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Article from EJC/REC The Kindernetz
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 12 Numbers 3 & 4, 2002

The Kindernetz:
Electronic Communication and the Paradox of Individuality
[1]

Hans-Georg Möller
Brock University

Das Prinzip der Individualität war widerspruchsvoll von Anbeginn. [...] Jeder [...] Fortschritt der Individuation [...] ist auf Kosten der Individualität gegangen, in deren Namen er erfolgte. [The principle of individuality was contradictory from the beginning ... Each ... step forward in the process of individuation has taken place at the cost of the individuality in whose name that step took place. (Trans, Charles Ess)]
(Adorno and Horkheimer, (1998, p. 164)

Abstract. "Children's Net" is an Internet site established by a German semi-state-owned and non-commercial broadcasting company for the use by children. This paper discusses the six "Children's Net Rules" that children must agree to, to be allowed to enter the "city-hall". Their website equates learning to communicate with learning to behave politically. This approach to communication is anaylzed in Habermasian terms and contrasted with the systemic thought of Niklas Luhmann.

I.

One of the main German semi-state-owned and non-commercial broadcasting stations established an Internet website for children. It is called the Kindernetz - or "Children's Net". Among other possibilities for inter-active electronic communication, this website features a sort of chat-room exclusively for children: the so-called Rathaus ("city-hall"). In order to be allowed to enter the "city-hall", the children have to accept a certain set of communicative regulations: the "Children's Net Rules" (Kindernetz-Regeln). These are the following:[2]

  1. I do not give away my password to anyone, not even to my best friend.
  2. I use a nickname in the Children's Net. I do not tell my real name to others.
  3. I do not give away my mailing or email-address, telephone or fax number in the public forums or homepages.
  4. There's no room for mean language, scolding and insulting in the Children's Net.
  5. I tell my parents when and for how long I surf the Children's Net and also whom I contact there.
  6. When I find something in the Children's Net arousing a bad feeling or even frightening me, I tell my parents and/or write an email to the Children's Net editorial staff.

These rules where highly praised in the leading German intellectual newspaper[3], and when I presented this paper orally at the 15th Computing and Philosophy Conference at Carnegie Mellon University in August (2000), a large percentage of the listeners seemingly approved of them, too. However, I do not share such a positive evaluation of this set of rules. On the contrary, I will refer to it as an example of how current patterns of communication - particular in liberal societies, and even more particular in the new electronic media which are often perceived as a sort of manifestation of liberal discourse - supply agents of communication with a paradox and pseudo-individual identity.

Before systematically discussing the relation of this set of rules to what I call the paradox of individuality, I would like to highlight three of its characteristics which, at first sight, seem significant to me.

The first characteristic is the politicalization of communication, which is quite evident on this website. Children taking part in this "frame" of communication are placed into a virtual "city-hall", one of the basic political institutions of modern liberal democracies. Moreover, the fact that a city-hall was chosen, and not, for example, a parliament, evokes the image of direct democracy at the local level, of a sort of neighborhood, and thus, the image of immediate participation of citizens in political processes. Thus, it may be allowed to conclude that the inventors of this website have some sort of political concept of communication. Their website equates learning to communicate with learning to behave politically. The communicative setting this website imposes on its children visitors appears to me as a pedagogical application of an ideal democratic environment envisioned by social theorists like Jürgen Habermas. To me, it looks like an attempt, although probably unintended, to construct a virtual herrschaftsfreier Diskurs between child citizens.

The second characteristic which is reminiscent of Habermas, at least this is my impression, is the strong normativity of the communication setting in the "Children's Net". Anyone intending to take part in this chat-group has to subscribe to a definite set of rules before even getting to know anything about what he or she has to expect from this communication. The six rules function as a massive selection gate at the entrance of the chat-group, and thus, they serve as an a priori elimination of possible norm-deviation.

The third characteristic is the suggestive language applied to formulate the six rules. Nearly all rules use an "I" as grammatical subject. Thus, the children are confronted with the rules not in a neutral manner, but rather are forced to identify with the "I" in the six sentences: They are to incorporate these rules as part of their "I", before getting access to communication with other "Is" who must have already made these rules part of their communicative ego.

This suggestive "I" reminds me of two things: When I was in primary school, our teacher once wanted to explain how manipulation works. She let us compare two sets of rules for behaviour in a school building. The content of these two sets was exactly the same, but the way of expression was not. One set was expressed in an impersonal way, like, for example: "It is forbidden to litter up the classroom", whereas the other set of rules was expressed exactly in the manner of the "Children's Net Rules": "I would never want to litter up my classroom." The teacher asked us, which set of rules we would prefer, and everyone voted in favor of the second one. Then the teacher explained to us that, in fact, both sets were exactly the same in content, but that the second one was especially designed for letting children voluntarily do things that they normally don't want to do. I think the lesson the teacher wanted to teach us was by no means not to follow rules (she definitely did not want us to litter up the classroom), but that we should not be easily manipulated by suggestive language. She wanted us to be careful when confronted with suggestive sets of norms, meant to shape a collective identity of citizens or customers.

As a student of Chinese philosophy, the way the Children's Net Rules are expressed also reminds me, strangely enough, of an ancient Chinese Daoist classic, the Laozi or the Daodejing. This was most likely originally a manual for rulers, and it used the first person pronoun in the same way as the rules of the Children's Net. In ancient China, when the use of the first person singular was not at all common and no modern concept of individuality was yet in existence, the monarch as single ruler was alone privileged to be an "I". But this "I" was by no means a subjective one, it was rather representative of the pre-established conception of the ideal sage-ruler who should have absolutely no "personal" intentions, characterisitcs or inclinations. The "I" in the Daoist Classic Daodejing may be described as a non-individual, imperative "I", not so different from the "I" which agrees to be bound by the rules of the Children's Net.

II.

It is clear by now, I presume, how deeply I distrust the "I" as it appears in the Children's Net Rules. To me, this "I" and those rules are highly representative of a currently rather widespread belief that a certain set of communicative norms - like the Habermasian one - can bring about a better and more democratic civil society. What is more, many supporters of a Habermasian-style communicative utopia argue that the new electronic media may provide a good environment for the realization of truly democratic discourse. I disagree, firstly, with the Habermasian ideal, and, secondly, with the evaluation of new media as a possible means to enhance individuality and liberty. By an analysis of the paradoxes involved in the six rules of the Children's Net, I would like to explain why and in what respects I can neither believe Habermas nor in the Internet.

As indicated in the title of my paper, I think that the kind of individuality involved in an Habermasian ideal of communication is fundamentally paradox. The herrschaftsfreier Diskurs and its conceptual relation to individuality may be characterized by the following quotation from Habermas himself:

By the same token, society and the individual constitute each other mutually. Every social integration of contexts of action is at the same time a process of socialization for subjects who are able to speak and to act, and who simultaneously shape themselves and renew and stabilize society as the sum of all legitimately ordered inter-personal relations.[4]

Free individuals constitute themselves by inter-subjective communication processes resulting in the formation of a democratic discourse-society. Thus, for Habermas, free and equal discourse, individuality and society are three interrelated concepts. If we follow a specific set of rationalistic rules for social interaction and understanding, we will be able to develop the levels of both individuality and democracy. Something similiar was probably in the mind of the people who designed the rules of the Children's Net. They might have hoped to be able to enhance the children's individuality, their social and communicative behavior and the level of democracy in society with their six norms for electronic communication.

The first three rules are not only motivated by fear of abuse of this website, but also seem to be meant to preserve the individual integrity of the children visiting the "city-hall". By not giving away the password, no one can intercept on-line intimacy of the child citizens or censor their communication. By not giving away their real name, no one who communicates with the children on the net can detect the children's individual identity, and by not giving away the addresses or phone numbers, no one contacting the children on the net can intrude into their personal life. In this way the "I" of the children seems to be perfectly secured. The "I" on the net will not be controlled by external authorities and the real "I" will be untraceable from inside the net and thus it can communicate freely when being on-line.

Rule no. 4 guarantees the ethical cleanliness of the discourse. Uncorrect communicative behaviour, for example racist or sexist discrimination, is prohibited. Rule no. 5 guarantees some sort of protection for the child: It will not become addicted to the computer since it tells its parents for how long it uses the Internet, so that they can control this amount of time spent with the machine. Moreover, since the children inform their parents about their communication partners, and, as rule no. 6 asks for, make known any kind of harrassment, this website will exclude any indecent communicators. Indeed, by the combination of communicative rationality and electronic technology, this website seems to pave the way for a secure and sober herrschaftsfreier Diskurs of free individuals!

The six rules, however, may also be analysed from a different point of view. By mutually securing the on-line and the real-life identity of the children, Rules no. 1, 2, and 3 split their "individuality" into two halves. This becomes most evident in the first rule: The children are forced not to tell their password to their "best" friend in "reality". Thus, they are explicitly asked not to share a part of their communicative life with their friends. Here, friendship and thus a large part of that which I would call individuality, is normatively regulated and paradoxically "de-personalized".

Rule no. 2 is some sort of reversal of rule no. 1. Whereas rule no. 1 excludes the children's real-life friends from their internet existence, rule no. 2 excludes the children's internet friends from their real-life existence. The children are not allowed to tell their real names to their on-line communicative partners. I find it somewhat strange to enter a conversation under the condition of never telling my name to the one I am talking to - and of not being allowed to ask for the name of my partner in communication.

The first three rules seek to establish the security and integrity of the child communicators, but, in fact, this security and normatively rules out individual intimacy. A conversation of individuals without names might be secure, but I doubt if it can be "individual" in any meaningful way. Individuality and friendship are somewhat dangerous and fragile (and probably absurd) forms of existence, but trying to eliminate danger and fragility from individuality might lead to the paradoxical elimination of individuality for the sake of individuality.

Another paradoxical aspect of the Children's Net Rules concerns the freedom of the envisioned discourse. While, on the one hand, the stress on anonymity obviously intends to preserve freedom of speech for the communicators, on the other hand, the parents and the editorial staff of the Children's Net are established as an ever-present supervisor. In fact, the extreme normatively of the six rules limits the freedom of the conversation right from the start. While the children are not even allowed to tell their passwords to their friends or their names to their on-line mates, they are forced to tell everything that puzzels them to their parents or to the completely anonymous "editorial staff".

Thus, we might look at the "city-hall" in the Children's Net either as the final realization of the Habermasian utopia of the herrschaftsfreier Diskurs or, paradoxically, as the final realization of Huxely's dystopia of the Brave New World. What links Habermas, the anti-totalitarian, to totalitarian thinkers is an insistence on normativity, i.e. the Kantian heritage of a belief in reason a priori. Any Habermasian approach has to face this paradox: How can freedom be secured by normativity and how can individuality be secured by a collective and universal rationality? Habermasian, totalitarian, and Children's Net communicative normativism can be challenged with Wittgenstein's reflection on language and rules. Shouldn't we rather, to use Wittgenstein's words, "make up the rules as we go along"?[5]

III.

To end this paper with some more theoretical reflections on individuality and electronic communication, I would like to contrast the Habermasian approach to individuality and communication with the systemic thought of Niklas Luhmann (who was, in Germany, Habermas' main opponent). Following Luhmann's analysis, individuality in our postmodern society is gained through social exclusion. To be an individual means to be special, to be different from others. However, the patterns of "exclusive" individuality are supplied and validated only by communication, i.e. by society. Thus, individuality becomes paradoxical: Social agents gain their "individuality" not "by themselves", but by adopting one or, more often, several of the identities offered by social discourse. (This kind of individuality is not at all in-dividual in the literal sense of the word!) It seems to be precisely this "pseudo-individuality" - and not the Habermasian one - which is enhanced by the new modes of electronic communication.

To my mind, the validity of Luhmann's analysis can be substantiated by the evidence of the Children's Net. The Children's Net offers individual communication, it offers a pluralistic discourse in the "city-hall". However, as mentioned before, the very setting of a city-hall is an extremely conventional and politically structured one: Here, participants will have to adopt certain pre-established patterns of "individuality" or of communication roles. The political setting and the normatively of the discourse supplies the participants with a choice of pseudo-individualities. And these individualities are, moreover, strictly limited to a kind of website-existence: It is forbidden to share the website individuality with off-line friends and vice versa. "Exclusive" individuality can only be obtained by including oneself for a certain period in a pre-established communicative setting.

I think that the current type of Internet communication with its pre-established communicative settings and its explicit (as in the Children's Net) or other more implicit normatively contributes to the self-destruction of individuality. Usually websites or chat-groups follow relatively strict patterns and are open only to social agents who accept these. Of course, there is an extreme plurality of settings and patterns (decent ones as well as indecent ones), but this plurality is a plurality of frames, not of people. We may choose and change roles and individualities frequently, but who is it, that chooses and changes? Is there one continuous "I" underlying all the plural identities offered? Internet communication is a sort of intensified reproduction of our communicative reality: We can experience manifold modes and patterns of communication or social interaction, and these manifold patterns supply us with manifold individualities. As soon as we change the website, we change our individuality. We may use different nicknames, like in the Children's Net, for any of these, whether electronically or real individualities, in order to mark our different identities. Then, we will not have to distinguish between real names and virtual names, between computer-conversation and real-life anymore. And none of our friends in any of the communicative patterns we take part in will be interested in asking us about the names we use in other communications. Thus, I can conclude with good prospects: Rules 1, 2, and 3 of the Kindernetz might soon enough simply become obsolete!

Endnotes

[1] I am indebted to Ruskin Watts for revising the English version of this essay.

[2] See http://www.kindernetz.de/kik/rathaus/index.html.

[3] Cf. Osberghaus (2000, p. 51).

[4] "Wiederum konstituieren sich Gesellschaft und Individuum wechselseitig. Jede soziale Integration von Handlungszusammenhängen ist zugleich ein Sozialisationsvorgang für sprach- und handlungsfähige Subjekte, die sich darin ebenso formieren, wie sie ihrerseits die Gesellschaft als die Gesamtheit legitim geordneter interpersonaler Beziehung erneuern und stabilisieren." Cf. Habermas (1992, p. 101).

[5] Cf. Philosophical Investigations, 83.

References

Adorno, T. W. & Horkheimer, M. (1998). Dialektik der Aufklärung. Frankfurt, Germany: Fischer,.

Habermas, J. 1992, Handlungen, Sprechakte, sprachlich vermittelte Interaktionen und Lebenswelt, Nachmetaphysisches Denken, Suhrkamp (pp. 63-104). Frankfurt.

Osberghaus, M. (2000, April 10). Wie man die Kinder ins Netz steckt, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,.

Copyright 2002 Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.

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