During the period of the Eighteenth century known as the Enlightenment, many intellectuals began to conceive of the world in a new manner. Spurred by the rise of science, philosophers came to see nature as an entity which man could actively control through technology and reason. Additionally, this confidence coincided with a rise in the stature of the self as an autonomous being, free to shape his or her personal world. Thus the possibility for emancipation from institions like government, religion and commerce, which had suppressed the public for centuries, lay within the free and rational individual. Since the Enlightenment, reliance upon reason has “held that modern science and technology contributed to the larger… project of greater economic and political freedom in a democratic polity (Ess 234).”
With the advent of virtual spaces such as the Internet, however, Enlightenment conceptions of the autonomous subject have been placed in juxtaposition with more fluid constructions of the self. This critique began with postmodernists like Jacques Derrida and Jean-Francois Lyotard, who claim that individuals are not inherently free, but rather defined by societal forces.
The postmodern stance heralds many of the arguments which have arisen from new technologies. Like postmodernism, electronic communications constitute the subject in different ways than do modern institutions. On the Internet markers of gender, race and class lose their importance because discourse in this medium is disembodied. At the same time, technology also can configure mutiple representations of the self. In a virtual space, appearance replaces the real. Indeed, the manipulation of texts on the Internet recalls the postmodern idea of ‘simaculcrum’- there exists no concrete essence apart from that which is seen or reproduced. The concept of ‘authority’ then comes to lack relevance and the world is viewed in terms of a non-hierarchical social structure.
While postmodernists warn of technology as a possible instrument for control and suppression, new forms of bi-lateral communication on electronic networks can subvert what Lyotard calls the “metanarrative”- a Western, linear version of history which claims to be the only one story which merits attention. Lyotard, describes modern culture’s “incredulity toward metanarratives” as a definition of society’s inability to form a coherent understanding of its current conditions. Instead, he champions the ability of smaller narratives, such as those belonging to marginalized groups, to undermine Western hegemony. Expansive electronic networks further the telling of such alternative narratives by undermining the primacy of the original author of a text. The Internet also places the tools of cultural production into the hands of people who lie outside of traditional institutions.
Yet while postmodernism advocates the same undermining of authority that electronic networks make possible, it also runs the risk of relying too heavily on fragmentary conceptions of the self and communication. Adherence to a relativistic view of communication threatens to nullify any possible goal of discourse. Jurgen Habermas therefore, finds it necessary to reinstill Enlightenment theories of individuality and freedom to the public sphere of discourse in order create a participatory democracy. Like Lyotard’s observation of the decline of the metanarrative, Habermas claims that “the paradigm of the philosophy of consciousness is exhausted.” The time has now come for us to create a political realm in which we can move toward “paradigm of mutual understanding (Philosphical Discourse, 296).”