rife with opinion. It is a virtual market visited by real curiosity and supplied by a variety of informants. But the exhibits are as virtual as are the place and the transactional value, if it is not put up in $. We are not going into the four dimensions of the Internet here(7), but shall concentrate on the pertinent fourth, viz. the capacity or offer of information procurement with a marked knowledge facilitating potential. We shall also neglect the chatterbox, the Internet can be made to by discussion groups and similar futile activities.

Various metaphors are used to qualify the Internet. It has been compared to a maze, a desert(8), a chaos, an unmapped world (WoW!)(9), a digitised ocean(10), a Minotaurean monster, a fount of surprise, and many other incongruities. Maybe the Internet is the last great romantic idea of limitless freedom and pantheistic omnipresence, as Niels Höpfner would have it(11), an idea steeped in frustration.

2.1 An alluring offer

The cyber-offer seems that of a magician who operates with fantastic powers, viz. first that of reducing time and space, and second of seemingly limitless supply of almost anything out of nothing, in a swift libratory combination of yes and no. These breathtaking powers have so much impressed tellers that they have not spared with attributes letting suppose even more fantastic capabilities, including that of transforming straw into gold(12) or the present society into a peaceful global village.(13)

The technological performance is fantastic enough, since the combination of ayes and noes is performed at a speed which no eye can follow and which appears to make the impossible possible, so that not only fiction-writers have been tempted to believe that the tool was able to get out of hands, to assume functions by itself, to become intelligent and, why not? - loveable, like Galatea.(14) The mischievous potential of emancipation has not yet been envisaged, though automata have been imagined with devastating powers. Mischievous can also prove an unlimited offer for an unlimited desire. The Net has a great appeal to satisfy this virtual greed, exciting the passion of players and cheats.

Fiction has no limits, and thoughts are beyond speed. However, the Internet does not reach the speed of thoughts though it encourages fiction. The Internet fundamentally stays a tool, however sophisticated. Virtuality needs human will-power to become reality. Fortunately, the cyber-machine has no will or purpose, however powerful it may become, and, what is more, there is no comprehensive organising concept as yet behind. Where are the announced Information Superhighways supposed to lead to ?

If the tool cannot get out of hands, the offer can, especially since the absence of a thoughtful architecture is comforted by the non-existence of substantive organisation.(15) True, a formal structure exists with its protocols and languages, which ensure the functioning of the beast.(16) The initiators, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) (17), wanted to confer a maximum of technical freedom to their utopian frame. This is its still prevalent state, apart from mainly economic standards, identification principles &c. added on later, like the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers).

The void of substantial structure and regulation is greeted as a symbol of the highest form of not only technical freedom.(18) Like the open sea, cyberspace represents a challenge to freebooters of all kinds to test the limits of freedom. In fact, that space is, to an ever increasing extent, being cornered by ".com"(19) , not to speak of cyber-criminality, but this is of no direct concern to us here. What matters, however, for messages is the insecurity in the transmittal of items and the concomitant hazard of receipt, even disregarding the issue of copyright. The coexistence of free shipment of messages and parallel paying channels with irregular credit-rating risks to entail in the long run the eviction of free service. The free web-site is another story. It tends to increase "noise" and the impatience of petulant readers, which, in turn, tends to provide an answer to the FAQ(20) "why has my homepage no visitor?".

In addition, freedom invites abuse. The Internet is particularly vulnerable to abuse in the full range of the word's meanings. Campus cyber-journals(21) and similar web-sites have already demonstrated with the Columbine massacre how slipshod virtuality can become. As long as the impact remains locally circumscribed, the disaster seems "sustainable", but virus "hoaxes" have also shown the ravages which the boundless extension of the Net can "afford", so that powers and kingdoms may be tempted to harness these capabilities to their ends.

2.2 The fallacious rule of technology(22)

3 Chaos is no longer a myth but has become a subject of science & technology, which tends to illustrate Heidegger's aphorism, according to which science does not think. But even technology cannot convert chaos into cosmos for lack of know-how. In any case, for the time being, cyberspace ranks close to chaos as regards its intrinsic structure. True, there are gateways, search engines, and super search engines, but they are machines, void of volition and intelligence. Machines, however "smart", cannot be intelligent, and artificial intelligence is but a preposterous joke(23), testifying to the IQ of the concept's baptist.

Technologists are no science-fiction writers. Unlike technocrats, they have no plot to follow, no order to invent. There is no super-systems architect to fill the gap, no agreed organic standard to adhere to. Symptomatic as it may seem, the gigantic communication platform, Internet, is ruled by no specifications or formation principles other than pragmatism. The mechanistic structure behind is, on the one hand, the outcome of a haphazard growth, and, on the other, the result of a general abdication of responsibility. Nobody to blame if not the system, which is nobody. A servant is not above his master.(24) After all, irresponsibility has contaminated the paradigmatic system of government of our "technologically advanced" societies. Whenever something goes wrong, an expert is called in to provide an "explanation". If none can be found, a committee will be set up to draw a red herring across the trail. Coolness, invented in May '68, fits the prevalent ideology of freedom which the Internet seems to serve by its high potential of virtuality.

However, ultraliberal reality does produce a negation of freedom in the form of, for instance, prostitution, tailorism, exploitation of third-world labour, and extreme poverty striking a good half of world population, - a preposterous result of extreme freedom. The roboter-coolness of our rulers and their attendants sets standards, but they take freedom as their privilege acquired by election. To them, freedom is the power to manipulate even the election machinery, as the recent US-presidentials have shown. In the case of a technological check-mate produced by computer calculations, a second hand edition is resorted to to clinch the haggle over power, and if this does not do the job, the rule of technology will be superseded by the rule of positive law. Positive freedom is then allotted to the winner of the game.

The computer does not grant freedom from responsibility, (as hand counting and belaboured justice can!), and it cannot replace common sense or virtue either, although virtuality is its world.

It is an abuse of language to hide under the cover of words like democracy. "Larvatus prodeo". Secrecy and make-belief are part of war strategies. Make-belief is designed to hoodwink the masses fed by the media, for the mass is fascinated by the glitter of words which those who have a say pay lip-service to. War games are rife in the Internet. Simulation prepares for reality shows which the protean Internet could sustain, depending on who is the master. Wars are not limited to the military field. Totalitarianism is a permanent state of civil war, often ushered in by the twilight of human rights.

The fact that at present the Internet obeys no master on account of its diffuse set-up is no guarantee for the future. The binary code behind does not exclude progress to take an unsuspected turn. After all, instruments can serve opposite purposes (cars for chars(25)), and even more so the material they are made out of (ploughs for swords). Culture and war are mutually exclusive, but the first will thrive on the devastation left by the second, just as does cultivation on the blazed patches of the rain forest. There is a time for everything. Alternation, not alternatives. The binary code catches up with culture.

Cultural, and more so political, expectations with regard to the Internet may not be so naïve as to invest computers with an electronic power to solve our world problems over Internet exchange tables instead of round table conferences, but they are likely to discount the vanishing of the subject. Hypertext can dispense with the author. Links replace logic. If they lead up the garden path, the maze will afford recreative enjoyment. Its gigantic memory offers a combinatory of choice defying determinism and purposefulness. No limited mind can visualise unlimited potencies. So the flabbergasted maze explorer will relax on his certitude that he is enjoying the best of what life can offer him. He can afford not to die an idiot, since he believes that he has at his finger tips all the information he could ever desire, in order to stave off his tedium vitae after having lost his job. He does not realise that his certitude is a pathetic fallacy, shared by the multitude, which confuses information with knowledge.

Along the same lines, the information society has been hailed as a solution for our predicaments, as though the speed of circulating information could hush away the sores of the real world. Just as one cannot shirk a promise by riding away, as the saying goes, one cannot leave it to electronic data management to manage the Indian earthquake disaster, the nuclear waste issue, or the survival of democracy following the crash of capitalism. Our problems are not only the result of misunderstanding, but also of mismanagement.

Mismanagement occurs in the real world, whereas misunderstanding partakes of virtuality. If wars originate in the minds of men, as the preamble of UNESCO states, international, and even national practice has sufficiently shown that debate, however easily facilitated technically, in conference rooms or over information highways can do nothing to overcome the will to misunderstand.(26) Virtual consensus is no consensus, and even consensus, being only a sort of mimicry, is fraught with hazards.(27) A minority of 49 pc., like the present US electorate, must be either extremely indolent or stupid not to wake up to its capacity of overthrowing the cheated 2 pc. which prevented it from exerting the rule of law. The past has seen more desperate percentage reversals with much slower information spreading - or was this the reason for their success ? - so that the Internet seems invested with powers beyond the control of instituted powers.

The potencies of the cyber-world have to be clearly seen, as well as its limits, and any mythical expectation has to be dismissed. Such expectations are nourished by ambitious statements of scientists, supported by an ambiguous attitude of computer scientists. Indeed, computers are regarded in a contradictory way. On the one hand, the opinion is encouraged by a certain chapel of scientists, that nothing can resist the trouble-shooting capacity of science with the assistance of computers, and that, if man cannot, they can save what still is saveable; and, on the other, virtuality being what it is, the computer world and, in particular, the Internet is regarded as mystification, on the strength that starvation cannot be fed with calculation. In-between, the challenge is thrown on Boolean algebra to even odds out, wishing to ignore that the odds are no bugs but real.

2.3 A positive inventory

Positive past experience involves no guarantee for continuing overall tranquillity. On the contrary, minor deficiencies tend to grow into bigger predicaments, and one problem solved usually entails a host of unsuspected new ones.

Achievements include a better information array, more (factitious?) creativity and initiative, creation of bridges to riches, coagulation of world-wide interest groups, disciplinary inter-activity(28), (networking in cultural studies belongs to this area). In addition, ideological claims underpin declared expectations of a better understanding among cultures, knowledge sharing, virtual university, research promotion, a smoother working, studying, living together, and, last but not least, the ushering in, through permanent change, of a radically new world society, as though the growing disparities(29) between rich and poor could vanish by the magic wand of a Cyber-Merlin. Prevalent ideology-mongers exert a strong pressure on soberer minds by decrying them as reactionary old fags, anti-anything, a real nuisance to the real world. The propagandists of this ideology will explain away in advance any argument mooted against their idea of progress. Mass media are in charge of bringing this opinion home to even the crankiest die-hard.

All this does not sound too positive, after all.

2.4 A reappraisal of chances

The high expectations put on the Internet rest on six major fallacies(30):

  1. that information and communication furthers democracy before business;
  2. that the public is as intelligent/stupid and predictable in its reactions as technocrats presume;
  3. that the openness of the Net for exchange of information, data, and research findings is tailored to the needs of society and promotes public welfare;
  4. that the system has an intrinsic capacity of self-organisation;
  5. that information brings freedom and emancipation;
  6. that what is said, is believed, and followed to the dot.(31)

It is easy to see how the virtuality of the Net is hypnotising social leaders, politicians, and social scientists alike. The dream has gained industrialists (the so-called language industries, software producers and mass-media trusts &c) who are discovering the virtues of virtuality with good conscience and sometimes reap a succès d'estime.

The dark side of the Net include cyber-widows(32), chat lines, multi-user-dungeons, interactive masturbation, pathological Internet Use (PIU), and Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD)(33), not to mention time-voracity, imprecision and irretrievability of data, and the paranoia of users who vision the Net as a gigantic from-eye-to-eye dialogue, while remaining invisible, unidentifiable, and virtually virtual.

3. Networking

It is true that the Net is a magnificent tool for communication between scientists. This was the actual beginning of the Net adventure, together with military and CERN research needs. It is also true that all science communities, including cultural studies, benefit from the advantages of swift communication offered by the Net. However, it should be clearly seen, especially by those engaged in the study of culture, that the perfect communion, prevalent in the exchange of messages and information between isophants(34), does not warrant by itself an extension of intranet entente to outsiders, even though the latter indulge in similar activities and pre-occupations. Communication is not increased by speed, on the contrary: to arouse interest takes time. A panel would very much mind being disturbed in its closed circuit of interests, its private sphere of "freedom". It rather looks as though the much celebrated "inter-activity" was going to be a flop, the offer of conviviality, of bringing together scattered interests was going to suffer from the private homepage syndrome. To profitably share information it is necessary to share the reference frame, i.e. practical knowledge of the subject-matter. In addition, the personal knowledge of the colleagues concerned and their professional environment will be an advantage. The cohesion envisaged mostly remains a wish-dream mainly because vanishing collective structures level social marks and leave both the informant and his addressee very much disoriented. Little wonder!: one cannot expect order, viz. that of fitting pieces of information nicely together, to arise from disorder, viz. that of the puzzling Net. The trouble is increased by the massive onslaught of information. Indeed, the info-flood breaks in onto masses of non-swimmers. To learn how to keep abreast becomes mandatory for survival. The advantage of the Net is that it is less obtrusive than TV.

In order to make communication work, it is necessary to tune the three elements of information, viz. sender, message, and receiver, so that all three share the same mental environment. Cultural study groups hopefully belong to this category. As long as networking stays within the same mental disposition, it can only be beneficial to all concerned. However, the group cannot expect that 'outgoing' would be easy, that the cultural olive branch bearer would be hailed as a Messiah. The trouble will start as soon as canvassing is undertaken in the name of culture.

Everybody has a claim on culture, everybody knows what culture is and means to him, and especially now, culture implies the hard acquired right to freedom of expression and conscience, i.e. freedom from interference, in particular from annoyance by culture apostles. The trouble is that culture cannot help being ideological. At the same time, cultural studies cannot help viewing culture as a whole, comprising virtually all social manifestations, activities, concerns. There is consequently a great need to get many agents and disciplines involved in cultural studies and networking. In theory, the topical "structure" of the Net should encourage cross-disciplinary communication; whether this is going to be the case, time will tell.

The difficult part in communication is always the receiver. His attitude can be presumed and his opinion solicited in advance, as polls do, but when it comes to the reality of decision, you never can tell what his reaction will be, if he is left free in his choice. It would be an illusion to believe that producers of "communicative matter" ever had any control over how their production was received.(35) The crux is the difficulty in understanding, of language, of sharing the same vision.(36) How quickly can an agreement be reached on all these levels electronically? The requirement of talking the same language can never be taken for granted. Even within the same family, members do not talk the same language. So how to tune the receiver to a message from another galaxy?

In addition, there is the noise of perpetual interference. Noise, like precipitation, is particularly adverse to serene communication. Noise is not only sound but just any disturbance. Research people are sedate and wont to mature reflection. In a quiet surrounding, the outcome may be a surprise, even to them. And networking is exposed to this type of hazard.

3.1 The vices of text

Internet communication, especially networking as envisaged here, is pre-eminently based on text, digitised but nevertheless text. Now a written message, it would seem, is clearer than an oral message, for instance over the telephone. This is by far not the case. Indeed, the intonation, the hums and coughs, the hesitations, the rhythm of speech, the velocity &c. are all guides to understanding, which text does not offer. Textual smilies(37) are only a poor crutch. True, the multimedia industry ambitions to supply sound and imagery, without realising that resistance will be strong, and that preference always goes for text.

This handicap exists and must be seen. It clearly shows that text communication is more awkward than it might appear, that understanding simply is more difficult. The handicap is aggravated by the electronic page. If the receiver of an e-message for whatever reason cannot print it out for leisurely reading and easier understanding, the message is apt not to pass on account of trifles like flickering letters, resulting tearing eyes, head-ache, antipyretic drugs, computer noise, spilled coffee or any other multimedia effect.

In addition, the speed of communication inherent in e-mail contrasts with the precision required by text, which often engenders misgivings. A quick reaction to an impulsive argument may spoil years of patient friendship. Quick contacts evince friends.

The alleged non-linearity of hypertext, the inchoate, incidental nature of docu-info, presented as progressive, is a wild fabric. Text is language which, contrary to optics, cannot help being linear, following sound perception. Hypertext, by jumping from node to node, interrupts linearity only to resume it immediately when starting on a new track of text (info). Even a bit of information is always complete, be it only as a semem. Meaning itself requires linearity, wherever it may be intertwined.

Text is mostly aseptic, neutral, often boring. If a heavy digestion is added, reading predisposes to sleep, especially with the humming help of the computer ventilator. And this is, of course, the end of communication, particularly if parsing is a nightmare to the reader.

Text requires great attention for analysis. Meaning has to be expiscated by checking what is said against the knowledge in the reader's mind. The slightest discrepancy will mar understanding and indispose the reader for further solicitation. It is not his aptitude of understanding which will be over-solicited, but his readiness to co-operate in the transmittal of the written message, if his curiosity is not stirred.

As can be appreciated, networking has to cope with all these adverse factors to streamline the passage of information. Another difficulty has yet to be considered.

4. Knowledge

We have seen what the multimedia can add to text information and with what success for knowledge generation. Knowledge about this process is eminently practical knowledge.

But what is actually meant by knowledge ?

4.1 Knowledge and data

We have already shortly indicated the delicate nature of knowledge. The concepts of information, message, communication, text, meaning, data, all converge to knowledge. Data travel; knowledge, like meaning, does not. We have stated that knowledge is essentially life experience. Which means that knowledge is mainly accumulated in the individual mind. It is stored in memory, the metaphor having been extended to computer data storage and data banks. In addition, knowledge is common life experience of people living together and which is handed down from generation to generation. It is stored in people's heads and in libraries or archives. Hence knowledge is acquired from the past, but has to be constantly updated to be ready for use in the present. It would seem that data banks are better equipped for that than printed thesauri. We have also seen that information is not knowledge, but is liable to become knowledge if conveniently processed.

We have equally seen that in the Internet information is paramount, that the whole communication process is about two opposite poles with a field (message) in-between. There is no knowledge involved in the message, but data.

Now the question is : what is the difference between data and knowledge? As it seems, information in the form of data is in the machine (memory &c.), whereas knowledge is in the head of people. If this is so, then, knowledge networking does not sound correct, since the contents of people's heads cannot be made networking. Or else knowledge has yet another meaning, like memory.

4.2 Knowledge networking

The question is whether data stored in computer memories, banks &c. can be called "knowledge". If it is admitted that libraries store knowledge, there seems no reason to refuse the "knowledge" label to certain data categories stored in computers. Indeed, the ISO norms 11179-3 and 17241 specify, inter alia, various types of information, the main distinction being between data management information and substantive data elements, like term, definition, attribute, representation &c… Such substantive data elements correspond to, for instance, the terminological treatment of concepts, and concepts are, according to another ISO definition(38), units of knowledge. In other words, if concepts can be found stored in computers as data categories, it should be admitted that this implies the storage of knowledge, which can be called up, and followed up electronically. In this sense, it seems correct to speak of "knowledge networking".

However, we have also seen that the computer scene, including the Internet, is a virtual world. This attribute would then also apply to whatever knowledge is stored in and activated by computers. It would be virtual knowledge or, possibly, e-knowledge or cyber-knowledge. But virtual knowledge is no real knowledge. Virtual knowledge actually is nothing but data. So we are back to square one.

An insidious question may now be asked : Is knowledge stored in libraries, i.e. in books, on account of its inactive state, virtual or real knowledge ? (39)

It all depends on what we understand by "virtual". In the ordinary sense of the word, "virtual" means "practical" or "corresponding to actual use but lacking name or title", the opposite would be "real". In this sense, "virtual knowledge" would be a type of knowledge which does the job of knowledge, without having the right to be called "knowledge". A sort of makeshift knowledge or a substitute to serve in case of need. This does not quite seem to fit here.

A possible synonym of "virtual" is "potential", where the meaning would be "inactive but endowed with all the faculties (virtues) inherent in the object and which will deploy as soon as activated". The virtuality of the computer world is not of this order(40), since activation of signs produces only exceptionally, under conditions of a specified protocol, real results, like a modem taking a telephone line. Computer virtuality is more akin to irreality, which can and mostly will mock reality, and yet not lead up to reality.

To sum up, knowledge is stored in brain and computer memory. In both cases it represents a faculty. It awaits activation. The term "knowledge" is awkward inasmuch as it applies to brain storage, whereas it becomes "data" in computer storage. It also applies to collective science, what people "know", although their knowledge is not, or only partly, yours, collectively and individually. The ownership issue seems a clarifying parameter here. There appears to be various "patches" of knowledge, each cultivated and "owned" by someone. His neighbour does the same. Each "cultivator" is called upon to contribute a copy of the product of his efforts to a common fund. Unfortunately, this common fund is also called "knowledge", although it considerably differs from individual knowledge in quantity and quality. It should have another name. The contribution required from each cultivator is free, like child rearing, i.e. no actual price is attached to it and no constraint is exerted to enforce contribution. The major incentive is fame. This stirs cultivators to seek dissemination of their findings, the broader they can disperse the better for their returns of fame. Now the Internet appears an ideal medium for divulgation of private knowledge to enrich the common fund, provided the contributor has no other ambitions but fame and is not famélique.(41)

4.3 Collections

In the past, great efforts have been undertaken to collect the produce of cultivation from as many "patches" as possible and to keep record of it. In the beginning, the collection and storage was easier than now, since knowledge was the monopole of priests and was kept in the temple. It covered both worlds, the virtual beyond and the real down here. At that time the virtual was thought real, and the real (down-to-earth) was thought a delusion. Now things have changed. Virtual knowledge is lost and the real world is thought a dead end. That is why a new virtuality had to be invented to replace the lost knowledge and to delude from the dead end perspective.

After knowledge boiled down to the assessment of earthly things, the collection towards the common fund was periodically undertaken, mostly on private initiative, often with official encouragement. The common fund was eventually called encyclopaedia, meaning a collection of various knowledge "patches", now called disciplines, although the contents will still be called (general) knowledge. Networking was not yet possible then. Now, the Internet could play an important part in the advancement of culture through that of knowledge, by trespassing on neighbouring information patches.

Indeed, what is true of knowledge also applies to culture, where the same distribution between individual and collective ownership prevails, with the same overlappings and diffuse limits, as well as the same handing down by tradition. In fact, knowledge is the mainstay of culture, therefore this similarity. Another common feature of both is the awareness and interest enticing the individual to extend the boundaries of his domain. "His" culture and "his" knowledge grow together, the cultural part being always more comprehensive. Clearly, no individual has ever been able to master all down-traded knowledge, nor was it ever possible to collect all extant knowledge, for the willingness to communicate was not frank in all quarters of cultivation. In addition, as already indicated, much was lost on the way of disappearing civilisations, and much by fire, through the Inquisition or by other autodafés.

5. The maze

The maze called "Internet" represents a dilemma to the individual by both losing and marking him. The maze is a collective endeavour, and the collective never spares the individual : one for all; only totalitarianism reverses the stake. He cannot escape from his fate by hiding, like Ulysses, under a ram's fleece.

5.1 The Cheshire Cat's Smile

Hitherto, the individual had been a centre and vector of knowledge, a sovereign subject of human rights. It now looks as if the electronic age had brought a new order of things, not yet of knowledge, where a new centre was taking shape behind an apparent grid of loci, called hypertextuality, by which the form subjugates substance: a second fall of spirit into matter. The apparent freedom of movement, the appetising opportunity of loitering at will along the maze's avenues does not free the individual from his loneliness(42); on the contrary, the greater the illusion of free festivity, the more readily its unsubstantiality is glossed over (the Barmecide feast), and the individual is dangled about and trapped by his own insignificance.

In addition, the individual in the maze is handled by operators and managers like a patient in a hospital. The subject is treated like an object, a consumer. This is the result of trade invading and exploiting the Net and of the overt catering for the masses, of which Ortega y Gasset featured the mischief as early as 1930(43), and of which Toynbee said a bit later that it was "that vast, cosmopolitan, ubiquitous proletariat which is one of the most portentous by-products of the 'Westernization' of the world"(44). The consumer subject's only admitted function is to pay, cheerfully & unwaveringly. The constraint of mimicry(45) operating forcefully (to keep up with the Jones's) adds to inhibiting thoughtfulness, and rendering the subject a toy of contending aspirations. The drive at enrolling the masses, in the name of democracy, in the communication process of globalisation via the Net is dictated by demagogic if not mercantile considerations. To the technocrats behind this scheme, it is irrelevant that there can be no real communication without education. Technical education can favour mental structures and prepare reflexes, but cannot teach reflection & responsibility. Here turns up again the problem of the message receiver, the learner. A learning process by machine teaching has its limits. And even a good traditional education is no guarantee for maturity to develop, and which mass-production cannot bring about at all. Fallacies resist reasoning. Only blunt failure will evidence them when it is too late.

So it seems that massive information spilled over hundreds of channels and ready-made in the Internet for the masses cannot pass for knowledge in an educated mind, even though "progress" claims that we should be proud of enjoying these "advantages". The renaissance dictum that what matters in education is a cultivated mind rather than a full head (une tête bien faite plutôt qu'une tête pleine) still holds to-day. The future of the Internet is linked up, for good or bad, with the status of the individual within society.

There is not much point in ordering knowledge anew, as it is claimed, if order is going subversive, and the subject required to abdicate in front of an object-oriented dictate. To paraphrase Wittgenstein's vision, instead of the eye focusing the visual field, the reverse is about to occur. No, even worse: The information about the visual field is bound to overshadow the eye-focusing field. With the all-important circuits of information & documentation, a radical change of perspective is claimed to be necessary, a new perception, if not a new conscience of things, as though things could have a conscience, and information a virtue on the strength of its virtual existence.

Progress will have it that the Internet is developing into a planet-wide storehouse of information on things and people, a super-archive, constructed by inter-twinkled nodes of interest linking up with other nodes, and forming a hypertextual network, linking up with other networks (LANs with WANs &c.), with relativity as the only governing principle. Concomitant with the waning of the individual, about to leave but a fainting smily, will be the shelving of absolute values, (replacing actual knowledge by virtual information), scrapping by the same token self-reflection (je pense, donc je suis) on account of irrelevance (the object "self" having fallen into disgrace). It is not yet quite clear what or who is going to replace the subject, for the non-lieu of the subject will just leave a void, and it appears generally admitted, even by the think-tank inability of science(46), that nothing good can come out of nothing. Ex nihilo nihil fit!

The Internet with its lack of centre and its operating mode of dissemination and dispersion of information from scattered sources constitutes a paramount paradigma of non-lieu in Augé's sense.(47) "Non-lieu" means something which does not take place, which is not the case. Now, if "the world is everything which is the case"(48), "non-lieu" is the negation of the whole world of reality (not only of the subject), and inaugurates virtuality in its disembodiment (Körperlosigkeit). Hence, the Internet by its non-locality and apparent discretion lends itself to serve ideally for tracing, out of nowhere, users as they enter and evolve in the maze on the strength of the spottability of every single byte in the world(49), each byte being addressable as needs be. A purposeful byte mapping will transform the world-wide web into an aquarium(50) as a centre of its own, a transparent new world pole. Paradigmatically, a pole is a non-lieu once it is reached.

5.2 Screening

If the maze swallows the individual as did the ogre of the tale, his loss of subjectivity does not impair his identity. Once the individual is digitised or bar-coded, like other items of interest(51), even though he may feel lost in the maze, he will remain traceable. The maze will become a perfect instrument of supervision. Freedom will then be of restricted use, becoming leashed, digitised too. For the underprivileged, the word "freedom" will belong to the past like slavery to-day, if it will not have been eradicated from dictionaries altogether. The Internet is liable to global reorganisation and streamlining around a new invisible centre. The monitor screen will not screen the individual from this centre. Instead, it will be the looking-glass of Snow White's step-mother. What science & fiction have produced thus far will by far be surpassed by a stringent virtuality. The individual will have lost his status and so will have his knowledge and culture. Intelligence will be reduced to Service. Orwell was a visionary whose dating was encoded. An aquarium is a special sort of animal farm adapted for the New Age. It is about time to replace the antiquated Minotaurus.

6. The risk of material loss

Returning from underground, and regarding the conservation of knowledge, it seems clear that under the present circumstances, the more locally concentrated a common fund is, the greater is the risk of loss by accident. This applies to electronic data too. War, fanaticism, and time (oblivion) are fiends to human knowledge. UNESCO, well aware of this hazard, drew up and implemented several protective and preventive instruments for safeguarding mankind's cultural heritage, including knowledge. (Information about this could also be a networking item for cultural studies).

It is always wise not to keep all eggs in one basket. Diversification remains good policy also for data channelled through the Internet, and which by nature are volatile and therefore apt to vanish at the first occasion of pressing a wrong button.

A good deal of tradition has been lost, however, by tear and wear, by the disappearance of cultivators, by carelessness, wantonly. What is true of ordinary knowledge also concerns the virtual sector.

Yet another major drawback of virtuality is to be considered : the eminently ephemeral character of electronic data and storage. The hazard of loss of data by incompetent handling, power breakdown, hard disk crashes, virus action &c. is a current experience. But even when nothing of the sort endangers the life of data, these can always vanish from their support with time. To prevent this, only a careful maintenance of data, duplication, safeguarding will diminish the risk of loss. The Internet offers many facilities to achieve preservation, but it is a facetious caretaker. Who cannot complain about lost messages, irretrievable data, indistinct addressees, vanished text updates, swallowed comments? In addition, the speed of handling data invites not reflection but revision, so that several versions may compete if they do not disappear in the same disaster.

The safest keeping is the print-out on traditional paper to be stored fire, dust, light, and water proof.

A fundamental preservative issue is the question of cultural relevance, for in the flood of information swamping the Net a great deal will present no interest. As Postman put it in 1990, "information is divorced from the solution of problems […] our information immune system is inoperable…we suffer from a kind of cultural AIDS"(52). The "explosion of context-free information"(53), representing the bane of technology for human issues, renders selection despairingly vain. But one should think of the loss caused to human knowledge by the fanatic arson of the Alexandrian library. Whenever the authority of the author is lost, culture may cause a scandal, be it only by its absence. The Internet knows of no authority (freedom is its standard!). So no selection will ever be possible to salvage "pertinent" from scrappable information.

7. Cultural Internet-users

Inter-activity by Internet-users will remain caught up in the ghetto of specific networks. Therefore, little community work, if any, is likely to be done outside the group. The rest of the virtual, let alone the real, world has to remain taboo. Such an activity is socially and culturally sterile. Endeavours should be made to change this state of things. However, what is the point of interactive communication when collective values are spurned, when equals intrinsically have nothing to exchange? A clone lacks interest for another clone. Typically, most mobile conversations convey zero-content messages, whereby the rating is anyway very relative. It is tempting to infer from such a low rating that the outer poles of communication, viz. sender and receiver, must be similarly tuned. The trifles exchanged are irrelevant to the mobile's seller and network manager whose only concern is the cash produced. The Internet's commercial stakes are likely to largely offset its cultural potentialities, exposed to the effects of Gresham's law(54): triviality will drive out dialogue.

Culture has little political appeal. The only power culture could mobilise is public opinion if it had not such a bad taste. The question remains open whether the masses are prepared to see their interest in culture. They may feel that they have little to lose, if it is not entertainment. But then again, the trash/cash argument, developed above, will obtain, as apparent in the world trade haggle, where the cultural exception is a stiffly negotiated waver to keep interlopers out and the local scene clean. Every society's culture can only gain by diversity from within and from outside its own structures. As long as the Internet is taken for what it still is, viz. a highly efficient though disorderly communication platform with no other ambitions, it is worth trying to use the Net's offer for staging real exchanges of cultural information for the exchange partners' mutual understanding. The quest of the Golden Fleece belongs to the past. Cultural Internet-users should strive for an acknowledgement of cultural concerns.

Man has never appeared so free, in space if not in time, even though this freedom is only virtual. Normally, freedom is concomitant with responsibility, namely that for one's own deeds and omissions, for one's neighbour, and for one's environment. Virtuality will not excuse this commitment. Therefore, the Internet-user has to be constantly on the watch and keep in mind that virtuality creates illusions of which he will have to free himself, or else the Internet will be nothing but a Barmecide feast for him and his crew with a terrible awakening in store.

In conclusion, the Internet, conceived as an elitist instrument for professional communication, has quickly emancipated from its ivory tower to go popular & succeed in catering for unsuspected needs, satisfying innovating aspirations, & seemingly reconcile massive with individual interests. Youngsters & old people alike find enjoyment in the Net, & are getting used to technicalities which distract them from more essential queries about their vital prospects. Nobody wants to see that the Internet seems to reproduce, in an updated form, conditions of the 1815 Viennese congress, when Prince Metternich and his aids and abettors organised gorgeous festivities, and, while saying "let them dance", cut Europe into Biedermaier blocks for easier handling, as was done later-on with similar effects at Yalta and at Maastricht. The dice are cast, not only for Europe. Culture is bound to share the individual's fate, for culture, like knowledge, needs a subject. Time will tell whether the Net eventually did not catch the busy buzz, la mouche du coche.

Relations are the cement of culture. Exchange of goods and ideas went along routes, took place by caravans, caravels, trucks, planes. Exchange was real and localised. Routes became cables, cables beams, goods data. Virtuality has taken over to assume communication, to satisfy the craving for exchange, ever more dislocated to nowhere, dissolving into a festive illusion. Culture is getting at a gravitational loss, baffled by the non-lieu of commonplace. The Internet is liable to dispose of the subject and his knowledge by boiling them down to data elements. But the subject is hard to get under as long as he is allowed freedom of thought. It may still look to innocent minds as if the Internet could serve as a manifold for channels of communication to make good use of this freedom for spiritual advancement, which is a personal, not a collective concern, although all could gain from it.

Absit omen!

© Herbert Eisele (Paris)

TRANS        table of contents: No.10


(1) The Oxford English Dictionary (OED):" Barmecide (Giver of benefits that are) illusory, imaginary, disappointing.[name of Arabian-Nights prince whose feast to beggar was rich dish-covers with nothing below]." Rhetoric, like publicity, implies an alluring envelop for a poor if not zero content. The Barmecide was substantially deceptive, whereas rhetoric or publicity deceive pro forma, and few are those who are trapped, since the virtual promise is rarely taken at its face value. Reality rectifies belying virtuality.

(2) Cf. Informationen über Information, ed..H.v.Ditfurth, Hoffmann & Campe vg. Hamburg 1969, pp.13-22. "to make redundancy fit the aim, is one of the main tasks of the whole information theory".

(3) Berichtswirklichkeit ist zur Wirklichkeit, was das Abbild (Spiegel, Photo, Gemälde) zum Gegenstand ist.

(4) Even contrarily to what the OED claims "informing, telling; thing told, knowledge, items of knowledge ..." Knowledge, like meaning, does not travel and hence cannot be transmitted, despite of what the fiction will have it. Knowledge has to be gained, since it is life-experience. That is why "knowledge networking" is a debatable issue.

(5) Tesserae is the material mosaics consist of.

(6) Maier-Rabler, Ursula, Strukturwandel der Wissensproduktion. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. WWW: (Chapter 4: Informationskulturen). Last access to this and all further mentioned WWW sources 2001-07-02.

(7) Which are: 1° news, 2° services, 3° entertainment, and 4° information conducive to virtual knowledge.

(8) "Die Wüste Internet" by Clifford Stoll, Fischer, Ffm. Oct. 1999, 346 pp.

(9) Welt ohne Wege, WoW! verkörpert das Wesen des Netzes; durch seine unendliche hohe Info-Dichte ist es vergleichbar mit einem Schwarzen Loch im All, das unser räumliches Verstellungsvermögen schachmatt setzt. Florian Felix Weyh, Internet, dtv kleine philosophie der passionen, dtv München, Mai 2001, p.56.

(10) Loc cit. & mare digitalium quoted on p.67.

(11)Quoted by F.F.Weyh, p. 28.

(12) Start-ups have met, sometimes at a loss, this challenge. Rumpelstilzchen is said to have contrived this…

(13) Dear to McLuhan, who is best known for coining the phrase "the medium is the message," which became popular in the 1960s. He argued that in each cultural era the medium in which information is recorded and transmitted is decisive in determining the character of that culture. McLuhan also believed that the linking of electronic information media would create an interconnected "global village."Source: Encarta 97, McL.

(14) Sculpture by Pygmalion which Venus endowed with life under the instant prayers of the sculptor, a raging woman-hater, who then had to confront the virtuality of his work and hatred with the functional reality of life.

(15) The Internet has no central control, that is no single computer directs the flow of information. This differentiates the system from other types of online computer services. Source: Encarta 97 Internet.

(16) "and the whole world followed the beast with wonder"... Rev.13.3.

(17) Cf. Dominique Wolton avec Olivier Jay, Internet. Petit manuel de survie, Flammarion, Paris, 2000, p.135.

(18) The explosive growth of the Internet has raised significant censorship issues. A call for voluntary standards among Internet providers came in response to the growing number of web sites with text and graphics denigrating minorities, promoting racist views, or containing sexually explicit material. The Communications Decency Act was signed into law in 1996 making it a crime for service providers to transmit indecent material over the Internet. This decision resulted in an immediate outcry from users, industry experts, and civil liberties groups opposed to such censorship and the law was challenged then blocked in June 1996 by a panel of Federal judges. The panel described the Internet as a never-ending worldwide conversation that deserved the highest protection from government intrusion. Source loc.cit.Fn8 supra.

(19) Offering pre-eminently sex, junk, and trash (das Schrott, Schutt & Schund-Angebot) C.Stoll cit. p.36.

(20) FAQ=frequently asked question.

(21) The Columbine Massacre was the outlet of a hate campaign by a high-school web site. E.g. DaHiller [Hillside College Magazine] WWW: (details at: DaHiller, Look Closer, "School Shootings Caused by Schools"[2001]: WWW: or Drudge Report WWW: (details at: Drudge Report, Fri Sept 15, 2000, filed by Matt Drudge, WWW: or Boston Public, WWW: supply examples of how this medium can wield a mischievous power and become a nuisance, if not a real nightmare, to some by disclosing or inventing rumours which under normal circumstances would come under the law of libel, & this despite the defensive action of i.e. the US "Student Press Law Center".

(22) "Man cannot live by technology alone" in Arnold J.Toynbee, Civilization on trial, Oxford University Press, 1948, p.91.

(23) Cf. What Computers still can't do: a critique of Artificial Reason, by Hubert L. Dreyfus, quoted by C.Stoll p.344.

(24) Mt.10.24

(25) Or les taxis de la Marne in the 1st World War.

(26) Cf. p.72 of op.cit. in FN2 on p.2 supra.

(27) International agreements are, as a rule, typically reached by consensus, disregarding the moral coercion exerted by the sweeping force of the majority, which browbeats the reluctant who is stampeded down.

(28) Not interdisciplinary activity!

(29) The Net, together with other rapid means of communication, favours financial speculation and the Stock Exchange is getting ever more excited by the cyber-economy, diverting ever more funds from real to virtual investments; after all, the whole stock-market scene is a virtual dream liable to turn into a nightmare in a jiffy.

(30) Cf. Dominique Wolton avec Olivier Jay, op. cit. pp.83-110.

(31) This fallacy works only on the assumption that people behave intelligently. The effectiveness of publicity seems to belie the "truth" of this fallacy.

(32) C.Stoll, op.cit. p.46.

(33) F.F.Weyh, op.cit. p.100.

(34) Adept of same creed, school of thought, scientific circle; formed on "iso" same, and "phantes" informer, i.e. feeding on the same information; model: sycophant; another idea could be isofan, meaning someone dying for the same madness. Our culture is much in need of a vocabulary following the craze of "modernity".

(35) "Das Sender-Empfänger-Modell hat ausgedient" (source Maier-Rabler op.cit., A completely invented model; it never existed. The issue of power changing from the knowledgeable (Wissen ist Macht) teacher to the demanding learner is a market development which the education-sector has to cope with, but it does not substantiate an intrinsic communication model.

(36) Can I explain the Friend to one for whom He is no Friend? Rumi, Jalal al-Din Muhammad (1207-1273), Persian mystic and poet, whose verse is permeated by elements of Sufism (Encarta 97).

(37) :-), ;-), :-( &c.

(38) ISO 1087 rev.2000.

(39) Jonathan Swift raised this issue with his Balnibarbian sages carrying their knowledge in books on their back.

(40) I.e. does not deal with real objects, disregarding what software calls objects, which are virtual.

(41) I.e. half-starved.

(42) "Eine der Verheißungen des Internet ist die kurzfristige Zusammenarbeit ohne persönliche Treffen. Klingt einsam wie Feuersichter auf einem Berggipfel in Neu-Mexico oder auf dem Beobachtungsposten eines Militärstützpunktes auf den Alëuten". C. Stoll op.cit. p.155.

(43) The Revolt of the Masses (1930; trans. 1932); the author decries the destructive influence of mass-minded, and therefore mediocre, people, who, if not directed by the intellectually and morally superior minority, encourage the rise of totalitarianism. Enc. The despicable nature of the masses is a litterary commonplace handed down from the Atlantis, but with the French Revolution, the boomerang effect of the scorn shew up.

(44) Op.cit. FN16 on p.5 supra, p.201.

(45) Girard, René, Je vois Satan tomber comme l'éclair, Grasset Paris, 1999, pp.15-16, 18, 286.

(46) Cf. p.5 supra.

(47) Marc Augé, Non-lieux, Introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité, Le Seuil, Paris, 1992.

(48) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus logico-philosophicus. Inception (1.).

(49) Cf. Maier-Rabler op.cit. (Das Ende der Linearität, esp. Chapter 3.2)

(50) Aquaria are known for their transparency.

(51) Interest has always been the governing principle in "palatability". If the right motivation button is pressed, the bait is swallowed hook, line, & sinker. The bar-code has been introduced "for a free (better) circulation of goods", not only in the Common Market, where it started, but world-wide. The second stage is already scheduled and announced. It is the (now European Union) principle of "free circulation of people". Parents are already "advised" to have their children encoded "to protect them (like cars) against kidnapping". It will not be long before kids will only be admitted to the Internet playground with the required personal identification code. Freedom thy name is treason!

(52) Postman, Neil, Informing ourselves to death, WWW: quoted by Antonio Sousa Ribeiro in Information oder Wissen? Kulturwissenschaften im digitalen Zeitalter in TRANS No. 3/1998. WWW:

(53) Postman, Neil, Technopoly. The Surrender of Culture to Technology, New York, Vintage Books, 1993, quoted by Sousa Ribeiro, loc.cit.

(54) "Bad money drives out good money". Geplapper vertreibt den Dialog C. Stoll, op.cit. p.317.

For quotation purposes:
Herbert Eisele: The Internet - a Barmecide Feast?. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 10/2001.

TRANS     Webmeisterin: Angelika Czipin     last change: 05.07.2001