A World Created Anew

The more I read on the topic of the economy of digital content, the more I recognize the wide spread use of a specific type of vocabulary. In the past, we used to talk about information, data, markets, or capitalism. Now we talk about content, environments, ecosystems, and economics. This doesn’t seem to be just whitewash. There is this eerie feeling that these ‘new words’ describe something new, as if by using them we’d acknowledge that we’ve entered a new space, a new landscape.

The parlance is no longer about markets and market niches, it’s about environments (in the plural), ecosystems, and niches in which to harbour, raise, sustain, thrive a business. In a sense everything has become not so much unreal, but rather immaterial. As no one has a feeling for the form of a digital content, the spaces in which these contents are supposed to exist got an immaterial air as well. This isn’t something new. Not in vain did we describe them as ‘virtual reality’. But what has changed is the growing confidence with which people speak about these areas in those terms. That is rather interesting as those who speak that way most definitely don’t have any clues about nature, environments, habitats, etc., at all. It is a detached ‘knowledge’, something one has heard about. As one has heard about the smelly, stuffy thing our grandparents called Nature.

We describe an immaterial object with it’s immaterial relations to other such objects in terms of ‘ecology’ and ‘habitats’, terms we don’t understand either. We substitute the understanding of terms like ‘stuff’, ‘object’, ‘market’, ‘economy’ with something we even understand less or different.

The aim of the use of these new words is to keep the ambiguities alive. We simply don’t know yet what comes out of that what we describe with those new words. At the same time the metaphorical sense of ‘ecosystem’, ‘habitat’, ‘environment’, ‘life-form’, etc. keeps us in a kind of cosiness with this vast openness. Those terms don’t have meaning in what they’re saying — they have meaning in precisely what they’re not saying, what they leave open. A realm of connectedness, streching out vast and infinite.

There is a sense in how we describe the web, the old-fashioned ‘virtual reality’, the patterns that rise through links on links on links. I guess we even couldn’t describe it differently. The metaphor of landscape, even in its purified and formalized version of the talk of ecosystems, is a way western thought has described human personality, the mind, the soul, even the spirit, for nearly 2.000 years. At the latest with St. Augustine we have a full-fledged terminology of describing the inwardness of the human psyche. There are compelling arguments that it was him who invented the concept of the human soul as an inner realm distinguished from the outer world. [1] This inner realm was identified with memoria, the remembrance or memory, as the distinguished place where Man could meet God, where the soul could be and stay in devotion and prayer, immersed in her search for the deity.

It is important to note that this inner realm, this inner place that, in a sense, is the soul and provides the space for a soul, is a personal place, a convent of two, so to speak — the longing soul and the longed-for, the aspired deity. By no means is this place supposed to be a public space, an area where several minds or souls can meet, interact, mingle. Revelations are supposed to happen in the outer world, not in the inner soul. Angels, demons, deities, ghosts, spirits, the haunted and the beautiful ones, the fairies, the helping beings — they were supposed to be in the outer world, not in the inner one. It would be a defining mark of modernity many centuries later to place those entities into the inner realms of the soul, somewhat as her basement in the form of her pathologies and insanities. But the roots for this, the possibility to place something into somethig like an inner world, this ‘conceptual possibilty’ was laid at the latest with the work of St. Augustine. (The image of a house that the soul is and through which one wanders, is another important image, closer to the western discipline of mnemonics, ars memoria, as it was taught from ancient Greece and Rom until the European Renaissance.)

This inner realm, the double-entity of a space for the soul and being the soul, is a private, intimate world, in which the believer enters (and not permanentely lives) in the pursuit of devotion and prayer. And whether the devotional soul was to be touched by the self-revealing God, wasn’t up to the believer or the soul. It was, at least in Christianity, an act of grace, bestowed upon the seeker, and not something to be forced or made.

Through the centuries the inner realms and their topologies, so to speak, changed. The Scholastic brought a doctrine of angels, explaining how they could interact with material stuff by inventing and using the analogy of the marionette. The protestant doctrine of Twofolded Predestination, Kantian moral philosophy, and, of course, psychologists like Freud, Jung, and others were signpost and crossroads in the long history of what can be seen as the Western Self. But in all of them, in a sense even with Jung, the conception was prevalent that the self is something encapsulated, distinct. (Jung’s collective unconscious is precisely that — unconscious. It is a deep layer in the personality of man, not the conscious person itself.) And being so, the world was construed as the opposite. Buber was one of the famous philosophers tackling with the question of how I and Thou could correlate — and the ‘thou’ he used in his book is, of course, akin to the ‘thou’ the believer uses in his prayers to the deity.

The concept of landscape, as was prevalent in writers like Yeats, Whitman, Emerson, was and is a way of re-defining not only the relations between, but equally important the very concepts of the inner realm (that is the soul), and the outer realm (that is a world). Formerly both realms were governed by different sets of laws (natural laws vs. moral laws) that defined their being and kept them distinct and apart, but had the disadvantage of delegating the re-union of both to religion, arts, love. Seen as a landscape both could be seen as places in something third that would comprise them and guarantee their existence as well. Modern parlance of ecosystems, ecology, habitats are directly linked to or at least exceptionally suited to touch both spheres of being.

The parlance of ecosystems didn’t only derive from academic biology, but far more from the psychiatry, systems-theory, and anthropolgy of the 50s and 60s. Anthropologists like Bateson, psychologists like Laing used systems-theory to describe human acitivity as an acitivity in and of symbol-transfer-circuits. These aspects could be formalized, spared of specific contents, to describe patterns of relatedness. And what was thought in the 50s and 60s as a model to describe communication between subjects grew to a kind of applied theory of whole systems during the rise of ecology and counterculture. Buckminster Fuller, Gregory Bateson, Stewart Brand, and others, are names to be mentioned here. The concept of a system was applied to landscape, mind, personality, populations. And that means: the concept of landscape stopped being about the private inner realm of one person and her musings, and became instead the description of the interaction between several people with their mind and wishes in a concrete environment. The system became open in exactly the way the old landscapes were not. We reached a realm in-between: between the subjective and the objective.

And here, at this juncture it is, that the parlance of environments, ecologies, habitats, contents, etc., now so common in the talk of the web-based economy, has its influence. The feeling that we cannot, as in former times we could, separate us from the digital contents we produce or absorb, the areas in which we interact, the other persons, the news-aggregators, etc., it is this feeling that drives us to the use of the ecological metaphors. The imagery is a technical one describing forms as contents, and not the old metaphor of landscapes and nature. So what we are describing with these terms are the somewhat unclear, but very presently felt connections between various types of abstract entities: persons, contents, bots, links, content-providers, etc. The openness and vastness is felt as a liberation very distinct from the intense but lonley experience of landscape a flaneur or artist might have had at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Being attached but equally distinct from the machines is best described with a vocabulary that ones was invented and applied in the study of populations and systems. The difference is, that in this imagery, mind and soul render indistinguishable. The ‘private parts’ of persons vanish into the background, and in the foreground we become more and more distinct but replacable symbol- and information processing devices.

The net is vast and infinite. Many of the aforementioned questions were beautifully raised and played with in the 90s with Ghost in the Shell. Presupposed in its philosophical musings is the identification of information with consciousness. This is important, easily overlooked, and not entirely false, because information in distinction to data, is what a conscious (or at least sentient) being apprehends and entertains. From here it is only a small but crucial step to accept the net as a conscious entity or endeavour. (One of the features that make Ghost in the Shell so important is the elaboration of questions that arise as a result of this identification.) And here it is, that we begin to feel comfortable with the parlance of content, ecosystems, economics, instead of the older ones of information or data, markets, capitalism. In the former we are an intricate part, in the latter we are bystanders describing something distinct from us. It will take us a long while to figure out whether this is solely a fantasy in our individual minds or whether we really have entered new territory, a new way of seeing us …. through all. Images have their own lives. So we’ll have to see what in the long run their influence on how we understand ourselves and our surroundings will be. Maybe they are even stronger — and create a new world in which we don’t find ourselves a part of and at home until we begin to understand their consequences and what they are all about. Because the mind is not written in code, it’s written in images.


[1] I am very indebted to Phillip Cary, Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self: The Legacy of a Christian Platonist, Oxford [et al.]: Oxford University Press, 2000. This study had a profound influence on me.


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