"Thought Experiments in Social Science: from the Social Contract
to Virtual Society"
1st Virtual Society? Annual Public Lecture:
1st April 1998, Brunel University
Good afternoon. My name is Steve Woolgar. Iím very pleased to see so many of you here, and I would just like to start off the proceedings by inviting the Vice Chancellor, Professor Michael Sterling, to give the welcome.
Thank you very much Steve. Well good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen. Itís probably the biggest party Iíve been to for some time in the University, so a strong welcome to you all. As Vice Chancellor of the University, Iím delighted that you could be with us to share in celebrating this tenth anniversary of CRICT. As you all know this stands for the Centre for Research into Innovation, Culture and Technology and is based in the Department of Human Sciences; and Iím told quite clearly is not to be confused with the English game of cricket, or the chirping insect. CRICT was originally established in 1987 as part of the ESRCís Programme on Information and Communication Technologies, or PICT as it was known, and was one of six centres nation-wide. During its first ten years CRICT has developed an extensive portfolio of Research and Research Training in the Social Science dimensions of Science and Technology, notably with reference to the geneses and social impact of new information and communication technologies. Brunel is proud to be home to a major outstandingly successful and forward thinking research centre. CRICT exemplifies two key aspects of the Brunel ethos. Firstly it recognises that important research problems often need an inter-disciplinary perspective. CRICT helps bridge the divide between the Technological and Social Science disciplines through collaborative research involving sociologists, computer scientists, manufacturing and systems engineers. Secondly, CRICT is especially influential in exploring new forms of outreach and engagement with the community at large. As a research centre it has contributed significantly to the prominence of Brunelís Social Sciences on the National and International scene. The special quality of the Brunel Social Science Faculty has been recognised by recent decisions of ESRC to base several of its major projects here. CRICT was first set up as part of a large ESRC research programme. It is fitting then, that in its tenth anniversary year, it is now CRICT which provides the home to a major new ESRC Research Programme entitled "Virtual Society? - the Social Science of Electronic Technologies", and I do like that question-mark after it; no doubt Professor Woolgar will return to that in due course. Now this programme is a major programme. It is worth £3,000,000 (three million) over three and a half years, and comprises 22 research projects at over 25 Universities throughout the UK. An achievement worth celebrating in its own right. It asks to what extent fundamental shifts are taking place in how people behave, organise themselves and interact as a result of the new technologies. Iím delighted to welcome you all here this afternoon and on behalf of all of us at Brunel to offer our warmest birthday congratulations to CRICT. Ladies and Gentlemen it is now my very great pleasure to hand you over to Professor Steve Woolgar, the Director of CRICT.
Itís a very great personal pleasure to introduce our speaker on this occasion, the occasion of CRICTs 10th birthday and the establishment of the ESRC Virtual Society Programme here at Brunel. I should begin perhaps by saying how terrific it is to see so many colleagues here this afternoon. Colleagues who have been, or are still part of CRICT, and many others with past, present and of course we hope future associations with the work of CRICT. Secondly I should say without a doubt the major reason for the success of CRICT is the personnel who have been involved throughout the ten years. Itís certainly been a pleasure to work with such a talented group of people; teaching staff, research fellows, research students and support staff. On the support side we certainly couldnít have done it without Norma Bowes, Donna Page, Liz Ackroyd and Debbie Chagouri. CRICT has been able to grow and flourish thanks to a continual flow of outstanding researchers and research students, many of whom were then able to use this as a basis for their academic careers. Of the currently established academics who have helped influence and shape CRICT in recent years, Iíd especially like to mention the excellent stewardship provided by Dr. Chris Hine as Acting Director during the past three years. Some of the key contributors to the origins of CRICT cannot be with us here this afternoon, but, I am delighted to report, in time honoured fashion, the receipt of several congratulatory messages and telegrams. Some examples:
"I very much regret I cannot attend todayís lecture. Unfortunately there is absolutely no way I can leave work today to come. Please can I pass on the message to say that my time at CRICT was easily the most important intellectual time of my life, and I wish you all the best for the next ten years." Thatís from Janet Low.
"Best wishes to CRICT on your 10th birthday, and best regards to Bruno Latour. I am really sorry I canít be with you for the lecture." From Peter Swann, old CRICTurions (I donít know how you pronounce that) "old CRICTurions 1988 - 1992." Now Professor Peter Swann of the Manchester Business School.
"My sincere apologies for not being able to join you on 1st April. I shall be far away on the other side of the world and will be very sorry to have missed such a splendid occasion. My good wishes though, and hereís to the next 10." >From Roger Silverstone. Now Professor of Media Studies at LSE.
And the last one oddly enough also from Roger Silverstone;
"Congratulations CRICT on your 10th birthday - stop - whoíd have thought it? Only three years to your bar-mitz-vah - stop - may you go from strength to strength - stop"
What better date on the calendar to celebrate the work of CRICT? 1st April, April Foolís day. I was delighted to discover that the origin of the custom of playing practical jokes and sending friends on fools errands is entirely uncertain. April Fools Day has been observed for centuries in several countries. It resembles other festivals such as the Hilaria of ancient Rome - March 25th - the Holi festival of India - March 31st. In Scotland the victim of the April Fool is called Gowk or cuckoo; the cuckoo being an emblem or symbol of simpleton. In France the fooled person is called Poisson Díavril, but nobody seems to know why. The custom has enjoyed exportation from country to country, in particular from England to USA. So struggling for the best available explanation, some sources have suggested that the timing seems related to the Spring Equinox. The time of year - and weíve had a nice example of it today - when Nature Fools Humans with sudden and unpredictable changes in the weather. Nature Fooling Humans. Those familiar with the work of CRICT and in particular with the work of our lecturer today will appreciate the resonance. It is perhaps axiomatic to the work of CRICT that we problematise appearances and their purported relation to that reality. What is the relation between the Virtual and the Real? This is what we mean when we say that much of the work of CRICT deploys a form of analytic scepticism. We need that in order to interrogate what some philosophers tell us is the best way to produce knowledge, scientific or otherwise. We need that to question whether a particular technology can actually do what is claimed for it. In particular we need it critically to examine the supposed effects of new technologies on the way we relate to each other, organise ourselves, and live our lives. Throughout the kind of research which CRICT has been pushing forward, we are constantly asking of our subjects and collaborators, but of course, in the nicest possible way, look "who is fooling who here, how and why" ?
Our speaker is a leading exponent in the Social Studies of Science and Technology, but this statement alone vastly understates the energy, insight and innovation of Bruno Latourís vast scholarship. His provocative writings have done much to re-align the whole course of Social Scientific approaches to profound questions about the nature of Science, Technology, Social Theory, Theories of Representation, Political Philosophy, to name but a few. He has managed this at a crucial time in the history of the field . Just when much Anglo-Saxon Social Scientific Scholarship was in danger of getting bogged down in its reliance upon Standard Analytic Categories and Explanatory Forms, Bruno Latour proposes a major disruption. He urges, for example, that we re-specify the problem of whether or not Nature is fooling Humans by looking much more critically at how the boundaries between Humans and non-humans are created and sustained. Brunoís is a profound contribution to the social and cultural geography of systematic foolery. Somehow he manages all this with great wit and a delightful lightness of touch. I vividly recall the reaction of one of my best students after first reading through his "Science in Action" in a single sitting. "This book," she said, "never allows you to realise how difficult it is". I canít think of a better person to help us celebrate the first 10 years of CRICT and the start of the Virtual Society Programme. Definitely no Poisson Díavril, he, Ladies and Gentlemen, Bruno Latour.
Thank you very much Steve. When he asked me to give this lecture, I told him that I know nothing about Virtual Society and he told me it was 1st April, so I could make a fool of myself without any danger which is, Iím sorry to say, what Iím going to do today. Now I was slightly reassured when I tried to get onto the Web especially to try to visit a French Parisian site called "La Deuxieme Monde," the Virtual Society, which is a replica of Paris, with all the streams, streets, shops and places of Paris, and when Iíd finally tried to get hooked up to "La Deuxieme Monde" it said it went bankrupt. I was sort of reassured that if Virtual Society can go broke it means itís not a spirit. It means itís not a ghost. Itís something real and it can be studied as such. The second thing that reassured me is the matter of your deepest and grandest sociologist in Britain, Mrs Thatcher, when she said "There is no such thing as a Society". So what Iím going to try and do today is using a series of pictures, since this is a celebration, we are going to go quite leisurely around a series of pictures trying to untangle the different meanings of Virtual Society. I found eight different meanings, which together maybe make for the whole package and at the end of the lecture I shall try to recapitulate these eight meanings.
The first one has to do with the transformation of a relation between signs and things. As you may know, Atlas was first a mythical figure representing the World, the one who was holding the World on his shoulders. It is only when Mercator published his first atlas that the meaning of the word Atlas shifted to something you can hold in your hand. In that sense Virtual Society inherits the whole transformation of size between what you can hold on your shoulder and what you can hold in your hands once it has become a sign, a map, an inscription, a piece of paper. So a large part of what we call Virtual and Virtuality is actually one part of this long, long history from the Renaissance onwards that has transformed Geography into an Atlas.
Now it also certainly inherits things which are much less well considered, that is, offices. When reading the literature on Virtual Society I read a lot of things on the fact that for the first time it was de-localised, abstracted, disembodied and de-naturalised. Now what is more disembodied, abstracted, de-localised than the good old paperwork offices of the 1950ís? That is, a large part of the ancestry of Virtual Society has to do not only with geography and maps, but has to do with the whole practice of bureaucracy, folders, files, and itís not an easy question to answer. What does the computerisation, the digitality add to these offices? Itís quite a complicated question in its own right.
Now it does inherit from a third much more serious ancestry, which is the very sense in which many of the Cultures of Earth we know have built their own Virtual Society. This is a series of slides taken from the work of Don Trissin in the Arabesh in New Guinea, which is the building of the "House of Spirit" by the Arabesh which they do once in one or two generations. Now what is striking in this building of the main house, is that itís a re-representation of a whole Society. Here you see the main hall on the right, the main frame of the house. This is the house, being now built by every single clan simultaneously building one part of the house. This is the continuation of the work, women are not allowed there, and men are making the roof. This is the final building, once the house is built. Now what is nice in this metaphor is the name, for The House of Spirit is actually a good synonym for Virtual Society. House is real and the Spirits are spiritual as their name indicates. So the collective achievement of building a scene on which the whole society is represented publicly might be one of the important ancestors of an interesting aspect of Virtual Society. That is our ability to collectively build a material spiritual representation of our own Society, so we know what our place is in it and what we can do with it. So these three ancestors, inscription, paperwork, and the building of a culture in a physical way, might be part of a tradition in which Virtual Society integrates itself. Now there is also a less beautiful but very much more important tradition, which is the Virtual Societies in which we have already been engaged. This is something you certainly know, itís in the middle of London, it is the Cabinet War Room. During the War, Churchill and his staff were there waging a virtual war. That is, as far as Churchill was concerned, (if you look now at the series of documents allowing for the follow up of the convoys and the numbers of boats, of boats being sunk compared to the number of boats being able to go across the Atlantic, and the design of a frontline), it was a virtual war in the precise sense that this was the place from the whole world where the documents and the ability to represent who was winning and who was losing was made. No one on the front knew it. No one in the battlefield itself could know what it was to win or to lose a battle. This huge dynamometer, this huge transumeasure if you want, that re-adjusted the balance of forces between the axis and the allies was actually finally coming to a place inside the Cabinet War Room under Churchillís gaze. So when people say that the Gulf War was the first Virtual War, like Baudrillard wrote a whole book on that, he certainly never went inside the War Room of Churchill. The notion of Virtual War is actually something which is certainly much older than digitalisation or computerisation. Here again is quite a difficult question to try to see what would the computer add to this room nowadays if you go to the strategic command or any sort of huge centre of calculation from which a war is enforced. We also finally, finishing with the ancestry, should remember that when we actually connect a little movement of a finger on a map, (here is Hitler at the Centre of Command in Eastern Germany during the War), there is a connection which is a very risky connection with the reality out there, and that there is a very strong connection between a small movement of a sign and deeds. If we donít integrate the notion of Virtual Society to this mystery of how come signs and deeds are connected by a long chain of command, a long chain of order, which has many many different little elements, but which is a connected chain all the same, we run into the risk of reinventing the wheel. That is, forgetting that Virtual Society is actually integrating itself, or finding the house inside a much much older history.
What I want to do now is to try to enter, to try to understand some of its history by making a little shift in the definition of virtuality; but virtuality, and that will be my argument in a few minutes, now is a materialisation of society and not a disembodiment of society. I take my cue from the work that Simon Schaffer and Adam Lowe, a painter from London, are doing together on the notion of digitality. They show that digitality is actually a materialisation of signs and not a disembodiment of the sign. The first detour that Adam Lowe has produced is to show that digitality has a very old fourth and fifth centuries long history. He claims that Van Sygen, a Dutch engraver, created the first digital print in 1642 by using metal as a way of reproducing shades instead of the sharp features of a wood cut. What is interesting in this argument is that the notion of digitality thus has a much longer history and is not connected directly with the computer itself. If you take a computer itself, like when you take a one millimetre square of one of his paintings which is digitally exactly the same information and you project that on the present day available machine for printing, you get all these different details, as if they were not taken from the same pictures. The only thing that differs is the type of machine, the type of printer on which it is projected or interpreted. In other words, what is interesting in the argument is that digitality is not actually a very essential feature of the machine itself. It is a result of a long production, a long series of layers that repair the dangers and the risks and the defects of the machine. So when we say that something is digital, and here Iím quoting Simon Schaffer, digitality is an analogical machine plus a lot of redundancy. In other words itís the machinery, itís the repetition, itís the error coding that finally manages to repair the whole analogicity of the computer in order to produce the digital. Digital, the machine, the computer, does not embody formalism. It actually materialises in a much more material way, everything that was produced before.
Here, Iím shifting to a book Iím doing on Paris out of which the next slides will be taken.
A book called Virtual Paris which is based on trying to get at some of these arguments in a different way. I mean this [slide] is just a foolís joke. This is the cables. Whenever you get near computers, whenever you get near this digitality, you get cables, masses of cables. In other words, my argument in a very very myopic view, but I think some myopia is necessary to counter-balance the hype around virtuality, is that once you can get information as bores, bytes, modem, sockets, cables and so on, you have actually a more material way of looking at what happens in Society. Virtual Society thus, is not a thing of the future, itís the materialisation, the tracibility of Society. It renders visible because of the obsessive necessity of materialising information into cables, into data that has a size so to speak. To get exactly the opposite argument, a sort of obsessive materiality which you find actually in the original text of Alan Turing, as well as the modern commentary that the modern philosopher of computing, Brian Smith, has produced. The more these people look at computers, the more material they become. Then when you digitalise all the sites which have been shown before, they produce a very different effect than one of disembodiment. They produce something which is on the contrary, obsessively material. So Virtual Society in my interpretation would not be what will extract us out of the past in which we would have lived in a local real society, but what will make visible what is our social link in a much more simple, archaic and primitive way.
Here I want to try to interpret with this argument and then we can discuss what you think of it, this very strange, what Sartre would call Modest Foi, bad faith, with which we always talk about electronic technology. We always say and present it as if it is information double click, the easiness with which you can access it, and yet it never works. I wanted to get to "La Deuxieme Monde" it went bankrupt. I tried to get to the Thames on the Virtual Web Site to which I was sent by my friends for preparing these lectures and from my office in Paris, it never worked. It was slow, it was boring, it was flat, it was extraordinarily limited, and yet even I cannot stop saying it is the fabulous, double click. So we are here constantly talking a very strange type of double talk which is unique to that type of technology for historical reasons which I think we can find. We constantly want to resist the hype and constantly think of it as a spiritual, finally disembodied machinery, and we constantly discount, in all the meanings of the word, the difficulty, the heaviness, the slowness, the number of the modem, the modem that never works, the handshake that never handshakes and so on and so forth and there is something which has to be accounted for. Itís typical of that technology. My interpretation is that precisely because we misread, we read at cross purposes something which is materialised. Finally materialising society as something which we have finally disembodied. So we are constantly taken on the wrong foot. Why donít we take it as a very much more primitive, archaic, much more archaic even than the social contract. Something which goes back to avatars. If you have looked at avatars, they have actually less characteristics than Rousseau gave to the first chapters of the origin of inequality discourse. That is, at least in the origin of inequality discourse, they had sex and they had very primitive types of feeling, but still they were very fully equipped human primates. None of the avatars so far are even at this level. They are more in the amoebia type of world in the Darwinian evolution. Thatís good, thatís the chance for Sociologists of this extraordinary thought experiment into primitive and into archaism. No-one would dare, no-one of the must arrogant or racist or xenophobic anthropologists of the 19th Century, would even dream of starting a society at the low level at which Virtual Society is started. None of the Society of the 19th Century was so primitive. Itís a big advantage because you see building blocks of a social order being re-invented anew. Now Paris is not exactly a primitive society and it has lots of interesting features to understand what Virtual Society is, because itís already, and thatís the book Iím writing with Emily Armand, right now, full of cases in which the whole of society is represented under certain auspices.
Here is the Pťripherique. If some of you have gone into Provence for your holiday, you must have passed through the nightmare of the Pťripherique. It is a great relief for you to know that the nightmare is actually watched day and night by a whole panopticon which is the Paris pťripherique organisation that watches every centimetre of the Pťripherique in one of these nice virtual places where the Pťripherique can be followed simultaneously by very good cameras and followed minute by minute. What is best is that it can actually be fed back to you by these little messages here [traffic information]. Thatís the novelty of course, which is impossible without the computer, which gives you back the result of a collective action in which you are yourself only a member. That is, the action of being stuck on the freeway is collected by one of these panopticons and re-fed back to the drivers, who actually can do nothing else because they are stuck in the traffic jam! The last thing they have to do is go to the Boulevard Marichaud where they invade Paris and block another part of Paris. Paris always being at the margin of a complete jam is an interesting City for Virtual Society. Paris is maintained to exist for these little panopticons that constantly watch over Paris and send messages to try to avoid for one minute more the complete blockage of a whole City. What is interesting here is that we see what the digitalisation adds to the situation. Without digitalisation itís impossible to go fast enough in this feed back. In a matter of seconds it turns a car into a social actor of some sort, makes a statistic out of it, discounts entirely the fact that it is human, considers it as a fluid, and brings back the information into a human readable interface. I believe a lot of work went into the information that you have here. If you come from Britain, you have no idea what a Porte DíOrleans is, so itís actually quite complicated work, what you feed back in. A large part, if we want to be more precise now, of the analyses of these panoptica in which the whole Virtual Society practical computerisation is going to be lodged, is of course, a very long history of scale modelling. A large part of what we call Virtual Society is scale modelling. I mean it has, for instance, here, it is connected to a notion of dummies. The fact of crashing dummies in a car instead of crashing people for good. It is a great help in thinking about Virtual Society as scale modelling the Society. So doing on a scale model what cannot be done at Scale 1, which is a very usual thing to do. This is a very famous scale model of a Rotterdam Harbour where you flood not Dutch but flood only little Dutch, I mean small Dutch, which is a scale model, and that is a Virtual Society with all the activities of the harbour are being represented at least as far as the water is concerned. This one is the origin of the fortune of the Ecole des Mines in which I teach which is the Schumbierger method to get oil into a bath in the basement of the school in which I work. That scale modelling, and I think a large part of why we are interested in Virtual Society, is that finally the Social Scientist has something that looks like a scale model which has been used for ages in other sciences and other industries. We can do things which are unthinkable. Sociotomy, that is, take off a function, start with a completely implausable avatar and see what happens which would be impossible in any other site, without having to cut heads and to destroy real people as it has been done so many times in the past.
So one of the advantages is to connect the notion of scale models with the notion of Virtual Society. Now this means that we might have to define differently the notion of panopticon. This is the famous picture from Foucault that you all know. The notion of the panopticon has the defect that it encourages lots of difficulty, lots more difficulty of paranoia and megalomania, which, of course, Foucault was not immune to. What is interesting, is trying to find out another place for these sites, which Iíve shown only once, but want to call, if you will allow me this use of Greek, "Oligopticon". That is not what sees everything, but what sees a little bit, which is what "Oligos" means in Greek. For instance what is interesting, and we have in our book lots of these examples, is a series of pictures on the Meteo, the French Meteorological Organisation around Paris. Now what is amusing is that what we see from the office here is not the weather. We see just a little bit of the weather, much less than what we see when we look at the map, which is published and printed by the machine; a little more when we get at the instruments, which are in the garden. Now what is interesting in the notion of Oligopticon is that when you get outside, what you see outside your office is nothing. You start to begin to see something just by looking on the screen of your computer. Itís a reverse of Platoís Cave Myth. In Platoís Cave Myth you had to get outside of a cave in order to see anything. Nowadays when you go outside, you see less and certainly not the weather of France as a region. You see just, well, your own perspective, which is of no interest if you have to predict the weather tomorrow. Now what is interesting is that Paris is full of these [weather measuring systems] and Iím sure London is as well. This is for instance another panopticon, and I shall come back to that, for I am sure you think itís a panopticon, but in fact itís an Oligopticon which is in the middle of a prefecture of Paris surveying the whole of Paris activity. It has some of the characteristics of a panopticon and I will show in a minute why itís different. Here is the electricity. This is the Oligopticon of the whole electric cables and the whole station and sub station of Paris. Now the point is that there is no connection between that one and the meteorology Oligopticon which is the Saint de la PrJ fecture of Paris which can see directly most of Paris. A little bit of the whole of Paris. A little bit of the whole. We have to understand that a little bit of a whole is not a panopticon but something quite different. Here is another shape of the Paris Region, this time viewed from the telephone lines. If you now add all of these, [and hereís another of water, the whole water of Paris]. I donít know if you can see that, I love this one, itís called "Au Brut", itís actually cables. Cables of information here. The water and the information are actually connected to it. In a big Virtual Society synopticon you can see the whole of the water of the Montmartre region going on and up. Now if you multiply all the sites inside a City like Paris, which gather, which accumulates the mass, the whole of Paris under one little auspice, under one little line - water, gas, electricity, telephone, pJ ripherique, circulation, police etc, you end up re-localising this notion of Society that has escaped us for so long, before the computer. In other words, when we didnít have the computerisation, we couldnít follow, literally we couldnít trace the localisation of Society as a whole. So we were forced to imagine that there was a whole Society, invisible but structuring us. Now through the numeration and digitalisation we have the possibility of following the whole loci, all the parts of where Paris is produced. I donít know how to say it more clearly. We donít have to imagine that there is a whole Society, and that is the most useful aspect of the notion of Virtual Society. Itís a critique of sociology and social theory. When it starts following up all these cases, full, entirely traceable elements where a partial whole is produced, society becomes something which is empirically studyable and it is small. It never occupies much space.
This is the most panopticon man [a traffic surveillance system]. This is Big Brother. This is actually if you know any French, called the "Dťcider". You have to realise that the whole of Paris is not like London, which is a diluted City. Paris is incredibly small. Everything that happens in France ends up as a manifestation, as a demonstration in Paris. So in this six kilometres diameter circle everything happens, and everything that happens ends up in this room, which is under the PrJ fecture of Paris, and you have all sorts of nice equipment. The one which I want to comment on, because itís the nicest one, is this one which is a monopoly board. A flat type of surface where they displace "forces", as they call them. So Big Brother is actually a much less impressive fellow when you go to see and interview him. A very polite fellow and a very good sociologist, interested in all the vibrations of Paris. This is a helper of Big Brother and as you see in spite of the high technology this man is actually moving these little forces there, that represent buses, police, cars, troops, I mean police troops, inside Paris. This would be more readable here, this is the gestures idiots here. A very interesting reason, which is of interest to the conventionist, is that it is actually very difficult to put on a screen, on a computer screen, to shift the scale fast enough in order to interpret movement, which can be a few metres square at one point, and kilometres long at the other. As Paris is so small, and so packed and so congested, every time you move one fire truck it can block kilometres ahead upstream, the whole circulation, and you have to be able to act on a very very different scale. It has no locality so to speak. Paris has no locality. Itís one big, how you say, web, yes, ah the web, I should know, a spiders web which we have to travel fast. This man says itís actually easier to get the forces despatched for Paris with this sort of monopoly flat board, than through all the sophisticated equipment he has in front of him. What is interesting here, is that we see that the two positions which are usually connected with the panopticon, that is the megalomania of Big Brother who believes that he can see everything, and the paranoia of the one surveyed and observed, is actually that both of them might be mistaken. Megalomania is wrong because he actually sees very little. Paranoia is also maybe mistaken for the same reason, very little is actually seen. So the Oligopticon, that is seeing just a little bit, might be one way in which the Virtual Society would be interesting. Instead of imagining a displacement or a disembodiment of a whole society into another state itís on the contrary a sort of localisation inside society, that materialises the whole under a certain very specific place, inside very specific places. So the topography of the society (of sociology) is going to change, it seems to me quite a lot, because when you get into this place, which could look to you like Big Brother, they are actually quite interesting to interview, because the way they speak about their relation with the so called "whole society" is one of restraint. They have a very restrained view of what they are able to see and what they can do.
There are lots of places which have a total view under a very very small perspective. It doesnít mean that all of them have a total perspective, as if we could sum up all the perspective of water, electricity, telephone, police, mapping of all sorts into one big thing which would be the Society. That is precisely what is no longer possible. If we study these cases in which digitality is going to be situated we end up with a very different view of Society. Now this is not exactly a new thing. What is more Virtual Society than the activity of planning? These people in the 30ís are planning on the Map of Paris, a very primitive map. What has changed into the works is one of the questions - I want just to show a few slides here of the old Paris. Planning is interesting because Virtual Society in the old days before computing allowed the people to do something, which is of course very important to Virtual Society, that is performation, the ability to perform at scale 1 what has been rehearsed or repeated, drawn, designed or planned at a small scale. What is interesting for Parisians here is that this is the view from the Opera, but before the opera avenue was actually carved, as you can see here. Now itís carved. Now Virtual Society. Which one is virtual? The whole planning has carved inside Paris the avenue which at this stage is only planned, but at this stage is now realised. In fact the number of places, the number of activities which can be now put under the heading of "Virtual Society", in the past as well as in the present, is immense.
Hauffman, the one who built, and some say destroyed Paris, is one of the very interesting Virtual Society Men. This is for those of you who know Paris, a view from Notre Dame in the very old Paris, which has lasted since the Middle Age until the end of the 19th Century. This is the Saint Chappel for those who know Paris. Now look at what Mister Hauffman did with Virtual Planning. This is before Hauffman, and this is after Hauffman. That is a very interesting activity because it doesnít require very high technology in order to plan. Actually it is extraordinarily primitive in terms of planning. There is a whole book of the maps that Hauffman used in order to plan the whole Paris transformation and it is certainly known as the biggest single transformation of a City that has ever been done in one shot. I mean, basically one generation. It requires very very little high technology. I mean the planning technology is very simple minded, just very little maps, not even big maps. Yet it captures one of the essential features of Virtual Society, that is, the possibility of transforming and performing the reality at scale 1. What is beautiful now is that this is a very sophisticated, which is to say much more high tech, map than the one we just saw before. Itís a map which now recaptures, according to coded colours, all the equipment of Parisís public streets. That is, it is now a very sophisticated archive of all the implements which are now in the city of Paris. Every time you make a hole in Paris you fall into one of them, and it is extraordinarily difficult to make any hole. It is actually quite forbidden now. Donít try to make any hole in Paris, because immediately you are falling into one of those elements. This is the Place de Charles De Gaulle there, and here is one of the examples of the masses of information. Now I donít know how you interpret this in terms of Virtual Society, but it is actually an extraordinarily accurate relation of all the elements which are at scale 1, which themselves have been planned and performatively implanted into the landscape, which are then sent back into the computer, which are then transformed, scale modelled, modified and archived. The archive part is actually more important than anything else here. So in order to conclude, and I will come now to the conclusion, the Society is not to be considered as a dollsí house. Actually this is a dollsí house of Virtual Society. I guess this is the least high tech Virtual Society there is. I like the game there which is power - le jeu - power - the game. In other words what IĎve tried to do is to multiply the number of sites in which Virtual Society already existed in order to compare the number of sites, the number of places it exists now which is a way to avoid the hype of the idea that Virtual Society will be something of the future. If you look for instance at the very famous picture that Perek has used in his book, which is a cut out of the Parisian Hauffman house, you see the number of places where Virtual Reality resides. Finally this morning I was in the National Gallery, which is of course a Virtual Space, which is still unmatched by the web page, presently at least. I will use this last line to read my conclusion which is as I promised a recapitulation of the elements I presented in a sort of unprincipled way.
Now donít get me wrong. I didnít say that there was nothing new in Virtual Society. What I showed is that since, as Mrs Thatcher said, Society does not exist, it has to be made. It has to be made and re-made anew, and thatís the chance of Virtual Society, but we should not be mistaken; Virtual Society is not integrated into a long historical train of disembodiment of Social order, as if we had started with a very localised, materialised, order in Sociology and then as more time goes by, ended up being abstract, more formal, more imaginative and so on. I think it is exactly the opposite. We never stopped materialising our Virtual order, like the Arabesh should, except we do it at an extreme level of materialisation, going all the way into bauds and bytes and modems and clicks and sockets and all of these material networks which are now visible and web pages which we can follow. The great advantage of that is that we finally see that the Society as a whole is not something we can take for granted. If we donít re-do it, it stops existing. In other words, society is something that circulates. Itís a certain way of circulating that makes the social link and not a dollsí house inside which there would be rooms that can be safely occupied.
The different meanings of Virtual Society that are sort of recorded in this lecture are as follows: Certainly one of the meanings, which Iím not sure we can use because itís mainly done already by Borocksey, is de-localised and de-materialised, but it has started with inscription, with writing and certainly with this extraordinary invention of a file, and thatís a long, long history. The second meaning, and Iím sure that the question mark in Steveís programme is a clear indication that no-one here wants that, is the modernist hype, that is the desire of being a spirit at last and no longer inside the materiality of Society. Here again I refer to the strange way we have of talking about all this technology as if it has no defect, as if it was not slow, as if it was easy and user friendly, and we always do the opposite. We are always schizophrenic when we speak about this strange machinery. The third meaning is what I mean by materialisation of connection and imagination. Now if you are someone looking at the Web Site, you can follow every single move from the Web Site; if a kid plays in the dollsí house, or if the Arabesh builds the house of spirit, you cannot follow everything, you can follow only very little. The traceability (which is a nice word invented by industry for the same reason) is now with us. We can use traceability everywhere in order to see social order being made, so to speak.
The fourth meaning is what Iíve called Oligopticon, that is this possibility of being less impressed by surveillance than panopticon, invented by (or re-taken by) Foucault. I think Virtual Society discourse is not exactly a discourse of surveillance and disciplining. Itís something which is on the contrary extraordinarily limited, between an intermediary, letís say, between megalomania and paranoid interpretation. It may be a great chance for us of getting away from all this discourse of paranoia and megalomania which is associated with panopticon. These people I showed in the rooms watching Paris, see very little, they are the blind looking at the blind. They see just a little bit, and there is a whole culture, a whole taste for this oligopticon which can probably be developed.
The fifth meaning, which is probably the most interesting for sociologists, is the scale modelling. That is the possibility of having many Societies at scale 1, with the advantage of traceability and materialisation that I mentioned before; that is the possibility of re-starting at many different scales without having to do anything in the real Society.
The sixth one, of which Iíve seen no nice example, there is certainly no Web site as efficient now as The House of Spirit of the Arabesh, is the re-representation of the whole. That is, the spectacle that a Society gives of itself, to itself, in order to know what it is. Before, it was considered as an expression of Society, as if Society existed and it had to be expressed; but we found out, as we saw, that Society does not exist as something to be represented, itís now something which has to be made, and if we lose all the intermediary, all the sites, all the materialisation, we lose the Society altogether. So, where are the Sites, where are the experiences where Society is being made and re-represented. Itís probably a question we can ask to Virtual Society. Now virtuality, and I use, I know, in this talk, virtuality in a counter intuitive sense, not as something which is disembodied, but as something which is more material than real. I have a good reason for that. Deleuze proposed to opppse two couples ĎPotential and Actualí and ĎVirtual and Realí. His example of the difference between potential and actual is a pendulum. When you have a pendulum, the potential of a pendulum is just actualised by the actual fall of the pendulum. No new information will be produced. Once you know the potential of a pendulum you know everything there is to know about the pendulum and you can let it fall and it doesnít matter too much. In other words, reality is just the realisation and the actualisation of a potential which is calculable. Now he wants to oppose that couple with another one which is the Virtuality and Reality. Realising Virtuality is not at all actualising potential, because what is in the realisation of Virtuality is unpredictable. Itís an event, to use the term that Deleuzes uses often. I think then, that if we have this little philosophical argument in the back of our ear, we can re-use the word Virtual, not to mean disembodied or to mean de-localised, but to mean something different, which is, can it produce new Virtualities into the Society? That is, can it end up producing a different Society? In the etymology of Virtuality there is the word Virtue, itís the same word, and that is the eigth meaning. I donít know of any experiments, but I am sure Steve is financing some of them, where the words Virtual Society would actually be less important than the word Virtuous Society. That is, we would be considered in the good old political philosophy fashion by what concerns us all. That is how to live a virtuous life and not a virtual life. Virtual Society, if you have followed me here, can be a great help, provided we take it not as something which is a long train away from the body and away from the constraint of matter, but on the contrary, towards the materialisation; and the chance to be materialised is always a chance that Social Sciences can use for that. As the Vice Chancellor said before, Steve and his colleagues have invented the ideal hybrid which is CRICT, which for the French is the most absurd game ever invented, but I know is very traditional and very important in most of Britain, and the Empire has been built on cricket, and it is also a high tech acronym. So itís a quite nice mix of two different trends, that is the Empire and the tradition, and the high tech acronym. I think it is a great honour to be here for the celebration of this anniversary of CRICT, and I hope you understand that what I said was a joke from beginning to end, a hoax, and that I pulled your leg from the beginning to the end, but I think it is a great omen for the success of CRICT and Steveís valued programme that he would invent a virtuous Society.
Thank you very much.
We have some time for questions, hoax or otherwise.
Richard Barbrook, University of Westminster
I have enjoyed the talk very much, thinking of materiality and Virtual. I would like to ask one crucial question. If this is a society, where are the people?
In your Virtual Society..
Well they are in lots of strange shapes, and that was part of the argument of studying all these oligopticons. For example one in the PJ ripherique which is the case where you as a driver consider yourself as a people, but for the oligopticon there, at the PJ ripherique, you are actually considered as one little part of a fluid, which is calculated as a fluid. Sometimes itís a solid, thatís when it gets stuck. Most of the time itís considered as a fluid, the viscosity of which is going to change, and they have all sorts of terms of hydrodynamics models which they are working on. It then gets back to you as a service rendered to you, which is really an anti-stress service, because knowing the number of people, it is actually changing nothing, but itís a great relief. Now people are there under these three different auspices; drivers with the subjectivity that no-one else knows, fluid, and then a sign by something which is a stress-relieving order. If society, I think thatís exactly the experiment, if society as a whole, big S, is now localised in all of these places, the other part of sociology, the actor, the people, is going to change a lot as well. You see what I mean. That is, if you start, the Virtual Society modifies the whole topography of this relation. So now we donít have a big society which will be a dollsí house in which you would have a house and rooms. Now what happens to the people you ask? Well, they themselves shift a lot, because they are no longer parts, or a little doll inside the dollsí house as well. So they become circulating, not only because they drive on the PJ ripherique. They are now in lots of different instances, auspices, from the prefectureís point of view. Itís a completely different type of people that people Paris. Itís more than fifty people together, or less than fifty people together. The atom for them, what they call an event in their protocol book, is when more than fifty people assemble, phew - danger! When thereís less than fifty people, no problem. The individuality of these people is not in question. Thatís for the judiciary, itís not for them, they never know whatever, that is why they never knew why Lady Diana died, because they raise, constantly watching, always watching cameras. Itís not their job to archive or to know individually know what happened. They are just concerned with people, as you say, more than fifty. If you look at the water people, then there is another definition of people, which is a statistical dispersion which makes sure that not everyone goes to pee together, or takes a bath together. Their big problem, for instance, is the world cup interruption at mid, I mean I am very bad at football I would call it mid, er, you are very good at football. ... ... Sorry,
Voice from back of hall
Half-time. Iím sorry. Iím terrible on football - because it makes an enormous peak on the water system. Understand the density of Paris. So everyone suddenly gets out and pees, and suddenly the whole, the accumulated people of Paris, viewed from the water point of view, makes a peak in the system so that they are actually, if you were seeing these people, they are actually piloting the water system of Paris. They say it feels like, a formula one car, because its extraordinary. In that case the liquid is almost like a solid, there is a very little time between the demand for pressure and the water which has to be fed. So itís a completely different people. So in the same way as society is no longer the dollsí house, there are lots of occasions of becoming people that circulate for Paris, and which are very very different. So we have to accept this double deformation. Itís not scattering, itís the deformation. You wanted people, you wanted real people into the story!
Someone from back of hall
But you have evacuated them.
No. No. Ah, no. There are lots of them, but they are under lots of auspices. Lots of auspices, materiality. Everytime we go to see another of these oligipticons they get a completely different definition of what is the sociology of Paris, so to speak. What it is composed of. The people in telecom, the big synoptic that I showed you of the telephone company, the topography actually shifts constantly depending on the hour of the day. Itís an extraordinarily beautiful network on the 31st December because, then everyone calls everyone else almost, and it makes a real network. When you have a big charity funding on television, you have on the contrary, a very different type of network where all the lines converge where all the main places are and so on. So do we have to maintain the people, if we accept the notion, the society? Itís a deal, if you accept that society goes away then they get lots of more interesting status, they get lots of more interesting life through these oligopticons, but they circulate a lot.
Richard Berriehouse, Independent Consultant
One of the auspices that you didnít mention, which would be very interesting to explore, is that of democracy, where there is a system where every five years or seven years lots of people make marks on pieces of paper and this is then assembled into a swing in the political formations in society.
I have a whole chapter on that, which will be an answer on that, and which is quite a nice series of pictures where, precisely, what decides. This is the story of one of the people, a lady who goes to vote. Now of course, I donít know how it is here, but in France when you vote you have to be in a little cabin where they can see your feet to check that you are alone in the cabin. So itís already something completely different from the people. Itís a very interesting type of entity there, which then goes in the envelope, then it becomes a number, and then on the television at night you see a camembert, you see a, we call it a camembert.
Someone from back of hall
Pie-chart, is it right. Different culinary cultures! So the pie-chart - and she sees the result. Now thatís exactly, I think, the direction of this whole argument. Instead of being interested in the whole society, which would be France voting, or the individual, there is a sort of deformation, that where the interest now becomes what happens, not exactly in the middle, because itís not the middle between the old society and the individual, itís a deformation in the positive sense. The voting system is very interesting. The other thing which is extraordinarily interesting, and there is a whole enquiry into this, is the economics of producing prices, because prices are a sort of voting system of the same sort. I see that in your ESRC programme you have one on Virtual Society and markets because the whole of markets is a Virtual Society. Itís a Virtual market, and the market is a Virtual market which is realising and materialising by Virtual Society again. Thatís the direction weíre trying to point all these slides; politics, economics, sociology. I have a very mean little chapter which is the way sociology as a science moves from Paris. So if you go through the different laboratory in Paris, which hates one another you get completely different information about what the French Society is, because itís a very mean little thing, but it circulates too. Sociology as a Science circulates as well.
Charles Willis, Dept of Media & Business Studies, Brunel University
I was very interested to hear your comment that now that Society is Virtual, itís not ordered into a hierarchy - now I thought that was a comment that might be applied perhaps to some divisions, I should say to parts of the University. I would like to ask about this because models of society, that I have seen, often seem to put in place hierarchies where people involved never knew that there was a hierarchy. Now how does that fit with your comment that there is no hierarchy?
Sorry I was much too quick, I mean hierarchy didnít mean unequal repartition of power. I mean I think thatís one of the consequences of the digitalisation of society. There is no such a thing as a zoom that will take you from macro structure of a whole Society, then mezzo structure of a Society, then micro structure, then inter-action. I didnít mean that there was not unequal repartition of power. Thatís a metaphor of the dollsí house. I mean how big is a Web Site? Is it bigger than the room into which the Web Site is on your screen? I mean itís a silly question, but what is the size of the prefecture of Paris? Is it bigger than Paris? No. Itís just a small room. Itís a connected room. Itís connected through the mediation of all this information transfer, which is itself transformation not information. Is there an order where you can say, well, water is bigger than the telephone, which is bigger than the police, which is bigger than Urbanism, which is bigger? - no - that is what I mean by no hierarchy in that sense. The whole is in question through all of this little oligopticons, and one of the questions is; what is the whole? Well the whole is also something that circulates. For instance the election which is one way of solving this question. Are you bigger than me? Well you get elected and I didnít get elected. So is the market bigger? What is good with digitality is that it makes us myopic. Completely myopic. Obsessively myopic. I mean where are the bauds and the modems, where do you plug in? Thatís what the big event is, can I plug in or can I not plug in? and this myopic view allows us to see features of society, which we have taken for granted before. The House of Spirits once itís built, there is no question - I finish - I was going to say something wrong. Even in the case of The House of Spirit the notion of the hierarchy, Macro, Mezzo, and Micro would be in question, but once The House of Spirit is built, it is built in such a fashion that the roof is made by each of the divisions, I use the word clan, but they are actually not clan, family, letís say, of a culture. Inside each partition of a society has (how would you call that) wooden frames which are painted according to each, like the tartans, itís a bad example here, because itís a late invention, but tartans would be one example. So when you enter The House of Spirit, you see the whole of a society represented, partitioned and constructed. Constructed because there is no bigger society behind, than The House of Spirit, thatís what I meant by no hierarchy. There is not the big society and The House of Spirit which is a representation of the big society. There is, every generation, a building, Virtual, Material building, of the whole, in which we are all located. Located meaning, I can recognise my contribution and my family and my clan into this part, and not in this part. Now can we imitate that in Virtual Society? That was my question only, so itís not hierarchy in terms of wealth, itís hierarchy in terms of social theory. Iím sorry I was much too quick.
Darryn Mitussis, Research Student, Templeton College, Oxford.
I see also some reciprocity in the Virtual Society. On the one hand you talk about the commuters on the roads in Paris, fed back information, fed back and materialisation of the forms by Big Brother. The House of Spirit is constructed as a marvel of Virtual Society but also thereís feedback between the two. We get the model of ourselves as commuters fed back to us as some form of information. We see The House of Spirit as a model by which we can construct ourselves, an example of how we might begin as a society. Do you think that the many different materialisations, as you called them, of ourselves as consumer members of society that constructs The House of Spirit etc. etc, add to the fragmentation itself. Do we see then ourselves as these many different things or is the link between them so fuzzy that we can go blindly on our way as before?
Itís an ongoing experiment. I mean if you look at the avatars, they are now very primitive, amoebiatype with some sort of keyboard. Itís funny because they are amoebia physically and they have a keyboardís ability, so itís quite strange itís hard to place in the Darwinian evolutionary scheme. They are very primitive, but there are people in your programmes studying these. So the experiment, in terms of social theory, is going on. How much fragmentation do you get with the avator? My general argument would be against the notion of fragmentation because it would be on the contrary a more material way of doing what we always do; role taking, mass carrying, having masks and so on. The great advantage is being able to hide, being able to relate at great distances. The simplicity of, I donít know, the studies are still being done, but I will be really interested in reading them. So I am not sure if it goes in the direction of fragmentation. Fragmentation is the way, the sort of post-modern way we talk about it when we imagine that there was a society, and there were individuals. So when they are shown into this distribution and deformation they look fractured, but only from the point of view of the social theory of before. It might be very different, and my enquiry into Paris shows it would be in this direction, we get a lot of chances to become different. It is not a good expression in English. Itís not fragmentation. It is occasion. The occasion of being made. How do you say in English, make? be?. So we receive from the City, I am studying people walking through the City, lots of occasion of being. Is it a fragmentation of a self, which would be a unitary self ? Itís not necessary. I mean you receive what allows you to be. The best metaphor is network computing. It seems that it is not working, the network computing. The idea of having a very dumb computer that down loads pellets of software at the occasion. I think that is a beautiful model of subjectivity. When you have very little equipment, you have work, you can live almost completely in a sort of vegetative life so to speak, but at the occasion you get the pellet of software you need to get by, I mean this is a horrible metaphor for the first gentleman who asked the first question, but you see what I mean. I think the topography of a subject - I see with the slides much better the topography of the society, now that it is re-localised into sites and there are many places where the whole is now located that I see the deformation quite nicely. You can make pictures of it. It is much more difficult for the subject, but I think they undergo the same sort of transformation which is not a fracturation. Fragment is what happens to a hard, small surface when itís broken with a hammer really hard. This is not what happens to us. Itís a strange metaphor the notion of fragmentation. I would say stretch. Stretch itís size. Stretched, stretching - that sounds a fabulous metaphor. Commen elastique.
Bruce Mason, Hypermedia and Ethnography Project, Cardiff University
It seems appropriate, as I understand it - youíve given us a very carnivalesque perception of the Virtual, Virtuality, by materialism as a spiritual and vice versa. My question is, very simply, what ways do you see to resist this Virtual Society? Does this require organising a mass peeing to overload the water system or indeed has it other avenues of resistance?
Why would you want to resist?
Thatís another question, obviously.
No. Seriously, why? I mean my talk was precisely not to portray a modernist hype. If anything gets out in terms of the technique of Virtual Society it will be lodged into activities which are much older, which are many. I mean the second slide I showed the bureaucrats with their little. . , if anything Virtual Society makes a very different type of connection and screen, but it doesnít change deeply the activity. At least it doesnít go from abstract to more abstract. Thatís impossible. So is resistance a way of talking, or is it sorting? If it is sorting out, yes, but if itís resisting? What do you mean by resist? Is it sorting out one, it seems to me that we will sort them out much better. Thatís what I mean by virtuous society not Virtual Society. If we have a way of using it. I mean if the whole of society is a way of circulating, now it becomes very interesting. To try to test what the circulation is that makes the equivalent of a house of spirit for the electronic age so to speak, and it has to be a way of circulating, itís a certain way of circulating, itís a way of crossing from the whole, because the whole is no longer there. So Iím not interested in resisting, Iím interested in sorting, and Iím interested in trying to identify what makes the circulation impossible. For example the hype makes it impossible. If whenever you talk about these techniques you have to say simultaneously, itís fabulous, itís double-click, and it never works itís boring. You canít possibly take advantage of that. We have to find a way of talking about this technology, itís slow, itís primitive, itís archaic, itís good because itís so slow, so stupid, so myopic, so material - I mean, I exaggerate, but you get the point.
One last question.
Julian Dye, Centre for Environmental Strategy
In the light of the fact that you have just been doing some lectures about the politics of nature; in the light of something you said about de-politicising of a certain book, and its effects, can you say something about the model and the structures youíve been offering, and de-politicising , or the process of being de-politicised?
Iím not sure I understand. You mean today.
Yes, because youíve talked about this, and you are interested in the politicality, as a member of politics, and you havenít said anything. It wasnít part of your talk but I would be interested to hear you talk about it ..
Well the long answer would be over a drink because it might bore the people, but thatís connected with the general argument, that The French Sociologists have invented sociology in order to avoid, to shortcut political composition of society. So once you have a society as a whole you do not have to compose it again, and whatever you will see will be the expression of that already existing society. Thatís a fabulous advantage. It gives you the possibility of explaining with laws and behaviour of people without having to re-make society. It worked for a while and now in France we die from it. We might die politically soon from it, as you know from the last election. So itís a very serious question in France but I donít know if it works here where you have a very advanced government and so on. It might, it might be different. You have the chance of having Mrs Thatcher first, the greatest sociologist and then Mr Blair who managed to be applauded by both the right and the left of the French Parliament. So you might not need that, but in France we need a work of that sort, that is, politics is possible but on the condition that the notion of society was a big S, be considered as something that is composed and not already existing there, because as long as it is already existing there, there is no work to be done to make it. What fascinates me in this literature I read on Virtual Society is how much traceability it gives to this question. Instead of having to imagine the society in our head and so on it becomes traceable, and if itís traceable, the argument which was very strange before, of the making of society, even the big S society, becomes common sense ,and Iím sure that it will be common sense, if we manage to be virtuous of course.
I think we have worked our lecturer very hard and we would like now to ask him to take a drink. Indeed we invite all of you to come to the reception which is across in the Refectory. Just follow the crowd across to the drink. Iím sure you will agree that what we have heard today has characteristically brought a quite unexpectedly different stance to a problem and unlocked what promises to be an enormous number of potential questions about the Virtual Society. Will you please all join with me in thanking our lecturer tonight.
Thank you. It is very nice of you. Thank you to you.
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