Theories and Metaphors of Cyberspace- Abstracts

Electronic Agrarianism: or
Thomas Jefferson Gets a Modem

By Kevin Howley

  • Department of Telecommunications
  • Indiana University
  • Abstract:

    The dominant metaphor for imagining the Information Age, the information superhighway, obscures the potential for emerging technologies to radically alter socio-political relations, promoting instead a hyper-accelerated present, a digitized status quo. Cyberspace, on the other hand, the "consensual hallucination" of William Gibson's virtual vision of tomorrow is somewhat more satisfactory (particularly in it's spatial emphasis), but remains problematic in its vague, illusory and decidedly pessimistic vision of "the matrix." At this time I offer an alternative metaphor for the information age: electronic agrarianism. I do not offer this as the metaphor for understanding the new media environment, rather, I offer an organic metaphor as a tool for (re)imagining an ecology of man, machine, and nature at a time when it is still possible to shape the technologies we use, and the way in which we use them.

    Visual and literary artists and theorists have long understood the power of metaphor to relate abstract concepts with an economy of style and an imaginative clarity sadly lacking in other disciplines and knowledge systems. That metaphor's utility for making sense of the world and creating meaning is lost on (or belittled by) empiricists has resulted in a devaluation of language as a heuristic device capable of revealing the world to us. What's more, until recently, the nature of language in shaping our world has gone relatively unnoticed, and remains, rather alarmingly, under theorized. And yet the use of language in general, and the employment of metaphor in particular is an essential tool for the human animal to understand that which is incomprehensible, to make accessible that which is cognitively out of reach, and to imagine what is possible. Put simply, metaphor, is the (malle)ability of language to rescue itself from its own descriptive shortcomings, and more significantly, to triumph in its unique efficiency to relate new, challenging and abstract concepts in a manner that is at once parsimonious and heuristic.

    When considering new metaphors for imagining the Information Age we should consider the interactive capabilities of the new media environment. To be sure, these technologies do permit information to move from point to point over great distances and at tremendous speeds. Here the information superhighway metaphor adequately characterizes these technologies. But these media also allow each end user to "broadcast" messages to a large, geographically disperse audience, roughly analogous to radio and television. What's more, users can access news, information, files and databases from around the world. In this respect, there is a two-way flow of information, each user producing as well as consuming news and information.

    The new media environment is a shared and sharing environment in which users "put in and take out" from the system. Returning to the origins of the term broadcasting, I suggest that the new media environment is reminiscent of an agricultural milieu in that it is a productive environment, an on-going process of creating, using, and sharing information, an electronic reaping and sowing. Therefore, rather than view the NII as a superhighway (with all its connotations of linearity, transportation, progress and speed) I suggest we consider the converged telecommunications infrastructure as a parcel of farmland to be cultivated.

    The new media environment offers significant potential for the creation, appropriation, and revaluation of both abstract and material space for disempowered groups and individuals. Electronic agrarianism envisions the metaphorical and abstract space individuals, groups, and communities might create, occupy and cultivate on-line and engenders the self-sufficient, mutually supportive, creative potential Thomas Jefferson found in the principles of agrarianism.

    Recalling Max Black's interaction view of metaphor, electronic agrarianism creates a "new context" informed by the potentials of emerging technologies, and the need to shape these technologies in a fashion that recalls the values and beliefs of agrarianism, the cornerstone of Jeffersonian democracy (Black, 1962 38). It is through the synthesis of two, seemingly incompatible concepts, advanced computing and telecommunications technologies, and agricultural self-sufficiency, that the Information Age might be reconceptualized in a manner that is consistent with the potentials of both man and machine.