Local Knowledge and New Media Theory

This book chapter appears in the Aotearoa Digital Arts Reader.

Over the last four years, and with the support of numerous people including many in the Aotearoa Digital Arts network, I have been writing articles, giving talks, editing books, producing creative works and organising events that ask what it means for new media to consider the implications of indigenous knowledge, culture, and ways of being.[1] These have all been experimental activities: they have been undertaken to create change but without certainty about what the results would be. The methods have been relatively simple: to attempt to work collaboratively with (rather than on behalf of) indigenous artists and practitioners, and to take a lead from the work of indigenous commentators and researchers in what might be important questions to explore in this engagement at what Martin Nakata calls the “cultural interface.”[2]

Given my low level of previous experience in indigenous culture and communities, it is unsurprising that this engagement has sometimes turned out to be challenging to achieve in practice. The challenges also emerge from not just my own lack of experience, but from the deficit of resources that are available to indigenous arts and artists in comparison to non-indigenous artists. However, undertaking this work has also been a great source of learning for me about what the possibilities of something called ‘digital media’ might be, and my goal is to use this learning to increase the opportunities available for indigenous and non-indigenous artists alike.

What has led me to pursue these questions?

A fundamental factor is that Aotearoa New Zealand has a distinctive social and cultural environment where indigenous issues have a high level of visibility compared to other English-speaking nations. At one level these questions are just around us on a day-to-day basis, and the sensitivities that Aotearoa fosters have something to offer the consideration of culture in other former British colonies and possibly further afield.

Secondly, my initial political and academic development occurred within the context of the feminist movement, where the politics of difference has always been a central theme. From feminist work I learnt that experience is irreducible. While it is not possible to say how a person of a particular sex/gender will or should behave, it is also true that it is clearly not possible for someone who is not a woman to experience the world as a woman. Once women’s perspectives are taken as important within a particular discussion, it becomes clear exactly how male-focussed language and structures of power are. Or as Gayatri Spivak suggests, to introduce the question of woman changes everything. This is obviously the case in a male-dominated technological media environment, and it is no surprise that some of the most interesting works in new media’s history have foregrounded issues of gender. For me, the work of cyberfeminist collective VNS Matrix; designer and writer Brenda Laurel; and net artists such as Melinda Rackham were all influential, in part due to an emphasis on the politics of desire, intersubjectivity, and embodiment. In the field of science and technology studies, the work of Donna Haraway has always made me aware of how the politics of technology always carries with it questions of gender.

The other thing I learnt from feminism is that it is possible and necessary, if not straightforward, for someone from a dominant subject position to work with those from non-dominant positions on changing structures of dominance. So it seems to me that identity-related (or, I would prefer to say, experience-centred) social movements ask deep, difficult and significant questions of the political and the aesthetic in both dominant and non-dominant cultures. Feminist work is specifically useful in this problematic because sex/gender is an originary binary within the Western philosophical tradition. Feminist thinkers have done the most significant interrogation of the political effects of such binaries and this work is directly relevant to the dichotomy of coloniser and colonised.

A third reason these questions are interesting to me is because the dominant understanding of ‘the user’ in new media discourse is limited by the subjective experience and imaginations of the creators of electronic interfaces, who have for too long been dominated by a narrow demographic (almost always white and male). But there are a whole lot of other ways of being in the world. From working as an interactive designer in the commercial sector I learnt time and again that whatever you might think the user might do when engaging with a website or program, what users actually do when they engage with new media is something different. New media theory, with its overwhelming focus on the formal aspects of networks and systems rather than the people who use them, has mostly neglected the very different subjectivities of people who engage with new media outside of the dominant cultural assumptions of Europe and North America.[3] Projects of cultural self-determination by indigenous peoples offer models for reading technology outside of the narrow and specific cultural imaginaries that are too often prerequisites for participation in the new media environment. A hint of the potential can be found in the suggestion by Cheryl L’hirondelle that “the current lack of attention being paid by programmers to Indigenous communities around the world represents a missed opportunity, because our languages are eloquent, concept and process-based, and fully capable of describing various complicated technological dynamics.”[4]

A fourth prompt for pursuing this work is the centrality of colonial myths in cyberspace. The language structuring the Internet has always involved spatial metaphors – domains, multihoming, namespaces. This terminology has developed from a distinctly frontier cultural imaginary described by Cameron and Barbrook as “The California Ideology.”[5] To take a well-known example, John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace is an influential text in early web culture, which captures the epic mythology of the new online world. The text was critical in forging a collective sense of possibility in the English-speaking settler nations where web fever was catching hold. Barlow was a Wyoming cattle rancher, and for those of us working in the commercial new media industries the Californian Ideology was a Wired Magazine-sponsored rerun of the Wild West’s escape from the limits of government, and from politics.

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. […]
Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.[…]
You are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in a world where you will always be immigrants.[…]
In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish.[6]

From today’s vantage point, we can simply note that the anti-immigration provisions of Barlow’s declaration haven’t aged so well, and the cowboy’s identification as a ‘native’ seems all too resonant with the ‘Pakeha as a second indigenous culture’ trope promoted in New Zealand by some European commentators.

Virginia Eubanks highlights the problematic eloquently in her essay ‘Mythography of the New Frontier,’ which includes a discussion of historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s nineteenth century analysis of the frontier in the U.S., and Neal Stephenson’s ‘epic hacker travelogue’ Mother Earth Mother Board:

In much internet discourse, progress and conquest are suspiciously tightly coupled. When combined with the pioneer ideal of flexibility (translated for 20th century use as flexible accumulation of capital) and framed in terms of the ‘new frontier’ this mix becomes even more troubling. The concept of progress as social evolution is deeply embedded in the metaphors of the ‘new frontier.’ Turner masked the political and economic impetus and consequences of conquest in his pioneer ideal – the genocide of the Native American population, the exploitation of the natural environment, the aggression towards other nations with colonial holdings – by defining conquest as progress, discovery, the invention of new ways of life. The conquest of the frontier, for Turner, was about evolution, not aggression. This conceit is equally visible in Stephenson’s epic, and like Turner, Stephenson insists that this world-wide reach will have a naturally democratising and egalitarian effect.[7]

Deconstructing and reconstructing the binary

So, four impulses: a local context; the need to consider feminism and the politics of experience; the need for a culturally diversified theory of the user and the need for a decolonising of the cyberspace imaginary. Looking back at the itinerary of these interests, I can see them emerging from my experience of the cultural environment of Aotearoa New Zealand, with its unique mix of Pacific, Asian and European peoples. These cultures meet in a nation-state straining under the pressure of the two cultural systems joined in the Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty’s bicameral approach to legal administration could give us a clue on how to rethink new media protocols in a more diverse way. The work of both feminist and postcolonial theorists testifies to the power of this binary in thinking freedom from dominant assumptions.

Internet culture often reflects a distinctly European history of social thought, which begins with the concept of the individual subject, and extrapolates to that larger collection of individuals which is the ‘public.’ We can draw an analogy here to how the singular identity promoted under cultural nationalism (that of the ‘New Zealander’) becomes the basis for the pluralism of the multicultural state (it is this singular culture which defines the acceptable relationships between ‘multi’ cultures). Multiculturalism or liberal pluralism is a different way of thinking than the host-visitor model (tangata whenua – manuhiri) which is common to Pacific cultures. Of course, a host-visitor model can admit many – but a visitor will always exist in relation to the host. There is a dyad.

Psychoanalytically-inflected feminist philosophers such as Luce Irigaray show that to think in terms of this ‘two’ is to raise a very different type of ethical relationship than to think either the individual or the many, which have been more common social structures in European thought.[8] This relation to an Other calls subjectivity into question in powerful ways, questions we cannot hide from as we can in either the singular concept of ‘identity’ (where we are self-determining) or broader notions of the ‘social’ (where we can disavow our subjectivity). Irigaray’s metaphor of two lips joined in one organ suggests this alternative, perhaps allowing us to attend to the flipside of the colonial history embedded in new media’s dominant discourses. The colonial moment is, as Frantz Fanon made clear, a dyad, a relationship between coloniser and colonised which has a binary logic. The binary relation of zeroes and ones, on and off, forms the very basis of the digital. Perhaps critical engagement with this binary, linked and mutually descriptive, offers potential to achieve the Internet’s original promise of an international, inclusive, and democratic environment?

It goes without saying that as a foundation for research, these questions do not lend themselves to simple solutions and settled theories. However, they have raised some new issues in my thinking about new media that I believe are worthy of further investigation, which I’d like to outline here in the hope of joining others who are also interested in pursuing such work.

1) Is new media a good thing, just because it happens to be good for us?

This first question is a formulation taken from Scott Lash: how do we live in a medium which enables not just the flow of goods, but the flow of bads?[9] New media theory has brought with it an ethic of circulation, exemplified by Stewart Brand’s famous comment that ‘information wants to be free’, emphasising the benefits of sharing knowledge and opposing restrictions on the free movement of information. However, the experience of indigenous peoples with respect to unauthorised circulation of customary knowledge has been one case among many that suggests the circulation of information does not always result in positive outcomes for all.[10] Saskia Sassen notes that informationalisation tends to bring about a centralisation of control activities and a dispersal of routine tasks.[11] The dream of millions of cottage industries engaged in telework has not quite eventuated, and instead we have a consolidation of capital in the urban environment and a removal of managerial and coordinating functions from non-urban areas. Geographical studies on the impact of communications on small towns offer a parallel example: building transportation and communication networks is an investment which allows resources to flow out of or through that place. The net effect may even be the extinguishing of an entire productive sector of the economy in that location as consolidation occurs.[12]

Can we push for the development of new media and the attendant focus on development of the digital economy as a necessity, when this medium might be responsible for the deepening inequalities that are well documented in heavily informational economies?

2) Can we think the network via the nodes?

Network theory, in its suppression of the human subject, tends to make a number of implicit assumptions about what kind of a person is on the end of a network. Vine Deloria noted that “Western European peoples have never learned to consider the nature of the world discerned from a spatial point of view.”[13] Instead of assuming that there is a neutral space from which we can view the network, perhaps we can instead highlight each specific experience and the kinds of network connections such a position allows and disallows. Here we do not to automatically think the connections others have to the networks are the same as ours.

Spivak points out the dangers of bureaucratic egalitarianism when not supplemented by other kinds of thinking:

Cultural difference is spoken of but, by enthusiasm or convenience, a common human essence is assumed which denies the procedural importance of the difference. There is a related assumption: that the history of a sharing of the public and the private is the same among all groups of men and women as the one that follows through in terms of northwestern Europe or sometimes even Britain. This is the problem it seems to me. It’s not so much a universalisation as seeing one history as the inevitable telos as well as the inevitable origin and past of all men and women everywhere.[14]

3) How do we think what is not connected?

We can also begin to identify networks more accurately by observing not what they connect together but what they fail to connect. A positivist mindset assumes that an example can generally be replicated by other examples – in other words, a model of a process can be applied in every situation with appropriate customisation to the environment. This positivist mindset implies that global diffusion of the Internet and its models is inevitable. However, while Internet networks are theoretically ‘global’ there is never an actual globality, and the technocratic new media discourse is generally less eloquent on the reasons why theoretical globality fails to be achieved in practice. As Kerry Macnamara points out when talking about Information and Communication Technology for development:

Despite a proliferation of reports, initiatives, and pilot projects in the past several years, we still have little rigorous knowledge about ‘what works.’ There are abundant ‘success stories,’ but few of these have yet been subjected to detailed evaluation.[15]

Immanent methodologies are not sufficient to understand new media networks, we have to supplement them with experiences outside our networks to sensitise ourselves to their limits.

4) What systems are unknowable to us?

While the previous point might be seen to support anthropological or ethnographic methodologies (encountering the Other in order to understand our own issues), there are also genuine aporia or unbridgeable differences between our ways of being and those of others, which mean that any connection we seek is always deferred and never quite achieved. How does someone with experiences we cannot have (for example, those native to other language groups) think the network? Here is where the value of dialogue and intercultural conversation comes into play, where instead of smoothing over differences in the name of standardisation, we can foster multiple protocols for engaging with new media content. As poet and librarian Robert Sullivan suggests, such questions of protocol and holistic context are integral to indigenous cultural maintenance:

How do we send a message that strengthens the holistic context of each cultural item and collection? How do we ensure that both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples receive the message? How do we digitise material taking into account its metaphysical as well as its digital life?[16]

5) How will the philosophical underpinnings of new media theory be tested?

The construction of hardware and software packages requires a particular kind of test to be made of the developer’s capabilities – the result either works or it doesn’t. As we move into knowledge about the new media field and its social implications, we can no longer test our theoretical constructions so thoroughly, even though there is a tendency to analogise from the processes of software development to the social relationships that users engage in through new media tools. One of the best-known examples of this thinking is the Creative Commons, a form of intellectual property rights management for digital content drawing its inspiration from the GNU General Public License, a licence traditionally applied to software in the Open Source movement. The rigor of evaluation which operates in software development is however rarely present in the analogous social theories which spring from it.

This leads to the question of how we test a knowledge system. In the worlds of philosophy and social theory, the emphasis is usually placed on evaluating conceptual or descriptive work in relation to previous methods and concepts. In more applied forms (say the visual arts, or politics) we tend to look to circulation and effects to prove a concept. One of the questions that continues to haunt interdisciplinary work (not just in new media, but also in fields such as cultural studies) is that centering the community of knowledge around the object of study rather than the methods of inquiry tends to result in a lack of interest in or knowledge of precursors from times before that object came into being. To name one example, new media thinkers tend to valorise participatory models (such as ‘citizen journalism’) without reference to the investigations of the limits to citizenship and participation in pre-Internet media. This ethic reflects a particular instance of what Stephen Turner calls “settler futurism” and Barthes called “neomania”, a focus on “making over and moving on” that is incompatible with cultural systems based on a different sense of time.[17]

Where could these questions take new media and its future? There is no endpoint I can visualise – in fact, this approach to new media is oriented against a philosophy that takes development as a given. My questions are part of a search for an ethic of new media that can make the openness and diversity of Internet content manifest in its interactions and structure. The Internet has been described as a series of diverse monocultures, but our skills in working with other knowledge systems will have to improve as the demographic base of the Internet expands. Against tropes of speed, connection and movement that are so common in Internet discourse, this ethic could emerge from a focus on gaps, nodes, difference and incompatibility – spaces of unsettlement and possibility. Such a development of the imagination is surely the role of the arts – to imagine outside of the given, the instrumental and the immediately useful.

1 Examples include the Cultural Futures event co-organised with Jon Bywater and Nova Paul, and the edited collection PLACE: Local Knowledge and New Media Practice currently in press with Cambridge Scholars Publishing. http://culturalfutures.place.net.nz Other works are available at http://acp.dannybutt.net
2 Nakata, “Indigenous Knowledge and the Cultural Interface,” 281-91.
3 Nakamura, Cybertypes.
4 L’Hirondelle, “Sub-rosa.” http://www.horizonzero.ca/textsite/tell.php?is=17&file=0&tlang=0
5 Barbrook, and Cameron. The Californian Ideology. http://www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk/theory-californianideology-main.html.
6 Barlow, Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.
7 Eubanks, “The Mythography of the ‘New’ Frontier,” http://web.mit. edu/mit/articles/index_eubanks.html.
8 This point is based on Spivak’s reading of Irigaray in Spivak, “French Feminism Revisited,” 141-172.
9 Lash, Critique of Information.
10 Michaels, Bad Aboriginal Art.
11 Sassen, The Global City.
12 Daniels, Service Industries.
13 Deloria, God Is Red, 63.
14 Spivak and Sharpe, “A Conversation with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,” 617.
15 McNamara, “Information and Communication Technologies.” http://infodev.org/en/Document.17.aspx.
16 Sullivan, “Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights – A Digital Library Context.” http://www.dlib.org/dlib/may02/sullivan/05sullivan.html
17 Turner, “Aotearoa/New Zealand: The Homeland of Make-over Culture.”