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7 March 2003

Sustainable internet penetration of rural areas

Reframing the global challenge of the digital divide through fruitful local metaphors

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Prepared for discussion in relation to the preoccupations of the World Summit on the Information Society (Geneva, 2003)

Technological uptake implications of cultural metaphors
Fundamental interface issue
Feminist perspective
Metaphoric components
Hindu culture as a case study
Cultural reframing
"Safe sex" for rural areas?
The Arrow and the Pattern -- Progeny?


The challenge of the digital divide has been repeatedly articulated by various parties:

The challenge is the focus of the forthcoming World Summit on the Information Society (Geneva, 2003) which is effectively a follow-up to the World Bank's conference on Global Knowledge: Information Technology for Development (Toronto, 1997)

The following considerations are the background to the discussion that follows:

The concern in what follows is to determine whether local cultures in developing countries may have means, through the use of alternative metaphoric frameworks, of reframing the sexual dimensions of such penetration -- from what amounts to unilateral "rape" to what might be interpreted as a form of mutually appreciated, fruitful "love-making". It raises the question of whether global marketing penetration, notably promoted with western mindsets, should be explored in the light of Freudian insights -- and how local cultures might beneficially respond using the cultural strengths they may have in rural areas. Associated with this dyanmic is also the question of what memtic material gets transferred through such penetration and to what end.

This exploration is inspired by the case of Hindu culture, which has cultivated a fruitful relationship to polarity and sexuality, exemplified by the philosophy and discipline of tantra, and extensively articulated in temple iconography. The question is whether such cultures have unforeseen resources to handle sexual proclivities, transforming and redirecting such energy in more fruitful ways than envisaged within the western marketing model. Alternatively will they be especially enhanced, as explored in an extensive article India's love affair with hi-tech flirting by Sultan Shahin ( Asia Times Online, 8 November 2002):

The short messaging service (SMS) used by mobile telephones is creating a revolution in India, and among other things, it has revived the country's famed Kama Sutra spirit of sexual freedom, long-suppressed by the intrusion of prudish values into the country. Indeed, within a few years of its introduction as a value-added service for mobile phone users, SMS has in many circles come to stand for "some more sex". Indian scholars are now studying strange new subjects such as "textual intercourse", "hi-tech flirting", "electronic aphrodisiac", "Viagra with buttons and a ring tone" and so on. [more]

Technological uptake implications of cultural metaphors

The cultural factor in offering unforeseen technological advantages to a people has been highlighted in the case of the remarkable Finnish uptake of internet technology. As noted in an earlier paper on Enhancing the Quality of Knowing through Integration of East-West Metaphors (2000):

The origins of the Finnish success in information technology can be found, according to Newsweek (May 1999), in the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland. The article focused on Sampo, a virtual machine accumulating wisdom and wealth hundreds of years before Bill Gates. In Jyrki Pöysä's study Virtual Kalevala - global or national?, the Kalevala, is seen in the context of globalizing information technology. Reinforcing this perception, the Finnish Presidency of the European Commission, was introduced by a speech on the New Dimensions of Learning in the Information Society (July 1999) -- referring first to the influential role of the Kalevala.

In a similar vein, Wired (September 1999) comments on the exceptional anti-authoritarian sentiment, that is the core of Nokia's success, as deriving from Antti Rokka, the hero of Väinö Linna's The Unknown Soldier. The hero of the Finnish information society is a person with a marked aversion towards all hierarchies. Asian cultures might do well to explore the significance of their own epics, such as the Mahabarata, for knowledge management.

This potential for Asian cultures has been extensively explored by Susantha Goonatilake (Toward a Global Science: mining civilizational knowledge, 1999)

Fundamental interface issue

The challenge identified above may be understood as fundamentally one of interfaces. Through what interfaces are isolated rural areas to encounter the patterns and dynamics of industrialized urban environments? For many the greater the exposure the better, so that all may aspire to the standard of living of the privileged, and be driven inexorably to strive to acquire the products and services that characterize that lifestyle -- whatever the consequences. This is defined as a right. The degree of destabilization that this may entail is not the concern of the purveyors of attractors from industrialized countries. Marketing arguments are inadvertently or cynically twisted, and disguised in terms of the highest "universal values", to ensure product penetration. It is for this reason that exploration of the sexual metaphor is useful -- given that analogous "deviousness" is often characteristic of relationships between the sexes, notably during the courtship ritual.

Highlighting the sexual dimension is also important because of the sex-related income generating opportunities that the internet has created, notably for women. Just as the extension of highways into African rural areas enabled many to generate income through prostitution, notably servicing truck drivers, it is to be expected that internet penetration will be accompanied by a proliferation of sale of videocam sex from developing countries, especially as a source of hard currency. Typically there has been little comment on this significant possibility -- although the wider problem has been extensively reviewed by Donna M. Hughes (see references).

Finally it is useful to recall that western marketing logic is often driven in practice by sexual metaphors. Successful marketing may well depend (according to that logic) on whether customers can be successfully "screwed" -- as framed by a commonly used expression. Marketing creativity may be effectively devoted to improving the ways of "screwing" customers. Those in rural areas will not have any natural protection from this mindset. There is therefore a need for them to understand, within that logic, the vartiety of ways that they can be "screwed" and -- transforming that one-sided perspective -- acquiring insights into better ways of engaging in "screwing" for mutual benefit. In a sense this might be described as adaptation of "sex education" to internet marketing. Within this metaphoric framework a distinction can usefully be made between three styles of marketing:

Feminist perspective

The feminist perspective on penetration of internet technology may be usefully explored in the light of an analysis of "technology as masculine culture". For example, Judy Wajcman (Feminism Confronts Technology, 1991) argues:

Sexual imagery has always been part of the world of warfare and both the military itself and arms manufacturers are constantly exploiting the phallic imagery and promise of sexual domination that their weapons so conveniently suggest. This imagery however does not originate in particular individuals but in a broader cultural context. Easlea's analysis misses the social processes that give rise to this kind of masculinity and validate such scientific and technological projects in the first place. As Ludi Jordanova (1987, p. 156) comments, '[the interesting questions are how and why creativity of all kinds has been defined in a gender-specific way, and what implications this has for power relations'. That the technological enterprise has developed as a distinctly masculine realm may be largely a reflection of the male domination of all powerful public institutions, rather than something specific to the male spirit.

The language used by defence intellectuals when discussing nuclear strategy is particularly revealing. Carol Cohn (1987) discovered this recently when she spent a year in the company of defence strategists. Like Easlea she found the male world of nuclear planning suffused with sexual and patriarchal imagery and sanitized abstraction; a language designed to talk exclusively about weapons and not about human death. However, for her 'the interesting issue is not so much the imagery's psychodynamic origins, as how it functions' (Cohn, 1987, p. 695).She argues that this 'technostrategic' discourse serves to reduce anxiety about nuclear war by providing a series of culturally grounded and culturally acceptable mechanisms that distance the user from thinking of oneself as a victim, making it possible to think about the unthinkable.

Language that is abstract, sanitized, full of euphemisms; language that is sexy and fun to use; paradigms whose referent is weapons; imagery that domesticates and deflates the forces of mass destruction; imagery that reverses sentient and nonsentient matter, that conflates birth and death, destruction and creation, all of these are part of what makes it possible to be radically removed from the reality of what one is talking about and from the realities one is creating through discourse. (Cohn, 1987, p.715) 140

She correctly points out that it may be an illusion to assume that technostrategic language literally articulates rather than hides the actual reasons for the development and deployment of nuclear weapons. Rather than informing and shaping decisions, the discourse more often functions as a legitimation for political outcomes that have occurred for utterly different reasons. This language of patriarchal euphemisms permeates many spheres of high technology.

She goes on to note that "In fact, there are many parallels between the ethos of the scientific community at Los Alamos and that of the computing fraternity." Wajcman then explores masculine control issues and the gender bias with regard to computer technology. [more] Such arguments are indeed relevant to notions of internet penetration of rural areas.

Metaphoric components

As indicated above, the intention is to highlight some of the metaphoric framings associated with sustainable internet penetration of rural areas in response to the digital divide. The innocence of those who would deny such associations is viewed here as hypocritical -- as well as exhibiting an ignorance of the insights of psychoanalysis and of the tools so extensively used by designers of sophisticated marketing campaigns.

"Penetration": The term "market penetration", even "deep market penetration", is a very common phrase in business circles. It is considered to be highly desirable. No qualifiers are attached to its achievement or success. It has obvious sexual connotations emphasizing its value from a male perspective.

As in the kinds of sexual relations deplored by feminists, the term exhibits no sensitivity to what is penetrated or as to how the penetration is undertaken or what "genes" get transferredin the process. As phrased, it is a desirable end in its own right -- above all for men. Discourse by men towards this end may be understood as a form of marketing in which any "line" may be considered appropriate provided it convinces the "client" -- or creates a situation in which the "deal" may be effectively "clinched", whether the client really wants it or not. The only constraint on market penetration is "market saturation" -- namely when the market can take no more of a product or service, or the supplier is "out-of-stock".

"Rural areas": Marketing is traditionally an activity that occurs at urbanized centres serving rural areas -- hence the term "market". Rural areas are characterized by the predominance of plants and the absence of artificial constructs. It is such areas, away from urban centres, that are closely associated with the manner in which society as a whole is sustained through what is produced there -- and brought to market. There is a long tradition, much exploited by poets, of using euphemisms and metaphors of plant covered areas -- such as (secret) "garden", "bush", "jungle", "wilderness", and similar notions -- as descriptors of female genitalia.

"Sustainable": More sophisticated notions of marketing avoid the short-term perspective of giving priority to one-off sales. There may be recognition that to maximize profit, products and services should be provided in ways such as to encourage a continuing pattern of relationship with the client. This places demands and constraints on both provider and client.

The term "sustainable" has important sexual connotations -- well-illustrated by the market for western pharmaceutical products such as Viagra and for the eastern aphrodisiacs that have contributed to the devastation of certain species (rhinos, tigers, etc). In the case of internet penetration, the concern is how to sustain the relationship to the benefit of both parties. There is considerable experience of the failure of internet service providers to keep up their end of the bargain once the client has committed -- intermittent service, technical breakdowns, communication failures. All these have their sexual equivalents.

"Gap" and "divide": There are many activities in society that are stimulated by the recognition of a "gap" or a "divide". So recognized, it is a fundamental challenge encouraging efforts to cross or traverse it in some way. This is true whether the gaps are in topography, or differences in design or cuisine. For any entrepreneurial marketer, detection of a "gap" is an immediate indicator of opportuntity. Ironically, the international community has itself been much seized by other divides: the gender gap, the North-South divide, the generation gap, cultural gap, communication gap, security gap, knowledge gap, income gap. The challenge to global strategy may be understood as the the challenge of managing divides.

Much attention is devoted in the media to stimulation of men by various "gaps" or "divides" associated with the female body. Huge numbers of photographs (in magazines, on posters and on billboards) tantalizingly explore the "cleavage" between breasts and buttocks -- implying or explictly exploring another clevage framed as the target of penetration, possibly preceded by "digital" foreplay. Clothing and limbs are presented and adjusted to maximize the function of such gaps as attractors which can evoke a response that is part of the reproductive ritual of the human species. The challenge for people can also be understood in terms of how they manage the divides that they encounter.

Annette Kolodny provides a feminist critique of the psycho-sexual metaphors implicit in many colonial accounts of wilderness and paradise in The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers 1630-1860 (Chapel Hill, NC and London, 1984). It is interesting to note the analysis by Ann M. Woodlief (Negotiating Nature/Wilderness: Crèvecoeur and American Identity) of such a metaphorical framework in relation to the early establishment of America as presented in J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur's Letters From An American Farmer (1782):

Nature in early America seemed an obvious wilderness for Europeans coming from a natural world that had been drastically altered by centuries of human settlement. Wild nature had to be confronted and negotiated with to some degree before its fertile chaos infected the new settlers' sense of civilized self-security. Here was a relatively unhumanized world which had long functioned without "civilized" intervention. Indians, "children of the wilderness" who rarely farmed, seemed not quite human by European definitions....

Letter I begins with the image of bountiful Mother Nature (the new, American mother) in the context of conversation between Farmer James and the Minister about the "famed mother country, of which [James] knew very little" whose people would delight in knowing "How we convert huge forests into pleasing fields." The words seem innocuous, especially coming from the more sophisticated minister, but the idea of converting (implying drastic action) the huge (and thus inhuman) wilderness into fields (free of trees) that men find pleasing is hardly as naive as it may appear. The Minister continues to set a theme upon which James will enthusiastically expound in his view of nature as Alma Mater: "Here Nature opens her broad lap to receive the perpetual access of newcomers and to supply them with food." Though bountiful and broad, this lap is to be ravished even more deeply by the men who come: at this point, "it is from the surface of the ground which we till that we have gathered the wealth we possess, the surface of that ground is therefore the only thing that has hitherto been known" but future generations of Americans will "have leisure and abilities to penetrate deep and in the bowels of this continent search for the subterranean riches it no doubt contains." He continues by comparing James' way of expressing himself to "a few American wild-cherry trees, such as Nature forms them here in all her unconfined vigour, in all the amplitude of their extended limbs and spreading ramifications -- let him see that we are possessed with strong vegetative embryos." (italics of Woodlief)

Hindu culture as a case study

India offers an extremely interesting case study, in contrast with many other cultures, for the followjng reasons:

There is a curious symmetry between:

Christian feminine icons in church tend to be clothed, whereas their Hindu analogues are unclothed. Depiction of icons of sexuality in Christian culture tend to be unclothed (movies, posters, etc), whereas their Hindu analogues tend to be clothed.

It is Hindu culture that has the longest record of exploring duality and formalizing it in various ways, notably through the dynamics between complementary deities associated with dramatically contrasting values, as exemplifications of human dynamics -- but without being able to embody such insights in useful technology. It is the Christian culture that gave a technical manifestation to duality in the binary processes of the computers fundamental to internet operation -- whilst being severely challenged by the dynamics and complementarity of contrasting values, as exemplified by the double standards associated with internet usage.

An official website for the fundamentalist Hindutva nation, devoted to "promoting the cause of the Hindu Rashtra and enabling it to survive and prosper in an increasingly hostile environment" recognizes the role of the internet in this process. It offers this insight:

In the words of Arnold Toynbee, the noted American historian, "It is already becoming clear that a chapter which had a Western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self-destruction of the human race ... At this supremely dangerous moment in human history, the only way of salvation of mankind is the Indian way."

Cultural reframing

Given the degree to which "internet penetration" is permeated by sexual connotations and is so directly associated with the high-volume dissemination of sex-related products, the question here is whether these tendencies can be oriented in new and more fruitful ways for the benefit of all concerned. As indicated above, Hindu culture will be used as a means of exploring this possibility. In each case below the device mentioned can be perceived in terms of the insight it may offer into the potentially asymmetric relationships between the penetrators and the penetrated. It should be noted that there is considerable information on the web relating to some of these possibilities, however -- consistent with the theme of this document -- the vast majority is focused on sexual titillation making itdifficult to locate material with valuable learnings.

Panchatantra: The stories of Panchatantra (already extensively reproduced on the web) were originally written in Sanskrit by Vishnusarman. Panchatantra literally means five doctrines of conduct -- the term tantra, meaning conduct. Through stories in which the main characters are animals, effort has been made to teach values such as friendship, knowledge, confidence, and hard work. The basic struggle for survival underlies the competition between animals, who are personified to portray different human traits, and these primordial instincts are often illustrated dramatically by some animals eating others. Thus the struggle for life is not only to find enough to eat but also to keep from being eaten by others. Nevertheless friendship between different creatures is a way to find peaceful co-existence and mutual benefit amidst the dangers. [more]

These tales may prove to be a rich source of insight into the way animals representing internet service providers relate to animals representing client users. Clearly the problem of the latter is to avoid being "eaten". Such tales could be individually explored to determine what insights they could offer to make both providers and users aware of some of the potential problems and possibilities in any relationship.

Kama Sutra: This is the classic Hindu treatise on love and sex by Vatsyayana, richly illustrated, and much translated into western languages because of the way in which it lends itself to erotic reflection (full text on the web). It tends to be seen only as as some sort of sex manual -- its true meaning having been exploited and eroded. A "Kama Sutra campaign" was for example rated as the top advertising campaign in India in 2002 [more] and the quote above indicates its continuing signifance for sexual relations in Hindu culture. The Kama Sutra can however be understood as about discovering anew the proper understanding of what love, sex and tenderness should truly mean. In addition to the well-known chapter on sexual positions, there are 34 other Kama Sutra chapters concerning concern social customs, mores, love, philosophy, spirituality, and the like -- looking closely at the why's and wherefore's of sexuality, rather than just the how-to's.

There is merit in exploring whether the Kama Sutra effectively provides a form of coding system for the variety of conditions that may govern any provider-client relationship. It has been alleged that every Sanskrit word means itself, its opposite, a name of God, and a position in the Kama Sutra. Such coding may therefore be useful in any "marketing" relationship but especially in relationship to internet penetration of rural areas. The chapter referring to "dimensions of desire", for example, distinguishes three classes of man (denoted metaphorically by "hare", "bull", "horse") according to the size of the lingam (penis); and three classes of woman (female "deer", "mare", female "elephant") according to the depth of the yoni (vagina). The lingam may be usefully understood as a metaphor for the size and penetrating power of the service provider, whereas the yoni may be understood in terms of the receptive capacity of potential users in the "rural area" to such marketing.

The Kama Sutra then uses these categories to distinguish three "equal unions" between persons of corresponding dimensions (denoted by metaphors) in contrast with six "unequal unions" where the dimensions do not correspond -- making nine possible unions in all. The equal unions are recognized as most mutually pleasureable. The others are distinguished as variously challenging in this respect.

As a function of dimension
Equal unions (relationships) Unequal unions (relationships)
Men (Provider)
Women (User)
Men (Provider)
Women (User)
Hare Deer Hare Mare
Bull Mare Hare Elephant
Horse Elephant Bull Deer
. . Bull Elephant
. . Horse Deer
. . Horse Mare

There are a further nine kinds of union (or relationship) based on respective degrees of passion -- that might be usefully be interpreted in terms of internet traffic and demand, or need for bandwidth.

As a function of intensity
Equal unions (relationships) Unequal unions (relationships)
Men (Provider)
Women (User)
Men (Provider)
Women (User)
Small Small Small Middling
Middling Middling Small Intense
Intense Intense Middling Small
. . Middling Intense
. . Intense Small
. . Intense Middling

It is worth exploring whether the most renowned chapter in the Kama Sutra (on the fruitful positions to accomodate these various unions) in effect points usefully to ways in which provider and user can enter into distinct contractual relationships for their mutual benefit. Contracts may indeed be understood metaphorically as defining various forms of "grasping" and "clasping" between contracting parties under different conditions. One merit of this metaphoric language is that it provides a device through which people may understand the variety of relationships open to them in relating to their providers -- a language which providers might fruitfully use in explaining the contractual relationships that they offer.

Also offered in the Kama Sutra is a checklist of the 64 "arts" that need to be learnt to ensure fruitful relationships. It is possible that these "arts" could be reframed as mnemonic devices pointing to behaviours appropriate to relationships between service providers and users. In effect they amount to a code of conduct of the kind which service providers have articulated in other countries to regulate their profession.

A framework of the kind represented by these two tables is certainly not lacking in relevance to categorize the relationships between internet users and service providers. The "equal unions" based on symmetric relationships are clearly the focus of the hype of those seeking to ensure internet penetration of rural areas. It is the asymmetric or "unequal unions" which may turn out to be the reality in many cases. They have been only partly articulated by critics of the hype.

In response to the reality of many relationships, the Kama Sutra famously offers advice on positions of sexual congress that may maximize mutual pleasure -- despite any asymmetry. This may offer insights of relevance to the variety of relationships with which service providers may find themselves obliged to deal in practice in their efforts to penetrate rural areas for the variety of users responding to the possibility of this penetration.

Erotic iconography: The broad umbrella of Hinduism is recognized as being able to accommodate diverse cultural and philosophical strands -- of renunciation, asceticism and detachment on the one hand, and of religio-cultural practices in which sex played an important part, on the other. Ancient Indian architectural treatises state that a temple lacking erotic imagery would be ineffective and maleficent. The erotic statues and representations that cover the outer and inner walls of the Hindu temple serve both a magical and an instructional purpose. Through the power of the yantras--the magical diagrams created by the placement of the erotic imagery--the architect made the temple a faithful reflection of the divine. At the same time this imagery educated the faithful about the fundamental aspects of the Hindu religion, wherein the union of opposites in the sexual act is the perfect image of the creative principle, and erotic enjoyment is a reflection of divine bliss. And it was the religious environment of the temple rather than any secular space that formed the setting for the depiction of erotic themes.

In a scholarly study of erotic sculpture in India, Devangana Desai (Erotic Sculpture of India: A Socio-Cultural Study, 1975) has traced the historical development of erotic motifs, the role of sex in a religion which sanctioned sexual depiction in temple art, and the socio-economic milieu in which sexual depiction was sustained and glorified. By the 10th century, the depiction of sex in art entered a qualitatively new phase. Erotic motifs were no longer confined to less prominent spaces in temples. All forms of sexual depiction, ranging from the sexual and auto-erotic attitudes of men and women, including gods and goddesses, members of the aristocracy, and ascetics to group sexuality and bestiality were displayed ostentatiously on the exteriors and in the interiors of the temples. Sexual depiction in religious art first served a magico-religious function. The worldly interest in sex changed the sacred nature of sexual depictions leading to its secularisation and sensualisation and to it acquiring an aesthetic of its own. [more].

It is worth exploring the extent to which websites are becoming the "temples" of the 21st century, each with their particular iconography to attract and inform visitors. It is certainly the case that advertising has transformed the role and placement of erotic imagery -- now displayed on any surface that is a focus of attention, and to create such a focus of attention, as was done in Hindu temples.

In the light of the arguments made above with respect to the Kama Sutra analysis, there is a strong case for exploring Hindu erotic sculpture as a coded representation of the variety of marketing relationships of which local cultures in India could fruitfully be aware in endeavouring to relate to purveyors of internet technology. The coding system may turn out to be more richly articulated than simplistic categorizations of western marketing strategies. As such it may highlight opportunities for unforeseen marketing relationships that may be more viable in particular local cultural contexts.

Tantric practice and philosophy: Tantra envisions the universe as an extremely complex, multi-dimensional web of invisible energies -- Indra's net, a concept shared with Buddhists. This view is highly consonant with the more insightful current conceptions of the web as various commentators have remarked [more; more]. The image of Indra's Net from The Flower Wreath Sutra provides a remarkably intricate conception of universal interpersonal mutuality. It was notably used as a metaphor by Chinese Huayan Buddhists to exemplify the interpenetration and mutual identification of underlying substance and specific form [more]. In this context, tantra is an articulation of an understanding of the divine relationship between two complementary fundamental principles, symbolized by the Hindu deities Shakti and Siva -- as feminine and masculine energies. It is this complementarity which suggests much more fruitful ways of understanding the relationship between rural areas (as a receptive feminine principle) and internet technology (as a penetrating masculine force).

In tantra, the woman is sacred -- as rural areas might also be considered, in the light of their nourishing capacity for society. This explicit recognition of the complementarity of the feminine principle may prove to be a much more fruitful way of contextualizing the challenge of internet penetration of rural areas -- and channelling the quality of the sexual preoccupations that are associated with this process. Tantric philosophy places equal emphasis on doing and understanding -- a perspective sustained by recent advances in cognitive psychology [more].

The challenge of a more fruitful relationship could be understood as one of transcending the asymmetries of duality in provision and use of internet services -- in the light of the understandings articulated in tantra. The ultimate goal of tantra -- expressed through metaphors of consummation -- could then be understood in the light of western speculations concerning the significance of the internet as a form of emergent global consciousness [more]. It is quite possible, as with the skills in programming associated with Vedic mathematics, that Indian cultures may have unforeseen advantages in enhancing the way in which the internet works to energize a society as a whole. The philosphy of tantra, and insights from its practice, may prove to be a key to this -- especially given its emphasis on shifting the controlled expansion of consciousness beyond the web of illusory appearances, thus liberating those so entrapped from ignorance.

The practice of tantra is known as the art of Sadhana. This is a graduated movement through different ascending stages of understanding and disentanglement of the subject from involvement of the object, by a rising to a condition transcending the very relation between the subject and the object. It would be valuable to distinguish the changes in understanding between new and unsophisticated users of the internet and those whose use of it has become both instinctive and intuitive.

In tantra, seven stages in this progressive evolution in understanding are recognized in three clusters[more]:

These stages of evolving relationship between subject and object, knower and known, in an internet environment would appear to have their correspondence in articulations of the stages and levels of dialogue and how they are to be understood and traversed [more] -- also a feature of the internet. Thus David Lochhead (The Dialogical Imperative; a Christian reflection on interfaith encounter, 1988), in considering the stages of inter-faith encounter, distinguishes the following progression:

He sees these levels as continued through a series of progressively more refined approaches to dialogue:

According to tantric philosophy, the greatest obstacles to spiritual perfection are wealth, power and sex, and it is these that tantra seeks to harness and overcome by the very means of which an untrained mind may head towards a fall. It is this understanding that may be the key to responding to the evident challenges of internet use. These clearly involve issues of wealth (cf the explosion), power (cf continuing efforts to control its use) and sex (cf the amount of sex-related internet traffic). For cultures for which it is meaningful, this philosophy may emerge as a carrier for higher interpretations of the internet role in a knowledge society and as a means of "containing" and redirecting tendencies towards mindsets entrapped by pornography.

"Safe sex" for rural areas?

As the experience of "AIDS highways" in Africa illustrates -- with the millions expected to die -- there is a strong case for exploring possible unforeseen consequences of internet penetration into rural areas. The problem echoes the consequence of decimation of indigenous peoples by early colonial practices -- also involving sex.

In the case of Africa, the virus undermining the immune system increases vulnerability to diseases which then prove fatal. The question is what form of memtic virus, whose transmission is catalyzed by the internet, might undermine cultural immune systems in rural areas. A sense of the nature of such a memtic virus can be gained from widespread concerns about "cargo cults", "cultural homogenization" and "cultural imperialism", and from opposition to "spiritual pollution". It is most evident in the cultural breakdown of indigenous tribal populations. Such arguments are of course ridiculed by those who are best positioned to disseminate their memes by penetration of rural areas -- whether to propagate their religion or variants of the "American Way of Life". Their arguments however echo the pattern, and the patter, of those employed by the traditional slick urban seducer of village girls.

What form might "safe sex" then take for rural areas confronted by the prospect of internet penetration? Approaches to this challenge elsewhere have been based on the development of "nanny programs" (as "condoms") to prevent downloading of pages "infected" (according to the standards of some authority) by particular words or images -- or from sites known for their infectious content. Other approaches including direct supervision of internet use. Higher degrees of censorship and constraint have been explored in some countries -- often conveniently confusing the range of materials so censored in order to protect some vested interests.

The Arrow and the Pattern -- Progeny?

Much is made of the "arrow of progress" in relation to sustainable development. And yet it is the development of the societal pattern that is the essence of sustainability. Internet penetration of rural areas is the effectively the encounter of the arrow of the pattern. As a "missile" does it bring destruction to the pattern -- as many "missions" have done? [more] Or can the encounter be better understood memetically through the transfer and recombination of knowledge? In which case what is the nature of the progeny?

Returning to the analysis of the uptake of SMS messaging in India, it is worth asking whether a local culture can collectively create new and unforeseen patterns of organization from its particular use of the internet -- reinforced, and sustained, by the kinds of cultural patterns explored here.

The enthusiastic use of SMS by Indians suggests that this may indeed be the case. The internet uptake in Finland, and its official recognition of the cultural predisposition to an information society (noted earlier), suggest that Indians may find that they have advantages in the internet environment beyond those already recognized -- provided they can successfully "mine" their "civilizational knowledge", in the words of Susantha Goonatilake (1999).

It may be the case that insights from tantra can indeed improve the "quality of knowing" as explored elsewhere (Enhancing the Quality of Knowing through Integration of East-West Metaphors, 2000) through bridging the cultural divide. Whether this can lead to a new degree of conscious and collective participation in the noosphere also remains to be seen (cf. From Information Highways to Songlines of the Noosphere: Global configuration of hypertext pathways as a prerequisite for meaningful collective transformation, 1996). A culture like that of India with its tantric interest in yantras may indeed discover unimagined ways to sacralize the internet (cf. Sacralization of Hyperlink Geometry, 1997; yantra software).

It is especially interesting in this context that tantric practice does not seek transmission of genes through sexual intercourse. The objective is to use the energy associated with that orientation to reframe the relationship between the parties and transform the practitioners attitude to the world exemplified by the partner. This points to an understanding which would not seek transmission of memes through internet usage to engender progeny (as in any form of propaganda) but rather would use involvement in the internet to transform understanding of the world and of the user's relationship to it.

Can Hindu response to the internet effectively help to transmute the sexual energy which is so perversely and uncreatively channelled throughout the internet -- whilst providing Indian rural areas with a technology that can rechannel their reproductive commitments to the benefit of society?


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Alain Danielou. The Hindu Temple: Deification of Eroticism. Inner Traditions, 2001 (translated by Ken Hurry)

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Devangana Desai. Erotic Sculpture of India: A Socio-Cultural Study. Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, New Delhi, 1975

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