The Advent of Cyberculture

Preliminary notes for the session on Changes and chances for the society: Self-organization of the European
"Information Society" through communication networks (Vienna Peace Summit 1999)

Ivan M. Havel
CTS, Charles University, Prague


    Among all the scientific and technological origins of change in social life, information and communication networks exhibit the most rapid evolution. Any assessment of the future of Information Society should therefore consider a time horizon of years rather than decades. Consequent changes, whether expected or unexpected, in people’s behavior, in mutual interaction, communication, grouping into communities, and in the pursuit of political agendas may provide challenging themes for sociologists, social psychologists, anthropologists, political scientists and philosophers. Some of these themes are discussed below.

    Note. Considering the level of generality that is being assumed here, there is no essential reason for restricting the present discussion specifically to the European case. The social and philosophical aspects should apply in the same way to the global Information Society. (Perhaps the only difference may be that common cultural origin--in this case European--may simplify matters.)

    1. In concord with the thoughts of the French sociologist and philosopher of information science, Pierre Lévy 1) , I would like to highlight four interesting features of what he calls Cyberculture, i.e. "all the techniques (material and intellectual), practices, attitudes, mind-sets and values" that emerge with the growth of the new communication medium called cyberspace and that are exemplified by the Internet. These characteristics are the:

                (A) Mutual interconnection of users in real time
                (B) Emergence of virtual communities
                (C) Individuals roaming the landscape of knowledge
                (D) Collective intelligence

    2. Regarding (A): Individuals (I include institutions under the term 'individuals') can communicate in (almost) real time by exchanging messages with (almost) arbitrary content, they can enter into debates about a chosen topic and listen in on the debates of others. Today‘s electronic mail is a typical example.
    The term message (here and below) is used in a rather general sense. It may be a sentence, document, web page, or any other text, picture or audio-visual object that can be sent from one individual to another (as well as to different places, for later use, etc.). We can distinguish a form of a message (size, language, author, intended recipients, etc.), its content (what it says), and its actual history (duration of existence, environment, factual readers, etc.). In addition (and importantly) it can have various links to other messages. Cyberspace is the medium (e.g. the worldwide network of interconnected computers) in which messages are created, moved, retrieved, modified and stored.

    3. Mutual interaction of people by means of a communication in natural language existed over millennia and played various roles––pragmatical, social, cultural, and religious. In societies with writing system some of these roles have been undertaken by written texts, while others remained essentially a part of oral communication.

    In face-to-face oral communication the interlocutors share their spatio-temporal environment, live in the same historical time, and usually belong to the same culture. They may use the advantage of direct dialogue for clarification and even for the generation of new ideas. On the other hand, written messages are detached from the situation in which they were written and may be received in different time, different place and read by recipients entirely unknown to the sender. This requires much more clarity and stability of meaning in written texts. At the same time, writing enables communication across space and time and allows large-scale storing and sharing of knowledge.

    Cyberculture combines the advantages of oral and written communication. Its impact on society may be comparable to the impact caused by the advent of writing several millennia ago.

    4. When talking about communication, information, dialogue etc. we often tacitly assume that messages have, or are intended to have, a meaningful content. That may not be, however, always the case. For instance, consider (and extrapolate from) such things as tattles of fishwives, chats of beer drinkers, or cocktail-party conversations. The participants do not listen to one another too much (in Czech pubs they even don't hear themselves speak) and they don't have to listen, since the purpose and outcome is not conveying information but rather strengthening social contacts, keeping people together.

    The same may happen in Cyberculture, albeit independently of geographical distribution of participants.

    5.  Regarding (B). A well-known phenomenon in contemporary Internet is the formation of virtual communities. Various discussion groups formed around a specific issue consist of individuals who may never meet physically but are heavily interlinked in cyberspace. The actual issue discussed is not essential in this respect (cf. Point 4. above). Virtual communities together form a social network which is superimposed on, and complementary to, the network consisting of face-to-face communities. While the latter network is typically related to geographical topology, the former depends on the "landscape of knowledge".

    Even if these two networks seldom overlap, they share the participating individuals and therefore they form a two-level system with inter-level interaction. Cyberculture obviously tends towards a greater role of the level of virtual communities.

    6.  Regarding (C). Another aspect that may change society is the fact that cyberspace will offer (already now offers) an enormous body of easily accessible knowledge. Individuals have much greater freedom to roam through the network in search of needed, relevant, or interesting knowledge. The traditional types of media may gradually disappear and with them their power to influence the public (instead of reading, say, one morning newspaper, you will navigate through the vast number of various, often conflicting, pieces of information contained in cyberspace).

    7.  Regarding (D). Cyberspace offers an effectively infinite web of knowledge, which partly resides in various messages, or knowledge nodes (located at different places or circulating in the network), and partly represented implicitly in the distribution of hypertext-like links between messages. As this suggests an analogy with human brain activity (as sometimes understood), we may think of it is a "World Wide Brain" with an emerging collective intelligence.

    Links between knowledge nodes may dynamically change their weight (conductivity, permeability, availability, etc.) and may be designed so that the weight is automatically modified according to the frequency of previous usage (the Connectionist Principle). Thus knowledge may depend not only on external imputs but also on the network's past experience with its own inner activity.

    Another possibility is that, after certain technically feasible amendments to cyberspace, messages carrying different fragments of knowledge would compete for attention of readers (or they would enjoy some other type of "fitness"). In this way the scene would be set for Darwinian evolution.

    In a sense, the situation is much more complex than in the case of neural brain tissue. There are all the users (conscious and presumably also intelligent) sitting at their terminals, enjoying interesting messages and entering their own messages. An obvious concern arises that anybody could enter non-verified, false, immoral, or dangerous information. This concern has to be taken seriously, indeed.
    In any case it would be futile to stipulate that all data in cyberspace should be mutually consistent. Similarly, as beliefs of an individual or opinions of a community, we have to accept the fact that the fragments of knowledge in the network may have a varying degree of hypothetical and tentative nature (hopefully they are labeled as such).

    8. Our fantasies may look exaggerated to some but they may soon be part of the everyday world around us. Without a serious assessment of the various dangers, side effects and impacts--whether moral, social, psychological, technical, or environmental—of Cyberculture, humanity will not be prepared to join the Information Society.

1  Cf., e.g., his study "The Second Flood: Report on Cyberculture", Council of Europe, October 1996