Social Interaction within Virtual Environments (Part 4 of 4)

Freedom and Social Control

Before applying Habermas’ social theory to interaction in virtual spaces, two fundamental elements and their components of interaction, freedom and social control, must be made clear. To define the terms of discussion for this section, I borrow directly from the political scientist D. G. Kousoulas who offers a simple and practical model that applies neatly to this thesis. Although this model comes from an introductory text on political science, Kousoulas’ model offers a set of criteria which are most fundamental to politics, and I’ve chosen it for that reason. His model is as “generic” of a system of measurement, and as close to being universal and unbiased. The measurements offered in the text are six, but for the purpose of this paper I’ve eliminated two since they do not readily apply to a virtual setting. [4]

4 The two elements excluded deal with the judiciary sector of government.

First, let’s see what Kousoulas has to say about power: “Experience shows that the extent of freedom and social control is determined by the number of power structures that exist within a given political system” (Kousoulas 1982). Since there is no specific ideology ringing throughout the net, it would be difficult to qualify it as a “political system.” However, the fact that no official power structures exist within nets signals either complete chaos or a high degree of freedom, defined as:

The right of individuals to shape their behavior according to personal inclinations and preferences as long as they do not encroach upon the similar right of others (Kousoulas 1982).

Imposed limits on freedom is known as social control:

The binding rules and instrumentalities used by political authorities to regulate human activities in order to preserve the stability and continuity of the political system and to protect its major components (Kousoulas 1982).

These two elements are central to the design of any political framework, their degree and balance is what sustains or destroys a social structure. Power, consistent with these definitions of freedom and social control, is defined by Kousoulas as “The capacity to make other human beings do what they would not do of their own accord” (Kousoulas 1982). For this definition I’d like to include that media is often used by power structures to influence a given population, another feature of the net; the ability to choose on an individual basis what is news and what is information that heightens the element of freedom.

The degree of freedom and social control within a given setting can be measured by applying certain criteria present within a given political situation. The conditions for collecting a measurement of each of these factors are drawn from my own observations of various forums, and my technical understanding of network architecture and systems administration.

The first condition mentioned by Kousoulas:

1. The right of individuals to express opinions without previous permission by political authorities and without fear of later punishment (Kousoulas 1982).

This is understood as an almost unlimited freedom on the net, both production of information and censorship controlled by the individual. Since interference from authority is absent, the power for self expression or censorship is transferred to the individual alone. When this power is voluntarily surrendered due to contention, the result is what Richard MacKinnon in his thesis “Searching For the Leviathan in USENET” identifies as a Leviathan; “the institution of censorship or moderation of the messages written by the network’s users.” However, when the power of censorship is maintained by the members of a forum contention is resolved by means of collective action, usually by ignoring the individuals involved in the exchange of disagreement.

The majority of forums within the Internet are not exclusive, invitation is simply a matter of subscription. One can see the open expression allowed simply by reading posts from the variety of discussion groups. Of course, this freedom inevitably results in disagreements and contention, an activity called “flaming” in net speak.

The decentralized architecture of the network may be the foremost reason for the allowance of such open communication. Decentralization, and the large scale of the net restrict the imposition of an authority, either technical or social. However, with such an open arena, and the growing acceptance of the virtual medium, there is a matter of vulnerability involved.

Fear of later punishment is an item that deserves careful consideration as it raises physical issues about liability and privacy. It is not uncommon to find posted messages in forums with attached disclaimers; “these opinions are not necessarily those of my employer.” There have been cases, very few, in which electronic mail has been held as evidence for punishment.5 This fear of punishment detail has more to do with ownership of the transmitting technology. As it is possible to originate messages from an anonymous location or post under a pseudonym, the stories of being punished for virtual behavior cannot be taken into deep consideration. What these stories do demonstrate however, is the growing attitude in considering electronic mail and other forms of text based virtual communication as an acceptable medium.

This leads to the second measurement, related to the first in regards to location of the individual and ownership of these transmission devices:

2. The right of individuals to organize and establish independent power structures without interference by political authorities (Kousoulas 1982).

5 See Educom Update:

This raises the issue of attachment. I mean attachment in the sense that whatever active bodies exist in virtual spaces, are eventually attached to a physical body, tied to a physical economy and politic. Therefore, we have to consider this item by examining freedom within and without the net.

In brief, the main exterior variable would be mainly ownership or access to the technology itself (an item to be mentioned again later). At this time, subscriptions to Internet access range from ten to twenty dollars a month and personal computers beginning at prices within hundreds of dollars. Neither of these are necessary for communication in modern society, conventional forms of media are still used more often as they are more accessible. But before announcing my conclusions which rest mainly on the physical limitations, I’ll continue with what exists within the environment.

Both the forums that exist within computer networks and the platforms upon which they function are considered power structures. A power structure within this context may be regarded as a mailing list, a news group, any social forum that within a computer. The process of creating social forums can be done a number of ways, many of which are a matter of technical expertise and level of access within a given node. The three most practical and frequent are producing a personal electronic mailing list (distribution list), configuring an email distribution list on a node, or by proposing a news group. Software for operating systems and the various communication applications are widely available and within the public domain. [6]

6 Such organizations as the Linux Development Group and the guidelines of the GNU Public License have helped make this possible.

Without explaining the technical details and procedures in creating forums, I’ll mention only that any assembly within the net does not require privately owned equipment but simply access to the equipment. These connections are becoming more widely available in public and private social institutions around the world. However, access is limited to mainly these types of institutions, it is not yet a widely available for the public at large.

The next consideration Kousoulas mentions also involves the matter of attachment, yet I’m saving the remainder of the discussion of physical limitations for the next section since it involves such a strong relationship between the interior and exterior of the environment.

3. The right of individuals to take hold of economic resources (property, control of assets) and use them to increase their own influence and power potential so that they can counter the influence or power potential of other groups, individuals, or of the political authorities themselves (Kousoulas 1982).

An economic resource within, and often without a virtual system is difficult to locate. What is becoming of greater value in modern societies is information. Not to allude to a lengthy discussion of an “information economy,” but it is necessary to mention that “taking hold of economic resources” will continue to raise issues of access, privacy, and systems security. If we consider information as a relative idea as opposed to a commodity, then it’s absolutely worthless. However, to build an information economy requires that some value is placed upon it. In the age of reproduction, and in regards to information in general, ownership means nothing when dissemination is vast in scale.

As the nets presently exist, the availability of information is immense. This raises a plethora of issues and debates related to the production, dissemination, security, distribution, and exact nature of information itself. To conclude on this point, I will mention only that information is not knowledge, and there is no worth when it is easily disseminated or obtained. A growing problem is there may too much of it. Individuals may not necessarily gain anything financially from the dissemination of information, but rather they may have to find new ways to protect themselves from it.

4. The right of individuals to travel, communicate, choose their type and place of employment, place of residence, and associations… to acquire skills through training and education and to employ these skills for their on benefit without undue interference by the political authorities (social opportunities) (Kousoulas 1982).

The ability to communicate within nets is related to the high degree of freedom of expression. Associations are global, along with other social opportunities within the net, there is no specific political authority. It is this item that I believe will be most likely to affect issues of economy.

First in terms of employment: As labor is becoming more information oriented and access to it is becoming less a matter of proximity, the workplace is gradually being moved into virtual spaces with the working body situated in different locales. This method of transportation to the workplace is known as telecommuting.

From this, and other transformations in the electronic and information industries, I see changes in labor structure in terms of currency, sexual roles in and out of the domestic setting, and labor based on regional ethnicities. For a more detailed, yet complicated analysis of the “Homework Economy,” I would add Donna Haraway to the discussion. However, I need to signal a conclusion in this analysis of freedom and social control.

In discussing major political elements involved within and without the net, a very sharp distinction must be made between the physical and non­ physical self. In terms of what exists within these networks, freedom measures very high. Yet to eliminate a naive conclusion that since such a thing exists, and because its linked to a physical mind, it must therefore enhance social freedom, I find it necessary to bring the physical self into deeper consideration.

We have a medium, globally interactive, without the intimidating censoring or presence of political authorities. Within this environment that seems much like a new world, freedom of expression is so immense it brings to mind images of a “state of nature” or measures on scales of political systems very close to anarchy. Yet such an analysis, as I have done here, will always return to issues of the physical body; attachment.

I’ll return to the issue of attachment in the following section highlighting selected prose from the social critic Jurgen Habermas.

The Public Sphere

In researching social theories, I’ve found the most applicable discourse paralleling social interaction within virtual environments to be borderline utopian. I find tales of utopia a useful political approach as long as they acknowledge elements of disaster, either implicitly or bringing in full view of the ongoing image. These theories may help locate the problems involved in creating a better society, as long as they don’t lose sight of the riddling present.

It may be incorrect (politically?) to say that Habermas was writing about an idealized society, he does in fact mention “It is not possible to demonstrate the existence of a public sphere in its own right…” (Habermas 1973). Elements of projection, of a place situated outside of existing society are throughout his discussion. My interpretation of Habermas is that the public sphere would exist outside of society, in the press or some other form of media, and that is why I’ve chosen it as the main model for comparison to interaction within virtual environments.

Let’s first look at what Habermas was thinking:

By “public sphere” we mean first of all a domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed. Access to the public sphere is open in principle to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere is constituted in every conversation in which private persons come together to form a public. They are then acting neither as business or professional people conducting private affairs, nor as legal consociates subject to the legal regulations of a state bureaucracy and obligated to obedience. Citizens act as a public when the deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion; thus with the guarantee that they may assemble and unite freely, and express and publicize their opinions freely (Habermas 1973).

There are three terms here that immediately warrant investigation: “assemble,” “coercion,” and “in principle.” As discussed earlier, the net is an open global arena in which coercion is physically impossible (so to speak). Assembly is a matter of keystrokes, access to various forums is open subscription, and there is no presence of any political authority. So do we have a public sphere? No. As Habermas included in this description; “Access to the public sphere is open in principle to all citizens” (my italics, Habermas 1973). Access to technologies, and therefore access to the public sphere is not open to all citizens.

Only within the past twenty years has the idea of a personal computer been offered. The ownership of that technology specifically and technologies in general is still in the hands of the privileged few. They are relatively expensive to the lower income brackets of American society, and still unheard of in less developed countries. So my question is will this system of ownership follow that of conventional media? Or will the miniaturization and decreasing price of personal computers cause them to become affordable and ubiquitous?

A re-examination of the initial argument fits quite well here. Power structures, those in control of media, information, and the social constructs that compose identities, want full control over the location of these public spheres and knowledge of the discourse within them. Although I have no predictions to the future of computer networks, if they continue following the pattern of miniaturization and ubiquity, public sphere access devices will be found in the strangest of places. For these reasons, I consider Haraway’s cyborg as a possible citizen of the not so distant future. Yet in following the earlier discussion of technology, there is no exact nature manifested in the devices we create, some have even argued coherently that the proliferation of nuclear arms is what may bring world peace.

The public sphere does exist within computer networks, but at the moment the computer networks are accessible only by the haves. Therefore I find a dichotomy that only the future may answer. Yes, the public sphere is a reality, a virtual reality.