9 Post-Modernism and the Web: Societal effects
Pierre Berthon (Bentley College, USA)
How are we to make sense of the Web and our involvement in it? This issue is no light matter, for how we make sense of what was, and is, delimits what will be. Thus, as more and more organizations establish a presence on the Web, the question of how to exploit the new medium presents challenges to practitioners and academics alike. How should economic and symbolic activity be conducted and conceptualized? How can we make sense of the new medium and our involvement in it? Different assumptions about this new medium will result in diverse activities–and the accompanying creation of different futures, and for businesses, varying degrees of marketing success or failure. This chapter explores the phenomenon of the Web using themes characterizing postmodernism, which is a collection of practices and thoughts that characterizes the information age. Postmodernism offers unique insights into information-rich contexts such as the Web.
Current media views and perspectives on the Web vary from dismissing it as a fad, to acclaiming it as the most significant contribution to communication since Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. Trying to make sense of the Web is no simple matter, yet as an increasing number of organizations establish a presence in the medium, the need becomes pressing. Traditional models of business are unlikely to prove effective. While trends such as changing technology, commercialization, globalization, and demographics are important in understanding the Web, they represent only half the story.
More fundamental shifts can be uncovered by changing to a higher level of abstraction, by shifting from elements to relationships. Such has been the work of a divergent body of thinkers from artists to philosophers, historians to scientists, whose fragmented works have come to be known as postmodern. Indeed, postmodernism is seen as the label for thinking that resonates most strongly with the Information Age, just as modernism was the philosophy that embodied the Industrial Age. While there is little agreement on, or indeed collective understanding of, what constitutes postmodernism, various broad, overlapping themes are discernible.
In this chapter, we explore the Web through the postmodern themes of fragmentation, dedifferentiation, hyperreality, time and space, paradox, and anti-foundationalism. The first two themes–fragmentation (disintegration) and dedifferentiation–represent the opposites (or counterparts) of two of modernism’s favorite systems concepts, integration and differentiation. The themes of hyperreality and space-time counter the traditional modernist assumption of what constitutes reality and progress. Anti-foundationalism, pastiche, and pluralism all question the modernist love of the one right answer (theory, way, view, voice, etc.). Although present in all media, we argue that it is the Web that most typifies postmodernist thought. This may be an important insight, for virtual realms (of which the Web is perhaps the most important), comprise perhaps the greatest marketing and organizational challenge and opportunity of the late twentieth century. Moreover, it was marketing practitioners who were among the first to embrace and explore the Web. Indeed, some argue that, after a technological medium, the Web is primarily a marketing medium.
What is modernism?
Modernity comprises those efforts to develop objective knowledge, absolute truths, universal morality and law, and autonomous art. It is the sustained attempt to free human thinking and action from the irrationality of superstition, myth, and religion. It comprises the basic summons toward human emancipation, clearly enunciated in the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement of the eighteenth century that emphasized the use of reason to bring about humanitarian reforms. Modernism has, at its heart, the idea of the rational person as the primary vehicle for progress and liberation. It stresses unity (underneath we are all the same) and progress (tomorrow will be better than today). So, to be modern is to find oneself in an environment that promises adventure, power, joy, growth, and transformation of ourselves and the world. Its themes, in contrast to postmodernism, comprise integration, differentiation, objective reality, linear time and delineated space, orthodoxy, unity, and foundationalism.
Modernism and postmodernism can be thought of as umbrella terms comprising many threads. However, modernism is a more coherent movement (because it values coherence) that has at its heart one fairly distinct core philosophy, ideology, and belief system. In contrast, postmodernism is characterized by multiple ideologies, multiple philosophies, and multiple beliefs. Indeed, postmodernism in some of its many guises actively seeks to undermine ideology and belief. Although nominally a late twentieth century movement, Postmodernism’s intellectual roots can be traced back to Heraclitus, a fifth-century b.c. philosopher. The movement seeks to undermine and debunk the assumptions underpinning previous ages’ thought systems and discourses. Obviously, this has the potential of degenerating into a rejection of everything.
The differences between modernism and postmodernism are summarized in See Themes–modern and postmodern perspectives. We explore these issues specifically in relation to the Web. The specific themes employed are fragmentation, dedifferentiation, hyperreality, time and space, paradox, and anti-foundationalism .
Exhibit 1. Themes–modern and postmodern perspectives
|Relationships between elements in a system||Integration and differentiation||Disintegration (fragmentation) and dedifferentiation|
|Reality||Reality is objective, “out there,” discovered, and physical–“reality”||Reality is subjective, “in here,” constructed, and imagined–“hyperreality”|
|Time and space||Linear, unitary, progressive chronology|
|Space is delineated–space is time||Cyclic, multithreaded, fragmented chronology|
|Space is imploded (negated)–time is space|
|Values||Orthodox, consistency, and homogeneity||Paradox, reflexivity, and pastiche|
|Attitude towards organizations and the social institutions that produce them||Foundationalism||Anti-foundationalism|
Before commencing our exploration, a number of points should be made. First, there are aspects of the Web that are undeniably modern. Indeed, the Web can be viewed as the latest technological development of the modernist dream of adventure, progress, and liberation. However, it is our intention to focus on the Web’s postmodern aspects. Second, ironically and yet relevant to a discussion of postmodernism, it is only the existence of a modern infrastructure (computers, integrated networks, and universal communication protocols) that enables a virtual and quintessentially postmodern world to be created. Finally, although the themes discussed are presented as distinct categories, this is for presentation purposes only. The categories are far from mutually exclusive–each contains, reflects, and refracts elements of the other.
Each theme is now discussed in turn under two sections. First, the theme is outlined in general abstract terms. Second, it is explored in specific relation to the Web.
There is fragmentation or disintegration of traditional systems at all levels, including countries (the U.S.S.R. has broken up into many autonomous republics and the U.K. is devolving to give power to elected parliaments for Scotland and Wales), social groups (the family), political parties (the Communist party in many countries), and organizations (AT&T broke into three businesses in 1996). People’s lives are becoming increasingly disjointed and fragmented in contemporary society.
Fragmentation and the Web
Fragmentation is apparent in a number of different spheres on the Web. First, the Web offers the ultimate in niche marketing: millions of discussion groups, newsgroups, special interest groups, and a greater diversity of products and services than any shopping or strip mall. Indeed, a significant amount of the material placed on the Internet is designed to reach a single person, a handful of people, or a group of less than 1,000.
Second, the very fact that people find companies’ Web sites, rather than companies finding prospective customers, as in traditional media, means that the premise of mass marketing is rendered questionable at best, and irrelevant at worst. The advent of push technologies, though, may render part of the Web a little more familiar to traditional marketing. However, to bank on this is to misunderstand the nature of the Web and ignore its possibilities.
Third, people experience and behave differently in the new medium, with the Web resulting in a fragmentation of consensus. Research suggests that people feel more able to disagree and express differences in virtual media, and specifically on the Internet. Respondents in computer-mediated environments are more frank on sensitive topics, yet more inclined to offer false information in order to avoid identification. There is a lack of self-awareness and self-regulation of behavior. As well, the new medium has fueled and facilitated, to an unprecedented degree the fragmentation of the self. Individuals participating in MUDs, MOOs, and discussion groups regularly adopt multiple, often-contradictory identities, personas, and personalities. For example, research reports that 20 percent of participants in these forums regularly pose as the opposite gender.
Fourth, the Web is the ultimate global presence. This would seem to result in unprecedented unification and integration, yet the more closely we are linked, the more pronounced our differences become. Digitization breaks down wholes or entities (people, personalities, human beings) into millions of fragments, disconnected minutiae that can then be recombined across people into dehumanized profiles. This fragmentation mirrors the underlying Internet communication protocol, packet switching, which disassembles messages into packages (see ). These fragments, mingled with many other fragments, are transported from sender to receiver, where they are finally reassembled. The Web takes this digitization and packetizing to unprecedented lengths, with Internet companies, from banks to bookshops, typically knowing much more about their customers than traditional marketplace-based firms. Yet, paradoxically, as technology facilitates the much sought after one-to-one customer interaction, the customer becomes ever more fleeting, for the same technology allows customers to recreate and reinvent themselves in a collage of new co-existing images.
The Web fragments, and the successful Web companies of tomorrow, will exhibit this process–because their customers will.
The dedifferentiation  of traditional system boundaries comprises the blurring, erosion, elimination, and washing away of established political, social, and economic boundaries (be these hierarchical or horizontal). Examples include boundaries between high and low culture, education and entertainment, teaching and acting, politics and show business, programs and advertisements, philosophy and literature, fact and fiction, author and reader, science and religion, producer and consumer. It is the dissolution of established distinctions that is captured by terms such as edutainment (an entertaining computer program that is designed to be educational), infomercial (a television show that is an extended advertisement), and docudrama (a drama dealing freely with historical events).
Dedifferentiation and the Web
The Web dissolves perimeters of time, place, and culture. Boundaries between nations, home and work, intimate time and business time, between night and day, and between individuals and organizations. There is no sovereignty in a boundaryless, electronic world. Capital, consumers, and corporations, in the form of communication packets, cross political boundaries millions of times every day. We explore two distinctions that the Web is blurring, fact and fantasy, public and private.
First, although hyperreality will be discussed in detail in the next section, it is important to point out that the distinction between reality and virtual reality diminishes on the Web. Fact and fantasy combine, the distinction between representations and their physical form become increasingly blurred. As Web usage increases, and more and more cultural objects are viewed on computer screens, there is likely to be a growing confusion of the representation with the original objects they portray. Amazon.com, promoted as the world’s largest bookstore, stocks a few best-sellers. The Web site is the defining presence. The reality is created not by bricks, mortar, and paper, but by digitized fragments displayed on a computer screen.
An example from the Web that illustrates this, and also the resulting blurring of the distinction between high and low culture, is Le MusÈe Imaginaire. Le MusÈe Imaginaire sells paintings by the world’s most famous artists such as Van Gogh, Canaletto, and Turner, to the world’s most famous people, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sophia Loren, and Michael Jackson. The irony is that they are all fakes–genuine authentic fakes. (This can be taken both ways: the pictures are fakes, as the people who buy them are fakes in the sense of being actors and actresses). The fact that the site has received no less than 15 Web-design or cool site awards is testimony to a cyberculture that values the image equal to, or indeed over and above, the real. Indeed, in exact replication, how can one distinguish the authentic from the fake?
A search engine may return 10,000 hits on Shakespeare, but cannot tell you which sites contain genuine content written by the Bard, which contain informed discussion of his works, or which are complete nonsense. This echoes the widespread problem in cyberspace of establishing authenticity and, indeed, questions the very notion of our prior conceptual distinctions. When everything is a re-presentation, how can one speak of an original?
The distinction between private and public is also rendered especially problematic on the Web. All activity (personal and commercial) in cyberspace is routinely monitored to a degree unimaginable in the physical world. A person’s activities can be, and routinely are, catalogued in minute detail, and used to build intimate and revealing profiles of that person. People remain ambivalent to this monitoring, for on the one hand, it can help in channeling products and services that have added value to the individual, while on the other, it can represent a flagrant breach of a person’s privacy.
In summary, the Web blurs the distinction between private and public in such a way as to make it difficult to compartmentalize our lives in the same way as in the physical world.
Hyperreality occurs wherein the artifact is even better than the real thing. In a three-stage process, we have (1) the real original, (2) the image of the original, and (3) the image uncoupled and freed from the real original. Examples include the fantasy world of theme parks (Disneyland), virtual reality (role-playing MUDs, MOOs and GMUKs14), situation comedies ( Third Rock from the Sun ), films ( The Lost World ), and computer games ( Myst ). These are examples of what was previously considered a simulation or reflection becoming real–indeed, more real than the real thing. Hyperreality provokes a general loss of the sense of authenticity–i.e., what is genuine, real, or original.
Hyperreality and the Web
The Web is hyperreality. Surfers experience telepresence–the extent to which persons feel present in the hypermedia environment of the Web–when they enter states of high flow. During periods of high flow, time stands still, energy is boundless, and action is effortless. The Web surfer is at one with the Internet, in the same sense that an ocean surfer can get totally immersed in a wave. Thus, surfing is an apt metaphor for describing sustained Web browsing.
Telepresence and flow can lead to addictive surfing, where the normal world is rejected in favor of the virtual, and often fantasy world, of the Web. For example, PJC Ventures is selling plots of land via the Web for USD 9.95 for 100 acres. Nothing particularly hyperreal, other than possibly the low price, until one finds out that the plots are on Mars, Pluto, and the other planets! The detachment from reality becomes even more extreme in the face of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling and the 1967 Multilateral treaty specifying that no person or country can own any part of space. Despite this, some 1,000 plots of land have been sold on Mars and a further 13,000 on the Moon.
The sense of hyperreality is magnified as it becomes increasing difficult to distinguish between genuine and spoof sites (e.g., Microsnot vs. Microsoft), and between professional (run by qualified practitioners) and amateur (run by unqualified enthusiasts) sites (e.g., British Medical Journal vs. Dr. Mom). Digital images can be, and are, seamlessly modified. Consider the site Hillary’s Hair, which allows surfers to view a vast range of pictures of the First Lady sporting various hairstyles, ranging from the elegant to the very unflattering.
A more dramatic illustration of the hyperreal world created by the Web is the case of bots or intelligent agents, which are autonomous, humanlike computer programs that can help in a variety of tasks. Bots can maintain and optimize your computer, navigate through a complex on-line file structure, and advise players in MUDs, MOOs, etc. Bots are virtual creations designed to pass as human beings. As the sophistication of these agents increases, people have been observed to develop emotional relationships with these bots, often unaware that they are virtual creations. However, perhaps even more importantly, those who are aware that these agents are virtual, still find themselves emotionally engaged and treat them as real people.
The case of Julia, an agent of the Mass-Neotek family of robots, has been documented by Foner , who recalls people’s attitudes towards, treatment of, and emotional involvement, with the robot as a real person. Furthermore, he reproduces the log of an amusing, yet faintly troubling series of exchanges, covering a 13-day period, between Julia and a love-smitten suitor called “Barry” (name changed), who was blissfully unaware of her virtuality. As Foner wryly observes, it was not entirely clear whether Julia had passed a Turing test  or Barry had failed one.
In conclusion, the Web represents a new context where human agents are replaced with virtual agents, and reality is superseded by hyperreality.
Time and space
In the postmodern world, there has been a shift from the standard of linear progress, where the future is always something better than the past, to a model of circularity, where the past is continually recycled, reused, reinterpreted, and reinvented. Similarly, our experience of space has changed–the world has become a village and the universe, a microverse. These changes portray a general collapse and fragmentation of time and space.
Time and space on the Web
Cyberspace is not a matter of place, but the instant, the eternal present, where pasts and futures are continually recycled in eternal replication. In the computer world of the Web, the physical real is digitized and the digital becomes the real.
Electronic speed has fueled and facilitated the collapsing of space and time in all media. Many traditional media are unable to keep up. Thus, products are often out of date before the consumer gets them home: clothes, software, newspapers, and magazines (the news and weather are now reported immediately on the Web and render many newspapers out of date and irrelevant). In contrast, on the Web the only real currency is the current. For example, one of the authors recently brought the latest version of Norton Anti-Virus, only to be confronted, on loading the software, with the warning that the virus library used to identify malicious code was out of date. However, the program also offered to download the latest library via the Web. This principle is taken one stage further by an innovative piece of software, Oil Change, which allows a person’s computer to automatically update its software via the Web the instant an upgrade becomes available. It also undoes any changes so that the user can work with previous versions of the software if he or she chooses.
The Web enables on-line, 24-hour, 365-day buying, selling, and consuming, with real-time delivery of certain products, services, and software. The Web facilitates the decoupling of local time and local space, the desynchronization of local schedules, and the synchronization of global ones. Thus, a wired person can work or teach a class simultaneously in Paris, New York, and Tokyo–while living in the Alps.
The two sides of postmodern time, desynchronization and synchronization, are particularly apparent in cyberspace. On the one hand, the Web is the ultimate source of instant gratification, while on the other, the Web is the ultimate titillation, where gratification is always deferred–one click, one instant, one hypertext link away. The Web feeds desire’s ultimate object, desire. This may explain the addictive, drug-like nature of the cyberspace commented on in many magazines and newspapers. Surfing the Web echoes the all-consuming board-surfers’ search for the perfect wave.
Fragmentation and digitization of time and space allow recombination into novel configurations that surpass the traditional limitations of space and time. Thus, the Web is facilitating an explosion of virtual companies: teleworking (where distance is negated) replaces local-working (where space and distance predominate–i.e., commuting distance, physical location, quality of the physical offices, etc.).
The U.K.-based Internet Shopper Ltd. is run entirely through Web-mediated teleworking, boasting a staff of some 20, all of whom work from home. Employees are based all over the U.K., from the South East Coast to the Scottish Highlands. All staff were hired over the Internet, work via the Internet, socialize via the Internet (many of the staff have never met face to face), and find their next job via the Internet. Products are developed, refined, sold, and supported via the Internet. In this case, teleworking has dramatically changed working patterns. Employees can structure their days as they please, working when it suits them rather than when one is traditionally expected to be at work. Furthermore, the distinction between work and holiday is becoming increasingly blurred, with employees working via cell phones while basking on the beach.
Finally, the Web is also the ultimate source of endless recycling, replaying, and re-editing of the past. Consider retro-software and retro-computer sites, where one can relive the earliest versions of space invaders, or run your favorite Sinclair ZX spectrum program. Furthermore, because all communication can be recorded on the Web, it is possible for people to relive on-line relationships at any time. Alexa is creating an Archive of the Web for pages that are no longer available. You can relive your favorite Web site of 1996, even though it was erased a year ago.
Paradox, reflexivity, and pastiche
Postmodernism values the other, the paradox (literally that which is beyond belief), the eccentric (that which is out from the center–the decentered). Thus, the theme here is the questioning, and at times active sabotage, of the normal, the orthodox, the stable, and the consistent. It appears as the active seeking of the abnormal, the paradoxical, the dysfunctional, and the excluded. It is the active embracing of the other–indeed, of others.
On the creative side, paradox and reflexivity are actively employed in pastiche.  This comprises an often colorful, tongue-in-cheek collage style, or an ironic, self-referential mixing of codes (be these theoretical, philosophical, architectural, artistic, cinematic, literary, musical, etc.).
Paradox, reflexivity, pastiche and the Web
The Web embodies the dual nature of contemporary social phenomena. Duality means that many contemporary social phenomena are not experienced in a simple, unitary, fashion, but as two, often contradictory, parts. Thus, for example, the Web is experienced as both a liberator (it can liberate people from the confines of traditional time and space) and tyrant (it can be addictive, encouraging compulsive behavior and alienation). It is both constructed (people build Web sites, participate in discussion groups, and shape the way the Web evolves, etc.) and constructor (the Web changes the way we interact and the way in which we construct and experience phenomena–including ourselves).
Computer viruses and hackers also illustrate the duality of the Web. On the one hand, hackers routinely indulge in seemingly malicious destructive activity, while on the other hand, they actively promote the free flow of information. They are reflexively coupled to the world they oppose–the more they hack and create viruses, they more people try to protect themselves and their information. As a result, an ecology has developed in which anti-virus and security software programmers become dependent on the hackers, the parasites, for their existence–the parasites have their parasites.
Consider the phenomena of avatars used in MOOs and GMUKs. Avatars  typically refer to pictures (photos, drawings, and cartoons) or graphical objects that people use to represent themselves in cyberhabitats. They can be swapped or modified at will and, in some cases, even stolen. For the point of this discussion, it is interesting to observe that they both reveal and conceal. They can selectively amplify or hide an aspect of a person’s character, as well as allow a person to gain experiences outside his or her everyday self.
Anti-foundationalism is a general antipathy towards and rejection of the establishment and orthodoxy. There is a distaste for conforming to doctrines or practices that are held to be right or true by an authority, standard, or tradition. Anti-foundationalism also means a general disbelief of theories, philosophies, or political systems that claim to offer universal goals, rules, truths, or knowledge–and the social institutions that claim to produce them. Examples of these include communism and capitalism and many other social, religious, political, and scientific grand theories.
Anti-foundationalism and the Web
The Web embodies the anti-foundational philosophy of postmodernism in a number of ways. First, the model upon which the Web is based is not the traditional one-to-many of traditional broadcast media, but a many-to-many model in which no one controls the message. Second, the Web effectively has no controlling center or hierarchy. The medium is radically decentered. Nobody controls the Internet.18 Third, the medium is not stable. It is evolving at an unprecedented rate and in unpredictable directions. The ground is always in motion. There is no foundational control and no one architect; rather, the Web is created by the millions of interactions of all its members.
The logic of the Web is quite different from that of the physical, linear world. The Web is hypertext and hypermedia. It is free of the constraints of traditional writing. A hypermedium is not a closed work with a stable meani ng, but an open fabric of links that are in the process of constant revision and supplementation. The traditional author’s voice is undermined, and the traditional relationship between author and reader is overthrown. Each reader creates his or her own text and own meaning.
Not surprisingly, the issue of copyright and intellectual property law has become a major issue on the Web. Sites like Total News manage to use other news providers’ proprietary content for their own ends while avoiding a breach of copyright laws. The manipulation, editing, threading, and recombination of text, images, sound, and video are fashionable on the Web.
In the fastest growing segments of MOOs and GMUKs there is no game or competition, other than spontaneous role playing and symbolic exchange. In short, there is no overall purpose or goal, no rules or regulation. Individuals create their own rules, reasons, and relations–none is prespecified.
In the modern hi-tech world, there is an ongoing elimination of the distinction between psyche and the environment, between waking and dreaming, between the conscious and the subconscious. When these important boundaries are blurred, people start to lose a sense of themselves. We argue that the Web dramatically speeds up this process. Cyberspace embodies the sudden, hyperreal dynamics of the dream. The conventional rules of time, space, logic, and identity are suspended. The surrealism, simultaneity, and instantaneous change that occur in the dream are embodied in the Web
The Web is rapidly becoming the major medium through which people communicate, make decisions, and even construct their social identities. For some organizations (e.g., Amazon.com and CDNow), the Web is already the dominant forum for business transactions. Making sense of the Web, to the extent that postmodernism facilitates this comprehension, will be essential for insightful organizational practice. The Information Age organization and its stakeholders inhabit the Web. Business research fields (such as consumer behavior, organizational design, and information systems) are based on investigations of corporations and stakeholders interacting in North American Industrial Age settings. The Web eradicates much of this theory, just as the disintegration of the Soviet Union swept away established foreign policy. Now, we need to develop theories of management that incorporate national culture and a networked cybersociety. Postmodernist thinking is a stimulus for fashioning new theories of management and business practice.
The Web confronts modernism because it is a major shift that shakes the very foundation of established management thought. The dominance of broadcast (push technology) has been usurped by the Web (pull technology), and the receiver has taken control from the sender of the timing and content of messages. In the world of advertising, the control of time and space has shifted hands. The trend to decustomize service has been reversed as the Web facilitates mass customization (see ). Services are being fragmented to support one-to-one interaction. New firms, the anti-foundationalists, can threaten the establishment within months of their birth (e.g., Netscape threatened Microsoft, and Amazon.com is still a major threat to Barnes & Noble). Understanding postmodernism is not an easy task, but then again, understanding the consequences of the Web is a major intellectual challenge. Reflecting on postmodernism and its themes should help managers make sense of this new cybersociety.
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- Dedifferentiation means the reversion of specialized structures (such as cells) to a more generalized or primitive condition. In contrast, differentiation implies development from the simple to the complex. ↵
- A Turing test, originally conceived by the mathematician Alan Turing, is a test of whether a computer can pass as being human to another human. ↵
- A musical, literary, or artistic composition made up of selections from different works. ↵
- An incarnation in human form ↵