Cain the murderer. Moses the legislator. Gege, the technology entrepreneur. Three highly different personalities hailing from different countries and ages.
The story of Cain, the child of the purely aural oral culture, and that of Moses, who lived around about the invention of writing, would have probably developed differently had they lived in our networked society marked with digital media technology.
Take the predicament of Cain the murderer. Asked by God about the whereabouts of Abel, Cain feigned ignorance. In our networked world it would have hardly been possible for Cain to put forward that line of defence. Smart phones, GPS, connectivity through Facebook and Google maps would make Cain’s “I don’t know where my brother is” an incredibly stupid answer.
By definition, anyone living in a network society is networked. Every person is (or, at least, can be) in constant communication with the rest. Cain could have perhaps retorted that one could be digitally close but psychologically very far away.
Now fast forward from Cain to Moses the legislator.
Moses came down from Mount Sinai with two large stone tablets on which he had chiseled out the Ten Commandments. Had he had a laptop with him the history of humanity could have been totally different. It would have been possible for Moses to write thousands of commandments instead of just 10.
Today he would have been welcomed by a bevy of journalists with their tablets, microphones and video cameras. Most, particularly those coming from commercial media, would just ask for a 90-second soundbite and their short reports would then only mention the most important three commandments. Facebook would immediately explode with a white-hot discussion among those whose knowledge of Moses and the commandments would be close to naught; instant experts all!
One could keep on hypothesising on how Cain’s and Moses’s story would have been impacted had a different media technology dominated their respective cultures. A different medium would have surely made a big difference as it has always been the nature of media technologies to deeply influence the world we all live in, all the activities we are involved in, as well as the way we perceive all reality.
Media technology is not just another factor together with other factors that shape society. It is not just another ingredient. Like salt, it is a defining ingredient. Manuel Castells, the Spanish-born preeminent sociologist, puts this in stronger words: technology does not determine society: it is society.
History is full of examples of such influences. The invention of writing slowly but radically altered oral society. The invention of print revolutionised a society based on manuscripts. It introduced modernity, fuelled nationalism, gave rise to capitalism, broke western Christianity into two competing factions, rejuvenated sciences, fomented secularisation and favoured individualism. The list goes on, as no sector of society remained the same.
The Gutenberg Galaxy, as McLuhan described print culture, is now superseded by a totally new communication environment. Castells dubs this as the Internet Galaxy because the internet is the technological basis for the organisational form of the Information Age: the Network.
His commentary about an alternative future for Malta is both seminal and visionary
Castells is not the originator of the term Network Society, but he, more than anyone else, fleshed it out with sound theory and propagated it. For him, “a network society is a society where the key social structures and activities are organised around electronically processed information networks”. It is about social networks which process and manage information and use microelectronic-based technologies.
The impact is tsunami-like. This electronically-built Network brings a shift from vertical bureaucracies to horizontal organisations. In the Network Society, space is annihilated and the concept of time transformed. There is now the possibility of reducing the world to a global village, hence the rise of globalisation, with all its plusses and minuses. There is now a technology that can make solidarity more possible and cement it more than ever before on a global scenario.
This is because the internet allows many to communicate to many others, at the time they choose to and on a global scale. The role of the nation State has been diminished. The economy has been internationalised, and work and employment have been transformed. Once more, the list goes on.
Such an appraisal of the role of digital media technology raises an important question: How can this knowledge be translated into an integrated policy overflowing from the structural and cultural effects of this same technology? How can the Network Society become a political reality?
Much has been written on the subject. In 2005, Castells and Cardoso edited an extremely interesting book – The Network Society. From Knowledge to Policy – compiling diverse experiences.
This brings me to the third person mentioned in this commentary’s title. Gege Gatt, in The Sunday Times of Malta of December 18, penned an extremely valid contribution suggesting how we can translate the possibilities of digital media technology into policy innovations. His commentary about an alternative future for Malta is both seminal and visionary. It is like a fresh and bubbling cascade of policy proposals that should result from the Network Society. He presented a holistic vision of Maltese society synergising the potential of the digitally networked media technology.
His practical proposals have to do with new economic initiative, the establishing of a multicultural collaborative technology space in Europe, a blueprint for citizen participation, the personalisation of national health care, the prioritisation of digital rights and so many other initiatives.
I would expect Cain and Moses to be baffled by the commentary, and consequently, I would not be surprised if they would have ignored it. But it is disappointing that the alternative future Dr Gatt so clearly presented us with has been largely ignored by contemporary Maltese readers and commentators. Had he called someone a pisellu or a basla marinata the whole country would have been agog with discussions and controversies.
The level of public discourse is so disastrously inane. It glorifies the race to the bottom while totally flouting a clarion call for a better future.