The mentality of Homo interneticus
First Monday

The mentality Of Homo interneticus

The mentality of Homo interneticus: Some Ongian postulates by Michael H. Goldhaber

Because typical experiences will differ, the mentality of the typical Internet user, or Homo interneticus, is likely to be significantly different from that of the typical reader of printed works or of writing or of the typical member of purely oral cultures. These differences include deep assumptions about time and space, authority, property, gender, causality and community.


Ong’s main points
Beyond Ong: The physicality and mystery of books
The Internet mentality
Digression: Ten–finger exercise
Collapse of space, time and progress
Knowledge and memory
Vagaries of attention
Dematerialized institutions
Property, intellectual and otherwise
Non–textual modalities and sensory fragmentation
Gender and ethnicity for H. interneticus





To an extent almost certainly unequaled by other animals, humans have evolved through cultural change. The psychologist Merlin Donald [1] suggests that the evolution of Homo sapiens sapiens was heavily influenced by the state of communicative abilities, including speech, and then writing. He ends with a suggestion that more recent technologies such as print and television lead to new status for the species. Slightly earlier, the recently deceased Walter J.Ong [2] investigated the different mentalities that resulted from orality, literacy, and the development of print, and showed that these three mentalities were markedly different.

Though the Internet is very new, given its extremely wide and rapid spread, it may not be premature to begin to speculate on how the human mind — and therefore, in effect, the human species — will be altered by immersion in this new technology. The thought here is that the shape of repeated daily experiences and the overall structure in which they come are bound to have deep effects on how we think.

If, as Ong’s work, among much else, suggests, the human mind can work in very different ways depending on cultural factors such as the difference between belonging to a purely oral culture and belonging to a generally literate one, then that has to mean that there are differences in mental processes that must be reflected in differences in how the brain is structured and interconnected via nerve paths. That is, groups of humans from oral cultures and groups from literate cultures — though genetically similar and also similar at birth — are, by adulthood, biologically distinct from one another. Thus it is more than a metaphor to refer to them as in effect different species.

We may therefore think in terms of Homo oralis, Homo literalis, Homo typographicus, and then a new stage, which I will argue is just now emerging, Homo interneticus. (Of course these terms are still slightly facetious, in that unlike actually distinct biological species, members of these different groups can interbreed and bear fertile offspring. Still, considering for instance the popularity of Internet dating among members of the newest pseudo–species, in fact, their interbreeding with any of the other groups may be rare.)

Each such new species, while differing from it predecessor, of course doesn’t abandon the latter’s key proclivities or skills entirely. H. literalis for instance certainly continues to speak, but its speech is marked by the mentality that arises only with reading. Similarly, H. interneticus can be expected to continue to use and refer to printed works but with a mentality significantly altered by the overwhelming effects of substantial Internet use.

A full exploration of what is distinctive about the mentality of H. interneticus would have to take up the full panoply of Internet experiences including games, porn, open source programming, chat rooms, instant messaging and music file sharing. Further, all this would have to be situated not only with respect to primary oral, manuscript and print cultures but also with respect to mentalities that went along with the earlier "electric" media of movies, radio, sound recordings and television.

Still, for reasons I shall mention, the Internet — for all its graphic, video and audio possibilities — will remain fundamentally textual in nature for the foreseeable future. Up until now, print culture and more specifically book culture has remained dominant at least in the centers of power in the world. Thus my strategy here will be mainly to establish contrasts and continuities between typographic and Internet–based mentalities. My method is to focus on the broadest kinds of difference of experience and then to trace purely theoretically the likely consequences. I will close with a few remarks about the impact of non–textual experiences.



Ong’s main points

In his best known, summary work, Ong, drawing on prior studies by Millman Parry, Alfred Lord, and his doctoral advisor Marshall McLuhan [3], among others, primarily seeks to distinguish oral and literate approaches to language, which remains the main basis for human thought and mentation. A secondary concern of Ong’s is the distinction between manuscript cultures and print cultures. As he shows, each of these shifts alters the character of language itself, of narration, of memory, of the way the world is divided up and understood, including the understanding of the nature of causation, and on and on.

Ong points out that, before writing, the exact memorization of long passages, such as found in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, would have been impossible. In fact, close reading of the Iliad in particular reveals it to be more or less a transcription of oral performances. These performances could take place only because the story–teller was free to juxtapose and present episodes differently and in different order every time. The Iliad is replete with frequently repeated little formulae or clichés (such as "rosy–fingered dawn" or "the wine–dark sea") such that an appropriate phrase was always available to satisfy the rhythmic constraints of the hexameter recitation without prior planning or rehearsal. Parry, Lord and by now many others have studied the performances of non–literate "singers of tales" in many cultures that remained primarily oral into the twentieth century. They have found that moderately long recitations are always significantly different in every performance, as well as following the same sort of rules as found in the Iliad.

Ong goes on to summarize how thinking changes once writing and then print become commonplace in a culture. We are now taught to eschew cliché. We expect narrative to have an underlying pattern of causation that ties events together. We expect similar kinds of logical connections in non–narrative work, definitely including scholarly and scientific work, which clearly would have been impossible without writing. Indeed, as Ong points out, it is only with the advent of print that diagrams, tables, etc., can be reproduced with sufficient accuracy to allow scientific articles, the very heart of the scientific endeavor, to be circulated. Without print then, no science, no scientific worldview, and, most probably no idea of progress, since the steady drumbeat of new publications that cite and claim to build on and surpass earlier ones can be regularly possible only with printing.



Beyond Ong: The physicality and mystery of books

The final point above actually goes a little further than Ong. Another area that he could have elaborated has to do with the physical presence of books themselves. As the novelist Anthony Powell [4] put it, "books do furnish a room." They not only take up space but have particular locations in our personal libraries, so that the history of our own reading or of our partial attempts at reading can often be located or simply observed in our immediate environments (especially given the existence of mass production and distribution, which has driven down the cost of personal libraries). Today, each book (and each periodical) tends to have a unique cover design so that, by a single glance at the bookshelf, desk, bedside stand or stack on the floor in which it happens to reside an the moment, it can be recognized in all its specificity (except, sometimes, the date of a periodical). Its physical presence serves: as a reminder of the experience of reading it; as a goad to remember to continue where you have left off: or perhaps simply to keep your promise to yourself to start reading it.

A particular book can offer comfort or wisdom, or it can offer startling or disquieting mental experiences. Whichever it offers, the physical presence of the book helps clarify both that some discipline is required either to enjoy or to master the work, and yet that this discipline need not be unending. Each book is substantial, but still bounded, still clearly finite.

At the same time, the physical presence of printed books in front of us also serves to underline the immense gulf between what is involved in reading a book and what would be involved in writing one and actually getting it into print and circulated. We may well have on our shelves books first written and published long before we were born, but there they stay, seemingly permanent fixtures of life. To add something new to this canon — however idiosyncratic our particular personal canon may be — is clearly a feat of substantial proportions.

Like most manufactured objects a book reveals little or nothing of the steps actually needed to bring it into existence. Writing on sheets of paper or even in notebooks doesn’t leave one directly with a printed book or anything closely resembling one. Further, the writing needed to produce the equivalent in order and length to a book is an arduous undertaking. Both these truths work to enwrap the book in an aura at once mysterious and almost unbreachable. To the vast majority of readers not intimately involved in the production process, this mystery has continued throughout the era of printed books.

A book stands fixed and unresponsive before us. Pre–Internet, beyond underlining and writing notes in the margins of your own copy of a work, there was no obvious way of even entering into dialogue with a typical author. The best you could usually do was write care of the publisher, in the hopes that your letter would eventually be forwarded, with still less hope of receiving any but the most cursory of replies.

All these facets of the book do not correspond with the experience of the Internet.



The Internet mentality


Though the Internet includes pictures, sounds, videos and other possibilities, it remains primarily organized on the basis of text. Thus search engines require written text — almost always — as the basis of searching, and what underlies any Web page is HTML code, itself a form of text. E–mails, blogs, listservs, instant messaging, chat rooms, and the vast majority of Web pages remain primarily textual in content. Thus Homo interneticus is still fundamentally a reader — and also a writer.

An average person sits with hands at or near an alphanumeric keyboard in perusing material on the Internet, and is thus equally in a position at each moment to write or to read, both of which are normally carried out by means of the same screen. Whether one chooses to print out a downloaded text or one of one’s own composition, either is accomplished through essentially the same steps and by means of the same printer. Thus there is no longer any gulf whatsoever in appearance or position between reading matter and one’s own writing. The symmetry between the two is perfect.

The first steps towards this greater symmetry began before the arrival of the Internet itself, in the first 15 years of personal computers, and even, to a slight extent before that. With the advent of word processing, writing itself could be replaced by the direct on–screen setting into justified type of even quite complex texts. By now writers — and by now this means everyone who uses a computer — quite generally compose in print on the screen, in fully justified print if they so choose.

The Roman type font that originated in stone carving in ancient Rome long ago became the standard of printed text, and now every word processing program permits one to write directly in justified type exactly like that in which are "set" the best and clearest texts on the Web — or in books. The lengthy intermediate steps from handwriting or even typewriting to the most readable text have now disappeared inside microsecond–long electronic processes.

The result of this symmetry is of course is that texts no longer have any special authority by dint of their form. There is no automatic need to accord anything already set in type with any more status than one possesses oneself. Texts lose the last of the aura of magic and mystery which they long held for the nearly unlettered and the highly literate alike. A new sort of democratic equality has emerged.



Digression: Ten–finger exercise

It is curious that when the precursor of the current computer keyboard — the nineteenth-century mechanical typewriter keyboard — is discussed these days it is usually only to point out the designed-in inefficiency of the standard "qwerty" arrangement of keys. The brilliance of transforming writing into keyboarding is almost never celebrated, nor is the nature of the difference between handwriting and keyboarding noted.

Typewriters were not a tool intended to be mastered by everyone. Their introduction in offices coincided with and helped facilitate the transformation of office-clerk positions from normally male jobs (often offering at least a chance of upward mobility) to normally female dead–end ones. Thus it was only with the advent of the personal computer that a certain stigma that had previously attached to knowing how to type was more or less vanquished.

The ability to put down thoughts using just one’s ten fingertips rather than having to move one hand and arm in complex motions across a page allows a new and different mode of expressing thoughts. (It would not be so widely possible were it not that correction of mistakes through automated spell checking as well as manual editing is now so much easier than older mechanical typing, which regularly required the complete retyping of an entire page just to re–spell or move a single word.)

Though keyboarding, like handwriting, involves bodily motions, for the former these motions are highly stereotyped and rigid. While one may hand–write in many postures and with many different sorts of characteristic motion, one cannot do this very easily with the keyboard while facing the computer screen. And of course the keyboarded word — at least on a digital machine — reveals nothing of bodily idiosyncrasies or emotional states. Handwriting analysis might be of dubious scientific validity, but it is at least superficially plausible, whereas analysis of keyboarded text is unlikely to reveal anything other than through the text itself. Compared with handwriting the process of keyboarding seems much more a pure mental act, squeezing out pretty much any traces of the body’s own role in acting as intermediary between the mind and the screen.



Collapse of space, time and progress

The Internet knows no distance. Wherever you happen to be, the Net connects you with equal speed and facility to everywhere on earth. You can pull up a text faster, in general, on the net than you could find it in a book on a shelf a few feet from your desk. You can move through book–length texts without any sense of what is near the introduction and what near the conclusion. The spatial order and categorization of libraries, so elaborately coded by the Dewey decimal system or the like, is no more.

That library classification, as well as the physical condition of the books and journals themselves, also included an evident time element. The most recent journals in a series are almost always to be found in a special place, but earlier ones are organized chronologically, usually from left to right, up to down, with farthest to the right and farthest down the next to newest. Even with periodicals reduced to microfilm or fiche, spatial ordering in and among reels or file drawers represents time. Older books, journals, etc, usually look old — because of their type, because of the form of their binding, often because of yellowing of the pages. Older works have accumulated more dust and mold; you can literally smell their age. (As a sufferer from mold allergies, even without sniffing them, I detect old books violently, in paroxysms of sneezing.)

On the Internet, in contrast, there are no spatial relations. Everything appears at exactly the same point, the computer screen, and there is no standard way of determining age. Everything appears in the present tense. One might admit two forms of the present, an ultra–present, namely what has just appeared in your e–mail in–box, and a tenseless present — everything else. If one is archaeologically inclined one can often ferret out the order of things, but when one uses a search engine, one tends to be plunged into a space devoid of chronological ordering. Time is not evident.

Without a sense of the past leading to the present in some sort of order, there can be no sense of the present leading to the future. There can be no sense of progress. We are not moving forward, we are not in motion at all. We are merely caught in an ever–changing now. In the ultra–present, things happen. Then they remain, sticking around unchanged.

We only get a glimmer that something is past when it is over, that is when the Web page we are looking for doesn’t exist. But is it gone, or moved, or being newly built? It is, more accurately, "elsewhere" — as followers of relativity theory describe those positions in space–time not reachable from here and now and unable ever to have communicated with here and now. But relativity admits of a copious past which could have communicated with here and now and a copious future we here and now can affect. In cyberspace, in effect, there is here–now — which includes all available knowledge or nonsense — or there is an unknowable elsewhere, but that is all.

In the print culture, the act of writing, particularly writing a book, was sharply future–oriented. Typically it took at a minimum several months — often far longer — to write a book–length manuscript, and months more for it to be edited, prepared for publication, set in type, proof read, printed, bound and distributed. Each of these activities were separate and had to occur in a more or less definite order. The Internet encourages near immediacy instead. A draft of several hundred or thousand words can be produced at a sitting, replete with awkward grammar, limited logic, poor spelling, but it can look as good as the best set type and in that form can be on the Internet within seconds of its completion — or even while it is still being written. Still shorter texts with similar problems can be "published" almost instantaneously. The orientation, as with everything else, can be purely present tense.



Knowledge and memory

Oral culture — in this respect like the Internet — does not admit of progress, as a rule, and has little notion of a past or future different from the present. Still, in most such cultures it seems to be normal to repeat stories or sagas or epics of the past that to a limited extent explain, if not the present, then some aspect of custom or faith. These recitations must be roughly repeated at frequent intervals if they are not to be lost. Other kinds of knowledge also have to be carefully handed down from generation to generation if they too are to survive.

Print culture of course is not so demanding of personal memory or of frequent recitation. But the general assumption has been that at least the learned must master certain texts — knowing them inside and out — or be able adequately to work through, say, the theorems of Euclid, the problems found in a math textbook, or the questions raised in most other kinds of textbooks. It is not enough that one could in principle find texts in the library; one must have gone through many books, studied them, found out what teachers have to say about them.

Adequate knowledge of a particular book, for instance, might enable one to find some passage to re–read, some reference that will then lead on to another way of thinking.

Most formal education, then, in its present form, is an offshoot of print culture, involving not just reading but studying particular books. What is committed to memory is not the text itself but rather some sense of each text, or some practices of mind connected to each text or group of texts. (Thus for example, according to Thomas Kuhn [5], the philosopher/historian of science, "normal science" paradigms are learned and transmitted largely through carefully designed textbooks that include examples, problems and highly idealized versions of history that by indirection as much as by explicit rules inculcate habits of mind that then become norms for subsequent — non–revolutionary — research.)

In the all–encompassing space of the Internet, will such study really seem necessary as preparation for life? Today one can find enough texts and, in many cases, also commentaries from many angles on them, to get oneself up to speed quickly on almost any subject. If one can easily do this at the time a need or desire to make use of such knowledge arises, does it still make sense to have engaged in such learning well in advance, just in case? Might not prior learning in fact be limited to nothing more than the general exploration and navigation of the Internet itself?

One reason for schools and school books was that the normal household could not be expected to contain texts that would explain, say, the organs of the human body and how they work, nor would anyone knowledgeable about such texts be on hand to help explicate them. Whatever you happened to learn about biology or health in high school would have to carry you forward pretty much for the rest of your life.

But with the Internet, no one lacks for sources and hand holding on any conceivable topic, it would at least seem. So why bother to learn what you may never need or not need for a long time? Why take notes? Why be tested on subject matter? Why become expert on anything not of immediate interest?

What does seem worth knowing is how to navigate the Internet, how to intrude oneself into it, which sites or persons are nodes who connect one well to other reaches of the whole. Who are the bloggers who will reveal unknown riches or post a rich collection of hyperlinks — among which one would want one’s own sites and blogs to be listed? (The Internet reverses the ideas of a successful scholar or scientist; such a person benefits from having as many as possible citations to his or her articles. These citations of course always come after the article cited has been published, reinforcing the importance of chronology and the sense of progress inherent in the sphere of publishing of standard journals that occupy real space and appear at definite times. On the Internet however, to gain recognition it helps to be, in effect, in one’s own person, a node, to whom others send links from which one culls the best choices to include on one’s own site. Since every site can change more or less constantly, here again, one cannot deduce the chronological — and therefore the causal — order of texts by their citations on the Internet. One can cite a site that came to exist after the page in which one cites it. It becomes more important most of the time to be noted as a citer rather than as a citee.)

However bookish one may be, the book or periodical made of paper or even of microfiche exists in the same material space as human bodies, the air, buildings, plants, trees, rocks, animals, the sky and clouds — the normal material world — in a word. Thus the knowledge to be found in books, however redolent of reference to other books, is also redolent of "real" experience, is focussed on understanding the "real world."

The world of cyberspace, by contrast, is in the screen. It has its own rules, its own architecture, separate and distinct from bodily reality, entered only by sight and by fingertips on keyboard and mouse (digitally, in other words). Thus knowledge in the Internet era tends increasingly to be knowledge of the Internet. Study is study of cyberspace itself, and, as mentioned, the rules of advancing and influencing such knowledge are different from those that pertain in print culture. One example is the new emphasis on the science of networks [6], for which a growing fraction of the data arises from research on interconnections and nodes on the Internet itself. Still other research on an ever wider variety of topics involves interconnected sites through which apparatus can be controlled, video scenes focussed on and data analyzed over the Internet itself. In principle, these sources of raw data can be open to anyone. The laboratory, in effect, transmutes into another Web page, to be read like any other.



Vagaries of attention

The physical book sits there reminding you that you are in the middle of it, or that you want to read it. On the Internet, with every text of whatever length capable of being searched for and found again in the future, the need to carve out particular texts as possessions to hold in one’s attention in the present and near future is gone. We read in one text as far as nothing distracts us, but anything too new or strange in the text itself might set us off either perusing another text hyperlinked to our starting point or engaging in an even more open–ended Web search. As we stray further and further afield, for awhile we can bring back to mind the text at which we started, but it does not have the power to recall itself to us by its mere physical presence.

In the same manner as books, but with even more immediacy, periodicals — including both scholarly journals and more popular ones, as well as daily newspapers — obtrude themselves into our consciousness when they appear, even if we merely pile them up for future reading, paging through, or just perusing the table of contents. On the Internet, it is easy to subscribe to any number of listservs, but it is also easy to ignore them. Similarly, though one may make a habit of checking various news sites, these habits can very easily change. There is no necessary common focus of attention.

What is more likely to draw our attention on the Internet [7] are sites suggested to us in e–mails from friends and acquaintances, blogs that we have gotten into the habit of checking more or less daily, and lists that we ourselves tend to contribute to, as well as other more informal but possibly scholarly or pseudo–scholarly discussions to which we have become temporarily engrossed.

Increasingly, blogs — daily updates supposedly from an entirely personal perspective — have become a central focus of many people’s Web experience. A blogger captures our attention less through brilliance of expression, than by resonating with our own prior views, and also — often chiefly through various degrees of self–revelation. In general, the more intimate, the better; and the more supportive of a particular side, slant and style in some public debate, also the better each blogger then can direct our attention to other sites or sources, that further our knowledge of and loyalty to the same stance. We can easily be inundated in views, gossip, conspiracy theories, selected facts and so forth that serve to bolster the preconceptions that attracted us to such thoughts in the first place.

For any text to continue to hold our attention on the Internet, it must be calibrated so as to: provide just the right level of excitement to sustain interest; not introduce matters so strange that the reader cannot follow or is tempted to seek explanations on other sites; to present arguments of only moderate complexity — again not to distract or bore the reader; and gather the reader’s sympathy by presenting materials likely to resonate with her. Opportunities to escape these limitations that might do for a printed work are far more risky in the Internet environment, where attention can quickly stray. Despite the apparent democracy of the Internet, where anyone has an equal chance to create a site or blog, these tight restrictions demand a high degree of talent and ingenuity for success.




A book or other printed text exists in a definite, unchanging form. When one rereads a particular book years after an earlier reading, one takes whatever differences of interpretation to be one’s own, while as a matter of course one takes the words to be exactly the same as before. Even with differing interpretations, the story, if it is a novel, biography or history remains the same; and if it is a work of argument, the argument itself stays fixed. And if an individual copy of a book is defective or partially destroyed, we assume that some ideal text fixed in some space of ideas remains constant, remains what the real book is. Even when it is supposed the text as published is somehow corrupt or miscopied, it is still taken for granted that the definitive version of the text as intended is a meaningful concept. At times in fact literary scholars go to absurd lengths to tease out what the author’s intended text "really" was. The author, usually one person, is after all the ultimate authority for a text, as the two words’ linked etymology suggests.

When we are confronted with a fixed printed story, especially a fictional one, its unchanging nature can easily come to seem to be the inevitable workings of fate, or the inevitable results of choices made by the characters. (This is also true of movies or TV episodes; they too are preserved in essentially fixed form; they too represent the only way the tale could be.) Even textbooks, though published in revised form every few years, and often with a multiplicity of authors or editors, still take the form of books, thus completely fixed, seemingly presenting an authoritative report on how the world actually is.

H. typographicus, then, confronted from childhood with endless such works, comes to view the world as equally deterministic, each event, each action, each war and its outcome, each accident, each crime or mistake or misjudgment, even each turn of mind, having definite causes which can be traced back and back. (H. oralis has a similar tendency to believe in fate, to think that stories have a certain form and only that form, even though in oral culture there is less fixity to the retelling of a story and less intricate causal connection therefore between one event and what follows.)

H. interneticus has no such sense of fixity at all. Web sites are subject to constant revision, and users skip from site to site at will. Threads in usegroups and listservs veer from topic to topic with no clear indication of where they are going or how they will end up, quite possibly subjecting sites with which they are connected to critiques that then change those sites’ direction or lead whatever is already on them to be altered without notice. Thus no story or argument is final, fixed; neither tale, nor blog, nor text nor Web site has a canonical form. Games and interactive stories [8] and novels have the same open–endedness; the more choices the reader or user is offered, the less definitive the structure presented, the less authoritative the "author" of the tale or game. Like everything else on the Internet, these kinds of fiction or game exist not in the past but in the present, and therefore they cannot be thought of as having a true and final form.

As we come more fully into the Internet age then, we can expect that the feeling that events are fated, or that one choice causes a certain outcome will be much less powerful than now, if present in any form. Gone will be turning points, "tides in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood lead on to fortune," world–historical events, heroic acts or moments of genius. No author can be thought authoritative, even in regards to her own story, and indeed no story is ever really anyone’s own. Lives, even one’s own, will not have the strong arcs of stories; instead being pastiches, collages, mixtures, with no climax either past or yet to come, no denouement, no outcome, and thus no anticlimax, and no ironic twist either. We will make choices; indeed life will present an endless series of menu items from which to choose, but nothing of any great significance will seem to follow from any choice, just as one does not expect anything other than one’s momentary pleasure or lack thereof to follow from what one orders in a restaurant.

Being very much a member of the species Homo typographicus, I can’t help feeling that something vital will be lost in the move to such open narrative. The typical book has a single author and each reader finds herself in intimate interaction with the subtlest workings of the author’s mind, precisely because the text is given and finished, with no points at which to exert her own will as to what is told next. The givenness of the novel is what makes a good one seem to present a world fully worked out, in that sense not realistic, but rather, in a way, more than real. And that kind of hyperreality, I fear, will be lost in the more flaccid operations of the mind of Homo interneticus. The gains, though, will be the ability to live and experience in a more immediate, multi–threaded, fluid and complex world.



Dematerialized institutions

Whereas print culture over the course of its five–century history quickly became and remained connected with institutional centers of considerable duration and power (libraries, major universities, governments with their printing offices, major newspapers, scientific societies) the Internet seems by its structure radically decentralizing. Anyone has a chance of turning his or her personal listserv, blog or Web site into a node that will be in effect, and quite likely for a very limited time, an institution as powerful as any of the more stable ones of the past. For their stability these relied on many concrete factors, such as buildings, endowments, the power to tax, and faculties and bureaucracies that renewed themselves over extended historical times. This went along with the physicality of books and other printed or written materials themselves.

To a substantial extent, receiving, say, a faculty appointment was of value because of the affordances of the concrete situation. Fixed in one spot were the libraries, classrooms, and, a bit later, the factories known as university presses, and finally, laboratories — as well as endowments. Most major universities have stayed put in the same precise locales for centuries. Access to libraries and presses as well as the ability to speak in vast lecture halls to carefully selected students all were necessary for professors to acquire scholarly authority. That authority in turn added to the institution’s own strength, replenishing itself with careful choosing of subsequent generations of students and faculty. This model began prior to print, and then was vastly strengthened by print.

For a revolution in thought to occur within any specific field, and then to endure in later generations, its proponents had to fight it out with champions of older views within (and, more rarely, among) the relevant faculties. Because of their complex cross–connections through other kinds of institutions, members of these faculties would remain in rough agreement with colleagues elsewhere, and such changes in outlook that were accepted would have wide sway. The success of such revolutions was often taken as a further measure of progress in a field, especially in scientific ones.

Institutional strength of all sorts is sharply undercut by the Internet. While it is possible that new Internet networks will be equally cohesive and strong, without having to be based on fixed physical structures such as buildings and libraries, it is certainly far more questionable that they will be. What is sure is that newcomers can enter dialogues of various sorts far more easily.

One of the reasons assembling a new research university is so rare and difficult has been the need for an acceptably large and complete library. Likewise, resources available for the purchase of and even space to display new journals has limited the number of scholarly journals in circulation. With the Internet, these restrictions are no longer relevant. The slow accretion of new institutions into a slowly strengthening scholarly and scientific network characteristic of the recent past is no longer likely to prevail. Thus the inter–institutional links, checks, exchange of students and of faculty, etc., are no longer likely to be as stabilizing or unifying in terms of the uniform development of disciplines. (Of course this was never a rigorous restraint on the flowering of occasional differences, which in fields such as philosophy have remained very substantial, and have persisted. Perhaps less markedly, variants of dominant paradigms have persisted in certain countries for long periods, e.g., in quantum physics, the theories of the Nobel laureate Louis de Broglie and his disciples, mostly but not entirely in France. With the Internet such variant schools may well be able to persist and even flourish much more regularly.)

With the Internet operating as a sort of open and universal laboratory, as discussed in a previous section, the concept of a tight link between experimental results and the support, confirmation or dis–confirmation of particular theories no longer need hold. Instead, data stand increasingly in public, open to a swirling variety of differing schools of interpretation in combination with various other, somehow similar data. Science morphs into broad set of generalized problematizations such as global warming attacked simultaneously from a variety of perspectives with political, technical, technological, observational, and theoretical aspects all inevitably and consciously folded together.



Property, intellectual and otherwise

H. typographicus and H. interneticus have different views of property. This difference plays out in the current political and economic struggle over what materials may be freely moved to the Internet. The battle takes form over enforcement of newly extended copyright laws, which in effect seem poised permanently to outlaw any recent books from appearing on the Internet (except in those currently rare cases explicitly so sanctioned by author and publisher).

Attitudes towards property are necessarily dependent on attitudes towards time and space. H. typographicus tends to think of most kinds of material items that can be property as such because they can remain with us for a long time into the future, in more or less unchanged form. (Thus, one barely regards a morsel of food one is in the process of eating as one’s property.) Likewise, for objects to remain ours, they must continue to occupy a portion of space that is physically near us, legally demarcated as our own, or understood as temporarily by right ours alone (as, say, a parking space). Hence, the well–known rubric, "Possession is nine–tenths of the law."

Books were the first major examples of objects that can be thought of as property in a dual sense, as in the well–known philosophical type–token distinction: "Have you read my book?" (book as type) versus "Did you take my book?" (book as token). Both of these senses involve duration in time, and the second seems to transcend even legal concepts such as intellectual property (including copyright). Thus it is of course meaningful to speak of certain texts as Aristotle’s, even though they were printed last year, more than two thousand years after his death, and in a language Aristotle could never have heard of. They still belong to Aristotle only in the sense that as readers we necessarily, if implicitly, take on the obligation to attempt to figure out what the author means by what is written and he is that author. In other words, what we are still forced to pay to Aristotle, if we choose to look at his work, is attention [9] — recognition as a definite mind, as a person.

Still, since fairly early in the history of printing, another notion of property right becomes vested in books [10], as type rather than token. Copyright is nothing other than the exclusive right to convert type to token, to make (physical) representations of a text in the abstract.

The idea of an enforceable right or exclusive license to copy texts only arrived with H. typographicus. Before printing made it possible to produce multiple more–or–less indistinguishable physical objects corresponding to a particular text, during all the long years of hand copying and recopying manuscripts in the classical and medieval periods alike, the thought of coyright apparently occurred to no one.

Can it be an accident that copyright arose just when books became standardized objects to be sold as property, to endure and take up space in the purchaser’s library? Can it be an accident that the notion of intellectual property developed in a period in which texts, to be found as they were in enduring volumes, were taken to be immutable, fixed results of their authors’ definite intentions?

If it is more or less valid to answer both those questions with "no," then it can be no surprise that the notion of property, both physical and intellectual, insofar as it implies legally enforceable rights and constraints, loses force for H. interneticus [11]. Web sites tend to be seen as changing, not immutable; the sense of time is only of the present not the future; nothing takes up space in an exclusive way. Nothing prevents you and me and many others from simultaneously reading at the same site in cyberspace. The type–token distinction is far from evident, so the exclusive right to make tokens of any particular type can hardly be of much importance. Further, requiring payment in money to be able to see a Web site is not the norm, and even when we do submit to paying, there is nothing that becomes, as a result, our "property." (In the past, subscribing to a periodical meant one could in principle accumulate and continue to own back copies to be perused as one pleased; but if one did not own them, a current subscription would offer one no special access. Today, on the Web, if you have never before subscribed, say, to the New York Review of Books, subscribing now offers access to all back issues.)

Meanwhile, the absence of most books and certain journal articles from ready free access over the Internet create a gap that cries out to be filled. This has been and likely will be accomplished in several different modes. Sites such as Amazon have introduced very inexpensive reselling of used but perfectly good copies of books, and have also made it possible to search at least a part of the contents of current books online.

With cheap used books so readily available, the value of long copyright protection, so recently instituted, sharply decreases.

At the same time the relatively high prices of current books presents a substantial barrier to readership. The same is true for relatively high subscription costs of current journals. Already the path to free publication of online journals has been paved — by First Monday itself, among others. New free, online science journals and others are following. As the amount of interesting textual material on the Internet grows — not necessarily in the form of books or even journals — the desirability of books and expensive journals can only decline, since they are — relatively at any rate — increasingly difficult to obtain, to read and to use. Therefore it seems likely that efforts to isolate and restrict copyrighted works will backfire [12]. Only those works freely available on the Internet would get much real notice and readership. (The same is likely to hold for other sorts of materials: music, photos, videos, etc. Only what is not effectively copy–protected will be freely circulated, will get attention, will have a chance of becoming known in the way anything can become known on the Internet.)

Once most books are readable over the Internet, however, what will happen with the form? The immediacy of this form of reading means that the habit of keeping books around or going to libraries will seem increasingly awkward, time consuming and clumsy. Even if one intends to read some book in its entirety, it will seem easier to do so via the Internet. Regardless of intentions however, staying focused on that one book will be much harder without its separate physical presence, for all the reasons I’ve discussed.

As I suggested earlier, what is unique about single–author books is that the reader, in paying extended attention to the careful and coherent workings of a single mind undergoes an intense if temporary reshaping of her own mind. Reading fragments, however efficient, doesn’t do the same. Without prolonged grappling with a single author at a time on a fairly frequent basis, H. interneticus on average will be less introspective, less private and less individualistic than H. typographicus. Shared points of cultural reference will also tend to be fewer.

One difference all this will make concerns the issue of property with which this section started. H. interneticus will experience what is on the Internet as belonging, fundamentally, to everyone or no one. It will be possible to think of opinions and attention as one’s own, and, as I have discussed elsewhere, to a certain extent one will be able to think of the attention one receives as one’s own. Taking credit for someone else’s original thoughts or expressions would not be exactly theft, as appropriating property is now viewed, but rather as an egregious lapse that would diminish one’s own credence in others’ eyes. But with due credit stated or even only implied, it will be perfectly possible to integrate or reuse others’ expressions in one’s own, as quotes, collage, sampling, etc. In this sense, all expression will be held in common, and that model of property might well spill over into the dominant way of thinking about many sorts of what is now personal or private material property as well.

None of this is meant to deny that, precisely because of the Internet and related technologies, in certain ways book publishing is presently flourishing. It has never been as easy to prepare, print, distribute and sell books as now with the aid of the Internet, nor to create a stir upon publication. As a result it is probable that more books are being written and published than ever; because of the Internet older books remain available longer, while a tiny handful of new topical books or popular fiction gain increasing notoriety that on rare occasions means millions of dollars for their authors. Meanwhile, reading books or other long texts via computer screens can still be clumsy and uncomfortable.

Still, the number of books is not increasing nearly as fast as the number of Web pages. Buying an reading books is increasingly a sort of adjunct to using the Internet, with more and more books being intended as no more than momentary flashes in the pan. As the ease of reading over the Internet grows as computers become lighter and as different ways to view the screen are developed, separate publishing of actual books will probably start to diminish, much as audio CDs are beginning to fade relative to music uploaded onto computers or MP3 players.



Non–textual modalities and sensory fragmentation

It is probably no coincidence that Descartes, Berkeley and others who raised serious doubts about the reality of the sensed external world and who posited sharp distinction between mind and body, were relatively early specimens of H. typographicus. Reading requires little in the way of bodily involvement compared with the more organic learning characteristic of oral cultures.

Yet books, as real and material, do exist in the same space as the body. Clapping a book shut can make noise, cause air to move, raise dust, and so on. Books can be sniffed for insight into past owners; they can be stained by food, burnt by candles or cigarettes, torn, wrinkled, marked with pen or pencil; they can be autographed by authors or inscribed by givers. They can be stamped or labeled as personal property. Books can function as doorstops, paperweights, hiding places for some valuables, platforms for balancing a teacup on or props for broken chairs or tables. Though early printed books would have been unwieldy for the perhaps questionable purpose as weapons, current ones can even conveniently be hurled across the room at one’s cat or one’s spouse. Relatively speaking, Web pages exist in a different world. Our bodily entanglement with such pages — so long as they are textual — is restricted mostly to the singular and itself highly mental activity of keyboarding and mouse movements.

But what about Internet music, or videos or porn sites or interactive games? My suggestion is that in the main these other modalities of Internet use are experienced less holistically in cyberspace than similar kinds of interaction in the non–cyber world. Text basically makes no sound. Music is for the ears only. Pornography, despite its apparent and sometimes even inventive variety, largely separates off genital excitement in users from any other kind of bodily activity. As I pointed out above, keyboarding itself lacks the expressiveness and variability of handwriting. Even interactive computer games involve a very limited range of bodily motions compared with ordinary sporting games like soccer or even pool or ping pong.

One can imagine a future use of the net as a common means of video–phoning, but this will not yield the oral culture that once existed, for it is only when speaker and listener are moving through the same visual field — and often only when there are several or even many participants — that conversation can acquire its maximum intensity. Without elaborate and mature virtual reality software capable of putting a set of participants in the appropriate common visual space, full oral interactivity will not be possible. Internet use, for all its interconnectivity, remains at each instant largely as solitary as reading is, and — even more than reading — divorces the various senses from operating in unison.

Thus H. interneticus is sensorily fragmented, experiencing the body as a set of disparate and barely connected functions. It doesn’t seem surprising then that e–mailed spam is heavily devoted to selling various kinds of pills, themselves identical little units for altering particular bodily behaviors or functions, that in effect treat the body itself as a set of re–programmable applications. The body figures increasingly as a collection of appendages to the mind. Meanwhile our minds unify through cyberspace into a kind of joint mind.



Gender and ethnicity for H. interneticus

Oral cultures and most traditional ones usually maintain sharp gender distinctions. One nearly universal form is that, from birth on, different genders are assigned different tasks. There is a strong reason for this in that, in an oral culture, all knowledge has to be retained at all times in someone’s mind in order to be preserved at all. Sharp gender division assures that twice as much knowledge can be preserved in each group as would be the case if no such distinctions were treated as natural. Beyond that, totems, moieties and clans, tribes in areas where tribes interact with each other, castes, classes, and even guilds — membership of any of which is rarely a matter of individual choice and is mostly determined at birth as well — multiply further the total knowledge that can survive.

Even in current western society, certain skills are still largely passed on from parent to child, by direct instruction, with the assumption at birth that the child will eventually take up the parent’s occupations. But the list of such skills continues to shrink rapidly, and the Internet will allow them to shrink still more. As a more or less anonymous medium, open to everyone, highly symmetric in its functioning, so that everyone can contribute as well as attend, the Internet is particularly suited to breaking down remaining assumptions that conditions of birth — such as sex, caste, religion or ethnicity — need define and restrict anyone’s development. Inequalities still certainly arise, but they have to do with success at attention–getting in cyberspace. Distinctions of age or physical ability are also muted.

Without notable clues to a particular identity being provided by how one was raised, being cast in a sea of ten billion or so rough and directionless equals would be too much of a challenge. A floating spar — or several — must be found to cling to. H. interneticus tends towards community on the basis not of birth so much as of what feels like commonality — tasks and goals inspired by those who resonate with one — whether from some inner, possibly inchoate sense of being, a chance encounter, a shared bit of history, an aptitude that finds use, an almost arbitrary predilection or just a desire for meaning, connection or focus. These Internet communities are unshackled by space, unbounded by borders, though probably dominated by a rough version of the English language. Like any community, their enfoldings multiply through use and mutual familiarity, providing what remains of the dimension of time.

If the printed book first helped bind the world of European science and scholarship through the universal use of learned Latin [13], that language was comprehensible only to an elite — and male — few. As booksellers ought a wider market, they helped propel vernacular tongues into standardized, written and printed form. New feelings of nationality were thus brought into being, further aided by the desire for those literate in each "tongue" to have access to professions such as law and to government positions. So arose the drive for "national self–determination," meritocracy and even democracy.

Where stands H. interneticus when it comes to nationalism and electoral democracy? As an inevitable member of multiple global communities, on the whole she finds the pull of any particular nationality waning, especially insofar as nationalism implies loyalty to a particular government and its actions. If an Internet community happens to veer in some undesirable direction, it is easy to secede and start a new one with other dissidents, and in next to no time. By contrast electoral politics and representative democracy is achingly slow and unreliable, necessitating compromise and often leaving one agonizing in opposition for year upon year. H. interneticus has no sense of the future — no tolerance, that is, for waiting. Change should occur right now, instantaneously.

But what of the real, material world? Internet community formation might be an adequate substitute for representative democracy in the world of the Internet itself, but how can environmental issues, poverty, war, violent crime, terrorism, medical care, and on and on, be dealt with just by changing the subject? My guess is that to a first approximation the answer is that, for H. interneticus, cyberspace is most of the real world, and the rest is an appendage of it. If anything is to be done about global warming, for example, it will be through communities coalescing on the Internet and then taking a variety of actions ranging from developing alternative modes of transport (or dispensing with it in favor of heightened use of the net to replace travel and shipping alike) to direct action powerful enough that governments and corporations will have little choice but to acquiesce.

As Internet communities proliferate and interweave they will take on more and more of the functions now more or less the monopoly of government and business alike. It isn’t much of a stretch to visualize the Internet successes such as Google, e–Bay and Amazon gradually being replaced by open source distributed processing just as Napster was by Gnutella. From there it is not much of a further stretch to imagine the transformation of all kinds of organizations into distributed Internet versions. End of article


About the author

Learn more about Michael H. Goldhaber at



1. Merlin Donald, 1991. Origins of the Modern Mind. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press; A Mind So Rare. New York: Norton, 2001.

2. Walter J. Ong, 2002. Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge, 2002.

3. See Ong, op. cit., for references. Also see Marshall McLuhan, especially The Gutenberg Galaxy. University of Toronto Press, 1962. Though Ong, a member of the Jesuit order, received his doctorate under McLuhan’s direction, he was actually older and had a considerable career of related independent scholarship before his association with McLuhan.

4. Anthony Powell, 1971. Books Do Furnish a Room. Boston: Little, Brown.

5. Thomas S. Kuhn, 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

6. See, e.g., Albert–László Barabási, 2002. Linked: The New Science of Networks. Cambridge Mass.: Perseus.

7. In regards to the importance of attention and the Internet, see also my earlier article, Michael H. Goldhaber, 1997. "The Attention Economy and the Net," First Monday, volume 2, number 4 (April), at

8. See also Janet H. Murray, 1997. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: Free Press.

9. See Goldhaber, op. cit.

10. For the origins of copyright in Britain, see Adrian Johns, 1998. The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

11. See also Goldhaber, op. cit.; Michael H. Goldhaber, "The Napster Revolution and The Law," Telepolis (29.06.2000), at; and, Lawrence Lessig, 2001. The Future of Ideas :The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. New York: Random House.

12. Michael H. Goldhaber, "After the End of ‘The End’," Telepolis (09.01.2000), at

13. See Ong, op cit., and McLuhan op. cit.

Editorial history

Paper received 29 April 2004; accepted 21 May 2004.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2004, First Monday

Copyright ©2004, Michael H. Goldhaber

The mentality of Homo interneticus: Some Ongian postulates by Michael H. Goldhaber
First Monday, volume 9, number 6 (June 2004),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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