Enormous congratulations to Prof Mark Graham and Prof Bill Dutton on the publication of Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing Our Lives. I was honoured to have been invited to contribute a chapter to this new Internet Studies bible, in which I describe the Internet as the modern catch-all boogeyman. In fact (I argue) these accusations are unjustified.
Want to know more about the book? Here’re the details from the publisher’s website:
How is society being shaped by the diffusion and increasing centrality of the Internet in everyday life and work? By bringing together leading research that addresses some of the most significant cultural, economic, and political roles of the Internet, this volume introduces students to a core set of readings that address this question in specific social and institutional contexts.
Internet Studies is a burgeoning new field, which has been central to the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), an innovative multi-disciplinary department at the University of Oxford. Society and the Internet builds on the OII’s evolving series of lectures on society and the Internet. The series has been edited to create a reader to supplement upper-division undergraduate and graduate courses that seek to introduce students to scholarship focused on the implications of the Internet for networked societies around the world. The chapters of the reader are rooted in a variety of disciplines, but all directly tackle the powerful ways in which the Internet is linked to political, social, cultural, and economic transformations in society. This book will be a starting point for anyone with a serious interest in the factors shaping the Internet and its impact on society.
The book begins with an introduction by the editors, which provides a brief history of the Internet and Web and its study from multi-disciplinary perspectives. The chapters are grouped into six focused sections: The Internet and Everyday Life; Information and Culture on the Line; Networked Politics and Government; Networked Businesses, Industries, and Economies; and Technological and Regulatory Histories and Futures.
And here’s the start of my chapter:
Technology is often greeted with equal degrees of excitement and fear when it’s first introduced. In the web wars of the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the utopians prothelytize the digital world as a panacea, arguing the case for enthusiastic adoption as a widespread social change for good. The web dystopians, on the other hand, warn of the great upset the technology will bring, and in particular how it is expected to undermine the trust bonds that hold family, community, and society together.
The fierce debates that focus on arguments at the polar ends of the spectrum are usually divorced from historical experience, focusing only on the now and ignoring the fears and excitements that accompanied earlier innovations. The telegraph, invented in the 1830s, for example, sped up communication between people, countries, and corporations, and was expected to “[revolutionize] business practice, [give] rise to new forms of crime, and [inundate] its users with a deluge of information,” as Tom Standage wrote in 1998 in his history of the telegraph, The Victorian Internet. “Attitudes to everything from newsgathering to diplomacy had to be completely rethought” (Standage 1998: 8). And the popular press at the time of the inventions of the telephone and the electric light was similarly preoccupied with moral panics about how they would transform class, family, and gender relationships (Marvin 1988). Few public conversations consider that very little—or indeed nothing—might happen to individuals or society because of the innovation. As Marvin and Standage both argue in their treatments of new technologies, not much change is more often reality.
What these popular social historians also propounded was that the fear surrounding the technology masked the fears surrounding the changes in the interpersonal and societal structures that were already in progress. The technology became the scapegoat, a sin eater, a trickster. The same can be argued for the newest media: the Internet.
A scapegoat is a person, institution, or thing that is singled out and made to bear the blame for others. It is a symbol of the sins of the people and is usually banished. A trickster is a similar psychoanalytic construct, but it is more proactive: tricksters disrupt the status quo, usually forcing an evolution essential for progress. They are vilified but avoid punishment. This chapter argues that both of these are true in the case of the Web.
The polemic arguments at the ends of the spectrum about the absolute positive or absolute negative impact of the technology on our social and psychological selves obscure the costs and benefits that lie in between. The negotiations about the Web between consumers, developers, corporations, and governments are increasingly responsive to these extreme arguments. The result has been mobilization by special interests groups who put pressure on legislative bodies to take a stand or develop solutions to tackle hot-button issues. Three key areas stand out: debates about the effects of the availability of explicit materials online translate into calls for content regulation; debates about decline in face-to-face communication translate into questions about identity verification and credibility; and debates about radicalization and hate acts translate into negotiations about privacy and surveillance. Rarely is empirical evidence brought to bear in moral panic, despite widespread commentary and assertions about the subject in question (Altheithe 2009), and indeed, some claims fly in the face of what empirical evidence there is about the actual social implications of the Internet.
A closer look at the content of these three contentious topics of debate—the hot-button issues of explicit content, community, and radicalization—aims to explore the parameters that are particularly important to the groups and individuals who debate them. It will identify the areas of inevitable change that are encouraged by some and dismissed by others. Although on first sight appearing to be concerned with the technology itself, the arguments are ultimately about the moral and value boundaries at the edges of our social and individual understandings. They provide a lens through which those social and psychological boundaries can be seen more clearly.
The book is available from all good outlets. Buy!