Perception Is Reality

Information Society:Cyberlibertarianism, Politics, and Research

Posted on: March 19, 2008

We live in an age dominated by computers and the internet. Words such as cyberspace, information highway and technology are ingrained in our minds. However, we need to understand how these advancements in human civilization work, and embark on a discourse as to whether these technologies really do dominate our lives and what other factors come into play. This paper discusses three authors and how they address these questions. I will discuss their key points individually, find common ground between them followed by the argument I find most convincing.

In the article “Cyberlibertarian Myths and the Prospects for Community,” (Winner 1997), the author discusses cyberlibertarianism and the problems associated with it. Cyberlibertarianism is fundamentally the libertarian ideology of complete civil liberty, applied to the internet. A key element of cyberlibertarianism is of technological determinism. According to the theory, “we are driven by necessities that emerge from the development of the new technology and from nowhere else.” Winner opposes the idea that as individuals, we have no influence or social choice about the adaptation of technologies. According to Winner, cyberlibertarianism does not take into account key social and political concerns such as who will gain or lose from the transformations of society due to networked computing and what will eventuate when power is concentrated amongst a few large firms (oligopoly).  Cyberlibertarianism is also notorious in its blatant rejection of “attempts to guide technological development in ways shaped by publically debated, democratically determined social choice” (Winner 1997).

Professor Winner goes on to outline a few dilemmas of cyberlibertarianism, one of them being related to online communities. In cyberlibertarian philosophy, one’s goal online is to be connected to other people by virtue of shared interests. Yet, in actual communities this is very difficult. The philosophy ignores completely the problems underlying society, obligation to the community, diversity and what to do about the underclass (Winner 1997).

Winner asserts that we need to take into account complex communitarian concerns “when faced with personal choices and social policies about technological innovation.” We ought to elucidate important moral and political consequences of technology rather than to overlook them and study the problem domains surrounding ideas such as community and democracy and the effects on communities of networked computing (Winner 1997).

The second article, “Cyberspace and the End of Politics” (Mosco & Foster, 2001) talks about two organizations namely the Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF) and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and how these institutions have promoted certain myths about cyberspace, one of them being the end of politics. As the authors put it, “Myths are stories that help people deal with contradictions in social life that can never be fully resolved…and provide ’euphoric clarity’ by eliminating complexities and contradictions (Mosco, Foster p.219).” Myths about cyberspace, then, are independent of social relations because they remove the problems associated with communities, helping people deal with contradictions in such a sphere. The authors criticize the idea that myths particularly with regards to cyberspace disregard the social and political institutions (Mosco & Foster, 2001).

Mosco and Foster assert that according to the myth, the end of politics in cyberspace comes from the end of vertical relationships (hierarchy) to a move to horizontal society. Everyone is on the same level of power as opposed to having some who are higher up in the hierarchy than others (Mosco & Foster, 2001).

The authors go on to talk about information technology and capitalism. The idea according to the myth is that these two can “end all injustice and create a world where all are equally free to pursue life as entrepreneurs.”  We get this idea in the Winner article with drawbacks such as cut throat competition which is completely overlooked in these myths (Mosco & Foster, 2001).
Another aspect Mosco and Foster discuss is myths of origin. They explain this by talking about how the event at Cheyenne Mountain led to a myth being born. The key concerns, as the authors put it are not about the SDI and its feasibility, but rather that a myth was created, carrying in itself the notion of end of politics (Mosco & Foster, 2001).

In “Internet Research: For and Against” (Agre, 2004) the author looks at the internet and its place in institutions from a technical standpoint. The author’s argument surrounds the topic of distinguishing internet research from other studies of technology and why this distinction is made (Agre, 2004).

Agre asserts that computers are distinctive in their relation to discourse about the world. He talks about the social shaping of technology and the “presuppositions that a technology can make about people who use it” He gives examples of the solar-powered lamp and the VCR and how the designer “tried to enlist the user into a certain social role.” Agre states that computer science needs to operate on discourses in order to see and understand the social controversies surrounding them. What the author is then trying to convey, is that technology does not exist independently, or disembedded of social and political institutions, rather he states that “social forces shape technology all the time.” Discontinuity or a sudden change in history is a false notion as it “trivializes a complex reality.” To this effect, the doctrine of technological determinism is flawed (Agre, 2004).

The author claims that an innovation will only be grounds for change when it is aligned to certain values or principles of institutions. This shows that social and political factors cannot be discarded as they are integral to the process. Agre says, “An application may fit better into an organization if it is aligned with the existing ecology of practices (Agre, 2004).”
Agre concludes that “the internet has disserved us, teaching us a false model of institutional change.” Essentially, he claims that the internet is not as much a revolution as it is an evolution in how institutions function and the concept of democracy (politics) still persists (Agre, 2004).

If we look at the above discussed authors, we see that they indeed share common ground. Their basic argument is this: technology and the internet in particular, are not divorced of society and politics and to assert so is to be naive. Technological determinism and the idea that life on the internet is disassociated with real life are incorrect affirmations. These authors, then, are opposed to the utopian ideas of the internet, insofar as they create and sustain myths related to it and discount the reality that there are problems associated with such that are completely neglected. There are however, differences in their analyses, in that, they look at the problem from different perspectives. Agre approaches the topic from a technical point of view whereas Winner’s approach, although somewhat sarcastic, is socio-political. He talks directly about the internet and cyberspace. Mosco and Foster approach the discussion from a political and cultural perspective, discoursing about the internet through the concept of myths. Although they do not seem to provide solutions to the problems, or ways of thinking, they do a good job at demonstrating the problem of myths through examples of the PFF and the SDI.

The argument I find most convincing is that of Winner. The argument is straight forward with sufficient background on the topic with several examples. The concepts were fairly easy to relate to. The most important thing however, is that the author provides solutions, or at least encourages one to think differently about the accepted views of the internet. He asks questions then leaves us to answer them in light of his argument about the cyberlibertarian theory. This makes Winner’s reading and argument very effective, not only for the social science community, but also for the general public.

The internet is an integral part of our lives whether it comes to the individual user, to an institution, or to society as a whole. However, it does not exist on a separate plane, and it is erroneous to say that it operates independently of society and politics. Myths have been created which disregard the complex reality, trying to propose a simple solution. We have to understand that these myths are fallacious and that society is not technologically deterministic.


2 Responses to "Information Society:Cyberlibertarianism, Politics, and Research"

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About the Author…

Born in Karachi, Pakistan in an Adventist hospital, I grew up in a city where on one side I experienced poverty and oppression, while on the other I had the good fortune of Tabish Bhimani being a member of an upper middle-class business family...more...

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