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Cultural Exchange via Internet - Opportunities and Strategies
Forum of the House of World Cultures, Berlin, 12 October - 4 December, 1998

[as of December 1st 1998 the forum has been prolonged - ... open-ended]

Subject:Cyberspace - just a reflection of the "real" world?
Date:Fri, 06 Nov 1998 14:24
Author:Harald Friedl  []

Cyberspace - anything more than a reflection of the "real" world?

Dear participants of the forum,

following the discussion, I have realised some important aspects, that seem to me being used in a wrong way - some serious misunderstandings concerning the structure and function of the Internet. So, I may take the opportunity to comment the main points of the latest summery: The image of the "fragility of the Internet" doesn't really correspond to its technical structure and functional processing. Being developed in the 60s by the US-army to avoid a total collapse of the communication-system in case of a nuclear strike, the Internet works on the base of countless knots, the server-stations all over the world, which are all connected with each other. So, if one knot falls out, the running information can find several different ways over other knots to its destination.

Even if I am convinced, that this fact is well known by the participants of this forum, some of the former comments and arguments seemed to ignore the important effects of the way, the Internet works, on its communicational dynamics. May I use the following image: The Web is as much comparable to a computer hard disc as our human brain. You get the picture? So, the Web is much more than a giant library, much more than simply a archive for old web-pages, already out of order. (By the way: Did you know, that digital information has a much shorter lifespan than paper...). It's a dynamic communicating system, a fact, which has some very important consequences for its "reality".
Even if I can easily understand the frustration of interested or concerned people, if suddenly an (important?) web-page (with their work even) disappears suddenly, (who would not feel so?), this phenomenon is nothing but normal - or even typical about the internet: its permanent growth, a never-ending development of new centres, integrated webs by new links, new forums, which come and go: Although it's virtual, it still reflects some very strong characters of the "real" reality. Exactly with this aspect we have accept, if we want to learn to take profit of the phenomenon "Internet" instead of getting lost in some utopian illusions.

When books become forbidden and even burnt, perhaps somebody may be so lucky to keep it secretly. So, hopefully it still exists somewhere to keep it for the posterity. And if not, nobody will ever know and care about it.
But if a webpage becomes deleted - after being visited by a huge audience, then for sure it would have been loaded down several times, which means: The information still exists somewhere. It isn't exterminated. So I would recommend to Mister Oguibe to ask the cyber-community by his personal homepage, if anybody has downloaded the webpages of the 2.nd biennale - to put it back into Cyberspace. You may laugh, but to give you an example from "reality": The Austrian broadcast company, ORF, wanted to edit a collection of stories of Axel Corti, an Austrian film director and journalist, who had read his short stories every Sunday on the radio over 25 years. Because of some reasons, the ORF did not have the recordings anymore. So they asked their audience, if anybody may have recorded Mister Corti's program. Many had done so. Two very nice books had been edited at least. Why not doing the same in the Internet?
Probably because of one little reason: Copyrights. Mister Oguibe surely will give us some details, but probably the editors of that webpage didn't want to keep it anymore. Well, isn't that their right as an editor of a newspaper or a magazine has to stop working because of money, lack of readers - whatever.
It our Web-magazine "zum Thema:" [] would bankrupt, maybe our fine archive would also have to give up its existence in the cyber-reality - but still existing on the hard discs of many of our visitors... C'est la vie (virtuelle). To my opinion, the cyberspace is not everything - at least: not the reality, just a small (growing) part of it.

But there is still another main aspect about the web, Mister Oguibe seems to ignore:
I can't get rid of the impression, that the Internet isn't measured by any fact than the disappearing of that special homepage. Isn't this fact a little bit overvalued compared to the circumstance, that for the very first time in the history of mankind, people from all over the world were able to visit the biennale in Johannesburg! And - to get closer to our main subject - that a growing part of scientists, journalists and many citizens get the chance to edit messages to the world wide public. In the time before the Internet, how was the contact between Europe and South Africa, for instance? Have you been able to read a newspaper about Australia the same day?...
How much less note the international community would have taken about the Mexican Zapatists or the Tuareg rebellion in Niger and Mali? Many of the ethnical minorities or political dissidents didn't have a voice to the world before the Internet came. They disappeared silently - like so many in Chile during the period of Pinochet... Today, it's already a signal to the world, if the homepage of a political persecuted group suddenly disappears!

Of course, authoritarian governments have realised the Internet already as a new strong menace for their own official political "truth". No wonder, how fast perfect ways of censorship has been developed to control the free speech in the "national" cyberspace. Germans former government, actually, had some brute projects to control the whole data flow in the Web.
Also the image of the "anonymous user" is already a myth since a long time (Read about my article "Der gläserne Surfer: Spione am Datenhighway" ("The transparent surfer. Spies on the information highway.") from the 9.10.1998 in the Austrian newspaper "Der Standard"-Archiv,

Closing webpage including their valuable resources because of political pressure of authoritarian regimes - or because of economical pressure in our western totalitarism called the "free market" - seems to me a logical phenomenon, as normal as the establishment and closure of real media enterprises. (By the way: A late "Happy Birthday" to Mister Oscar Bronner's quality newspaper "Der Standard", an Austrian phenomenon being told to bankrupt by so many people since its establishment 10 years ago - and nevertheless getting better and more profitable each year! Something very rare on the media market with the highest press concentration in the world!)

So, the cyberspace seems to exist in a very close relation to the exterior reality - closer than many (Cyber)-utopians would like to realise. Because of the Internet, the world - or mankind, if you want to - won't become a better, richer, more generous one just because of the cyberspace. I couldn't see any reason for that. (for further details look at my report "Cyber-Paradies für Arme" [] about the accelerating gap between those, who have, and those, who have not - because of the Internet.)

About the so called ignorance of institutions: Being euphoric about the internet, one could easily forget about the young age of the internet. Institutions are changing their habits very slowly - not fast enough for the cyberspace, which asks a new understanding for communication, for the value of databases and for the way how to serve clients. The cyber-customer is very open-minded and independent, searching for special things instead of visiting pages "just to take a look". That he makes once, and then he knows already, if it's worth to come back again. If there are important databases, to many interesting information to load down at once, he will remember that link to return. That's a new situation for institutions. Give them some time to learn.

In the meantime, all those webpage-maintaining institutions and cyber-enterprises having learned faster will lead the race for the better supply of digital data, because that will be the future of the e-commerce. So we from the Internet-magazine "zum Thema:" had realised already, that we receive many more hits to our archive than to our current edition. Something which expresses the direction of the future meaning of internet: a giant archive or library, if you want, penetrated by or growing on a cheap, fast and multimedia communication system. In this virtual environment, a valuable archive will be a goldmine - either for commercial, cultural or political (cyber-)projects. The main rules are always the same - both in the cyber as in the "real world".

Harald A. Friedl ( is a freelanced journalist and main editor of "zum Thema:" [], the first Austrian online-magazine for economical, cultural and political subjects.

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Forum of the House of World Cultures, Berlin, on the use of Internet in the cultural exchange with and between Africa, Asia/Pacific and Latin America. 12 October - 4 December, 1998

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