Page last updated:
01 April, 2000
Why Work with the Net?
THOUGHTS ON THE NEW TECHNOLOGY
In recent years there has been a phenomenal growth in the use of e-mail. This encourages brief exchanges and conversations in the form of letters. And it hugely increase the mass of available information. Which is both fascinating and unsettling. Fascinating because it means that great transformations for education and training are within reach. Unsettling because it suggests a world which could get dehumanised and open to manipulation. Two writers, both with Nobel prizes for literature, reflect on the new technology and its problems and wonder how to hold out without becoming too old-fashioned.
1. THOUGHTS ON THE NEW TECHNOLOGY
On communication, by JOSÉ SARAMAGO*
*Portuguese writer, born in 1922. Author of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (Harvill 1995), A History of the Siege of Lisbon (Harvill 1996) and Blindness (Harvill 1997). Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. Translated by Ed Emery )
The 19th century Spanish philosopher Francisco Goya, better known as the great painter, once wrote "The sleep of reason breeds monsters". In our own time, with the explosion of new communications technologies, are these technologies perhaps breeding new monsters right before our eyes? Of course, the new technology is the product of reason. But is it a reason that is awake in the real sense of the word - in other words, attentive, vigilant, and stubbornly critical? Or is it dozing and half asleep? And does it, at the moment of creating and imagining, go off the rails and ends by creating and imagining monsters?
At the end of the 19th century, when the railways were becoming a new means of communication, the doom-mongers denounced the railway engine and claimed people would die of asphyxiation in the tunnels. They maintained that at speeds higher than 50 km an hour, blood would start spurting from people's ears and noses and horrible convulsions would lead to death. These were the professional pessimists who always query any progress made by reason - obscurantists who reckon that reason can never produce good. Though they are wrong in the final analysis, it is true that progress can be both good and bad.
It goes without saying that trains are good when they take us on holiday they transport the goods that we need. But they are bad when hauling people off to extermination camps or transporting weapons of war.
Like trains, the Internet is neither good nor bad in itself. It can only be judged by the uses to which it is put. Which is why, today more than ever, reason needs to be wide awake. Say a person took 500 newspapers from around the world every day. People would probably say he was mad. And it would be true. Because only a fool could reckon to read 500 newspapers a day. You'd have to read one every three minutes - more than 20 an hour - and keep it up round the clock. People seem to forget this simple truth when they get so excited by the thought that, with the digital revolution, they can now get 500 channels on their TVs. But how are 500 channels going to keep them better informed than 500 newspapers that they physically cannot read? The subscriber to these 500 channels will end up with feverish expectations that no image will satisfy. They say that a picture's worth a thousand words, but it's not true. Images very often need explaining by words - if only to make us reflect on the meaning of some of the pictures we see on television.
This is something we saw a few years ago during the final stage of the Tour de France when we saw live on TV Abduzhaparov's spectacular fall. It was like watching a street accident with someone being run over by a car - with the difference that in real life the person would only have been run over once. But on television we could watch Abduzhaparov's accident 30 times over thanks to the new video technology - with zoom, without zoom, top-down, bottom-up, from one angle, then the other, tracking, full face, profile - and also, interminably, in slow motion. We saw the cyclist coming off his bicycle, his face slowly nearing the ground, making contact with the asphalt, twisting with pain.
With each shot we learned more about the circumstances of the fall, but each time our sensitivity got a bit duller. The event turned into something cold, with a quality that no longer had to do with life so much as cinema. We began to watch the accident with the detachment of a film buff dissecting a sequence from some action movie. The constant retakes ended up by killing our emotion.
People say that the new technology is bringing us close to total communication. The expression is misleading. It suggests that the totality of human beings on the planet are now able to communicate with each other. Unfortunately this is not the case. Barely 3% of the world's population has access to a computer. And even fewer are able to access the Internet. The vast majority of our fellow humans are not even aware of the existence of these technologies - they still don't have the basic benefits of the industrial revolution: drinking water, electricity, schools, hospitals, roads, railways, refrigerators, cars, etc. If nothing is done, the present information revolution will also pass them by.
Information only makes us wiser and more knowledgeable if it brings us closer to our fellow humans. Now that we have long-distance access to all the documents we need, we run an increasing risk of dehumanisation. And of ignorance. Nowadays the key to culture doesn't lie in experience and knowing, but in your aptitude at hunting down information on the Net. You can be entirely ignorant of the world - the real social, economic, and political world you live in - yet accumulate every possible kind of information. Communication is ceasing to be a form of communion. We are sadly seeing the ending of real person to person communication. Soon we will start to feel nostalgic for our old libraries: the days of leaving the house, travelling to the library, going in, asking for a book, taking it in your hands, feeling the work of the printer and the binder, noting the traces of previous readers who have handled the book from one generation to the next...
It looks like the nightmare scenario of science fiction: everyone shut in their own apartments in complete solitude, isolated from everyone and everything, but on-line with the Net and in communication with the planet. The end of the material world, of experience, of bodily contact... Increasingly we are caught up in virtual reality. Whatever people say, this virtual reality is as old as the world, as old as our dreams. And those dreams have led us into extraordinary, fascinating virtual universes, into continents that are new and unknown, where we have lived exceptional circumstances, adventures, loves and dangers. And sometimes nightmares too. Which Goya warned us of. But that doesn't mean we should curb our imagination and creativity.
Rather it is a question of ethics. What are the ethics of the likes of Bill Gates and Microsoft who are fighting tooth and nail to win the battle of the new technologies for maximum personal profit. Or the corporate and stock exchange whizz-kids who can use advanced communications technologies to ruin countries or bankrupt companies the world over? Or the Pentagon generals who profit from the advances in image synthesising to programme their Tomahawks more efficiently in the direction of Iraq?
And the majority of people capitulate. They accept the new world that we are told is inevitable. They seem to have given up - given up both their rights and their duties. In particular, the duty to protest. As if exploitation had disappeared and the manipulation of public opinion had been banned. As if the world was governed by the well-meaning and communication had suddenly become the province of angels.. .
(This text is a version of an unpublished speech made by the author in Alicante, Spain, on 29 March 1995, in the context of a seminar on "New technologies and information of the future", organised by Joaquin Manresa for the Cultural Foundation of the Caja de Ahorros del Mediterraneo (CAM). José Saramago refers to this meeting in his book Cadernos de Lanzarote. Diario III, published by Caminho, Lisbon, 1997.)
Japan's new breed of intellectuals, and in particular the younger elites, are highly attuned to the new technologies. In these quarters my name is often cited as an example of the ludicrous backwardness of some people when it comes to understanding the new communications technologies - although they are kind enough to concede that some are even worse than me. Before I received the Nobel Prize for Literature four years ago, all I had was an old-style telephone. This was not enough to enable me to handle my inflow of requests for "access". So I got myself a fax machine. And I was very much taken with it. Particularly because it opened up the possibility of exchanging faxes with foreign writers whom I had known for a long time but had only ever corresponded with by regular mail. The ability to exchange large numbers of faxes over a short span of time, and have the freedom to respond as and when I wanted, gave me an unexpected thrill.
Take one example: after the collapse of the Soviet Union I exchanged four or five faxes with a Russian writer in one day. We sent each other a series of acid observations on the differences between the cultural contexts of Japan and Russia - a subject we had never broached in our letters - and although our dialogue got a bit heated and could have turned unpleasant, we managed to persevere and even start a number of projects together. All this by fax. A second example: one evening I received a fax from New York from the Palestinian writer Edward W. Said (1). At the time I was upset by the suicide of my brother-in-law - a film-maker and the person with whom I most liked discussing intellectual and artistic issues and with whom I had a perfect and mutual understanding. I shall never forget my sense of salvation that night. I felt like a drowning man finding a lifebelt.
These experiences led me to state publicly that with this technological break-through, I was hoping to set up an international round table in which writers of all nationalities could take part via fax. Of course, I was the laughing stock of the young intellectuals. How could anyone have such an old-fashioned idea in the age of e-mail and the Internet? Wasn't it typical of a novelist like me?
So now I am replying to those who laugh at me. I have done much searching in bookshops to see whether dialogues between two or more people by fax had ever been published in book form. In vain. The Japanese are very ready to translate edited volumes of foreign correspondence. But no exchange of faxes between two public figures has been published. Supposing, as with the correspondence between Gershom Scholem (2) and Walter Benjamin (3), there was an exchange of faxes between two Jewish intellectuals, one abroad and the other in Israel, about the crisis in that country. I would much like to read such an exchange in book form.
The fact that such books have not been published in the fax age means, I suppose, that they are even less likely to be published in the e-mail/Internet age. This leads me to think that one might begin with an initiative that would be relatively easy to realise, and that the idea of making a book out of exchanges of faxes between two or several intellectuals would still be a worthwhile enterprise. Let's imagine that such a book had actually been published. For those who feel more at home with the older media forms, there would be something of a nostalgic satisfaction. But what constructive values might those who have already taken the plunge into the Internet find in such a project? Before I hear you say "None!" I would invite you to listen to some ideas that come from my experiences as a novelist.
First, in order to ensure the proper development of the new media, I think it would be useful to establish a kind of feedback loop between them and the older media. In other words, to establish a link, however partial, between the expressions of human beings on the Internet and the old media form represented by the book: to gather together in book form exchanges carried out by e-mail on the Internet, and observe the results. Wouldn't this be a worthwhile enterprise to start with?
Then, having gathered e-mail messages into the form of a book, it would be possible to examine in precise detail the "style" of this new type of communication. Has the notion of style (in the literary sense of the word) lost any real meaning in the world of the new media? Are the new media going to be the force that will create the style of the human beings who will live in the 21st century?
A number of current research projects indicate that some of the world's minority languages in the world are being used just as they are on the Internet. This is some cause for rejoicing. One could look at the situation of Korean, even though it is not exactly a minority language. Let's imagine that the Hangul alphabet was able to circulate widely on the Internet - between the two states of the Korean peninsula, Japan, the United States, and even Europe. It would certainly lead to positive developments in international relations in East Asia.
Now, in their exchanges with the world via the Internet, the Japanese often make use of the English language. And I have been particularly interested in the style used by Japanese people when they express themselves in English via e-mail. At the moment this probably involves a fairly crude conversion from the Japanese to the English: rather like putting Japanese through an unsophisticated translation programme. But when, thanks to the Internet, Japanese people begin to participate more actively in the linguistic world of English, and when the scale of this participation increases, isn't it possible that a style of English proper to the Japanese will see the light of day?
On another front, what have been the repercussions of this style on the Japanese language as it is expressed in the older media? Does it have the power to alter the style of the Japanese language as it appears in books? This interests me as a novelist. Wouldn't a radical change in the style of language be the most obvious indicator of the changes happening in the mental universe of the Japanese?
It seems to me that, in modern linguistic studies - "modern" is perhaps not quite the word, since my rather specialised knowledge in this field ends in the 1960s - there is very little scientific research on the question of "style". As in the literary domain, one has more the sense that people are content with monographs on the style of such or such an author, but that they have more or less given up on establishing universal rules in the matter of style. Thus we have no researchers capable of explaining the reasons for the particularities of Japanese people's style when they write in English. If it were a question of the phonetic characteristics of the English spoken by my compatriots, I would need only to pronounce a number of words in English for a fair number of parameters to become instantly clear.
However, I believe that if the style of English used by the Japanese were to be enriched as a result of the Internet, there would also be interesting stylistic developments in the texts which literary writers produce. Japanese literature has already undergone considerable changes at the start of the modern epoch with the unification of the spoken and written language. I imagine that eventual discoveries of English "stylistics" on the Internet are likely to have the effect, whether we like it or not, of modifying the style in which literature is written in Japanese. Since the language of the Internet has as its prime vocation the transmission of information at speed, it is not surprising that there are big differences between the language of electronic information and the language used by novelists to express themselves.
Haven't I myself spoken in the past of the differences of linguistic expression between words as they appear in literature and as they appear in daily language? In those days I drew on the linguistic theories of Russian formalism. And, although the Soviet Union has disappeared, I believe that various of its brilliant intellectual movements in the 1920s and 1930s are still entirely relevant today and are part and parcel of the living heritage of the 20th century. This is certainly true of Russian formalism.
Let's say, to simplify things, that words as used in literary writing through a process which the Russian formalists referred to as ostraninie - "rendering other" - slow down the transmission of meaning and make this transmission longer in duration. This process makes it possible to give words the same kind of resistance that objects have when you touch them. Obviously, I'm not saying that words on the Internet should have this kind of function - of slowing down or complicating the transmission of meaning and information. However, I do admit that my vision of the novel or literature in general is based on this theory of ostraninie, and that I purposely complicate the transmission of meaning. This is why many young intellectuals probably think that I'll be the first of the novelists to be consigned to the dustbin by the new Internet generation. I am, however, a devotee of the old media and I can't resist the temptation of observing that even messages transmitted by e-mail have a "style" in just the same way as the words transmitted in literature. The French historian Yves-Marie Bercé, who happens to have been born in the same year as me, is one of the people with whom I would love to make contact if I had Internet access. He is the author of a book entitled Le Chaudron et la Lancette (4) which tells how the Englishman Edward Jenner's discovery of a treatment for smallpox in the summer of 1798 then spread to the rest of Europe.
This book was translated into Japanese, with the title Nabe to ransetto, and was published by Shinhyôron. To quote: "The news spread through Europe like wildfire. However, this was a time when the continent was in a state of war; the seas were in the hands of pirates and roads were cut off by armies. Despite all these obstacles, the vaccine against smallpox found ways of getting through. Within a few years, and in all countries, not only were the professors in the universities aware of the discovery, but so too were ordinary doctors in private practices, despite not being in the main run of intellectual ideas, and they were able to make the vaccine available in their localities, and, furthermore, with a high degree of efficiency."
I would like to take that last sentence in Yves-Marie Bercé's text and compare it to what happened in the Japanese context, where a clinic for the treatment of smallpox was opened in Otamagaike, by an Edo doctor practising Western medicine. The date given is Ansei 5, in other words 1858 - there are several mentions of smallpox shortly before and shortly after. Thus the information about the smallpox vaccine took 60 years in arriving from a Europe ravaged by war to a Japan that was closed to the outside world. What sum of human efforts was required for this to happen? When you think about this in more general terms, it's clear that information too exists very much as a means of expression. A "style" is apparent. This is the project that has been undertaken by Yves-Marie Bercé. What I call "style" can be defined from a number of different angles.
Who is the person concerned? What are their activities? What do they tell us about them? I would like to ask something from the researchers who are carrying out specialist studies into the new media. I would like them to interview those people who, thanks to these new media - thanks to the use of the Internet and e-mail - have developed new networks of solidarity in order to bring a human response to the tragedy of war. For example, what was the "style" of the information transmitted via the Internet during the campaign against landmines? When I think of the impressive results achieved by this campaign, it seems to me that it is far from irrelevant to compare this transmission of information (which took no more than a second to reach all corners of the world) to that which took 60 years to reach Japan. That is the message which, in my vocation as novelist, I would hope to transmit.
Maryuma Masao wrote somewhere that a novelist was a person who said a lot starting from very little. I would thus like to come to the kernel of my argument. What do I expect from the Internet? In an age when countries, international relations and even the planet itself are crushed by the language of one single country, the Internet could function as a channel for resistance for people. However, very often the words of individuals are derived from the dominant groupings: they square with the meanings of that domination. And lead to its acceptance.
This puts me in mind of George Orwell, the author of 1984, who had a premonitory vision of totalitarian language. As a result of his experiences with British broadcasting, he became deeply interested in the possibility of expressing oneself through using an elementary English. That's why I too have become interested in this area - in the "style" of Japanese people's English on the Internet - because my fellow countrymen often use phrases that are close to basic English. If they were to succeed in creating their own brand of English, by "Japanesifying" it, they would impose a different style. And, by so doing, they would resist the new domination.
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