Prof. Dr. Mike Sandbothe
Paper given at the 11th Annual Computers and Philosophy Conference in Pittsburgh (PA), Saturday, August 10, 10:00 - 10:50 a.m.
Media forge our image of reality. This holds for media in the broad, in the narrow, and in the narrowest sense. By media in the broad sense I understand the forms of perception of space and time. They function as the fundamental medium of our perception and cognition in making objects synthesizeable as objects, i.e. as identifiable entities. This insight lies at the root of the "Copernican revolution" with which Kant prepared the fundament of modern philosophy. Post-Kantian philosophy, from Nietzsche, Hegel, Heidegger, Dewey and the late Wittgenstein through to Derrida, Goodman and Rorty has demonstrated that the strength of this fundament lies in its flexibility, openness and changeability. Our spatio-temporal "ways of worldmaking"1 are not a rigid, uniform and ahistorical apparatus. The media for human construction of reality are forged far more by pictorial, linguistic and textual systems of signs, which are historically contingent and culturally divergent.
Image, language and writing are what's meant when I talk of media in the narrow sense. They have stood at the centre of many philosophical discussions in the twentieth century. The concern has always been to identify one or several of these media as being the transcendental basis of human understanding of reality altogether, or, at least, of the world-picture characteristic of Western culture. The spectrum reaches from analytic philosophy's "linguistic turn"2 and the diverse misunderstandings triggered by Derrida's early concept of a philosophical "grammatology", through to contemporary proclamations of a "pictorial turn".3
It is currently becoming impossible to ignore the fact that neither media in the broad sense, nor media in the narrow sense represent fixed, unchanging structures which offer a firm footing for philosophical theory. The way we deal with them depends far more on institutional and technological developments which are taking place in the realm of media in the narrowest sense. This already holds for the influence which the printed media, radio and above all television have attained over our understanding of space and time as well as over our use of pictures, sounds and letters.4 Given the influence that interactive data networks such as the Internet have on our perception and on our semiotic practice, the intertwined relationships existing between media in the broad, narrow and narrowest sense are becoming obvious. Space, time and identity are being inflected anew in the Internet. The traditional demarcation between image, language and writing is beginning to move in a radical way. With interactive data-networks the digital revolution is becoming the driving force of a comprehensive transformation which is redefining the practices by which we handle signs and, with this, the bedrock of our understanding of reality. In the following I shall look into this transformation process in three steps.
In the first step I shall expand upon the influence of the Internet on our experience of space and time as well as our concept of personal identity. This takes place, on the one hand, in the example of text-based Internet services (IRC, MUDs, MOOs), and through the World Wide Web's (WWW) graphical user-interface on the other. In the second part I will show how the World Wide Web's hypertextuality in particular sets in motion the semiotic demarcations between image, language and writing which had become usual in the Gutenberg Galaxy. In the third, and final, part I will try to name some of the implications these changes have for the philosophical concepts of rationality and reason.
The Net opens up a new world to us. And it does it in another way as for instance a trip with the car or aeroplane. When we fly from Berlin to Pittsburgh we also arrive in another world in which, partially, other laws dominate. But the basic coordinates of our understanding of reality - space, time, identity - remain unchanged. It is different when we leave 'real' life and proceed into the Net. The world becomes 'virtual'. The constitution of reality becomes a different one. 'Virtual reality' steps in taking the place of 'real life'.
The terms 'real' and 'virtual' are reflexive terms similar to the opposition of natural and artificial. Things only ever appear 'real' or 'virtual' from a particular perspective. If one considers the oberver's relativity then it's no surprise that the on-line world already seems more real to many professional Net-surfers than the 'real' world outside of the Net. I do not associate normative implications of any kind with the real-virtual opposition. I use this only to differentiate varying forms of construction of reality from one another on the descriptive level.
How does the virtual reality of cyberspace affect our concept of identity? To begin with, it seems, not at all. Since in the Net too I'm usually out and about with my everyday or my academic identity. I procure myself bibliographical information from the Library of Congress, make contributions to philosophical mailing lists to which I've subscribed, or confer with colleagues around the world via e-mail. At the same time, however, I also have the opportunity in the Net to set off to the anonymous channels of IRC or the fantasy environment of a MUD or MOO. There I can present myself with an invented identity X or Y according to the context. Of course, I could also do this "in real life" in some bar or other. But limits are imposed on me by my appearance, my gender, my physical and my social identity. This is not the case in the Net. In the Net, the hidden complexity which is today already characteristic for our everyday concept of identity becomes explicit. In cyberspace we can consciously start to live in a wickerwork of plural identities. Sherry Turkle in her book Life on the Screen. Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995) puts this in the following way: "The Internet has become a significant social laboratory for experimenting with the constructions and reconstructions of self that characterize postmodern life. In its virtual reality, we self-fashion and self-create." 5
But it's not just the traditional concept of personal identity, but the ordinary experience of space underlying this concept which is transformed by the virtual Net-world. As a cursor-identity I move quite independently of the real world and its geographical distances. I move in the Net's digital space and beam myself from continent to continent without any role being played by real separation. As such, even when I'm out and about in the Net under my normal academic's identity, I still find myself in virtual mode. In cyberspace everything is present here and now. This leads to change in our experience of time. On IRC, in the MUDs and MOOs there is no night. It is always day. Somewhere in the world people are always awake to populate the Net's countless meeting places. There is no unitary, somehow natural time which partners in communication could presuppose as self-evident. Rather they must inform one another about their respective local times and adjust for the differences if they want to meet on the Net. The horizons of time are in constant motion. But neither time nor space disappear in the on-line world. Both are reinvented in the narrative worlds of the MUDs and MOOs. In the communicative landscapes of the Internet people have the possibility to construct the times and spaces in which they act. That means that in contrast to TV and computer games produced for stand-alone computers the interactive world of the Internet does not force people into given simulations of space and time, but allows them to experience space and time as changeable and creative constructions of their narrative and cooperative imagination. In MUDs and MOOs an active theatralization of time and space is taking place. Every participant with programming rights becomes the architect and the artistic director of a virtual theatre on the stages of which the basic structures of our perception themselves become the object of the production. One could even say: the Internet makes the esoteric conception of time and spaces developed by Kant in the Transcendental Aesthetics of the Critique of Pure Reason exoteric, i.e. an object of shared everyday experience.
Whereas until now I have gone into the changes relevant not primarily to the World Wide Web, but to text-based Internet services such as IRC, MUDs and MOOs, I shall now concentrate on the specific features of the World Wide Web.
My Web page is a double of my self, in some cases even the creative invention of a new self, of a new identity, which I had previously hidden from myself and others, and which now mediatively interacts with other people in my absence. The particularity in the World Wide Web's media structure lies not least in this new dimension against telephone and television, that of a so to speak 'a-present' interactivity independent of my real presence. Through this our identity is pluralized in its rudiments. The images we have of ourselves and which others have of us gain a life of their own independent of our presence. These plural identities stand in intertwined relations to other real and virtual Net identities which we act under in different contexts on the Net. Our Net personality is composed of a mesh of varying roles, identities and functions, which we can strictly isolate from, or consciously link with one another. Let me quote Sherry Turkle again, she writes: "If we take the home page as a real estate metaphor for the self, its decor is postmodern. Its different rooms with different styles are located on computers all over the world. But through one's efforts, they are brought together to be of a piece."6 So much for my reflections on the philosophical aspects of identity, space and time on the interactive Internet. In the second part I will analyse the semiotics of hypertextuality.
Traditionally in philosophy (for instance for Plato or Aristotle) language and writing, as abstract and arbitrary sign systems, are contrasted with images, as a concrete and natural medium for representation7. And even today several philosophers think that the difference between linguistic, textual and pictorial signs is a difference which is founded in the semantic or syntactical structure of the respective system of signs.8 These assumptions contrast with the thesis, which goes back to the late Wittgenstein, that a sign is first defined through its usage as a image, as a sound or as a letter.9 It is insisted by various authors however that even in conditions of a usage-theory of signs there be a unitary and even universal way of applying something as image, as language or as writing. At the base of this view is the idea that certain features of the usage are to be named which distinguish 'image games', 'language games' or 'writing games' as being image games, language games or writing games. These general features are to permit the internally unitary definition of the varying sign games and the clear division of the different sorts of sign from one another through a usage theory of signs.10
One must object to this that a consistent execution of a pragmatic usage theory of signs would indicate that we have to deal with complex bundles of image, language and writing games which too will exhibit no unitary feature common to all elements of the respective set. The metaphor of "family resemblances" was introduced by Wittgenstein to describe complex entangled relationships of this type.11 In addition to the internal entanglement of image, language and writing comes the external entanglement which determines the relation of the three sorts of sign to one another. Just as a general essential feature cannot be identified to define image as image, language as language, and writing as writing, no firm dividing lines can be fixed between the different types of sign. Pictures, sounds and letters are always intertwined or demarcated relative to and dependent on media in the narrowest sense, which set out the framework of their use. The previous media system, in which audiovisual and print media were clearly divided from one another suggested strict demarcation between the sorts of sign. The World Wide Web's multimedia mesh of signs does away with this separation and redefines the relations.
Before I analyse the hypertextual structure of the Web itself, I come back to the text-based Chat programs like IRC, MUDs and MOOs which are increasingly being integrated into the Web. In Chat programs writing functions as a medium of direct synchronous communication between conversation partners who are physically separated and who, as a rule, have never seen each other. The anonymity specific to the textual medium of the book is connected in "Chat" with the synchronous interactivity and immediate presence of the conversational partner characteristic of spoken language in face to face communication. In Chat's "Computer Mediated Communication" features which previously served as criteria for the distinction between language and writing are becoming entangled. That means that the use of written signs in the context of the new medium Internet leads to a change in the system of signs as a whole. The transitions between language and writing become fluid. Spoken language's traditional distinction as a medium of presence becomes problematic. Writing experiences a rehabilitation.
The consequences for semiotics which result from these cultural practices arising in the World Wide Web are more complex than the effects just described in the realm of Chat programs. On the one hand, in that the World Wide Web incorporates text-based Chat, it picks up the usage of text in analogy to spoken language made possible through these services. On the other hand however writing is reorganized in the hypertext documents which characterize the World Wide Web with images as a guide. In the World Wide Web the scriptualization of spoken language taking place in the text-based domains of the Internet is supplemented by a 'picturization' of writing. This tendency becomes obvious both in the picture-like usage of phonetic writing and in the rehabilitation of non-phonetic types of writing.
Both aspects of this picturalization tendency were anticipated by Jay David Bolter. In his book Writing Space. The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (1991) he states that the usage of outline processors already has the effect of making "text itself graphic by representing its structure graphically to the writer and the reader."12 My thesis is that the picturization tendency present in the basic structures of "electronic writing" itself is realized in a more radical way through the interlinked hypertext system of the WWW. In hypertextual conditions writing and reading become pictorial operations. The writer develops a netlike framework, a rhizomatic picture of her thoughts. This picture is multiform and complex. It consists in a plurality of varying paths and references which the reader forms into new thought images resulting from interplay between the text's open structure and the reader's interests and perspectives. For this reason we can describe the whole mesh of pictures, audio and video sequences, writing and chatting constituting the World Wide Web as an image-like structure. Bolter himself in his recent essay on The Internet in the History of Writing (1996) however did not come to the conclusion which his 1991 book might have suggested. Instead he points out: "Nevertheless, the distinction between word and image does not entirely collapse in electronic writing. Or rather, the distinction collapses only to reassert itself again and again."13 What Bolter avoids accepting is the possibility of a radical transformation of our usage of the terms 'word' and 'image'. Such a transformation would be something very different from the simple and repetitive reasseration of the quasi-transcendental opposition Bolter talks about.
For the second aspect of the picturization tendency too - the rehabilitation of non-phonetic types of writing - hints can be found in Bolter's book from 1991. With regard to the Apple Macintosh Desktop he shows that icons are used as "symbolic elements in a true picture writing"14: "Electronic icons realize what magic signs in the past could only suggest, for electronic icons are functioning representations in computer writing."15 And in summary Bolter states: "Electronic writing is a continuum in which many systems of representation can happily coexist."16 A similiar result was presented by George P. Landow in his book Hypertext. The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (1992): "Because hypertext systems link passages of verbal text with images as easily as they link two or more passages of text, hypertext includes hypermedia."17 Modifying this result, one developed in reference to stand-alone computers, I would like to accentuate the fact that the alleged coexistence of different semiotic systems becomes problematic in the World Wide Web. Bolter himself has touched on this point in another recent article. In his as yet unprinted on-line article Degrees of Freedom (1996) he writes: "If the World Wide Web system began as an exercise in hypertextual thinking, it is now a combination of the hypertextual and the virtual. But the hypertextual and the virtual do not always combine easily. Usually the graphics and photographs tend to muscle the words out of the way."18
The problematic distinction between the hypertextual and the virtual introduced by Bolter in this article indicates that Bolter is not willing to take into consideration the possibility of a radical transformation of the traditional oppositions word versus image and phonetic versus non-phonetic writing, a transformation that would blur the old oppositions and produce a new situation of complex interwinement. Instead of accepting this situation Bolter has changed his former coexistence thesis into a new theory in which the different systems of signs remain unchanged and compete with one another. On the one hand Bolter considers that "the difference between hypertextual and the virtual representation is not simply the difference between words and images." But on the other hand however he insists that even in cases when images "serve as (...) icons in a multimedia presentation (...) the sign remains iconic."19 But what can the word 'iconic' mean here if the term is meant to be used independently of the de facto usage of the sign in question? Bolter tries to describe a transition of usage without being willing to give up the old meaning of words like 'image' and 'writing'. What I try to do in contrast to Bolter is to describe the new, until now metaphorical but in future probably more literal meaning of these terms.
The blurring and metaphorical redefinition of the old distinctions becomes obvious if we take a look at the third transformation which is becoming a normal experience in our usage of signs in the World Wide Web. What I am talking about is a characteristic scriptualization of the image. Digital images might well often function in the World Wide Web according to the traditional model, namely as a kind of quasi-reference. They interrupt the flow of references and represent artificial end points of menus, i.e. impasses in hyperspace. But at the same time there are more skilled forms of image presentation on the Net which are more appropriate to the hypertext medium. This involves furnishing different areas of the image with "source anchors" which respectively refer to various "destination anchors". The image itself then functions as a hypertext. If I activate a link within an image I am refered to other images or texts. The image no longer appears as the referent and termination of a menu, but becomes a sign itself with references to other signs. In the same way as textual hypertexts, hypertextual images serve as semiotic intersections in the unending referential framework of the "docuverse".
If you consider not only the external relatedness but also the internal data structure of digital images then it becomes clear that the images composed of pixels have textual character in themselves. With the corresponding editor programs the elements which comprise the digital image can be exchanged, moved and altered just as the characters within a text. In this way images become flexibly editable scripts. In the digital mode the image loses its distinguished status as a representation of reality. It proves itself to be an aesthetic construction, a technological work of art whose semiotics result internally from the relations of pixels and externally through the hypertextual references to other documents.20
The Net navigator, or cybernaut, has learned to find her way around in the rhizomatic flood of hypertext links. She knows that there's no original text, no 'actual' document to which all other documents are to be related. She's figured out that on the Net it's primarily a matter of forming small machines, creative text designs and sensible images out of the manifold and dispersed text segments. These machines, designs and images, which didn't exist previously in this way and won't continue to exist in the future, are ontologically transitional in type. The logic of transition is a logic of transversality. Thinking and acting in a way which does this justice is determined by transversal reason.
The philosophical concept of transversality has long been familiar within mathematics and geology.21 It was first used in a philosophical context by Jean-Paul Sartre. It was first coined as a philosophical term by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. The application to the theory of reason and the systematic extension into an edifice of thought was performed by the German philosopher Wolfgang Welsch. What are the basic ideas of Welsch's theory of transversal reason, and how can they be related to the media transformations of our understanding of reality described in the first two parts of the current essay?
To answer this question I shall concentrate on the systematic account developed by Welsch in the second part of his book Vernunft. Die zeigenössische Vernunftkritik und das Konzept der transversalen Vernunft under the title Transversal Reason. The central ideas of Welsch's concept of transversal reason can be summarized through three basic theses. Firstly, the constitution of rationality is characterized by an ineluctable disorderliness. Secondly, reason is in principle capable of reconstructing and precisely describing this disorderliness. Thirdly, it's only when reason productively analyses the subconscious entanglements of rationalities that it will be suitably equipped to solve contemporary problems. The first thesis is directed against the idea dominating from Kant through to Habermas and Lyotard that reason is concerned with an orderly framework of rationality types clearly divided from one another. The second thesis opposes the danger of diffusion which has led, especially in the setting of posthistorical thinking but also with some postmodern philosophers, to a position of arbitrariness and of 'anything goes'. The third thesis makes it clear that applied and problem-oriented philosophy must in no way amount to a simple application of abstract philosophical models to reality. In its pragmatic and transversal version it is capable of reflexion about those constellations of rationalities in effect practically, which are already determined in their inner by contingent realities.
All three theses can be illustrated with the aid of the interactive hypertextuality of the World Wide Web. In doing this I allow myself to be guided by the assumption that the World Wide Web is a medium in which the subconscious disorderliness hidden by the book culture and which was taken by Welsch as his subject, comes explicitly to light. First of all however it's important to append a distinction which is central to the understanding of Welsch's basic theses. I mean the distinction between rationality and reason. In recourse to the Kantian distinction between understanding and reason Welsch defines reason as that faculty whose task it is to reflect upon the relationship between different types of rationality.
The first of the three basic theses relates to the relationship between rationalities. To begin with it leaves aside the issue of reason in the sense of a faculty of reflexion which goes beyond these. The relationship between rationalities is defined by Welsch as "rational disorderliness".22 Whereas, from Kant through to Habermas and Lyotard, the framework of rationalities has been conceived of guided by the book, namely as a relational framework of separate, in themselves autonomous chapters (Kant, Habermas) or aphorisms (Lyotard), Welsch in recourse to Derrida and Deleuze compares "the real consitution of rationalities"23 with "moving and changing, net and web-like architectures".24 Welsch shows in detail that the classically ordered framework of cognitive, aesthetic and moral-practical rationalities is a superficial phenomenon. A contingent network of "family resemblances"25 between different paradigms and alliances of paradigms form the fundament for this. The maxim for rationality theory resulting from this states that "the whole traffic system of both the horizontal and the vertical connections [is] to uncover".26 It will be thus be demonstrated, Welsch continues, "that the [...] interparadigmatic [...] entanglements are mostly not hierarchically, but laterally organized. The connection has more the structure of a network than of stratification."27
Against this background the World Wide Web can be interpreted as an eminent medium of transversal reason. The entanglements and transitions analysed in detail by Welsch become media reality in the World Wide Web as electronic links. Welsch's reinterpretation of the classical triad of rationalities as an "effect of family resemblances"28 can be illustrated directly with the World Wide Web. In the World Wide Web the classical distinction between the varying types of rationality plays an important role. Thus three different highways can be differentiated on the theoretical level: the (cognitively accented) Information and Commerce Highway, the Education Highway (serving moral-practical aims), and the (aesthetically founded) Entertainment Highway. However, in our practical dealings with the Net - other than outside of the Net - we are aware at all times that these distinctions are introduced by us into a complex framework of hyperlinks whose internal family resemblances constantly shift, and which produce different configurations according to different perspectives. Whereas the medium of the book and thinking schooled thereby conceals rather than clarifies these relations, the World Wide Web makes them explicit.
The second basic thesis of Welsch's theory can also be fruitfully deployed for the philosophical analysis of the World Wide Web. Unlike the first, this thesis does not relate solely to the mesh of rationalities, but focuses on the faculty of reflecting reason which operates within this mesh. It is this faculty's task to correct "the insufficient self-comprehension and the excessive self-confidence of paradigms"29 from which the net of rationality types is composed. Paradigms tend to ignore their position within a net of nets and the relativity resulting from this. They are transfixed by their objects and self-forgetfully obscure the stuctural conditions of their abilities. If they do perceive of their own surroundings, the conditions of their own possibility, and their competitors then it's mostly in the mode of denial or reprimand. They declare themselves to be the sole true and valid paradigm, make false claims to exclusivity, and tend to an implied absolutism. It is the task of transversal reason to inform the rationalities arising from paradigms of this twofold self-misunderstanding: "Where this twofold explanation is successful, reason's interventions transform the singular paradigms from their merely rational to their reasonable form." 30
The World Wide Web confronts us with similar problems. This is already demonstrated by the resistance with which the establishment of a consistently hypertextual symbolic practice meets. Every text, every image, every Web page tends to proclaim itself the centre of the Net. The problem recurs on the technical level: every Web browser, every provider of access to the Net implicitly or explicitly claims to be offering the only true and authentic access to the medium. Even taking a glance at the definition of the whole, the battle over the 'true' World Wide Web dominates. There are firstly those proclaiming this to be the Commerce Net, secondly those for the Education Net, and still others for the Entertainment Highway. Each party of course considers itself the exclusive and sole binding govenor of the Net.
But it's not only the initial problems of radical plurality to which transversal reason reacts, rather the operation of this reason itself can be illustrated with the help of the World Wide Web. On the level of texts, images and Web pages, search robots, bookmarks and hotlists function as instantiations of transversal reason in software. Just as transversal reason, these are characterized by "purity, emptiness and superiority".31 The Net tools named are independent of content, purely formal structures for the generation of relations. They supply the user with the means required to break through the excessive self-estimation of the subsystems and to cast light on the Net's hyperlandscape, i.e. the intertwined connections between the Web pages. On the level of browser programs, the free availability of shareware versions of various Net browsers and on-line discussion of their advantages and disadvantages contribute to preventing the establishment of a browser-monopoly. Traits of transversal reason can be recognized in this too. The same applies on the level of providers of Internet access: Transversal gateways, through which the various providers are linked to the World Wide Web, relativize the view of the Net given by a particular provider. It should be emphasized in this that, on all three levels (Web pages, browsers, providers), it's not a matter of just a media realization of a theoretical faculty, but rather of practical demands and concrete tasks which mark the way for future media policies.32
Thus I come to the third basic thesis of Welsch's book on reason. Philosophy which operates guided by transversal reason is already practice in its core. Transversal reason has no need for a belated application to concrete problems but is already eminently politic in itself. This last aspect of transversal reason also comes into its own in the World Wide Web. Writing and thinking in the Net are of themselves already practical operations. That means first of all at a completely fundamental level: they are artisan in character. Writing and thinking in the Net cannot be separated from the creative installation of hyperlinks, from the aesthetic design of Web pages, from the formative work with graphical editor programs and skilled programming with HTML. These are all practical, i.e. artistic-artisinal, operations through which the writer is torn out of the position of the pure observer and bound within concrete interactional contexts. Something similar can be said of the way we deal with Net tools. Work with these tools, but also the hypertextual structure itself lead to the user being refered, from the supposedly pure theoretical investigation which he strives for, to institutional entanglements, to seemingly remote connections and political contexts. This differentiates open work in the World Wide Web from the closed world of the book.
The results of my considerations can be summarized in three points. Firstly, the World Wide Web proves itself to be a genuine medium of transversal reason. Secondly, the concept of transversal reason establishes itself as a basis for a pragmatic media philosophy. Thirdly, the task for this is to demonstrate that most of the semiotic concepts philosophers considered to be ahistoric and transcultural are contingent effects of the media we use. On this basis the media transformations of our understanding of reality which are taking place in the age of digital network technology can be philosophically analysed and pragmatically implemented without speculative bombast.