Why Analyse The Internet and How Should We Go About It?

Posted to the bulletin board of my NET12 class

"The line between ‘technical’ and ‘social’ is not a clear one, and never can be." So said the ‘wizards’ of LambdaMOO, one of the most sucessful MOO environments in the early days of the Internet when they realised that they couldn’t make purely technical decisions, without affecting the social interactions happening within their network.

This realisation is the core of why I believe that it is critical to analyse the impact of the Internet, rather than just accepting it and ‘going with the flow’. Extrapolating from this statement, it starts to become clear that modifications to this technology will affect the social aspects of the network as well. Given that a large proportion of a lot of people’s lives are moving online (and all indications point to this being an increasing trend), it is important that we know how both the technical and social evolution will affect us all.

We are now all living in a world which will, presumably, "continue to exclude ordinary citizens from key choices about the design and development of new technologies, including information systems."[*] If we don’t stand up and have a say in this new world, it will evolve around us, probably to the tune of corporate songs. "Here computer professionals could exercise much-needed leadership" says Winner, asking said computer professionals to "involve the public in activities of inquiry, exploration, dialogue, and debate", but why would they? Why would a computer professional choose to involve the public when they might potentially speak against the intentions of that professional (or his/her company)? According to the Cluetrain Manifesto, this situation will be remedied in the future because "Companies attempting to ‘position’ themselves need to take a position. Optimally, it should relate to something their market actually cares about" and "Companies need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships". The authors are saying that companies of the future will be much more closely involved with their markets, and so it will actually be in everyone’s best interest to make sure the ‘net evolves into something useful for us all (even if it’s a matter of helping the consumer, so that they can become better at consuming products – it still helps the consumer [hopefully!]).

Whether this will actually happen or not (and whether it will happen in time to stop the Internet from becoming a corporate play-toy) is another issue. In the meantime, we need to be educated enough to make valid decisions and statements about where we would like to go with this thing, and what we would like it to become. Personally, I think the following 2 points sum up what will happen in the future;

  1. Corporations/consumption will drive hardware development (infrastructure)
  2. People will drive software developments (what we do with the infrastructure)

This is already seen all over the place when the infrastructure is set up to do one thing, but through the magic of software development, we get it to do another thing (Napster/KaZaa/eDonkey/eMule anyone?)

To some extent we are already liberating ourselves from corporate shackles, but we are still constrained by what is commercially feasible in the hardware realm. Software is a lot easier to produce for free — all it takes is time and skill. You can develop and distribute software using the machine you already have, and the network you are already connected to. You can pull in a group of people from all over the world and collaboratively develop a program which would never see the light of day if it relied on corporate backing – it doesn’t matter if it’s going to turn a profit if that is never the intention. Blogging itself would never have gotten as far as it has, as quickly as it has, if it relied purely on market-share and profits – Blogger.com is still free! This sort of flexibility will help us shape the future, but real people, without commercial interests, need to be involved in the development of the Internet, otherwise who knows where it will go? Maybe all sites will go the way of requiring advertising, mouse cursors will automatically gravitate towards banners and links will be hi-jacked by whoever can pay the most, thus rendering all linking useless. The present needs to be studied to ensure the future is at least workable, if not pleasant 🙂

As to how we go about studying this subject and which approach we should use; I don’t believe that there is one definitive approach which should be taken. In the words of any decent Information Architect, "It Depends". Basically depending on what facet of the information we are analysing, we should adopt an appropriate approach. Looking at the way that people interact on a mass scale regarding current world events? Political economy looks like a decent approach to take. Analysing the implications of technology-based decisions on the future of the Internet? How about some technological determinism? The appropriate approach for the particular information you are seeking should be adopted, if not a blend of a few of them. The Internet is a blend of technical, social, political, personal, ‘x’, ‘y’ and ‘z’ considerations — it is basically a reflection of modern society, so to look at it from any one angle will only ever give a partial picture.

Would you study society by looking purely at government-level political considerations? Of course not. Would would look only at the impacts of cars and roads when considering the future of humanity? Of course not. The Internet is much, much more than just a simple tool in the belt of people’s normal life. I see the Internet as offering a new platform for life, replicating most of the things we can think of in the physical world, and introducing a lot of new possibilities and problems, such as distributed, many-to-many communications, ‘smart mobs‘ and the voice that blogs are giving to relative no-bodies in today’s networked world. We need to approach the study of this new environment in a similar way we would study a new planet – from all possible angles, using all possible information.

What do you think? Post your opinions in the comments if you like.