Paper given at the UNESCO conference INFOethics'98: Ethical, legal and societal challenges of cyberspace, section "Societies and globalization: Promoting cognitive education", Monte-Carlo, 1-3 October 1998.
J. C. Nyíri (Hungarian Academy of Sciences):
and Local Communities
Let me begin with a summary
of what I am going to say. Cyberspace is a new kind of reality, in some
crucial respects less real, but in some respects more real, than
the space of face-to-face encounters and of physical documents. Signs in
cyberspace might be quite unconnected to any real-life states of affairs,
they might be quite abstract, but often they are much less abstract
than, say, signs in a printed book. As I will endeavour to show, communication
in the world of printed books is, characteristically, the communication
of abstract meanings among members of an abstract society, such
as a modern nation. The communication of knowledge in an interactive audiovisual
medium is less dependent on an extended process of education in some national
- i.e. literary - language than was the communication of abstract, typographical
knowledge in earlier ages. Successful navigation in cyberspace does however
presuppose some specific training leading to appropriate combinations of
technical skills and literary skills, the latter normally encompassing
both a rudimentary English and one's mother tongue. Working out how in
fact such a combination of skills can be taught and acquired, and exploring
the ways in which local communities can form a suitable learning
environment, are the goals of an ongoing research program in Hungary; I
conclude by sketching some essentials of this program.
The Ontology of Cyberspace
In some crucial respects
cyberspace is, obviously, less real than the space of face-to-face connections.
One should recall here Gérard Raulet's profound study "The New Utopia",
written in the 1980s, pointing to the spurious idea of "supplanting places
by spaces", and to the gap separating symbolic "interactivity" from actual
social interaction. And one should recall the
essentially consistent findings of an impressive array of empirical investigations
showing that telecommunications, however dense and multidimensional the
networks, do not have the effectiveness, let alone the emotional impact,
of face-to-face encounters. Until the late seventies, such investigations
focused, understandably, on the effects of the telephone. What they found
was that although telephone contacts did of course make a difference when
no other contacts were available,  the former,
as contrasted with face-to-face contacts, had no great propensity to create
linkages. Telephone contacts are effective if they can rely on background
information from earlier personal meetings, and if they are regularly reinforced
The same pattern still holds when e-mail and teleconferencing enter. Analyzing the impact of telecommunications on urban and regional development, Lionel Nicol wrote in 1985:
telecommunications - and, for that matter, the telephone - have traditionally been presented as having a decentralizing influence. The basic argument is that a fundamental effect of better communications is to reduce spatial impedance; that is, the frictional forces that geographical space imposes on the transfer of persons, commodities, and information. ... - ...Yet, despite its impressive advantages, there are no tangible signs that telecommunications may be displacing transportation... Claims to the contrary simply ignore the synergic effects of improved communications on the need for face-to-face contacts that, for institutional or cultural reasons, cannot be handled on-line.The effectiveness of videoconferencing is low when not backed up by face-to-face conferences; e-mail correspondences peter out if they are not complemented by personal encounters, or at least enlivened by phone calls and/or video contacts.
Turning from electronic connections
to electronic documents: One could say that texts and data stored
in one's computer or accessed through the web are physically never present,
except for the tiny segments one has on one's screen. Electronic texts
are fluid, evanescent, even web-pages tend to change or indeed vanish;
while books convey a feeling of solidity. Also, when reading or browsing
through a book, when walking along the shelves of a library, or even when
flipping catalogue cards, one gains a sense of orientation the electronic
medium does much less provide. In the electronic
medium "there is no sense of the text as a mass of material ... wherein
the reader's 'place' can be located at some point in space, as there is
with the printed book".
Let us note however that
the difference between the reality of our everyday surroundings on the
one hand and cyberspace on the other is but a matter of degrees.
Our surroundings are socially and culturally constructed.
As Manuel Castells recently reminded us in his The Information Age,
"there is no separation between 'reality' and symbolic representation.
In all societies humankind has existed in and acted through a symbolic
environment." And in some respects the flows in
cyberspace have already become more real, in the sense of more powerful,
or more difficult to control, than the people they connect. Think of the
global financial market. Or think of political campaigns on the Internet,
against which governments are more often than not helpless. And thinking
about the Internet of course increasingly means thinking about the convergent
worlds of computer networking and the global multimedia - the emergence
of a new, overwhelming reality. Castells has coined the term "real virtuality"
to express the state of affairs when, as he puts it, virtuality becomes
Literacy and Abstract
Signs in cyberspace might
be quite abstract; often however, as suggested above, they are much less
abstract than signs in a handwritten or printed book. Recall that alphabetic
writing did not become widespread before the 5th century BC; and recall
the thesis of Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato, published in 1963,
according to which writing was, for Plato, not just a new medium in which
to express his philosophy - on the contrary, writing, the experience of
literacy, formed the very source of Platonism. When Plato inquired
about the nature of justice, or the beautiful, or goodness, he was not
merely asking new questions; he was asking questions with regard to abstract
terms that were simply not there in the Greek language prior to the rise
of literacy. Here is a quote from Plato's dialogue Euthyphro:
[M]y friend, you did not give me sufficient information before, when I asked what holiness was, but you told me that this was holy which you are now doing, prosecuting your father for murder. - Euthyphro: Well, what I said was true, Socrates. - Socrates: Perhaps. But, Euthyphro, you say that many other things are holy, do you not? - Euthyphro: Why, so they are. - Socrates: Now call to mind that this is not what I asked you, to tell me one or two of the many holy acts, but to tell the essential aspect, by which all holy acts are holy...
Prior to the rise of literacy Greeks became educated by listening to Homeric poems - listening to heroic stories recounted in the colourful medium of "metre and harmony and rhythm". Homeric Greek was not a language in which abstract issues like the essence of holiness could be discussed. It is the syntax of writing that creates abstract terms and the necessity to deal with them; audiovisual electronic communication alleviates that necessity. It thereby amounts to a liberation of thought from the straitjacket of one-dimensional language.
Nationalism and Abstract
Communities in pre-literal
cultures, as well as so-called primary groups in modern societies, can
be designated as concrete in the sense that they are based on, and
held together by, actual personal relationships. With the rise of literacy
societies emerge. The ties between members of an abstract society are,
characteristically, not personal ones; instead, members share the same
literate culture. The modern nation is an abstract society that has developed
in close connection with the emergence of the printing press. In medieval
Europe elementary-level literacy was provided, where at all necessary,
by local schools, in the local dialect; higher-level literacy, by the great
universities like (originally) Bologna and Paris, the language of instruction
being of course Latin. From the sixteenth century on Latin was gradually
complemented by the new literary, "national", languages emerging in close
connection with the spread of printed books. These new languages in turn
became instrumental in the creation of modern nation states - in building
up centralized bureaucracies, national markets, and, in particular, national
job markets. The university henceforth served as the apex of a national
educational pyramid, responsible for maintaining the cultural uniformity
presupposed by a horizontally mobile, literate, national labor force.
Every citizen of the nation state speaks, and is literate in, the same
uniform language: he (and gradually she) is member of the same abstract
culture. Cultural uniformity is ensured by a
unified school system: by a uniform system of primary education, based
on the common culture of those educated in higher schools, and ultimately
on the unified outlook in literature, history, law, and the sciences maintained
by the national university.
Global Education Sustained
by Local Learning Environments
In Hungary a broad research
program to probe into the possibilities of education via the Internet has
been launched. One of the focuses of the program is on tertiary education.
It appears that for Hungary the virtual university model could be a highly
appropriate one. Hungary is a small country, with a territory of less than
36,000 square miles. Even such a small country however can experience a
very uneven territorial development. From an educational perspective in
particular, rural Hungary is severely disadvantaged. For young Hungarians
living in small villages the chance of being able to enroll in a university
is today ten to twenty times worse than for those living in bigger towns.
Hungary has a large diaspora both in the neighboring countries of Romania,
Slovakia, and the former Yugoslavia, as well as in the U.S. and globally.
Envisaging a virtual university
system for Hungary, two issues merit particular attention. First, the language
of instruction. At the entry level this would have to be Hungarian; at
higher levels, it appears, it would be a kind of universal English, offering
an abundant array of technical concepts, but employing few idioms. Specific
questions to be considered here are: at roughly what age should the entry
level lie? Will it move downward? If yes, might not sub-national dialects
gradually supplant literary Hungarian? Or should we aim, rather, at modernizing
the Hungarian literary language, enriching it with a vocabulary adequate
for the information age, allowing thereby that the switch to English as
the language of higher studies would become necessary at a more mature
age only - and allowing, indeed, for innovative scientific milieux with
Hungarian as at least a second working language?
The second issue: the pedagogy
and psychology of virtual teaching/learning. Experience shows that virtual
learning environments absolutely need to be supplemented by physical learning
environments; appropriate combinations of virtual and physical spaces have
to be constructed. The virtual university presupposes a network of physical
consultation centers - the locations of face-to-face encounters among students,
and between students and faculty. While such a network can, ideally, provide
for the necessary face-to-face instructing required by each specific course
or subject, our hypothesis is that it would not by itself fulfil the functions
of a physical learning environment; it could not, by itself, teach the
necessary learning skills, nor create a psychologically suitable
learning climate, nor indeed foster a process of adequate student socialization.
As a possible solution, we envisage the forming of local learning environments.
Virtual communication presupposes real foundations; members of the virtual
learning net need also to be members of actual learning communities; among
such communities could be, indeed already are, village communities. Communication
centers in smaller settlements - supplemented, ideally, by community networks
- can indeed constitute physical environments that will provide some technical
skills and basic cognitive inputs which students then use to build up their
virtual learning capacities. How exactly this process of cognitive transference
works, and how it can be enhanced, is a topic for experiment and research.
Images, Sounds, and Text:
Logic in a New Key
Information encountered in
an interactive audiovisual environment is less abstract than that
found in printed books. Not just texts, but images and sounds are there
to convey knowledge, to explain, to make up an argument. The new environment
requires radically new didactic approaches; indeed requires basic investigations
in the domain of the logic of images and sounds as merged with the logic
of texts. The Hungarian research program I mentioned does include such
investigations. In philosophy the problem has a not inconsiderable pre-history.
Thus centuries ago Francis Bacon already remarked that "Emblem reduceth
conceits intellectual to images sensible, which strike the memory more",
and went on to write: "Aristotle saith well, 'Words are the images of cogitations,
and letters are the images of words.' But yet it is not of necessity that
cogitations be expressed by the medium of words. For whatsoever is capable
of sufficient differences, and those perceptible by the sense, is in nature
competent to express cogitations." This is the
issue Richard Lanham confronts today when he says that scholarly argument
should use images "to think through, conceptualize, problems rather than
simply to illustrate solutions arrived at through other means."
What Lanham has in mind are the perspectives opened up by the possibility
of manipulating images on the screen. But we should recall that already
in the late age of print the program of a better integration of text and
images appeared as a conceivable aim, say, to the Austrian Otto Neurath
in the 1920s and 30s. "Frequently it is very hard", he wrote, "to say in
words what is clear straight away to the eye. It is unnecessary to say
in words what we are able to make clear by pictures."
Neurath was working towards an "International System Of TYpographic Picture
Education", abbreviated as isotype, an interdependent and interconnected
system of images, to be used together with word languages, yet having
a visual logic of its own. Isotype would be two-dimensional,
using distinctive conventions, shapes, colours, and so on. Neurath stressed
particularly that the elaboration of this picture language was meant to
serve a broader aim, that of establishing an international encyclopaedia
of common, united knowledge - the "work of our time", he said.
Recently Andreas Roser has published an important study comparing Neurath's
and Ludwig Wittgenstein's approaches to the logic of images.
And outside the field of philosophy the problem of digital image recognition
and classification is of course an issue towards which huge research energies
To conclude. It appears that the conceptual and technical tools to promote high-quality education in global dimensions are rapidly becoming available. In order to make use of these tools, appropriate national strategies, supranational cooperation, and local efforts are necessary. Studying in cyberspace relies on skills acquired in face-to-face encounters; global education relies on learning environments provided by local communities.
 My references here
are based on the German edition: G. Raulet, "Die neue Utopie. Die soziologische
und philosophische Bedeutung der neuen Kommunikationstechnologien", in:
M. Frank, G. Raulet and W. van Reijen, eds., Die Frage nach dem Subjekt,
Frankfurt/M.: 1988. Compare especially p.285 ("die hier gemeinte 'neue
Utopie' [bedeutet] das Verschwinden des Örtlichen zugunsten des Räumlichen...
die Kategorie der Delokalisierung") and p.287 ("eine leichtfertig mit der
sozialen Interaktion verwechselte 'Interaktivität'").
 See e.g. Suzanne
Keller, "The Telephone in New (and Old) Communities", in: Ithiel de Sola
Pool, ed., The Social Impact of the Telephone, Cambridge, Mass.:
The MIT Press, 1977.
 See esp. Bertil
Thorngren, "Silent Actors: Communication Networks for Development", in:
Ithiel de Sola Pool, ed., The Social Impact of the Telephone.
 Lionel Nicol, "Communications
Technology: Economic and Spatial Impacts", in: Manuel Castells, ed., High
Technology, Space, and Society, Beverly Hills, Ca.: Sage: 1985, p.195.
- As Mitchell L. Moss has put it: "Although many so-called futurists argue
that the electronic cottage will replace the office building and that teleconferencing
will replace the in-person meeting, such speculation merely demonstrates
a poor understanding of urban functions... ... telecommunications has not
reduced the value of the face to face transactions that occur in large
urban centres." (Mitchell L. Moss, "Telecommunications and the Future of
Cities", Land Development Studies, 3 , pp.38f.) - A recent
issue of The Economist, featuring an analysis of financial centres,
emphasizes the need for physical presence, spatial proximity, and personal
meetings. The former boss of J.P. Morgan is quoted as saying that financial
centres "would not exist without lunch". As The Economist adds:
"Computers can distribute economic data and monetary-policy decisions to
everyone at the same time, no matter where they are. Instead, it is the
centre with the biggest number of important banks and investors that will
enjoy information advantages of the more informal sort." (The Economist,
May 9th, 1998, pp.8 and 21 of the "Financial Centres" survey.)
 This is brilliantly
discussed by Oleg Grabar, "The Intellectual Implications of Electronic
Information", Technology, Scholarship, and the Humanities: The Implications
of Electronic Information, conference held at Irvine, California, Sept.
30 - Oct. 2, 1992.
 Patrick W. Conner,
"Hypertext in the Last Days of the Book", Bulletin of the John Rylands
University Library of Manchester, vol.74, no.3 (Autumn 1992), p.19.
 As Doreen Massey
has put it: "what gives a place its specificity is ... the fact that it
is constructed out of a particular constellation of social relations, meeting
and weaving together at a particular locus" (Massey, "A Global Sense of
Place", Marxism Today, June 1991, p.28). Yet it is essential to
point out, as Massey herself did in her earlier work, that "physical features
and variations", too, are "important. Their impact, use and meaning will,
of course, be socially constructed, but that construction is of
something" (Doreen Massey, Spatial Divisions of Labour: Social Structures
and the Geography of Production, London: Macmillan, 1984, repr. 1995,
 Manuel Castells,
Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, vol.I: The Rise of
the Network Society, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996, p.372.
 Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press.
 Transl. by Harold
North Fowler, Plato with an English translation, vol.I, Loeb Library,
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1914.
 Plato, The
Republic 601b, Jowett transl.
 For a detailed
argument see my "Wittgenstein as a Philosopher of Secondary Orality". Grazer
Philosophische Studien 52 (1996/97), pp.45-57, also as an electronic
 See especially
Ernest Gellner's argument in his Nations and Nationalism, Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1983.
 See in particular
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and
Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso, 1983, rev. ed. London: Verso,
 Francis Bacon,
Advancement of Learning, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974, pp.130f.
 Richard A. Lanham,
"The Implications of Electronic Information for the Sociology of Knowledge",
Scholarship, and the Humanities: The Implications of Electronic Information,
conference held at Irvine, California, Sept. 30 - Oct. 2, 1992.
 Otto Neurath,
Picture Language (1936), Department of Typography & Graphic Communication,
University of Reading, 1980, p.26.
 "The writing
or talking language is only of 'one expansion' - the sounds come one after
the other in time, the word-signs come one after the other on paper, as
for example the telegram signs on a long, narrow band of paper. The same
is true in books - one word over another in the line under it has no effect
on the sense. But there are languages of 'two expansions'", ibid.
pp.65 and 111.
 Andreas Roser, "Gibt es autonome Bilder? Bemerkungen zum grafischen Werk Otto Neuraths und Ludwig Wittgensteins", Grazer Philosophische Studien vol.52 (1996/97).