Global education and local communities

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Kristof Nyíri

Institute of Philosophy
Hungarian Academy of Sciences

Let me begin with a summary of what I am going to say. Cyberspace is a new kind of reality, in some crucial respects less real, but in some respects more real, than the space of face-to-face encounters and of physical documents. Signs in cyberspace might be quite unconnected to any real-life states of affairs, they might be quite abstract, but often they are much less abstract than, say, signs in a printed book. As I will endeavour to show, communication in the world of printed books is, characteristically, the communication of abstract meanings among members of an abstract society, such as a modern nation. The communication of knowledge in an interactive audiovisual medium is less dependent on an extended process of education in some national - i.e. literary - language than was the communication of abstract, typographical knowledge in earlier ages. Successful navigation in cyberspace does however presuppose some specific training leading to appropriate combinations of technical skills and literary skills, the latter normally encompassing both a rudimentary English and one's mother tongue. Working out how in fact such a combination of skills can be taught and acquired, and exploring the ways in which local communities can form a suitable learning environment, are the goals of an ongoing research program in Hungary; I conclude by sketching some essentials of this program.


The Ontology of Cyberspace

In some crucial respects cyberspace is, obviously, less real than the space of face-to-face connections. One should recall here Gérard Raulet's profound study "The New Utopia", written in the 1980s, pointing to the spurious idea of "supplanting places by spaces", and to the gap separating symbolic "interactivity" from actual social interaction.[1] And one should recall the essentially consistent findings of an impressive array of empirical investigations showing that telecommunications, however dense and multidimensional the networks, do not have the effectiveness, let alone the emotional impact, of face-to-face encounters. Until the late seventies, such investigations focused, understandably, on the effects of the telephone. What they found was that although telephone contacts did of course make a difference when no other contacts were available, [2] the former, as contrasted with face-to-face contacts, had no great propensity to create new linkages. Telephone contacts are effective if they can rely on background information from earlier personal meetings, and if they are regularly reinforced by such.[3]


The same pattern still holds when e-mail and teleconferencing enter. Analyzing the impact of telecommunications on urban and regional development, Lionel Nicol wrote in 1985:

telecommunications - and, for that matter, the telephone - have traditionally been presented as having a decentralizing influence. The basic argument is that a fundamental effect of better communications is to reduce spatial impedance; that is, the frictional forces that geographical space imposes on the transfer of persons, commodities, and information. ... - ...Yet, despite its impressive advantages, there are no tangible signs that telecommunications may be displacing transportation... Claims to the contrary simply ignore the synergic effects of improved communications on the need for face-to-face contacts that, for institutional or cultural reasons, cannot be handled on-line.[4]
The effectiveness of videoconferencing is low when not backed up by face-to-face conferences; e-mail correspondences peter out if they are not complemented by personal encounters, or at least enlivened by phone calls and/or video contacts.

Turning from electronic connections to electronic documents: One could say that texts and data stored in one's computer or accessed through the web are physically never present, except for the tiny segments one has on one's screen. Electronic texts are fluid, evanescent, even web-pages tend to change or indeed vanish; while books convey a feeling of solidity. Also, when reading or browsing through a book, when walking along the shelves of a library, or even when flipping catalogue cards, one gains a sense of orientation the electronic medium does much less provide.[5] In the electronic medium "there is no sense of the text as a mass of material ... wherein the reader's 'place' can be located at some point in space, as there is with the printed book".[6]


Let us note however that the difference between the reality of our everyday surroundings on the one hand and cyberspace on the other is but a matter of degrees. Our surroundings are socially and culturally constructed.[7] As Manuel Castells recently reminded us in his The Information Age, "there is no separation between 'reality' and symbolic representation. In all societies humankind has existed in and acted through a symbolic environment."[8] And in some respects the flows in cyberspace have already become more real, in the sense of more powerful, or more difficult to control, than the people they connect. Think of the global financial market. Or think of political campaigns on the Internet, against which governments are more often than not helpless. And thinking about the Internet of course increasingly means thinking about the convergent worlds of computer networking and the global multimedia - the emergence of a new, overwhelming reality. Castells has coined the term "real virtuality" to express the state of affairs when, as he puts it, virtuality becomes our reality.[9]


Literacy and Abstract Meanings

Signs in cyberspace might be quite abstract; often however, as suggested above, they are much less abstract than signs in a handwritten or printed book. Recall that alphabetic writing did not become widespread before the 5th century BC; and recall the thesis of Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato, published in 1963,[10] according to which writing was, for Plato, not just a new medium in which to express his philosophy - on the contrary, writing, the experience of literacy, formed the very source of Platonism. When Plato inquired about the nature of justice, or the beautiful, or goodness, he was not merely asking new questions; he was asking questions with regard to abstract terms that were simply not there in the Greek language prior to the rise of literacy. Here is a quote from Plato's dialogue Euthyphro:


[M]y friend, you did not give me sufficient information before, when I asked what holiness was, but you told me that this was holy which you are now doing, prosecuting your father for murder. - Euthyphro: Well, what I said was true, Socrates. - Socrates: Perhaps. But, Euthyphro, you say that many other things are holy, do you not? - Euthyphro: Why, so they are. - Socrates: Now call to mind that this is not what I asked you, to tell me one or two of the many holy acts, but to tell the essential aspect, by which all holy acts are holy...[11]

Prior to the rise of literacy Greeks became educated by listening to Homeric poems - listening to heroic stories recounted in the colourful medium of "metre and harmony and rhythm"[12]. Homeric Greek was not a language in which abstract issues like the essence of holiness could be discussed. It is the syntax of writing that creates abstract terms and the necessity to deal with them;[13] audiovisual electronic communication alleviates that necessity. It thereby amounts to a liberation of thought from the straitjacket of one-dimensional language.


Nationalism and Abstract Societies

Communities in pre-literal cultures, as well as so-called primary groups in modern societies, can be designated as concrete in the sense that they are based on, and held together by, actual personal relationships. With the rise of literacy abstract societies emerge. The ties between members of an abstract society are, characteristically, not personal ones; instead, members share the same literate culture. The modern nation is an abstract society that has developed in close connection with the emergence of the printing press. In medieval Europe elementary-level literacy was provided, where at all necessary, by local schools, in the local dialect; higher-level literacy, by the great universities like (originally) Bologna and Paris, the language of instruction being of course Latin. From the sixteenth century on Latin was gradually complemented by the new literary, "national", languages emerging in close connection with the spread of printed books. These new languages in turn became instrumental in the creation of modern nation states - in building up centralized bureaucracies, national markets, and, in particular, national job markets. The university henceforth served as the apex of a national educational pyramid, responsible for maintaining the cultural uniformity presupposed by a horizontally mobile, literate, national labor force.[14] Every citizen of the nation state speaks, and is literate in, the same uniform language: he (and gradually she) is member of the same abstract culture.[15] Cultural uniformity is ensured by a unified school system: by a uniform system of primary education, based on the common culture of those educated in higher schools, and ultimately on the unified outlook in literature, history, law, and the sciences maintained by the national university.


Global Education Sustained by Local Learning Environments

In Hungary a broad research program to probe into the possibilities of education via the Internet has been launched. One of the focuses of the program is on tertiary education. It appears that for Hungary the virtual university model could be a highly appropriate one. Hungary is a small country, with a territory of less than 36,000 square miles. Even such a small country however can experience a very uneven territorial development. From an educational perspective in particular, rural Hungary is severely disadvantaged. For young Hungarians living in small villages the chance of being able to enroll in a university is today ten to twenty times worse than for those living in bigger towns. Hungary has a large diaspora both in the neighboring countries of Romania, Slovakia, and the former Yugoslavia, as well as in the U.S. and globally.


Envisaging a virtual university system for Hungary, two issues merit particular attention. First, the language of instruction. At the entry level this would have to be Hungarian; at higher levels, it appears, it would be a kind of universal English, offering an abundant array of technical concepts, but employing few idioms. Specific questions to be considered here are: at roughly what age should the entry level lie? Will it move downward? If yes, might not sub-national dialects gradually supplant literary Hungarian? Or should we aim, rather, at modernizing the Hungarian literary language, enriching it with a vocabulary adequate for the information age, allowing thereby that the switch to English as the language of higher studies would become necessary at a more mature age only - and allowing, indeed, for innovative scientific milieux with Hungarian as at least a second working language?


The second issue: the pedagogy and psychology of virtual teaching/learning. Experience shows that virtual learning environments absolutely need to be supplemented by physical learning environments; appropriate combinations of virtual and physical spaces have to be constructed. The virtual university presupposes a network of physical consultation centers - the locations of face-to-face encounters among students, and between students and faculty. While such a network can, ideally, provide for the necessary face-to-face instructing required by each specific course or subject, our hypothesis is that it would not by itself fulfil the functions of a physical learning environment; it could not, by itself, teach the necessary learning skills, nor create a psychologically suitable learning climate, nor indeed foster a process of adequate student socialization. As a possible solution, we envisage the forming of local learning environments. Virtual communication presupposes real foundations; members of the virtual learning net need also to be members of actual learning communities; among such communities could be, indeed already are, village communities. Communication centers in smaller settlements - supplemented, ideally, by community networks - can indeed constitute physical environments that will provide some technical skills and basic cognitive inputs which students then use to build up their virtual learning capacities. How exactly this process of cognitive transference works, and how it can be enhanced, is a topic for experiment and research.


Images, Sounds, and Text: Logic in a New Key

Information encountered in an interactive audiovisual environment is less abstract than that found in printed books. Not just texts, but images and sounds are there to convey knowledge, to explain, to make up an argument. The new environment requires radically new didactic approaches; indeed requires basic investigations in the domain of the logic of images and sounds as merged with the logic of texts. The Hungarian research program I mentioned does include such investigations. In philosophy the problem has a not inconsiderable pre-history. Thus centuries ago Francis Bacon already remarked that "Emblem reduceth conceits intellectual to images sensible, which strike the memory more", and went on to write: "Aristotle saith well, 'Words are the images of cogitations, and letters are the images of words.' But yet it is not of necessity that cogitations be expressed by the medium of words. For whatsoever is capable of sufficient differences, and those perceptible by the sense, is in nature competent to express cogitations."[16] This is the issue Richard Lanham confronts today when he says that scholarly argument should use images "to think through, conceptualize, problems rather than simply to illustrate solutions arrived at through other means."[17] What Lanham has in mind are the perspectives opened up by the possibility of manipulating images on the screen. But we should recall that already in the late age of print the program of a better integration of text and images appeared as a conceivable aim, say, to the Austrian Otto Neurath in the 1920s and 30s. "Frequently it is very hard", he wrote, "to say in words what is clear straight away to the eye. It is unnecessary to say in words what we are able to make clear by pictures."[18] Neurath was working towards an "International System Of TYpographic Picture Education", abbreviated as isotype, an interdependent and interconnected system of images, to be used together with word languages, yet having a visual logic of its own. Isotype would be two-dimensional[19], using distinctive conventions, shapes, colours, and so on. Neurath stressed particularly that the elaboration of this picture language was meant to serve a broader aim, that of establishing an international encyclopaedia of common, united knowledge - the "work of our time", he said.[20] Recently Andreas Roser has published an important study comparing Neurath's and Ludwig Wittgenstein's approaches to the logic of images.[21] And outside the field of philosophy the problem of digital image recognition and classification is of course an issue towards which huge research energies are directed.


To conclude. It appears that the conceptual and technical tools to promote high-quality education in global dimensions are rapidly becoming available. In order to make use of these tools, appropriate national strategies, supranational cooperation, and local efforts are necessary. Studying in cyberspace relies on skills acquired in face-to-face encounters; global education relies on learning environments provided by local communities.




[1] My references here are based on the German edition: G. Raulet, "Die neue Utopie. Die soziologische und philosophische Bedeutung der neuen Kommunikations-technologien", in: M. Frank, G. Raulet and W. van Reijen, eds., Die Frage nach dem Subjekt, Frankfurt/M.: 1988. Compare especially p.285 ("die hier gemeinte 'neue Utopie' [bedeutet] das Verschwinden des Örtlichen zugunsten des Räumlichen... die Kategorie der Delokalisierung") and p.287 ("eine leichtfertig mit der sozialen Interaktion verwechselte 'Interaktivität'").


[2] See e.g. Suzanne Keller, "The Telephone in New (and Old) Communities", in: Ithiel de Sola Pool, ed., The Social Impact of the Telephone, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1977.


[3] See esp. Bertil Thorngren, "Silent Actors: Communication Networks for Development", in: Ithiel de Sola Pool, ed., The Social Impact of the Telephone.


[4] Lionel Nicol, "Communications Technology: Economic and Spatial Impacts", in: Manuel Castells, ed., High Technology, Space, and Society, Beverly Hills, Ca.: Sage: 1985, p.195. - As Mitchell L. Moss has put it: "Although many so-called futurists argue that the electronic cottage will replace the office building and that tele-conferencing will replace the in-person meeting, such speculation merely demonstrates a poor understanding of urban functions... ... telecommunications has not reduced the value of the face to face transactions that occur in large urban centres." (Mitchell L. Moss, "Telecommunications and the Future of Cities", Land Development Studies, 3 [1986], pp.38f.) - A recent issue of The Economist, featuring an analysis of financial centres, emphasizes the need for physical presence, spatial proximity, and personal meetings. The former boss of J.P. Morgan is quoted as saying that financial centres "would not exist without lunch". As The Economist adds: "Computers can distribute economic data and monetary-policy decisions to everyone at the same time, no matter where they are. Instead, it is the centre with the biggest number of important banks and investors that will enjoy information advantages of the more informal sort." (The Economist, May 9th, 1998, pp.8 and 21 of the "Financial Centres" survey.)


[5] This is brilliantly discussed by Oleg Grabar, "The Intellectual Implications of Electronic Information", Technology, Scholarship, and the Humanities: The Implications of Electronic Information, conference held at Irvine, California, Sept. 30 - Oct. 2, 1992.


[6] Patrick W. Conner, "Hypertext in the Last Days of the Book", Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, vol.74, no.3 (Autumn 1992), p.19.


[7] As Doreen Massey has put it: "what gives a place its specificity is ... the fact that it is constructed out of a particular constellation of social relations, meeting and weaving together at a particular locus" (Massey, "A Global Sense of Place", Marxism Today, June 1991, p.28). Yet it is essential to point out, as Massey herself did in her earlier work, that "physical features and variations", too, are "important. Their impact, use and meaning will, of course, be socially constructed, but that construction is of something" (Doreen Massey, Spatial Divisions of Labour: Social Structures and the Geography of Production, London: Macmillan, 1984, repr. 1995, p.52).


[8] Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, vol.I: The Rise of the Network Society, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996, p.372.


[9] Ibid.


[10] Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


[11] Transl. by Harold North Fowler, Plato with an English translation, vol.I, Loeb Library, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1914.


[12] Plato, The Republic 601b, Jowett transl.


[13] For a detailed argument see my "Wittgenstein as a Philosopher of Secondary Orality". Grazer Philosophische Studien 52 (1996/97), pp.45-57, also as an electronic document: <http://."


[14] See especially Ernest Gellner's argument in his Nations and Nationalism, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983.


[15] See in particular Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso, 1983, rev. ed. London: Verso, 1991.


[16] Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974, pp.130f.


[17] Richard A. Lanham, "The Implications of Electronic Information for the Sociology of Knowledge", Technology, Scholarship, and the Humanities: The Implications of Electronic Information, conference held at Irvine, California, Sept. 30 - Oct. 2, 1992.


[18] Otto Neurath, International Picture Language (1936), Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, University of Reading, 1980, p.26.


[19] "The writing or talking language is only of 'one expansion' - the sounds come one after the other in time, the word-signs come one after the other on paper, as for example the telegram signs on a long, narrow band of paper. The same is true in books - one word over another in the line under it has no effect on the sense. But there are languages of 'two expansions'", ibid. p.60.


[20] Ibid., pp.65 and 111.


[21] Andreas Roser, "Gibt es autonome Bilder? Bemerkungen zum grafischen Werk Otto Neuraths und Ludwig Wittgensteins", Grazer Philosophische Studien vol.52 (1996/97)

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