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Article from ejc/rec Liberation in Cyberspace
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 12 Numbers 3 & 4, 2002

Liberation in Cyberspace … or Computer-mediated Colonization? [1]

Fay Sudweeks
Murdoch University

Charles Ess
Drury University

Editor's Introduction

Abstract. At the second biennial conference on Cultural Attitudes towards Technology and Communication papers were presented on the strengths and limits of CMC technologies. The first two papers bring to the foreground how cultural beliefs and patterns are beyond the capacity of CMC technologies to mediate. The second section focuses on how gender differences work in CMC environments to the disadvantage of women. Finally issues of power are dealt with, specifically that CMC technologies will inevitably democratize users, organizations and countries.

The papers collected here are drawn largely from presentations originally made at CATaC'00 - the second biennial conference on Cultural Attitudes towards Technology and Communication, co-chaired by Fay Sudweeks and Charles Ess, and held in Perth, Australia, 13-16 July 2000. CATaC'00 continued the work of CATaC'98, held in the Science Museum, London - the first conference, to our knowledge, that sought to approach the complex intersections of culture, technology, and communication through a range of interdisciplinary and international perspectives. These perspectives contrast with the dominance of North American perspectives and values that had shaped both the Internet culture of the 1990s and much of the early theoretical considerations and empirical research on the Internet, the Web, and CMC more generally. [2]

The papers collected here were chosen in part because of the multiple ways they address central CATaC themes, and in part because they further illuminate larger topics of current discussion in the literatures of computer-mediated communication (CMC). It is arguable that, in fact, we are in the midst of a sea-change regarding CMC technologies and their utopian promise. At least with regard to more recent theoretical discussion and empirical research, there is a clear move from the more or less unbridled 1980s and 1990s postmodern enthusiasm for these technologies as catalyzing nothing less than individual, cultural, social, political, and economic shifts as revolutionary as the invention of the printing press (if not the invention of fire) - to a more balanced view that emphasizes a more realistic appreciation (realistic because supported by more recent research) of the ways in which CMC technologies entail both distinctively new possibilities and ways of sustaining and enhancing more traditional practices and beliefs. This turn can be seen in a number of ways of which two are especially significant here. To begin with, there is an extensive shift in the pertinent literatures from the hopes of the 1980s and 1990s for a "liberation in cyberspace" accomplished through escape from the body into a disembodied existence that would thus be ostensibly gender-blind in particular and radically egalitarian in general. By contrast, more contemporary views emphasize the role of embodiment at all levels - beginning with how we know the world (epistemology, ontology) and thus how we know to interact with the world and one another as embodied human beings.[3] Similarly, the enthusiasm in the 1990s for virtual communities - spawned in part by cyberpunk fiction such as Neuromancer (1986), popularized by Harold Rheingold's influential volume (1993), and articulated in political terms in John Perry Barlow's famous "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" (1996) - has given way to a more measured appreciation of the strengths and limits of virtual communities (Baym 1995; Baym, forthcoming).

The papers collected here are consistent with these shifts. Indeed, as we are about to see, they help illuminate the multiple issues at work in these shifts. First of all, they bring to the foreground the notion of culture as entailing precisely our most basic views and beliefs regarding who we are as human beings (including the role of embodiment and gender), how we know and what kinds of knowledge are most significant, and the nature of our relationships - including our political relationships - with others in the human community and the larger world. Hence our first section here takes up culture in multiple senses as a primary framework for analysis. Two papers bring to the foreground how cultural beliefs and patterns are beyond the capacity of CMC technologies to mediate. These cultural differences issue in serious misunderstandings in e-mail exchanges, etc. (Grotenhuis) and the technologies themselves embed individual and cultural preferences that favor some and exclude others (Davis). A third paper shows, by contrast, that CMC technologies can sustain and foster cultural engagements at a distance (Voiskounsky). Taken together, these papers suggest that CMC technologies can be used in ways that can preserve and enhance specific cultural values and preferences - especially if we take into account both the cultural values and preferences CMC technologies may embed and the role of cultural values and preferences above and beyond those embedded in the technologies in successful communication. Our second section then focuses specifically on gender - as gender differences work in CMC environments to the disadvantage of women, both cross-culturally (Li and Kirkup) and most centrally in Wired, the defining voice of the 1990s digital revolution (Willis). Finally, we turn to concerns of power - specifically, the claims made as part of the enthusiasm of the 1980s and 1990s, that CMC technologies will inevitably democratize users, organizations, and countries. Jordan provides an analysis of especially the then-prevailing libertarian view - a view that may, however, be "culture-bound" to some degree, i.e., as a predominantly North American conception of democracy, one that is challenged in important ways by a Habermasian view more commonly found in Europe and Australia. The latter is represented here in Holmes' discussion of how far CMC technologies might realize a Habermasian public sphere as a requirement of democracy. Finally, the systems philosophy of Niklas Luhmann provides a critique of both libertarian and Habermasian conceptions of democracy in cyberspace (Moeller).

Cultures on/of the Net: Cultural Conflicts, Embedded Values, Cultural Blossomings

Our first three papers take up "culture" in a number of distinct senses. Frits Grotenhuis analyzes how cultural differences between the Dutch and Americans issue in mis-communication in CMC environments. This not only frustrates the goals of business mergers, it further documents important ways in which CMC technologies of themselves cannot overcome cultural differences. Dineh Davis turns our attention to a much broader sense of culture - the culture of the Internet and its technologies as favoring the extraverted, the busy, and the noisy, in contrast with the personal and cultural preferences of much of the world for ways of being and becoming human that stress humility, quiet, and reflection. Grotenhuis and Davis thus complement one another as Grotenhuis demonstrates cultural conflicts external to CMC technologies, while Davis documents cultural conflicts embedded in these technologies and their implementations in a global Internet culture. Finally, Alexander Voiskounsky's research suggests an interesting and creative middle ground, i.e., multiple uses of the Net and the Web that utilize Russian as a lingua franca and thus helping people from diverse countries (including the newly independent states formed out of the republics of the former Soviet Union) sustain and foster important cultural activities (dialogue, publication of news and art, etc.).

Frits Grotenhuis

As Grotenuis makes clear, culture plays an ongoing role in the "nuts-and-bolts" elements of international business - first of all, in efforts to merge companies from diverse cultural settings. In particular, contra the assumption that CMC technologies will somehow ease these processes, culture rather complicates the use and efficacy of CMC technologies. This brings to the foreground a crucial lesson: some problems such as "communication failures" or "lack of teamwork" are better understood as breakdowns in intercultural communication. At the same time, of course, success for managers in a global society depends on their ability "to communicate successfully with managers and employees from other cultures."

Grotenhuis explores the impact of culture on two Dutch-American mergers by way of focusing on "cultural collisions" related to CMC practices, using a case study approach. Some fascinating differences emerge here between the two cultures in terms of business. Americans tend to be short-term oriented and result-driven. In particular, they are willing to postpone a holiday in order to complete a project - something that would be "out of the question" in the Netherlands. Americans are in a "permanent process of moving, of instability", which is perhaps not surprising in a country with few unions, in contrast with the trade unions and working councils in the Netherlands.

Grotenhuis further notes that the brevity of e-mails, while favored by the medium and "netiquette", contributes to culturally-based miscommunication. Americans tend not to provide context, [4] which makes Dutch recipients feel ill-informed. Contrary to cherished American emphases on equality, informality, and direct communication, the Dutch regard their US colleagues as more hierarchical and less honest. As well, the Americans are perceived as more ethnocentric: "Generally they (Americans) think that what works in the US, that will be good for Europe as well, instead of adapting to a different situation. What is good for the USA, that is not always necessarily good for Europe too." Finally, as these comments suggest, stereotyping occurred that hindered communication.

In particular, Grotenhuis notes that "despite all [the] advantages of computer-mediated communication, still, face-to-face meetings remain necessary to prevent (culture) clashes in the long run." In this way, Grotenhuis' study stands as one more piece of evidence in the larger turn towards embodiment as an essential feature of human identity, one that is not easily abandoned for whatever advantages and freedoms we may enjoy in cyberspace.

Dineh Davis

Davis develops a most extensive list of the perhaps naïve but nonetheless imperialistic/colonizing assumptions of those presuming a universal and total adoption of information and communication technologies (ICTs) throughout the world.

To make her case, Davis introduces the acronym OCBANT - overtly-computer-based and networked technologies - for ICTs as currently implemented (i.e., networked computers with mouse and keyboard, etc., in contrast, for example, with future, voice-based systems). She further defines technoculture as a global "superculture" - one that is "franchised, affected, and official." She then lists the characteristics of this technoculture in terms of accessibility - more precisely, in behavioral, social, informational, emotional, sensory, economic, intellectual, political, linguistic, infrastructural, egonomic, and physiological terms. Given this especially rich palette of factors, Davis can then make clear the limitation of the preferences characteristic of the technoculture, i.e., they are not shared universally. On the contrary, the risk is precisely that, in the face of the diversity of aptitudes, attitudes and values that make of "happiness" or "optimal experience" for individuals and cultures, "[w]hen we begin to base an entire culture on a single technological platform, we are bound to create constraints on some subset of the population. When such a platform is installed cross-culturally and globally, dissent and dissonance become inevitable."

This dissent and dissonance is apparent first of all on the level of human identity, i.e., in the conflict between the tendency of the media to privilege publicity, self-promotion, busy-ness, indeed "noise," and those cultures and individuals that instead endorse humility, privacy, patience, and deliberation. As well, the role of English as a lingua franca means that the Web and the Net are limited by the limits of this particular language. Like all languages, English is good for specific kinds of expressions and thought, and less capable of expressing, or even allowing, others. Contra "...the claims that the computer and the Net are universal, general-purpose tools - like all tools, they are limited."

Davis further characterizes cyberspace as the equivalent of the "tyranny of the majority" over a voiceless minority - "... those whose biological, cultural, or behavioral upbringing precludes them from embracing the exhibitionist, impatient mentality of the other half of the human race," as this latter is at work in the technoculture of cyberspace. Indeed, the very term "cosmopolitan" - contra its claim to universality - excludes a significant portion of humanity:

The very concept of cosmopolitanism can have tremendous appeal to some (Hill, 2000), while it may not serve the emotional needs of others who have led happy, albeit sheltered and "provincial" lives, in isolated communities. Though a culture of consumerism may appeal to some (Rosenblatt, 1999), it has brought others closer to an understanding of how obvious disparities can become across the producer-consumer divide (Kotlowitz, 1999).

Contra the claims of cyberspace as new territory, one in which we will achieve equality as disembodied identities (cf. these claims as articulated as part of the "frontier" metaphor exploited in Wired, as Willis makes clear), Davis' point is that cyberspace amounts to the projection of the psychological and cultural preferences of its designers, leading to the compelling questions:

How can we call it "new" mental territory when the inhabitants are as old as the human race, moving in directly from their own vantage points in the "real" world? How is it a new space when the inhabitants never left home? If our physical bodies must depend on the physical community surrounding us, should not our loyalties and obligations remain, to some extent, closer to our physical neighbors and communities?

This leads to an especially powerful way of making the point about colonization:

... we have not just taken a select few adventurers to an uninhabited space, but have invaded an already-settled civilization with its immense diversity - both in terms of peoples and cultures. This is not a war against a few dispensable people who happen to be in the way of progress, but an entire way of life on earth, with a range of diversity that the majority may like to preserve.

If colonization and invasion are inevitable then, she hopes, the colonizers will learn the lessons their predecessors - i.e., that conquest is more secure and stable when elements of the old culture (e.g., its sacred sites, languages, and holidays) are preserved in the new culture, if in albeit transformed guise.

Davis' initial summary of the presumed values and orientations of technoculture include: "all humans have the same intrinsic interests and value system based on a Protestant work ethic, a need for higher challenges and matching skills, a desire to move from physical to mental labor, an affinity for abstraction and compartmentalization of life affairs, and a peak pleasure experience in an intellectual, disembodied state." Again, this critique of disembodiment in cyberspace vis-à-vis embodiment and "non-mediated interpersonal relationships" contributes to the central debate and recent turn in CMC literature.

Alexander Voiskounsky

Voiskounsky begins with an elementary demographic: while English-speaking North Americans overwhelmingly dominated the Internet in its early years, they now constitute less than 50% of its population. As an ever-greater diversity of languages, cultures, ethnic traditions, etc., find representation on the Net, there is a correlative expansion in humanities and social science research, including foci on the impact of local cultures on a more global Internet culture, network subcultures, etc. His particular concern is with "focuses of attraction" on the Internet, i.e., web content and interactions as developed by non-English speaking ethnic groups, with the Russian Internet culture as his primary example.

Voiskounsky first provides an overview of the estimated number of Russian users, servers, web pages, etc. He notes that 3.6% of the Russian adult population use the Internet (a relatively low figure in comparison with Western usage statistics). At the same time, however, growth in Russia is exponential - the amount of web-based material increases approximately 200% annually. Voiskounsky further reminds us that the area under discussion - the land mass of the former Soviet Union - is approximately 1/6th of the world's land area. Precisely in the face of the multiple political problems following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it may well be that CMC technologies are well positioned to help overcome problems of inefficient communication.

Russian-content Web materials are not solely of interest within Russia, of course. A large number of persons caught up in the "Russian diaspora" - Russian-speaking persons immersed in Russian culture in varying degrees, but who now live outside Russia either in the independent states that emerged out of former Soviet republics or in Germany, Israel, the United States, etc. - retain their connection with Russian language, culture, news, communities, and so forth via the Web.

Voiskounsky's research has monitored the psychological, social, and demographic parameters of the Russian Internet population since 1992. Perhaps, not surprisingly, Russian survives as the lingua franca shared by Russians, the inhabitants of former Soviet republics, and immigrants now living outside Russia and what had been the boundaries of the Soviet Union. This shared lingua franca, on Voiskounsky's showing, facilitates an extensive range of important cultural and political activities, including the publication of art, news, and discussion.

In this way, Voiskounsky clearly demonstrates that the Internet, while capable of reshaping cultures and peoples, is in turn profoundly shaped by cultural and linguistic patterns. In an interesting way, the world of Russian-language web pages, e-mail exchanges, chatroom discussion groups, etc., is something of a ghost of the former Soviet Union - a cultural and linguistic unity that survives in the technologies of CMC, long after the political structures that established these multiple connections have collapsed. At the same time, of course, more than ghosting is going on. As the Internet and the Web facilitate Russian-language exchanges of multiple sorts, they foster an ongoing cultural development through dialogue, creative exchanges, etc.

CMC as Gender-blind? National and Cross-cultural Realities

Contra utopian hopes that cyberspace would prove to be "gender-blind" and thus a space in which women could enjoy greater equality and acceptance, an extensive body of research has now made it clear that we carry our gender with us into cyberspace - sometimes with terrifying results, including the famous "virtual rape" in cyberspace (Dibbell, 1993, see also MacKinnon, 1998) and other forms of discrimination and violence towards women (e.g., Herring 1996, 1999). [5] Gender, of course, is a central element of the worldview defining specific cultures, i.e., the roles played by males and females, their relationship to one another (hierarchical, egalitarian), etc. It is hence perhaps not surprising, except for those holding to the more utopian view, that gender differences pervade attitudes towards and uses of CMC technologies, even in cross-cultural comparisons. We see this first in Nai Li and Gill Kirkup's study of British and Chinese students' use of and attitudes towards the Internet. Despite the considerable differences between British and Chinese cultures, they share similar patterns of gender differences, ones that work to the disadvantage of women. Ann Willis makes clear that these patterns of gender discrimination are at the heart of North American Internet culture as well - at least as that culture is represented by Wired magazine, the putative voice of the "digital revolution." Here again, despite ostensible commitment to radical equality as a primary goal of the digital revolution - indeed, a goal and value that function as crucial arguments justifying or legitimating the revolution - Wired instead works to "re-power" the familiar elites of earlier epochs, i.e., white males in the middle and upper classes.

Nai Li and Gill Kirkup

Li and Kirkup begin with a helpful review of the pertinent research on gender vis-à-vis information technology. The findings are not encouraging for those committed to gender equality: women have more negative attitudes regarding computers and greater computer anxiety; women use these technologies less, and are less likely to take computer courses or pursue computer-based careers. These differences extend to attitudes towards and use of the Internet in numerous ways, and this, despite the fact that women now form the majority of Internet users (Rickert and Sacharow, 2000). As Li and Kirkup point out, much of the research on gender and the Internet has been done in Western countries, but it is also clear that attitudes towards computers and CMC technologies depend in some measure on culture. This raises their central question: while it is clear that there are two "cultures" regarding the Internet - i.e., the cultures of male and female - do these cultural differences hold across all national cultures, or will there be some differences as we move from culture to culture? [6]

Li and Kirkup respond to this question by attempting to measure attitudes towards computers and the Internet among Chinese and UK students. Using the methods of a questionnaire survey, observation of searching activities, and post-search interviews with 465 students, they developed a nuanced picture of Internet experience, use, and attitudes. Generally, their results sustain the overview of gender differences established in Western research, beginning with men enjoying higher rates of use and greater confidence in their abilities to use and enjoy CMC technologies. Interestingly, women tend to hold less gender stereotyped attitudes than men, i.e., they were more likely to believe that women are as skilled as men and that the Internet is not male dominated. By contrast, men tend to believe that men were better at using the Internet and that computer science is more suitable as a career for men than for women.

Depressingly, these attitudes do not change over time, i.e., through increased exposure to and use of the Internet. As Li and Kirkup conclude, whatever other cultural flows may be facilitated by the Internet and related CMC technologies, gender-based attitudes and behaviors seem to be solidly fixed, no matter the culture of their users.

Ann Willis

Willis notes that the hype surrounding the 1990s "digital revolution" - more carefully, the utopian, specifically libertarian vision of individual liberation in cyberspace as free market (cf. Tim Jordan's treatment of "Cyberpower," below) - is dying down, in part as it is overshadowed by more familiar stories of "old and new media mergers, deals and machinations as companies re-shuffle to position themselves within an on-line services communication context." In this context, perennial questions remain regarding access, identity, power, etc., in sharp contrast with the utopian promises of radical equality and democracy. In Willis' view, this is not surprising as these issues were raised by what we might think of as the flagship journal of the digital revolution, Wired. Simply, while Wired professed to be the "voice of the digital revolution"- one as ostensibly radical as the industrial revolution - Willis' analysis makes clear that this version of the revolution was always only for the elite, i.e., white males, college educated, at the top of the income scales and prominent institutions in the United States. This argument is extended later on in her paper as she observes that in the period between 1993 to 1996, only one African-American was pictured on the cover - and that, to illustrate not individual success in an ideal free cyber-market, but to image the hacker who inhabits the margins of a predominantly white world of success and power. Women fare only slightly better - two covers devoted to Sherry Turkle and Laurie Anderson.

In particular, Wired emerges as the bully pulpit for laissez-faire capitalism and privatization - what Willis calls "techno-libertarian" ideology. In dramatic tension with its democratic claims, the world of Wired is first of all a gated one (what Steve Jones has called "Gates-ed communities" [2001, 56]). By focusing on ostensibly technological solutions to political issues - e.g., increasing bandwidth as eliminating information scarcity and inequalities - this ideology sidesteps and suspends genuine issues of power, as participation in Wired's vision of the future clearly depends on social and financial status, knowledge, and education. Indeed, as its laissez-faire credentials suggest, the magazine - consciously or not - invokes an equally 19th century Social Darwinism: "This is the digital revolution, you are either part of the steam roller or part of the road." (This point can be usefully compared to Tim Jordan's treatment of dystopian futures as part of the "imaginary" level of cyberpower.) This Social Darwinism at work in the competition of the marketplace, Willis later points out, hence provides techno-libertarians with a handy response to concerns about the digital divide, the gap between information haves and have-nots. In a Social Darwinist world, winners and losers are a given, a necessary outcome of competition, not a problem of justice or reason for concern.

This intrinsically hierarchical worldview is further consistent with Willis' observations of the marginalization of women and people of color in the world of Wired. This marginalization, Willis notes, squares with the more general observations of how such publications replicate sexist discourse despite their overt claims regarding egalitarianism as an inevitable and desirable outcome of the digital revolution. As Willis sees it, Wired instead "re-powers the binary 1950s gender ideologies of women positioned in the domestic private sphere with men in the public sphere of work and business." This occurs in numerous ways, perhaps most prominently through the metaphor of "frontier" for online culture - i.e., "a wild, dangerous, out of control place," one where only tough guys survive and women appear, if at all, in the role of whores (bad girls who go in before the men civilize the place) or good girls (who wait until men establish law and order).

Perhaps the greatest disjunction between the revolutionary rhetoric of liberation through technology and the realities of online praxis is in the central legitimation claim for the digital revolution - namely, that it will inevitably democratize. As we will see more fully in the discussion provided by Jordan, Holmes, and Moeller, claims for the democratization effect frequently invoked a Habermasian notion of the public sphere as the ideal. The libertarian version of democracy, as Wired makes clear, however, is rather the (limited) plebiscite notion of "clicking For or Against" - i.e., responding to ostensible choices, absent dialogue, debate, and the hard slow work of building consensus among diverse perspectives (cf. Ess, 1996). This latter view, however, makes sense in the ideological framework of Wired because it coheres and resonates with the free market of commerce as the primary model of human interaction. Our behaviors and choices as producers and consumers, as negotiators in a marketplace, are thereby conflated with "democracy". Consumer trading is equated with public participation - one participates in "democracy" (meaning, the free market or its analogue) by behaving as a consumer. For Willis, however, as for Habermas and others, there is an important contrast to be made between " (exclusive) networked trading post (based on consumption-power)" and "...a participatory democratic community."

This commodification of democracy, one that morphs it into (and thereby subsumes it under) a primary free market model, is part of a larger pattern of commodification that Willis calls "über-consumption." Willis cites here Solnit, who finds PacMan to be the symbolic metaphor of such über-consumption - its sole purpose, after all, as a disembodied head-mouth "was to devour what is in its path as it proceeds through an invisible maze" (1995, p. 230f.). As Ess (2000) has argued elsewhere, in this direction the consumer-user becomes the Star Trek Borg, an organic-mechanical collective that relentlessly consumes and homogenizes all cultural and biological resources in the species it encounters. Its power is absolute, and "resistance is futile".

In the face of this analysis, Willis then asks the sensible question, "...what exactly is revolutionary about Wired's digital projection?" - especially when it appears that Wired rather works to reinscribe "older, feudalistic and laissez-fair, ideals and practices, [thus] inhibiting possibilities of the participatory potential for modes of communication like CMC." In broader terms, contra the postmodern claims of the 1980s and 1990s (resting in part on a now widely discredited technological determinism, especially as this determinism is presumed in the Innis/Eisenstein/McLuhan/Ong account of communication technologies [7]) that new means of communication automatically mean revolutionary changes in social, political, and cultural practices. Willis makes clear, rather, that culture is conservative - it is much rather the case that older patterns of belief, values, and practices will express themselves in new forms made possible by new technologies, instead of the case that new technologies will reshape those older patterns.

Democracy in Cyberspace? Libertarians, Habermas, and Luhmann

As we saw in Willis' discussion of Wired, much has been made of "electronic democracy" as one of the specific ways in which CMC technology would fulfill utopian hopes for liberation via technology - whether in modernist or postmodernist guise. [8] In particular, Jürgen Habermas's theory of communicative reason and correlative concept of the public sphere has provided a central theoretical foundation for explorations of how far CMC technologies might indeed serve democratic hopes (e.g., Ess, 1996; Becker and Wehner, 2001; Rheingold, 2000). While Habermas is critical of especially libertarian views of democracy (Ess, 1996), libertarianism predominated (and still predominates?) Net ideologies in the 1990s. Tim Jordan's essay provides an extensive justification of such Net libertarianism as part of his analysis of "cyberpower." Our final two papers articulate important theoretical perspectives on the democratization thesis - and in a way that brings to the foreground contemporary debate in German-speaking philosophy between Habermas and Niklas Luhmann.

Tim Jordan

Jordan explores power in cyberspace, beginning with a broadly construed understanding of power - one that includes Foucault. He begins by looking more closely at three elements of our experience in cyberspace: identity fluidity, renovated hierarchies, and informational spaces.

Unlike earlier enthusiasms for life online that emphasized radical discontinuities between embodied and disembodied identity, Jordan's treatment of identity and renovated hierarchies recognizes a number of important connections between online and offline experience. So, for example, while acknowledging that certain aspects of offline identity - e.g., gender, race, geographical location, etc. - may be hidden online (see Herring, 1996, 1999), Jordan claims that it would be a mistake "to assume that the powers that flow around offline identity...are absent online...." Instead, he argues, we should identify the particular forms of identity that emerge in cyberspace and what kinds of power attaches to them. On this basis, moreover, he attends to the ways in which "offline hierarchies are reinvented online", precisely on the basis of online identities as still implicating offline identity. This means, in different terms, that in contrast with the either/or's characteristic of 1980s and 1990s emphases on the radical differences between online and offline, Jordan's account of cyberspace is something of a middle ground. This middle ground recognizes the both/and - the ways in which cyberspace is both different from and similar to our ordinary lives as embodied human beings in real spaces. So, for example, Jordan reiterates some of the familiar claims regarding the difference between online and offline - e.g., that hierarchies will be flattened by more egalitarian forms of communication that emerge in cyberspace, and that the Net, in the famous phrase, interprets censorship as damage and simply routes messages along different pathways, thus undermining governmental efforts at control. At the same time, however, our identities in the real world, and the relative power or lack thereof that we enjoy, accompany us into cyberspace. Using Jordan's examples, if our e-mail address reads "," our mail is more likely to be read; and if our skills as typists and our wit and humor exceed those of others in a particular communicative space, we will enjoy hierarchical advantages there as well.

Jordan likewise emphasizes this sort of dialectical interrelationship in his analysis of online communities and the individual:

[communicative online] collectives may create the conditions under which certain forms of individuality can be realised. The collective becomes the fundamental cause. At both levels of cyberpower both virtual individuals and virtual communities exist, but their relations are reversed. Cyberpower of the social derives from the belief that individuals have their possible actions defined by the collective bodies they are part of.

By the same token, Jordan points out this same interrelationship between the individual and the technologies of CMC: "Our individual powers in cyberspace will be defined by the technology we are using and the capabilities this technology offers." This is so, moreover, because the technology embeds social and/or ethical values - an aspect of what Jordan calls "technopower," the conjunction of seemingly dead technology with living social values that "constitute the very possibility that cyberspace exists in the first place."

This technopower, more broadly, has a trajectory. Contra the liberationist theme characteristic of 1980s and 1990s postmodern enthusiasm for cyberspace, Jordan claims that "The direction of technopower in cyberspace is toward greater elaboration of technological tools to more people who have less ability to understand the nature of those tools." Instead of the technology delivering greater power and control to the users - the promise of all modern technologies - control is rather delivered "to those with expertise in the increasingly complex software and hardware needed to constitute the tools that allow individual users to create lives and societies." This process involves information overload, as moving information from the costly and time-consuming production processes of print into cheap and quick electronic forms contributes to the explosion of information. The solution to this, of course, is more technology to organize, filter, and dispose of information. However, this only adds to the problem of information overload, according to Jordan, leaving only an elite of real experts to enjoy any putative freedom in cyberspace. Contra a "hopeful form of power" for the individual, "...cyberpower of the social is pessimistic because it reveals networks of interactions that increase the ability to act of an expertise-based elite."

Jordan's third layer of cyberpower is the imaginary, the layer that includes our sense of urgency to either jump on the bandwagon of new possibilities just around the corner ("the future is in beta") and/or to flee the imagined disasters of dystopian futures. Jordan nicely summarizes the various forms of utopias imagined for cyberspace, including hopes for personal immortality (Moravec, 1988), virtual "heavens" in which perfect equality is achieved, and the cyborg as overcoming binary oppositions that found oppression (most famously, Haraway, 1990). Our favorite dystopias, by contrast, turn on cyberspace qua panopticon (though he doesn't use this term), i.e., the space in which the individual becomes perfectly transparent to complete surveillance. Jordan makes the important point that both these hopes and fears rest on the belief that "everything can now be manipulated through information codes," i.e., there is no resistance, nothing that cannot be reduced to information.

For Jordan, finally, the future is up for grabs. While he argues that libertarianism - the ideological conjunction of individual liberty and free markets - is best suited to cyberspace, he sees it as contested ground, a battleground between the individual and the social, including the possibility of dominance by elites.

David Holmes

Holmes begins with a review of some of the most important voices regarding democratization in cyberspace, including Mark Poster's (1997) seminal analysis of the Internet as facilitating especially postmodernist conceptions of democracy, before turning to Habermas's conception of the public sphere proper. He points out that the public/private distinction presumed in this conception becomes problematic, first of all, as broadcast media override geographic and kinship foundations of one's sense of the public sphere. As well, as the Internet and other electronic media introduce interactivity - a point stressed by Poster as marking out "the second media age" - the question arises as to whether broadcast and network forms of communication make a new kind of public sphere possible. In contrast with the enthusiasts who find network communication thus redemptive (a term Holmes chooses precisely because of its theological significance), Holmes examines what kinds of interactivity are indeed made possible with CMC technologies. While he finds important mismatches between the Habermasian requirements for the public sphere and the kinds of dialogical reciprocity that may take place in CMC, Holmes likewise finds that the postmodern alternatives are also lacking - first of all, because they fall into an overly simple technological determinism. Holmes comes to a complex middle ground, claiming first that as individuals engage in a variety of communicative media, they participate not so much in a "pre-given public sphere" but rather "in the process of constructing publicness across a range of mediums." Hence it is less the case that, as postmodernists tend to argue, "...the contemporary public sphere is breaking down and becoming fragmented as is the fact that it is sustained across increasingly more complex, dynamic and global kinds of communication environments."

Hans-Georg Moeller

To counter any claim of realizing a Habermasian public sphere in cyberspace, Moeller turns to the work of Niklas Luhmann, one of Habermas's chief critics, to provide a framework for analyzing the rules defining participation in a children's website (KinderNetz). Simply, using Luhmann's framework results in the argument that that these rules are anti-democratic in important ways.

Moeller begins by providing us the rules for participating in KinderNetz:

1. I do not give away my password to anyone, not even to my best friend.
2. I use a nickname in the Children's Net. I do not tell my real name to others.
3. I do not give away my mailing or email-address, telephone or fax number in the public forums or homepages.
4. There's no room for mean language, scolding and insulting in the Children's Net.
5. I tell my parents when and for how long I surf the Children's Net and also whom I contact there.
6. When I find something in the Children's Net arousing a bad feeling or even frightening me, I tell my parents and/or write an email to the Children's Net editorial staff. (see

Moeller makes clear that these rules are consistent in various ways with the hopes of realizing a Habermasian herrschaftsfreie ("domination-free") discourse. But Moeller then turns to Luhmann's analysis of identity in a media society to argue first of all that "...individuality in our post-modern society is gained through social exclusion. To be an individual means to be special, to be different from others." But we can acquire these patterns of exclusive individuality only by taking up those patterns as they are provided and legitimated by communication as a primary act and artifact of society. This leads us to the paradox of individuality: "Social agents gain their 'individuality' not 'by themselves,' but by adopting one or, more often, several of the identities offered by social discourse. (This kind of individuality is not at all individual in the literal sense of the word!)" Moeller argues that new forms of communication foster and enhance just this "pseudo-individuality," rather than a Habermasian individuality.

Moeller then argues that KinderNetz, including its setting in a virtual city hall and rules for discourse, helps substantiate Luhmann's analysis. To begin with,

the very setting of a city hall is an extremely conventional and politically structured one: Here, participants will have to adopt certain pre-established patterns of "individuality" or of communication roles. The political setting and the normativity of the discourse supplies the participants with a choice of pseudo-individualities.

As well, Moeller notes that the prohibitions against sharing anything of one's real-world identity online amount to a Luhmannian kind of mediated individuality: because of the "schizophrenia" between the child's online and offline identities, "'Exclusive' individuality can only be obtained by including oneself for a certain person in a pre-established communicative setting."

The upshot for Moeller is that the "pre-established communicative settings" and the explicit and/or implicit norms of discourse, rather than liberating the individual, leads to his/her self-destruction. In particular, Moeller takes postmodernist celebration of the fragmentation and decentering of identities online to its logical conclusion:

Internet communication is a sort of intensified reproduction of our communicative reality: We can experience manifold modes and patterns of communication or social interaction, and these manifold patterns supply us with manifold individualities. As soon as we change the website, we change our individuality.

Taken to its extreme, this fragmentation of identity will blur any meaningful boundary between our "real" and "virtual" identities - thus rendering, he notes in conclusion, the first three rules of KinderNetz obsolete!

Concluding Remarks

In sharp contrast with the euphoric enthusiasm for the digital revolution of the 1990s, our contributors thus raise a range of critical concerns. CMC technologies do not serve as a culturally transparent medium that somehow eliminates cultural differences and culturally-based obstacles to communication On the contrary, CMC technologies embed specific communicative preferences (e.g., for brevity) that work against effective cross-cultural communication. Indeed, CMC technologies may embed preferences for the public, the busy, the noisy, the unreflective and the self-promoting that runs directly at odds with individual and cultural preferences for privacy, silence, reflection, and humility. In fact, both cross-culturally and at the heart of the North American self-promotion of CMC technologies, we find a variety of clear biases against women. These biases, indeed, are consistent with more libertarian understandings of the sorts of freedom and democracy facilitated by the Net and the Web. Even such an articulate defender of Net libertarianism as Tim Jordan recognizes that in the competition for multiple forms of power available in cyberspace, traditional elites and hierarchies may win out once again, despite justifications to the contrary that claim greater equality and democracy will inevitably emerged in a Wired world. Indeed, the problem of realizing any form of electronic democracy is complex. The strong theoretical foundations provided by Habermas are fundamentally challenged by Luhmann, who, as taken up by Moeller, argues instead that our participation in cyberspace is the end of "individuality," much less "democracy."

It would thus seem safe to say that the bloom is indeed off the revolution. But this is by no means to argue that the revolution has failed. On the contrary, we have argued that it is precisely through recognizing these critical limitations and dangers in CMC technologies that we are thus able to make use of them in informed ways that are more likely to succeed in their goals (Sudweeks and Ess, 2001; Ess, 2001). In other words, precisely by recognizing the role of culture in communication above and beyond what CMC technologies can - and cannot - accomplish, we are better able to teach and train people to use these technologies in culturally-informed ways that are more likely to facilitate rather than frustrate cross-cultural communication. Similarly, by recognizing how far CMC technologies may favor male ways of knowing and communicating, women and men who are interested in more egalitarian relationships and communication can use - perhaps even design - these technologies in ways more likely to foster rather than hinder such equality. Finally, by refining our theoretical understanding of what democracy might mean, and determining - through both theoretical debate and reflection on what happens in praxis as diverse users take up CMC technologies in diverse cultural settings - how far these technologies might indeed encourage more democratic forms of polity, we are better prepared to make effective use of these technologies for the sake of genuine democracy rather than its counterfeits.

In all these moments, in fact, it appears that if we wish to realize at least some of the goals of the "digital revolution" - greater gender equality, greater democracy, etc. - we must (re)turn to a broader understanding of how our lives online rest on and interact with our lives offline, i.e., as embodied human beings inextricably implicated in multiple webs of relationships with other human beings in diverse communities, traditions, histories, cultures, and, indeed, with a larger ecological system. Such a (re)turn, we have argued, will include attention to the social context of use of CMC technologies as a way of shaping their design and use in light of the values and bias they can embed, and in order to avoid various forms of computer-mediated colonization, i.e., the imposition of unwanted and alien cultural values and communicative preferences that otherwise is likely to result from the naïve assumption that these technologies are culturally neutral. While there are, unfortunately, a range of examples of such colonization (e.g., Postma, 2001; Sy, 2001) - there are also examples of utilizing CMC technologies in ways that avoid colonization, however inadvertent, while sustaining both local cultural values and preferences alongside communication with those beyond the boundaries of one's immediate community and culture (Hongladarom, 2001; Harris et al., 2001).

We hope that these essays help you increase your awareness of the strengths and limits of CMC technologies, so that you may engage in more informed and reflective approaches to using these technologies in ways that enhance rather than overwhelm diverse cultural values and communicative preferences.


[1] We would like to express our great appreciation to Teresa Harrison, whose original encouragement led us to undertake the daunting task of organizing the first CATaC conference in 1998, and whose many suggestions and good ideas helped it not only succeed but continue - as this second collection of essays from CATaC'00 suggests. Additional thanks for the success of CATaC'00 go to Andrew Turk and Mark Gibson (both of Murdoch University) who served as Vice-Chairs. Moira Dawe (Murdoch University), Conference Manager, and the members of the Local Organizing Committee - Matthew Allen, Steve Benson, John Gammack, Fiona MacMillan, Richard Thomas, and Kathryn Trees - handled many of the nitty-gritty details with skill and grace. The conference further enjoyed the generous sponsorship of AI & Society (Springer Verlag), the American Bible Society's Research Center for Scripture and Media, the Association of Internet Researchers (, Drury University, the Korea Society, McGraw-Hill Australia, and, at Murdoch University, the Division of Business, Information Technology and Law, and the Centre for Research in Culture and Communication.

[2] The conference proceedings for CATaC'98 are available online at Subsequent publications from CATaC'98 include a special issue of EJC/REC (Vol 8 (3&4), 1998), AI and Society (Ess and Sudweeks, 1999), Javnost-the Public (Sudweeks and Ess, 1999), and the recent volume Culture, Technology, Communication: Towards an Intercultural Global Village (Ess, 2001). Three papers from CATaC'00, documenting cultural conflicts between Western CMC technologies and diverse peoples (including indigenous cultures) in developing nations, are collected in a special issue of New Media and Society (Ess and Sudweeks, 2001). Five more papers from CATaC'00 addressing issues related to cultural transformations of communication and knowledge are collected in a special issue of the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication (Sudweeks, Ess and Zhu, 2002). Finally, the conference proceedings for CATaC'00 are available at

[3] The pertinent literature is extensive and growing rapidly. Here it suffices to mention Katherine Hayles' "post-post-modern" framework that stresses a web of complementary relationships, including a rejection of Cartesian/postmodern dualisms separating body and mind: "...reflexive epistemology replaces objectivism ... embodiment replaces a body seen as a support system for the mind; and a dynamic partnership between humans and intelligent machines replaces the liberal humanist subject's manifest destiny to dominate and control nature" (Hayles, 1999, 288). See, as well, Sobchack (1995) and Hillis (1999, especially ch. 6).
Among others, Barbara Becker (2000, 2001) recovers and develops non-dualistic understandings of identity through a phenomenological analysis: in doing so, she introduces the neologism "BodySubject" (LeibSubjekt) as a way of referring to the human being as a mind-and-body. Hubert Dreyfus, likewise drawing primarily on the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty as well as the existential analyses of Kierkegaard, extends Becker's analysis to critique especially the limitations of distance education as a specific case of postmodern enthusiasm for disembodied existence online (2001).
Jay David Bolter - as part of his own shift from his earlier, more dualistic postmodern enthusiasm to a more moderate sense of the differences and connections between the Age of New Media and earlier eras - cites Allucquere Roseanne Stone's critique of Cartesian dualism at work in especially the hopes for online communities as radically divorced from embodied identity and the offline world (1991, p. 113; cited in Bolter, 2001).

[4] See Hall (1976) for a discussion on high and low context communication.

[5] Similar observations hold for race: see, most famously, Kolko et al. (2000).

[6] Given the central importance of Hofstede's framework of cultural analysis (1980), it is important to note that the question raised here by Li and Kirkup is not the one addressed by Hofstede's masculine/feminine index of cultural differences. Rather, the latter is more precisely a measure of how different/similar male and female roles are in a given culture, respectively.

[7] See Eisenstein (1983) and Ong (1981, 1988). For a representative account of this foundational theory, see Chesebro and Bertelson (1996). Recent critiques of this theory have focused on its questionable assumption of technological determinism: for a review of the pertinent literature in philosophy as well as communication theory, see Ess (2000). In addition, see Heaton for her discussion and documentation of "a growing backlash against technological determinism, [and] an increasing awareness that the path a given technology takes may not be inevitable and absolute," in social science approaches to technology and engineering (2001, p. 215). In addition, this theory has been criticized for .drawing overly sharp lines between the stages of orality, literacy, print, and the secondary orality of electronic culture: see Sveningsson (2001, p. 26-44) for a review of the literature.

[8] Lyotard (1984) is the locus classicus here. See Harrison and Falvey (2001) for a comprehensive survey of the literature of electronic democracy.


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