communications networks often have paradoxical effects.
On the one hand, the Internet has given huge organizations the
power to extend and/or consolidate an international reach. Supra-national
groups such as the World Trade Organization, for instance, can
better coordinate and police international trade policy thanks
to instantaneous, world-wide communications. To use another example,
transnational corporations are able to coordinate global sales
efforts from their home base. The basic principle in both cases
is that computer networks make it easier to control vast enterprises
from a central location.
the other hand, the Internet has given small organizations the
ability to resist its centralizing powers. The protests in Seattle
and Washington demonstrate this idea: international communication
was employed to develop essentially local actions. The basic principle
in this case (which appears a lot in business literature) is to
bring groups of people together for small-scale, individual projects,
have them disband once the project is over and have them come
together in different configurations for the next project.
paradox is that digital communications facilitates both international
and local action. It only appears to be a paradox, though: look
a little deeper, and you find that in both cases, communication
facilitates organization. Scale is irrelevant.
with such apparent contradictions, it always helps to remind ourselves
of Alan Turing's other important thought experiment. Turing, the
British mathematician who is considered one of the parents of
the modern computer, is perhaps best known for the "Turing Test"
of artificial intelligence ("If it talks like a human being, for
all intents and purposes it is a human being"). He also developed
a theory for what has come to be called the "Universal Machine."
a machine that runs on a set of discrete commands ("Add x to y,"
"If a = b, go to command 27," and so on). Turing's insight was
that any machine built to follow discrete commands could do the
same thing as any other. Taken to its logical conclusion, if we
could build an infinitely large machine, it could do anything
that any smaller machine could do.
(whether based on silicon or some other material) is the closest
we are likely to come to a Universal Machine. Up to the limits
of its memory (and setting aside the reality of proprietary systems),
one computer can do anything another computer can do. Moreover,
as computers become increasingly networked, their cumulative power
makes them collectively behave more and more like a Universal
are surprised at the rapidity with which computers are infiltrating
modern society do not appreciate this aspect of the machines.
We are now finding that large amounts of human experience can
be reduced to discrete sets of logical commands, which brings
them under the aegis of the Universal Machine. (Much is lost in
this process, as anybody with a unique problem who has had to
deal with computer-driven lists of phone options can attest. But
that is the subject of another article!)
in the way digital communications technologies are applied disappear
when we understand that all contradictory behaviours are subject
to the same kinds of discrete logical processes that make them
part of the Universal Machine. This should be good news for local
activists, since, all other things being equal, it gives them
the same tools to organize as the largest institutions, whether
corporations or governments.
take culture. On the one hand, monolithic corporations seem to
dominate the world. AOL-Time Warner is the most obvious example
of a company which sells cultural products in a wide variety of
media to an increasingly global audience. The fact that America
Online, a new media company, bought Time Warner, an old media
company, emphasizes the idea that digital communications networks
are central to its business.
At the other
end of the spectrum there is the International Network for Cultural
Diversity (INCD). The INCD, a non-partisan network of more than
160 countries from almost 30 countries, grew out of a 1998 UNESCO
conference that recognized the threat to cultural diversity posed
by globalization and recommended the creation of global networks
to support cultural diversity. The INCD encourages governments
to adopt policies and programs which support diverse artistic
and cultural activities, which the organization believes is a
fundamental part of human society.
INCD recently launched a Web site as part of its organizing
activities. The site includes discussion papers on the subject
of cultural diversity, a list where individuals can add their
input and information about the founding conference of the Network,
which will take place in Greece in September 2000. (In the interests
of full disclosure, I should say that I did some promotional work
for the Web site.)
groups come into conflict at the level of international trade
agreements. AOL-Time Warner benefits from the relaxation of trade
barriers, which allows it to sell its products more easily throughout
the world. The INCD argues that culture and the arts are too important
to be left to market forces, that global corporations are undermining
local cultures with their products. Its position, then, is that
culture and the arts should be exempted from international trade
arguments which only rarely get heard in the mainstream media,
which not only are ideologically pro-business, but, being large
businesses themselves, have a considerable financial stake in
the outcome of the debates. The Internet gives those whose interests
conflict with these corporations the chance to be heard.
the best arguments will sway public policy.
© 2000 Ira Nayman All Rights Reserved
is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Program of Communications at
McGill University. Since the beginning of the century, he has
been an Associate of the ByDesign Elab, founded by former University
of Toronto McLuhan Program Associate Liss Jeffrey. He is also
a screenwriter who recently finished the 14th episode of an original
television series, Forever Live and Die. He can be reached
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