Theoretical Formulations

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Theories of social structure have often been formulated according to (or in reaction to) the prevalent technologies of the time. Durkheim’s two categories of group – mechanical and organic solidarities – seem to derive partly from his perception of the transition from feudal to industrial society and partly from the evolutionary theories of Darwin. While mechanical solidarities consist of undifferentiated members – a clockwork collective, organic solidarities lead to individualism through specialisation and difference. Durkheim’s model proposes that society becomes more organic over time, but that “however complex the division of labour, society does not become reduced to a chaos of short-term contractual alliances.” [cited in Giddens 1971: 77] Machines, governors and gradual, linear evolution appear to be embedded as metaphors in Durkheim’s conceptualisation of society.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Machines, however, are no longer favoured as dominant metaphors. Illich [1973], pointed out that machines have historically been considered servants of humanity, but that this no longer held, since it was clear that machines enslaved men. The time at which Illich was writing was one of increasing disillusionment with the perceived trajectory of technological development. “People need tools to work with rather than tools that ‘work’ for them.” [Illich 1973: 340] He called these tools ‘convivial technology’ –

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 “I chose the term ‘conviviality’ to designate the opposite of industrial productivity… In any society, as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society’s members… convivial tools are those which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision.” [Illich, I.1973: 342]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Illich argued that the focus of this new technology should be on the needs of individuals, whose needs he sees as having been neglected in the modernist ‘top-down’ organising of society. He suggests that with convivial technology, the impetus for development should be turned towards “primary groups.” [op. cit: 340] These groups consisted of associations of individuals with a common purpose, aided by tools which Illich claimed were only then becoming possible.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 More recent debates frame the issues through similar devices. The argument still concerns the roles of the individual and the group, but this time represented through the computer and the television. Tresilian suggests that there are consequences to the existence of two distinct kinds of technology – the analogue and the digital. “In the shift from analogue to digital technology in media, we may be seeing a paradigm for a more general shift from the division of labour characteristic of the industrial phase of work to its re-integration in the work of the post-industrial world.” [Tresilian 1995: 262] This transition has not yet been completed, and he suggests that we are currently in a “digilogue” [op. cit: 262] phase where the two technologies co-exist.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Analogue culture, as illustrated by the mass experience of television, represents the apex of modernism and its grand narratives; the primacy of society over the individual. “Its final flowering in terrestrial television brought the people of all nations into a single communications loop for world events, be it the death of a president or an Olympic final, each passing in turn through the domestic screen.” [op. cit: 265]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The digilogue phase, in Tresilian’s scheme, represents the postmodern age; where TV channels multiply and fracture the mass experience into little stories, such that individuals are no longer locked into the singular experience of the mass event. He thus uses changes in the means of media production and distribution as a metaphor for the changes that he perceives in society. In this transition period the two cultures coexist, though they have perspectives which are seemingly diametrically opposed. For example, “channel-hopping is, broadly speaking, a negative phenomenon with respect to analogue but positive with respect to digital technology.” [Tresilian 1995: 264] Interactive programming requires audience response; it relies on the individual making choices in order for the experience of the programme to occur. This suggests that the perspective (analogue or digital) from which an analysis is made determines the value of the outcome.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The ‘digital age’, however, remains to be fully experienced, though perhaps its stirrings can now be faintly heard on the Internet. Hakim Bey [1991] identifies an analogous duality between the collective and the individual in the digital domain, which he characterises as ‘the Net’ and ‘the Web’; the Net is hierarchical, such as banking and military systems, while the Web is non-hierarchical, like the telephone network and postal systems. “The Net… presents a pattern of changing/evolving relations between subjects (“users”) and objects (“data”).” [Bey 1991: 109] Control lies not with the individual, but with the institution. The key features of the Web, on the other hand, are its horizontality and openness. The Internet, at present, encompasses both kinds of communicative structure – one may use it to check a bank statement or to hold conferencing sessions with a friend. It seems ironic that these two contemporary themes – the structural social relations of the Net, and the multiplicity of relations of the individual on the Web – appear to echo Durkheim’s mechanical and organic solidarities.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 However, while the apparent function of the technology of the Web is to enable horizontality of communication between individuals, it also allows the creation of forums such as newsgroups, conferences and shared spaces. These are enduring ‘nodes’ in the Web, associations of individuals that lack many of the hierarchical features of institutions. “Cyberspace, at least as met on the Internet, occupies such a social space between ‘hard’ institutions and ‘soft’ culture. Its advocates register this liminal character as ‘virtual community’.” [Anderson 1995: 13] The structure of such communities can neither be described by appeals to the primacy of the codified relations within the institution nor by the consequences of alienation on the behaviour of individuals. Perhaps the kind of group that these social spaces favour is more akin to Illich’s ‘primary group’ than to conventional notions of social institutions or the interaction of individuals.

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