learning + networked society + dossiers + extra
home + what's new + index + comments + rss feed

This article was written on the basis of an entry in MyNotebook, dated Sept. 2nd 2000.

Anonymous, arbitrary authority ... or is it?

K. gets woken up in the middle of the night by a young man who enters his hotel room uninvited and informs K. that he needs a permit to sleep there. At first K. can't believe his ears. He must be dreaming. But the young man insists. When K. suggests going to get the permit, the young man replies coolly that it is impossible to get the permit in the middle of the night. Such is the beginning of Franz Kafka's nightmarish book "The Castle".

Anonymous, arbitrary authority. You don't know who sets the rules. You don't know what the rules are although you are supposed to abide by them. You only find out bits and pieces of the rules when it suits the others to tell you. You have absolutely no say in what happens, yet you are intimately concerned. There is nowhere to hide, nobody to complain to, no one to turn to, no exit possible. Such a situation may inspire disbelief, as in the case of K., but that quickly escalates to anger, which with time, as it can be directed at no concrete object or person, slithers down a depressing slope until it solidifies in numb resignation - a sort of creeping death.

Why evoke all these unpleasant images? You have probably guessed I'm really mad about something. Effectively, I innocently replied to a request to sign up with the ITU for accreditation as journalist. In reality, I was already accredited, but the message encouraged journalists to confirm their accreditation. So I did. I then received a couple of unsigned messages interrogating me about my Magazine. Unwittingly I had walked into my own trial [the title of another book by Franz Kafka, The Trial]. Finally, I received a message defining the difference between a mere website and a magazine. Instinctively, I felt wronged by the arbitrary distinctions being made. My conviction that I was right and the feeling that I was a victim of arbitrary authority and possible individual bloody-mindedness did not however justify or explain the disproportionate emotions I felt at this slight. My hunch is that my reaction had to do with the feeling of powerlessness of the individual confronted with those working under the shelter and within the identity of a large organisation.

Anonymous? It is the prerogative of God alone to be unnameable. Proclaiming or upholding the law at a distance via the Internet without mentioning one's name is akin to usurping something of God's omnipotence. Michel Chion in his book about the role of the voice in films [Michel Chion, La Voix au Cinéma, Cahiers du Cinéma, 1982 - chapter 2] comes to a similar conclusion about the ubiquitous voice of Marbuse that surges from nowhere in Fritz Lang's films about Doctor Marbuse. Clearly, in the case of the unnamed press officer, no such machinations were consciously intended. Yet, it may well be that in the functioning of large organisations, there is a nameless and unnameable violence directed towards those individuals who come into contact with the organisation through the unbending, arbitrary acts of nameless, if not faceless, functionaries who have no time for things individual.

When a person working for a large organisation does not sign, or is instructed not to do so, it is to make clear that it is not the individual who is writing but the organisation. In not signing, however, the individual denies all that is particular in him or her and as result can also ignore the particular in the other. The ultimate expression of which is the replacing of the individual's name by a number and the corresponding lack of any human feeling with which numbers can be dealt with and disposed of. The ambiguity of this situation is that the agent of authority is an individual with a great many individual traits and desires. Despite the seeming uniformity of the organisation for which the agent works, there is a large latitude for that agent to express personal interpretations of the "rule" under the cover of anonymity and supposed conformity.

Aribitrary authority? There are clear reasons why a press department should screen people seeking press accreditation. The head of department sensibly enumerated them in her subsequent reply to my irrate e-mail. More generally, however, there is always a part of arbitrariness in all rule making. It represents a general solution to which individuals with all their particularities are obliged to submit to. Yet without rules, our society could not function correctly.

In a context like the Internet that is changing so rapidly, centralised rule makers can't keep up or have a vested interest not to. Very often rules favour the interests of one group over those of others. Rules almost always favour the status quo. In the case of the nameless press officer, the self-appointed authority claims the right to decide who can and who cannot attend and write about major telecommunications event. Favoured are those people from existing, recognised organisations that follow already established ways of working. Favoured are those people who write in a particular way. For example, the first criteria given by our nameless press officer of a "genuine" online publication was that "the online publication carries material that is considered newsworthy." The Chambers dictionary defines "newsworthy" as "sufficiently interesting to be told as news" ... and explains that "news" is "a report of a recent event; something one had not heard before; matter suitable for newspaper readers;..." I wonder if my more philosophical approach, in which I try to go beyond the self-evident and ask fundamental questions would satisfy our nameless press officer who apparently has instructions that favour the spectacular over the thoughtful.

The second criteria of a "genuine" online publication according to our nameless press officer is that "the information contained in the online publication is refreshed regularly and entirely at least every two months." In the light of these criteria, we have a possible new definition of "news" as being written or recorded material that you throw away after a while. News is ephemeral. Presumably texts and thoughts which have a longer lifetime are of less value for those who are seeking short-term media "impact". However, thoughtful analysis could have an enormous value in a decision-making process, especially in a fast changing, complex world where many deciders take the ephemeral and the spectacular for the only reality.

The Internet, at least for the moment, allows individuals to widely express their individuality to those who are willing to listen. In a context of widespread individualism, this may not necessarily always be so fruitful. I have written elsewhere about the terrorist individuals who derail emergent online democratic processes with their self-centred verbiage [Consensus Building and Verbal Desperados]. That doesn't imply that the individual be dismissed or, on the contrary, glorified above all else. There is a key relationship to be established between the particular and the whole. To best express my point, I need to talk in spiritual terms. Each one of us is unique. To deny that uniqueness is to refuse the sacred in us. At the same time, we are all part of the Oneness that is the whole of creation. At the deepest and the highest level, there is absolutely no contradiction between being unique and at one with the whole Universe. In more practical terms, I conclude that we should always be aware of the uniqueness in each one of us, and energetically refute those who seek to deny or restrain our uniqueness, but that the expression of that uniqueness needs to be set in the context (and the responsibility) of being part of the whole (society, for example).

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.

Share or comment
| More

learning + networked society + dossiers + extra
home + what's new + index + comments + rss feed

ISSN: 1664-834X Copyright © , Alan McCluskey, info@connected.org
Artwork & Novels: Secret Paths & PhotoBlog - LinkedIn: Portfolio - DIIGO: Links
Created: September 3rd, 2000 - Last up-dated: September 3rd, 2000