It has become fashionable, even dutiful, for techno-utopianists and their disciples to extol the virtues of the ‘information superhighway.’ Proclamations abound, praising the brave new world of cyberspace and its potential for easy access to information. People do seem more aware of things farther afield from their own experiences, which on occasion has led to beneficial social action. And the Internet has, at least partially, liberated information from the corporate media and public relations industries, allowing some informed and independent judgements of truth. But, as with most other technological innovations, few people are asking critical questions about computer technology and the Internet. Mesmerized by their potential, many are missing their pitfalls.
It was once thought that colonized peoples could adopt the technology of their colonizers without their culture. In the Muslim world, reformers such as Afghani and Abduh advocated the importing of western technology without western culture. More recently, this tendency has evolved into the ‘Islamization’ movement. These positions assume that technology is neutral and value-free, that what matters is what humans do with it, and so Muslims can serve and promote Islam by borrowing western inventions.
But a century of colonization ought to have taught us something. Instead of being a means of liberation, technological adaptations have entrenched colonization and dependency, only more insidiously than in the past. The problem is that technology embodies culture, and is not separate from culture. Adopting technology means adopting culture, and forms of technology carry with them a specific set of possibilities for future actions, while quietly excluding many alternatives. In this framework, critical studies of technology reveal the culture that is adopted with the machinery.
Computer technology, the Internet and virtual reality embody fundamental features of western civilization. Christianity, as developed by the Holy Roman Church, caused an unnatural split bet-ween matter and spirit, denigrating matter in favor of the spirit. When St Augustine invented the Trinity, and after St Paul invented Grace, the Roman Church created a dead power known as ‘spirit.’ This alienated humans from their bodies, cutting them off from the path of salvation advocated by all Divine religions, self-cultivation, and replacing it with vicarious atonement in the blood of a celibate Christ. Church innovations led to renunciations and denigrations of human flesh, all in the name of deliverance to the supposed Savior. It became necessary to kill the body in order to save the soul.
Although western civilization went through a period of secularization, diffusing much of the political and economic power of the Church, many of the Church’s innovations continued into the age of supposed enlightenment. Descartes demanded a dichotomous mind-body split as the basis for his ontology, Bentham advocated a strict surveillance of the body to cultivate the mind, while Comte invoked an Θlite rule of the technological scientists. Prisons, schools, hospitals and asylums operated on the same principle, policing an irrational body to cultivate a rational mind. All this is enshrined in the west’s politico-economic institutions to this day.
Computer technology heightens this dichotomy in western ontology. The idealised image of a cybersurfer is of a person sitting before a fancy computer, complete with full color resolution, digital sound, and lightning-speed processing. Eyes fixed to the cathode-ray tube, absorbing its hypnotic light, the body is transfixed while the mind journeys through cyberspace. But this is an alienating journey, as users never leave their chairs. It is a virtual journey, seeking virtual knowledge, in a cold virtual world.
North American techno-dystopian Arthur Kroker paints a grim picture of a future where western society is in ‘recline,’ having entered the "terminal phase of a slow but nonetheless fatal fade out." In the west’s computer-driven world, he sees humans "gripped in the cyber-jaws of virtualization." In a new twist on the old image of a cyborg, Kroker notes that humans are rapidly evolving into an electronic species, which is not half-machine and half-human, but half-flesh and half-data. In this cyber-world, there is no nature; all creation is in a cybernetic, virtualized relationship with computer technology.
Fascism, violence and pornography are other symptoms of the will to virtuality in a post-Christian world. Fascism is the ultimate policing of the depraved body, while gratuitous violence and degrading pornography are the preferred stimuli for reclining bodies. Dutiful freedoms and subtle pleasures become things of the past, killed off with the despised body to save the (virtualized) soul. It is no coincidence that sex and death are the most popular themes in the virtual world, since they provide the hyper-stimulation needed by a body that once knew better. Cyberspace marginalizes justice and pleasure in favor of image and style, in the form of interminable flashing data dots before the eyes of the reclining surfer.
This seems to be the logical outcome of a techno-obsessed society. One question still remains: who will benefit from the New World techno-society? Certainly the transnational corporations that make computers will profit. If humans are indeed interfacing with data, then this suggests that what most people consider to be culture will be logged even more completely into the domain of privatized property for profit. This also means that all the gleeful cybersurfing on the waves of a new info-age will probably wash many virtualized souls up on the barren shores of ‘cyberserfdom,’ and that bodies which cannot be digitized may end up as road kill on the information superhighway.
In this context, it is easy to see that the Internet embodies destructive tendencies in the western world. Using such technologies without critical awareness will adjust humans further into a Christian-derived dystopia of desensitized bodies and wandering minds. The ‘devil’ is not ‘in the detail’, but in the form and structure. Cybersurfers may be able to track down and catalogue data with an ease never before known, but there are sinister and unseen trade-offs for those who sell themselves into the western will toward virtuality.
Muslimedia: November 16-30, 1999