Thursday, March 30, 2006

Internet Research article for Robin Hamman

Recently I was invited to post a blog entry to Robin Hamman's excellent cybersoc.com site in which I discussed Internet research - what it was, where it is going. My conclusion was:

"Perhaps it is in this direction that Internet research has the most to offer. As is clear from recent works such as Hassan’s Media, Politics and the Network Society, as well as new works by Manuel Castells (such as the edited collection The Network Society: From Knowledge to Policy), the network society is a key organising concept for contemporary research and applications of that research. Because Internet research attends so closely to the technologies of the network while not granting them deterministic privilege, and foregrounds those technologies and their most visible consequences, this research field is a point of convergence for scholars and researchers across many disciplines, with many distinct objects of inquiry. Rather like the Internet itself, Internet research is scalable and adaptable, coming into being through interconnection rather than through the establishment of boundaries and demarcatory signage."

Read more here

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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Co-Presence and Communication / Media

A fragment.

I've been puzzling recently over Niklas Luhmann's The Reality of Mass Media (published in English in 2000, Polity Press, but dating from lectures given in 1994). While not wishing to engage closely with the complex sociological theorising on which this short volume is based (theorising that to me - an true novice in sociology - seems conerned mostly with arguments between sociologists about nuances of meaning and epistemological assumptions), I was struck by how beautifully Luhmann was able to define 'mass media'.

He wrote (2000, p.2)
...the term 'mass media' includes all those institutions of society which make use of copying technologies to disseminate communication. This means principally books, magazines and newspapers manufactured by the printing press, but also all kinds of photographic or electronic copying procedures, provided that they generate large quantities of products whose target groups are as yet undertermined. Also included in the term is the dissemination of communication via broadcasting, provided that it is generally accessible and does not merely serve to maintain a telephone connection between individual participants


Going on to canvass some examples of things which might appear to be mass media but which are, for Luhmann, not, he concludes
The crucial point at any rate is that no interaction among those co-present can take place between sender and receivers. Interaction is ruled out by the interposition of technology...[This] interruption of direct, on the one hand, ensures high levels of freedom of communication...On the other hand, two selecting facotrs are at work: the extent of willingness to transmit [by senders] and the amount of interest in tuning in [by receivers]....


Most neatly, it seems to me, Luhmann sums up both our understanding of old media (ie the media prior to the Internet) and how such media operated. Critically, he points to the technological elimination of 'co-presence' as a constitutive condition for communication to occur and, with it, a loss of interaction. Luhmann notes how 'staged' it appears when interaction does occur (ie a 'live studio audience'). Furthermore, I would add, such staging actually becomes part of the mass media.

Of course, networked media technologies of the kind we are now familiar with - the Internet, mobile telephony - serve as undifferentiated media for both this kind of mass media and for the interaction between receivers and senders. Co-presence of receivers and senders is no longer a determining condition for how to differentiate one kind of media/communication complex from another. However, I would argue, that we need to attend very closely to 'presence' as a concept for thinking about the impact of the Internet on society and its meanings. This point, obvious enough, includes a slightly more subtle point: that presence itself has been redefined in ways that no longer allow us to use the dichotomy of being present / absent so as to define the qualities of media, communication and the like.

One of the problems of early Internet research and analysis was that it became enthralled with the reality of the virtual - by which I mean the reality that certain kinds of communicative endeavours could take place without presence when previously presence had been demanded. Almost all of the early work on virtual communities operated from this founding perspective. of course it was a dramatic change but one which did not speak to differences in communicative forms so much as the extension of those forms to a 'place' (termed cyberspace) in which presence could be differently experienced. In other words, physical presence was substituted with virtual presence. However, in both cases, people were still present. Early users of the Internet, and researchers of those uses, tended to understand these two different forms of co-presence more in terms of separation and difference rather than as aspects of the same general condition.

The existence of different modes of 'presence' (simplistically real and virtual, or perhaps physical and technological) and our experiences of them as different, but interlinked, and the ways in which co-presence is utilised in or represented by media forms could be critical element in defining the research agenda for Internet Studies.
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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

National domain names / transnational space

In 2000-2001, the Republic of South Africa (RSA) decided to seek control over the domain name southafrica.com that was, at that stage, owned by Virtual Countries Inc., a Seattle-based company (see South Africa gets territorial over ".com" domain, News.com, 21 Nov 2001). A somewhat similar case has now emerged in relation to Switzerland, with a recent report that:
The Federal Chancellery said it was seeking control of the Internet domain names schweiz.ch, suisse.ch and svizzera.ch -- "Switzerland" in the Alpine country's majority German, and minority French and Italian respectively.
Swiss authorities turn to UN to win rights to name in cyberspace, Yahoo News!, 23 Feb 2006.

Some of the implications of the southafrica.com case were explored by Australian net scholar Matthew Rimmer in 'Virtual Countries: Internet Domain Names and Geographical Terms' (Media International Australia, 106, 2003:124-136). Rimmer was primarily concerned with some of the more interesting legal aspects of the dispute. Firstly, he concluded, the case demonstrates the tendency of parties at odds in international legal disputes to 'forum-shop' for the most favourable jurisdiction (a practice entirely common in other, non-Internet matters). He also concluded that the case demonstrates the complexity and uncertainty (at least in the early 2000s) of the developing system of resolution through WIPO, principally becauser WIPO's authority is largely limited to those kinds of domain names that identify trading activities (ie brand names, trademarks etc). Fundamentally, Rimmer's analysis of the case shows that international legal system lacks authority to act on matters that are not clearly limited to disputes between private parties, rather than between governments and private parties. He noted, for example, that WIPO's attempts to include disputes about names associated with political entities (nations, provinces etc) within its general dispute resolution system failed from fear that trespassing into this arena sovereignty would undermine WIPO's authority to speak on other domain name matters.

The more recent case, involving Switzerland, is a little different. For one thing, the domain name in dispute is a top-level country domain (.ch) rather than a commercial domain (.com). One critical defence raised by the Virtual Countries Inc. corporation was that South Africa controlled the .za cctld and that the .com version of south africa was only one of many different ways in which the nation of South Africa could bring itself to a public online presence. For another, some of the assumptions about how the Internet would work commercially that dominated late 1990s, early 2000s thinking have also changed. Not only has the hyperbole of the dot.com revolution dissapated, but it is understood that the Internet is not going to be completely dominated by the '.com' domain as search engines and user behaviour become more sophisticated. It's also clear that the owner of the .ch domain names in question is, unlike Virtual Countries (who also owned many other 'nation.com' names), concerned primarily with Switzerland itself, rather than some business model involving the creation of online national portals for the purposes of attracting advertising revenue.

It is interesting, of course, that both cases demonstrate the stake that nations have (or believe they have) in attempting to replicate in cyberspace the authority and sovereignity they claim in the physical world. While the cases are useful examples of the problems, possibilities and solutions that will emerge from the complex interaction of global technologies and international law (and the way in which the Internet has massively increased the 'privatisation' of such legal matterss), they are also significant in terms of understanding the current disposition of the nation-state.

In this way, disputes between private citizens and national entities over domain naming have much in common with cases such as the creation, within the Republic of Eire of a cctld for East Timor (.tp) prior to its actual independence from Indonesia (see East Timor's Struggle). The control strategies adopted by RSA and Switzerland are the legal equivalents of the alleged, but in all likelihood, actual conduct of the Indonesian government in attempting to hack that 'insurgent' domain name Indonesia, Ireland in Info War?, Wired News 27 Jan 1999).

What's curious about attempts by national governments to control names in cyberspace, to assert sovereignity of an informatic space (rather than a physical space), is that it does not represent the extension of an old practice into the new (as, for example, the private protection of domain names as trademarks does) but is an entirely new phenomenon. In the case of the RSA, its efforts to limit the commercial activities of Virtual Countries Inc. find no analogy in, say, a pre-Internet situation in which a bookstore, travel business or other entity within the USA traded with a name such as 'the south africa shop'. The concern for RSA in the early 2000s and for the Swiss authorities in the current dispute is that the Internet's global reach (everywhere and anywhere) creates an imperative to control the operation of those elements of it that might be associated with nation-states in a way that was not previously necessary. While, on the physical globe and its maps, a nation-state exists only where it belongs, geographically, over the Internet a nation can be everywhere all at once and efforts by governments (whether legitimate or not) to control that 'nation-everywhere' must be entirely different to the assertion of control over a bounded geographic space.

One conclusion we might draw from this situation is that the Internet has created a new terrain in which nation-states might assert their sovereign identity through disputation. Control by RSA over southafrica.com does very little either to increase significantly the wealth or power of that nation, nor limit dramatically others' abilities to profit from the fact that there is a nation called 'south africa'. But, symbolically, arguing about the nation in cyberspace in this way serves to remind us that, whatever the Internet does to facilitate transnational flows of information, capital and the like, it also creates opportunities for greater prominence on that transnational stage for national actors to draw attention to themselves.
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The relationship of cyberspace to globalisation

The Internet is, in the main, understood as a globalising technology, whose existence and rapid development has come to pass because of certain trends in globalisation, and whose presence in contemporary social and political life further reinforces globalisation. While globalisation existed prior to the birth of the Internet, and the Internet developed without explicit reference to globalisation, the two are intertwined in a way that makes it foolish to assign to one above the other any causal priority. Obviously the forces at work within late capitalism that are the motive engine behind many globalising phenomena appropriate the Internet, amongst other technologies, to serve their profit-making goals. Yet equally our very conception of the globe which is the arena of globalisation is now served up to us through those very same technologies without necessarily being explicitly tied to globalising forces.

To understand the globalising qualities of the Internet, three trivial examples will suffice; the very normality of these examples (at least within an advanced Western society such as Australia) demonstrates the degree to which the 'possibilities' of geographically unbounded interaction, much promoted at the start of the popular Internet in the mid-1990s, have been realised.

First, we can look to the capacity of many people all around the world to initiate and complete consumer transactions for goods and services via the Internet to buy and sell outside of normal geographically bounded market spaces. Thus, I can live in Perth, Western Australia and buy books from an online store such as amazon.com, a new MP3 player from a manufacturer in Hong Kong via eBay.com, or host a website with an American company (whose servers may well be located somewhere other than the continental USA). I can either obtain something not otherwise available (unlikely in an affluent society such as Australia) or, more likely, can obtain some kind of market advantage in terms of price and availability. At the very least I can negate local sales tax.

Second, the Internet permits communications and relationship-formation, whether for pleasure or work, with people in many other places (even if, as signalled by early proponents of virtual communities such as Howard Rheingold, they are not really that different to me except in location). My sense of 'what I can do?' is not limited as much by the constraints of thinking 'who is close to me', geographically speaking. Hence, I can pursue collaborative editorial work with two colleagues, one in the USA and the other in Denmark. The similarity of our interests, backgrounds and language are not interfered with by geographic separation. Of course, what I also discover is that the similarity might be less than I had first imagined.

Third, people can act 'as if' they live in places other than where they reside, effectively being in two places at once. For example, while visiting America in 2002 for a month, I would regularly stream audio of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's NewsRadio channel - listening to exactly what I would listen to in Australia (including NewsRadio's excerpts from American National Public Radio). That visit was planned in part by visiting websites in America and accessing information 'local' to Washington DC (where I was to stay).

In reviewing each of these examples, I am struck by the degree to which they involve the interrelationship of both the unbounded space created and promoted by globalisation and the highly bounded spaces of the nation-state. It seems to me that the relationship of the nation and the transnational space of globalisation is rather like that of the province or region and the nation within a federation like Australia - one can't have a nation without also having sub-national components whose co-existence within the nation defines what that nation might or might not be. If the Internet allows, perhaps even demands, that its users 'be' somewhere else, then it also insistently reminds users that they are also 'here', where they are physically located. What the Internet does which differs from, say, the once-traditional Australian shopping-holiday in Hong Kong, or the academic's visit to an international conference for collaboration, or the chance encounter with Australian news while overseas, is to create an environment in which users are in two places at once.

This situation serves as a new kind of experience of globalisation. Initially, from a Western perspective the experience of globalisation might have been understood as exploration, conquest and colonisation; it could have been understood as mass migration. These understandings were dominant within the period in which the West became dominant in world affairs from the 16th century onwards. Globalisation was about way human identity was governed by understanding one's national location in opposition to other nations or the chance to move from one nation to another. Thus the mass migration from Ireland to the USA was not about moving from national to international existence, nor governed by international forces but rather was the product of the calculus of relative opportunities and threats from being in one nation or the other.

By the last three decades of the 20th century, globalisation was being experienced as the potential for 'all togetherness' - a lurking sense of the impending repression of the nation within an expanded and all-conquering international / global environment. In these circumstances, human identity was governed, whether for good or ill, by possibility of an allegiance to the transnational. Thus, Americans' alarm at the oil-shock of the 1970s was in part the fear of loss of national autonomy to until-then largely unseen and unknowable forces working beyond the reach of a single nation. The rise of transnational capital in the 1980s gives another example: workers in sweat-shop factories in Asia or Mexico making cheap clothes, and the affluent westerners buying them at high profits for companies like Nike were bound together not by inter-national relationships but by the workers' and consumers' common (though not equivalent) relationship as national citizens with global corporations.

Identity formation in early globalisation was a case of being somewhere and not in a known somewhere else (the convict transportee in Australia not being in England, and knowing she or he was not there). Identity formation in the latter decades of the twentieth century was about being somewhere and yet also being nowhere (ie in the space of transnationality - think of how you feel in an airport transfer lounge). While such understandings continue, the Internet now creates a third experience of globalisation that differently articulates identity and spatial location. In this situation, one is able to 'be' in two or more places at once.

The effect of this third experience is, for those who are networked, to render a single place much less meaningful as a source of and guarantee of identity. At the same, though, by reinforcing the idea that globalisation is process of interactions between defined national spaces rather than between a nation and an illdefined transnational space, the Internet is unlikely to do away with the 'nation' in quite the way that had been predicted in the 1990s.

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Monday, March 13, 2006

How to write about technology in society - thinking about the mid 1990s

I just read Bogard's The Simulation of Surveillance (Cambridge: CUP, 1996); it demonstrates some interesting qualities of social and cultural theorising from that time, especially when utilising virtual reality, informatics, and the like as the raw material from which to craft theoretical texts.

Bogard's work, drawing heavily on Baudrillard and Foucault with nods to Virilio and Deleuze, presents some useful, if complex, arguments about the way that computerisation produces surveillance that is now a 'simulation' rather than surveillance itself. An example (pp.27,52) concerns profiling - very much in the news recently in relation to the so-called War on Terror. Profiling is not surveillance but, rather, the simulation of surveillance because it creates a perfect system of knowing and controlling certain types of subjects (deviants, criminals, etc). The grubby business of actually having to watch such 'people' is set aside in favour of simply having them served up ready for interrogation, arrest and so on, by dint of the profiles. This one example does not do justice to the depth of analysis, of course.

Bogard astutely concludes that surveillance now seems to occur through 'anticipation' rather than 'watching (p55)

I am less interested in what Bogard has to say, in pretty abstract terms, about surveillance and simulation than in the fact that Bogard's text exemplifies a certain quality of writing which idealises information and communication technologies, setting them adrift experience and multiplicities of meaning through experience, and rendering them as relatively superficial, or one-dimensional, characters within a hermetically sealed postmodern theoretical text. Such 'uses' (in a textual sense) of information and communication technologies are strangely reminiscent of the idealisation of imagined possibilities and consequences of ICTS that Bogard himself comments on critically (eg p5). Bogard's text is heavy on abstractions of computer technology and fantasy-fears of what it might mean for the way in which human lives are lived but short on worked-through examples of such impacts.

In other words, I would conclude, The Simulation of Surveillance represents a certain genre of academic analysis of 'telematic' society, as Bogard terms it (we might now say 'networked society'), in which the materiality of that increasingly virtualised world is ignored in search of an equivalent hypotheticality to match the kinds of marketing claims used to establish a positive context within which meaning might be drawn from living in a virtualised world. Bogard is no simplistic reactionary, I should add. He does not slip into mirror-like resistance to the controlling, dominating logics of ICTS that he identifies. Nevertheless, there is a slipperiness to his work in this book that provides little chance for traction in reading it. As with other theorists in the 1990s, the textual analysis is not of the everyday life of new technologies of computerisation and communication but of the grand vision of possibilities. In this respect, the book does little to actually reveal the consequences for society of the actualisation of that grand vision through messy, imperfect implementations.

It's not, however, surprising that such works should appear in the early to mid-1990s (and perhaps a little later). To understand why, we should consider the persistent use by Bogard of references to 'VR' - that now almost-forgotten subject of intense fascination in socio-cultural analyses (and military-industrial investment planning) of the late 1980s. Bogard provides an excellent analysis of the problems of counterposing 'virtual' and 'real', preferring Deleuzian notions of the virtual as the 'already actual' past in the present and the real as the 'passing present' (p14), but does not perhaps apply the same rigour to thinking about what might actually happen with VR. The figure of the 'immersed' VR-suited person does tend to factor large in Bogard's thinking (pp33,36), a kind of real-world analogy to fictive representations of VR such as the Star Trek: Next Generation holo-deck (pp.59-60). The problem with VR, of course, is that while it appears to be the 'real' counterposed to the fictional, it too (a point I think Bogard would appreciate) has turned out to be equally fictional.

It is consistent and valuable to treat real-world and fictional-world representations together (and Bogard points clearly to the interweaving of science fact and science fiction in both technologised societies and analyses of them - 6ff.). However, they cannot be treated as quite as the same thing. Real fictions (like the Holodeck), as simulations of the simulations in society, are perfectable and complete - they already exist and their dimensions and qualities are completely known. Fictive realities (like the immersive VR proposed in the 1980s), are actual simulations (signs without reality) that Baudrillard challenges us to think of as unreal in their hyperreality. Bogard's work tends to efface this difference and, as a result - like the signs and portents he reads - his analysis floats free from the apparent referents it signifies.

This conclusion - reached of course with a decade's hindsight and silent about many fine qualities in Bogard's work - is a way of asserting that there was, I think, a transitional point in cultural theorising around new ICTs in the mid-1990s. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the primary reference point for any commentary on ICTs and their impact on society and culture was the representation of those technologies in films, books, television and the like; there were also equivalent, though not quite similar, representations within texts that we might describe as marketing, futurism, and the like - the 'speculative reality' genre of literature beloved by and mostly produced by promoters of a technologised future. Essentially, the analysis of technology and society was, in most cases, either an analysis of the representations of that relationship, or an analysis which depended on deploying such representations as the feedstock for the analytical manufacture of relevant conclusions. Even analyses of specific 'actual' implementations tended to treat the technology-in-society being discussed 'as if' it were really happening when, in fact, it was largely a set of potentials, almost entirely not yet happening but still to come.

Some years on, the telematic society of which Bogard writes is more obvious, more extensive and more pervasive than ever, but the way in which we might want to think and write about technology has changed. While real fictions we see on our screens or pages, and the fictional realities presented in marketing and hyperbole remain, there is now a much more important and extensive layer of reality/fiction being experienced in the uses and meanings of ICTs. In the 1990s, this networked, virtual, computerised world, despite the hints in reality and the clues in fiction, still had to imagined before someone like Bogard to write about it. Now the world is all around and experienced daily and explicitly by most people in society (at least in the advanced capitalist world). Rather than having to work hard to imagine it, we face no-less challenging problems of thinking ourselves 'outside' this world now.
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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Beginning Blogging

This blog is an attempt by me to find a mode of publication and communication somewhere between the thing I find easiest (rambling on in person to anyone who will listen) and the thing I find hardest (disciplined, coherent academic writing). So, for the most part, the blog fulfils that first requirement for successful blogging - something personal and intimately bound to the self. I am trusting that the blog-mode will permit a degree of relatively free, semi-final self-expression but which has some discipline. I think the discipline I am hoping to find emanates from the fact a blog is a preserved, public display; and from the way in which writing (especially pixellated screen writing) is editable.

The second purpose of my blog is to provide a small contribution to the expanding, increasingly sophisticated field of study which we might term 'Internet studies' (more on this later). I've been active, in one way or another, as an Internet researcher and thinker, since 1997 and would hope to bring some of that experience and expertise into view.