Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, put forth a startling prediction for the future of our electric technologies:
In much the same way that gas, water, and electricity are piped into the household, we are rapidly approaching a time when consciousness will also be brought into the house.....
The all too obvious convergence between holosthetic technologies and the geometric, rhyzomic growth of digital networks of communication implies that soon we will indeed be able to pipe a "consciousness" into the household, whose effects will be bounded primarily by the fidelity of the technology found within the household, rather than any constraints present within the network.
While this brings an unprecedented scope to the range of human telecommunication, and human communication in general, it does not come without consequent costs and dangers. The price we pay for allowing a technology into our lives is allowing ourselves to be shaped to the demands of the technology itself. Technologies have been called value-neutral; this is perhaps imprecise. The actual construction of a technology embodies a mythology, or ontology, literally a definition of the place of the "self" within the technology. The telephone, for example, places the self into an aural, auditory, dimensionless space, where everything, all data, converge upon a single point; the eardrum. It is impossible to develop a sense of distance while using a telephone, except perhaps distance from the handset. Everything else is immediately present. Even the device itself, as Heidigger and Rondel have shown, has an imperative. To answer the telephone is to acquiesce, in advance, to any request made through it.
The author has discussed the ontological dimensions of holosthetic technology in a previous work, which can be distilled down to a single statement; the creation of a world necessarily implies the creation of a world-view. Once this is understood, and entire system for discussing the ontological aspects of holosthetic technologies becomes intuitively obvious. To abstract between the virtual and real worlds is fallacious. The language of world views used in archaic mythology or the Enlightenment or quantum physics must be incorporated into the holosthetic construction, as it is, albeit unconsciously, into our daily lives.
Another "thread" of discourse, which has become more clearly defined as the network has grown in its inimitable, organic fashion, has been the discussion of the preservation of human rights in cyberspace. When this project began, the full ontological dimensions of cyberspace were poorly understood. It was seen that we would be spending time there, "inhabiting" a construction of reality which could arbitrarily be anarchic or fascistic. In any case, it would be plastic to the imposition of any ontology, whether personal or social. It is precisely because ontological form of a technology follows its design that these concerns are of immediate import.
The design of the network is well underway. However, several technological features must, of necessity, be incorporated to it. Those parts of the network which can not be upgraded to accept these features must be replaced with newer technologies which can satisfy the most basic requirements for safety and democracy within cyberspace. These requirements are: secure transactions; authentication; and many-to-many or multicast networking.
As human consciousness is placed into cyberspace, real issues of safety begin to emerge. Just as we do not allow lunatics to wander across highways, we will not allow the citizens of cyberspace to commit holosthetic suicide or murder. Telepathology, the expression of sociopathology from a distance, is one such danger. Telepathology is most effective when the greatest amount is known about the subject(s) of the attack. Secure transactions guarantee that it is at least difficult to gather this information.
Much has been said on the subject of the rights of privacy, and about the government's provisional right to invade privacy to protect the rights of other citizens. These same arguments are now made to prevent the widespread implementation and adoption of crypographically secure transactions. The argument against this is simple; any cryptography which can be broken by the government can be broken, perhaps even easily, by someone else. Either we will have privacy or we will not; it is that simple. If we do suspend the right of privacy, it must be complete, universal; the government can not hide secrets from us any more that we can hide secrets from it. However, private mind and private life are perhaps so important to ourselves as human beings, that we will opt for complete privacy, a privilege which comes paired with an awesome responsibility - the policing of ourselves in cyberspace.
In order to police ourselves, only one mechanism is necessary; transaction authentication. Once we can securely identify the agent(s) involved in a transaction, we can develop models of "trust" which can reliably be depended upon, much as in physical reality. No mechanism for secure transaction or authentication is theoretically bullet-proof, so it is advisable that a continuous, competitive evolution in cryptographic systems begins, with the stated goals of preserving liberty and freedom in cyberspace. These are noble, national, perhaps even global goals, and the author would suggest that perhaps these are the defense industries of the twenty-first century.
Finally, a subtle paradigm shift is required in the design of our networks. Historically, this technology has approached two extremes; bilateral conversation and broadcasting. If these were thought of as the ends of a dial, the range in the middle could be thought of as many-to-many or multicast communications. Rather more than a party line, a multicast provides a "space" within the network bandwidth for the expression of shared events and other information. In such a system, every node is coequal to every other; the keys to reaching one or one hundred million other people are equally available. This represents an inversion of the concepts implicit in both the telephone and television, for both of them collapse into a hybrid medium which is like neither of them.
This event is preventable; we could engineer our networks to conform to the old styles of bilateral conversation and broadcast. There are a number of reasons why this eventuality should be avoided. The first reason is primarily creative; it is enormously beneficial for us to be able to work collaboratively, be that on the development of an artistic work, a government by and for the people, or a corporation. People will be able to "reach us", exposing us to their own personal arts and wonders, in unprecedented numbers. If we neglect to design our networks for multicasting, this will be impossible.
The second reason is precautionary, having to do with the potential abuses of the powers within the human sensorium to persuade or brainwash. If the adages about the corruptions of absolute power are even moderately true, we need to protect our selves from omnipresent influences in cyberspace. Except in the cases of most extreme emergency, broadcasting should be prohibited across the network. Open-loop communication, without the stability of feedback, potentially presents a highly pathogenic influence on the human consciousness within cyberspace. Only the most serious issues of public safety merit such an intrusion into an essentially personal space. An organization such as the Emergency Broadcast System will be a necessary fixture in cyberspace, and should be the only body technically able to broadcast throughout the network.
If these technologies are incorporated into the infrastructure of the network, the way line voltage and frequency are delivered by the power utilities, in a standardized and ubiquitous manner, we will be able to develop the mechanism to ensure privacy and private mind are not violated by the entry into cyberspace. Without these safeguards, the full range of human pathology, from suicide to terrorism will find room enough to express itself in our private mind, irrespective of any choice we may make to take it in or filter it out.
Mark Domenic Pesce * Summer 1993
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