People on the net. Can the internet can our culture and world view?

Presentation (Handout), 2001

28 Pages



1. Enthusiasts and sceptics

2. Internet and real life communities

3. The identity problem

4.The digital “Me”, the digital “Him”

5. The reality conflict

6. Space, time, freedom

7. Entertainment on the Net

8. Net-escapism

10. Apologia for childishness

11. “Screen-agers”: ageing with the screen

12. The screen alliance

13. Questions instead of conclusions


1. Enthusiasts and sceptics

In the mid-’60s Marshall McLuhan wrote that: “Due to the spreading of the electrical speed, we no longer have time to wait to see anyone.” (McLuhan 1999:151) Towards the end of the ’90s, a new resident of a detached housing estate in the Silicon Valley neighbourhood, inhabited by employees of a large, advanced technology corporation invites his neighbours to a barbecue. And he hears in reply :“Why don’t we just exchange emails?” “The e-generation Manifesto” published on the Internet just before the end of the 20th century ends in the following words: “It does not matter who we are, what we look like, where we come from — what matters is only what we think and what we have to say” (Manifest 2000).

The emergence and rapid growth of the Internet is equally a technological, political, economical, and a social issue: an IT specialist, a political scientist, or a trade and advertising expert are equally knowledgeable here as scholars: sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers and historians of art. This is caused by the fact that the Net creates a new communication environment at the macro- and micro-community level, and in interpersonal relations. Although the Net communication model is a fundamentally new phenomenon, and one which had been practically unknown to people before the end of the ’80s, it emerged in a space occupied by old models, founded on oral culture categories, and later on categories of literate culture, in its manual and typographic versions (Ong 1992), and eventually on message/electronic transmission culture paradigms (McLuhan 1975). Therefore, the Internet is becoming a special “transition field” for different communication models – towards models which are not yet fully recognisable and which philosophers of culture view with great concern now (Lem 2000). Some appreciate the advantages of the Internet as a way to overcome the temporality of communicating in writing, whereas others notice that stripping written messages of their temporal dimension amounts to attacking the traditional, “aristocratic” superiority of that communication form over the “plebeian” direct contact, i.e. oral contact. Some view the Internet as an embodiment of human dreams of fully democratic communities (which are therefore able to give rise to democratic institutions), others, on the contrary, consider the Internet to be a gigantic rubbish dump, where everything is equal and equally important, which leads to validation (by large political and economic structures) of “heap culture” (Kapuściński 1997). Some believe that the World Wide Web offers an opportunity for growth and advancement of peripheral, local social groups; others accuse the Net of attempting to make various social life dimensions homogeneous and deprive communities which are distinct from others due to their “otherness” of an opportunity to individualise (Ociepka 1999:161). Hence, there are certain attempts at resolving this conflict, including the introduction of the “glocal community” concept, to describe communities which are capable of combining the global dimension of Net features used thereby with strictly local or regional ambitions[1].

Several circles are also concerned about the fact that the globalisation of all processes (epitomised by the Internet) is in fact an attempt at putting into effect the Orwellian vision of total control. The Central European societies, now free of totalitarianism and centrally managed economies, suspect that what is involved is just a new form of the Big Brother’s surveillance getting in by the back door.

The spread of the Internet in post-communist societies and communities gives rise to new conflicts, not known so far and poorly documented in relevant literature. T. Goban-Klas is right (Goban-Klas 1999: 297) when he says that:

“Yet, although the new media are indeed new in their technical aspect and, in general, excellent in their operating parameters, they do not affect the basic structure of the communication process: sender - message - medium – receiver. Moreover, they exist and are used within the “old” social structure. They are modelled by the existing forces and social systems, which means that they cannot escape the inherent communication problems: how to regulate its course, where to get financial and technical resources from, how to attract receivers.”

Let us enumerate a number of such potential conflicts, caused by the collision of the new communication structure with the “old social structure” which has not undergone sufficiently great changes, or rather – which has not undergone any changes in response to communication type changes:

- the conflict between social groups which make use of the New Media and groups which are deprived of such opportunities due to poor education, low earnings, age, location[2] ;
- the mismatch between what is expected of latest communication technologies and the ability to meet such expectations under specific conditions, which cannot be intellectually mastered by large sections of the society;
- the “globalisation” of information catch-phrase will be associated by people living in authoritarian societies, prone to attributing demoniac characteristics to invisible decision-making centres which elude straightforward classification, with a sphere of hostile concepts (because they are abstract) – and the Internet is exactly one of such spheres;
- the word “globalism” arouses mixed feelings at best. That is so because “globalism” and “globalisation” are associated by a great number of people – and not necessarily those who are parochial and conservative in their thinking – with centrifugal tendencies, with cutting ties which cement “the local” – that is “own”, close and “inhabited”. “Globalism” stands for vagueness – or, in other words, an invisible, powerful and hostile central super-authority which takes control of smaller and weaker communities through unification and standardisation, through stripping them of distinctness and autonomy. Fear of losing identity due to the growing “globalisation” of all and any manufacturing processes, commerce, and finally communication, prevails now over the optimism of the past, which was reflected in the “global village” concept.

It appears that the Internet and the evaluation of its role in expanding intellectual and productive capabilities of the humanity evokes the same sort of controversy as the controversy aroused in the ’70s and ’80s by evaluating the traditional “mass” media. There was a political and ideological background to such controversies. They reflected the split of the world into two hemispheres – the rich and the poor. The former – on the then popular dependency theory - was supposed to be making the latter dependent on information terms. Although the conflict related to (roughly speaking) the economic and technological disproportion between the North and the South, in fact it could have boiled down to the conflict between the West and the East over their control over the Third World. The economically and technologically weak East attempted to portray the rich West as a force making the Third World dependent and imposing its own vision of reality in the media on them.

The era of expanding global information networks coincides with the elimination of the political – system-related and ideological – basis for the division of the world into the East and the West, however the substance of the distrust of Western (mainly American) domination in the sphere of the media order has remained virtually unchanged. C. Hammelink (Hammelink 1983:112) wrote the following in the early ’80s, when he considered the prospects for autonomy against the background of global communication:

“the cultural desynchronisation process results in decisions concerning the cultural progress in one country being taken to promote the interests and needs of powerful central nations and imposed with a subtle, yet ruining, effectiveness, without taking heed of the adaptive needs of the developing countries”.

Today, the words “without taking heed of the adaptive needs” could be replaced with the words “without taking heed of technological capabilities and psycho-social conditions prevailing in the developing countries”. This position can be found in numerous European Union documents and reports which accuse Poland of making too little progress in promoting general access to the Internet.

On the other hand – taking into account the rate of growth in tele-information technologies – absolute dependence of the rate of such technological growth in countries committed to participation in multi-regional and multi-national structures solely on local capabilities translates into actual decline. The existing gap is illustrated in Table 1.

The analysis clearly shows the surprisingly high rank of the Scandinavian countries (including the post-communist Estonia) and the low rank of the South European countries (with the exception of the post-communist Slovenia). This disproportion can be explained in a number of ways. If we consider the number of hosts, i.e. computers working on the Internet per 100 people, Finland clearly outdoes even the USA and Canada. If, in turn, we consider the number of PCs per 100 people – Switzerland, where, similarly to the USA and Canada, nearly one in two citizens owns a PC, ranks as the first in Europe. The Scandinavian countries are just behind.

In Poland approx. 3% of the population have PCs, however the number of hardware sets does not correspond to the number of Web users. Barely 2.3% of households have modems. The PC is still considered to be a status symbol in Poland, a toy, or a more complex and modern typewriter. Moreover, the statistics do not reflect the differences between older and new generation computers, and only the latter make it possible to take full advantage of the WWW. Low usage of the Internet in Poland is caused by the condition of the telephone network in Poland (only 23 telephone lines per 100 people), and the prices set by TP SA, a long-distance call monopolist.

But the cited figures invite another comment as well. The dominant position of the Scandinavian countries as far as access to and usage of the Net are concerned may be associated with the society type which has evolved in those countries. In accordance with the well-known Weber’s classification they are societies-associations, governed by rationalised effective co-operation principles, whereas in the South and Central Europe there are still traditional social ties in place – tribal, drawing upon values that are vague, values whose recognisability – on the contrary to pragmatic regulations – may be gradable, and, thus, naturally, manipulated. Societies included in the former category are not concerned about “globalisation” of their information systems because they are capable of transforming them to suit objectives which are pursued “locally” or “regionally”. Whereas societies included in the latter category consider “globalisation” to be a potential threat to the traditional, “local” ties, which are unique and exceptional. Hence, societies included in the former category see the global Web as a factor which rationalises their activities, whereas societies included in the latter category may even consider them to be an aggressive and strange “interference” violating the “immemorial” order, sanctioned by the tradition.

The “information society” concept is the key to the matters discussed in the preceding paragraphs. Although that concept was developed already some 30 years, it is only in the early ’90s that it became a basis for describing social transformation processes taking place on a global and local scale (Goban-Klas 1999:286). Generally speaking, information societies are characterised by the following:

- exponential output growth;
- a high level of media integration (data highways);
- information production means over transmitted content;
- dependence of all aspects of social life on obtaining and generating information.

However, the creation of information societies in post-communist countries runs into difficulties, including problems already outlined in the preceding paragraphs. It may be assumed that sooner or later technical or technological barriers can be overcome, although that requires huge investment and foreign investors. Their presence in Poland’s media market already encounters strong opposition – it is weaker when it comes to organisations dealing only with hardware and transmission (e.g. the privatisation of TP SA), and much stronger in respect of direct information generators (printed media, radio or television) and Internet service providers. Saturation of the market with PCs capable of working on the Web will not automatically make the Polish society an “information” society – even though a significant proportion of informatisation enthusiasts in Poland seem to be cherishing such hopes. There may even arise such circumstances where “informatisation” of that sort will prove irrational, which means that it will not only fail to attain its objective, but that its potential ineffectiveness will undermine the transition process, leading to frustration and an even greater distrust of “globalisation”.

Therefore, it seems that the “information society” problem must be analysed in terms of the “open society” (in a wider sense than attributed thereto by Karl Popper) and “civil society”. I do not want to argue that an “information society” cannot be created in traditionalist and isolationist cultures (see Hall 1978) – as demonstrated by Japan and South Korea – however, in such environment it is not possible to combine the idea of an information society with the idea of a civil society. Such a synthesis seems to have two variants in the world of today: one follows the American model (whose distinctive features result from the multi-ethnicity of the American society, unique legal regulations, limited government involvement in shaping markets and social life of US citizens); the other is the Scandinavian model (relative ethnical homogeneity, abiding by the law, a sophisticated social care system funded by the state, strong Protestant traditions which give communities of believers more say in determining the policies of church institutions). Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the Scandinavian countries can successfully compete with the USA or Canada in terms of the spread of information technologies, because both here and there the creation of an information society is assisted both by “openness” and a tradition of citizen co-operation, resistant to risks posed by the “globalisation” of information systems.

The conditions existing in post-communist countries are different. There is virtually no “civil society tradition, and “openness” – in this case in the strictly Popper’s sense – has not only failed to develop as yet but it has, even after 1989, its avowed enemies here. Freedom is principally limited to “freedom from”, and the authoritarianism, deeply rooted in people’s minds, makes it harder for them to understand what “freedom to” means. Despite a significant decentralisation of power, compared with the pre-1989 era, despite inviting citizens to participate in decisions affecting their immediate neighbourhood and enacting appropriate legal and constitutional framework, a significant proportion of such rights and delegation have not been taken advantage of. This consolidates the identification of the state with the central government, i.e. communicational relationships are still hierarchical and vertical: in people’s minds it is “the centre” which has the power and pulls all the strings – including information distribution. There are two general categories of ideas of media: “pro-Brussels” (i.e. cosmopolitan and “anti-national”) and “Polish” (i.e. expressing open Euro-scepticism and criticising various “globalisation” efforts). The positions of the traditional media (the press, radio, television) are usually ascribed to specific people or organisations. Whereas the Internet – given its indeterminate, flexible and “global” structure – is usually treated with distrust and included in the former category.


[1] I owe the idea to call local communities using the Net ‘glocal’ communities to Prof.Tomasz Goban-Klas.

[2] Both in Poland and in many other Central European countries there are no state-of-the-art telecommunications facilities, which severely restricts their ability to make use of the Internet.

Excerpt out of 28 pages


People on the net. Can the internet can our culture and world view?
Pedagogical University of Cracow  (Polish Philology)
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ISBN (eBook)
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Zbigniew Bauer (Author), 2001, People on the net. Can the internet can our culture and world view?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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