Living with Cyberspace: Technology and Society in the 21st Century, ed. John Armitage and Joanne Roberts. NY; London: Continuum, 2002. ISBN: 0-8264-6036-4. 203 pp.
Leslie Regan Shade
How do we theorize the impact the Internet has had on everyday practices, such as culture and the media, education, the economy, governance? How has cyber theory infiltrated itself into academic disciplines, such as sociology, political science, cultural studies, science and technology studies, and communication studies? What new threats and opportunities does cyberspace offer us, in our multiply situated lives: as consumers, as citizens, as workers, as caregivers? How are the borders between everyday life and cyberspace constituted -are they porous or impermeable, impervious or prone to regulation and control? These are just a few of the issues John Armitage and Joanne Roberts investigate in their edited collection, Living with Cyberspace. Organized into four sections with chapters by notable and emerging scholars, the book explores societal, cultural, political, and the economic aspects of cyber-society.
In their introductory remarks, Armitage and Roberts set the theoretical stage for the chapters, which should be of particular interest for readers unfamiliar with this literature. Especially valuable here are their descriptions of information society debates, from the post-industrial preoccupations of Daniel Bell to hyper-modern social theorists like Paul Virilio and Zygmunt Bauman; poststructuralist cyber cultural theory and cyberfeminism, and new media political economy.
Part I, Cyber Society, interrogates the transformation of debates and ideologies of the information society, from the liberal postindustrial views of Daniel Bell in the 1970s to the neoliberal concepts of friction free capitalism as espoused by Bill Gates and Al Gores proclamations of the Global Information Infrastructure in the 1990s.
David Lyon argues that concrete sociological understanding is needed to grasp both the promotional discourse of cyberspace and its social consequences, which raise complex moral, political, and cultural questions. He contends that our information society has materialized into a surveillance society, wherein citizens are monitored and controlled both by governments and commercial interests. Cybersociality is thus mediated by both technological constraints and new social norms, which "demand the utilization of classical sociological concerns to dig below the surface to find out what really nourishes and retards the growth of certain kinds of relationship, and to show how private troubles should be translated into public issues" (p. 33). Exemplary case studies Lyon cites include those of Nina Wakeford in her exploration of gender relations in an Internet café, and Daniel Miller and Don Slaters study on the everyday experiences of the Internet in Trinidad.
Frank Webster, well known for his Theories of the Information Society, challenges us to go beyond celebrating cyberculture and instead to look more concretely at the digital economy and its salient qualities of capitalism, wherein many reap riches but others are excluded. He contrasts the talk of choice in contemporary cybernetic discourses (think of gushing business-page bios of high-tech millionaires and success stories of teen entrepreneurs launching IPOs) to the Fourth World reality of countries who lack basic infrastructure to essential services: water, healthcare, education, housing.
Chronotopianism (melding the concepts of speed and utopia) and its infiltration into contemporary business literature is the topic of John Armitage and Joanne Roberts chapter. These authors (the global kinetic elite) include Bill Gates and his book The Road Ahead (written in the heady days of the mid-1990s before he actually discovered the Internet) and Stan Davis and Christopher Mayers Blur, and social imagineers within academia, such as Manuel Castells and Anthony Giddens. Armitage and Roberts argue that, while many of these authors ostensibly crusade to ameliorate the digital divide, and bring the Internet to the masses, the technological bar keeps getting higher: now we need access, not just to email and the World Wide Web, but to broadband. This leads to a hypermodern or "excessive individually experienced chronodystopia that has its roots in the individualized society "(p.43).
Part II looks at new formations in cybernetic culture created by industry, Hollywood, and biosciences. We have moved, according to James Der Derian, from a mere military-industrial complex (the Cold War ideology of beating- Sputnik and command-control-communication systems) to the current military-industrial-media-entertainment complex (MIME-NET), characterized by virtuous war: "where killing-if we are to believe the trailers for wars in the Gulf, Bosnia, and Kosovo-is distant and discriminate, efficient and ethical" (p. 61). So we have War as a Spectator Sport, brought to us by mega media conglomerates, orchestrated by the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, whose goals are to create state-of-the-art military simulations. Very real and scary manifestations of virtuous war include current media trailers for "Operating Enduring Freedom", speculations on which journalist will emerge as the next Scud Stud, and the marketing (read: propaganda) campaign of the U.S. government, led by advertising guru Charlotte Beers, best known for flogging Uncle Bens rice. And consider a hot entrant: Americas Army, (http://www.americasarmy.com/, a downloadable computer game used as a recruitment tool by the U.S. Army ("Empower Yourself. Defend Freedom").
Cybernetics is also an integral aspect of the creation of new life forms and genetic modifications. McKenzie Wark analyzes the film GATTACA (written and directed by Andrew Nichol), a dystopian sci-fi thriller where genetic engineering is employed to create more beautiful and intelligent people. Is such a future far-fetched? Wark thinks not, given advances in code manipulation and cloning, although sustainability is an issue (Dolly the Sheep, RIP, 1996-2003). Cathyrn Vasseleu proposes an inquiry into animatics the machinery of animation, and its early creations of automata, and its contemporary incorporation into bots, robots, digital avatars, and artificial life forays.
Political economic characteristics of cyberspace are the focus of Sections III and IV. Case studies about how the Internet is utilized to influence politics and policy, and how citizens are using the Net for advocacy and activism are considered here. Salient features of digital capitalism new commercial players and the extension of existing media into cyberspace, and entrance restrictions based on controlling code, which create power differentials are examined. Bill Dutton (now director of the Oxford Internet Institute) and Wan-Ying Lin provide a case study on how the Internet contributed to mobilize citizens in Los Angeles against a move by the Public Utility Commission to overlay a new telephone area code onto an existing area code. Dutton and Lin show how the effectiveness of the Web activism was contingent on use of other media, such as faxes, newspaper articles, phone calls, and physical meetings with politicians; while also reconfiguring access through extending the network of concerned stakeholders. Its particularly interesting to reflect on this study with respect to the current peace campaign, wherein many groups are using the Net to mobilize on-the-ground demonstrations (local, national, and international).
The gendering of cyberspace, and women and womens groups use of the Internet for activism has been widely studied. Two contributions here provide useful analyses of how women are positioned as citizens within everyday practices and policies of the Internet. Saskia Sassen maps the global embeddedness of cyberspace and in particular how women are participating online, via entrepreneurial activities (e-commerce start-ups and portals), and through the creation of listserves with content designed for women interested in technological issues (e.g, open source software, use of ICTs for women in developing countries). Local initiatives are pursued via a myriad of civil society groups, which in turn expand across borders to create global activist campaigns. Verena Andermatt Conley reassesses Donna Haraways famous cyborg manifesto through her critiques of simulation, cyborg citizenship, neo-imperialism, and the informatics of domination, and concludes, "neither goddesses nor machines, women-cybercitizens will hopefully link henceforth with machines to help create and re-create the world" (p. 155).
A focus on power, as exercised through architectural constraints, legislation, and commercial interests is delved into by Phil Graham, Tim Jordan, and Ian Miles. Miles looks at the creation of the cyber-economy through both the creation of web utilities for business-2-business communication and consumer e-commerce startups, and the gift economy. A commerce versus commons model has created tensions for cyberculture, with commercial interests attempting to reign in non-commercial entities through a variety of mechanisms what Miles calls freed markets versus fenced frontiers. These include technological and social constraints; such as collusion by portals and search engines and users who subvert such controls, through illegal downloading and bypassing of regulatory mechanisms.
Jordan differentiates between cyberpower ("the forces that pattern the politics, technology and culture of virtual societies", p. 120) of the individual and of the social. Individual power can be assumed through identity markers on the net technological identifiers such as an e-mail address or a user handle, or computer-mediated discourse. Social power is aided by technological affordances and constraints, designed by the tech cognoscenti, which inhibit or expand notions of individual privacy, autonomy, and freedom of speech. The hacking of Real Networks RealJukebox is considered by Jordan as an example of the tension between individual and social forms of cyberpower, wherein the technology allowed for the monitoring and profiling of users, against their privacy rights. And finally, Graham describes how cyberspace is becoming colonized by corporate interests, new economy forms of flexible and outsourced labor, and intellectual property rights that favour private ownership over the public interest.
Recurrent themes and tensions that link all the chapters include access (who controls, who creates, who consumes); design (how code can increase or inhibit social interaction); commerce versus commons visions (control and use by corporate entities contrasted to use by activists, women, and citizens); and power (who has it? who doesnt?).
There are numerous edited collections that deal with the social, policy, and ethical aspects of the Internet. Some of them will have a short shelf-life, as their theoretical perspective is thin and their overall sentiment too deterministic and utopian. Living with Cyberspace, however, offers a challenging and critical perspective on important facets of cyberspace lays a good foundation for future work.
Leslie Regan Shade
University of Ottawa, Department of Communication
Leslie Regan Shade is an Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Communication, University of Ottawa, where her research and teaching focuses on the social, ethical, and policy aspects of information and communication technologies. She is the author of Gender, Community, and the Social Construction of the Internet (Peter Lang 2002) and is working on a book about Internet policy and the public interest.