Introduction: The Reality of Virtuality
BETH E. KOLKO
This book grew out of a panel originally presented at the American Studies Association conference in 1997. The goal of that panel was the same as the goal of this volume—namely, to argue that the Internet is a complex and often incompletely understood influence on public discourse and public life, that while offline interaction affects online activity, what happens online also shapes what happens in face-to-face environments. The distinction of this volume, however, rests not only in the recursiveness of the overall argument in examining how the virtual feeds back into offline environments, but also in the interdisciplinary nature of the contributions.
Whether it is called cyberculture or the more broadly defined technology and culture, research on how technology intersects with lived experience is an interdisciplinary endeavor. This book is designed to be an inquiry into how technology affects culture, but it refuses to subscribe to one disciplinary or methodological approach. Having researched technology and its effects on interaction and communication from the perspective of rhetoric, I have found that while most fields share a general research concern regarding technology and culture, the debate over disciplinary approaches tends to occlude useful conversation. This volume, then, attempts to bring together a range of scholars who are looking at the same overall question, but from varying perspectives. It is my hope that no one discipline represented in this collection becomes prioritized over the others. Indeed, I would argue that useful analyses are most likely to emerge when various approaches are simultaneously applied to the same question. The essays are presented in order to introduce researchers to the range of possible analyses necessary for developing a comprehensive understanding of how technology affects community and how culture affects the way technology is implemented and used.
One of the debates raging most intensely across disciplines that consider the Internet is how technology affects patterns of interaction. Technology is not value-neutral; it is embedded in the social contexts in which it is created, and such connections necessarily affect how technology is used. What is less clear is the extent of such effects. This book does not seek to provide an answer to that particular question. Rather, it proposes an alternate series of questions. The thirteen essays here come from a range of disciplines: law, philosophy, architecture, media studies, communication, theater, American studies, rhetoric, art. Each individual essay demonstrates how the use of technology raises a series of questions about the effect it has on our lives. The essays in the first part of the book approach these questions in more general terms, theoretically situating their queries and turning to technology studies in general. The essays in the second part of the volume approach the topic with specific instances of technology use in mind, examining community network initiatives, specific software programs and Web sites, and educational technology initiatives. As a whole, though, both approaches demonstrate that technology affects patterns of interaction, community formation, and self-definition in more ways than are commonly addressed. Each of these essays provides a set of questions that overlaps with some of the issues raised in the other essays but also presents a new perspective on how in fact networked technologies challenge traditional conceptions of social interaction.
The breadth of the material included here allows a provocative glimpse into the possibilities of interdisciplinary inquiry. This volume provides a new vocabulary for researching the Internet, as well as a survey of useful methodologies. For example, the theater critic argues that performance and narrative provide key heuristics for understanding the Internet, the legal scholar asserts the importance of jurisdiction, the philosopher urges us to consider the notion of trust, and the television critic points us to the history of broadcast media to help us understand the patterns of development of the Internet. They all provide a model for conversation in this emerging field of research.
Perhaps one of the strongest elements binding together these scholars from such disparate disciplines is their collective history with the Internet. Nearly all of the contributors have been online for several years, and nearly all have extensive histories of online media from the days before Netscape and a graphical World Wide Web. This continuity is key, because it means that their analyses are grounded in a thorough understanding of the cultural shifts that the Internet has produced—and has been affected by. Because these authors were online before CNN was, they have an appreciation for the potential of the medium as well as for its current manifestations.
The first section, `Users and the Structure of Technology,` presents five essays that interrogate broad questions raised in the wake of significant technological change, carefully differentiating faddish cyber-hype from substantive cultural shifts. Taken together, these pieces provide an insightful overview of the varied ways in which the shift to virtual technologies demands a concurrent reconfiguration of how we conceptualize social structures and policies.
The second part, `Technology and the Structure of Communities,` includes eight interdisciplinary essays that present detailed studies of particular applications of technology being used in communities. The authors present wide-ranging analyses of how users push the boundaries of the configurations imposed by technology. The essays in this section, reporting on topics from 3-D learning environments to an electronic neighborhood, focus on lived experience, presenting a series of what can be called virtual publics that negotiate the demands of electronic interactions in a changing technological landscape.
In the first essay in part 1, `The Net Effect: The Public's Fear and the Public Sphere,` Gilbert B. Rodman complicates the general understanding of the Internet and its effects on society. Looking at both assumptions and generalizations, he dissects public discourse about the Internet, from simplistic hysteria to uncritical utopianism. His essay is a key opening salvo, and he lays bare many claims that have been gone unchallenged for far too long. In part, his goal foreshadows the aim of the entire volume—to complicate our understanding of how technology affects lived experience.
Chapter 2, `The Internet, Community Definition, and the Social Meaning of Legal Jurisdiction,` by Paul Schiff Berman, is a compelling and well-crafted exploration of the historical roots of jurisdiction.
Demonstrating how bodies are implicated in the legal concept, Berman takes a longitudinal view of jurisdiction as an issue of both social and geographical space, and as a sidebar to commercial concerns. He provides an essential intervention into the conversation regarding legislating interaction that occurs via the Internet.
Chapter 3, `Architectural Design for Online Environments,` by Anna Cicognani, considers the correlation between space and experience. Cicognani, an architect, asks how we can better develop organizational schemas for online spaces—from virtual worlds to information sites—in order to facilitate interaction. Looking at cyberspace as an environment for community building, Cicognani emphasizes the need to view the Internet as, ultimately, a space within which people (rather than just data) interact.
In chapter 4, `Community, Affect, and the Virtual: The Politics of Cyberspace,` J. Macgregor Wise tackles the thorny issue of community and politics as theoretical constructs. He examines a variety of definitions for community, including moral, normative, proximate, and foraging-society communities, in part to provide an in-depth exploration of how online organizations come to affect participants. His argument strives to map out the varying ideological stances that inform our constructions of cyberspace, addressing our difficulties in responding to the social changes wrought by technological developments.
Chapter 5, `Securing Trust Online: Wisdom or Oxymoron?` by Helen Nissenbaum, is an investigation of privacy and security issues from a philosophical perspective. Nissenbaum discusses the limitations of current debates regarding trust and security online, and she approaches e-commerce from a unique standpoint, arguing for a new set of practices that might more ably help users negotiate the online world. Her argument is informative for both users and system designers; with the provocative assertion that increased security and increased trust do not necessarily go hand in hand, she seeks to change the direction of current policies about online security.
Part 2 opens with chapter 6, Тага McPherson's `TV Predicts Its Future: On Convergence and Cybertelevision,` a consideration of media transformation, the lack thereof, and how changes in media outlets affect the information-gathering habits of viewers. Examining the early hybrid of NBC and Microsoft—MSNBC—McPherson argues that current patterns of media evolution threaten to circumscribe the possibilities of new media, reinscribing linearity and models of passive consumption.
In chapter 7, `Women Making Multimedia: Possibilities for Feminist Activism,` Mary E. Hocks and Anne Balsamo discuss the results of a CD-ROM that they authored during the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women; they attended the Non-Governmental Organization forum as multimedia producers with their in-progress project Women of the World Talk Back. Their argument centers on the need for women to make use of new media technologies in order to accomplish significant political work—and on their ability to do so. Hocks and Balsamo discuss processes of both production and consumption in the context of an international feminist community.
Chapter 8, `Is It Art, in Fact?` is by Mitch Geller, a video and new media artist whose work explores the intersection of technology and manufactured truth. Geller has worked in video and multimedia for more than a decade, and here he explores the background of his interest in how technology can be used to blur the lines of documentary and fiction, discussing film, television, video, and, finally, 3-D new media experiments with truth-blurring. He discusses his project R.U.OUT.THERE, an interactive CD-ROM that incorporates 3-D, Web-based, and video technology in a true and fictional exploration of UFO phenomena. His essay behaves much like an installation, wending its way through the larger questions of representation and truth while providing excerpts of his manufactured artifacts. He challenges us as a community of media users and as viewers, throwing into question the newness of what we call the virtual.
In chapter 9, `Making the Virtual Real: University-Community Partnerships,` Alison Regan and John Zuern explore service learning in the context of wired communities, discussing an initiative at the University of Hawaii that brings students into the local community for technology-based work. They explore the wiring of local public housing projects and student involvement in teaching residents about the Internet, arguing that such work involves a complex intersection of the real and the virtual, challenging notions of community and demanding a sophisticated understanding of policy and of political and cultural issues.
Chapter 10, `Where Do You Want to Learn Tomorrow? The Paradox of the Virtual University,` by Collin Gifford Brooke, continues the educational theme by exploring the implications of distance education on communities of learners. Brooke argues that contemporary understandings of what constitutes a university education are often oversimplified, and he presents a timely critique of both the function of the university and the role of distance education on a changing cultural and educational landscape.
Chapter 11, `Community-Based Software, Participatory Theater: Models for Inviting Participation in Learning and Artistic Production,` by Susan Claire Warshauer, adds a drama perspective to the educational conversation. Writing with a background in theater as well as interactive technologies, Warshauer analyzes the links between community-based software developers and theater artists. She traces the roots of political theater, including Happenings and Theater of the Oppressed, and shows how interactive multiuser educational worlds can more effectively provide possibilities for transformative user participation. She investigates the worlds of ExploreNet, tracing use patterns and speculating on the boundaries of the technology, demonstrating that just as interactive political theater sought to create a virtual world that could change the real world, online virtual worlds share a similar potential.
In chapter 12, `Communication, Community, Consumption: An Ethnographic Exploration of an Online City,` David Silver looks at the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV), arguing, like Warshauer, that interactive networks have potential that remains unexploited. Silver's critique demonstrates that the emphasis on consumption has destroyed much of the political potential of the BEV, and his essay resonates with that of McPherson in its exploration of public discourse about new media.
Chapter 13, `Can Technology Transform? Experimenting with Wired Communities,` by Mark A. Jones, is both a rejoinder to Silver and an optimistic note on which the volume ends. Jones spent a year doing ethnographic work with online communities in various locations, including Blacksburg, Helsinki, and Barcelona. Here he lays out some guidelines for successful and diverse community networks, extracting from his research models for building such electronic neighborhoods. Jones's essay focuses on the link between the virtual and the real, highlighting the need for offline policy development that understands the complexity of online communities.
Distilled down, each essay in the book asserts that the Internet is complicated, at times contradictory in its potential and implementation, but still replete with possibility. Each essay demonstrates a commitment to thinking critically about the role that technology plays in our lives and, concurrently, the role that each of us can play in affecting the shape of technology as it continues to evolve.
Ultimately, the virtual publics of this volume are very real. In the years since the now infamous MCI commercial that asserted `there are no bodies` online (nor genders, nor ages), scholarship on cyberculture has repeatedly emphasized that our offline selves determine how we are able to use technology, that real life affects what we do online. This volume is an attempt to demonstrate that the way we live online—work, shop, socialize, teach, and learn—affects our lives offline as well. A virtual public is not an unreal one; it requires the same acuity of vision and astuteness of analysis that we apply to traditional communities. As we broaden our activities online in an electronic age, it will become increasingly important that we bring with us a recognition that technology structures social experience in powerful ways. Consequently, it is imperative that we continually strive to assess the complex ways that virtuality and reality recursively shape each other.