Protohistoric roots of the network self

Robert Andreas Fischer

on Wired Aborigines and the emancipation from alphabetic imperialism

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The traditional social organization of the aboriginal people of the australian continent presents a model of an information management culture that offers a number of striking structural affinities with the emerging networked electronic technoculture. A close reading of the aboriginal cultural text reveals crucial elements for the understanding of the technological information and communication revolution underway in the post-industrial, western, alphabetized nations. Moreover, the dimensions of the social plan elaborated on the australian continent over a period of time of more than 40'000 years might well serve as a blueprint for the extension of common information and communication modes and codes on a global level.

Stuctural affinities between digital and savage cybernetics are nowadays best illustrated in the emerging strategies of networking by a generation of post-industrial western activists that are firmly rooted in the present and have left behind (or never knew) the apocalytic 80ties. They already include in their praxis the paradigms of the new workmaterial - but often without a theoretical understanding of their activity. In this sense, the cybernetic model of the traditional aboriginal societies of Australia also serve as a criterion to understand contemporary - experimental communication on the electronic network. My analysis concludes with the evocation of the constitution of the new individual networked self.

I will draw some of the material to illustrate my thesis from my fieldwork with the Warlpiri Aboriginal people of the Central Deserts of Australia in 1991 and 1992, where I concentrated on aspects of the technologization of traditional communication modes (Fischer 1992, 1993). The Warlpiri of Yuendumu are running a culturally defined project of community-TV since 1982.

1. Alpha-sequential linearity

One approach to a cybernetic reading of traditional aboriginal culture goes through an analysis of the general organisation of communication from the point of view of the western orality-literacy discourse. Classical western anthropology - like every mental, intellectual and spiritual endeavour in western society - is building on its praxis of phonetic alphabetical codification of language communication. This praxis has modelled its intellectual instrument and is determining in the elaboration of its paradigms and achievements.
Over the 2500 years since the phonetic alphabet was introduced in Europe, the structure of its societies has determined a specific mode of problemsolving and "intelligence". Western thought under the influence of the phonetic alphabet developed the historical models of sequential linearity that has allowed specific thought patterns along the lines of rational, mathematical-logical, cartesian, authoritarian, hierarchical, dialectical, vertical structures. This evolution reached its achievement with the project of the Enlightenmentand is now undergoing massive changes.

2. Literacy, orality and multimediality

The model of alphabetical vertical thinking includes the very mechanisms of its own structure of thinking. It excludes any models that are not built along its same lines. Non-alphabetical societies are therefore given the stigmata of non-rational, non-logical, non-historical cultures.
The phonetic alphabetical codification of language-communication is essentially a visual codification. Western societies imprinted (in the true sense of the word !) a negative definition of communication codification on non-alphabetical societies because they are not utilizing the same model of language codification. They were thereby defined as oral societies. The alphabetically induced logic of the western society has equated alphabetical non-literacy with orality as the visual level was occupied by alphabetical coding.
So-called orality within non-alphabetical indigenous societies has however never existed. Orality is only a tag non-alphabetical societies have received by alphabetical literate societies. In reality, so-called oral communication is composed of an extremely sophisticated, multi-layered, polysemic codification-system of simultaneous communication signals. Orality is actually multi-mediality.

3. Cybernetic mothers within Aboriginal information management

Nancy Munn describes (1973) teaching-situations by mothers in aboriginal communities of Central Australia. A number of women (three and more) are choosing a specific spot in the landscape surrounding the totemic center that is going to be the topic of the teaching. They gather the children that are going to be instructed around them. They will appear with body paintings related to the teaching topic. While oraly reciting and explaining the texts of the topic, a chief-speaker women might utilize simultaneously a hand-sign language that is absolutely formalized and strictly codified. Moreover, she may draw the contents of the teaching-subject with a number of iconographic signs that make up a horizontally adjusted cognitive map of the topic. Munn has studied the iconograpgy of the Warlpiri and reached to the conclusion that it may well be an actual form of written literacy. The polysemic sign-system is comprised of about 150 iconographic elements, that receive a different meaning according to what other signs they are combined with. One interesting aspect of her research is to conclude that until now, most of western research within so-called non-literate societies have not acknowledged what actually is a writing praxis, either because the sign-systems were so much different from the western alphabet that they could not be deemed as "alphabets", or - like in the case of the aboriginal people - because they were not used as memory devices, as information storage, as knowledge archival, but "only" in a performatory live-activity. We meet again the ethnocentric project of the western society, who judged different writing sytems on the basis of their retreivability-function. Can you talk about writing if there are no traces left of it ?!

In the traditional aboriginal teaching situations, other levels of information management like signing and dancing can be utilized. We are confronted with a complex information and communication system that includes actual "writing". Within a number of indigenous societies we are thus meeting an information and communication structure that utilizes several information sources simultaneously, without a prioritiy or hierarchy in its application, within a horizontal organization of its elements. The pragmatic disposition of the savage parallel information-processing necessitates a constant effort of creativity in the communication process. While the phonetic alphabetic, in which the multiplicity of information and communication levels has been reduced to the single alphabet - others would say that it culminated in it - allows the individuals utilizing it to concentrate on so-called contents, leaving behing the preoccupation with its codifying system, the polysemic multi-mediality of indigenous communication systems calls for a constant preoccupation with the codes of information themselves. We are meeting here a communication strategy that is now being brought forward by new electronic information and communication technologies in alphabetic industrial societies and is explaining some of the aspects of the shift in western theory to metatextual preoccupations.

4. First wave new tech

Nota bene: The first wave of new information and communication technologies in western industrial societies around the turn of the century brought forward a first preoccupation with language on a meta-textual level. Within around thirty years between 1875 and 1910 we witnessed the appearance and general use of the telegraph, electricity, the sound-recording, the telephone, the radio, cinema, picture-printing, the motorcar and the airplane - as well as a number of minor but determining devices such as the saxophone, the cast-iron piano-frame or X-Rays. The impact of these new information and communication technologies brought forward impressionism, marxism, psychoanalysis, surrealism, jazz music, dodecaphony, linguistics and anthropology. In the area of intellectual achievements we see a number of strategies and preoccupations that are directly related with the new technologies, such as the writing of Flaubert, Proust, Joyce and Gertrud Stein or the work of Wittgenstein, de Saussure and Pierce. An analysis of the fall of the austrian empire, the russian revolution, the british opium-wars or World War One from the point of view of the impact of the new information and communication technologies is still pending.

5. Emancipation-machines

With the introduction of industrial-technological information processing systems in western societies, the phonetic alphabet is loosing its predominant position. New communication technologies are bringing forward a preoccupation with the predominant language codification that manifests itself in a reflection on its code. The introduction of digital computing might however be considered as the apogee of the phonetic alphabetic imperialism. Only alphabetic thinking could build this machine.
Digital information-processing has now integrated in its organization many of the achievements of the first wave of technological information and communication modes developed around the turn of the century. A decisive moment in this evolution has been the developing of the cathode-ray tube and its integration in computational information processing. This event triggered a completely new generation of visual codes for computational work. John von Neumann mentions as early as 1945 the possibility of a computer working with the principles of televisual information-interfacing (Legendi & Szentivanyi 1983). At the time the EDVAC still functionned with electromechanical parts ! We will see that along with new visual codifying interfaces, the accoustical level was very soon also integrated in the system.

6. Non-linear communication

The developing of digital computation machines stands at the origin of the integration of the innumerable levels of information interfacing that can be applied in a polysemic, non-hierarchic, non-linear communication situation. Let us mention that the movement aspect of life itself has found applications in electronic information interfacing, as for example in flight simulation or in new entertainment programms in amusement and theme-parks. We can now acknowledge that we are confronted with a situation in which the computer, as quintessential achievement of the alphabetic mind, is pulling the carpet from under the feet of its own mental structure in order to promote an inversion of the vertical, sequential-linear structure of the phonetic alphabetic mind structure in the sense of horizontal simultaneity, diversification, polysemy, multimediality. We are then confronted with information and communication structures that present decisive affinities with traditiona l information managment applied for example by the Warlpiri teaching mothers of Yuendumu in Central Australia.

7. Cybernetics and cellular automata

Let us now consider some technological achievements in the field of information processing within the western alphabetic societies that hint at another structural affinity with traditional First Nation communication structures. The same John von Neumann who prefigured with the inclusion of the cathode-ray tube a new surface for information interfacing, very early deviced a computing machine that would NOT be a von Neumann-machine, that is NOT a sequential computing machine, but a networked machine architecture. It is generally known that along with his work in the team that designed the first electronical digital computing instrument (1946), von Neumann was interested in the theory of automatons and in specific topics of neurophysiology. In the first discipline he discovered the so-called selfreproducing automatons (cellular automata). He also started to work on probabilistic logistics and the sythesis of reliable organisms from unreliable components. His untimely death prevented him to finish his research within these areas, but he published a number of papers that indicate a direction highly relevant for the discourse of non-linear, networked technoculture.
In his "Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata" (1966) von Neumann asks how complex a machine must be in order that its results are as complex as the machine itself. Most machines are obviously not. They are often very complicated and can perform only very simple functions. Von Neumann deviced a machine that is complicated enough, so that its results are exact copies of the machine itself. He found a solution for this problem in the structure of the human nervous system (1958), which he described as a non-linear, non-sequential processing apparatus. His views, developed before the discovery of the structure of DNS and DNA were to be determining in the circle of intellectuals which defined cybernetics during the 50ties and 60ties.

8. Cybernetic ontogenesis & the continental brain

The social organization of the aboriginal people of the australian continent finds its roots in a ontological model that extends in different variations among most of the more than originally 300 different traditional linguistic nations. The founding myth of the aboriginal societies is stored and perpetuated in the totemic practices. The elements of the myth have been distributed amongst the humans, in order that these commemorate and nourrish its traces on earth. The whole of the continent then is witness of the passage of the founding ancestors. Every stone, hill, water-hole, plain or rock is the result of the influence of the gods within the landscape. The whole of the australian landscape is the text of the aboriginal ontogenesis.
Each of the aboriginal individuals has the task to care for one of these sacred spots and to each of theses sacred spots a part of the general myth is associated. Each of the individuals is the trustee and agent of a fragment of the myth. In order to commemorate some of the events of the ontogenesis however, larger "chapters" of the ontogenetic text have to be "performed". For this task a selected number of fragments have to be assembled and connected. Each one of the information fragments can also perform its task in different chapters of the text. Each complex information unit is polysemically defined.
The aboriginal social organisation confronts us with a networked distribution of information that presents as well striking similarities with some of the elements John von Neumann defined as cellular automata on the basis of human neurophysiological organization, as well as with aspects currently under development in electronic information-networks.
In aboriginal societies the network of distributed information processing covers the whole of the continent. In one way or another, each fragment is connected with fragments from totally different linguistic and totemic formalizational aspects. In different nations, the network structure was enlarged by other layers of information management, such as kinship and the more recent "skin"-system. The complexity of the system is astronomical. It needs a lifetime to become a master of the different levels of ontological subject-definition in an aboriginal society - but then, the aboriginal people consider this to be their task on earth: to be an information processing society.
In the chapter on transformation-systems in "The savage mind" (1962), Lévi-Strauss remarks that Spencer and Gillen were fortunate to explore Australia in an early period (1903), because they had access to only a selected choice of data. This allowed them to compile an extremely accurate monography of the Arrente. In later times, with the growing of the available data, specialists abstained from formulating a general theory or a synthesis. "With the expanding of knowledge, it becomes impossible to imagine a system that needs a continuum of three, four or more dimensions". Lévi-Strauss however imagines that it is not impossible to "dream about the day when it will be possible to transfer everything known about aboriginal societies on perforated cards and to prove with the help of an electronic brain, that the whole of the technical-economical, social and religious strcutures resembles one big system of transformations (1962: 107).
French anthropologist Barbara Glowscewski compares (1989) the general organisation of the aboriginal nations with the structure of a hypercube, of a cube the angles of which are defined by cubes the angles of which are ... Infering from such considerations, we can advance the thesis that the whole of the aboriginal societies is organized along a neurophysiological model, that the australian continent "functions" actually like a huge brain.

9. Neuro-Net

We are now confronted with information and communication machines that have outgrown the stage of "perforated cards" and the term of the "electronic brain" - as Lévi-Strauss formulated it in 1962. We now have access to multiple processing machines built on neurophysiological models, themselves analyzed by a previous generation of "electronic brains", that have triggered the new machine-architecture. It is not by chance that John von Neumann found his most rewarding models in neurophysiology. Whereas the classical computer is a sequential von Neumann machine, his probably most advanced research brought forward the concepts of multiple processing. These models are now penetrating the new machine-applications and at the same time provide the models for further applications. Electronic information-networks are multiple processing applications.
Within the rather desperate need to structure the until now rather chaotic electronic information management system called the INTERNET, we might well look on neurophysiological models, but also and especially on the traditional social organization structure of the aboriginal people of Australia in order to find practical solutions.

10. Deprograming of the alphabetical mind and constitution of the networked self

Some of these considerations on proto-historic models in indigenous as well as in western industrial societies for the emancipation from the sequential-linear modes of information processing and problem-solving within the frame of phonetic alphabetic imperialism are especially relevant in relation to the problem of the constitution of the self of the networked individual in the context of electronic technoculture. A number of indigenous and non-european industrial nations are managing the transition from a "savage" or more generally polysemic cybernetic models without the experience of the sequential linearity determined by alphabetical codification of language communication. The industrial western society, which is the very society that has developed the new electronic information and communication technologies that allow networked information processing, first has to outgrow its alphabetical past.
We are unfortunately experiencing nowadays the same mechanism of technological evolution criticized by Marshall McLuhan, namely that new technologies are merely applied to emulate the preceding generation. Even he had to write a book in order to advocate the end of the book. Shifts of paradigmata are manageable in this sense when we are talking about the explosive motor and jet-propulsion or about film and television, where we assist at merely quantitative / qualitative changes that can be grasped by extrapolation.
The shift from mecanical to digital technology is however on a completely different scale, as it involves the proper neuro-reprogramming of the human bio-computer. The new modes of information management cannot be grasped by the alphabetical mind. At the same time, an analytical language of the new media is not available. The utilization of networked, horizontally-distributed, multimedial, connected, non-linear, non-sequential, non-hierarchical information and communication machines implies a simultaneous and constantly renewed invention of the utilization-language itself, beyond the phonetic alphabetical codes.
The new information and communication modes put a constant strain on the western individual and its cultural context. Not only has he to critically monitor his alphabetical mind but constantly invent a new mental architecture. The effects of this general deprogramming of the western alphabetical mind result in a general loss of self-definition. The operation of deprogramming of the western alphabetical mind on a technological level entered in a decisive phase during the 60ties, with the massive penetration of television. The simultaneous explosion of research in microelectronics and integrated chip design which led to the first mainframes boosted the questionning of the western cultural habitus on a neurological level. At the same time, a number of intellectual models emerged that tried to cope with the disintegration of the individual within the disintegration of its traditional information and communication mode. On the european continent, existencialism was the last of the ego-centered projects of self-constitution. The Frankfurt School and the leftist youth-movements and its different theoretizing in France, Germany, Italy and the US probed a last lease for marxism, thus clinging to the autoritarian project of the Enlightenment, but not realizing that they were merely the symptoms of the fragmented individual in a fragmented communication context. The breaking down of political "walls" - in Berlin, the Sovjet Union, South Africa - or the present-day turmoils that agitate the world are the results of the shift of a mecanical to a digital society; the shift from an imperialist alphabetical to an open model.

In a redefinition of the structuralist impetus of the 60ties, poststructuralist theory provided - especially with the later work of Michel Foucault - a methodology to define the new self (see Poster 1989). However, whereas orthodox poststructuralism is still enmeshed in alphabetical logocentric mode and proposes a close reading of (western) history in order to emancipate the individual from the authoritarian subject of the Enlightenment project, only the analysis of the modes of information and communication management on a global level can provide the background for an adequate statement.

The introduction of an electronic information and communication instrument thus provides a point of view, a mind-frame to analyse societal organization beyond the boundaries of alphabetical imperialism, including indigenous and non-european societies. And it is within the tension between protohistorical indigenous and non-european information and communication systems and the emancipatory movements and practices of the alphabetical mind that we can find the models for the constitution of a networked self for the digital mind.

(Zurich, 17.03.95 / Draft version)


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The manuscript was finished and edited by A.W. Burks