The Internet as Cabinet of Curiosities; 1/30 presentation follow-up post

In “Taking Stock at the End of the World” Michael Wintroub quotes Pomian about the wonders of the curiosity cabinet, stating that it “contain(s) specimens of every category of things and help(s) to render visible the totality of the universe, which otherwise would remain hidden from human eyes” (Wintroub 405-406). As a modern-day curiosity or wonder cabinet, the internet does much the same on a scale that would have been staggering to the audience of Henri II in France of the 1500s. While the curiosity cabinet showcased that the possessor was fortunate enough to have the resources to assemble its contents, access to the internet showcases a person’s ability to utilize and access the varied resources of the modern world as a whole. Unfortunately, internet access still remains a resource that is lacking for those without the means to acquire it, leaving them disenfranchised. In spite of the vast improvement in equality of information as a resource, the internet remains a cabinet of curiosities—held tantalizingly out of reach to a percentage of society’s members.

During the era of Henri II, a search for order and categorization was occurring as part of an attempt to calm and rationalize the rapidly changing world, “rules and protocols, as articulated in books of grammar, rhetoric, and courtesy, were perceived to be the means by which the increasingly turbulent social world of the sixteenth century could be successfully navigated, and by which the distinction of legitimate social status could be achieved and maintained” (Wintroub 408). The lines along which social and economic distinctions were drawn were not the only concern; scholars looked to the “strategies of social and cultural distinction based on the delimitation of order, difference and identity, and the articulation and elaboration of seemingly opposing intellectual systems based on resemblance, analogy and similitude…in the case of social identity—it was divided up, categorized and…displayed in ordered hierarchies of carefully delineated difference (Wintroub 407-408).

In the modern world, life is no less chaotic and remains susceptible to constant change. The internet allows people to navigate the world’s vast reservoir of knowledge and resources and allows them to keep up with the changes and be a part of them. In the studies cited in “The Internet, Public Libraries, and the Digital Divide” it seems likely that a lack of internet access at home ties directly to disadvantages broken down along lines of “income, race, education, and language“ (Kinney 109). It is also noted that “A wide range of studies have shown at least moderate benefits of computer access and information technology skills in several categories, including economic and educational advancement, community participation, access to government services, and access to health information (USDC 2000; 2002; Fairlie 2005)” (Kinney 112).

This relationship of access and opportunity with the internet appear to be in correlation with the statement Heilbroner makes, that “a given technology imposes certain social and political characteristics upon the society in which it is found” (Heilbroner 340). According to the studies found in Kinney’s article, “Most research is in agreement that significant divides persist along lines. There has been not one single digital divide, but rather a series of divides that attend each new technology: first computers, then dial-up internet access, then broadband access, and now mobile access. In addition, divides appear to exist in terms of quality of access, although these are less frequently measured (Kinney 111).

In terms of the internet as a cabinet of curiosities it can be enlarged and manipulated as much as education, means, and time will allow. However, for those who have not had the opportunity to learn and understand the technology, simply providing access to the internet may not be as helpful because they haven’t yet gained the skill set to utilize it in the most productive manner. This translates into a need for assistance at the point of access, which is often the public library. Per Kinney librarians often provide

“‘at-the-point-of-need’ training service” (Bertot, Jaeger,Langa,
and McClure 2006b, § 3 [“Public libraries and e-government”]). Of
Colorado library users surveyed in 2002, 19% reported that they relied on
staff assistance to learn new technology skills (Moe 2004). Likewise, PACP
research found that 17% of library patrons said a librarian showed them
how to use a computer, and 30% said they learned how to use a computer
from a librarian. 67% of computer-using patrons ask librarians for
help when they have a problem with a library computer (Heuertz, Gordon,
Moore, and Gordon 2002). (Kinney 133)

While the internet can of course be used for looking at LOLCats, it can also be utilized to take advantage of job searching, online banking, and other resources that provide economic advantages. The skills used to access these services all have to be learned at some point of access, and without an education of some kind—be it trial and error, an online tutorial, or a librarian—the information will remain inaccessible.
Heilbroner remarks that it can be difficult to determine “the degree to which the technological infrastructure is responsible for some of the sociological features of society” (341), and it seems apparent that the play between technology and society are more at the crux of the matter than the simplified idea that technology determines sociologic features of society. Technology is influenced by the society that produces it, just as society is influenced by the technologies that it chooses to both embrace and ignore. In the case of the internet, it has been largely embraced as an integral part of daily life and influences the world as such.

While the common inhabitant of Rouen under Henri II may have been keenly aware of the societal differences between himself and the better off, today’s modern inhabitants who are aware of their lack of connection to the digital world likely feel their societal difference as well. These differences occur along the same lines. In Wintroub’s viewpoint “there was a simultaneous and, indeed, parasitic relation between strategies of social and cultural distinction based on the delimitation of order, difference and identity, and the articulation and elaboration of seemingly opposing intellectual systems based on resemblance, analogy and similitude (407-408). In accordance to the studies quoted by Kinney, “the digital divide is best treated as a multifaceted concept, encompassing not just access to computers and technology but telecommunications infrastructure, economic conditions, information access, and information literacy [Berot 2003] (114). These divides are quite different, but both point out the same fact that access to the same information and opportunities would provide a different structure to society.

Even while the modern day digital divide separates society into those able to access information and those who cannot, no one is able to escape the fact that their actions are likely more highly monitored than they ever have been before. In an odd twist, humanity itself has become the cabinet of curiosities to those who monitor both openly and covertly. People choose to open themselves to the public forum of the internet through blog posts, Facebook entries, Tweets, and a myriad of other interactive sites. While many of these are conscious choices, there is also the tracking that goes on whenever a site is visited, a purchase made, or a survey completed. If enough information is gathered over a long enough period of time, patterns will emerge about an individual that they may or may not have wanted to be known to anyone outside themselves. This ability to discover the private workings of an individual make it highly questionable as to whether it is possible to truly use the internet as a tool without it also using the user.

Jason W. Patton’s article “Protecting privacy in public? Surveillance technologies and the value of public places” comments on work done by Reiman and DeCew that “In the context of surveillance, data collection is framed as an intrusion on the individual by documenting information about or providing access to actions by the individual” (182), and this accessibility to the individual is unreasonable. While their argument is not specific to the internet, it is an applicable comparison. When an individual chooses to make information public, it becomes part of the social landscape that can encourage the sharing of information, opinions, and ideas. Each individual can create their own “cabinet of curiosities” to share with the world—inviting others to see what they have created and to make their own contributions.

According to Wintroub, “The wonder cabinet was a response to the apparent disorder of the world; through it the collector sought not only to win prestige, but to piece the variegated and multifarious mosaic of existence into a coherent—microcosmic—whole” (407). In today’s world, individuals have the opportunity to create order and place it in the public eye to be shared and enjoyed, judged or derided through the forum of the internet. While access to the internet may not be universal, it does present an opportunity for a single voice to be heard and gain momentum that would either take much longer or never occur without the internet. Arab Spring, Occupy, and opposition to SOPA/PIPA are just a few examples of how people who have bridged the digital divide can effect change for the whole.

This idea of internet access being equally available across the board for everyone is addressed in Vinton G. Serf’s article of January 5, 2012 “Internet Access Is Not a Human Right” ( The storehouse of information available online is not only wide in scope, it is wide in goal as well. Entities such as Wikipedia storehouse information for public consumption, research companies storehouse information for advertising, banks storehouse information for personal and business use, businesses storehouse information to make sales, individuals storehouse information for social and political use, and those with less legitimate goals storehouse information for illegal sale and download. The technological advances that have allowed such a vast quantity of intelligence to be available in easy reach are a step along the trail that Heilbroner describes regarding technological determinism. The internet has been contributed to by amateurs and professionals alike for the reasons listed above, as well as a multitude of others. While there is no centralized directory, search engines such as Google, Yahoo, Bing and others provide navigation methods just as labeling of items in a 1500s curiosity cabinet led viewers through the myriad of items it contained.

Social and political change, due in large part to the internet, has come to the forefront during the previous year. The Arab Spring and Occupy movements are heavily dependent on technology provided via internet access, and the impact of internet access on these movements is unprecedented. Heilbroner states that “What other political, social, and existential changes the age of the computer will also bring we do not know” (345), but it is apparent that without the communication provided by the internet and mobile devices that these popular movements would have been slower to gain momentum and maintain a presence in their respective locations. In the article “Internet Access Is Not a Human Right,” Serf states that “(t)he issue is particularly acute in countries whose governments clamped down on Internet access in an attempt to quell the protesters.” Those involved in protest movements have utilized online tools and resources to make the most of information sharing on a large scale. Without the level and speed of communication that the internet and wireless communication provided, it is hard to imagine that events would have unfolded with the level and speed of organization that they did.

This access is a key to understanding the importance that the internet has come to mean in our society. Heilbroner stated that it is “less easy to decide…the degree to which the technological infrastructure is responsible for some of the sociological features of society” (341), but it does seem to be a logical assumption that the technological infrastructure had an effect on the sociological features of the protests in the Middle East and the United States over the past year. While Serf doesn’t believe that internet access is necessarily a human right, he does make a case for it as an “enabler of rights” that should be used responsibly and broadly to support the greater good of improving the human condition.

In light of technological determinism, it seems logical that the internet has a large part to play in influencing many kinds of activities and how people interact both online and face to face. Unlike the curiosity or wonder cabinet that only accepted items that the owner deemed appropriate, the freedom to add to online content and categorize without oversight from a single governing entity allows for an ever-changing and adapting environment that can allow contributors to flourish and communicate, promoting equality and freedom of expression for those with access to it. It can only be hoped that access will someday be provided equally, so that everyone who desires to be connected will have the ability to do so.

Works Cited

Cerf, Vinton G. “Internet Access Is Not a Human Right.” The New York Times. 4 January 2012. Web. 4 February 2012.
Heilbroner, Robert L. “Do Machines Make History?” Technology and Culture 1.3 (1967) 335-345.
Kinney, Bo. “The Internet, Public Libraries, and the Digital Divide.” Public Library Quarterly 29.2 (2010) 104-161.
Patton, Jason W. “Protecting privacy in public? Surveillance technologies and the value of public places.” Ethics and Information Technology 2 (2000) 181-187.
Wintroub, Michael. “Taking Stock at the End of the World: Rites of Distinction and Practices of Collecting in Early Modern Europe.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 30.3 (1999) 395-424.