File spoon-archives/marxism-thaxis.archive/marxism-thaxis_1996/96-10-29.043, message 8


Date: Tue, 22 Oct 1996 06:13:33 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: M-TH: Ziauddin Sardar evaluates the Internet


From: Profit Margin <pmargin-AT-xchange.apana.org.au>
From: Matthew Arnison <mra-AT-physics.usyd.edu.au>
Newsgroups: mail.ausanet <snip>
Source: GOA NEWS <fred-AT-goanews.ilbom.ernet.in>

Gateway to the future, the Information Super-hypeway, or the World Wide
Wedge? What role is this new technology really going to play?

India too is getting hyped-up and all excited about the Internet. But is
cyberspace really steering us to some really worthy destination?
('Cybernetics' is after the Greek word for 'steering' or 'control'.)

Ziauddin Sardar, visiting Professor of Science Policy at Middlesex
University, is one of the few prominent voices to strongly question  the
"propaganda" about cyberspace. He challenges the view that the Internet is
a tool which brings freedom and empowerment. He strongly  feels
cyberspace's gain is humanity's loss.

Sardar, who hails from Pakistan, is an internationally-known scholar,
information scientist and futurist. He has worked for British science
journals like "Nature" and "New Scientist", and was Consulting Editor of
"Inquiry". The book he co-edited, "Cyberfutures: Culture and Politics on
the Information Superhighway", has been just released by Pluto Press.

Sardar spent a relaxed hour, explaining his viewpoint, to Frederick
Noronha. He was on holiday in Goa. The nearest Internet node was a long
distance away.

---

Q: You don't share the global enthusiasm about the Internet. Why do you see
the Information Superhighway a threat to the future of the human race?

ZS: There is this belief that the Internet gives us total freedom to
communicate with everyone. This total freedom only exists provided you are
reasonably rich. With the money needed to enter the Internet world, you
could feed a family in Bangladesh for a year. Then, on the Internet, it's
not a total anarchy situation, which gives you freedom over what you say,
as is made out to be. It's a very controlled anarchy.

Big players control everything. Even the software, for example.  There's a
lot of software which comes along with the capability of passing on
information to various interested parties -- what other software you're
using, for what purpose, whom you are communicating with.

Then, the Internet is supposed to be the idea form of communicating. But if
you look at a news-group, nobody is actually speaking to each other.
Everybody is screaming and shouting at each other. Flame-wars. Even in
supposedly-respectable research groups.

Q: We are now communicating, working, shopping, learning and entertaining
ourselves with computers. Don't you think the Net is making life easier
for some?

ZS: The Net generates illusions. Illusion of control, illusions of power,
illusions of community and neighborhood. Illusion of free information.
Illusion of unlimited knowledge and wisdom. Illusion of instant access.

But, actually, you're paying a heavy price - the loss of your own humanity.
Because you simply become an extension of a computer. New films like "The
Net" and "Hackers" show how obsessed the individual has become with a
computer. These are anxieties projected onto the screen. But these are
real anxieties in many senses.

Q: You have argued that the Internet is not about education. It's about
boredom. Why?

ZS: One can log-on to the Web and cruise for hours, jumping from page to
page, subject to subject, country to country, computer to computer -
"surfing the Net" in a frenzied journey to nowhere. You never stay on any
particular site long enough to gain something specific out of it. Moving
>from site to site makes you more bored; and the more bored you get,
the faster you move.

One can't learn simply by perusing information. One learns by digesting it,
reflecting on it, critically assimilating it.

Q: There is no such thing as a free meal. In your view, the Internet is not
really "free", or even "cheap". Why?

ZS: To think of the Internet as a vast network of information, offering it
all free, is absolutely ridiculous. Any information which is worth anything
on the Internet is not free. Even now. As time goes by, more and more
information will come to you only if you pay for it.

Much information on the Net - really useful stuff from the Pentagon to
research on commercial technologies - is encoded. Not all the information
in the world is on the Net. Thank God for that. And unless all the world's
cultures are willing to be digitised, it will never be so.

Q: In your view, the Internet is either commercial, or a giant and filthy
toilet wall. Is this not too pessimistic a view?

ZS: People will deny it, but there is lot of pornography on the net. Just
look at the 60 odd Internet newsgroups whose titles begin with "alt.sex"
and literally thousands of privately run bulletin boards which pander to
sexual perversion, all in the name of freedom of expression.

It's becoming impossible to log on anywhere and not be invited to buy
something you don't want. And the more the Internet develops, the more it
will become basically a commercial place.

Q: Your latest book warns that cyberspace kills history and even real
people. What do you mean?

ZS: Cyberspace kills real people, let's come to that first. Virtual Reality
(VR) first emerged as a safe and inexpensive way of training pilots to fly
advanced military planes. Virtual Reality has now moved on to the
"entertainment" arena largely because the US defense industry wants returns
by finding other uses for the technology it originally developed.

Dress rehearsals for the smart-bombs, which so consistently missed their
targets in the Gulf War, was carried out in cyberspace. Cyberspace, like so
much of modern advanced technology, has its  origins in the military. The
Internet was developed as a foolproof mode of communication in case of a
nuclear war during the Cold War. It grew as a computer network that linked
university research centres with military departments.

Q: But how does it "kill history"?

ZS: Cyberspace is particularly geared towards the erasure of all non-
Western histories. Lots of historic information is being put onto
cyberspace. In a very, very antiseptic form.

Q: Do you subscribe to the view that `dirty money' can get out of control
in cyberspace?

ZS: It's happening more and more. Many recent banking scandals we've seen
recently - like Bearings - were scandals of cyberspace.

Cybercrime is going to be THE crime of the future. Organised crime is a
$750-billion-a-year enterprise, the drug trafficking generates revenue of
$400 to $500 billion. In cyberspace, this money is totally out of
governments' control.

It can lose itself in split-second deals. It is also legitimised by the
global movement of more than $1 trillion a day. In ten years, it will
become near impossible to trace ill-gotten revenues, giving organised
crime an unparalleled boost.

Q: This issue of seeing the Internet as modern-day colonialism, the
equivalent of Columbus or Vasco da Gama. How would you explain the link?

ZS: Once a new territory has been colonised, it is handed over to business
interests to loot. And the worst elements of the West are posted there to
administer and "civilise" the natives.

In cyberspace, the first persons coming - and getting big - are
pornographers, the paedophiles, the ultra-Right, the religious fanatic.

Q: Someone called it the Information Super-Hype-way, given all the hype.
You see cyberspace as a tool to distract Western society from its
meaninglessness of daily life. What potential, if any, does it have for
the Third World. For countries like India and Pakistan?

ZS: Frankly, the way Internet is developing at the moment, I don't see any.
Only, our Third World elites will be on-line, talking to their counterparts
in the First World. Thus making them even more alienated from society.

At this moment there's hardly any input from the Indian side on the
Internet. Even the news-groups of India and Pakistan and South East Asia,
are ones actually based in the US. In India too few institutions are
online. Supposing in 10 to 15 years all of India gets on-line, by that time
it will not be possible to have any significant impact on the whole
Internet world. So the system is designed to treat us exactly the way that
colonialism treated the Third World.

Communities which are rich will become powerful; but the vast majority will
be worse marginalised. I think the Internet will be a weapon of economic
power and knowledge.

But if we decided that we will have a network designed by Indians, for
Indians, in India, that will be something different. We will be in a
position to influence change, rather than be influenced all the time. India
has the capability.

Now, you have people in one Indian university department not knowing what
research the next department is doing. We have certain needs, which are
quite different. Let us fulfill them.

Q: But where does this leave us? Should the developing world strive for a
better presence on the Internet? Or, is it too hopeless? What is your
prescription?

ZS: My first prescription - as you call it - is that we must be aware.
Know what the Internet is capable of, and what it is not. Also, what
illusions it has created.

Secondly, concentrate on basic stuff first. Third World countries need
decent telephone networks. Currently, pockets are on-line, heavily
computerised, while you can't even make a telephone call to the next
village.

Third, Indians have an ancient history of Mathematics, and far superior
logic which is not yes-no logic. We can really develop genuine software
here. Our emphasis should be not just to provide cheap labour.



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