Trapped in a wwweb of deceit

Alan Thomas inside the Age of (X-file) Information

As we are told loudly and repeatedly, by innumerable voices in innumerable places, this is ‘The Age Of Information’. Indeed the cacophony of voices telling us so seems in some sense to provide the proof of its own claims; the ever accelerating multiplication of sources, modes of access, of speed and reach of information that we are experiencing do indeed appear to be articulating a qualitative change in the cultural dynamics of our society and of the world at large. It seems significant, then, that one of the major claims made for the new information technologies, and for the internet and the world wide web in particular, is that by providing a non-hierarchical structure for the exchange of information amongst a (potentially) global audience, they democratise the access and control of information. The more traditional forms of media (television, radio, print etc.) operate as centralised sites of information distribution and control, working on a ‘broadcast’ model of one-to-many, thereby concentrating power at the top of a fixed information hierarchy where information flows in one direction only, from the top down. The new media, on the other hand offer us a ‘netcast’ of many-to-many, distributing the flows of information and their control horizontally as an infomatic field which organises and reorganises itself transversally from moment to moment (Deleuze and Guattari would call this form of organisation “rhizomatic”, and that of the traditional media “arboreal”; see “Introduction: Rhizome”, in Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Félix,A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [trans. Brian Massumi], Minneapolis & London, University of Minnesota Press, 1987). By facilitating mass participation in both the production and consumption of information, the ever accelerating spread of these new media technologies democratises information and the distribution of it, and thus society at large. Or so the story goes.

What this story leaves out, however, is that the ‘democratisation’ of information effected by the new media of the internet and the world wide web has as its corollary a parallel divorcing of that information from any identifiable legitimising or authorial source. Anyone with access to a computer is able to put information out there on the net, produce their own web page, contribute to discussion lists or internet relay chats and so on; this is precisely the ‘democratisation’ such media make possible. However, the value of that information remains at best ambivalent for those net surfers who ride its flows. With traditional, more centralised forms of media, it is the institution distributing the information, the corporation, the government, the university, as much as the individual signing her name to it that gives it its legitimacy, on the basis of that institution’s history and reputation as a trustworthy (or otherwise) source; it is precisely its undemocratic institutional centralisation which allows it to be recognised and authorised as a ‘reliable’ source of information.

The democratic masses of information flowing on the net have no such institutional legitimacy; they are effectively anonymous, in practical if not literal terms (obviously there are many identifiable information sources/sites on the net, with clearly defined institutional allegiances that allow you to judge their value as an information source one way or the other. My claims apply more properly to those sources/sites on the net that more clearly fulfil the ‘democratising’ promise held out by the net—those that give a voice to non-institutional sources of information). In the absence of any mechanism of verification, claims made by such sources can at best raise questions or doubts, without being able to lay claim to the status of fact or truth. Moreover, given the democratic multiplicity of sources that flood the net, every topic has such a plethora of contradictory or conflicting claims made around it that for every piece of information from a legitimised source on the net (a government or corporate web site for instance) there will be 10 unlegitimisable ones contradicting it, undermining the legitimised source without being able to take its place. In effect, the multiplication of sources and sites of information made possible by the internet and world wide web produces not so much an increase in knowledge as an increase in doubt.

There is an important distinction to be made here between information and knowledge; knowledge is in essence a structuring of information via the binary opposition of truth and falsity, as determined by mechanisms of legitimation (ideology if you like). Information however, in its cybernetic sense, knows no negation, no oppositional structuring, no ‘organisation’ as such at all. The state of maximum information is the state of maximum indecipherability—what’s called ‘white noise’ or static (white noise is basically the sound of every frequency heard simultaneously. In contrast, a pure tone consists of a single, distinct frequency). Any structuring or codification of this static into a communicable message involves a redundancy of information (since any system of communication/representation is implicitly a system of repetition) which necessarily decreases the amount of information present in any given signal, at the same time as it makes it possible for that signal to actually tell you something. The new media of the internet and world wide web present us with an ever increasing load of information of indeterminate value, while simultaneously undermining the traditional sources of legitimisation and authorisation; at the same time that the flow of information is increasing, our capacity to determine that information as true or false, to structure that flow, is undermined. The explosion of the infomatic field that characterise the ‘Age of Information’ brings with it a concomitant decrease in our capacity to order that information into a systematic pattern of truth and falsity, of determined knowledge. The age of information could just as accurately be called the age of noise, the age of static.

For a practical example of this on-line tension between authorised and legitimated knowledge and the unlegitimised flows of information made possible by the new media, you only have to look as far as the supremely paranoid TV creations of Chris Carter, The X-Files and Millennium. The shows themselves exist of course as part of the traditional media, their source clearly identified with Carter and the Fox network. They have, however, spawned a substantial on-line community; according to Steve Silberman, in an article in the on-line magazine Hotwired (http://www.hotwired.com/special/millennium – [expired]) there are over 900 unofficial sites devoted to The X-Files alone. These sites aren’t just devoted to providing information about the shows themselves; many take the material provided by the show as a basis for their own wildly divergent fantasies, creating their own thoroughly unauthorised plotlines that remould the content of the show to match their own desires. There is, as Silberman notes, an entire “subgenre of these home generated parallel plot universes devoted to gay and lesbian plot developments, and gleefully X-rated contributions from the ‘Gillian Anderson Testosterone Brigade’” (Anderson is the show’s female lead; there’s also a “David Duchovny Oestrogen Brigade” devoted to its male lead). A similar situation developed around Carter’s other show, Millennium, when it was premiered in the US. This would seem, on the surface at least, to be a perfect example of the net’s democratising potential; the mutation and multiplication of an originary legitimised source by an on-line community into a mass of chaotic and incompatible ‘responses’ which turn the original material to their own ‘illegitimate’ ends.

Perhaps it was this sense of their (copyrighted) material escaping from their control that prompted Fox to attempt to sweep the net clean of unofficial sites based on their shows, by threatening web-servers supporting these sites with legal action if they didn’t boot the offending sites off-line. This attempt to maintain control of legitimation and authorisation of their product received a swift response from the on-line community, with the formation of numerous protests sites (featuring the slogan “Free Speech is Out There”, itself a mutation of a well known X-Files motto), the posting of Fox’s legal letters on-line, and the alleged crashing of Fox’s mail server by the masses of e-mails from outraged fans (see http://www.yahoo.com/_News_and_Media/Television/ Shows/Science_Fiction_Fantasy_and_horror/X_files__The/X_Philes_Millennium_Protest/[expired] for a selection of links to sites dealing with this topic. For the official Fox response, see http://www.geocities.com/Athens/6975/fox_statement.htm [expired]). Much of the media coverage and on-line outrage in this exchange focused on Gil Trevizo, a student at the University of El Paso, Texas, who had set up an unofficial Millennium site even before the show had premiered in the US, and who then had his on-line access blocked by the University in response to demands by Fox. Recently however, his status as an on-line martyr to censorship has come into question on the same protest sites that his alleged plight generated; there are now claims that he has been manipulating the cyber-community to his own ends and is not to be trusted. (The site on which I saw this claim made seems to have disappeared in the space between my initial research and the final writing of this article. It’s enough to make you paranoid…)

All the themes are here; the multiplication and appropriation of information on-line via the unlegitimisable masses, attempts by the site of institutional authorisation (in this case Fox) to control these ever multiplying flows of information and contain them within the traditional hierarchies of control, ‘democratic’ on-line protest over these attempts to limit and control the free flow of information, and finally the paranoid questioning of the truth status of the whole exchange by the very on-line community that generated it in the first place. Faced with this mass of conflicting claims, all focused in different ways precisely on the issue of the control of information and its legitimisation on the net, the only position one is left to take up is to doubt everything and everyone. As they say on The X-Files, “Trust no-one”.

As such, I would suggest that superfluity of information offered by these new information technologies, divorced as they are from traditional modes of legitimation, does not of necessity lead us towards an increasingly transparent and/or democratic society. Despite the expanded range of access it offers for ‘the masses’ to a variety of information from a multiplicity of sources (which one might expect to free that information up from the kind of political cum ideological manipulation exemplified by the actions of the US military during the Gulf War), in the absence of a means of ‘filtering’ this body of conflicting claims to the truth through some authorising or legitimising mechanism, it pushes the ‘masses’ that it mediates towards what could be described as a state of paranoia. Unable to determine or choose any one given perspective as ‘true’, all come under suspicion. This is not to say that there is ‘no longer’ any truth; rather that our relationship to it has changed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, The X-Files offers us an exemplary formulation of these new conditions of knowledge in an infomatic world as its motto: “The Truth is Out There”. Perhaps there is a truth to the matter, perhaps there is genuine knowledge, but it is never here where I am, it is only ever out there, somewhere else, inaccessible and perpetually absent; here where I am there is only the static hiss of information flowing.

RealTime issue #23 Feb-March 1998 pg. 16

© Alan Thomas; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 1998