Art After the Internet: The Impact of the World Wide Web on Global Culture

Niranjan Rajah <>
Universiti Malaysia Sarawak


An expanding global matrix of computer-mediated communications is being shaped by national and transnational forces. For the "citizens" of Internet communities, the esoteric theories of postmodern culture are rapidly turning into everyday sensibilities. Artists are mapping the aesthetic, social, and political contours of the emerging electronic "terrain" as they make critical use of the World Wide Web to construct new arenas for their work.



The Internet has come of age just as the world adjusts to the end of the Cold War and as economic and cultural globalization takes shape.

Satellite television and computer-mediated communications are opening domestic leisure markets to international marketing, and a world culture industry seems to be emerging. This paper attempts to discuss the cultural impact of the Internet in terms of political, economic, and technological issues. It presents an Asian perspective with an emphasis on the Malaysian response to the approaching information era. This paper then proceeds to examine the new communications medium in terms of postmodern cultural theory and contemporary practice in the visual arts.

Finally, it presents the work of artists who are revealing the parameters of the World Wide Web as they use it as a location for art.

Electronic communities and the demise of the nation state

Even as Malaysia makes preparations for the information age, the very concept of nation appears to be receding. Nationalist economic and cultural policies, the world over, are giving way to the imperatives of transnational capital and media. Speaking at the United Nations, our prime minister, Dato Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, has cautioned that "as we approach the millennium. the pre-eminence of transnational forces has blurred the definition of national sovereignty."[1] With the advent of economic, efficient, and universally available computer-mediated communications, it is possible to imagine that, eventually, nationality itself will be displaced, as various overlapping "virtual communities"[2] emerge with identities and allegiances of their own.

The connectivity of the Internet

The ubiquity of the Internet is due to the metaconnectivity of Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) communication. The TCP/IP suite has the ability to interconnect networks that use different local protocols, while also allowing networks linked by other Internetworking protocols to connect with the Internet, forming the wider "matrix" of computer-mediated communications[3]. The genius of this protocol is its ability to ensure that messages are relayed from one computer to another, even when parts of the network are inoperative. Any deliberate attempts to restrict the passage of information is circumvented by TCP/IP, quite simply, as if it were "damage." This is what makes the Internet so difficult to regulate.

The control of content

Information that is instantaneously and globally accessible on the Internet is not universally compatible with local laws and values. In the United States, the war over the regulation of the Internet is being fought in terms of the constitutional "first amendment." Battle lines have been drawn in the names of "free speech" and "decency." In Asia, the issues are slightly different. What is at stake in our more authoritarian and developing societies is the balance between "economic imperatives" and "Eastern values." Although it is recognized that the Internet will have tangible consequences for the culture, traditions, and values of Malaysian society, it is primarily in terms of economics that this new communications medium has been addressed.

The Malaysian approach to Internet regulation

In Malaysia's bid to leap from rapid industrialization to the global information economy our government has embraced the free flow of information on Internet. It is recognized that government control over the cultural parameters of society might have to be set aside. The prime minister himself has indicated that the community and individuals must now take responsibility for self-control in the face of content arising from constituencies with different values to our own.[4] There is, nevertheless, the obvious fear that information-rich Malaysians will begin to adopt a different realm of values leaving their traditions and those without Internet access far behind. The prime minister has spoken of the necessity of international cooperation rather than local censorship in the context of Internet regulation.[2]

Censorship in cyberspace

Countries in Asia and elsewhere have already attempted to enforce censorship of the Internet. Singapore has begun to filter all national Net use through proxy servers that can prevent access to sites that challenge their political and cultural integrity.[5] Network administrators must, however, specify exactly which site is to be barred, as such filters are as yet unable to distinguish actual content independently. Also, service providers and certain classes of content providers are now licensed under the Class Licensee Scheme for the Internet and are required to adhere to a rigid set of restrictions that could apply to political, ethnic, religious, and sexually explicit content.[6] While mechanistic control may prove technically difficult, it can certainly be reinforced by policing in the real world.

The electronic panopticon

Michel Foucault had envisaged that Jeremy Bentham's proposal for the ideal prison--the panopticon--would be the model for future systems of surveillance and social control. In today's computer-mediated communications, the channels we use to send messages can be used by others to gather information about us. All communications of the "citizens" of a networked society are perpetually open to the scrutiny of those who administer each level of service provision. Kevin Robins and Frank Webster have observed that with the "information revolution," the social totality comes to function as a hierarchical and disciplinary panopticon.[2] Ultimately, it will not be the restriction of free expression but the protection of privacy that will diminish the transparency of the Internet.

The specter of encryption

According to Tim May, the "specter of encryption" looms over the information society.[7] He and other "cyberpunks" are working to make electronic privacy available and affordable to everyone, in the belief that it will lead to uncontrollable fluidity in the Internet and, ultimately, undermine the authority of nations. These information-age libertarians point out that "an on-line civilization requires on-line anonymity, on-line identification, on-line authentication, on-line reputations, on-line trust holders, on-line privacy and on-line access."[8] Anarchy aside, it is the imperatives of online commerce that will render encryption technologies commonplace. The credit industry, for instance, is working on encryption for secure online transactions.

Hardly "crypto-anarchy," but finger in the eye of the panopticon keeper, nevertheless.

Cyberspace or cyberterrain?

The domain of networked communications is commonly referred to as cyberspace. This term, coined by William Gibson in his fiction Neuromancer[9], has become common currency in factual discourse about computer-mediated communications. "Space," however, is too utopian a metaphor for the Internet. More realistically, we are at the pioneering stages, or at the "opening up," of a "cyberterrain." Far from being amorphous, undefinable, and uncontrollable, the contours of this new realm of human engagement will be shaped, as ever, by the dictates of financial and political power. As network technology and legislation respond to the demand for the control of content and for secure communications, new Intranet and crypto-constituencies will emerge, complying to differing regulations and displaying marked cultural differences. Boundaries, not as yet tangible, will surely manifest in time.

The multimedia revolution

The ongoing merger of technologies enabled by increased computing power and high-speed networks is expected to integrate prior technologies--telephone, audio recording, cinema, radio, television, and print--under the overarching rubric of the computer. As entertainment delivery systems move to the Internet, the planet will become, as Nicholas Negroponte puts it, "a single media machine."[10] Those who dominate this powerful "organ" will influence, if not determine, cultural values throughout the world. Of course, media products will generate increasingly significant revenues. If Malaysia is to partake in economic globalization, it is in terms of the transnational entertainment business that we must meet the cultural challenge.

The Asian satellite TV experience

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch once claimed that satellite TV, financed by advertising revenues, would be able to "bypass state-controlled television" in authoritarian countries like China. However, by banning the satellite dishes needed to receive Murdoch's Star TV, China has pressured him into helping them effect a state broadcast monopoly.[11]

In Malaysia, CNN broadcasts with a short delay, allowing for the vetting and removal of inappropriate material. MTV has removed Beavis and Butthead and otherwise brought their content in line with Malaysian broadcast values as part of their strategy "to become the music-based channel for young people in Asia."[12] It is patently clear that national imperatives can prevail in tandem with market forces and that technology will not set the scene regardless.

Local communities need local content

As Susan Bearfield observes, in addition to compromising on broadcast content, the international satellite operators have also had to turn to local programming to meet the demands of Asian audiences. She quotes Amit Khanna, managing director of one of India's biggest TV production companies, as saying "TV is becoming more ethnocentric." She notes that most of Asia's television advertising revenue still goes to local stations who are best able to provide "local content" and that Malaysia's TV3 has almost doubled its local material in the last two years.[13] Asia's satellite experience is an indication as to what could happen with regard to language and cultural content on the Internet. In the long run, cultural invasion via the Internet must be met by competitive indigenous content provision.

"One to many" vs "many to many"

The difference between broadcast media and the Internet is supposed to be interactivity. In the telephone-enabled instantaneous person-to-person interaction, radio and television allow messages to be transmitted from one source to many receivers. Audiences only have to turn on their respective communications appliances to receive ongoing broadcasts. The Internet is, indeed, a revolution in communications technology as any receiver of messages is now able to broadcast as well.

It is as if the domestic telephone has become not just a television but also a TV station. Even so, as less computer-like, and therefore less-interactive, Internet browsers emerge, and as advertising[14] and the entertainment industry go online,[15] there is a possibility that the World Wide Web will turn into a quasi-mass media in its own right.

Art on the Internet (and I don't mean Hollywood!)

The Internet engenders a new era of instantaneous connectivity and interactivity in which the totality of representations exist in virtual proximity. Representation and communication have become one. Roy Ascott believes that the Net is the infrastructure of a dynamic new human consciousness powered by associative thought.[16] This mode of thinking is the aspect of cognition that is related to artistic activity and artists have been drawn to the Internet from its very inception. It is the viewer or user, however, who is empowered as the interactivity of the Internet levels artistic authority. It can even be argued that the participatory mode of the Internet heralds a culture in which each man and woman will be an "artist," paradoxically, substantiating radical notions of the end of art.

Networked art before the WWW

In the "early days," networked art required some technical understanding of electronic media and was the domain of the committed computer or digital artist. Five years before the World Wide Web, pioneering network artist Paul Sermon was setting up "telematic workstations" in public exhibition spaces and at festival sites. These workstations, consisting of clusters of Macintosh computer terminals, were connected via modems to what was then the European Academic Research Network. These telematic events involved a large number of contributors from around the world and questioned the authority of the artist over representations made in networked environments. The last of these projects, Texts Bombs & Videotape (1991), simulated the TV newsroom scenario in an interactive satire of the role of the media in the Gulf War.[17]

The WWW as a medium for art

Just as "icon and mouse" software transformed the notion of computer literacy, the World Wide Web has simplified and democratized Internet access. If the Internet was attracting artists even when it was a specialist arena, artists from the real world are now going online at a tremendous rate. Some simply use the World Wide Web for presenting information about themselves and their work in other media. Yet others have been drawn to this interface by its relevance to the logic of their own artistic development. Many have made critical presentations that attempt to reveal the parameters of computer-mediated communications.

This artistic engagement is underscored by the fact that the Web makes commonplace some of the esoteric sensibilities of the age.

Postmodernism even!

Along with postindustrial economics and post-Cold War politics, there has been a shift in values from modern to postmodern culture. With the demise of the left, the avant-garde's aesthetic revolutions have been sublimated in the parodic cycles of fashion and in the calculated product obsolescence of the dominant technological monopolies. In the West, the purist aesthetics, the politicized art manifestos and the various revolutionary movements are no more. In the East, the return to tradition in the cause of nationalism has turned into appropriation in the course of ethically neutral cultural "production." Artistic parody, pastiche, and hybridity prevail in this "post-avant-garde" global culture.

From form to context

In the modernist era, the critique of form replaced the concern for content in the art of representation. Today, be it in architecture, paintings, or novels, formalism has been eclipsed by the reflexive and ironic play of context. If postmodernism has valued originality at all, it has been in terms of the art of re-presenting pre-existing material.

As the various mediums of communication merge into one amorphous or multivalent hypermedia and as user-friendly interfaces conceal the formal aspect of computing, this contextual play is becoming the unconscious, technologically determined norm. It can even be said that the familiarization of the contextual approach has led to a renewed interest in content.

From mechanical to electronic reproduction

Photography did to visual media what the printing press had done to text. It brought, to the image, all the consequences of mechanical reproduction. While painting lost its function as a medium of record and sought a more esoteric role, photography undermined the "aura" of uniqueness of the image in mass reproduction.[18] With digital technology, photography's mechanical ethos has gained electronic fluidity. If photography brought on the "commodification" of images, the Internet, as Paul Valery had prophetically envisaged, enables visual images along with sound and text to serve us in our homes, like other utilities, "at a simple movement of the hand."[19]

From collage to the mix

One of the artistic consequences of the mass circulation of printed images was the invention of collage. The artist no longer had to hand make an image but could now "cut out" two pre-existing images and combine them to generate another. The production of meaning was achieved by appropriating and recontextualizing found or ready-made material. Far from its esoteric origins as a mode of criticism, recontextualizing has now become the normal way of generating new content. In the popular music industry, the appropriated track or sample has been widely used for a long time and "mixing," be it live or in the studio, is elevated to a form of art. With the availability of digital image manipulation and high resolution scanning, this approach now prevails even in the most commercial areas of the visual arts. With the development of technology acting as "frames," the online textual, visual, multimedia "mix" is already happening.

From deconstruction to the hyperlink

In the Saussurean theory of "signs," the individual words that make up "speech acts" gain their meaning in relation to their context. This relativity of meaning led initially to structuralism's methodical analysis of "systems of signs," and, ultimately, to the dismantling of these systems in deconstruction.[20] Meanwhile, the computer has transformed the contemporary writing space from the fixed text of graphic marks to the indeterminate, combinational electronic text[21].

In digital writing, Hypertext software allows for the linking of words and passages of text in various linear and nonlinear ways.[22] The connectivity of the hyperlink across texts and images from indefinite and inexhaustible sources leaves the World Wide Web in a state of permanent deconstruction.

From writerly text to interactivity

In poststructuralist theory, meaning is no longer to be found in the intentions of the author but in the interpretations of the reader. The production of meaning is located in the process of reading and not in writing. In "writerly" postmodern literature the reader is invited to actively participate in the production of meaning. The reading of a text is no longer a passive consumption but the active writing of another.

Authority passes from the writer to the reader.[20] The Internet is inherently a writerly medium in which an author can set up inexhaustible hyperlinks, while the "reader" can interactively negotiate or "surf" his or her own way through and even around them.

Multimedia and the postmodern blurring of categories

One of the consequences of the "writerly" approach is the collapse of critical into creative productions. Criticism has ceased to be a matter of scholarly arguments about creative sources and has become a euphoric creative endeavor in its own right. Creative work has, in turn, become multidisciplinary and has made a profound engagement with history and theory.[23] In the visual arts, this has resulted in extended use of text, performance, and video. In fact, there has been a conflation of primary and secondary productions in all areas of postmodern culture. As multimedia goes online, fluidly articulating image, text, sound, and video, the Internet will become the ideal medium for the presentation of these and other yet unimagined hybrid cultural forms.

Virtual installation art

In contemporary installation art, painting and sculpture have been extended into the context of their presentation. The space and architecture of the gallery or other site and the social, political, historical, theoretical, and critical contexts of the presentation are all absorbed and internalized as the "content" of installations. In The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/Japanese Fetish Even![24] Niranjan Rajah (the author) locates his critique of European Aesthetics as a site-specific installation in the World Wide Web. While interrogating the ontology of the image in computer-mediated communications, this work also attempts to mark the problem of cultural constituencies in the Internet.

Virtual performance art

In performance as an extension of the visual arts, live gestures are employed to take formal and conceptual ideas directly to the audience outside the confines of museums and galleries. Unlike the conventions of theater, this medium normally makes the artist the performer.[25]

In A hypertext Journal,[26] Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie performed an online interactive travelogue with a "remote" worldwide audience who could make requests regarding the route or content of the tour. Taking with them laptop computers, a digital camera, sound and video equipment, and two modems, they reconstructed the Scottish tour made by Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell in 1773. The travelogue was published daily on the World Wide Web.

Virtual curatorship

To paraphrase the text of Peter Steiner's cartoon, "on the Internet, nobody knows you're a curator."[27] This revered authorial function now belongs to anybody who cares to set up a few links. In Sweetness and Light,[28] Roshini Kempadoo uses a plantation analogy to address the neocolonial inequities behind globalizing media and communications networks. Anette Weintraub's Realms[29] is an interactive narrative of the urban landscape, which negotiates the shared intimacy of the World Wide Web. In Peeping Tom,[30] Julie Myers explores how both observer and observed reveal themselves in the voyeurism of the Internet. The ada web[31] is a collaborative site that uses the web as a medium for communication in projects like Securityland,[32] Jenny Holzer's Please Change Beliefs,[33] and LOVE,[34] by GROUP Z.

The institutionalization of art on the Internet

As the World Wide Web brings the cultural mainstream online, larger and more sophisticated art sites are being produced with corporate, institutional, and technological patronage. The Laboratory[35] at Oxford University's Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art presents Jake Tilson's works for the World Wide Web in The Cooker[36] and David Mach's Quick Time Virtual Sculpture Vessel.[37] In Ping Body,[38] Stelarc transforms the Internet into a realm of action by wiring his musculature to the Internet so that its movements are actuated, beyond his own volition, by returning "pings." Bodies INCorporated[39] is a multiuser environment produced by Victoria Vesna that investigates social psychology and group dynamics of virtual bodies in a networked corporate structure.

A place for art in Malaysia's multimedia super corridor

Art is the epitome of pure information and in a world of online cultural consumption, art "products" will be at a premium. Malaysian artists must take on the challenge of producing material for regional and now instantaneously accessible global contexts. It is probably outside traditional art markets and institutions, retarded by modernism and object-orientated aesthetics, that virtual artists must seek patronage. National and transnational information technology businesses might prove to be the most fruitful source of financial and technological support. Electronic and networked art must win corporate sponsorship and the support of the National Information Technology Council to take its place in Malaysia's multimedia super corridor.


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  31. ada web,
  32. ada web, Securityland,
  33. Holzer, Jenny. Please Change Beliefs,
  34. GROUP Z. LOVE,
  35. The Laboratory,
  36. Tilson, Jake, The Cooker,
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  38. Stelarc. Ping body,
  39. Vesna, Victoria. Bodies INCorporated,


The author thanks Thomas O'Daniel and Jung Goh.