A year ago, Alaska Senator Tad Stevens became the dunce of the day when he referred to the Internet as a "series of tubes" on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Stevens's wording might have been crude, but it raised an honest question. What, exactly, is the Internet?
In its physical form, it's computer servers, wireless signals, and, yes, fiber optic cables snaking through oceans and dirt.
But we've also come to conceive of the Internet as a revolutionary kind of space, a new platform of communication that is fundamentally changing human life for the better.
Gil Rodman, a communications studies scholar, smiles when he hears this kind of talk. It's a new variation on an old theme, he says. In earlier eras, innovations like the printing press or the television also stoked utopian fantasies.
"We've long had this utopian notion that the problems of the world are all caused by the difficulty of communication," Rodman says. "And we feel that the Internet is finally going to bring us together in a way that will solve all of those problems."
But that seemingly self-evident truth isn't so self evident. "There's nothing about the circulation of information that guarantees that it's a good thing," Rodman observes.
Race in Cyberspace
"We have this idea that by going online you lose the physical markers of racial identity, that they go away. You're entering a realm of pure ideas," says Rodman. But that kind of thinking is often more fantasy than reality. In many online contexts, Rodman notes, "there's a default assumption that cyberspace is white space." He cites numerous postings on listservs and mainstream Websites in the United States where the term "we" is used in ways that assume those accessing the site are white.
What Rodman has found, in short, is that those categories of difference that inform our offline lives will bleed into our online discourse no matter how we much we manipulate them--or try to forget them.
The notion that cyberspace is ultimately a reflection of the human dynamics of three-dimensional space is also endorsed by psychologist Eugene Borgida and political scientist John Sullivan. Ten years ago, they set out to study how the citizens of two rural Minnesota communities, Detroit Lakes and Grand Rapids, were responding to the rise of the Internet.
They wondered, Borgida says, about whether the Internet could work to counter two of the trends that other academics had been studying: increased detachment and disengagement with civic life, and a lost sense of community. And they were particularly interested in how people's socioeconomic status factored into their ability to use the Internet to increase their involvement in public life.
What they found is that context matters; the Internet exists in economic and political landscapes that shape who gets access to it and how it's used by communities to enhance collective well being.
Take Grand Rapids, for example. "Grand Rapids people tend to be very civic oriented," says Borgida. So it was no surprise that when the local community unveiled Grand Net, a community electronic network that allowed citizens access to the Internet, they ensured that their least well off would have access to it. "They had computers in the chamber of commerce. They had them in the county health center. The public library was a big spot," Borgida says.
Detroit Lakes, on the other hand, is more individualistic and entrepreneurial in its approach to public services. "It's a different sensibility," Borgida explains. "Their civic spirit has been much more oriented around tourism and entrepreneurism and market dynamics." That made it all the more tempting to leave Internet access to private, for-profit Internet service providers. As a result, access to Lakes Net, the electronic community network that Detroit Lakes founded, was limited to those with financial means.
Borgida is quick to emphasize that leaders in both communities were equally committed to increasing civic engagement. "These leaders all have a vested interest in making things happen," he explains. "But they inherit a certain way of being from their predecessors. And in Grand Rapids you find that people are on average more collaborative. That made them much more able to pull together to try to figure out how to use technology to increase their collective well being."
From the Real to the Ideal
The persistence in our online worlds of our disparate offline cultures and values may seem to put the brakes on the revolutionary aspirations some have for the Internet. But the goal of research isn't to dash aspirations. Indeed, Rodman is excited about the potential the Internet has for publishing voices that wouldn't otherwise be heard.
But he knows that the Internet will always be only as utopian or dystopian as those who use it. "The same technology that enables the free-flowing global community also enables a whole range of surveillance and privacy intrusions that wouldn't otherwise exist," he notes.
By getting us to think about the Internet as a tool used by humans embedded in cultural, political, and social worlds, these CLA researchers aren't letting us rest easily on our platitudes about the global village. They're pushing us to think about just what it will take in our offline lives for our online ideals to become reality.
By Danny LaChance