Sally Jane Norman
Conventional reading and writing skills are a prerequisite to the assimilation of new media technology, thus to its use as a vehicle for cultural development. To ignore this issue when discussing computer literacy is to belie the « universal » potential of communication and information technologies. Illiteracy today plagues major metropolitan outskirts along with third and fourth world countries, and parallel implementation of educative and media infrastructures has become an urgent stake for planetary stability. We must ensure that these infrastructures remain as open and participatory as possible : any attempts to blunt the specific dynamics of communication and information technologies, and induce passive behaviours like those engendered by television-type broadcast media, must be vigorously fought. Current tendencies along these lines - and there are many - should be identified and reproved. The humanist potential of new media is intimately bound up with their capacity to nurture active and interactive behaviours. Cultural policy-makers therefore need to be able to call on well-informed technology specialists without vested interests, to stay closely informed on new developments and trends. A « watch group » nominated to follow up new media developments and spot negative trends, comprised of persons familiar with new technologies and with international law (notably in terms of freedom of expression, fair use, and intellectual property aspects), could act as a useful nucleus for an internet forum devoted to these issues.
Questions of copyright, fair use and public good, need to be viewed broadly in the context of cultural legacies and access to the human heritage. At the same time, they must be analysed with respect to international legal developments, and the more surreptitious influence of proprietary technologies. Theoretically public data bases may be rendered inaccessible by patented portals or consultation mechanisms. Copyright and intellectual property reviews that focus exclusively on the ins and outs of national and international legislation, and overlook determinant industrial strategems like these, are of little worth. Moreover, definitions of cultural and private property need to be studied from a multicultural perspective. Indiscriminant digitisation of the human heritage as a kind of data capital, along the lines of certain projects currently undertaken by major technology and information providers, is likely to raise the same kinds of resistance as the « Human Genome Project ». Digital « colonisation » practices, dispossessing and usurping cultural heritages which should be respected as an inalienable aspect of human life and dignity, need to be checked. On the other hand, if digital technologies are to enrich society at large, different cultural groups should have access to and training with these tools so that they can forge and contribute their own, fitting representations and self-representations through the new media.
A related issue is that of maintaining sufficiently open notions of property to allow freely re-creative interpretations of our cultural heritage. Much new media aesthetics dwells on notions of memory and time, and is jeopardised by restricted access to certain cultural resources; these constraints may seriously impair new creation. Overstated claims of « scientific objectivity » to justify institutional monopolies on access to our cultural past should be challenged, but this challenge should ideally be posed via alternative constructive, creative interpretations. Artists should be more regularly and creatively involved (i.e. not just as illustrators) in cultural heritage projects using new media technologies. Works where artistic vision has elucidated historical information should be valorised amongst cultural institutions, but also amongst industrial developers, who may substantially benefit from artists technological demands.
Generally speaking, creative activity and its complex relation to society is today poorly recognised and accommodated by cultural policy. The necessity to develop art as a vital hermeneutic process is misunderstood or ignored by many decision-makers, who tend to favour « safer » investments in a timeworn heritage. Creative work needs to be resituated in the contemporary cultural context, and new media technologies used to extend debate on the place of art in society to usually « silent » (i.e. unheard) geocultural groups. Authorities should formally solicit advisory groups of artists when elaborating policy, to avoid the pitfalls of anachronistic vision. Initiatives whereby industry or research consortiums recognise and integrate artistic practice could be show-cased and discussed, ideally via an internet site designed with a view to consultation by education, policy, industrial public relations, and media decision-makers. Astutely targeted action of this kind may act as an incentive for organisations seeking to establish, improve, or redeem their public image, and prompt new projects and partnerships.
The philosophical and epistemological issues raised by cyberspace, and the resultant conceptual blurring between « hard » and « soft » sciences, likewise need to be debated in a broader cultural arena, and enriched with concepts likely to offer new tangents on crucial questions of identity, distributed presence, agency, and mind-body relations. Nomadic events devoted to electronic and cyberculture should be encouraged to roam further afield, to regions often left off the international conference map. « Foreign » visions may shed new light on contemporary cultural issues; in turn, reflection on new media technologies may thus be launched amongst people currently left out of the discussion. Media institutes with a strong digital technology focus should be encouraged to develop dynamic links with smaller centres, to avoid the creation of exclusivist high-end cultural consortium networks, and parallel introversion of lighter structures. This implies design of flexible communication architectures which allow exchange between heterogeneous partners. Parallel to initiatives for seamless connection of large-scale data bases, such as those championed by G7 and certain European projects, other projects could be aimed at seamless connections between variable-scale data bases. Similarly, browsers and search engines need to be developed outside mainstream cyberculture, implementing alternative linguistic and conceptual functionalities, to harvest totally different kinds of data. This would broaden access and enrich the sphere of new media activity on condition that connectivity is upheld, to avoid the creation of cyberghettos.
In certain regions, traditional social structures reaffirmed through communications media have given impetus to novel forms of socio-economic integration. Contrary to networking « for its own sake », and idle cultural display devoid of anchorage in everyday life, which are unlikely to have long-term social repercussions, use of media technologies to assert identity and win recognition may lead to the development of innovative labour and consumption patterns, which in turn reinforce cultural identity in a dynamic feedback process. Show-casing exemplary practices, e.g. through the networks, may well inspire others.
The importance of sustaining connectability between cutting edge and older information systems needs to be stressed. Reflection on the « upgrade race », duly set in its economic and social context, must be deepened. The means and ethics of technology transfer and evolution should constitute a topic in its own right within media technology training programmes. Although current syllabuses leave little room for discussing technology (old or new) in ethical and epistemological terms, we must develop a wider base for discussion on media technologies and cultural development, and schools offering new media training would appear to offer a propitious platform for launching this discussion. Appropriate curriculum lines need to be elaborated and proposed to such structures by a task force grouping education and new media specialists. Publishers involved in the education sector, working with and aware of the stakes of new media, could be a useful motor group within such a task force.
To avoid generalisation of architectures and information routing procedures emanating from a single, sometimes inappropriate cultural perspective, active involvement in the elaboration of media tools by people from other geocultural horizons should be encouraged. Initiatives like the training programmes proposed through Indiginet should be multiplied. Cultural ramifications of data base design should be an explicit topic on the agenda of major international new media events. Industrialists should be alerted to the importance of this discussion, which is likely to substantially enrich current design concepts, and facilitate future acceptance of information and communication technologies in currently unequipped regions.
Media technology access for persons barred for social and/or economic reasons (gender stereotypes, exclusion from the education system, etc.), should be a priority for community cultural action. This is currently the case amongst many effective grass roots structures, but their action is often insufficiently supported by top-heavy cultural institutions. However, small structures with common goals and ethics are discovering new impetus through proficient networking. Liaisons of this kind - unlikely to work if dictated from on high - deserve better recognition. Cultural policy-makers should ensure that resources are being channelled to the people who are in fact doing the work. Moreover, since grass roots structures tend to draw a broader, more representative range of people working with new media than large institutions (in terms of gender, ethnic origin, professional background, etc.), closer contact with these structures may help cultural authorities constitute more representative delegations when organising official encounters and debates on information and comunication technologies. Rather than embarking on conflictual quota-type systems to diversify pools of new media spokespersons, it would be preferable to more closely scrutinise actual practice. Numerous women are playing a decisive role in the cultural sphere, through theory, system and interface design, and as artists and educators. These women stand as inspiring models.
Apart from gender issues, the question of access is often posed with respect to ethnic groups, yet the internet proposes countless examples of activity which has led to reinforced and rediscovered ethnic identity. While this obviously does not dispel problems of socially disconnected, excluded groups, exemplary practices should be highlit to motivate others. Powerful, original concepts are emerging from regions and cultures that are rarely in the international limelight, but are forming dynamic alternative frameworks to mainstream culture for truly international debate on new media technologies. Contingents of critical theorists, wise to the lure of high-end access and excessively discriminant search engines, refuse to apply the criterion of electronic addressability as the sine qua non of (intellectual or artistic) existence, while recognising the urgency of access. Consequently, certain groups of activists in privileged countries are ensuring the circulation of works and ideas from technologically disadvantaged areas. At the same time, a few isolated magnates are investing massively in implanting media infrastructures in the latter areas, to catalyse their development. The resultant ideological remapping process is generating new kinds of cultural vision and exchange.
Pragmatic debate on new media technologies should mobilise a frequently ignored group of actors strongly implicated in media development, i.e. (often young) programmers and designers. Decision-making by political leaders unacquainted with the everyday reality of the technologies on which they are adjudicating is vain, inappropriate, and unacceptable. Systematic exclusion from policy-making processes of people speaking for distinct age, professional, ethnic, and gender groups exacerbates the differentiation of mainstream and underground activity. Pockets of difference - or dissidence - which seek alternative courses of action and query consensual practice are a vital feature of a dynamic society, and for many people are inherent to the interrogative function of art. But the forming of defensive, tight-knit groups by disillusioned outcasts ultimately means amputation of irreplaceable aspects of our cultural heritage.
Effective implantation of media technologies to enhance cultural development requires prior training and adequate human infrastructures. « Human-human » interfaces precede « human-machine » interfaces. It is far more productive to make basic equipment accessible in a context which privileges discussion and exchange, than to install high-end equipment without providing sufficient human guidance. Policy-making involving new media technologies should ascribe at least as much importance to human interaction, seamless or not, as to machine compatibility.
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This brief report attempts to show that a new, highly motivated society is being constituted through and across new media technologies : for every initiative quoted, there are countless other cases of inventive, constructive use of information and communication technologies. Their potential for promoting a more human existence through information sharing and exchange is unequalled, but there is also a major risk of this potential being curbed by profit-driven parties. The normative power of massive information and communication infrastructures emanating from monolithic cultural entities likewise entails a risk of homogenisation or cultural flattening. This makes media technology training amongst persons currently barred from the cybersphere all the more urgent : « our cultural diversity » henceforth depends on access to the tools used to generate, manage, exchange, and stock information. Access refers to the possibility to use these tools, but also the possibility to intervene in their design, to diversify and fully appropriate the technologies destined to convey human culture.