Thursday, November 29, 2007

Foucault and Virtual Reality

Foucault died a long time before computers became a serious part of our everyday life, but I often ask myself what the great proponent of "knowledge=power" would have made of it all. We are all beginning to live "virtual" lives which are separate from our actual identities and, in some cases, even a substitute for them. It might reasonably be said that many of us have a "virtual identity" that seems just as real as our true everyday selves where we react bodily with people. More than this, we might also say that online identities have a certain indestructibility which our bodily selves are lacking: online friends don't get sick for example and exist not bodily, but somewhere "out there" in cyberspace. If online friends die, we are spared their dying throes; we simply find new virtual friends and forget the ones that don't appear any longer. Everything is sanitized and the unpleasantnesses of "bodyliness" where we need to excrete waste materials and fill our bellies with animal flesh is forgotten. In front of our computers we become something akin to the jelly like creatures that existed somewhere deep inside the mechanized Daleks in the Dr. Who series of the 1960s: hidden and superior.

I am really thinking and trying to develop ideas as I write this down. Perhaps Foucault would believe that online activity was depriving us of our ability to interact with other human beings. Maybe he would think that the whole world was effectively being manipulated and used by Microsoft and the other big computer companies like Apple and Intel. What, perhaps he would ask, is driving the search for ever faster computers and programs? I am sure he would dismiss the idea that this development was happening for the benefit of the individual or consumer. Undoubtedly, given his fascination with methods of surveillance, he would clearly understand the ways in which the Internet could give the state and other controlling organizations ever more subtle systems of observation and control. On the other hand, I'm sure Foucault would also see the potential "transgressivity" of computers and the way in which they, no doubt unintentionally, give power and knowledge to anyone who can surf the still largely unregulated Internet. No doubt a great struggle is just beginning for control of the knowledge and power given by the Internet and computers. At this stage, it is by no means clear who will eventually emerge as "guardians" of the "knowledge" that computers give. Everything is still in a profound state of flux: governments will fall, revolutions will take place, old methods of organizing power structures will be discarded and new ones be adopted. Censorship will grow and online access to some groups denied. The picture is hazy and too much in fluid motion, too much at the mercy of whim and design, to be at all predictable. One thing, however, is sure: everything is changing and we are living on the cusp of momentous new methods of directing power and of establishing irresistible systems of control over both actual and virtual bodies. On the other hand the knowledge that computers give seems to also include an unpredictable element that may equally enable discontents to acquire power and knowledge, turning it against the more traditional controlling elements in society.


Anonymous Gramsci said...

Foucauld rocks!

12:45 PM  
Blogger pluto85 said...

bella foto!

12:50 PM  
Blogger Medway said...

Hi John. You seem to be in two minds here, but maybe the positive aspects of the online life appeal to you more. [Certainly not having to watch your friends devour dead animals is a plus!]
As an unreconstructed modernist positivist, I regard the extension of our senses through technology as a good thing.The microscope and telescope extend our range of vision, and in the same way the Internet extends our social reach.
Where I do agree with Foucault is that the PTB will regard this as merely another, maybe better and cheaper, more extensive way to monitor our activities. The democratic, decentred net is the Speaker's Corner of the global community. Efforts to control and restrict the Net should be vigorously resisted.

11:03 PM  
Blogger John Wallen said...

I certainly agree that the Net should remain open and free. In the end, technology is a tool and it just depends how we use it.

3:05 PM  

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