This debate appeared in the Toronto journal, "Reality & Meaning", issue #22, 1997

Living Internet

By William Markiewicz

Dear Phil,
Your opinions concerning the Internet (R&M #21) caught my attention and I wonder if the problem you tackle does not go beyond Internet to another basic question: Are non-Western civilizations superior to the Western one precisely because they developed "inwardly" towards spiritual depths and not outward to conquer the material world through science and technology? If the West had taken other pathways of development, today's scientists and technicians would be empirical experts and we, people of pen and arts, would probably be priests and sorcerers. But, let's return specifically to Internet, the topic you chose. If you don't mind I would like to adopt the email style, meaning, I will quote and answer you point by point. It makes communication so much more direct and clear! I am not even sure that this telegraphic style, as literature, is really the inferior one; after all, Truman Capote didn't get his Pulitzer for nothing. I also received a powerful testimony in praise of the ultra-short by email:

"...the culture I grew up in has made a resonance to the commercial: the lonely poetry of convenience store signs speaks to me of the solitude of the soul and if that makes me a sap so be it. ..... Much of what I personally find most visionary and most resonant is appropriated from commercial culture..... Suzie."

Power expressed in store signs is really a power of minimalism. Suzie testifies about how our reality acts upon us, and what we call "culture" is what grows out of us, in the form of our emotional response to it. There is no such thing as inferior or superior surroundings just as there is no such thing as inferior or superior colours or sounds. It all depends on what we do with them. In the same vein, Picasso said that there are artists who turn a yellow stain into the sun and there are artists who turn the sun into a yellow stain. Of course we have to fit. We are not the same so values cannot be the same for everybody. Ask the Polar Bear if his white desert, or the Camel if his yellow desert, are desolate. Probably the Inuit will agree with the Polar Bear and the Arab with the Camel. Rats are happy in the sewer.

One example of the ultra-short that is close to my heart:

Cast a cold eye
on life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

Those few lines carry a topic on which tomes have been written. For me it beats Haiku. Haiku describes the external sensory world with some accent to guide our feelings while Yeats' lines enter brutally into the core.

After this praise of ultra short style and considering email as one of its vehicles, let's go back to the Internet in general.

1. The Internet has not diminished the value of language and information because Internet doesn't represent power over them. To think that Internet is invaded by technologues or by ignoramuses is, in my opinion, to accord Internet a character it doesn't have. Internet cannot be invaded because Internet is not a place, not a thing, not an institution; Internet is a function and the computer is a tool like the telephone, the radio or the hammer are tools. With the Internet we remain entirely free to choose with whom we wish to communicate. If the other exists or not, who cares? Yes, we can chance on something we don't like but "splendid isolation" is not our goal; censorship creates more problems than solutions.

Technologues use Internet to exchange professional information. Representatives of other disciplines do the same. The holders of "pure thought" dispense their ideas free. It is natural that they are a small minority. The business world is not interested in financing home pages, no matter how interesting or valuable they may be, which don't have hundreds, if not thousands of readers per day.

I remember the times when Communism was slowly dying in Poland. It was a "fools' paradise" because cultural life wasn't so much under the regime's control anymore, and the subsidies still functioned. So the creators, not bound by regime nor commercial considerations, flourished, creating for themselves. The situation engendered masterpieces in theatre, TV, radio, cinema etc. but it couldn't continue forever. Internet cannot be a fool's paradise.

> When everything is free what has value?

For those who exchange information it is an exchange of gifts -- a return to the old barter tradition. I pity those who only take without being able to offer something.

> Just as the home handyman thinks it's absurd to pay for a plumber ...

A "handyman" is a survivor, meaning a return to the good old ways of knowing your surroundings. He is a participant, not a total ignoramus who pays for everything.

> ... the modern info-maven has no need of books for instruction or entertainment.

Again, it depends who; the users are more often experts than non-experts. Who will read an article about Nuclear Physics on the Internet or about Jung if he doesn't have some knowledge of the matter. More people look for porn, gossip, etc.? But the same happens on the newsstands and in libraries, so Internet hasn't introduced any changes in customs.

> And why do they call it "E-mail" when it is more like a disjointed phone conversation than a letter?

This is not a point against email. It gives you all the time you need to ponder your answer. Email has more value than the telephone because the written word stays.

> When there is no hierarchy of values, it's not democracy, it's anarchy. Money lost meaning with the advent of the credit card.

What value? Should it make a difference for me if I pay with my signature or with money? There are no fixed "values" only symbols and fluctuations. In Rubens' time, men liked the "Rubens type" of woman.

> ... the value of what we have is diminished by the amount we have ...

We are naturally protected from excess of information on the mental as well as on sensory levels. Facing the extreme wealth of information, we appreciate differently but not less. We don't perceive the material world directly, only impressions of it. Seemingly, the senses serve not only to inform us but to protect us from the excess of information. The same thing happens on the mental level: Our daily consciousness is not a geyser but small candle-like flames constantly igniting and going out. We will never remember everything at once. We will never remember all we should, our daily consciousness is a trial and error road, Internet or not. In my view, by being exposed to more and more information, more and more controversy, we actually exercise our brain from one generation to another. But this we can acknowledge only when looking backward not forward. We can judge our past and present. Our future doesn't grow out of our judgements or philosophies but out of our latent potentialities endorsing each other. They have their own dynamics which our mind cannot perceive and our judgement cannot influence. For thousands of years people have complained that the world goes toward the worst and perhaps it does. But, as it was common in the past to say: "Brazil is at the edge of the precipice but will never fall in because it is bigger than the chasm," so mankind is too big to be its own victim. Everything becomes different, that's all.

Quantity doesn't diminish quality. Gutenberg spread knowledge beyond the handwritten word. It was a tool of progress, not the bastardization of knowledge. Of course Illuminata are aesthetically superior but I prefer them to be a collector's item rather than an instrument of information.

Internet gave a new dimension to freedom of information. Here are excerpts of email I received from Africa: "...Thanks to Internet, we are just beginning to have access to true freedom of information. It is still limited to an extremely small minority. Buying power here doesn't even permit one to nourish a family; much less to send all one's children to school. So the telephone and, indeed, the computer is beyond dreaming. Still, at least there are young people who start to understand and even a cybercafe has opened. So hopes are finally awakening for the coming generation or for the most dynamic among them. It's so important... M.P.N. - Dakar."

One director of an Ontario nursing school asked me for permission to use text from Vagabond Pages, "The Pity and the Horror", as an assignment for her students. You can imagine with what pleasure I accepted. The text has been posted in many nursing wards around the world. And this was a text the press was not interested in.

Faithful to Western tradition in which everything is malleable, the Internet may replace the printed word, TV, telephone in the same way recording tape followed phonograph records. This is perhaps the only "united field" that really exists. I don't remember who said, "What can be, will be." What we can, we need and vice versa. Internet is a hermaphroditic cyber lover that satisfies everybody -- and even has candy for a child. With new potentialities, new philosophies, new values will come into existence, and if somebody could go to sleep for a thousand years, on awakening the reality for him would be beyond a psychotic dream. Paradoxically, Internet doesn't increase solitude but is rather a panaceum for solitude. Remark that ever since cities came into existence, there have been many solitudes as people with no family, no personal friends, are no longer automatically part of some tribe, clan or community. For older people, solitude is just a normal way of life. Internet doesn't isolate them because they are already isolated, but creates a new web -- web of solitudes -- which is an improvement. Better an intense communication with a virtual interlocutor than no communication at all or one with your dreams or deliriums. Sometimes powerful affection grows among those communicating -- as I read once: "Group, thanks for being there..."

Another testimony I received by email:

"this internet is really far out - like a global community - sounds hokey but look at what we just shared ... when tv goes to sleep at night it dreams that it's the world wide web ... Charles"

From my observation, those solitary people going aimlessly on their promenades through streets and parks are more isolated, their solitude is more painful, than that of those in their rooms facing a computer. To be solitary in the crowd is like being a hunchback walking among the straight, like the dwarf walking among giants. Do you want to know how the ghost feels? You don't have to die. It's enough if you go to walk among the young if you are old. For people who go outside into the world, to play Bingo for instance, it becomes so routine that they don't even remark the partners around them.

I heard the argument that all the modern communication gadgets are an abyss trapping us into a virtual reality undistinguishable from the real one. Allow me to play the Devil's Advocate: Does "virtual reality" really deserve its bad reputation? Breaches start to appear in this conviction: Borges said that people need ideals for which they will be able to give their life, no matter if they are true or false. In one science fiction story a woman chooses death rather than be separated from a robot built in the image of her dead husband. In the movie "Il Mondo Cane" I believe, a woman lives with her dead mummified husband. Do we have a right to judge? It is their life after all, and if only their life is involved then their decisions, their convictions, shocking or not, "true" or "false," should remain their business because they give sense to their life.

I read a science fiction story which masterfully handled the problem of reality versus virtual reality; unfortunately I don't remember the author nor the title. A police detective was assigned to track the dealing of a new drug. The symptoms were that the victims either fell asleep for the rest of their life or went in and out of sleep state, and when awake refused to acknowledge reality. The inspector visited one of the victims who was just sitting in a corner of the room screaming at visitors, "Go away, I know that you don't exist!" I don't remember the circumstances in which he took the drug himself, maybe by accident. Anyway he fell deeply asleep and on awaking found nothing strange about himself nor his surroundings . He said to himself, "I must be immune." He continued his career, the drug market had been dismantled and his life just carried on normally up to retirement. Some sickness caused his death -- and he woke up. He realised that it had all been an illusion; that indeed he was a victim of the drug. He changed his job, went to live in the country got into an accident that killed him -- and he woke up. This went on over and over again with various careers, various deaths, and virtual immortality. The author ended the story with a description of the hero standing on a hill and staring into the distance. The green clouds were passing above. His father was on his annual migration with his pack of rats (I don't remember what his mother was doing in the meantime.) The world was beautiful, life was beautiful. Was it real? Who cares! His conclusion was that if we feel alive and real that's what really matters.

As with everything else, it is a never ending story, we will be never able to put a final point to the debate. Seemingly the "ultimon" doesn't exist...

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