In the July issue of Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine, Don Langham began to make some important assertions about the future of CMC in terms of its rhetorical ancestry; in his article "The Common Place MOO: Orality and Literacy in Virtual Reality," he shows how many of the criticisms Plato directed at the tool of writing are now being re-directed toward the many forms of electronic communication now in use.
Those readers familiar with the Phaedrus will recall that Plato is quite insistent that writing will, amongst other catastrophic results, destroy memory, disrupt the ritual of human interplay, and abrogate true education; generally speaking, as Langham concludes, Plato believed writing "subverts the traditional social order."
But, then, Plato was a traditionalist. Why wouldn't he be concerned?
Similarly, Langham points out, we now hear echoes from men like Michael Heim and Myron Tuman--as educated in our time as Plato was in his-- criticizing the electronic media in much the same way:
"Where Socrates sees writing as corrupting the individual's relationship to society, Heim sees electronic media as destroying the individual's relationship with himself. Moreover, Heim argues [that] electronic media will lead to a total breakdown of a functioning public space." (p. 7)
In essence, Heim is double-dealing Plato; he critiques Phaedrus from the vantage point of a post-print literacy (which is far more approving of the individualist attitude) without granting that his own ideas must be seen within the context of a post-electronic literacy. Further, Heim either doesn't recognize or chooses to ignore the fact that just as defining literacy in terms of orality now seems quite ludicrous, to define this new hybrid form of communication (CMC) in terms of print literacy makes the same kind of mistakes.
Certainly, Heim considers himself to be one of the authors chronicling the new frontier of literacy, and as McLuhan (1963) writes, "Those who experience the first onset of a new technology...respond most emphatically because the new sense ratios set up at once by the technological dilation of eye or ear, present men with a surprising new world...the initial shock gradually dissipates as the entire community absorbs the new habit of perception into all of its areas of work and association" (p. 22). Heim's surprise (and alarm) at the newness of opportunities presented by CMC could, then, be seen as a normal reaction within the scope of the entire community which has not yet assimilated the technology.
However, that's not quite the case.
In fact, in a more recent work, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, Heim seems not only more comfortable, but positively playful about the idea of virtual space as he writes, "Cyberspace is Platonism as a working product" (p. 89). And, approaching a definition of what virtual reality can mean (rather than what, mechanistically, it is) Heim says, "If for two thousand years Western culture has puzzled over the meaning of reality, we cannot expect ourselves in two minutes, or even two decades, to arrive at the meaning of virtual reality" (p. 118). Rather, he gives this definition of what most people now consider to be a living analog for VR, cyberspace: "a total electronic environment in which people can interact with data" (p. 141).
But what does it mean to "interact with data"? On first reading, it might seem that the people and the data are intermingling, and this may be what frightens skeptics such as Heim; a place, albeit virtual, where humanity traveled in order to "interact with" computer-generated constructs might well seem to be something that could "lead to a total breakdown of a functioning public space."
In fact, though, his working definition of cyberspace probably means something much closer to this: people using data in order to interact with other people. The data is not anthropomorphized, in some Wintermute-like Gibsonian sense, but functions simply as a tool for people to interact with each other. In other words, we needn't worry, as McLuhan suggests, that the world will turn into an impersonal, function-oriented computer "exactly as in an infantile piece of science fiction" (p. 32).
It is the aforementioned concept of virtual space functioning as a "tool" that is most important to my argument with Langham's presentation. Clark et al. (in progress) have shown, borrowing from Scott Consigny's examination of Aristotelian and Ciceronian topoi, that "any technological artifact [such as a MOO]...can be seen as both a tool--something functional or working in the world, and as a realm--a reconceptualized worldview with the theory/technology foregrounded." This dichotomy echoes strongly a McLuhanesque description of the "interiorizing" of technology which he describes in his seminal The Gutenberg Galaxy.
At this moment in history, Western culture exists within the realm of the written word; the tools of writing are so ingrained in our consciousness that the way we see, the way we draw, the way we do math, the very way we exist is affected by the linearity imposed on our (sub)consciousness by our societal literacy. Writing has been interiorized by our society. How do we know when we have moved to this interiorization, have moved from seeing a type of literacy as a tool to existing within it as a realm? McLuhan has claimed that we might accomplish this only with complete hindsight, often the hindsight of many generations.
And here is the problem with critiquing Heim's concerns: because the totality of (post)modern culture has not yet interiorized virtual technology, we cannot define, much less critique the "realm" of cyberspace. It does not yet exist--at least not in ways that we can talk about sensibly. Therefore, we must contextualize Heim's critique--as we would Plato's two millennia ago--as rampant speculation about the use, misuse and possible abuse of a new tool for literacies.
In all fairness, Plato was not truly criticizing the tool that is writing; he was speculating about, and criticizing the realm he believed the interiorization of that tool would force people to live within. Plato's Socrates says most emphatically,
"You know Phaedrus, that's the strange thing about...written words; they seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever. And once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it."
Obviously, it would be unfair to critique Plato in terms of twentieth-century reader response theory or to hold him accountable for the non-rulebound theories of postmodernism. He could not see writing as anything but what it was, at the time--a tool; similarly, he could not (accurately) predict the kind of worldview a culture embedded in literacy would have. Indeed, each of his points about the potential evils of writing have some merit even in today's literate society. Nonetheless, rare would be the Western thinker who would conclude that because Plato's cautions were occasionally quite perceptive we must abandon the concept of writing entirely.
Similarly, it would not only be unfair, but is currently quite impossible to expect critics like Heim to be able to evaluate the potentialities of a new tool in terms of the realm it will create--because we do not yet know what that realm will look like. Langham speculates, "MOO provides a partial answer to Heim's contention that electronic media threaten civilization by destroying topoi or common places" (p. 7). And that's all and precisely what the statement is--appropriate speculation. So, too, is Heim's original claim: "For its existence the public requires a common center of focus in order to be gathered into a more or less cohesive whole, what the ancients called topoi or common places. Technological linkage may create what is known as a global village, but the ensuing tribal mentality does not imply civilized rationality" (cited in Langham, 1994). Conversely, Bennahum (1994) seems to be with Langham in the "pro-CMC" camp as he writes:
"Unlike other information-dispensing innovations such as the photocopier and the videocassette, networked virtual spaces are likely to fundamentally change academia, since as a mode of information distribution, MOOs may well prove as revolutionary as the movable-type press.... When history revisits this era, [inventor] Pavel Curtis and his MOO may well deserve more than a footnote. He may find himself alongside Gutenberg." (p. 36)
So, Dr. Curtis offers to the world a new tool, as Herr Gutenberg did half a millennia ago. In response, Heim and Bennahum respond in diametrically opposed ways, the latter exalting and the former doomsaying. Langham, and in some ways this article's response to Langham, continue the colloquy--and, perhaps significantly, move the debate to cyberspace and engage the tool which is the subject of the dialogue. It is within this kind of written discourse that the nascent "rules of the realm" will be built as the process of interiorization of the technology moves forward through generations.
However, it is unlikely that Heim, Bennahum, Langham or any member of the first generation of cybernauts will be able to accurately describe or assess the realm of the new technology; as McLuhan has pointed out, we are blinded by our own cultural upbringing, and the realm of cyberspace is certainly one that cannot be inhabited for at least another full generation.
Does any of this negate Langham's conclusion? He ends his piece by saying, "It is possible that MOO is the forerunner of technology that will provide the sort of structured environment needed for the 'common place' of civilized society. If so, we would have a median between the oral and literate extremes" (p. 7). Certainly not. But at least he, Bennahum and others (including this author) are beginning the reconceptualization of the worldview with a self conscious "Maybe." MOOspace is beyond a doubt an intriguing, timely and potentially wonderful tool for writing. It is not yet a realm; it is not yet a comfortable commonplace. So when Heim jokes, "Cyberspace is Platonism as a working product," he is quite in error; the philosopher-kings-cum-cyberpunks who will interiorize the Form of virtual space and create a new realm of writing are still a generation or two away. ¤
Mick Doherty is a PhD student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. His current projects include "Cyber-based Prose: Re-S(h)ifting Flower in the Computer-Mediated Classroom" to be presented at the 1995 Conference on College Composition and Communication.
Copyright © 1994 by Michael E. Doherty, Jr. All Rights Reserved.