Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juni 2004

10.2. Cyberspace - die Verbundenheit der Differenz: Kommunikation ohne Grenzen
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Gerald Ganglbauer (Sydney)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Cyberspace - Much More than Computers

Sylvia Petter (Genf)


I must preface this talk with the comment that the views in this paper are my own and in no way involve any obligation on the part of the International Telecommunication Union.

As an Australian in "Francafonia" and a wannabe writer, I was exposed to the net through my day job at the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva. When I started writing in 1993 I went online to a Writing Group on CompuServe. These were pre-web days and there was the excitement of something new.

Through online writing groups I made cybermates and professional acquaintances and some of those friendships spilled over into real life. Others remained virtual but have endured, like the one with Gerald Ganglbauer in my hometown, Sydney, who after almost 7 years in cyberspace I met here in Vienna for the first time. Contacts were made with other writers and with editors of budding ezines. Some disappeared, like real people do, and others moved on and then reappeared. Zines were born and others folded, just like the shops and the boutiques in town.

But the difference has been that we have come together from all over the world, have shared our viewpoints, have learned from each other. Just this year I received a request from Jim, an old cybermate in Puerto Rico, to whom I'd submitted work back in 1995. A ten-year-old boy from Indiana was doing a school project and sending a hard copy journal all over the US. Would I help his journal have an adventure? The journal has been to France, Switzerland, Austria, England, Germany and Australia, with its last route back to Indiana, USA, via Connecticut and Alabama. Cybermates from the most different of backgrounds, through their love of writing, had remained close enough to enable a hardcopy school project and give a new spin to what can be done thanks to Cyberspace.

In July 2002, I addressed PrepCom1 of the World Summit on the Information Society in its Civil Society segment on Art and Culture. Many of the things I said then I still hold today, just one month before the Summit itself will assemble stakeholders from government, the private sector and civil society in Geneva.

The Internet has given me, as a writer, access to a readership to which I would not have had access through traditional means. The Internet has allowed me to leapfrog the hurdles of distance and time zones, bringing me together with those who share my interests in different parts of the world and enabling me to share the things I've discovered.

Leapfrogging, which I just mentioned, is a word used often in these days dictated by speed and the need to catch up. I can remember the first time, as a child, that I tried to leapfrog. It wasn't easy. I got stuck. I fell. And I was lucky in that there were others around to help me and give me the confidence I needed.

I have a friend from Burkina Faso. He is a young man, a teacher and a poet. His dream is to set up a Print-On-Demand (POD) publishing service so that the children in his village can read stories. When I said, "We can send you stories", his answer was: "We want to write our own stories. Our children want to read the stories of our culture. We want our culture to live alongside other cultures." My friend has a dream: a project for producing school books at affordable prices using digital techniques such as POD. POD provides copies of paperback books in numbers from one to however many one wants.

There are many literary efforts on the Web and poets and writers are pushing the boundaries of form. One example is hypertext literature that plays with the myriad possibilities of links.

But I want to look at things from a simpler perspective. I can access the Web and find many works in the public domain. I can find literary magazines that showcase the works of contemporary writers, to which I can submit my own work.

But what about those who live in places where Internet connections are neither widespread nor reliable, and for whom it is very expensive to have such access? People in such places, and also in others, who want their writing to be seen, can do so only through traditional submission means, by snail mail and costly International Reply Coupons (IRCs). And what about writers in far-flung places who have jewels in their minds they want desperately to polish and to share? For many, economics and technology stand in the way, but that is not all.

Let us imagine that the technology goes ahead and that the global family of writers, all different in our own unique ways, yet all joined by our love of the story, can come together. There is still perhaps another divide to overcome. That divide is based on the fear of the technology.

That fear can be changed through learning, through finding out what is "out there". It can also be defeated if we can accept that the Web, like the world, is what we make of it. The Web is a rich soil for nurturing labours of love, and there is much generosity and cross-fertilisation. I was part of an online writing group for a very intense three-year period. Just recently I rediscovered my old writing Boot Camp in a new format, its leader, the UK short-story writer, Alex Keegan, giving as generously of his knowledge as always, in the same in-your-face way, and still doing what he has done for years, namely, teaching those who really want to write how they can improve their craft.

But, it is not just a matter of having access to the technology; it is a matter of how that technology is used. There is also the aspect of attitudes to the technology. Writers have a role to play and must make their voices heard so that "globalisation" can mean reaching out with our stories and poems and listening in our mind's eye to those of other writers, in the interest of disseminating cultural content and contributing towards making the global village a vibrant, dynamic, multicultural place to be.

Our exposure to a changing world through travel, news and the Internet cannot but influence the way we see things in one way or another. Already, here, globalisation is at work, in the sense of coming from all over the globe, from different cultures, and thus influencing to some extent the stories we may write.

Another old friend, John Ravenscroft , from that same writing Boot Camp lists his story publications on his website linked to the texts in the zines in which they appear. He was recently approached by a person in India who loved his stories. John couldn't go to India to read, so his web stories were read to a rapt audience for him. This, I believe, is reaching out, coming closer through cyberspace, but not actually staying there. And so things go round. Stories seen on the web are read to listeners in a way so close to the age-old ways of all our own cultures - through storytelling. Indeed, he was told: "They loved you, John, and they loved your words. Do keep writing more and more for all of us, your new body of fans in India."

So, let me come to the final divide, which I feel is that of the mind. If an online literary magazine of renown or a simple labour of love make it possible for writers from different cultures to reach out to a universal readership, we surely cannot turn up our noses and say this is not the "real" thing. Also, university publishers of creative and scholarly work can break down the barriers of economics and distance by sharing their findings online and through POD. What use is it to just share with the initiated in our university programmes when we could reach out and make such works accessible to people from all over the world who may wish to know.

We writers, artists and scholars need to share our ideas, our fears and our hopes in the context not only of access to the technology, but of the use that is made of that technology as a bridge for sharing the way we see the world, as a chart for our voyage into humanity. But we mustn't forget that cyberspace has its dark sides, just as the real world has its dark sides. This is all the more apparent today as cyberspace moves from an either or position to an integral part of our modern, or perhaps post-modern, world. And here we see that it is not just computers, it is not just tools, and it is not just bandwidth. Here we see how we as humans can use the tools, the uses we make of the technology. The transparency of cyberspace must be maintained and our media must not just point to the negative in their thirst for the sensational press. What computers do is show what is out there; human beings, however, must answer the questions, explain the numbers.

When UNESCO, in 1999, proclaimed 21 March as World Poetry Day, it did so in an effort to help meet some of the "unfulfilled aesthetic needs" of our present world. "Poetry can meet this need if its social role of interpersonal communication is recognized and it continues to be the means of arousing and expressing awareness." What better place for poetry to reach out than in cyberspace?

The Japanese futurist Taichi Sakaiya wrote, "Survival dictates that human beings . . . develop ethics and aesthetics that favour exploiting fully those resources that exist in abundance...." Some of us already have such abundance, while others do not.

And now I would like to step back for a moment from a feeling of "urgency" that I note from discussions on communications technology and reflect on a quote from David Eide's SunOasis 2002 email newsletter: "... what is the vision for the future? Writers writing with extraordinary resource, depth, and meaning to audiences who respond in a digital system where these things are exchanged quickly and substantially. But where one can opt out at any time and slow the pace down and meditate and reflect and bring life up to a fine ripeness. Where the cultural medium becomes meaningful and stimulating as nature is meaningful and stimulating. Where there is truth telling and not rationalising. Where principles of design and construction are central rather than salesmanship."

The World Summit on the Information Society, at which UNESCO is also represented, will set the process for the information society it is presumed we all want. The technology is already there, the money is already available, what is still missing is the political will, the will to share, the will to really reach out and enable that reaching out to be able to touch all people.

The big arguments, however, are not those of the technology, but rather the hot potatoes of free expression and security. And it is here where the need for closeness out of difference becomes more and more vital. It is not enough to develop programs to block undesirable information, what is necessary is education, that of adults as well as of children. What is necessary are forums in which commitments are made rather than lip service given, commitments towards a real information society that is inclusive. On this eve of the Geneva Summit, I have noted the absence from the World Summit process of individual artists and researchers. Does this mean that the final framework being worked out for the information society may erect barriers to creativity due to those last barriers of the mind that still must grapple with varying attitudes to security and expression? Or does it mean that artists and researchers may also suffer from a fear of sharing in a space that is only beginning to realise its own potential? Are we bound by our own imposed rules where copyright translates into a fear of plagiarism or being ripped off? Have we really seen things in the perspective of our own possibilities?

The arts and social sciences belong to an area that can help develop ethics and aesthetics and maintain a sense of community and beyond as we all spill onto the global map. Cyberspace is now an integral part of our world in which there are no longer any borders. It is an exhilarating and also a scary place, one in which we all have enormous possibilities for sharing our cultures and understanding those of others in the interests of all humankind.

© Sylvia Petter (Genf)

10.2. Cyberspace - die Verbundenheit der Differenz: Kommunikation ohne Grenzen

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Sylvia Petter (Genf): Cyberspace - Much More than Computers. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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