Prologue: the Net and the Self

The Self in the Informational Society

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The Self in the Informational Society

New information technologies are integrating the world in global networks of instrumentality. Computer-mediated communication begets


a vast array of virtual communities. Yet the distinctive social and political trend of the 1990s was the construction of social action and politics around primary identities, either ascribed, rooted in history and geography, or newly built in an anxious search for meaning and spirituality. The first historical steps of informational societies seem to characterize them by the pre-eminence of identity as their organizing principle. I understand by identity the process by which a social actor recognizes itself and constructs meaning primarily on the basis of a given cultural Attribute or set of Attributes, to the exclusion of a broader reference to other social structures. Affirmation of identity does not necessarily mean incapacity to relate to other identities (for example, women still relate to men) or to embrace the whole society under such identity (for example, religious fundamentalism aspires to convert everybody). But social relationships are defined vis-à-vis the others on the basis of those cultural Attributes that specify identity. For instance, Yoshino, in his study on nibonjiron (ideas of Japanese uniqueness), pointedly defines cultural nationalism as "the aim to regenerate the national community by creating, preserving or strengthening a people's cultural identity when it is felt to be lacking, or threatened. The cultural nationalist regards the nation as the product of its unique history and culture and as a collective solidarity endowed with unique attributes.” 32 Calhoun, although rejecting the historical newness of the phenomenon, has also emphasized the decisive role of identity in defining politics in contemporary American society, particularly in the women's movement, in the gay movement, in the civil rights movement, movements "that sought not only various instrumental goals but the Affirmation of excluded identities as publicly good and politically salient."33 Alain Touraine goes further, arguing that "in a post-industrial society, in which cultural services have replaced material goods at the core of production, it is the defense of the subject, in its personality and in its culture, against the logic of apparatuses and markets, that replaces the idea of class struggle. " 34 Then the key issue becomes, as stated by Calderon and Laserna, in a world characterized by simultaneous globalization and fragmentation, "how to combine new technologies and collective memory, universal science and communitarian cultures, passion and reason?”35 How, indeed! And why do we observe the opposite trend throughout the world, namely, the increasing distance between globalization and identity, between the Net and the self?


Raymond Barglow, in his illuminating essay on this matter, from a socio-psychoanalytical perspective, points to the paradox that while information systems and networking augment human powers of organization and integration, they simultaneously subvert the traditional Western concept of a separate, independent subject: "The historical shift from mechanical to Information technologies helps to subvert the notions of sovereignty and self-sufficiency that have provided an ideological anchoring for individual identity since Greek philosophers elaborated the concept more than two millennia ago. In short, technology is helping to dismantle the very vision of the world that in the past it fostered."36 Then he goes on to present a fascinating comparison between classic dreams reported in Freud's writing and his own patients' dreams in the high-tech environment of 1990s' San Francisco: "Image of a head ... and behind it is suspended a computer keyboard ... I'm this programmed head!“37 This feeling of absolute solitude is new in comparison to classic Freudian representation: "the dreamers ... express a sense of solitude experienced as existential and inescapable, built into the structure of the world ... Totally isolated, the self seems irretrievably lost to itself."38 Thus, the search for new connectedness around shared, reconstructed identity.

However insightful, this hypothesis may be only part of the explanation. On the one hand, it would imply a crisis of the self limited to a Western individualist conception, shaken by uncontrollable connectedness. Yet the search for new identity and new spirituality is on also in the East, in spite of a stronger sense of collective identity and the traditional, cultural subordination of the individual to the family. The resonance of Aum Shinrikyo in Japan in 1995, particularly among the young, highly educated generations, could be considered a symptom of the crisis of established patterns of identity, coupled with the desperate need to build a new, collective self, significantly mixing spirituality, advanced technology (chemicals, biology, laser), global business connections, and the culture of millenarianist doom.39

On the other hand, elements of an interpretative framework to explain the rising power of identity must also be found at a broader level, in relationship to macro-processes of institutional change, to a large extent connected to the emergence of a new global system. Thus, widespread currents of racism and xenophobia in Western Europe may


be related, as Alain Touraine40 and Michel Wieviorka 41 have suggested, to an identity crisis on becoming an abstraction (European), at the same time that European societies, while seeing their national identity blurred, discovered within themselves the lasting existence of ethnic minorities in European societies (a demographic fact since at least the 1960s). Or again, in Russia and the ex-Soviet Union, the strong development of nationalism in the post-communist period can be related, as I shall argue in volume III, to the cultural emptiness created by 70 years of imposition of an exclusionary ideological identity, coupled with the return to primary, historical identity (Russian, Georgian), as the only source of meaning after the crumbling of the historically fragile sovetskii narod (Soviet people).

The emergence of religious fundamentalism seems also to be linked both to a global trend and to an institutional crisis. We know from history that ideas and beliefs of all brands are always in stock waiting to catch fire under the right circumstances .42 It is significant that fundamentalism, whether Islamic or Christian, has spread, and will spread, throughout the world at the historical moment when global networks of wealth and power connect nodal points and valued individuals throughout the planet, while disconnecting, and excluding, large segments of societies, regions, and even entire countries. Why did Algeria, one of the most modernized Muslim societies, suddenly turn to fundamentalist saviors, who became terrorists (as did their anti-colonialist predecessors) when they were denied their electoral victory in democratic elections? Why did the traditionalist teachings of Pope John Paul II find an indisputable echo among the impoverished masses of the Third World, so that the Vatican could afford to ignore the protests of a minority of feminists in a few advanced countries where the progress of reproductive rights contributes precisely to diminishing the number of souls to be saved? There seems to be a logic of excluding the excluders, of redefining the criteria for value and meaning in a world where there is shrinking room for the computer illiterate, for consumptionless groups, and for under-communicated territories. When the Net switches off the self, the self, individual or collective, constructs its meaning without global, instrumental reference: the process of disconnection becomes reciprocal, following the refusal by the excluded of the one-sided logic of structural domination and social exclusion.

Such is the terrain to be explored, not just declared. The few ideas


advanced here on the paradoxical manifestation of the self in the informational society are only intended to chart the course of my inquiry for the reader's information, not to draw conclusions beforehand.

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