New technologies associated with the Internet’s virtual museum promise both to enhance and significantly change the artistic construction of culturally democratic spaces. Internet users can not communicate across vast territories and distanced times like their predecessors, but they have the potential to instantaneously respond to, shape and modify information circulated on the Net thereby blurring the boundaries between creators and their audiences. Interactive expression associated with the decentred and ubiquitous networking capacities of the Internet favour highly mutable forms of knowledge, subjectivity and rapidly shifting affinities.
While the Internet combines the rational and visual biases of print with the multisensorial aspects of film, audio and broadcast media, the ability of new interactive technologies to digitalize information utilize modes of transmission that depend less on the human senses. Whereas other forms of media involve the extension of one or more of the senses, digital technologies transmit mathematically standardized bits of information through the electromagnetic spectrum. At the same time as information gathering capabilities are increased, interactive technologies improve methods of organizing, storing, presenting and distributing vast quantities of material. In the process, economies of knowledge associated with the Internet are potentially altered because the labour intensive processes of research and retrieval are more automated by interactive technologies. This new economy will value those who have the ability to navigate, organize and present material of relevance. Their skills will be invaluable in the negotiation of the complex, uncertain and confusing forms of communication and information emerging through the instantaneous and multiple circuits of feedback enabled by computerized networks.
Because they fail to analyze how new technologies influence and are shaped by perception and social organization, current debates surrounding interactive media are usually unhelpful in analyzing the reflexive relationship among new media, artistic practice, and social and cultural institutions. These all-too-familiar arguments embrace a deterministic rhetoric that either situates technology as a utopian cure for current social ills and ignores the political and economic contexts of emerging media, or dismisses technology altogether because it is doomed to perpetuate the exploits of big business and bureaucracy. Furthermore, even though corporations and governments entertain ideals associated with cultural democracy, they are often less concerned with the social consequences of technology, using this rhetoric to legitimate their promotion of emerging media to create new markets and secure existing spheres of influence.
These debates, as they are currenntly configured, characterize technology as a symptom or cure to be dismissed or embraced leaving much unsaid in the constitution of the virtual museum. As artists and museums put their work on-line, informed discussions must consider how new kinds of interactivity will affect the way knowledge will be organized, stored, disseminated and received. For example, will electronic and digital technologies associated with the virtual museum merely provide improved forms of expression and storage thus strengthening established socio-cultural relationships, or will fundamentally new forms of cultural practice emerge to eclipse the privileged status of visual artifacts and their related institutions? Is the global economic and political restructuring associated with interactive media proof that the information economy has arrived only to extend existing processes of industrialization and commodification to the formerly protected spheres of culture and social knowledge? Or, is this restructuring indicative of more fundamental societal change in which new technologies contribute to the overall transformation of existing forms of industry, culture, government and economy?