(Re)Inventing the Internet:a one-day workshop featuring cutting-edge research from the upcoming Applied Communication Technology (ACT) Labbook. On Friday, February 23, 2007, in the Segal Graduate School of Business (500 Granville St.), 4800 Policy Room, between 10am-4pm.

The ACT Lab’s one-day workshop, (Re)Inventing the Internet: Critical Case Studies, took place on Friday, February 23, 2007, in the Segal Graduate School of Business.

It featured several presentations that explored the social construction of the Internet in a variety of settings, from video games to online education, civic participation to music sharing. The theme was the shaping of the Internet by the practices of users who attempt to influence its design and impact. The Internet appears in these presentations not just as a functional device but also as a field of struggle within which a variety of social and technical factors meet, contend, and converge to produce new forms.

The workshop was co-sponsored by SFU’s School of Communication and the Institute for the Humanities.

Andrew Feenberg: A Democratic Internet?

The title of this paper ends in a question mark for the very good reason that the Internet is still in question. It is not a fully developed technology like the refrigerator or the electric razor. We do not yet know what its final form will be. That has not prevented a huge outpouring of literature hyping the Internet as the solution to all our problems or criticizing it as a looming media catastrophe. In fact this controversy is the best evidence that the Internet is not a finished work. The case cannot be closed while the debate continues with such fierce intensity. I respond to respond to both criticisms and hype by arguing that the Internet does have value for democratic deliberation, but that this value is imperiled. The Internet will not replace our customary democratic institutions with a universal electronic town hall meeting. On the other hand, exaggeration in the opposite direction seems to me mean-spirited and self-righteous. It threatens to blind us to real possibilities that should be seized rather than dismissed. These possibilities have to do with online community, supported by the Internet. Since discussion lies at the heart of a democratic polity, any new scene on which it can unfold is a significant enhancement to the public sphere.

Michael Felczak: Communication, Commercialization, and Control: A Critical Constructivist Approach to Internet Neutrality

Recent deregulation in U.S. telecommunication policy has sparked heated debates regarding the future of the Internet. At the heart of the debate is the extent to which network operators must treat all content and content producers on the Internet in a non-discriminatory manner. A broad and diverse coalition of concerned citizens, community groups, and national organizations have demanded legislation that protects freedom of expression and non-discrimination on the Internet. This paper contributes to these debates by examining Internet neutrality from a critical constructivist perspective that draws attention to the historical and technical representative dimensions of the Internet. The analysis focuses on the efforts of telephone carriers to control data networking since the early 1970’s through the definition and design of infrastructure protocols and technologies. Although telephone carriers have had limited success translating their interests and priorities into the core technologies of the Internet, the chapter suggests hat there exists a congruence of interests among telephone carriers and other organizations that have been successful in defining the next-generation Internet protocols. This observation suggests that network operators are well positioned to control the future development of the Internet. In the absence of legislation and policy that requires non-discrimination among content producers, the Internet of the future may in fact bear little resemblance to the Internet of today.

Maria Bakardjieva: Vote or Voice: Rethinking Civic Participation Online

This paper originates from a project aimed at understanding the practices of “secondary instrumentalization” (see Feenberg, this volume) undertaken by Internet users in everyday life. The project has collected a corpus of 102 in-depth interviews with the members of internet households of diverse social make up from Calgary, AB, Canada, charts, completed by respondents, that illustrate their internet-use habits and direct observations of respondents’ home- and computer spaces. Another source of data has been focus groups carried out in the course of a study of broadband introduction into rural Albertan communities. The focus of analysis here is set on the multitude of ways in which ordinary users employ the Internet in order to transcend the boundaries of their narrowly self-interested private existence and become engaged in social solidarities of different scope and type. A phenomenological framework adapted from Schutz (1970) is applied to conceptualize the gradual movement from immediately experienced situations and interests to larger social and political meaning and action horizons. In this process, it is agued, an “instrumentalization” of the Internet arises, in which users re-conceptualize and re-configure it in practice in order to pursue meaningful projects and expand the horizon of their lifeworld. Observations made from this perspective are used as a starting point for a conversation with concepts and models of citizenship, civic participation and political involvement. It is argued that a number of definitions operating in the fields of political science, democratic theory and others need to be examined against the lifeworld experiences of ordinary people. What does it mean to be politically engaged and civically active? What actions and involvements count in that respect? What kinds of interactions and communities are seen as belonging to the sphere of civic and/or political life from the point of view of analysts versus that of citizens themselves? Do these categorizations need to be re-negotiated and revised? The Internet figures prominently in this discussion as its availability in the daily life of users introduces important new avenues of social mediation and interaction. The potential of the Internet to enhance civic participation has been examined in numerous theoretical and empirical studies (see Dahlgren 2004 for a review). This paper concentrates specifically on the role the medium plays in affording and supporting new forms of making sense of public issues and getting involved in civic activities. Characteristically, these forms do not square neatly with elevated notions of political and civic participation. They are mundane, even trivial, and their political significance easily escapes recognition. Building on existing conceptualizations such as those of “life politics” (Giddens, 1991) “sub-politics” (Beck, 1997) and “lifestyle politics” (Bennett, 2003), the almost oxymoronic notion of “lifeworld politics” is proposed with the objective to challenge received understanding of what does and should count as political engagement. Currently, due to a series of social and technological factors, there is a substantive change in the “dispositif” that shapes the emergence of civic identities among the citizens of Western democracies. New micropractices of civic engagement constitute that process. The fuzzy boundary between the civic and the political fades even further and the everyday meanings and actions of citizens acquire new significance. The counterposing of “vote” and “voice” attempts to capture an aspect of this development. “Vote” stands for the traditional model of political participation, while “voice” represents the new state of affairs where a much more ephemeral, shifting and yet penetrating mode of civic involvement comes to the fore.

Norm Friesen: Experiencing Surveillance: A Phenomenological Approach

The near-ubiquity of surveillance and dataveillance technologies in public and other spaces (public squares, transit stations, supermarkets, bank lobbies) has recently given rise to doubts about the totalizing, panoptic discipline and control frequently ascribed to these technologies. If these pervasive technologies are as “panoptic” as the theories derived from Foucault’s classic work suggest, would this not render everyday life as totally controlled as the cells in Bentham’s prison? In the wake of this and other kinds of questioning of the Foucauldian approach, new ways of conceptualizing both surveillance and the observed subject are coming to light. This paper takes this post-panoptic questioning further by utilizing phenomenological theory and methodology to study the everyday experiential reality of surveillance and dataveillence. This approach, apparently little utilized in surveillance studies, addresses the under-theorized questions of individual experience of surveillance. Perhaps surprisingly, such a study appears to reinforce Foucault’s original panoptic articulation much more directly than do more recent models and conceptions of surveillant regimes. But at the same time, this study raises new questions regarding the role of the body and of attention in surveillance and dataveillance -and of the potential resistance to these technologies and practices.

Kate Milberry: Hacking for Social Justice

In this chapter, I will trace the rise of tech activism, which has roots in the free software movement but has cultivated its own ethically grounded and socially informed agenda. I examine how and why tech activists have appropriated wiki technology, using it as a space and tool for democratic communication in cyberspace. In turn, this has enabled the realization of new communicative practices offline, establishing a dialectical relation between the technological and the social. Democratic practice online prefigures the desire for a more just society; actualized as democratic interventions into the development and use of technology, it then manifests in alternative modes of social organization in the “real” world.

Cindy Xin: Pedagogy in Cyberspace: The Dynamics of Online Discourse

This paper elaborates a model for understanding pedagogy in online educational forums. The model identifies four key components. Intellectual engagement describes the foreground cognitive processes of collaborative learning. Communication processes operating in the background accumulate an ever richer store of shared understandings that enable the forward movement of the conversation. The collaborative process requires a moderator to coordinate communication and learning in a group. The moderator in online education is usually a teacher who shares knowledge in the process of leading discussion. Finally, a successful discussion generates intrinsic motivations to participate which keep the discussion going. This framework is designed to bring out the complexity of online discussion and to provide a basis for advising teachers and evaluating applications and software.

Florence Chee: When technological deviance becomes institutionalized: Parallels in case studies of the French Minitel and the Korean Games Industry

In the latter half of the 20th Century, France and Korea were both striving for their own visions of modernity in order to ensure their participation in the immanent information age, as they perceived it to be. This paper is a discussion of two respective cases in which technological fringe behaviour became institutionalized and appropriated by mainstream interests. As Feenberg discusses in his book, Alternative Modernity (1995), the original definition of the French Minitel technology of the 1980s was rejected by users. Instead of using the technology for its initial purpose of information gathering, users latched onto what they found interesting about it, namely its ability to facilitate communication and socializing. This subversion of an initial technological vision, while initially opposed by the government, proved lucrative and was subsequently institutionalized through provisions for service providers. The present situation for Korea is similar in that the initial vision for nationwide technological adoption differed markedly from the results at the user level. Cornering nearly a third of the global gaming industry market share, Korea’s strides towards information economy has rapidly detoured towards fostering the thriving gaming economy. The contradictions manifest in government-funded initiatives that caution the public against online gaming, while government-industry partnerships simultaneously tout the nation as a haven for professional and amateur gaming. In both French and Korean cases, these resultant fringe activities later becoming mainstream are merely variations on a theme. They highlight the constant process of compromise between institutional visions of modernity, technological implementation and the social construction of technological use.

Sara Grimes: Rationalizing Play: A Critical Theory of Digital Gaming

Despite the rapidly growing body of research and theoretical discussion of digital games and gaming communities, few serious attempts have thus far been made to establish a critical theory of digital game technologies. Yet games exhibit rational features in all societies by their very logic, which implies equality of players whose moves constitute equivalents exchanged under strict classifications and rules according to strategies of optimization with precisely calculable results. In this way, games appear as a realm of rational behaviour long before rationalization overtakes society as a whole. As long as they were limited to individual activities practiced within traditional contexts, however, they did not represent a form of social rationality. With the spread of new forms and practices in digital gaming, particularly the growing participation in massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) on the Internet, the rational features of games become the basis for the production of a form of social rationality analyzable on terms similar to those employed in the study of technology. This paper attempts to construct a new framework for the study of games as sites of social rationalization, applying Feenberg’s critical theory of technology through an expansion and modification of his concepts of primary and secondary instrumentalization. We begin by making the case for a consideration of games as systems of social rationalization, akin to other modern systems such as capitalist markets and bureaucratic organizations. We then propose a differentiated conceptualization of play that allows us to understand play as a process through which the player focuses attention away from the undifferentiated action of everyday life. This approach also enables us to see how the experience of play changes as it becomes increasingly rationalized through the technological mediation and widespread standardization that occurs as a game becomes a large-scale social practice. Our theoretical framework culminates in the construction of a theory of the rationalization of play, which we have called ludification, which outlines the key components found in all socially rationalizing games. Finally, we will test our theory by applying our framework to the specific example of MMOGs. MMOGs present a particularly compelling case study, for their players hold a high level of situated knowledge that enables them to engage with digital games technology in a number of ambiguous and unanticipated ways, and as such continue to have tremendous impact on the development, content and function of games within digital culture. Through these unplanned aspects of technical relations the “margin of maneuvere” of digital games is uncovered, through which, we will argue, players have the potential to truly revolutionize this new medium. As sites of ongoing struggle between players and programmers over the design of the games and usage of the game elements, MMOGs allow for an exploration of ludification that also considers the potential for democratic rationalization inherent within all socially rationalizing systems.

Darryl Cressman: The mp3 as Technical Form: Agency and Experience

Historically, the mp3, computers and the Internet do not facilitate practices that are different than the functions enabled by the numerous other technical forms of music that preceded it.  Sharing, portability, distribution and democracy can be seen as sociotechnical functions that are accelerated with each change in music’s technical form.  However, if we turn away from what we can do with the mp3 and instead focus our attention on the particular tangible characteristics of this form it is possible to observe significant changes in how we listen and interact with music as a thing.  Contextualizing the mp3 in a historical continuum of technical configurations of music that dates back to the 19th century concert hall, I argue that if we consider listening to be the primary activity associated with the mp3, a sociotechnical theory of music in the Internet era can reveal both new forms of user agency and alienation.