Internet Society: The Internet in Everyday Life

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Maria Bakardjieva

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    Dedication

    For my parents Deshka and Peter Bakardjiev with love and gratitude.

    Acknowledgements

    At each step of my work towards the completion of this book I have benefited from the generous help of people with whom I have shared smaller or bigger sectors of everyday life. Ultimately this project materialized thanks to my respondents – the 23 Internet users who let me into their homes and computers and trusted me with their stories. I am deeply grateful to them all for their generosity and candour. I wish to acknowledge the assistance in recruiting participants for my study that I received from the Board of Directors of the Vancouver Community Net.

    My colleagues at Simon Fraser University and the University of Calgary provided a nurturing intellectual environment, direct or indirect advice and example to learn from. I am particularly indebted to Richard Smith, Ellen Balka, William Richards and Linda Harasim at Simon Fraser University, as well as David Mitchell, Liza McCoy, Janice Dickin, Edna Einsiedel, Doug Brent and David Taras at the University of Calgary. Yvonne Pratt provided technical assistance with the printing of my files.

    Kathleen Scherf's trust in me and her unwavering support contributed significantly to the realization of this project. Gail Faurschou acted as a sounding board for my ideas at a critical point of my work. My friend David Smith stood by me through difficult times and stimulated my thinking with his suggestions and feedback. Richard Pinet, Ian Chunn, Debra Pentecost, Diana Ambrozas, Susan Bryant, Kwan Ramasoota and James Compton assisted with countless smaller and bigger things, and most importantly, with their friendship and solidarity.

    This book owes a huge debt to Andrew Feenberg from whose fascinating work I drew and whose encouragement and comments kept me on track. Steve Woolgar showed me the joy of playing with ideas in unconventional, and often provocative, ways. Elizabeth Cass was involved in this project in more than one way. Her observations and wisdom informed my understanding of Internet use. Her subtle language sense and remarkable empathy helped translate my sometimes enigmatic expressions into proper English.

    My parents and my sister Antonina were there for me each and every time I needed a helping hand, understanding or a confidence boost. My bright teenager, Peter, solved my computer problems and never missed a chance to remind me that I should have finished this work long ago. My little boy, Victor, was a wonderful distraction and helped me learn from fairy tales. My husband, Dobromir Rizov, took care of the necessities of everyday life while I was theorizing about it.

    I wish to thank Chris Rojek and Kay Bridger for finding great (anonymous) reviewers for my text, and these reviewers themselves for their open-minded reading and interesting suggestions.

    The Killam Residential Fellowship awarded to me by the University of Calgary in 2003 was instrumental to the completion of this book. Part of the research work benefited from NSF Award # 0004243. Earlier versions of Chapters 5 and 7 have been published, in the journals New Media and Society and Media, Culture and Society, respectively.

  • Conclusion

    Everything is still at stake.

    (Bruno Latour, 1988, The pasteurization of France, p. 160)

    Starting this inquiry, I took seriously the proposition that users represent an active force in shaping technology together with various groups of experts and political players (Feenberg, 1991, 1999; Lie and Sorensen, 1996; Silverstone and Haddon, 1996). I adopted a view of technology that saw its actual reality in the concrete acts of its use and, more precisely, in the social event of technologically mediated interaction between the user or practitioner, and his or her physical and social environment.

    My concrete object of interest was the Internet – a global computer network (technology) gradually evolving into a mass communication medium (a social institution). I focused on one of the most recent and significant developments in the evolution of the Internet – its penetration into the everyday life of a vast user population and specifically into one of its core sites: the home. The lack of conventional stock of knowledge regarding the ‘appropriate’ use of the Internet, I reasoned, would necessitate heavy involvement of users in signifying work. That is, these people would need to make sense and find applications of the medium with respect to specific tasks and problems they faced in their immediate environment. I expected to find early users actively discovering the relevance of the Internet to their social-biographical situations and initiating Internet-based practices that designers and promoters had not been able to imagine. To me, this meant that these users would be further inventing the Internet. Taking the Internet home, early users would not only act with it, but also onto it.

    With my empirical study, then, I set out to understand the process in which users formed their relationship with the Internet that I believed to be mutually transformative. I was curious to discover the concrete courses of action and reasoning through which the new technology was drawn into domestic users' systems of relevances and how it was incorporated into their existing activities and relations forming the everyday life of the home. What did user agency look like in actual practice? What were the products of users' signifying work, how palpable, stable and portable were they?

    Suggestions for Theory: Choices and Mediations in the User-Technology Relation

    At the very beginning of the narratives that represented my avenues into users' authentic experiences, I discovered the figure of the warm expert. He or she was an expert in the sense of possessing working knowledge of the technology that was as yet unfamiliar to the novice user. However, she or he was not interacting with the user from a position in a formal set of relationships as it would have been the case, for example, with the expert from an Internet service provider's help desk or the instructor of a course. The warm expert inhabited the user's everyday life in the most direct sense, as a fellow-man or woman, who experienced the user's immediate situation. He or she acted as an interpreter between the technical system and the user's lifeworld, speaking the language of both. Notably, the warm expert was not an unbiased interpreter. She was passing to the new user her own understanding of the technology along with the universal meanings of technical features. She was teaching the user tricks for preserving autonomy and shortcuts to content of relevance. Thus, while the Internet in itself was infinitely open and diverse, new users did not rush to surf it at random as some surveys of user behaviour would suggest.1 Neither did they diligently follow the instructions in their manuals or the bookmarks of their software providers. More often than not they entered the medium through a specific port suggested by the warm expert – an Ethiopian discussion group, an arthritis mailing list, a chat site, etc. In taking clues from their immediate social environment, users' learning of the Internet was no different from established patterns of use of traditional media, especially print. It was reminiscent of the two-step flow of mass communication discovered by Lazarsfeld et al., 1948 (see also Katz and Lazarsfeld, 1964). The new user was not facing the technology and the content and activities accessible through it as an isolated individual. Technology, content and activities were refracted by interpersonal influence and contextual relevance. Thus the interaction with the warm expert represented the first level of translation where the work of making the medium personally meaningful was started.

    I found another expression of users' choice and activity in the variety of relations users formed with the Internet. I employed Ihde's (1990) phenomenology of human-technology relations to interpret the different ways in which the Internet mediated between users and their physical and social world. The blanket acceptance as well as the blanket rejection of the medium, I concluded, are crude constructs that do not capture the actual dynamic of the user-Internet relation. In practice, a person encountering a socio-technical system such as the Internet faces a richer gamut of choices. Engagement with the medium can remain instrumental, or it can grow into a more substantive and absorbing relation. These different relations produce different sets of opportunities and threats for users. I believe that awareness of this fact and, consequently, reflective navigation of the available choices contributes to personal empowerment with regard to the medium.

    In the case of the embodiment relation, the Internet is simply a tool for accomplishing clearly defined goals in the surrounding physical or social world. It is mobilized by the acting person as an extension of his or her natural abilities. It can be experienced as an organic part of oneself, or on the contrary, as a poorly made prosthesis. In both cases, the world is on the other side of the technology and the limitations in seeing or manipulating it imposed by the mediational agent – the Internet – are accessible to reflection and action. In the hermeneutic relation, the attention of the user is focused on the technology as a representation of the world. The world and the medium merge. The technical and institutional codes embodied in the medium become codes for understanding the world. The advantage this relation brings to the user is an increased mastery of the technical and institutional code. The threat consists in the fact that the reduction of the world to its technical representation can easily be forgotten. In the alterity relation the world is bracketed out. The technology and/or the content it delivers become a source of emotions usually derived from the contact with another human being. Both technical creativity and technologically furnished escape from the problems of the surrounding world are viable outcomes of this relation.

    In all these forms of human-technology relation a complex dialectic of amplification and reduction of human powers is involved. In order to be an autonomous agent in a technologically mediated world, the subject has to be able to question and realistically estimate his own relation with technology. The capacity for identifying the possibilities of alienation and disalienation represents a condition of competent use. I concluded, on the basis of the experiences shared by my respondents, that the establishment of a critical hermeneutic relation – a pointed interest in the technology as such, leading to a critical knowledge of the powers and distortions implicit in its code – represents one possible way of disalienation.

    My examination of the home environment into which the Internet was introduced revealed another area of hard signifying work and struggle to define the user-technology relation. Bringing the Internet home, people had to deal with the question of exactly where the novelty belonged in terms of location, schedule and interfamily relationships. One aspect of this question referred to the symbolic ownership of the Internet connection: Did it belong equally to all family members or was there a privileged or solely entitled user? A second dimension had to do with privacy of use: would the person using the Internet at any particular time be allowed (or encouraged) to face the medium one-to-one, withdrawing from the ongoing life of the family collectivity or, on the contrary, would other family members be present and allowed to intervene? Finally, the place of the medium was selected with regard to the kind of activity it supported – imposed or intrinsic, work or pleasure.

    The specific constellations of choices made along these three lines contributed to the emergence of different use practices and interfamily relations anchored in the medium. The Internet connection was used to demarcate zones of individual privacy within the home as well as to aid the creation of special bonds between family members and new ways of connecting to the broader social world. Gender roles with regard to the medium were renegotiated with some unexpected outcomes, such as the mother-son collaboration in mastering the technology and the leadership of women in Internet adoption motivated by perceived motherly responsibilities. Thus the function and the definition of the Internet within the individual home was negotiated with regard to the users' role in the family and the set of values established by the family group.

    Certainly, these positions and values themselves had to be re-considered in the face of the new possibilities and challenges brought forth by the new medium. New responsibilities had to be added to the job characteristics of different family members. Patterns of time organization in the home had to be modified. The meaning of being at home and being together was changing and people struggled to make sense of these changes and reconcile desired new opportunities with valued old ways of life.

    Suggestions for Political Practice: Grounded Visions of the Possible

    Investigating the stabilized practices involving Internet use in the context of users' social-biographical situations, I discovered a multiplicity of situationally rational conceptions of the medium's usefulness and functionality. I referred to the various sets of activities growing out of these conceptions as ‘use genres’. Use genres demonstrated a dual character in that they represented recurring patterns of local action undertaken by users and, at the same time, they gave the medium itself symbolic and substantive qualities that others could discover. Furthermore, these genres were related to conditions of individual existence characteristic of contemporary society and represented responses to widespread situational needs. I see these genres as a rich resource of ideas that can direct a pursuit of democratic Internet development. Democratic, in this context, means not only building a medium that is equitably accessible, but also equitably meaningful: inclusive of users' interests and goals, diverse in terms of features and supported activities, open and responsive to users' intervention and actively seeking users' involvement. The point is not to concoct utopian schemes for realizing the visions of theorists, technologists and political leaders, but rather to elaborate visions to be asserted in a technical and political process with an eye and ear turned to the unglamorous everyday initiatives of ordinary users. The political quality of users' resistance and creativity does not find expression in movements that have been conventionally and formally touted political. Rather, it lies in small gestures immersed in the current of daily life that despite their apparent triviality prove to be crucial in countering domination and instigating social change.2 Democratic Internet development would mean bridging users' experiences with technical and political decision-making.

    The agents of such a democratic Internet development would comprise a wide variety of players spanning the traditional and the non-traditional participants in socio-technical innovation. Various civic and public organizations and interest groups can establish an effective presence on the Internet by providing supportive platforms for the genres invented by users. Some of the cases I studied exemplified models for this: a web site of a local Attention Deficit Disorder parent support group, an organization of political refugees growing out of a mailing list and subsequently utilizing that list for further organizing. The cases of virtual community involvement I came across were particularly illuminating with respect to the kinds of Internet use representatives of disenfranchised groups found meaningful. Disease related associations, home care services, unemployment centres, ethnic and other civic organizations can adopt the role of equipment, service and content providers, and hubs for client-to-client or member-to-member sharing and organizing. Initiatives like that will, of course, be feasible if they receive support and funding from public bodies.

    Notable among the use genres I observed was the practice of talking back to public institutions and the mass media. I found a discrepancy between the ways these bodies framed their relationship with the prospective users of their Internet services, and the expectations of users themselves. Government and media sites were based on a traditional information-producer/provider versus client model. Users wished to be involved in a dialogue. Naïve hopes for a technologically mediated direct democracy aside, it can still be argued that there is room for more imaginative forms of two-way communication between citizens and institutions. A whole new practice of Internet-based participatory public relations can be imagined if citizens' interests, and not solely institutional agenda, are taken as cues. These possibilities need to be addressed imaginatively and realistically by a grassroots movement for a democratic Internet. Among the important tasks of such a movement would be the provision of non-commercial server space accessible to citizens' groups. Governments, for their part, should learn to appreciate the down-to-earth interests and projects of ordinary users and provide them with the resources they need.

    Equally suggestive were the use genres related to knowledge acquisition and application. In most of the cases I studied, users had become lay researchers willing to make informed decisions on matters of daily life and were aware, thanks to the Internet, of the wide range of alternatives available. Others were looking for intellectual challenges and/or exchange with a view to personal development. Universities and similar educational institutions had a limited assortment of offers along these lines. While the users counted on the new medium to bring knowledge spatially and humanly3 closer to them, the response of universities, one of the central knowledge brokers in society, remained rigid and circumscribed within the old functional logic. Packaging and selling formal courses online, which is now the prevalent direction in universities' utilization of the Internet, I contend, is only one among numerous initiatives that the institutions of higher education can take in the new field of social action opening up for them. A critique of the real with the possible suggests that instead of (or parallel to) adopting market models for knowledge distribution, universities should work to transform themselves into open sources of knowledge modelled on the example of public broadcasting and adding to it a participatory component.

    Are these suggestions a product of utopian imagination? Is the critique of the real with the possible a futile enterprise that will be swept aside by the operational autonomy of the politically and economically powerful? The close investigation of users' worlds and their dealings with the Internet sustains the faith in alternative possibilities. After all, as Latour (1988) insists, the difference between the real and the possible is fragile (and that is why the critique proposed by Lefebvre's makes sense in the first place). What matters, Latour continues:

    are all the differences experienced between those that resist for long and those that do not, those that resist courageously and those that do not, those that know how to ally or isolate themselves and those that do not (p. 159).

    Suggestions for Research: Critical Researchers as a Relevant Social Group

    Speaking about alliances, I see the union between users and critical Internet researchers, many of whom are also ordinary users in their everyday lives, as a necessary condition for an effective critique of the real with the possible. The experience of this study confirmed my belief in the usefulness of a qualitative, ethnographically informed approach for providing a holistic, contextualized understanding of the social construction of the Internet as a technology and a communication medium. The examination of concrete human activities embedded in local situations uncovers important and previously missing aspects of this medium's social shaping. The standpoint of users proves to be a crucial vantage point towards the present and future of the Internet. The images of the medium captured from this perspective provide a healthy mixture of realism and optimism that can inform and direct its development.

    Technical development and content and service creation performed by experts in specialized spheres is completed and ratified or, on the contrary, undermined and rendered inconsequential in the everyday dealings of ordinary users. The Internet can evolve into an inclusive and empowering communication medium if technical and content-related problems are defined and their solutions sought with conscious consideration of the users' perspective and, ideally, with the direct participation of everyday users. The Internet can stabilize as an oppressive, alienating technology and institution if users' perspectives and situated rationalizations are systematically ignored or counteracted by designers, developers and regulators. The important dilemma still to be tackled is, to paraphrase Lefebvre (1991), whether human beings will simply be made profitable through new high-tech mechanisms, or whether their everyday lives will be changed for the better building on the possibilities created by the new powerful technology (see p. 230). Critical communication research into the Internet is not simply a meta-enterprise of registering the resolution of this dilemma, when and if it occurs. Research should be directly involved in its tackling. Internet researchers of all feathers are relevant social groups that participate in the construction of the Internet.

    Therefore, a user-centred research practice, engaging researchers as user advocates should be consciously and persistently evolved. The results of such a research enterprise would be knowledge for users, a form of consciousness raising (see Smith's (1987) discussion of sociology for women) that explicates for users the intertwining of misery and power, of amplification and reduction in their daily transactions with the Internet. This research would produce a socio-technical literacy of action and choice.

    Concrete projects to undertake within such a research paradigm would include, for example, the in-depth study of the uses of the Internet performed, attempted and imagined by people finding themselves in adverse situations: homebound, suffering from isolating illnesses, unemployed, elderly, new immigrants, delinquent youth or victims of abuse. Can the Internet help with the mastering of such situations? Through what political and design initiatives can the already unfolding creativity of such users be supported?

    Multi-sited ethnographies (see Marcus, 1995) tracking the making of complex socio-technical phenomena such as Internet use genres are needed so that the diverse agencies involved in the process could be discerned. A popular web site, a virtual community, or an Internet campaign, represent perfect objects for an ethnography that looks at how such phenomena are constructed, who takes part and why, what role is played by technological design, policy and culture. The answers to these questions could broaden the field of awareness and choice open to the human beings evoking and continuously modifying these use genres in their daily practice.

    Governments and civic groups can benefit from user-centred research that explicates the everyday problems and activities leading users to their web sites or other Internet-based services. The new dialogic practices that can grow around a democratic Internet would need a heavy research investment in order to take off and stabilize as a routine form of communication between organizations and their members and clients.

    Insights gained from research are also required for the development of flexible learning forms and forums hosted by universities but driven by the situated agendas of particular communities and categories of learners.

    Groupware designs and the experiences of people who build and participate in various forms of virtual togetherness presents another set of pressing research issues. Will togetherness on the Internet be as ‘natural’ to achieve as consumption? Can research help online groups with their sometimes painful search for appropriate models of communication? To contribute to the realization of a ‘community-oriented’, participatory model of the Internet, research should examine social life online by looking at and beyond the screen. Both the systematic knowledge of designers and the situated knowledges of diverse categories of users are essential to this project.

    Consumption through the Internet (online buying) was a theme that did not resonate deeply with the experiences of the users I interviewed at the early stage of e-commerce development when my study took place. Only a few of them had bought a limited number of commercial products online. However, there were clear signs of a desire in users to employ the Internet in making rational consumer choices – to compare prices and to avoid falling for advertisement and in-store manipulation. User-centred research on e-commerce could seek to identify possibilities for user empowerment in the face of the online commercial schemes, possibly by means of consumer-to-consumer communication and organizing.

    Final Reflections

    Admittedly many of the research questions that arose from my theoretical reflections did not find their answers in my empirical study. Similarly, many of the themes emerging from the study remained unexplored. There is much that I would have liked to have done to make this research a richer ethnography and a deeper-cutting critique. A longitudinal data collection by visiting the homes of my respondents periodically over a period of time would have shown how conceptions and practices change with experience and perhaps how initial mobilization turns into unreflective routine. An examination of household budgets would have given me a better idea of the economic standing of the people I interviewed and whether anything had to be sacrificed in exchange for the latest gadgets of technical progress, as Lefebvre (1991) had predicted. Interviewing all the family members in all the participating households would have unearthed more of the values, hierarchies and struggles underlying the Internet use arrangements in the home. More thorough digging into the layers of electronic artefacts in the memory of users' computers and more precise documenting of the findings would have uncovered the structures of the interpersonal networks sustained through electronic communication. It would have revealed the nature of the information resources on which users drew and would have gained insight into the emerging new sources of authoritative discourse in society. These additional data would have provided for better substantiated analysis, evaluation and critique of domestic Internet use.

    My project, like every research project in the real world, was bound by my own and my respondents' time limitations. Lack of funding forced me to keep down the size of my respondent group. Interestingly, there was a bright side to these limitations as well. I ended up working with a group of volunteers who were intrinsically motivated to share their experiences as Internet users. I did all the interviewing, transcription and analysis myself, which made me live through the narrative of each respondent, hold it in my head in its entirety and make sense of the different themes with regard to the whole story. Finally, the fact that nobody was financing my research freed me to pursue my own interests and the paths suggested by my respondents. It also allowed me to be open and sincere with the people I interviewed, as there were no foreign agendas behind the questions I was asking them. This provided for authentic and enjoyable (at least to me) human communication.

    But it wasn't before I approached the end of the process that I realized there was more to my relationship with the people I studied. As I step out of their stories, I find myself immersed in a swarm of voices. The unanswered e-mail messages of my friends and colleagues from overseas ring in my head as loud and clear as the voice of my son over my shoulder demanding computer time so that he could play ‘The Age of Empire’ with a schoolmate over the Internet. The music that my husband downloaded from Napster creeps into the room. In the back of my mind I still feel guilty for not responding to that unknown student from Algeria who asked me for help with his project a few days ago. So I stop to think. Am I empowered or oppressed? Is there a single message in this cacophony and what is its meaning? Where do I stand? What should I do? And as I am turning my research questions to myself, I know: everything is still at stake.

    Notes

    1 I have come across a number of quantitative surveys asking users to indicate which activities out of a suggested list they perform on the Internet. ‘Surfing’ always accounts for a high percentage of the answers. This observation has left me wondering what sense different people put in this word that has come to be associated with Internet use in a trite manner.

    2 Harding (1991) draws attention to a similar argument made by Aptheker (1989) with regard to the unrecognized political contribution of women (see pp. 129–30).

    3 I have borrowed some of the language and inspiration for this claim from Benjamin's (1968) ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.’

    Appendix Respondent Description

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