Nets, Bees, and Global Consciousness: There are No More Single Authors

Despite the sometimes jarring conclusions that many authors draw about how people use new media and social technology (see anything written by Henry Jenkins for some fun, enlightened reading), at the core of the digital ethics issue is a fundamental acknowledgement of global consciousness. How can people live in a world where they are globally aware yet restricted by geopolitical mechanisms of control? To filter the Internet is to treat the very idea of globalization like a controlled one substance. You can’t ration out amphetamines to the public, threaten to take away their drugs over night, and act like a moral savior the next day. Speed addicts don’t take kindly to that sort of thing. Yet, this is exactly what bills like SOPA and PIPA claimed they would do.

Once people become globally aware, they appropriate the idea of ubiquitous connectivity as a character trait of the time in which they live. The “truth” is that technology users in the 21st centaury come to realize that there is no “Truth”; this is a value embedded in the very technology itself, the message of the medium we choose to use in a network society, as Manuel Castellsand Marshall McLuhan might say. This doesn’t necessarily mean that contemporary technology users surrender to post-modern thinking and a loss of traditional values. It does mean that users must acknowledge that there are multiple “truths.” In light of a realized global consciousness, it’s no wonder that extremism occupies the public political discourse as much as it does. The world had seen tragedy before 9/11, but generations of the past didn’t have access to the vivid narratives that made tragedy “truly” real until the pictures of burning buildings, videos of crying spouses, and text messages of stranded office workers who plummeted to their death were at their command, on their laptop, in their bed.

The imagined community of contemporary society is no longer bound to nationalism exclusively, but expands the concept of ownership, inhabitance, and virtual space to the entire planet. The Internet deterratorializes regional boundaries to the degree that physical space is in constant competition with cyberspace. “Mediated publics,” as danah boyd likes to call them, are global by nature because of the Internet.

Site like Facebook, YouTube, and even this blog are not so much “virtual communities” in the sense that Howard Rheingoldimagined 20 years ago, but are more or less hybrid zones of interactivity hooked into a global Net where users write themselves into being – a form of constructing the self performatively in cyberspace via digital composition. These virtual performances conform to new standards of action, communication, and participation, similar to the ways that bees act when they are connected to a hive.Kevin Kelly’s second chapter of Out of Control illustrates the correlations between swarm mentality and human technology users, exposing the ways that “emergent properties” synergistically develop when social beings collect, connect, and act as peers in enormous intersubjective networks.

Despite the blocking and filtering that breaks up user traffic and hides content online, or the massive amount of spam, viruses, and other things that go bump on the web, in a world where the Internet exists, so must the idea of transnational agency; so must the idea of the “invisible hand” that regulates the terms of social living; so must the sense of unity that Buddhists have made reference to since before Christ. This sort of global mindfulness changes a person. Phillip Zimbardo claims that the Internet “digitally rewires” the brain. What is made possible by the Net is not just opportunity for social connection, but the opportunity for individual mindfulness. “Personal globality,” if we can call it that, means not having the choice to not make a choice; there is a heightened sense of responsibility that bears down on individual actions because the social ramifications of a single person’s choices are immediately apparent. So many professional athletes have learned this the hard way after a drunken night of Tweeting.

Realization of this sort occurs at the local level; “globality” becomes a personal endeavor of the oppressed, marginalized, and subaltern the moment a person learns how to post onto Facebook, comment on YouTube, or link together their social network site profiles. As a result, the very Net that brings this level of awareness about is politicized, charged, or “colored in” by those who, in their virtual performances, bring it into being. This leaves little room for the notion of Net Neutrality. Theories that conceive of the Internet as completely open, free, and democratic contribute to the continuation of a myth about institutional non-interference in social life. As John Palfrey and Jonathon Zittrain’s point out in Access Denied, Internet filtering has always occurred to some degree. Regardless, the world remains aware of itself as an interconnected world thanks to the Internet.

Awareness of a world wide web means introducing international citizens to the awareness of a potentially global society. Once the world becomes aware of itself as a social organism, there is no way it can reconcile living as disconnected nation states, parceled citizenry, or disenfranchised users. Kelly’s metaphor for the Internet as a hive or swarm is perhaps the starkest illustration of how collective mentality creates a new, emergent form of awareness that increases innovative practices and reveals the nature of the whole of humanity locked within the individual user. To Kelly, it is about seeing the whole in the part, a metonymic way of understanding life.

To drive the point home: Cyberspace spreads awareness and creates global consciousness; attempts to take control of that consciousness, to abridge it, and to intentionally force-fit it to cultural moors of yesterday (as Internet censorship policies attempt to do) is antithetical. It’s like telling a blind person who can suddenly see to never open there eyes again. Try and force their eyes shut, see what happens. My bet is that they would try to fight you.

I know I would.

If humanity ever lost the Internet, receding into the “dark ages” of technology, a global identity crisis would play out the likes of which has never been seen. This will most likely never happen because, ironically, threats to globalism made by contemptuous authoritarian regimes contribute to the furthered awareness of a global society by turning the private, technological act into a form of personal and global resistance. The reality of virtual living is that there is always room for one more voice. Authoritarian tactics of the old world are always forced to compete with other voices that antagonize their single-minded intentions. As Mikhail Bakhtin might say, the voice of the future—and the Internet, for that matter—is multivocal.

There are no more single authors.

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PLE's Nets, Bees, and Global Consciousness: There are No More Single Authors by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
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