Living on Cybermind: Categories, Communications, and Control
Author: Jonathan Paul Marshall
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang, 2007
Review Published: February 2009
First of all I would like to thank Alan for his positive review. It is always a bit nerve wracking when the people you have been writing about get to write back; so it's good to see that the book seems reasonably accurate, interesting and informative to a person who was involved, and who probably knows Cybermind better than anyone. It does leave the problem that there is nothing to react against, or clear up -- so I hope people will pardon me if I take this opportunity to write something more about the book.
Writing a detailed ethnography is a privilege that can only come about with the co-operation and help of the group being written about, so it is necessary to thank, yet again, the people who have lived on Cybermind, for their ongoing tolerance and their good humour. It would be absurd to say that all my relationships were good, some were always edgy and some broke down, but even in the worst of cases people were uniformly happy to let me do my work, even when they disagreed with my conclusions. Generosity was common and beyond all expectation. This leads to a problem: after 10 years of exploring, it becomes a little difficult to tell, indeed if it is ever possible to tell, where "my" ideas begin and where other people's insights enter in. We are always intertwined with others, so there must be some hesitancy in claiming these ideas as mine alone. This is an argument against the common enclosure of intellectual property -- the book, and much other work, could not exist without the arguments and engagements of others. By ourselves we are nothing, we would not even have a language. So with that kind of caveat, let me try and say what some of the book's arguments are, mostly outside the ones that Alan has already mentioned.
Almost immediately on entering the List, it struck me that, in such an environment, what I was doing as ethnography was only a little different to what almost everyone was doing; we were all trying to understand how to behave together, trying to understand one another, trying to persuade each other of the nature of life and the ways of interpreting each other, finding what was acceptable or not acceptable behaviour, exploring what was different about being online, trying to make contacts which were useful to each other (if for different purposes) and so on. In other words everyone was doing ethnography of some sort or another, bringing their theories and experiences of previous life into this new world. Taking this seriously meant that the analysis had to be both epistemological and self-reflexive. It could not pretend that there was something special in what the ethnographer did because of the theory and traditions they brought to it -- these theories were pretty much known by the group participants, and they were more than capable of arguing about them and proposing alternatives. As well, the usual objections to doing ethnography "in cyberspace" seemed rather naive. Yes, it is true that I could not observe everything everyone was doing, that I would largely not know the "real identity" of those involved, I would not be able to observe completely the connections between people, I would not be able to test the truth of their statements -- however, these were the same problems faced by everyone online (and are fairly common offline). Vagueness was part of the social milieu, and the ways that people negotiated these difficulties were part of what I would have to experience and study as an element of living online; they were not to be overcome and pushed to one side. The difficulties were embedded in the lives which could occur.
Alan has mentioned the theory of communication I applied in these circumstances. Basically the idea was to take the uncertainty of the sign seriously, and to argue that if signs were uncertain, then people would, as they do when faced with any uncertainty, develop strategies to deal with it, or at least to live with it, and that it would have observable effects on the way they live. Online the complexity is emphasised in that those framings, or contexts, which stabilise communication and interpretation are also often created and conveyed by communication, and thus constantly up for dispute or reinterpretation themselves. Almost continual uncertainty is a social fact that permeates online life in comparison with the offline world, yet we bring techniques, methods of interpretation and knowledge to it from that offline world. Not surprisingly, offline culture then seemed inseparable from online life. "Culture" in this case being defined as sets of competing knowledges, categorizations and tools for interpretation, learnt and elaborated by persons of varying degrees of interdependence. It seemed natural to move into the approach suggested by Frederik Barth, in which culture is constantly being created and fractured, and constantly full of misunderstandings. Furthermore, these fractures and misunderstandings are not ignorable errors, unimportant to the ideal type of culture, but vital to cultural process and to the process of the group; they cannot be separated. Thus, there is slightly more than I would have liked about the disputes on the List, as these disputes showed culture in creation and destruction, and practical epistemology or mis/interpretation in action. In this sense we see that "community" is not a thing or a state -- it cannot be defined with ease -- but that very vagueness allows the group to use the term to construct itself as "community," in its own attempt to find itself, recognise itself and stake its claims in the world.
If culture is an ongoing creation then rhetoric is important, and I became interested in the work of Nick Hopkins and Steve Reicher, in particular their accounts of how rhetoric uses group and category boundaries to include people and exclude them, to construct polarities, to make ideals of virtue and so on. In this model, rhetoric is part of the ways groups form and extend themselves, exclude others and make some people central to the group both symbolically, as prototypes, or practically as definers of the ways things are. This tied nicely with previous work of mine using categorisation theory to explain the historical dynamics of British alchemy. In this earlier work I had to think of categories as involving physical manipulation, adjustment, feeling tones, and emotional response -- given this emphasis on embodiment, the whole idea of disembodied communication automatically fell down. No matter where we are communicating the body comes with us. The fact that bodies are connected to culture and the interpretation of messages also means that categories like nationality or gender continue to play vital roles online. On Cybermind it seemed that gender was primarily connected with intimacy -- but also with the expectations of how people would behave, their roles in the group, and the kinds of force deployed. Work on gender led to another project which resulted in several people from the List writing about, and analysing, their experiences as gendered beings online.
The presence of bodies and the use of offline culture increases the importance of offline social life for List members. We might see internet groupings as an extension of the ways that people use temporary groups, or associations, in offline life for support, contact or information, and to allow the kinds of movement between, and separation of, the social spheres they participate within. In particular, it seemed to me that changes in capitalism, enabled by the spread of information technology, have changed the power ratios in society in favour of the corporate sector, disrupting the life expectations and the role of the "intellectual middle class" who made up most of the population of Cybermind, and who used Cybermind for support and mutual action, in their now somewhat displaced world. This kind of position seemed to be supported by the comments that people on the List made about politics, their lives and the problems of those lives, and so I abandoned the 120 pages or so which had been written making this argument in favour of showing that some List members had argued similar things themselves. It was an improvement, and again it showed there is no "academic outside" to go to and rest on.
Although online life is anchored in offline life, it has its own dynamics as well: in particular those of uncertainty of presence, which as Alan states, I called "asence" to distinguish from pre-sence and ab-sence. One of the hallmarks of asence is that you really only know you exist, or have effect, if other people respond to you. It seems that many features of online life, from netsex to flaming, have the "purpose" of reducing asence by generating a response, or by maintaining a mood which stabilises the sense of response and reduces ambiguity. Bodies are also caught in asence, becoming thought of as like ghosts or to a lesser extent as cyborgs. In both cases, the metaphors express the ambiguities of boundaries and permeability, and the uncertainties of work. Asence also affects the group as a whole. The group identity or community has to be continually presented, and is always in danger of slipping away before the influx of new members, or through the instability of the visibility of established members. Presentation of identity is an ongoing, precarious process. This may lead to contradiction as when an excessive number of mails, while expressing and enforcing group values and thus producing and manifesting group solidarity, may also drive away those members unable to cope with the volume. In this and many other cases, culture is inherently paradoxical and subject to disruption by the very modes of producing order which seem to guarantee continuance.
One other point I wanted to make about online life is that the structures of communication online act as an infrastructure which enables some kinds of actions and restricts other kinds of actions, thus irrevocably shaping online social life. Chapters 4-5 tried to show that the different structures of Newsgroups, Lists, MOOs, Blogs and so on (and the ways that such groups could, or could not, interact) were vital for understanding what was possible or likely in those formats. Sadly, this is where I ran most obviously into problems of space, and I only had room to explore the differences between Lists and MOOs as these were the formats that people on Cybermind used together most commonly. Strategically, people moved to different kinds of online places in order to pursue different kinds of aims. Hopefully enough was written to suggest the basic lines of the argument.
When I began my work (a long time ago), much of the discourse seemed to be about perfect seamless VR, teledildonics, new frontiers, perfect democracy, level hierarchy, disembodiment, hacker culture, mass-minds, race and gender-free spaces, knowledge workers, multitudes challenging the structures of capitalism, overcoming class and so on. However interesting, this theorising did not seem particularly accurate or helpful in dealing with Cybermind. While this "high theory of the future" is now not as common, it still seemed necessary for the book to be full of accounts of events, and people's conversations and comments, so as to give a sense of what it was like to be with the List in its heyday between 1994 and 2003. Indeed one of the advantages of the List was that it was refreshing to encounter so much discussion grounded in the group's experience, such as Alan's discussions of "lag" and "stutter," awkward embodiment and the pain of the failure to interact.
I set out writing this book with the aspiration that at the finish of it, the reader would have not only a specific knowledge of the Mailing List studied, but also a general appreciation of life online and the theoretical and practical issues evoked by such life, and I hope that in some small way that has been achieved.
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