To Bit Or Not To Bit


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To Bit Or Not To Bit

  1. 1. Jennifer WallaceTheory of InteractionProf. Moulthroup To Bit or Not to Bit… When it comes to knowledge, how can one truly claim to have an unbiasedopinion? Modern day intellectuals ride the fence, condemn or condone humanity and itslove affair with technology. One thing all can agree on is the exponentially increasingimportance of knowledge, information and intelligence — everything else has become apassing derivative. Pierre Levy, in Collective Intelligence and Cyberculture, argues thatthe knowledge space is the new anthropological space, the latest addition to the chain ofthe earth space, territorial space, and the commodity space. Levy’s portrayal of the role ofcollective intelligence is hard to refute as he cuts all critics off as representing eithertranscendent schools of thought —those that objectify humans under some a priorirepresentation of the good — and as mechanical and conservative — trying to maintaincurrent hierarchies of discourse and power. Although Levy offers intelligent insight on anumber of issues concerning culture and technology, Levy also suffers from cogitointerruptus, which is “typical of those who see the world inhabited by symbols orsymptoms — indubitable signs of something that is neither here below nor up above, butthat sooner or later will happen.” (Hyperreality, 222) In the words of Umberto Eco, arespected professor of semiotics, those who embrace symbols and symptoms neglect “toarticulate equations, for cogito interruptus demands that symbols and symptoms be flungby the handful, like confetti, and not lined up, bookkeeper style, like little balls on anabacus.” (Ibid, 223) In his analysis of the commodity space and knowledge space, Levyincorrectly groups issues of power and issues of pure causality, or at least oversimplifies
  2. 2. the situation, barricading any refutation of his theory by employing clever instances ofcogitus interruptus.COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE In his work by the same name, Levy defines collective intelligence as “universallydistributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting inthe effective mobilization of skills,” its goal being “the mutual recognition andenrichment of individuals rather than the cult of fetishized or hypostatized communities.”(CI, 13) Eco sees Levy, himself, as a fetishizer of mass culture. Eco defines a type ofscholar, the integrated intellectual, as one who sees the results of mass media as makinginformation processing pleasurable and easy, “with the result that we live in an age inwhich the cultural arena is at last expanding to include the widespread circulation of a‘popular’ art and culture in which the best compete against each other.” (ApocalypsePostponed, 18) Eco sees Levy’s use of collective intelligence as a “positive fetishizing”of mass culture: “The integrated intellectual produces for the masses, plans masseducation, and in that way collaborates in the process of massification.” (Ibid, 25) Levywould wholeheartedly not agree, saying that self-organized knowledge communitiesconsist of individual producers and consumers, but in a non-hierarchical and universallylateral group. Levy’s argument waxes vague as he fails to draw the line between groupand mass. In order to recognize individuality and subjectivity, Levy says humans need newforms of social identity constructed by a knowledge culture, for ethnic, national andreligious forms of kinship have led to confrontation. By forming relationships through
  3. 3. knowledge, Levy claims “we will encourage the growth of a deterritorialized civility thatcoincides with contemporary sources of power while incorporating the most intimateforms of subjectivity. (CI, 11)ROLE OF COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE In the chapter of Cyberculture titled “Critique of Criticism,” Levy states thatcyberspace won’t change power relations and economic inequalities. In the sameparagraph he cryptically asserts: By increasing market transparency and promoting direct transactions between buyers and sellers, there is little doubt that cyberspace will facilitate a ‘liberal’ evolution of the economy of information and knowledge, and very likely the overall operation of the economy.” (214)In the cycle of collective intelligence, “the state and current structures of governmentcould be maintained, providing their functions are redefined…they would become theguardians, guarantors, administrators, and executants of collective intelligence.” (Ibid,73) If a government’s functions are redefined, especially by a scenario that displaces thefocus on capital by a universal embrace of collective intelligence, one can hardly say thatcurrent structures would be maintained. A government’s role in Levy’s world ofcollective intelligence, even if it were to operate under extremely liberal conditions,would still hinder the laterality needed for the full realization of this utopian ideal. Levy admits that universalization and virtualizing tendencies correspond to anincrease in financial inequality and a widening gap between the universally connectedand non-participants; however, he feels that the emerging collective intelligenceaugmented by cyberculture will be considered in a positive enough light that humans willredirect their formerly “labor-intensive” (under a capital-centered regime) energy and
  4. 4. skills towards the sustenance of a dominating knowledge space — the maintenance andpropagation of the collective intelligence. “Collective intelligence will become the sourceand goal of other forms of wealth, open and incomplete, a paradoxical output that isinternal, qualitative, and subjective. Collective intelligence will be the infinite product ofthe new economy of the human.” (Ibid, 35) If knowledge is the traded product, the thingof value, there will still be haves and have-nots, especially because of this “unstableuniverse,” where ones’ skill sets constantly need to be upgraded to compete in theknowledge sector. Networking, as long as humans have needs other than cognitive thatmust be met, will remain a significant part of survival. Theodore Roszak, a scholar of the school that Eco would classify as“apocalyptics,” sees a diminished value of humans brought on by cyberspace andtechnology, “Computers have come to play a central role in downsizing companies and inthe creation of a part-time, temporary, low-paid, non-benefited workforce. The brutaleconomic fact of life in today’s marketplace is that we could generate more good jobs byoutlawing computers than by multiplying them.” (Roszak, The Cult of Information,xxxviii) Granted, Levy asserts that humanity must release the anthropological space ofcommodity from the fetters of capitalism, but using the arts of cogitus interruptus, — oridealism — fails to articulate how this can be done.THE GOOD AND THE BEST GETS UGLY Levy states, “Collective intelligence is a utopia of the unstable and the multiple. Itresponds to an ethics of the best rather than a morality of the good...The good doesn’tchange, the best is different wherever it is found” (CI, 250) Unlike this promotion of the
  5. 5. entrepreneurial best, in an earlier chapter Levy promotes the concept of good: “Anything,therefore, that causes the growth of human beings would be judged good, and primarilymoral: dignity, recognition, communication, collective intelligence.” (Ibid, 28) If every niche of collective intelligence members has its own idea of what is bestand tries to apply this universally, how can doom not prevail? In order for Levy ‘s idealof collective intelligence to work literally every member would have to synchronize, eventhough each is supposed to focus on increasing his individuality and subjectivity. ForLevy: The just man includes, he integrates, he repairs the social fabric. In a society of the just, and in accordance with the conventions of a reciprocity, everyone strives to include the other. In a world where everything is in flux, in which everyone is faced with change, hospitality, the morality of nomads and migrants, becomes the very essence of morality.” (Ibid, 26) Hierarchy and power relations cannot be supplemented by Levy’s concept of apure form of strength. Levy defines strength as purely good, and power somethingmeasured by its ability to limit strength, destroy, and create fear. Furthermore, “Power isboisterous; it prevents the community from communicating with itself. Power comes intobeing and sustains itself only by impoverishing the qualities of being around it. The justavoid power. (Ibid, 28) Aside from the overgeneralizations Levy makes, Levy uses a very negative andone-dimensional view of power to fuel his campaign for a liberated knowledge space.Clearly the influences of Giles Deleuze and Paulo Fieire present themselves in Levy’spresentation of power, while he neglects to explain how power, as a social influence,would still be present in his web of collective intelligence. Towards the end of Collective Intelligence, Levy states:
  6. 6. “Because of the diversity of human worlds, calculation of the best cannot be aligned with a monodimensional good, one that is molar, solid, and transcendent. A single good for everyone and for all moments (even those of a commercial nature), blocking the emergence of new forms of strength, would obviously no longer be the good.” (Ibid, 84)Here Levy has the good asserting power since it is impeding strength, which earlier wasseen as purely good, thus contradicting his earlier dichotomy between strength andpower.THE COSMOPOEDIA Levy defines the new organizational method of the knowledge space as thecosmopedia: “…A dynamic and interactive multidimensional representational space…at its extreme the cosmopedia contains as many semiotics and types of representation as exist in the world itself. The cosmopedia multiplies nondiscursive utterances… the cosmopedia will dematerialize the boundaries between different types of knowledge.” (Ibid, 216)Yes, in interacting with ones environment the significance and relevance of objects donot remain the same; as Jim Gee remarks, humans must constantly construct context in areal-time scenario, assigning value judgments on the fly. But this is merely exercising thepower of reason, which can be represented by Levy’s “unbroken, dynamic topology.”(Ibid, 217) Isn’t thinking defined as the processing and organization of informationfollowed by filing it into associational and relational categories? There is an undeniableranking of objects, ideas and actions with which humans must deal daily; if we treated allinformation as potentially equal, either nothing would be accomplished or we woulddelete ourselves from the knowledge space rather quickly.
  7. 7. THE CINEMAP To apply Levy’s ideas to present reality, a task Levy abhors as chaining thepotential of the free and ideal knowledge space to the current constraints of thecommodity space, it is possible to deflate his claims of collective intelligence. Levy’scinemap is a navigational instrument of the knowledge space that has no a prioridetermined hierarchy of location of nodes, but instead can show the lateral relationshipsof every possible quality and attribute of every object in the information universe.“Within the knowledge space, individual identity is organized around dynamic images,images it produces through the exploration and transformation of the virtual realities inwhich it participates…” (Ibid, 155) Levy trusts that the participants, in a completelyliberal free market arrangement of producer-consumer, reader-writer, will develop auseful “world of signification, a hypermap linked to a multitude of thinking beings,works, and communities, a compass of the mind that points to other maps and otherworlds.” (Ibid, 155) Although the World Wide Web is still a relatively new technology,no realization of this seemingly obvious (to Levy) chain of events presents itself. Amixture of the elitist Ortuk social network conceived by Google and the Web’s datadeluge comes to mind. As seen through mass media, when dealing with groups — even interactiveparticipants —the lowest common denominator prevails to preserve equality andlaterality. A great interest has arisen among those involved with education, writing, orany kind of media interaction, about the younger generation’s use of IM abbreviationsand the canonizing of lowbrow phraseology that has resulted from the need to transmit
  8. 8. messages quickly. In a base sense, collective intelligence can be witnessed in man’s newability to self-publish on the Internet in a space accessible to all, a big ever-changinglibrary where everyone can be an author, and no subject is ever closed.IDENTITY Levy states that even if one is unemployed, “He is not useless. He is notinterchangeable. He has an image, a position, dignity, a personal and positive valuewithin the knowledge space. All of us have a right to be acknowledged as a knowledgeidentity.” (CI, 13) Levy’s collective intelligence members encounter other knowledgebeings in the faceless virtual world, “no longer as flesh and blood, as social rank, anowner of things, but as an angel, an active intelligence — active for himself but potentialfor me. Should he ever agree to expose his face of light, …I will contemplate his inknowledge or his knowledge of life, the projection of his subjective world upon theimmanent heaven of the collective intellect.” (Ibid, 102) He states further that: “The raw material of the economy of qualities is composed of human acts and potentialities…The quantum nature of quality is not based on conventional analytic and Cartesian rationality, for the quanta involved are emitted by subjects, they are semantic, not objective, solid, and fixed.” (CI, 158)Levy says that forms of ranking and hierarchy are results of the territorial space, not theknowledge space. Even though on some level every person is the vessel of loads ofknowledge, there has to be some means of discrimination and value assignment. Socialtheorists, such as Martin van der Gaag and Tom Snijders, have attempted to create ameasurement for individual social capital, but still apply capital-centric —according toLevy — terms like network and resource. (See Levy assures us that
  9. 9. collective intelligence will not severely change the commodity space, but will wresthuman potential quantified as labor from the bonds of capital(ism). Instead of addressingwhatever he imagines would result, Levy simply pats our heads and tells us things willjust be better that way. Viewing this cosmopedia in the worst-case scenario, what happens if the otherlies to you? What about current cyber-instances when the other is actually a childmolester, thief, stalker, etc.? Concerns of reciprocity, trust and reliability are currentlyaddressed through transcendent networks and social identities — teacher-student, parent-child, mentor-apprentice. Levy’s liberal restrictions on authority creates a hugeresponsibility at the level of the subjective individual, bringing to mind Lev Manovichs’sconcerns with the freedoms granted through digital media in general. Levy sees the current fragmentation of identity and social forms as a signifier ofthe coming of the dawn of the knowledge space. Couldn’t this fragmentation be a resultof this knowledge space, where one can don as many faces as he can handle whenforming his relations with others in a nonhierarchical setting? Consider Sherry Turkle’sstory of the man who truly thought he knew what it was like to be a woman since heplayed a female character on a Multi-User Domain. Will the collective intelligence,whose medium is currently computers and their screens, suffer from this binaryuniformity, the curse of digital compression, which can make it difficult to determine thevalue of the message? Theodore Roszak thinks the literacies taught by hypertext — thedigitized media of cyberspace — “run the risk of overloading and further fragmenting theattention span (already so badly battered) that is basic to intelligence.” (The Cult ofInformation, 21)
  10. 10. Collective intelligence will be manifested through cyberspace, a medium thataccommodates messages that “will now revolve around the individual receiver, and theauthor function of modernity giving way to a reader-writer continuum, where the roles ofcreator and interpreter blend.” Adding further to the fragmentation of identity lost by theauthor function, Levy wants as a primary goal of collective intelligence the prevention ofquick closure, with the “accent …shifted from work to progress.” (Ibid, 123) Levy says a means of communication beyond writing is needed. Collectiveintelligence is supposed to be the human attribute that is more hominizing than language,but which operates at a much higher level; languages are made for communication withinsmall communities “on a human scale.” Writing made communication and human groupsconnected through language much bigger than speech could have accommodated,therefore now — to combat the “division of society into a bureaucratic informationprocessing machine based on writing on the one hand and ‘administered’ individuals onthe other” — Levy wants the processing of information to be universally distributed, ourcommon property. Levy sees digital media as the destroyer of logocentrism, “thedestitution of the supremacy of discourse over other modes of communication.” (Ibid,118) Wresting away the communicative controls from the technology of writing, Levysees virtual worlds, simulation and hypertext as the platforms of secondary literacy.While this may be true, it still does not make the case for collective intelligence. Levy claims that the concept of the book is a slave to territorial space, “a reserveddomain, confiscated and transcendent.” (CI, 211) The collective intelligence of theknowledge space would be an ever-open forum for the pandering of ideas. But Eco bringsup a worthy point:
  11. 11. How to prove a conjecture about the intention of a text? The only way is to check it upon the text as a coherent whole. This idea, too, is an old one and comes from Augustine (De doctrina christiana): any interpretation given of a certain portion of a text can be accepted if it is confirmed and must be rejected if it is challenged by another portion of the same text. Thus every act of reading is a difficult transaction between the competence of the reader (the readers world knowledge) and the kind of competence that a given texts postulates in order to be read in an economic way. (Apocalypse Postponed, 46) When one has a singular and unchanging text, one can easily discuss pathways ofthought and organization. With a continuously morphing text how is one supposed toknow which particulars are contextually relevant, when the context of the author andreader can never be pinpointed? Collective intelligence is the over-language that will allow us to become auniversal community, the only way our societies can meet their objectives. How hasman’s ability to reason not sufficed? Levy cannot accept the permanence of capital andall of its resulting ills, and thus continues to expand on his vague image of the knowledgeeconomy, creating new terms for concepts already identified by philosophers, such asPlato and Aristotle. Instead of the lofty grandeur of a collective intelligence, whycouldn’t we all just have a memex? According to Walter Ong, writing allowed mankind to produce abstract thought.Cyberspace has not yet been proven to enhance the mind’s cognitive capabilities; it does,however, give us plenty of irrelevant bytes to sift through since the screen can allow allinformation an equal playing field. Eco says, “Any excess of information produces silence. Sunday’s Times containstoo much information and I do not have enough time to consume it.” (ApocalypsePostponed, 67). Levy has a more positive view of silence, “In the silence of thought, wewill travel the digital avenues of cyberspace, inhabit weightless mansions that will now
  12. 12. constitute our subjectivity.” (CI, 157) How is one to participate in real-time collectiveintelligence and really and truly be productive when collective intelligence is on such aglobal scale? To truly be equal, those participating in a collective intelligence must leteveryone have their equal say, all being hospitable and patient. This way of acting isfollowing the pragmatic rules of language – the etiquette of call and response. But Levyproposes that collective intelligence will be an over-language, freeing us of theterritorialization of language and the forms of social identity that accompany it.THE KNOWLEDGE ECONOMY Deep in the middle of his book, Levy sticks in that, yes, capitalism is irreversible,that there is no economy without capitalism, and the commodity space is a permanent tierin the layers of anthropological spaces. However, mankind can still escape the “vortex ofcapital.” (Ibid, 138) Presently, however, the knowledge space is still a servant ofcapitalism’s competitive supply and demand ethos. Levy sees the possibility of theknowledge space, currently a u-topia, to break from the bonds of capital, placing valueback on human qualities instead of capital gains: “This fourth anthropological space,should it come to fruition, will harbor forms of self-organization and sociability that tendtoward the production of subjectivity…Not exactly an earthly paradise since the otherspaces (nomadic space of the earth, territorial space, commodity space) will continue toexist.” (Ibid, 141) Levy calls for the constriction of the anthropological space ofcommodity, which has become “a huge cosmopolitan machine, self-organized, creative,destructive.” (Ibid, 146)
  13. 13. According to Levy, there is no reason why in the past civilization ultimatelysettled on capitalism, instead of, say, an empire. First, one cannot even begin to imaginewhat the state of the anthropological spaces would be under an empire; withoutcapitalism, one would be forced to make a case that the technological tools for collectiveintelligence would exist in the first place. How would a libertarian survive underAlexander the Great? Much to the horror of economists everywhere, Levy ponders, “Iseconomy as a discipline anything more than the flattened, analytic form of the eternity ofcapital?” (CI, 149) Levy claims that capitalism limits the extent of subjectivity: “Capitalism isdeterritorializing and, for the past three centuries, industry and commerce have been theprincipal engines driving the evolution of human societies.” (CI, 137) Instead of seeingcapitalism as an impediment to the creative nature of collective intelligence, JosephSchumpeter, a father of modern days economics, said that intellectual freedom was aproduct of capitalism: “It was the nature of capitalism itself—its precision, rigor, andlogic—that had given birth to modern patterns of analysis and thought, which in turnunderlay technological advance.” (Rosenof, 101) Economist Joel Kurtzman has this tosay of the global knowledge economy — “when the economic unity is the globe, wheredo people fit in? What citizenly use of this technology can counterbalance a shift ofpower on this scale?” (Kurtzman, 121) Levy thinks that collective intelligence willsubdue the instability of the virtual economy propagated by deterritorialization.CRITICISM
  14. 14. Levy refutes any kind of criticism against his utopia by saying that the critics aremerely afraid of it leading to totalitarianism. “Either the denunciation of utopias is simplya mask for conservatism or the logical criticism of utopia culminates in thedismantlement of the destructive mechanisms of transcendence and power.” (CI, 86) Levy covers all of his bases so as not to allow for criticism: “The object of theknowledge of the fourth space is beyond the reach of the humanities because its subject— the collective intellect — does not claim to produce objective knowledge of itself orits world… The thinking community cannot be dissected by any system of transcendentcategories.” (CI, 205-206) Levy smoothes out any technicalities by saying that thesethings will come to pass in the future, and that we can’t comprehend them yet, since thesolutions surpass our present mental ability.ARE WE SMARTER NOW? The contemporary French philosopher, Jacques Ellul, in The TechnologicalSociety (1964) is not as thrilled as Levy is about the bond between humanity andtechnology. Levy’s collective intelligence could exemplify the undesirable effectsdescribed by Ellul: This is why there is such an incredible stress on information in our schools. The important thing is to prepare young people to enter the world of information, able to handle computers, but knowing only the reasoning, the language, the combinations, and the connections between computers. This movement is invading the whole intellectual domain and also that of conscience. (p. 136) In a problem of misidentifying causation and correlation, Levy sees cyberspace asa medium for restoring humanity to humans. Concepts of collective intelligence did notsurface as a result of a progressive and modern telecommunicative society. Levy is tryingto use modern technology as a tool by which to reenter the Garden of Eden, whereas we
  15. 15. should not burden the useful tool of speedy data transmission with such lofty goals.Considering the kind of knowledge being pandered around in chat rooms, Eco points out,in his essay The Future of Literacy¸ “Cathedrals were the TV of their times, and thedifference with our TV was that the directors of the medieval TV read good books, had alot of imagination and worked for the public good.” (Apocalypse Postponed, 66) Roszakadds, “Thanks to the high success of information theory, we live in a time when thetechnology of human communications has advanced at blinding speed; but what peoplehave to say to one another by way of that technology shows no comparabledevelopment.” (Roszak, 16) Levy himself states, “The worst scenario would be for theInternet to be replaced by a gigantic system of ‘interactive television,’” a spectacle wellon its way to maturity. (Cyberculture, 207) Roszak says that technology is a matureindustry, one that creates just as many problems as it solves. The benefits stopoutweighing the means. Might it be the case that the retention of too much data — morethan a single mind can judiciously deal with — compromises the quality of thought?“Data, data everywhere, but not a thought to think.” –Jesse H. Shera.
  16. 16. Levy paper works cited:Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co, 1986.Eco, Umberto. Apocalypse Postponed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Vintage Publishing, 1967.Kurtzman, Joel. The Death of Money: How the Electronic Economy Has Destabilized the Worlds Markets and Created Financial Chaos. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. ...Levy, Pierre. Cyberculture. Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press, 2001.Levy, Pierre. Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace. New York: Plenum Press, 1997.Rosenof, Theodore. Economics in the Long Run: New Deal Theorists and Their Legacies, 1933-1993. Chapel Hill: Chapel Hill University of North Carolina Press, 1997.