Social Interaction within Virtual Environments (Part 1 of 4)

Social Interaction within Virtual Environments: An Analysis of The Electronic Public Sphere by Kevin Kruzich (kkruzich@gmail.com)

Thesis advisor: Allucquere Rosanne Stone (Sandy Stone)

Thesis submitted as requirement for Bachelor of Arts in Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin, 1994

Abstract and Introduction

This effort begins with the premise that the evolution of communication technologies and their increasing availability have been a primary influence upon shifts in social organization. Some examples include: the nuclear bomb, the railroad, telephone, television, and central to this thesis; the global computer network.

By the close of the late twentieth century, we stand witness to the most rapid advances in communication technologies in history. Advances in speed and broadcast scale, new forms of media, the ubiquity of communication devices, are progressions implying a “global village.” Individual freedom and social control are components of the socio-political which have unquestionably been affected by these advances, but to what degree? This purpose of this thesis then is to bring further attention to the relationship between the socio-political and technical by comparing fundamental issues present within our physical politics and their parallels to nascent virtual communities.

The communication technology chosen for this study is the global computer network known as the Internet. An article in the January 1994 issue of Utne Reader magazine estimates 30 million people with access to the network in more than 40 countries. The number of computers linked to the Internet is approximately 1.3 million, a number which doubled each year between 1988 and 1992 (Utne 1994).

Within this communication infrastructure are affinity groups germinating by the exchange of mostly text based dialogue [l]. From personal accounts, myths, and conspiracy theories to technical information and support groups, new communities at the very margins of physical societies sometimes form sufficient cohesion to eliminate carrying their experiences to the exterior world.

The argument of the thesis is as follows: given that power structures have recognized the command, control, and centralization of information as a significant source of influence upon social organization, the ubiquity and miniaturization of modern communication devices and the advance of decentralized communication networks such as the Internet, results in more autonomous control over information, expression, and shaping of public opinion.

My framework is borrowed from a variety of schools, mainly of the postmodern, assuming the stance of rejection of meta narrative, acknowledgment of new social movements, recognition of the socio-political impacts of information technologies, and the problems of societal rationalization (Anderson 1993) [2]. For this thesis I have researched sources concerned with perennial questions of government, questions of media theory, and theoretical works dealing with the relationship between technology and society.

In addition to researching texts, I have spent an enormous amount of time and effort exploring the medium from both technical and social perspectives. As I have been an observer as much as an architect and participant, my goal here is to not only provide a platform to launch future efforts, but also to increase my own understanding of the complex social features of communication technologies and their technical platforms. I find it necessary then to combine authoritative works with my own experiences as references for this work. Meaning to be drawn from a study must value personal accounts in addition to authoritative texts.

Organization

This thesis is organized by centering discussions around the various points of the subject. Each discussion is arranged in sections stating their purpose in the opening paragraphs and summarizing conclusions at the end. The first section deals with a brief history of computer networking and basic principles of network design. The second section discusses the important aspect of decentralization as the paradigm for stable network architecture. The third section discusses the production of community within networks and the traditional theories of social organization. And the fourth section explains issues involved in the distinctions and non-distinctions between the physical and non-physical modes of being and communication.

Following the opening sections of the thesis is a presentation of a model involving the key elements of freedom and social control. These fundamental political concepts are included as a preliminary method for the theoretical section evaluating Jurgen Habermas’ notion of the “public sphere” to social interaction within virtual environments.

After evaluating Habermas, conclusions are drawn related to freedom and social control within computer networks and their relationship to the outside world. The results of that discussion are then followed by proposals for the future of computer networking along with suggestions for further research.

Concepts and Definitions

Many of the concepts and terms for this thesis will be explained within their appropriate sections. This area is only to furnish a brief explanation of the more frequent ideas and to provide a background for the main discussion. The two major relationships from which the ideas of this thesis stem are between the physical and non-physical, and the technical and social.

Terms applicable to social theory used throughout this study are borrowed from pre-existing works in government and sociology. Certain elements have been chosen from those fields dealing with questions of freedom and social control that parallel interaction within virtual environments. Yet in applying fundamental elements from established disciplines, the meanings become increasingly problematic when used in this new setting. Since much of this work raises a variety of slippery theoretical questions, some areas may appear ambiguous. Even after the completion of this thesis, the effort remains in progress.

It is necessary for the reader to have at least some introductory experience with computer mediated communication in order to grasp certain references appearing throughout this paper. This thesis is not an instructional or technical guide concerned with the use or design of computer networks, therefore these items will be discussed only when necessary and in brief.

The terms “network,” “Internet,” “virtual environment,” and so on, will appear regularly. The Internet computer network is not restricted to a specific domain of computers, but involves a variety of interconnected networks, sub-networks, and communication protocols. Within this structure are a multitude of technical nodes supported by a diversity of motivations, thus making it impossible to map a specific territory or theme.

Since these networks generally follow the same principles and design, I will refer to them using different terms according to the context of the discussion, e.g. net, network, virtual space. Any expression suggesting the idea of a seamless web of computers is in reference to the Internet and is the basis of my ideas in regards to virtual systems theory. Although the majority of my observations come from within the Internet proper, it is foolish to make basic assumptions about the activities or functions of other networks or to use that area as substantial groundwork for virtual systems theory.

The term “network” in this study refers to the computer network structure as a physical whole, whereas the term “virtual,” “non-physical,” refers to a mode of being within the network. A network itself is physical, consisting of telephone lines connecting silicon chips, magnetic storage devices, and other such components. The term “virtual environment” and references to “forums” or “places” within these seemingly imaginary constructions refer to “spaces [which] instantiate the collapse of boundaries between the social and technological, biology and machine, natural and artificial that are part of the postmodern imaginary” (Stone 1992). This statement best defines the relationship between physical and non-physical realities and challenges the customary use of the term “virtual,” which for the purpose of this paper, does not suggest abstraction or “in effect being so, “but rather indicates spaces in which social interaction takes place without physical presence, a concept not so far removed from the ancient practice of hieroglyphics.

Some consideration must be given to this label “technology.” Although there is no need to arrive at a conclusive definition of the term here, it is necessary to describe the context in which it will be used. There is often the tendency in forming opinions related to technology to regard the phenomenon as either an emancipatory or liberating force. Although this thesis focuses on ways in which technology could be used to benefit humanity, it will not lose sight of its dualistic nature. As the applications and appearances of our devices become more diverse it becomes increasingly problematic to arrive at satisfactory definitions, and even more troublesome in determining a specific nature.

Within these pages I mean technology as a social apparatus, a physical device of technical performance that facilitates communication and therefore the potential to restructure community. As Marshall McLuhan describes technological devices as “the second great extension of the central nervous system” in their ability to extend consciousness, I’ll be referring them in much the same manner (McLuhan 1964). Within this framework, the alphabet qualifies as a social technology, as the silicon chip is a surface for writing (Haraway 1991).

From the above description, it would not be inaccurate to claim that all technologies affect the social unit in some way. But it is not exactly the design of the technology itself that causes shifts in the social structure, but more often the way in which it is implemented. With the increasing miniaturization and dissemination of sophisticated devices, we may arrive at a situation in which ubiquity results in invisibility, a point in which the patterns of technology’s impacts will difficult or impossible to trace.

The use of the word “device” throughout this text is in reference to personal computers as we understand them now. Yet the implications cannot be ignored. A theme running throughout this paper regards science fiction as an acceptable method of theory. Although I’ll be pointing to the personal computer whenever using the term “device,” that reference includes tomorrow’s discoveries as well. Computers, as we understand them now, always signal more power imminent.

To make the necessary distinction between what is commonly recognized as social organization and social organization within virtual systems, I will often use the adjectives of either “physical” or “virtual” as an adjective to my point of reference (e.g.. physical space, virtual space). It is important to maintain this distinction since the social models used throughout this paper are based on existing physical structures and compared to social phenomenon within virtual systems. This distinction will be discussed in greater detail in a following section.

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