Wolfgang Hofkirchner

The One and the Many 

Information Technologies between Modernism, Fundamentalism, and Postmodernism

International Workshop “Social Usage of Internet in Malaysia”, March 22–25, 2000, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Bangi


Informatization and Globalization

Universalism as technology-push model: liberalism or imperialism?

Relativism as a culture-pull model; fundamentalism: particularism or totalitarianism? Postmodernism: pluralism or indifferentism?  

Cultural thinking in terms of “unity in diversity”: “Transculturalism“  



Informatization and Globalization


“Informatization” – a term coined in the 1970s by the French scientists at the CNRS, Simon Nora and Alain Minc, in their study “L’informatisation de la société” – is still used in scholarly disputes to depict the very process in which the modern, that is, computer-based, information and communication technologies (ICT) manifest their pervasiveness in shaping our societies to an ever-increasing extent. This process – often compared to the Industrial Revolution, and said to usher in the information age, that is, the age of information societies – has not yet come to an end. On the contrary, the invention, development, diffusion, application, and usage of ICT have gained a global dimension.


This global dimension has already been anticipated by a number of writers and academics. As early as the middle of the 19th century, Nathaniel Hawthorne had one of his novel characters in “Haus der sieben Giebel” make the comparison of the globe with a head and brain, in view of the telegraph. The paleontologist and Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin regarded the “astonishing system of land, sea and air channels, the postal connections, wires, cables and radio waves, which encircle the earth more each day” as the “creation of a real nervous system of humanity, development of a common consciousness, networking of the mass of humanity,” as he wrote on 6th May 1925(Teilhard 1964, 61, 62; see also 1961, 117 f.). On the eve of World War II, Vladimir I. Vernadsky, the Russian founder of biogeochemistry and a father of global thinking, said the following (Hofkirchner 1997, 51): “Human life has, in all its diversity, become indivisible. An event that takes place in the remotest corner of any continent or ocean has consequences, and causes reactions in a number of other places on the earth, be they great or small. The telegraph, telephone, radio, airplanes and balloons have encircled the globe. Connections are becoming ever simpler and faster. Their degree of organization increases every year… this process of complete habitation of the biosphere by humans is caused by the course of history of scientific thinking, inextricably linked with the speed of communications, the success of transport technology, the possibility of instant transfer of thought, and its simultaneous discussion everywhere on the planet.” And in 1964, Marshall McLuhan stated that “after we had extended our bodies in space” in the ages of mechanical technology, by means of “electric technology” then “we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned” (1997, 3).


“Globalization,” on the other hand, is a term that has become a catchword during the last decade in the political context. While the British sociologist and director of the London School of Economics, Anthony Giddens, claims to be amongst the first to have put this term into circulation, it was, in fact, used as early as the mid-60s to denote the process of the worldwide extension of the range over which the principles of international law are valid due to the shrinking of the world in socio-economic and technological terms (Hesselbein et al., 151). This process, the origins of which may well be traced back to the expansion of trade in the late Middle Ages, is expected to bring about a world society. Today, the meaning of “globalization” may be put in the following way, thereby exceeding the meaning of “internationalization” or “transnationalization”: it refers to activities that “(a) ... take place in an arena which is global or nearly so ... (b) ... are organized, planned or coordinated on a global scale; and (c) ... involve some degree of reciprocity and interdependency, such that localized activities situated in different parts of the world are shaped by one another” (Thompson, 150).


Thus, the terms “informatization” and “globalization” closely relate to each other. In that it is clear that the spread of ICT facilitates social subjects to act in an enlarged arena on a higher scale with far-reaching repercussions, the informatization process per se can be viewed as globalization process.


Globalization, however, takes part in several areas. Not only in the technological realm, the technosphere of the societies; not only with computers, but also in the realm of material reproduction, the ecosphere of societies, where it affects the relationship  between humans and nature, and in the realm of immaterial production, i.e. the creation of cultural goods and values, the sociosphere of societies, where it affects the relationships of humans to one another, and here in turn the areas of economy, politics and ideology.


Cultures represent the way of life of human societies which give sense to their participating individuals and become apparent through an unmistakable amalgam of values, ideas, attitudes and opinions. A way of life includes the means by which the circumstances of life are decided (politics); the means of participation in the requirements for living via production distribution and consumption of material and immaterial goods – all processes of society as a whole in which people, goods and services circulate and are thus subject to perpetual renewal; and the means by which the creation of an individual's ideas in the societal debate on what is good, beautiful, just, on what is true and on what is useful (ideology).


Globalization is occurring in all these three areas.

·        In the economy: the arena is the world market, whose main players are the transnational corporations and finance capital. This is regardless of the fact that trade and direct investment largely takes place between the trading blocks of North America, Asia and Europe. This three-block development can be seen as a form of globalization.

·        In politics: the internal politics of the world is not merely the sum of the foreign policy of individual states, as new political entities are entering the political arena. These are (in addition to the United Nations and regional trading blocs such as the EU, which also further political integration on the basis of community values) the international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), in which civil society is globalizing itself. Kössler and Melber define these as “a network of organizations and informal contexts, which is suited to standing up to the apparatus of each state as an adversary” (1993, 93). Szusza Hegedus, long-time co-worker of Alain Touraines, identifies a trend towards internationalization of new social movements in the 1980s, in comparison to the 1970s. these addressed directly planetary interests and demanded solutions on a global level. What is meant are movements such as those for peace and disarmament, environmental protection, racial equality (e.g. the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa) and the abolition of hunger (1990, 276). The influence that such international citizens' initiatives can have is pointed out by Ulrich Beck using the example of the 1995 boycott of the Shell oil company (1998, 121-127).

·        In ideology: Roland Robertson used the measure of consciousness of the world as a single place to be an empirical indicator of world society (1992). Armin Nassehi joins him and speaks of a world society “when the global players perceive themselves as having different attitudes while referring to one and the same world, and this becomes a reflex” (quoted from Beck 1998, 151). The world society's self-discovery is communicated here by the mass media.


Two questions must now be asked. What are the causes of the globalization process, and what are its effects?


With regard to the development of a global information society, the first question is often put as follows. Is informatization the cause of globalization? Or is it the other way around, i.e. that cultural globalization causes informatization? Perhaps it is the case that the causal factors cannot be defined? Or is it rather that the informational and cultural processes influence each other and mutually strengthen each other?


The second question is as follows. Is the result of globalization something fragmented, something homogeneous, or something emergent, and what is it supposed to be? How are the relationships of the societies to each other, and to the world society, developing, and how should they develop? As they relate in the form of the many to the one, the question may be asked as to whether the one is the common ground of the many. Is the world society to emerge as the common denominator of the various cultures? Is the common element to be seen as the mutual part of individual characteristics, and are these individual characteristics fundamentally mutual? Or is one of the many the only One, or are the many summands of the individual? Should one of the many cultures become the single contributory factor to the world society, or should all cultures together make up this new global society? Is one particular the universal, or at least its constituent element, and is the general only one singular specific, or composed of all specifics?


The answers to these questions are interrelated. Four basic models may be determined.


Universalism as technology-push model: liberalism or imperialism? 


A model, which sees the formation of society as part of the development of the scientific and technical civilization, is completely compatible with the naturalistic world access. This is the model of modernity. The western type of science and technology, the related industrial and computerized takeover of the natural world, and the resulting uniform culture of capitalism, democracy and human rights are the main features of the modernity.


This is to say, it is assumed in the area of economy that after the collapse of the socialist countries, it is the now purely capitalist world system of today in which all societies, all nations, all states, all cultures and all economies find themselves again, and in which they are all held together by one market, one system of labor division and one means of wealth distribution. Capitalism, whose internal logic consists of profit maximization, is in principle global, beginning with Columbus and the domination of the so-called New World (according to Immanuel Wallerstein, e.g. 1998); it has led to the birth of a global economy, for the first time in history, “in which everything can be produced and sold anywhere” (Thurow 1996, 169).


Parallel to this, in the political arena, a democratic form of government has increasingly established itself as the standard. Linked to the idea of Athenian democracy, the 19th century saw the rise of parliament, division of power, and government which can be voted out of office by the people; further, as noted by Therborn (1977), the next century was marked by the appearance in the 17 developed, industrialized capitalist countries of a representative government, chosen by an electorate consisting of the entire adult population, where every vote carries equal weight, where an individual may freely express his or her opinion without intimidation by the state. This enjoys enormous appeal and serves as an example for the rest of the world.


The human rights philosophy in the area of ideology also has its roots in the Antique period, namely in the natural rights teachings of the Greek Stoa. It was he who first formulated the idea that all human beings have equal rights, simply because they are human. The following events are considered to be milestones in the development of this philosophy: the Magna Charta of the English king in 1215; the related ideas of Hobbes, Grotius and Locke; the Habeas Corpus  act of 1679; the Bill of Rights 1689; the American Declaration of Independence 1776; the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen 1789. The peak of international human rights is represented by the International Bill of Human Rights of the General Assembly of the United Nations. This includes the 1948 General Declaration of Human Rights, and the international treaties on civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of 1966, which have been in force since 1976. The XI. Supplement to the European Human Rights Convention enables protected persons to take their cases before a permanent court, the European Court of Human Rights, which may make a binding decision against any state violating the convention. This gives citizens the full protection of international law, and the right to go to an international court as independent parties in their own right (Neuhold 1999, 74). “In the meantime it is universally accepted that human rights enjoy international validity, and are no longer merely internal affairs of individual states…”


This is not merely a fact of life, but a desirable aim, as seen by liberalism. The socially unacceptable alternative is branded as imperialism.


Francis Fukuyama's prognosis of 1989 was not without controversy. In it he stated that “this century, which began in the confidence that western liberal democracy would finally be victorious, will have completed a full circle and arrived back at its starting point; not to an 'end of ideologies' or a convergence of capitalism and socialism, as had once been thought, but to a clear triumph of economic and political liberalism” (1990, 3). This is because “the correlation between the system of economic freedom (based on private ownership of means of production, exchange of goods on the open market, and the status of labor as goods) and the system of political freedom (as protection against the power of the state and as a guarantee of the right to formulate political demands and objectives) is by no means so organically coherent and homologous as the theories of liberalism and neoliberalism assume” (Deppe 1997, 23). Thus doubt exists as to the mutual compatibility of the trio of capitalism, democracy and human rights.


Firstly, a contradiction between capitalism and democracy is mentioned. For example Thurow (1996, 357): “The one form, democracy, believes in the equal political rights of all citizens… the other form, capitalism, believes on the other hand that it is the duty of the economically strong to drive the incapable to economic ruin.” This contradiction causes “the idea of democracy to be proclaimed, to a degree even to be institutionalized, whilst effectively practicing democracy only for a minority, on the basis of a social hierarchy.” This was described by Habermas in 1958 (1973, 18). There has also been talk of “illiberal democracies,” which today actually represent a growth area. “If we impassively regard democracy as a short-term dominance, the privilege of the elite, which can be extended, given a chance, with regular elections, then it is easy to claim that the extension of such elections is evidence for the spread of democracy. The question of the size of the politically influenced areas and the range of politics is left out,” write the political scientists Narr and Roth (1998, 117). This is due to the circumstance that was already true for England in the 17th century: “Society becomes a collection of free and equal individuals, who relate to each other as the owners of their own abilities, and of what they can make by using them. The state becomes a calculated means of protection of this property, and the maintenance of an orderly exchange relationship” (Macpherson 1973, 15).


A contradiction between capitalism and human rights can thus be ascertained. The capitalist economy continually creates inequality. “In itself it produces purely negative societal trends, i.e. competitive individualization, mistrusting and frightening isolation. This social exploitation, so often overlooked in the ecological debate, corresponds with 'natural' exploitation” (Narr/Roth, 116). An extreme divergence of theory and practice can thus be observed. We are speaking of a theory of a sensible world society, arising from the civic enlightenment of the 18th century, where Kant in “Zum ewigen Frieden,” 1795, had a vision of world citizens' rights and a world peace alliance, as the development of universal unity to global republicanism; and a practice of global reality, the real globality of technical/economic networking (Richter 1992). In order to be compatible with the capitalist economy, human rights are formulated as the individual right of defense against the state, so that the civic individual with his or her property can be assumed. Senghaas believes that the idea of human rights as something applying to all people regardless of their individual characteristics is also something which had/has to be asserted, despite a European tradition of exclusion: “And what was applied in an exclusive manner became inclusive, not because there is any sort of internal logic between exclusion and inclusion, but because the excluded were no longer prepared to remain so, and demanded equal rights” (1998, 8f.).


Universalism shimmers between a claim to liberalism and pompous imperialistic behavior. On the one hand it promises economic freedom and political equality, as well as social solidarity, for everyone; on the other hand it is seen as a threat to cultural independence and diversity, a McDonaldization of the world (Ritzer 1997), the spread of a Coca-Cola culture across the globe, Americanization, westernization, homogenization.


Whether the trend towards a capitalist, democratic world with human rights is claimed to be socially acceptable or unacceptable, both claims are based on a monocausal and linear view of the process of globalization. The world society may, from this point of view, be reduced to the common denominator of all cultures involved in the globalization process. That is to say, whatever they absorb in terms of unity makes them agents of and participants in the world society defined by this model – a unity without diversity.


Relativism as a culture-pull model; fundamentalism: particularism or totalitarianism? Postmodernism: pluralism or indifferentism?


The modernist view that the world society is characterized by the use of technology appropriating nature, and the appropriation of nature determining cultural identity, is contrasted with a relativistic cultural view, according to which more important societal factors are the key.


Antimodernism has a fundamentalist and a postmodernist face here. The fundamentalist variety takes in, from the viewpoint of higher values, partial social developments, whereas postmodern variants draw dividing lines which allow the maintenance of a space in which “anything goes.”


Let us look first at the fundamentalist form. Here a culture that is accredited with very specific social relations is raised to the level of the ideal, which is to serve as a model for all other cultures to copy. Thus a specific form is built up to be the general norm. In as much as it is something particular that is raised in this manner, it concerns particularism. In as much as it reaches the status of the general norm, it concerns totalitarianism. That is to say, this form of relativism appears, like universalism, with a claim to general validity, unification, but unification on the pattern of not of the mutual, but of the divisive. The fundamentalist form thus projects the differences of a specific culture onto other cultures, and, in the case of a move towards a world order, onto all other cultures; the result, as in universalism, is unity without diversity.


Now to the second form, the postmodernist. Here each of the many cultures, which are marked by their own societal relationships, are seen as something with the right to exist and remain free from external interference. Each special case is made into a norm in its own right. In as much as it is one of many that is made into a norm, we may speak of pluralism. In as much as every special case is treated thus, we must however speak of indifferentism. That is to say, this form of relativism does not claim general validity, and does not wish to unify anything or anyone. The postmodernist form leaves differences as they are. World society would simply be what already exists, diversity without unity. In the many views of the current state of the world which claim that the end of the Cold War saw a change from bipolarity to multipolarity, we are reminded of such postmodernist philosophy.


In the first form, fundamentalism, social unacceptability would be forced in a totalitarian manner onto others, whereas in the second, postmodernist, existing social unacceptability is regarded with indifference.


Cultural thinking in terms of “unity in diversity”: “Transculturalism“


The thesis of the unity of world society in the diversity of human self-realization, to be found far away from the models of modernism and its opposite, nonetheless reflects modernism, in that it looks for what can and needs to be continued, and what can and needs to be discontinued. It thus forms a picture of another, second modernity, which is however still connected to the first by certain other characteristics.


If the roots of cosmopolitan thinking, which regards the whole world as the homeland of humanity, reach back into the Antique period ( the cynic Diogenes counted as the first to answer the question as to his origins by describing himself as a citizen of the world, a cosmopolitan, in order to distance himself from the petty arguments of the Poleis), then today the time seems to have come in which reality has caught up with thought. “Transnational polygamy of place, being married to various places that belong to different worlds: that is the gateway to globality in one's own life, and leads to the globalization of the biography,” is how Beck (1998, 129) describes the example of an 84-year-old lady who lives in Tutzing on Lake Starnberger, but is also at home in Kenya, where she spends many months of the year.


Unity without diversity, as in universalism and particularism, and diversity without unity, as in pluralism, are pictures of a world order which neither agree with reality nor portray a desirable future. Economists, ethnologists, sociologists and anthropologists counter the tendencies to world flattening by homogenization, and to dissolution into the here and now by fragmentation, with the argument that globalization has differing effects, according to the context in which it is embedded, but can lead to mixed forms,  hybrids, mélanges, Creoles, in which the general and the specific form new connections. Pieterse, for example (1997) speaks of a mélange effect and hybridization; the ethnologist Ulf Hannerz (1992) uses the term “creolization;” see also Joana Breidenbach and Ina Zukriegl (1999). The latter authors (1999, 31) see (cultural) globalization as a “high-grade dialectical process” in which the following dialectics can be observed (Beck 1998, 92–95): those between standardization on a global level and the emphasis on local identity; those between forced membership of newly formed transnational communities and the breaking out from traditional social contexts which are determined by geographical proximity; those between concentration/centralization and decentralization on all social levels; those between conflict caused by division and equaling out by the creation of new common features. According to this theory, the local and the global are not mutually exclusive. Robertson (1995) thus suggested characterizing this process by combining the words “globalization” and “localization” to give “glocalization.”


According to the way of thinking, these positions effectively represent a “unity in diversity,” which should be seen as a possibility. It is a dialectic of the general and the specific that determines the relationship of the one to the many in this way of thinking. This is in contrast to cultural universalism, which sees the universal in the overlapping areas of different cultures (melting together of cultures), and to cultural relativism, for which there is no independent body between cultures which are foreign to each other, but either have a hierarchy of superiority, with the result that one may be seen as the provider and the other as the recipient, or claim to be equal to one another (the clash of cultures). The one is the general, which exists in the specific, but is not absorbed into this. The many are the special part of the general, which is not absorbed into it. The general and the specific depend mutually on each other, but cannot be reduced to each other. Each of them maintains a certain independence. The process of their influence on each other is an interaction of integration and differentiation. The integration is the development of the one, a process that runs from the specific to the general, a generalization that produces a new general, which includes itself in the many. The differentiation is the extension of the many, a process that points from the general to the specific, a specialization that produces a new specific, fanning out from the one. Both the new general and the new specific are leaps in quality that refer to emergence and dominance in a self-organizing system.


According to this, glocalization is as much a process of integration as a process of differentiation, the arising of a single generality and many specifics at the same time. The general, the universal, arises from the meeting and relationship development of the many specifics, the plural particular, which in turn arise from the enabling possibilities and constraints supplied by the general. World society emerges from the interaction of the cultures of the world, a culture turns into a new birth under the dominance of the world society.


It is the latter process of influencing local cultures within the global, and the creation of the previously non-existent, that is stressed in ethnographic debate. Indigenous cultures do not have to capitulate to the elements of western culture, but can interpret them variously and deal with them in diverse ways. “The spectrum ranges from resistance to uncritical adoption, via creative acquisition” (Breidenbach/Zukriegl 1999, 15). If these elements are embedded in appropriate contexts and suitably altered, a third possibility arises. There are enough examples.


Breidenbach/Zukriegl (20f.) quote the work of the media scientist Marie Gillespie in “Television, Ethnicity and Cultural Change,” London 1995. “At the beginning of the nineties, the Australian soap opera “Neighbours” captivated young people of Asian descent in the West London suburb of Southall. The children of immigrants from the Punjab enthusiastically followed the lives of the inhabitants of the fictitious Ramsey Street. But what fascinated them so much? It was not that the way of life in Australia was seen as so desirable in itself. Nor did the young Asian Britons identify themselves directly with the protagonists of the series. What linked life in Ramsey Street with their own lives in Southall was the tightly knit social and family net found in both communities; this was characterized by a high degree of control, especially over the girls. In Southall it was particularly mothers and older aunts who stimulated the gossip, followed and criticized the behavior of the young people wherever they went. This rigid control was perceived by many immigrants' children, who were looking for their own identity as Asian Britons and did not want to take on their parents' traditional way of life, as restrictive and threatening. In Neighbours they saw how their fictitious Australian contemporaries dealt with gossip, parental authority and generation conflicts. In their own circles of friends they could not directly discuss problems such as violence in the family or romantic relationships without offending the traditional family teachings, Izzat. However, in discussions about the behavior of the Australian protagonists the young people were able to talk about these taboo subjects indirectly, and so had the opportunity to express their own points of view.”


“What Stephen Greenblatt wrote about the reception of video technology in Bali seems to me to be very informative,” relates Wolfgang Welsch in an interview (Pongs 1999, 253). “One would assume that precisely the spread of western technology would have a unifying effect, and not just on the level of the devices themselves, but also on that of the content. However, Greenblatt found out that this technology was used in Bali in a way we would never have expected; it is as it were incorporated into the old tribal rituals, and serves in their resurrection. Greenblatt comes to the surprising conclusion that we as Eurocentrics do not need to have a guilty conscience. The Balinese make joyful use of their western ‘toys’, which they acquire in their own manner, without concerning themselves with the standard usage in the West.”


The term “negotiate” is appropriate to societal and cultural relationships which, through a new policy of mutual respect, consideration, and a genuine process of give and take, can be composed normatively. Through this, the expected character of the world society is changed. It should not merely be multicultural and have greater intercultural relationships; it should be “transcultural” as the philosopher Wolfgang Welsch puts it, by which he means (Pongs 1999, 243) that “the cultural formation of the individual, and thus also the structure of society all over the world, become increasingly independent of national formations.”


theorizing the relationship between


the one...


and the many

Cultural Universalism:





Intersecting sets

Cultural Relativism


Particularism/ Totalitarianism



A subset which is made into the union of all subsets




Pluralism/ Indifferentism



Disjunctive sets

Cultural Thinking in terms of “Unity-in-Diversity”:



The general

The specific



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