The Borg and the Web

Remember that spooky thrill when the Borg were first introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation? They were built up as being the ultimate enemy, or at least an enemy that might be too tough for the starship Enterprise. And they were scary. They lived in a giant flying cube and operated as a collection of drones in a hive that cared only for the further enhancement of the colony. You could throw anything at them you cared to – phasers, photon torpedoes, whatever – and they would simply take the hit, analyze it, and build a new defense. Loss of individual members did not concern them at all. They had numbers and cool calculation on their side. “You will be assimilated,” they promised, as matter-of-factly as you please. They march relentlessly through the galaxies, sucking up entire civilizations as building materials for their own end. They were as remorseless as they were unstoppable.

What was scariest was their complete lack of interest in individuals. To be assimilated meant losing your identity and becoming only a means for the further growth of the Borg. Your body was drained of blood and you were outfitted with all sorts of technical gizmos that allowed for your connection to the Borg network. Individuals going into the cube were transformed into mechanical extensions of a huge colony, losing their status as individuals.

As I have been reading book after book about globalization, I can’t help but think of the Borg. Individuals – whether persons or companies – are sucked up into the global culture and become mere extensions of it. You will be plugged into the network, so strap on your gizmos and start taking input and producing output. If we look into the future we’re aiming at, we see a world where you can go pretty much anywhere and know exactly the services, languages, customs, and food you can expect to find. Everywhere will be anywhere. The Web is the Borg, assimilating distinctive cultures and turning them into functional units in frictionless commerce.

But no; reading the metaphor in this way doesn’t sound right to me. The forces of globalization are not sinister. On the whole they are bringing about very favorable conditions for the countries that manage to “link up.” Gaining connectivity with the larger, outside world allows for individuals to break out of poverty; it allows for more information being shared, and more understanding among peoples; and it makes it harder for primitive-minded zealots to oppress women or any other group. Admittedly, it may lead to the flattening of culture, as people start to spend more time tending the net than attending to their own cultural settings. But, on the other hand, how kind would it be to lock people up in what are often oppressive, poverty-stricken, and disease-ridden societies just so that the rest of us can ooh and ahh over the distinctive features of their culture? I am not saying that an internet connection solves everything. But lacking one, so far as I can see, does more harm than good.

So imagine the Borg’s brethren race, the Web. The Web reaches out into every region it finds and invites people to plug in and share information and products with everyone else in the Web. It does require some homogeneity – all sharing does – but at the same time it rewards innovation and individuals’ creativity. It allows for massive databases of knowledge, available to everyone. It allows for dialogue and discussion and dissent. The wealth still goes to those who can produce what the masses need or want (as always), but the difference is that now there are broader opportunities for anyone to be the forces of production. To wade further into Star Trek mythology, maybe the Web is in fact the Federation, a collective where different societies try to work together to everyone’s advantage. What they recognize, and the Borg do not, is that fostering innovation and creativity brings greater strength and progress to the collective than does a stubborn insistence upon homogeneity.

Or that’s what it can be, anyway. There are dangers. With all that sharing going on, good guys and bad guys alike can get the information they need to do what they want. With all those services and jobs shifting around, people will be displaced and left without employable skills. Moreover, Marx’s warnings about the ways that capitalism can alienate people from themselves and from one another need also to be heeded. Joining a worldwide community of innovators also means joining a worldwide field of competitors, and we need to think more about how that will affect human relations. If all we care about is gaining global notoriety and making money off everyone else, we’ve got problems, brother.

But – I think — the possible benefits outweigh the possible dangers. Not that it matters. The Web is unstoppable. Like it or not, we have been assimilated.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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6 Responses to The Borg and the Web

  1. Mike says:

    This post is great. A couple of things I noticed.

    Along with “assimilating distinctive cultures”, the web also creates new distinctive cultures. Well, more like communities of interest. They even have their own language in the sense that all specialists have their own language.

    Admittedly, it may lead to the flattening of culture, as people start to spend more time tending the net than attending to their own cultural settings. But, on the other hand, how kind would it be to lock people up in what are often oppressive, poverty-stricken, and disease-ridden societies just so that the rest of us can ooh and ahh over the distinctive features of their culture?

    I don’t think this quote gets quite at the types of concerns I and others have. I’m not sad about losing the distinctive features of older cultures because of their ‘oohs and ahhs’ but rather because I think there’s some knowledge tied up in cultures and especially in language. So I worry that as we lose those cultures our vision gets more limited (in a sad, irreversible way) even as it gets less limited in other ways.

    Anyhow, there’s a real sadness there, at least for me. I know with Spanish and English for instance… Spanish has the expression “mal creado”. I’m probably spelling that wrong but when an adult recognizes a child that’s behaving poorly the adult says, “sos un mal creado” and you could interpret that as “there’s a bad kid” but the more literal interpretation of “mal creado” is “raised wrong” or “created wrongly”. So, you could say the hispanic culture sees the world differently as that’s their ordinary expression where our ordinary expression is “that’s a bad child” (we blame the child, they blame the parents). We might remark on upbringing but it’s not embodied in the expression itself. (pardon the poor spanish here “sos un mal creado” isn’t right, it’s near the slang but i’m not around spanish speakers enough these days)

    So… I think there are examples like that all over the world. And that’s the sadness, the loss. I don’t think the types of languages in communities of interest have this particular type of value. There will be that community of interest obsessed with language though so not all is lost.

    We’re exchanging possibilities of experiential knowledge (implicit) for a different sort of explicit knowledge. Something that doesn’t meet the same need.

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  2. Huenemann says:

    Both good points. I’m sure there are various neighborhoods and cultures on the web, and new and unique things will be generated. And I see what you mean about losing the visions of other cultures. On the other hand, we also have stronger means now at least of preserving records of what is being lost. Maybe a “cultural ark”….

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  3. Mike says:

    Let me try to clarify some of my earlier confusing statements. I inadvertently gave this a little more thought.

    What I mean here is that I think language is tied up with the ecological context which we’re never going to be rid of (nor would we want to rid ourselves of it I think — upload our psyches into a computer?). As languages disappear we end up with only one (or many fewer) languages for that context. The US is a melting pot in a similar way as the web, how many generations does it take before immigrants lose the language they used in their country of origin? I think the answer is 2 or something but I’d have to look around for data. It’d likely be a similar model.

    I like the idea of the “cultural ark”, nice analogies available here. The web is also a neo tower of babel.

    I’m optimistic about everything else in the sense that I think the rest can be solved as more people get focused on solving the associated problems with the new solutions. Not that it all will be solved.

    Also as the internet becomes a more full medium, as audio/video along with other sorts of virtual interfaces get built and more widely used, we get much more implicit sorts of knowledge built into this new context as well. These communities of interest have in-person encounters on occasion. Maybe it’ll be more like a short term loss of languages and then an explosion of new ones. That seems like a plausible hopeful outcome.

    I also think most of the changes are worth the costs but like you said, it’s not like we have much of a choice in the matter. We’re either sucked into the current or left dangerously far behind.

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  4. Kleiner says:

    Mike’s point is very good – and very Heideggerian. This is in part what he means when he says “language is the house of Being”. The way we speak is the way we disclose the world. Though Heidegger thinks some languages are richer than others (he once remarked that people can only do real philosophy in Greek and German), the relationship between language, thinking and being is so intimate that the three are almost indistinguishable from one another.

    The “cultural ark” is a nice enough idea, and the web will facilitate this. But it smacks of saving things for nostalgia rather than lived expression, and so does not really address Mike’s concern. In other words, even if we catalogue all of the dying languages (and linguists are scrambling to do this, I read some time back that a language dies every two weeks), we do not saved the “lived articulation” (being-in-the-world) of those languages. Since language “truths” (truth/aletheia understood as “un-covering” or “disclosure”), we lose not just words but ways of thinking/”truthing”. Mike’s Spanish example is a great example of how this might impoverish us.

    In fact, the cultural ark might just be an event of “enframing” those languages – ironically taking what was originally a disclosure and using it to cover over. But, as has been said above, it is not like we have much choice in the matter. Alas, the “destining of Being”.

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  5. Huenemann says:

    I think you are right about the cultural ark ending up only enframing. But maybe that’s the best we can do at this point. E. O. Wilson has an “Encyclopedia of Life” project which is a race to get as many DNA samplings of life forms as we can before they become extinct. Saving many of these species is a losing proposal; it’s too late to bring about the changes that would be required. But if we preserve their info, maybe someday we can bring them back, or make use of them.

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  6. Mike says:

    I’m not sure what exactly I hope for with the recognition of these sorts of losses. With both species and language extinction I guess what I’m looking for is at least a proper funeral. Something where we recognize what we had and get to express the joys felt when we had it but also start the process of grieving. Eventually this allows us to again shift our focus towards the new forms of life. This also points toward the parts of character we hope to cultivate. We accept these necessary evils but that doesn’t mean we can’t call it evil.

    I think this is the sort of thing people like Freidman miss. He might say we need to understand and relate to globalization’s losers but he doesn’t know how to express that sentiment (i.e. help others to empathize through the writing itself). Great literature recognizes and knows how to communicate these sorts of subtleties.

    More methodological points from Mr. Mike, big surprise there… *mike sighs*

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