Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998

Mapping Cyberspace: Social Research on the Electronic Frontier

Joseph E. Behar (editor)
Dowling College Press: New York
1 883058 43 0
US$17.00 (pb)
iv + 260 pp.

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Cyberspace: The World in the Wires

Rob Kitchin
John Wiley: Chichester
0 471 97862 0
xiv + 214 pp.

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Now that the dust has settled on some of the hasty predictions of cultural revolution, studies of the Internet and other digital technologies are finding a more grounded home in the social sciences. As groups of ESRC-funded researchers begin to work on an ambitious set of Virtual Society? Initiative projects and the DTI Foresight Programme stimulates new collaborations between academics and new technology companies, the engagement of sociologists with the recent developments in 'cyber' and digital culture are likely to increase still further. Yet there are few places for beginning researchers or students to find an overview of the themes which have already emerged, and with which sociologists might engage.

These two books try to address this gap. Rob Kitchin's Cyberspace: The World in the Wires is a historial and theoretical overview of existing research in social science, directed by a particular mission to integrate the cultural, economic and political, an approach which should please many sociologists. In Joseph Behar's edited collection of articles Mapping Cyberspace: Social Research on the Electronic Frontier ten authors provide largely descriptive accounts of key issues and uses of Internet technologies. The value of both books is their concern, more explicit in Kitchen's text, to move beyond an unproductive discussion of whether particular constructions of 'virtual' society are 'better' or 'worse' than 'reality' and towards a careful exploration of the complexity of interpreting the equally important position of new technologies in terms of global shifts and local contingencies. On the other hand neither book pays any attention to the substantial tradition of existing sociological work on new technology (by those such as Cockburn, Latour, Silverstone, Wajcman, Woolgar, for example), so both give a rather misleading impression that some of the issues are newer to social science than is actually the case.

Kitchen's book provides an extensive overview of the literature and is organised thematically which many readers will find extremely useful. Indeed I expect the book will find itself on many reading lists in sociology as well as the author's discipline of human geography. The chapters are woven together in the final section to show his emerging theoretical perspective - which he describes as a combination of political economy, social constructivism and elements of postmodern thought - in action. As Kitchin points out, other than Manuel Castells very few have attempted this kind of synthesis. It is this theoretical perspective, along with the belief that cyberspace technologies 'will be appropriated for the good' (p. 169) which drives the text.

Following a preface and introduction which set up cyberspatial technologies as necessarily 'transformative technologies' (p. xi) and offer the claim that the virtual and the material exist in a symbiotic relationship, Kitchin launches into an ambitious comparative history of the Internet and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies. He pays attention to the military origins (and the effect of funding priorities) of the Internet and VR, and effectively shows the transnational development of both. I suspect many readers will be grateful for the succinct figure (2.1) which plots these histories diagrammatically, although I am not as convinced as he is that the Internet is converging with VR to any greater extent than it is with other digital technologies such as pagers, other mobile personal communicative devices, or even 'old fashioned' television (What about Web TV?). Later in the text Kitchen states that 'the most likely future [for cyberspace] is that resembling the telephone system' (p. 126),which makes one wonder why VR was set up as a foil at the beginning of the book, only to play a relatively small part in the later chapters.

The detailed history of the Internet is matched in later chapters by a careful account of the theoretical perspectives and empirical projects which other researchers have employed in attempts to understand the social, economic and political importance of the Internet. Individual chapters summarise and evaluate the debates on identity and community, politics and the promises of digital democracy, and the multiple effects of cyberspatial technologies on urban-regional restructuring. In the chapter on theoretical approaches, Kitchin lists the principle perspectives as utopianism and futurism, technological determinism, social constructivism, political economy, postmodernism and poststructuralism and feminist critique. He rejects each of these approaches in favour of his own integrative approach, although at times his characterisations might raise a few eyebrows. (For Kitchin, social constructionists are only interested in 'micro-level social processes' (p. 70).) The parts I found most useful were the ones in which the author juxtaposes the research on on-line developments with the contexts within which they are created and maintained. Thus a section summarising writing on the term 'virtual community' is followed by one on the 'real-world' communities of hackers and cyberpunks. Kitchin has also worked hard to find examples from outside the USA and the UK to put some of the most well known claims in a cross-cultural perspective. Nevertheless I was left with the feeling that I wanted to know more about how he would apply his new theoretical framework over and above the three brief examples in the final chapter on new body, democracy and community. I hope he has another project up his sleeve from which we will hear more!

Mapping Cyberspace similarly resists presenting the Internet as a US phenomenon, and coincidentally also includes a chapter by Kitchin presenting his argument on the importance of 'real' space in the same terms as in the longer manuscript of 'Cyberspace'. Behar has collected together other pieces which vary widely both in subject, style and approach. Mapping Cyberspace is divided into three main sections: 'Case Studies of Telecommunications and Social Relations', 'Virtual Worlds and Social Theory' and 'Cyberspace and Political Order'. The selection is so eclectic that it is worth indicating each contribution. In the first section, the chapters cover hierarchies of technical control within 'talkers' (real-time textual chat environments) (Peterson), experiences of military personnel using email between the USA and Somalia (Ender), the provision of electronic social support for abuse survivors (Moursund), and how sociologists enable (and disrupt!) a discussion list for a Marxist section of the American Sociological Association (Gimenez). In the section on social theory, the idea of cyberaddiction is evaluated (Orleans), as is the idea of deviancy in relation to pornographic electronic resources (Cornish and Neurenberg). Kitchin's article is also in this section. Finally part three contains two chapters on the idea of 'human freedom', democracy and the telecommunications revolution (Triebwasser and Willson-Quayle) and another on the integration of the Internet into the struggles of the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Mexico (Rich & De Los Reyes).

To my mind the most interesting articles are contained in the first section. In particular the chapters by Ender and Moursund which describe two very different kinds of electronic social support are valuable (although I do also want to flag the practical wisdom contained in the Gimenez chapter on setting up professional electronic networks). Not only is the description of the subject matter inherently intriguing, but they also provide a contrast with many other accounts of the use of e-mail (discussed by Ender) and real-time textual 'MUD' environments (documented by Moursund), which are usually assumed to be respectively private/individualised and vehicles for play/leisure.

Ender informs us that although the US Marines involved in Operation Restore Hope in Somalia were not the first to use email (email, voice-mail and 'Desert Faxes' had been used in Desert Storm), this campaign was the first in which the US military set up a systematic email distribution programme. Yet emails were not personal, and were generally brought in to the home base by relatives on scraps of paper for volunteers to type in and send off via one email account. On the other end messages would be printed out and then relayed to those stationed in Somalia when they could be located. Through Ender's description emails emerge as far from 'private' or 'quick' as we would normally understand those terms in relation to electronic communication. Nevertheless they gain the reputation of being rapidly transmitted whilst being publicly available. Ender points out that both soldiers and families now expect speedy communication, and that email can compensate for the social support available by telephone in situations where few telephone connections are possible.

From such a restricted (and censored) use of digital technology, the chapter on SANCTUARY, a set of electronic resources for adult survivors of abuse, provides a further challenge to the notion that the Internet cannot foster 'real' social support. Moursund points out that such electronic resources have been successfully used for populations of both HIV/AIDS patients and women with breast cancer. The author's approach is to measure up the kind of communication which can be observed on SANCTUARY (of which she is a participant) against a list of factors which she identifies as being recognised as socially supportive in the literature (talking about problems, sharing experiences, requesting information, positive feedback, motivational support and providing a sense of place and belongingness). Only the last of these factors is regularly highlighted in other work on real-time textual 'MUD' exchanges. Moursund finds SANCTUARY measures up in terms of each of these features and that the vast majority of the postings fall into these categories. Her chapter might usefully be used for teaching to counter some of the earlier work on MUDS as 'identity workshops' restricted to gender play.

Although the chapters by Ender and Moursund have been highlighted here, there are other equally interesting projects which are reported in the collection. I think this would be a useful addition to a reading list for students studying the social dimensions of the Internet, and would provide examples of the kinds of research projects on which students themselves could embark (although there is little guidance on the ethics of on- line research to be found here). Yet I was concerned by the uneven styles of writing, and the patchy use of sociological theories which might need to be explained or elaborated in a classroom setting. Nevertheless when read in its entirety Behar's collection is a fair attempt to address the multi-level analysis of the kind which Kitchin advocates.

Nina Wakeford
University of California, Berkeley

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998