Plastic information, niche audiences, extruded media, and network governance

De Filosoof (The Philosopher), a journal edited by graduate students and faculty at the University of Utrecht, asked me to respond to some searching questions. Three are copied below [note: this is unedited draft text]…

From the very beginning Internet has challenged social, intellectual and political hierarchies. RFC 3, released in April 1969, ‘established the principle that no text should be considered authoritative, that there [is] no final edit.’ (H.I. 99) This hacker-style ethos has dominated Internet ever since and is a threat to human society. People are simply not critical enough to deal with this manyfold of available knowledge.

Johnny Ryan: Information has become “plastic”. We are children of that anomalous era that extends from the popularization of the Gutenberg Press to the AJAX technologies that power the Web 2.0 generation of web sites and services. Before the printing press information was transmitted orally, or using technologies that mitigated against rapid or reliable duplication. After AJAX information became plastic again, subject to the interventions of the crowd, who comment, rank, and remix information in a manner impossible during the ink age.

This plasticity is a repetition of an earlier moment of change in the communication of ideas, from the bardic tradition of memorised learning to the written tradition of written learning. Harold Innis, in Empire and Communications, quotes Socrates in Phaedrus, who reports a conversation between the Egyptian god Thoth, the inventor of letters, and the god Amon. Amon accuses Thoth of creating forgetfulness in mens’ souls:

“this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”[1]

In the earlier era of plastic information before Pettitt’s ‘Gutenberg parenthesis’,[2] authoritative text was relayed in two forms, according to Walter Ong. The first, chirographic, relied on citation to show authority; the second, oral, relied on resilience of the idea itself.[3] This first form is observable in the Islamic tradition of ijaza, the process by which a religious student who had memorised an important text to the satisfaction of the teaching ‘ulama would be empowered with an iijaza to teach the text to others.[4] In this tradition, when one wished to best understand a text one strove to hear it directly ‘from a scholar whose isnad, or chain of transmission from the original author, was thought to be the most reliable’, rather than simply to read it.[5]

On the pre–Gutenberg era the resilience of the idea is the determining factor. Writing in the 1960s Eric Havelock reflected on the introduction of writing in ancient Greece and observed that, on the contrary to the God Amon’s objections, it had created a new mental flexibility, a new plasticity of information that eclipsed learning by rote:

“The replacement of an orally memorised tradition by a quite different system of instruction and education … which therefore saw the Homeric state of mind give way to the Platonic.”[6]

The Homeric state of mind, by virtue of requiring that poetic knowledge be retained in memory, rendered information necessarily rigid. Havelock suggests that Homeric education imparted in poetic narratives is ‘essentially something [that the learner] accepts uncritically, or else it fails to survive in his living memory. Its acceptance and retention are made psychologically possible by a mechanism of self–surrender to the poetic performance. … Only when the spell is fully effective can his mnemonic powers be fully mobilised’.[7] In short, ‘his job was not to form individual and unique convictions’.[8] Poetic education before literacy created men of tradition.

The renewed plasticity of information from 2004 can be seen as the same order of change as the transition from Homeric to Platonic, where a previously passive broadcast audience that once uncritically watched, read, and listened, is now emerging as critics, editors, and remixers.

In short, this means that we are present at a moment of profound change. On the question of whether this is a threat to human society, as you say, it is too early to make strong assertions on way or the other.

Internet provides the opportunity to become more of who they are. Even the most eccentric social outcasts can go online to buy the music, the cloths and the books they adore. Shops based on the proximity of markets have become a anachronism. Within the scope of human identity, Internet is a blessing.

Johnny Ryan: That the Internet enables niche communities, and allows outcasts to connect to likeminded individuals, is true. This, however, is a mixed blessing. Lets take the bad first.

Consider as an extreme example the case of Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, who went on a shooting spree in 1999, killing two and wounding eight individuals, before killing himself. Smith was a racist and an adherent of the World Church Of The Creator. Said he, “It wasn’t really ‘til I got on the Internet, read some literature of these groups that … it really all came together. It’s a slow, gradual process to become radically conscious.”[9]

Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital has come in for tough criticism from some in the “scholarly” community, but I think he has been astoundingly far sighted about a remarkable range of things. Writing in the first ever edition of Wired in 1993 he predicted that Internet media would mean that ‘prime time is my time’. In other words, that – as HBO had considered as far back as 1983 – the Internet connection to the home would allow individuals to pursue their own preferences. The “long tail” of content would allow for a “daily me” diet of media, causing personalised “tunnel vision”, as Sustein put it, and segmenting the audience to the point where the shared bounds of society are weakened. Instead of the lowest common denominator media of the pre-Internet era, future generations could glut on content that caters to the lowest particularist denominator within specific and increasingly polarized groups. Thus, the example of Benjamin Nathaniel Smith.

However, reflecting on the good, there is much to be optimistic about. For a start, niche extremism may be facilitated by the Internet, but the Internet also mitigates against these niches becoming mainstream.[10] The particularist message of hard line violent militants is easy to communicate among likeminded niche audiences, for example in locked forums. But when militant communities try to proliferate their message beyond the boundaries of their own forums they fall prey to the hazards of crowd pressures. The renewed plasticity of information has been accompanied by the emergence of a ‘folksonomy’ in which peer opinion carries the weight of authority in the selection and dissemination of worthwhile content on the Internet.[11] Taken together these two changes mean that information is subject to a double hazard of distortion and approval by its intended audience. This hazard does not exist on forums where the members and administrators are committed supporters of the militant cause. Yet to proliferate their messages beyond their own niche audience propagandists must venture beyond these friendly spaces and expose their narrative to the hazardous conditions of the wider Internet audience. As I found over the course of data mining research, militant rhetoric will be distorted on forums that are not closely affiliated with militant groups. The cohesion of a militant memeplex (set of ideas) is degraded by the hazard of the perpetual beta over time on web forums, unless they happen to be committed to the preservation of that memeplex.

In media terms I think interesting things are going to happen. The mainstream will continue to fragment, and audiences will become more niche, but as media becomes dominated by niches and moves farther from the mainstream, its content producers will be increasingly at the mercy of their niche audiences. These niche audiences are likely, by virtue of their pronounced tastes, to be sophisticated and demanding viewers. The economics of this new media model mean that the more niche an item of media content is, the narrower its revenue stream and the more the content producer will have to listen to the preferences of the audience. This goes beyond “push” and “pull” media. I call it “extruded media” because audience members not only pull, but pull and shape media according to their own preferences. What this may mean is that media becomes increasingly sophisticated, as refined tastes liberated from the economics of broadcast that had catered to the lowest common denominator begin to create an appetite for high-brow entertainment. However it may also mean a rush to the bottom, and populist pantomime.

Although there appears to be a dichotomy between netizens and citizens, the internet is becoming more and more controlled by big corporations such as Google or Yahoo. Besides, governments are using the information collected by these corporations to get a firmer grip on individuals. Internet is the next step in government control; Wikileaks is doing a great job.

Johnny Ryan: The question of control is an interesting one. In A history of the Internet and the digital future I describe the moment when the traditional communications industry attempted to install X.25 as a centrally controlled alternative to TCP/IP. That this did not succeed, and that the centrifugal protocols prevailed may be taken as a sign that the Internet is, indeed, different. I am not sure I agree with your premise. Even the largest Internet service firms remain at the mercy of their customers. While a degree of paranoia is healthy, we, as users, have far more control over Internet giants than we do over much else in our lives. Equally, it is a matter of law, and for citizens as scrutinisers of law making, whether and in which cases information related to individuals should be transferred between a business and a government. Though the Internet throws privacy issues and State surveillance into sharp relief, the Swift payments controversy after 9-11 is a reminder that is not specifically an Internet issue.

On the question of Wikileaks, the specific site is a symptom of an overall trend. As I say at the beginning of my book, we are at a hinge in history, between the old patterns of the industrial age in which we all grew up, and the new pattern of life of the digital era, to which we must all adapt. In the old pattern power was held by centralised heirarchies, and in the new power is increasingly in the hands of individuals. Wikipedia is one example of how the balance of power between state and individual is shifting. Individual whistle blowers – and their online supporters – are challenging the State. We are also seeing this power shift play out in business and media. The State will inevitably become more transparent and responsive because it has to do so. Secrecy within government is under threat, much as privacy of individuals (whether they be Government ministers or regular individuals) is. Wikileaks is a sign of things to come and the State will go through a period of painful adaptation as it moves from the old ways of doing business to the new.

Beyond this, however, I think we are moving slowly toward a new model of how we organise our societies. Assuming that States become more open and transparent, and at the same time the current generations of technologies that allow consensus decision making or knowledge among large numbers of people such as Wikipedia and Google Zeitgeist evolve further, this may prompt radical reforms in how we govern ourselves.

Until 10,000 years ago hunter/gatherers organized themselves in ‘band’ societies.[12] These were small groups of a few dozen individuals who hunted together, owned common lands, and made decisions collectively. According to anthropological convention, there were no formal leaders.[13] In the early Neolithic period from about 9,500 BC cultivation and then animal husbandry began to enable larger groups to settle at permanent sites.[14] Tribal communities emerged, and with them more complicated social structures based on kinship.[15] Decision-making became a centralized activity and society was organized in a stratified manner. Eventually, tribal communities grew to the order of thousands of individuals. Chiefdoms and bureaucracy emerged. The organization of society moved from an equalitarian, collective model to a top-down model of hierarchy and centralization. As tribes grew and coalesced to the order of tens of thousands of citizens, the city-state and systems of civilization emerged. Social stratification became less dependent on kinship and there was an increase in the specialization of labor. Taxation provided for public architecture, bureaucracy, and law. By the end of the 20th century when the web was invented the democratic states had developed a system of ‘representative democracy’ in which citizens enjoy the right to elect governments but for the most part play only a minor role in law making. Now, a decade into the 21st century, two-way communications appears to offer ‘network governance’. This is a radical idea, but I submit that after a 10,000-year hiatus some of the consensus decision-making features of the early band societies may be practical once more – and the pressures of public scrutiny that sites such as Wikipedia will increasingly exert may make this inevitable.


  • [1] Harold Innis, Empire and Communications (Toronto, 2007), p. 78.
  • [2] Tom Pettitt, ‘Before the Gutenberg parenthsis: Elizabethan–American compatibilities’, MiT5, ‘Folk Cultures and Digital Cultures’, 2008 (URL: http://web.mit.edu/comm–forum/mit5/papers/pettitt_plenary_gutenberg.pdf).
  • [3] Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York, 1982), p. 2.
  • [4] Francis Robinson, ‘Crisis of authority: crisis of Islam?’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland (Third Series), 2009, p. 342.
  • [5] ibid., p. 343.
  • [6] Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, MA, 1963), p. 198.
  • [7] ibid., pp. 198–9.
  • [8] ibid., pp. 199.
  • [9] Brian Marcus, ‘Online hate, communications, coordination, and crime’, in Suzette Bronkhorst and Ronald Eissens (eds.), Hate on the Net: virtual nursery for in real life crime (Amsterdam, 2004), p. 41.
  • [10] Johnny Ryan, “The Internet, the Perpetual Beta, and the State: The Long View of the New Medium”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Volume 33, Issue 8, 2010.
  • [11] Thomas Vanderwal, ‘Folksonomy Coinage and Definition’, Vanderwal.net, 2 February 2007 (URL:vanderwal.net/folksonomy.html).
  • [12] Peter I. Bogucki, The origins of human society (Hoboken, NJ, 1999), p.74.
  • [13] Eleanor Burke Leacock, Richard B. Lee, Politics and history in band societies (Cambridge, 1982), p. 1.
  • [14] Peter Bellwood, First farmers: the origins of agricultural societies (Hoboken, 2005), p.54.
  • [15] William M. Dugger, Howard J. Sherman Evolutionary theory in the social sciences, vol. 3 (London, 2003), p.48-49.
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5 thoughts on “Plastic information, niche audiences, extruded media, and network governance

  1. I am interested in this topic for a graduate studies course: Masters in Communications and Technology (MACT) University of Alberta. Can you direct me to more information or help me narrow my focus. Thanks Alison L Martin alimartinster gmail

  2. I will be following your blog with interest (and maybe buying your book, as it looks reader-friendly). I understand how computers and the internet work purely by metaphors — simple ones a child could understand. I do believe that the internet will result in decentralization; it already has. Yet as this process continues, governments might become more and more desperate to maintain control.

    Lindsay

    1. Lindsay, your comment sounds in line with what I have found. But I would say some governments rather than all, and add that control may not be possible in any case. On the other hand, the bigger centrifugal trend that I speak of in the book is not absolute, any more than the centralising trend of the industrial era was.

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