Beyond the Global Information Frontiers: What Global Concepts ("Weltbilder") Are There on the Internet and Why?

Nils Zurawski <zurawsk@uni-muenster.de>
University of Münster
Germany

Keywords: frontiers, globalization, corporate capitalism, tourism, identity, global concepts, professional middle-class.

Contents

Introduction

The narrative of the "global village" claims to render all boundaries and frontiers insignificant, creating a new society based on global networking. This view springs from the fact that today national borders are being transcended or deconstructed and almost no places exist anymore that are geographically unknown or unvisited.

The Internet, as well as other communication technologies, the development of transportation, as well as war, have contributed to these processes, that together may define the global village: the spread of corporate capitalism and the intensification of worldwide social relations referred to as globalization (cf. Giddens, 1991:64).

Since frontiers, borders, or boundaries are constructions to define and divide different areas of interest and identity or separate known from unknown space (geographically and spiritually), the question that arises is, of what kind the new global frontiers are, if there are any at all.

The central focus of this paper is to examine these new frontiers and look at concepts of the world generated by the narratives of cyberspace and a global community. In other words, who will become the "Other" when we are all connected by and on the Internet?

The Other and its frontiers

Concepts of the Other very often define and explain things, areas, and societies outside of one's own experience, and it is not even necessary to have any empirical knowledge to believe in these concepts. All individuals are aware of events and structures that shape and influence their lives that they cannot explain from firsthand experience. But as they feel the impact, they at least must construct some concept of explanation.

Social institutions and norms help with this gap between personal knowledge and the unknown or unexperienced but nevertheless important parts of society and the world. Thus these phenomena are no longer arbitrary and due to the individual's personal inability but become socially sanctioned. Religious myths, national legends, shared stories about strangers, and stereotypes about other (ethnic) groups are ways to conceptualize the unknown or unexperienced (cf. Popitz et al., 1967:1ff; Gellner, 1991).

The discrepancy between the experienced and the unknown parts of the world has varied according to the type and size of social organization and societies, as well as the means that make knowledge available or generate knowledge in the first place. For example, the concerns of small ethnic groups or smaller agrarian societies are different from those of the administrative nation-states and industrial societies that have developed in the past two hundred years. The institutionalized Other varied from one type of society to another accordingly. Today's available means for collecting and dissemination information--the Internet--will cause these concepts to develop further qualities, different from those known so far.

These new qualities can only be examined with respect to the aforementioned discrepancy between personal experience and knowledge available and potentially accessible. Despite the ongoing deconstruction of national, geographical, and social frontiers all over the world, there is some evidence on and off the Internet that suggests that Microsoft's "Where do you want to go today?" is little more than an elitist metaphor that lacks any substance. It may rather symbolize the logic as well as the paradox of the Internet facing the late twentieth century world.

The new frontiers and the global narrative

Are there any new frontiers constituted by the Internet and the logic of globalization? I would assume that there are. But along what lines do they run and what makes them different from those existing so far? Is the Internet indeed part of a "digital revolution" that transforms humanity and can be regarded as important as the invention of fire, as its visionists like to claim ? (cf. Pisani, 1996:13f).

The term "global frontiers" describes at least one of the differences to the so-far known and existing frontiers--that they are no longer local or national, bound to agrarian societies, nation-states or a system of nation-states, but encompass the whole world.

This means that events are no longer limited to a state or region but are part of a global structure and therefore part of a global system of frontiers and boundaries. Although this also holds true for the older system of nation-states and to some extent even for agrarian societies, in these latter cases the local or national narratives were decisive for the interpretation of any interaction or event that affected the entity.

Now it is through the global narrative and its ideology that the world in general--and culture, politics, and economics, in particular--are seen. One of the essential characteristics of the global narrative is the fact that frontiers no longer follow state borders or ideological fences as did the Iron Curtain during the cold war. Today, frontiers cut through societies, oriented on such issues as class, ethnic identity, education, ability for (cultural, economic, and political) adaptation, mobility, and even on achieved or ascribed status according to the fulfillment of the requirements made by a globalized world.

This doesn't mean however, that the existing territorial, economic, and political frontiers are simply replaced and play no role for the people living in particular regions, but that the new narrative has an impact on how these old frontiers and boundaries are perceived and on the role they play for people's lives. And there is no doubt that quite a few of these frontiers will be maintained, for they are a necessary requirement for the exploitation of the full potential globalization holds.

The new frontiers will not so much be based on physical power and strategic weaponry as on structures generated by the global narrative of various networks (e.g., cultural or economic) and their inherent information and communication technologies (one might refer to it as "global techno-narrative").

Thus technologies are not only changing and influencing our world views, but at the same time are about to remold the physical human boundaries, i.e., with the merger of information technology and human biology to create new life forms. At this point the narrative is challenging a final frontier, which once crossed will severely affect human concepts of life, death, and the existence of the human race. Although the connection to the subject at hand does not seem obvious, it is important to remember, as it will be returned to in the course of this paper.

To analyze the effects and meaning of the global narrative for cultures and societies around the world, I will examine four different subjects that are part of this narrative or influenced by it:

  1. the Internet
  2. tourism
  3. corporate capitalism
  4. conspiracy

A final analysis will be based on the examination of these fields. Some observation of the Internet's logic will lead the way since the Internet is the core technology of globalization and a microcosm of the "global village's professional middle class" (cf. Paul Stubbs, 1995).

The Internet's logic and the paradox of the global village

The Internet's logic and narrative is its ubiquitous, bi-directional mode of communication, maybe best expressed in the term of the global village, which has come a long way since its introduction by Marshall McLuhan back in the '60s. This logic, generated by the technologies and applications used, states that communication is not bound to any place or control; therefore, the emancipatory potential will enable people to overcome their marginal positions, regarding work, income, ecological environment, health, education, and human rights.

In a very simplistic way the term global village suggests a global society without frontiers that has overcome past ideologies of national difference and chauvinism. It promotes the "we are all one world" ideology, which western countries especially like to emphasize. And this, as Armand Mattelart shows, is an old idea that has been promoted since the first cables were laid under the Canal in 1851 (cf. Mattelart, 1996:10). However, the term used in this respect only disguises the existing and the new established frontiers with its positive and all-uniting connotation.

On a more complex level, the global village may refer to the increased interdependencies between the different societies and states that despite the global narrative seem to keep existing. And it is exactly this point where the paradox of the Internet and the establishment of new frontiers becomes very clear.

The very concept of cyberspace as the new locality of so called virtual communities, seems to ignore its technology-based existence, which is set in a real world environment, i.e., it is made of people that live somewhere and cannot transcend space and time through the Internet. The perception of world space in modernity is determined by a discontinuous time-space relation, as Giddens noted, .i.e., the penetration of the local by social influences quite distant from them (cf. Giddens 1991:19). Nevertheless the local still functions as a place of identity and social integration (cf. Faßler 1996:183).

Another shortcoming of the global village concept is the narrative of indifference inherent in the term. Difference represents danger, the Other being stereotyped in terms of racial, ethnic, or sexist horror (cf. Faßler, 1996:188; cf. Galeano, 1996:80). For the sake of one's own peace, cultural and other differences are disregarded and denied, as well as the right to organize on the basis of these difference.

The paradox is that the global village ideology of a global community without differences is being promoted at the same time the world is witnessing the rise of new ethnic, national, and social movements that often explicitly react against this very process. Part of this paradox is that the Internet is sometimes used by these movements to promote their ideas, to ask for help with their struggle, or to support their resistance, i.e., to circumvent any control by state or other agencies.

The Internet's potential for integration and intercultural discourse and communication can also be reversed to fragmentation, because the same technology allows a disconnection from the wider public and actually weakens the efforts to communicate across boundaries other than state borders. Therefore the boundaries are not only between those with access to the Internet and those without (because of a lack of infrastructure or rigid control of the technology), but also on the Internet as it reflects the global situation of societies around the world. The Internet may enhance community building or strengthen ties among widely scattered groups, but it must not exist in is own right. The metaphors and concepts of cyberspace therefore reveal strategies of escapism.

Although the frontiers cannot be fixed along state or other territorial borders, frontiers do exist and run along lines of literacy, language, social status, ethnic identity, gender, class, and economic power, which may also cut through societies and states. Access to the Internet and the participation in the global process of communication, mobility, and economy also depend on these factors.

However unimportant the Internet may seem and actually be for many people and their everyday lives, the fact that its logic resembles and influences the logic of world corporate capitalism makes it highly relevant for studies concerned with global social structures and their underlying concepts.

Corporate capitalism and social movements

Corporate capitalism is one of the few fields where globalization and the concept of borderless transactions of various kind are a fact. This especially holds true for the financial market, where transactions are actually performed via electronic information technology such as the Internet.

Underlying the strategies of the global players involved in the process, such as transnational corporations (TNCs) and state agencies, is a global narrative, similar to the frontierless concept of the global village. The global narrative seems to promote one market, but in fact it only sets up new frontiers to strengthen the position of some of the groups involved, while holding others at risk or ignoring them completely.

Social movements provide another example of globalized activism that acts as a counterweight to global economics while disregarding traditional frontiers. They too subscribe to some kind of global agenda comparable to the aforementioned global narrative.

Both social movements and global capitalism could be equally described with the term "glocal," a hybrid of global and local, which speaks of the altered relation between physical space and time and therefore the alterations in the perceptions of distance between frontiers and the so called rest of the world, i.e., the world outside one's own experience. Under the premise of global thinking, both subjects tend to exist for their own sake in a way detached from the societies where they were established or the economic needs of most of the world population.

Paul Stubbs (cf. 1996) makes a very interesting point in his observations on NGOs working in Croatia when he argues "that cultural capital accumulation is, also, a global phenomenon and that NGOs including those responding to refugee questions, are major players in the sphere of global cultural accumulation." The NGOs provide the frame for the professional middle class who can be compared to those working in the global economic sector, e.g., the financial markets, TNCs, and firms.

Even though a global perspective is important for social movements as well as for corporate capitalism, the former cannot compete with the latter under the rule of a global narrative of capital accumulation, which according to Ignacio Ramonet (cf. Ramonet 1996:1; cf. Galeano 1996:78ff), is establishing "régimes globalitaires" along which the actual lines of center and periphery are defined, i.e., a division mainly along the lines of the richer regions in the North (the United States and Europe) and the poorer ones in the South (Latin America and Africa).

It has been argued earlier that such a regional division is anything but clear-cut, as the frontiers very often run through societies and states. The regional distance between rich and poor lessens, while the gap between these groups deepens. Although influenced by the same global narrative, these groups are differently affected by the frontiers set in the course of globalization.

One of the fields where these processes surface very explicitly is global tourism, as it combines corporate capitalism with a cultural industry and manufactures concepts of distance, difference, and the Other, therefore causing many interesting contradictions.

Global tourism

I am using the term "global tourism" to emphasize the network-like structure of today's tourism industry in comparison to past modes of traveling and exploring the (unknown) world.

More than any other field of social human activity, tourism provides an excellent example on how time and space conceptualizations have changed and with them the frontiers and boundaries that where separating Us from the Other.

Until the twentieth century, traveling was very time consuming, because of the available transportation means. From a European perspective, traveling was used to explore new territories, which eventually were colonized along with their inhabitants. However, these colonies were strange and distant places, and going there took a lot of time. The Other was encountered only there and eventually brought back by the people returning. The perception of the Other was generally that of spatially distant and culturally inferior people. This concept was kept up for a long time, even though western ideas of religion, administration, and the state were introduced and adapted by the people.

Throughout the development of the colonies and the empires, the Other evolved from something distant to something that no longer was separated through space and time (cf. Anderson, 1996:19f +119ff). Innovations in transport technologies, especially airplanes, and the evolution of tourism as a traveling concept lead to the deconstruction of frontiers based on space and time and in the course also changed the perception of space in general.

Global tourism radicalized these perceptions and dramatically redefined the Other in several ways, especially concepts about people and countries of the developing world--most of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Because of the high number of tourists from the western or northern regions to developing countries--about 53.9 million people from OECD countries visited developing countries compared to 40 million from these regions themselves--a lot of western standards may be enjoyed in these countries as well. Such standards concern food, clothing, products, comfort, restaurants, and even closed environments (tourism enclaves like Club Med) that exclude the possibly "disturbing" reality of the host country [1].

Not only do planes and other travel logistics render space almost insignificant, there is also a constructed sameness of the visitors' home countries and their destinations.

The BMZ-study (BMZ-materialien no. 88, 1993) points out in its analysis some of the difficult effects of tourism in developing countries, including the consumer-good character of these travels; visitors' lack of knowledge of the cultural, political, and economic situation; and the inability of people in these regions to participate in tourist issues.

The host country in many aspects surfaces only as an exotic flavor, in the shape of employees or harmless cultural attractions, set up as part of a cultural tourist industry. This becomes most obvious in those tourist regions where the economic gap between guests and hosts is significantly wide and the dependence on the foreign capital is an essential factor for many of the people.

Reduction, stereotyping, and the construction of national or regional images are part of the global marketing strategy. These approaches cause people and groups not fitting into these categories to be marginalized from and by the tourist industry. Changes that are brought about here deeply affect the culture, values, and organization of many groups around the world as very often their social fabric and territorial basis are threatened or destroyed by the tourism industry and other industries.

Sex tourism provides an ugly example of reduction and social erosion through global tourism. By this practice, women and children are taken as sexual consumer goods in most of the host countries in Asia, Africa, or Latin America. They are reduced to objects of sexual gratification while everything else about them is ignored. The men then return home to Europe, America, or Japan, where such treatment of women and children would not be tolerated. (This is why Microsoft's "Where do you want to go today?" was earlier in the essay considered to be an elitist and even arrogant metaphor.)

The double standard of the affluent countries becomes obvious when looking at legal and illegal labor migration to the industrialized countries. The very people who were seen as part of a global network of tourism are now becoming the Other in the sense of intruders. Now differences are no longer reduced but rather enforced as a clear divide has to be made between Them and Us. At the same time global tourism seems to tear down frontiers, new frontiers are raised when the flux from rich to poor reverses. NAFTA and the problems of illegal immigration across the Mexican-U.S. border would provide one such example; another would be the immigration and asylum policies of the EU-countries, especially Germany.

This contradiction constitutes the core of the global narrative, as there will be nothing global in such an encounter in the sense of transcending national or regional interests. In the famous words of Toynbee, "globalization means integration into the dominant center, not a multilateral process" (Kothari, 1995:1600).

Conspiracy and the Other

Although the subject of conspiracy theories is rather bizarre, it is connected to what has been examined in this paper thus far, and has almost everything to do with Others of whatever kind. It also brings the argument back to the Internet which started this analysis.

Conspiracy theories, similar to myths and cosmologies, deal with the unknown--that is, all explain facts that lie beyond one's own experience but nevertheless have an influence on life. The bigger the gap between the unknown and the known world becomes, the more likely a "double reality" exists which may lead to a loss of reality, as Arnold Gehlen points out (cf. Popitz, 167:2f).

Conspiracy theories are based on a mixture of facts, assumptions, and pure fantasies that point toward a reality and its social conditions. They are influenced by the codes and culture of a given group, nation, or religion. Moreover, these theories often function by providing scapegoats (cf. Groh, 1996:14). They reduce social complexity and offer explanations for the new economic inequalities or erosion of the known social, political, and cultural order. Given the radical social changes caused by globalization in modern society along with its complex interrelations, it is not difficult to imagine some of the reasons for today's conspiracy theories.

Groh (cf. 1996), in his historical analysis of the origins of conspiracy theories, argues that in the course of the Enlightenment, conspiracy theories were on the rise, acting against the very character of its secular, reasonable nature. Not surprisingly, these theories were more often than not related to fundamentalism and antimodern movements, which also holds true for current conspiracy theories as well. Advanced technologies in transportation, communication, biotechnology, computers, and information are part of the complex realities we are facing that question some of the essential values, identities, and boundaries of societies and individuals. Conspiracy theories help to set new frontiers where traditional ones seem to evaporate and dissolve.

Dowe (cf. 1997:184), examining the Internet and its relation to conspiracy theories argues that, "paranoid news is compelling in part because it turns ultimately not on truth but on complex matters of belief and self-identification."

The militia movement in the United States with its paranoia and aggressive ideology is a very popular but frightening example for such beliefs and theories. Their use of the Internet emphasizes once again the paradoxes inherent in the global village.

The bottom line of their theory or belief is that the United States is surrounded by enemies. The government, the immigrants, the UN, and other foreign forces have gathered to take over the country and enslave its citizens. Together with Christian fundamentalist groups and the Republican Pat Buuchanan as the most popular politician in that field, they see the signs of the conspiracy all around: laws on handguns, abortion rights, the U.S. involvement in the world, legal and illegal immigrants, taxes, environmental protection, open frontiers and globalization (cf. Leggewie, 1996:115ff).

Those involved in the militia movement are looking for a scapegoat that can be held responsible for the situation of country--as they see it--which does not fit their beliefs and ideologies anymore. Paradoxically they are using the Internet--the "incarnation" of the global village--quite extensively to spread their ideas and organize themselves.

Freyermuth (cf. 1996) and Dowe, who both examine the Internet and its use for the spread and production of conspiracy theories, trace this use back to the possibilities of direct communication and ways of getting only the news that fits, provided by the "Usenet's tribal bulletin boards" (Dowe) or what Freyermuth calls the "global elsewhere" (global Ortslosigkeit).

The Internet may encourage this development of separate news for everyone, fragmenting society and social consensus, which in turn would be another reason to believe in a conspiracy. One could easily dismiss these theories as paranoia and social pathologies, if not personal ones, but as they are based on society's own values or codes these theories are indicators for actual events and processes in society.

As Dowe puts it, "Paranoid news, considered an extension of Hofstaedter's paranois style in politics, isn't only about hype and unfounded conspiracy theories. It is also a reflection of bigger things going on, both on the Net and in society" (1997:184).

In the course of globalization with its narrative of sameness, new frontiers are drawn as new Others are constructed to re-establish meaning and trust--which seem to disappear in a globalized world and especially on the Internet with its multifold features and multiple-choice character that make it easy to "customize your own conspiracy."

The idea of aliens and other extrahuman phenomenon might also be traced back to the lack of frontiers and an overrational world, which dominated by science and the ideology of the Enlightenment offers an explanation for all things happening. As God's or any other deity's existence can easily be reasoned, supported, or dismissed by science, the hysteria concerned with aliens becomes the quest for new gods and deities that are again separated from the "profane" world. The Internet leaves no secret or sacral space untouched that as spiritual needs are projected to the unknown Other, aliens, or whatever. Programs such as the X-Files or Profiler or films such as Independence Day might reflect this development.

Conclusion

I want to close this paper by summarizing a few points in order to answer the question raised at the beginning of this text about the new frontiers and the character of the Other in a world that is connected by the Internet. Are these frontiers really new or only the same old ones in a new disguise?

The key to this question lies in the contradiction of the global narrative. Although one of its main features and its main attraction is the dissolution of all borders and frontiers, it is in fact a narrative of frontiers. In covering up differences of whatever kind, these become externalized and therefore conceptually invisible. And so they become frontiers, where it doesn't matter whether they are old or new as they all are given a new quality in the course of globalization. This new quality is their global and at the same time double-faced character: they can be found in any society and region and are not territorially fixed (although old ones such as the North-South division still hold true to a certain extent).

A great danger of the global narrative is that it claims to be an all-encompassing discourse while it is predominantly an economic one.

The Other becomes a rather diffuse and at times invisible subject in this process, posing problems for groups in regard to self-determination and identity, which could be denied on the basis of a dominant narrative that asks for sameness. In these cases, difference may surface or erupt as conflict or as the ugly, stereotyped dangerous Other, which has to be fought one way or another. Fundamentalism of any kind thrives on these images.

The Internet should be a tool to communicate cultural, political, and social differences in order to eventually overcome inequalities and link people together globally to help maintain cultural diversity. The future of the Internet as a tool for social change will also depend on whether people will manage to work together on the basis of difference on and off the Internet. The global narrative has to be altered in the sense that it has to accept the frontiers in order to deal with the problems at hand. The globalized professional middle-class especially holds a great responsibility to contribute to the resolution.

Notes

[1] There is a significant difference as far as visitors to OECD countries are concerned: only 21.2 million visitors originated from developing countries compared to 239.6 million that were from OECD countries and traveled within the OECD range (numbers from: BMZ-Materialien no. 88, 1993:81; data from 1990).

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