The topic “A Social Theory of the Internet” has been developed through a combination of formal research and lived experience. If one likes, the structure and content is a development of both system and lifeworld perspectives. The aims can be summarized as follows: Firstly, to define the Internet in a social scientific manner that provides sufficient respect to technical reality and user culture and history. Secondly, to elucidate an appropriate methodology for social research and review related literature. Thirdly, to identify and provide practical solutions to what are deemed critical issues that will determine the eventual nature and character of the network. Finally, placing the Internet in the discourse of modernity and the role of communications technology in fundamental social transformations.
To locate the author’s biases in terms of personal experience with computers began in 1982 with regular use of an Apple II in the last year of primary education and continued through secondary education. Use of computer mediated communication began in 1987 on Fidonet and was maintained on an irregular basis over several subsequent years. Whilst undergraduate studies at Murdoch University, Western Australia, was orientated to the social sciences, computer science electives were also taken. It was also during this period that I had the pleasure of living at the "Accelerated House" (named after the now-defunct resident industrial-gothic music group ‘The Accelerated Men’). The household enjoyed a modicum of notoriety as cyberpunk household in both culture and technology, whose local area network was built on an 1978 Alpha Micro AT 100 and with constant attempts (with a modicum of success) to resurrect a 1973 PDP-11.
However, it was not until 1990 that the disciplinary areas of social sciences and computer science were combined with the interschool course 'Science, Technology and Society'. In the same semester, an inaugural cyberpunk cultural anthropology was composed, a study of technological resistance through appropriation and cultural identity formation, for the course 'Critical Issues in the Social Sciences'. In the following year participation occurred in a lecture panel on 'Cyberpunk: Literary Metamorphisis' for the foundation course, 'Structure, Thought & Reality'.
During the honours year (1993) lecturing was provided for the course 'Technology, Culture, and Communication' on 'Cyberpunk Culture and Technology' (as a backdrop to the lecture it was considered necessary and appropriate to have a simple C-based password hacking program on the blackboard) and presented a paper for the post-graduate lecture series '(Re)Moving the Boundaries' on 'Technological Subculture: Cyberpunk and the Neuromantics', and engaged on a Independent Study Contract entitled 'Cyberpunk: Literature and Subculture'.
The honours thesis, 'Technology and Freedom', includes (in an obviously less rigorous manner), many of themes and methods used in this thesis as and dealt with broad strokes the Freud/Marx synthesis evident in the critical theory of Herbert Marcuse and the phenomenological approaches to technological experience. The honours thesis was supervised by Associate Professor Michael Eveline, of the Institute of Scienceand Technology Policy, Murdoch University, and examined by Dr. Ian Barnes of the Institute, and Dr. Zoe Sofoulis, now of the University of West Sydney.
In 1994 having moved to Melbourne with the express intention of postgraduate research, I enrolled at the Ashworth Centre for Social Theory, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Melbourne. My initial supervisor was Dr. Horst Imberger. During 1994 and 1995, which were without a doubt, some of the most critical periods in the Internet's history in terms of legislative change, growth and attacks by the mass media, Dr. Imberger rather sensibly pointed me in the direction of linguistic philosophy as a methodological base for future analysis of these events. I would like to take this opportunity to thank him in recommending this direction as the quantity of political action necessary far outweighed my personal capacity or institutional leverage to have the necessary effect that equates with the practical aims of this study.
In 1995, two papers were presented relevant to this thesis topic. The first, at the Melbourne Existentialist Society, entitled 'A Phenomenology of Technology'. The second, 'Preliminary To A Social Theory of the Internet', was presented at an internal Ashworth Centre Conference. Material from the first paper has been incorporated into section 2.2, whereas the second paper concentrated on the events of 1994 and 1995 incorporated into the third chapter.
In 1996 and 1997 research on this thesis was deferred, with re-enrolment in 1998. In that year two papers were presented. The first was to a History and Philosophy of Science Conference, entitled "Business Welfare: A Critique of the Goldsworthy Report". The second was an internal Ashworth Centre Conference was entitled 'The Case for Public Funding for the Internet', which has involved further liaison with the Communications, Electrical, Postage and Plumbing Union (Technical & Services branch), and the Multi-Media Working Party of the Culture and Tourism Policy Committee for the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party. Material from both these papers is incorporated into chapter 3, section 2.
Supervision for the thesis also changed at this point with Dr. John Rundell of the Ashworth Centre for Social Theory and Dr. Michael Arnold of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science taking up the role. This combination proved to be most beneficial as Dr. Rundell was able to provide rigorous and critical evaluation of the social theoretical perspectives whilst Dr. Arnold was able to provide excellent insight into the political context of contemporary issues associated with computer mediated communication as well as being substantially versed in the appropriate technical language.
In 1999 a further paper was presented at the History and Philosophy of Science Conference on the privitisation and corporate rationalisation of the telecommunications company, Telstra. During this time employment as an Electorate Officer for the Parliament of Victoria were increasingly directed towards general IT support and website development for a number of Members of State Parliament. Subsequent to the election of the Brack’s-led Labor Party in the State of Victoria, employment became orientated toward the entirety of the Parliamentary Labor Party for electoral database assistance, Party website maintenance and training.
In 2002 enrollment was deferred again due to the increased pressures associated with employment. However, in late 2002, through Australian Volunteers International, I accepted a post with the Ministro de Estado, Do Negócios Estrangeiros e Cooperção (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation) for the new Republicu Democratica de Timor Leste (East Timor). With a wide range of responsibilities including the design and development of the Ministry’s Local Area Network, website development and maintenance, database administration, training and development.
In 2003, the thesis was completed. This year also saw the composition of a paper on mathematical modelling of societies for the International Conference for Industrial and Applied Mathematics with Dr. Cameron Jones of Swinburne University.
Composing this thesis has been an extremely difficult task, particularly given the shifting topography of technology and social relations that permeates the topic. Much consideration has thus had to be given to developing a theoretical and practical framework that appeals more to the universal and permanent features of the Internet, rather than the contextual and temporary, no matter how popular or peculiar such features may be considered at a particular point in time. Such demands have provided the opportunity for new contributions to the discipline of social theory. Specifically:
A methodological balance and demarcation between social inquiry, the phenomenology of systems and technologies and aesthetics or psychoanalytic interpretations.
The introduction of "meditative techniques" to the categories of action synthesized by Weber’s rationalization and ordinary language philosophy.
An analysis of radical changes to social structures which allocates primary responsibility to changes in meditative techniques over instrumental technology (Marx) or strategic action (Weber), or even communicative action (Habermas).
A proposal for practical action which incorporates both the experiential (Arendt), ‘emancipatory interests’ (Habermas) and contrary to the rejection of practical and political involvement proposed by some postmodern theorists (e.g., Lyotard).
An evaluation of changes (real and potential) to the content of fundamental social structures given the above, with a particular interest in establishing critical tests to an alleged transition from modern to postmodern society.
These contributions to social theory are, of course, subject to much further inquiry, rationalisation and empirical testing than this initial sketch can possibly provide. Nevertheless, the tools as they are developed, have felt to be more than adequate to the task of analysing the Internet, and stating practical solutions to the problems caused by this new, widespread and very radical technology.
I would like to thank Erica Hoehn for her editing and proofreading of the thesis, Peter Caffin for his insightful comments, especially in the reconstruction of the technical comments in the first chapter, Cassandra Boland for a grounding in intellectual property and copyright law,
Ashworth Centre for Social Theory, University of Melbourne, 2003
Santa Cruz, Dili, Republica Democratica de Timor Leste, 2003
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