Thoughts on the book: “Virtual society? Technology, Cyberbole, Reality“

Just before the summer I had to write a small review about this book. Although at the beginning the verbose academic language was hideous, as I continued I found that the sociological perspective of current IT trends can become intriguing. Especially for someone coming from an engineering background like me.

What follows is a small piece of my review:

Prologue

As our societies march forward in the uncharted territories of the new millennium it becomes eminent that almost all aspects of social, cultural, economic and political life stand to be affected by the new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). It is not rare nowadays for governments and major national funding agencies to conduct extensive and expensive research in social effects of ICTs. This concern about the social impact of new technologies by governmental agencies is not only fuelled by mass media and businesses interest but also aided by the success of social science communities to demonstrate the value of the results of their work in the field.

The Virtual Society? contains 17 articles based on exciting body of research conducted by British scholars, except one contribution from the USA. In the first week of May 2000, some 130 researchers (mostly social scientists) gathered in Ashridge House near London to discuss the new information and communication technologies’ impact on everyday life and society in general. 47 presentations and 4 keynote speeches were given during the two-day conference. The Virtual Society? Program was founded in 1997 and was headed by Professor Steve Woolgar of the Brunel University. It united 22 individual projects at 25 universities in Great Britain. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) financed the program with 3 million pounds. As the program came to an end in 2000, the conference was an opportunity for the project members, who gave approximately half of the presentations, to reflect on their work and compare it with research activities in other countries. Contributions came from such countries as Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, the USA and Yugoslavia. Four parallel sessions addressed various political questions (e.g, participation rates, privacy, cyberethics) in different everyday contexts (e.g., teleworking, e-learning, telemedicine) and in relation to different social groups (e.g, non-users, net drop outs, female users). Socialpsychological concepts often played a key role here.

The book covers the following issues: ICTs use in various contexts, economic and political aspects, attitudes towards surveillance, role of ICT in education, concept of virtuality, particularities of organizational adoption of ICT and provides interesting findings that dissolve the dominating prejudice and uncritical speculations about media, networks, information society, internet, and such. It is based on a sound empirical study offering deep analysis of the results and reflects the impact of ICTs on society, and also the impact of social environment on the ICTs development and application. The most unconventional results reveal mutual influences among people’s behavior shaping the use of ICTs and ICTs changing human behavior within a recognizable social environment.

This publication is structured around the five rules of virtuality formulated by Woolgar on the basis of the research results. These five cornerstones are analyzed on the first chapter, a small outline of which follows.

Chapter 1: The Five Rules of Virtuality

From the first paragraph of this volume the author denotes the anticipated changes that the emergence of ICTs will produce and confirms that different bodies around the world are trying to study and predict the changes that these advances will have to the very fabric of our societies. The rational seems sound and the variety of questions that surface from it face issues that are not of the same kind or nature. In the same way the explanations regarding the phrase virtual society are many and heterogonous. This summary term has been the subject of many publications and can be characterized as an epithesised phenomenon, much like electronic commerce, tele-working, distance learning etc. Since the early studies of the social impact of electronic technologies were characterized by polarization, suspicion and uncritical enthusiasm it becomes evident that there is a current need for a more impartial and established theoretical generalization and a more skeptical awareness of the impact these technologies will have.

Although the introductory rational is by now familiar, not to say pervasive, it cannot be taken to face value. It may appeal to a vast audience but it constrains the ways we pose research questions and is problematic since:

  1. It is an excessive ornateness of language, mainly fueled by mass media, that diminishes the granularity of the problem in a leveling manner.
  2. Since it focuses on the bottom-down experiences, it can only deal with the macro-level of trends, not taking into account the everyday patterns.
  3. It is infused with confident declarations of effects, outcomes and changes that may result from technologies, which other wise should be more moderate and cautious since they deserve a more detailed consideration.

All the above suggest that there is a need to examine with scrutiny the initial rational and use more sophisticated approaches than previous analyses have. As cooper et al. (this book) puts it, we need some mutual condemnation of the categories that make up the real/virtual opposition, in order to asses if virtual society is possible.

When the author was presented with the draft specification for the program, he was tempteted to redraft the text since he felt it could be perceived as an exaggeration filled with technological determinism. He didn’t since the effect of such an action would be to diminish the urgency, edge and provocation of the original draft, clearly oriented to a variety of diverse audiences, not least those who might be sufficiently impressed by the drama of potential technological impact to support the allocation of funding for research into the actual effects of technology.

The dilemma on how to make this book more friendly to the cautious academic while retaining the pragmatic value of its cyberbolic overtone was addressed by the author in the form of a question mark added at the title: the Virtual Society’ research program became Virtual Society?’ research program. He regreats thow that the inernet DNS specifications don’t allow (until now that is) the inclusion of a question mark on an internet address so that the URL for this program would be http://www.virtualsociety?.co.uk.

Throughout the lifetime of the program the researches were approached by several agencies with requests for specific information regarding particular areas and topics like how mobile phones change the office environment, how quickly children assimilate technology or what is the extent of ICT adaptation amongst ethnic minorities. It is obvious that this program cannot cover every conceivable topical area or subject. It is about providing general principles/guidelines that will help in order to work out the likely effects in any particular case.

Many discussions and publications regarding the impacts of new technologies are organized by substantive focus or are based around a particular social or political theme. This causes redundancy in the manner of repeating basic principles in relation to each new area and can origin insights that are unique to the domains under consideration. Others organize by typology of different kinds of technological sections but this has the effect of putting too much weight to the notion of technology itself. In any case the longevity of a careful social-scientific research project always exceeds the period when the technology under study is cutting edge, but this does not invalidate the study of its adoption and effects.

In the light of the above considerations the contributions to this volume are organized under the following five broad analytical themes – the five rules of virtuality:

Rule # 1: The uptake and use of the technologies depend crucially on local social context.

There are several non-technical’ circumstances that affect the reception and deployment of electronic technologies. These factors explain the urge to use’ and not use’ ICTs like the internet, the mobile phone etc.

Rule # 2: The fears and risks associated with new technologies are unevenly socially distributed.

This rule expresses the uneven distribution of views about new technologies and their effects.

Rule # 3: Virtual technologies supplement rather than substitute for real activities.

Research shows that new technologies tend to supplement rather than substitute existing practices and forms of organization. The virtual thus sits alongside the real.

Rule # 4: The more virtual the more real.

Rule #4 is an extention of rule #5. Not only do new virtual activities sit alongside existing real’ activities but the introduction of new virtual’ technologies can actually stimulate corresponding real’ activity.

Rule #5: The more global the more local.

Although virtual technologies are implicated with the phenomenon of globalization, the claim of this program is that the very effort to escape local context, to promote one’s transcendent global identity, actually depends on specifically local ways of managing technology.

Summary on Chapter 10: The Reality of Virtual Social Support

Social support is the physical and emotional comfort given to us by our family, friends, co-workers and others. It is knowing that we are part of a community of people who love and care for us, and value and think well of us. Many studies have demonstrated that social support acts as a moderating factor in the development of psychological and/or physical disease (such as clinical depression or hypertension) as a result of stressful life events. There is growing evidence to suggest that social support affects humans differently throughout life, suggesting that the need to receive and provide social support shifts across development. – Wikipedia.

The authors of this paper/chapter begin by mentioning that a high degree of social participation and good social relationships tends, all other things being equal, to move the individual to a state of better physical and mental health. It is eminent that the way we experience and provide social support is changing due to many reasons that have to do with the evolution of our societies, like the ICTs. The focus of this chapter is in examining the possible emerging patterns in computer-mediated social support in the UK, in relation with various topics like physical disability, parenting, etc.

The definition of social support that is the reference for this chapter is the following: the companionship and practical, informational and esteem support which the individual derives from interaction with members of his or her social network’, including friends, colleagues, acquaintances and family.

From the above definitions it is clear that the internet may impact social support since it has a profound impact on the size and diversity of social networks. Both early and later experiments in the USA have shown that computer-mediated communications (CMC) are used in an ever growing way in order to establish primarily self-help groups. Some believe that the proliferation of these virtual societies in a global scale indicates that the participants are getting sot of benefit from them.

The information provided by the authors was collected as part of a large exploratory qualitative study of people experiences of CMC based social support in the UK, that gathered data from a number of different sources like newsgroups, discussion lists, IRC rooms, web sites and targeted interviews.

One of the most commonly used typologies of social support distinguishes between four dimensions: social companionship, informational support, esteem support and instrumental support. The rest of this chapter organized around the first three aspects.

Companionship support

This type of support refers to sharing recreational and leisure pursuits with a broad range of people. In the context of the virtual society, this means spending time chatting’ to others beyond the immediate social environment, a feature that the internet has brought in a global scale. Although the real value of extending one’s social network in the later manner is questionable by many, it is invaluable for many people as the interviews showed. This is more evident for people with disabilities, like the blind. Also one of the main characteristics of this type of communications, as noticed by the subjects, was the availability of friends and contacts that was so that you don’t have to come out of the house.

Informational Support

The process through which people exchange advice and information is perhaps the most obvious source of social support on the internet. Cases that have to do with health, parenting, disability, welfare and so on, are very common. As the interviews have show, this exchange is bilateral with people both searching for information on WWW and also setting up sites that provide information on issues that they have strong views about.

Esteem Support

This area deals with the support people get that helps them with threats to their self-esteem. Although usually people tend to limit their discussions about issue slike that to their close friends and family, the interviews heve shown that virtual contacts are particularly valuable for esteem support. One reason for that is that the medium allows for anonymity which is not possible in the real world. Also it supports immediate aces to others that could offer emotional support. Thus for many interviewees the real and the virtual life are some times transcended.

Antisocial support?

Spam involves sending nearly identical messages to thousands (or millions) of recipients by E-mail. Perpetrators of such spam (spammers) often harvest addresses of prospective recipients from Usenet postings or from web pages, obtain them from databases, or simply guess them by using common names and domains. By popular definition, spam occurs without the permission of the recipients. – Wikipedia

There are hazards associated with online support, the most obvious perhaps being unsolicitated and aggressive exchanges. Aggressive posts or flames are usually ignored although they sometimes make the cyberspace an uncomfortable place.

Discussion

For most of the sample users the experience of virtual social support was positive, although this maybe a reflection of their willing to participate to the study. As a reflexive resource the internet can be both liberating and constraining.

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