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Zatruta Studnia [Poisoned Well. On Power and Freedom]

Author: Edwin Bendyk
Publisher: Warsaw, Poland: Wydawnictwo W.A.B., 2002
Review Published: April 2004

 REVIEW 1: Alek Tarkowski

Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, in a 2002 interview with the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, made the following comment:
    Having no access to the sea, we can never experience the vastness its sight imparts . . . Lacking the sea, we had to have a sea of information . . . For this reason, here in Bohemia -- and I suppose that in the whole of Central Europe as well -- novelties coming from the West, be it Gothic, or Baroque style, reached great heights. We would develop them to an almost absurd level. Here in Central Europe, things considered mundane somewhere else would turn into events of great importance (Hrabal and Szigeti 2002).
Hrabal suggests that a particular attitude toward the world of information -- new ways of thought and technological inventions, all bubbling in this informational sea -- are part of Central European culture.

Zatruta Studnia, or, in English, The Poisoned Well. On Power and Freedom is a book written by Edwin Bendyk, a Polish science and technology journalist for Polityka and commentator on social and societal effects of new technologies. The collection of essays targets a wide audience, for which Bendyk tries to draw a meaningful image of the 1990s as a turbulent decade shaped as much by technologies and other non-human actors as by humans.

While the book's 250 pages cannot provide an in-depth analysis, it obtains a satisfying thickness of description through ingenious free association of themes. Bendyk is willing to intellectually travel long distances to search for relations or explanations. He is the type of thinker who, aware of the world's complexity, is unwilling to settle upon a single explanatory trope but at the same time remains unsatisfied with merely partial descriptions. Bendyk pulls together a myriad of different issues to form a narrative that, while critics might consider it only skin-deep, provides a conceptual framework that makes the modern socio-technical world meaningful.

It is as if Bendyk has sampled reality, mixed it into a cleaner, tighter remix and released it, but under a Creative Commons license, knowing well that no remix is final.

Bendyk easily switches focus from North America and Western Europe, core locations for the socio-technical reality, to Poland, the Ukraine, and the Soviet Union. A foreign reader will find these parts most interesting, in which Bendyk rethinks the Central European condition or develops insights offered by his particular vantage point. Bendyk writes about a region in which the post-communist legacy and Central European myth of the past clashes with a future shaped in the present, as societies adopt waves of new technologies and, in turn, transform societies in compliance with the European strategy for an Information Society. In Central Europe of the 1990s, the new media revolution was accompanied by the post-communist transformation of society, the building of a free-market economy, and the shaping of a consumer culture. Bendyk sees the present as occurring, especially in Central Europe, not only in the shadow of the World Trade Center towers, but also in the longer shadows of the fallen Soviet empire.

Parts of the book might, in turn, seem like yesterday's news to a foreign reader. One must therefore take into account the shape of Polish public discourse on socio-technical issues. Polish public figures, commentators, and intellectuals often remain blind to the latest technological and media developments or limit their commentaries to black-and-white predictions of future miracles and evils. State administration and academia become limited by adhering solely to the information society paradigm. Popular coverage of media and technology is largely limited to business sections of dailies or specialized IT publications. And to the Polish public, the Internet is commonly seen as a world filled to the brim with online sex and pornography, gangsters and malicious hackers, weblog celebrities and flash mobs.

In this context, the Poisoned Well is one of few competent descriptions, published in Poland, of the manner in which media and technology leave a profound imprint on social, political, and economic life. Bendyk not only develops his own ideas, but also translates and transmits discussions taking place at the beginning of the technological diffusion curves, which he then explains to the Polish audience, which is located further along these curves.

Strongly critical of Hegelian optimistic belief in universal laws of history, Bendyk compares his work to describing the pieces of a game whose rules remain largely unclear. Bendyk criticizes Fukuyama for prematurely declaring that history has ended. Still, he agrees that politics, as they were traditionally understood, are being displaced by economic calculation, by legal regimes, and most of all by technology. Bendyk's writing follows advice given by Bruno Latour (1998) that "To the age-old passions, treacheries and stupidity of men or women, we have to add the obstinacy, the cunning, the strength of electrons, microbes, atoms, computers, missiles." The Poisoned Well is an account of a world in which an increasing role is played by either non-human actors or hybrids: technologically-empowered humans. Among the book's central characters are Tim Berners-Lee and his Web, Craig Venter and his own tissue for the Human Genome Project, Stallman and Torvalds with their open source networks of code and humans, and terrorists who prove that "After September 11, human should be added to the catalogue of weapons of mass destruction" (239).

Bendyk presents his unique perspective in the first chapter titled "Together to Mars," an account of the initial aspirations and ultimate failure of the Soviet Union's post-war technological endeavour. The chapter begins with an account of a surreal boat trip along the great Siberian river Yenisey, in which Bendyk took part with participants of an International Youth Cosmonautics Summer School conducted under the motto "Together to Mars!" It was the spring of 1991 and the empire was crumbling. Aboard, future Soviet-bloc cosmonauts without any future, KGB officers looking for joint venture opportunities, and old space engineers employed in disintegrating institutions were trying to act as if the empire had not fallen. And there was Bendyk, understanding well that he stood at "the borderline between fiction and reality, between a Soviet past and the chaos of the new" (23).

The ubiquity of wooden abacuses experienced by him during the trip symbolized the failure of the Soviet project of technological development. In the wake of World War II, the Soviet ruling elite strongly supported IT research, as computers were considered necessary for running a centrally planned economy and society. In the 1950s, the USSR was constructing, at great social costs, computers on par with Western models. It was the American landing on the Moon that marked for the Soviets symbolic beginning of the decline. Centrally planned, hierarchical institutions could not become hotbeds for technological growth; a strategy of basing production upon American designs was proof of the failure. And it took Soviet engineers ten years to make a copy of the first garage-produced Apple computer. A prediction made in 1943 by Thomas Watson Sr., founder of IBM, that five computers would be enough to saturate a market, held true for the post-war Soviet bloc: in 1986, there were just 50,000 PCs in the USSR, compared to over 30 million in the US.

Bendyk argues that the system could not attain a level of openness and reflexivity needed to take necessary risks, quickly identify errors, and absorb innovation. This meant fatal consequences for Soviet ICTs and Soviet social capital. He notes: "Information and knowledge were state property, communication was purely vertical. Horizontal aspects of communication, free interactions between people, were practically eliminated and the synergic effect of 'collective intelligence' could not be attained" (34). Summing up, Bendyk calls the Soviet sphere of communication medieval: the horizontal exchange of ideas was considered as harmful, unproductive noise. Lacking horizontal communication, Soviet society had no social ties or trust binding it together once the USSR fell.

In the balance of chapters that follow, Bendyk assembles the complex quilt of the 1990s as he sees it. "The Unbearable Ridicule of Being" deals with the perception of Central Europe as a region that was both a Soviet satellite area as well as a space in which Europe, seeing itself as the center of the world, could locate its Other. Interestingly, this has parallels in the online world, in which the dominant English-speaking culture takes little notice of "external" developments in areas seen as the periphery.

"New, Even Braver World" is a chapter on technological progress and optimism sparked by technology: the Human Genome Project, the Internet, and the then new dot.com economy. "The Virtual War" addresses transformations of the military, the non-event of the First Gulf War, the first postmodern war in Kosovo, and the growth of the military-entertainment complex. "Network, Above All" concerns network structures and processes, while "Postmodern Terrorism" deals with the democratization of destructive powers and terror's growing imagination.

In "The Spectre of Frankenstein," a chapter on the subject of modern risks and uncertainties, Bendyk most explicitly argues for the growing importance of non-human actors: "A visualized prion, appearing on every TV screen, is transformed from an impersonal protein into a public figure number one . . . The prion has moved from a space reserved for experts into public space, an abstraction out of specialized jargon became both an object, on which human fears focus, and a subject participating in a political process, which led to a cabinet change in Great Britain" (160).

"Reason, But in What Form?" draws parallels between today and the days of early modern scientists, when the Earth was toppled from its central position in the conceptualized universe. For Bendyk, the conflict between faith and science has continuously resurfaced since Galileo’s time: "On the one hand there is science that overestimates its method, on the other a secularized society which fears that scientific method . . . omits something important but inexpressible, something that will one day return as traumatic experiences that will ruin the social tissue" (122). Such emphasis on a longer historical context of most recent events is a crucial step in any in-depth analysis of new technologies.

The end of the book brings "The End of Utopia," a brilliant essay about Poland specifically, a country where the information society project clashes with the post-communist legacy. Unfortunately, parallels with other Central European states have to be drawn carefully, keeping in mind Poland's unusually large population and strong attachment to traditional and religious values.

The first case of BSE, the mad cow disease, discovered in Poland in May of 2002, indicated that Poland is in no way exempt from post-modernity’s monsters. The Ministry of Agriculture declared that a new digital register will help avert similar risks in the future. Bendyk sees here an unexpressed hope that "we will thus soar above the abyss of administrative incompetence to a place where human imperfection is replaced by a perfect System, this time an IT one" (208). In other words, the government is guilty of the same optimism as Enlightenment-era thinkers or Soviet technocrats. Bendyk believes that a political project to build a so-called information society in Poland could lead to the formation of a totalitarian information state. Instead, a natural social process is needed, through which a true society of an information age will grow as a natural result of the diffusion of information technologies. Bendyk might have too much faith in the transformative power of the Internet alone, although he does note that social trust -- largely depleted in Poland -- is also needed.

"As far as construction of an infrastructure for an information era society goes, the time since 1989 has been largely wasted . . . There are no IT systems, no governmental IT strategy [one was passed only at the beginning of 2004 -- Alek Tarkowski], and even if one is drafted, there are no funds for its realization . . . There are only ambitious plans" (220). Bendyk quotes sociological research that draws a picture of Poland as a system unable to modernize itself, because all energy is spent on catering to the needs of the elites. "An anomic society moves to the side, while a degenerating market dominated by networks of buddies begins games with incompetent, open to corruption, political actors" (69). Counterculture, which in the United States offered an impulse for the creation of a reflexive, network society, is a "bleak reflection of Western phenomena" (222). Therefore, continues Bendyk, "while in advanced societies the struggle continues . . . that of control over knowledge -- we [Poles] are solving the problem in a non-standard way. We forget about knowledge altogether" (225).

In the last chapter, Bendyk returns to the figure of the "poisoned well", symbolic of a lingering fear that the deepest roots of our existence are poisoned, endangered. The book begins with a quote in which, listening to a warning about the well's poisons, the subject shows no dread but smiles - he drank from its waters long ago. Throughout the book, Bendyk is often pessimistic about socio-technical hybrids, which poison social life -- be they haughty scientists or crumbling empires. But at the same time, he notes that the society is still alive. Freedom is for Bendyk both the only antidote and an unavoidable human condition. "For the first time in history we cannot trade freedom for security. After September 11, we are fated to freedom" (260).

Believing in the attainment of truth through critical dialogue between free and equal people, Bendyk calls for communication that builds cultural commons, empowers individuals without stealing their freedom: "Protecting knowledge with a barbed wire, in the name of economic calculations, can lead to . . . a collective lobotomy" (256).

Bendyk's perspective, choice of subjects, and protagonists are interesting and useful. Even when quoting concepts well known to a Western reader, he annotates them with insightful commentaries. To a less knowledgeable reader, the book provides a good and balanced treatment of issues, and an advanced reader will find ample thoughts for musing.

It is refreshing to come upon a text critical of the naive optimism and excessive hype often present in academic research. As Bendyk notes: "Reality turned out to be much different from representations in reports of IT companies and in applications for scientific research grants" (62). The Internet and the surrounding media sphere often seem complex enough as research subjects. Bendyk reminds us that technologies are tied in manifold ways, anchored in manifold places with the rest of the world, offering us a smart map of this complex weave.

Hrabal, Bohumil and Szigeti, Laszlo. 2002, February 1. "Nieznana rozmowa z Hrabalem" [English translation: "Unknown Interview with Hrabal"]. Gazeta Wyborcza.

Latour, Bruno. 1988. How to Write "The Prince" for Machines as Well as for Machination.


Alek Tarkowski:
Alek Tarkowski is a doctoral student in sociology at the Central European University and Center for Social Studies in Warsaw, Poland. He is currently working on his doctoral dissertation, in which he looks at everyday usage and perceptions of the Internet and traces the divide between end users and creators of Internet technologies.  <alek@n17.waw.pl>

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