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What Futures in an Age of Hypercommunication?

We're now in the opening plenary session here at ICA 2010 - with a relatively low turnout, though; perhaps people haven't realised it's on today, after all the pre-conferences? Overall, some 1,700 delegates have registered for the conference, we're told... Anyway, the speaker tonight is Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht, who begins by noting the challenge of communication - it is the central concept (the organon) of our historical period; it explains everything, and everything turns into communication. Therefore, seeing communication from the outside, studying it, is a particular challenge; all we can say about the world is already communication.

And today, the role of communication is heightened even further. As soon as we touch down from a flight, for example, we can hardly wait to turn on our mobile phones again - often to call a person in the arrivals hall just to let them know what they already know from the airport screens: that we have landed; that we are going through baggage claim; that we are through and will meet in a few seconds. This hypercommunication may well spoil the intensity of the meeting - and it is an example of how we communicate more frequently and more massively today than in any previous period in history. Face-to-face communication still forms one part of this hypercommunication, of course - we are adding more and more communicative layers.

It becomes increasingly impossible to escape this multitude of communication - and the new layers which were added were added; we still communicate using previous media as well as new ones, and only a few (letters, for example) have truly been replaced by more recent media forms. Does this hypercommunication improve the quality of our work, however? The answer to that question remains unclear. Academics some decades ago were quite probably just as productive as we are today - what has changed mainly is the speed of our interactions (and there are advantages as well as disadvantages to this).

So, gain or loss? Has hypercommunication improved anything? Has it made a contribution to everyday culture today? these are key questions to investigate, and Hans-Ulrich will provide some answers from a philosophical perspective here. Conceptual tools for this come from a theory of evolution, Heidegger's philosophy of technology, and a reflection on presence, absence, and the (im)materiality of communication. There is also a historical perspective here - most of the predictions of change from past decades did not come true, and hypercommunication may have something to do with this. Can we look at technology in a way that it does not become the object of reflection, but a medium that tells us something new about the present - and can we use that insight to change something about hypercommunication?

Hans-Ulrich starts, then, with the theory of evolution of André Leroi-Gourand (?), for whom the key transition point to homo sapiens is the shift to erect walking - which frees up the hands that at first have no function (new functions can now be developed), and changes our perspective (we discover the horizon). This enables homo sapiens to continue their cultural evolution from the point where their physical evolution stopped - culture including (technology) becomes evolution. This also attenuates our immediate and instinctual relationship with the environment; it changes our relationship to it. Culture extends human evolution.

Further, however, we are not the agents of our own cultural evolution - we make inventions and then rationalise that we needed them, rather than simply inventing exactly the technologies we need. Certain key inventions or (cultural) evolutionary achievements become irreversible - language, writing, printing, electronic communication are such inventions, for example. Such achievements are not always positive, however; nuclear energy is one such more problematic example, Hans-Ulrich says.

A second point comes from Martin Heidegger, who styled himself as a non-technological peasant and also explicitly criticised modern Newtonian science for distancing us from the world of objects; but he also distinguishes between the 'present-at-hand' (what is in front of us) and the 'ready-to-hand' (what we already know how to use), and praises technology for its ready-to-handness. He suggests that technology enables us to unconceal the truth, but we don't yet know how to use technology to do this - we would need to see an object as if we were not seeing it from an already subjective perspective. For example, if we were to ever have an unconcealment of what acceleration and energy really is, it would be while sitting in a jetplane, Heidegger says. Can this idea be applied to communicatikon technologies, then?

Modernity, then, is a growing distance and divergence between our Cartesian self-reference (our conscious) and the world of objects. For many of us, this has reached an insuperable extreme point today, he says; our everyday today mainly takes place in a fusion of consciousness and software in which our body becomes increasingly irrelevant. Since the late 17th century (the century of Descartes) there have been many protests against this development; there have been many different materialisms, through to the latest articulation of this resistance in the form of a recent book called Rational Re-Enchantment that suggests that we have gone too far in the process of modernity and need to discuss how far back we should be going.

Hans-Ulrich introduces Disneyland (the original at Anaheim) as an example here. What were its big promises? The most popular rides were the space-themed rides - takeoff from Earth to go to another planet, the big dream of the mid-20th century, even before the Apollo programme). Also, the mid-50s were a time of dreaming of robots as the helpers of the future - humanoid devices, physically separate from us, and under our control in a hierarchical relationship. And further, a pre-1984 expectation of the mid-20th century was that state power over individuals could only grow - Disneyland's Futureland ride follows a pre-determined path, for example (even though there is a dysfunctional steering wheel).

But this future of the past never arrived: space travel is today seen as a waste of tax-payers' money (and Earth is now seen as humanity's only possible habitat - we have developed an ecological consciousness); robots never became the key technology of our present (electronic computation has become a far more powerful instrument than robots were ever expected to be - but we are not separate from them but constantly interfaced with them, and may be on the receiving end of the hierarchical relationship, in a logic of intransitive enslavement that requires us always to be available, though it is never clear whom we owe that availability); and we are today not exposed to an all-powerful state but perhaps even lack well-coordinated governance (there is a lack of hierarchy which we do not experience as liberation but rather as confusion and uncertainty).

So what is the role of hypercommunication in this derailment on our path towards the future we expected in the mid-20th century? One of the appeals of space travel, for example, was the heroism, the quasi-aristocratic challenge, of conquering space; but communication technologies minimise the impact of space, of distance, in our daily lives - we are almost omnipresent, so what is the point of travelling far away? Additionally, the payoffs may not justify the economic and ecologic costs (indeed, no technology is more ecologically correct than communication technology if it reduces the need to travel).

Similarly, hypercommunication contributes to the intransitiv self-enslavement of communication by eliminating not only space, but also the bodies of communication; electronic communication no longer requires any physical presence and thus opens up new possibilities of enslavement, psychic torture, possibly even new diseases. We have nobody to blame for this - it is intransitive -, and there is no Archimedean point which can be used to change it.

Thirdly, the promise or nightmare of the strong, authoritarian, political state was based on the concept and human self-attribution of action. Only if we are able to act and effect change, this idea of the state is possible, but hypercommunication has undermined this historicist chronotope (or world-view) which believed that we would always leave our past behind ourselves and that the future was an open horizon of possibilities in which we had choices for future directions. Time was seen as an impreceptibly short moment of the present, and in this moment we were supposed to build on our understanding of the past to choose a possible future. Today, our chronotope is that we cannot forget any more - everything is stored, everything leaves a trace, everything will be accessible -, and we know more and more precisely about certain types of the future (e.g. the certainty of impending global warming), and these futures are coming closer as threatening futures. We can no longer choose that future, and our present is no longer an imperceptible short moment of transition, but is broadening into an ever wider present during which we are already locked into the consequences of our past actions. In that situation, if we do predict our future, it's enough to make us give up.

So, if this is the case, can electronic communication be the site of an unconcealment of truth? We need to see technology in a non-instrumental way for this to be possible. Counter to our beliefs, the best thinking is not Cartesian or Platonic, a purely conceptual thinking; in a time of hypercommunication we see a certain pointlessness in a thinking that has liberated itself from the human body and from space; it becomes circular, intransitional, and unefficient - unfruitful. This pure thinking is an incessant movement without any goal.

What we have been dreaming of - a purely conceptual type of thinking - is pointless; is there a chance to change this, then? Is 'rational re-enchantment' a possibility? Perhaps not - culture as human evolution is not in our hands. Even if we could 'turn things around', this would be based on politics, and hypercommunication has undermined the possibilities of politics. Instead, perhaps a more local approach (focussing on our academic environment) may be more fruitful - perhaps we could slow down the process of substituting electronic for face-to-face communication; perhaps we could insist on the preservation of older communication forms, insist on the contemplation over the processing of knowledge. Perhaps there is still an opportunity for a grey panther revolution, building on the inertia of older generations.

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