The Land of the Free Information (You Get What You Paid For)

Wayne Huang

Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.

Baudrillard's discussion of the Borges fable, in which the cartographers' map is so detailed it covers the actual region, also applies to the creation of the Internet and cyberspace. The 'Net is not a representation of a real world object, although real world objects such as companies have a presence in the 'Net (for some, such as, a 'Net presence is critical for their business). In fact, the hyperreality of the 'Net is actually myriad times larger than what the physical world can contain -- it is redundantly detailed, with several sites focusing on the same thing (news sites, for example). Built on the building blocks of bits, cyberspace can include representations of a referential object and of imaginary objects. Interestingly, at this root level of the 'Net, zeroes and ones are the mirrors of the protons, neutrons, and electrons that make up the physical world, but ultimately the charge of the atomic elements correspond to whether a bit is a zero or a one.

However, this over-representation, as it were, produces a backlash from the people who navigate the terrain of cyberspace, which is filled with mostly useless information. (It's curious that people have to use terms like "Navigate", "Information Superhighway", and "Surf" to impose an artificial-feeling real-world analogy to the structure of the Internet.) Imagine going through an ever-growing landfill every time you wanted to find something important. Most times, you have to search through the results of a search on a search engine before actually finding what you want. When you do find something that you want, you also have to be skeptical of the source's reliability. If the source is not reliable, the information is useless. And sometimes you don't even find what you want. Baudrillard already saw such a cornucopia of useless information when he says, "We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning." People cannot possibly filter all this information. Even without the 'Net, people have to use shortcuts to filter sights, sounds, etc. in their everyday lives. The only possible reaction to being flooded with information is, according to Baudrillard, to turn it back without taking it in.

It is the strategy of the masses: it is equivalent to returning to the system its own logic by doubling it, to reflecting meaning, like a mirror, without absorbing it.

The way the routers on the Internet work reflects precisely this strategy. TCP/IP packets flow so quickly and abundantly over the 'Net that routers can only store the information for nanoseconds on their cache before sending it on. E-mail, for example, flows through the 'Net and is only saved when it reaches the recipient's host server, and then deleted once the recipient checks for and downloads new e-mail. E-mail servers and news servers have to delete their contents on a predetermined period of time or run the risk of having a full hard disk because so much traffic (information) flows through.

This analogy also applies to people. I used to visit several websites every day, such as The Washington Post, MacWorld, Yahoo! Finance, Suck, etc. but with the discovery of new websites, the devotion of time to other interests, and the responsibilities of real-world commitments, I visit them every other day or less frequently. By not visiting them, I, in effect, push the information back and do not absorb it.

I'm interested in what the future of the Internet will be like if people start to respond to the 'Net as Baudrillard proposes (although Baudrillard did not specifically refer to the 'Net, since when Simulacra et Simulation was published in 1981, the 'Net was still a military and educational project)? Will people respond as in Neuromancer or will they respond like little children being lectured incessantly by parents (just to be clear, I mean that the kids tune their parents out)? Or will it be a representation of real-world economics, in which the providers of information also control what (and at what cost) information passes through.

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