The Internet Imaginaire
Author: Patrice Flichy
Publisher: Cambridge, MA & London: MIT Press, 2007
Review Published: February 2008
I am pleased and honored that RCCS has selected my book for the February 2008 Book of the Month. I wish to thank the reviewer first for her interest in the book and for her detailed and thoughtful review.
I would like to express four comments.
Concerning the mainly American aspect of my analysis, I agree with Beatrice Bittarello's remarks that some computer scientists who have occupied an important place in Internet history are European. She mentions Linus Torvalds and Tim Berners-Lee. Moreover, French scientists such as Louis Pouzin and Hubert Zimmerman of the Cyclades project were involved in internetworking research, as was Derek Barber of England's National Physical Laboratory (Abbate 1999). My aim was, however, not to write a history of the Internet but rather to examine the Internet imaginaire. In this respect I was very most surprised that French discourses about the Internet were far less frequent than American ones, especially in the eighties and early nineties.
In the US/European debate, the main question is why a French scholar would want to study an American imaginaire. My first advantage was the fact that being a foreigner, in some cases, can be enlightening to discover a phenomenon from a fresh angle. In social studies, examples abound of the interest in seeing things from an outside point of view. The most famous is obviously Tocqueville. In his study of the new American democracy, his perspective was distant in two respects: he was a Frenchman and an aristocrat. During my stay in California at the end of the nineties, I likewise discovered a new social word.
Concerning my theoretical framework of analysis. I disagree with some aspects of Latour's theories. In the actor network theory (ANT) there is no place for studying the designer's initial intention. In contrast, in my own research on technological innovation (Flichy 2007), I consider that utopias and dreams play an important role in shaping innovation. They are not only a peculiarity of inventors; they concern far larger social groups who develop different representations of the same technology. At the roots of a socio-technical context we find a whole range of imagined technological possibilities which seem to warrant investigation, not as the initial matrix of a new technology but rather as one of the resources mobilized by the actors to construct a frame of reference.
Concerning the Internet democracy debate in the late of nineties, its organization was particularly important. The main point of view was that there is no difference between citizens and consumers. And as Cass Sunstein (2001) have shown so well, a deliberative democracy is not an organization where the citizen chooses what he or she prefers, but a place where he or she engages in discussions to find a collective point of view (Flichy 2008).
Finally, I would like to explain the long interval between my research and the US publication. It is always difficult for a French scholar to be published in English but this delay afforded me a new opportunity to understand the role of utopias in the development of the Internet. When I was preparing the English version of this book (five years after writing the French version), we witnessed a new explosion of interest in the Web 2.0. Many of the founding utopias of the Internet -- exchange and cooperation throughout the world, balances of interaction between equals, building new identities with avatars who express both one's mind and body, etc. -- were mobilized by new actors. In Wikipedia, in the weblogs, in MySpace, and in Second Life, we see that this imaginaire is still alive.
Abbate, Janet. Inventing the Internet. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.
Flichy, Patrice. Understanding Technological Innovation: A Socio-Technical Approach. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2007.
Flichy, Patrice. "Internet, un outil de la démocratie." English version forthcoming from La vie des idées (January 14, 2008).
Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.
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