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Communication and Cyberspace: Social Interaction in an Electronic Environment (2nd Edition)

Editor: Lance Strate, Ron L. Jacobson, Stephanie Gibson
Publisher: Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc, 2003
Review Published: June 2003

 REVIEW 1: Kirk St.Amant

The concept of "exploration" often brings with it an aura of newness and awe that sparks human curiosity and inspires the imagination. Traditionally, it has often also implied a sense of isolation as the movement across new geographic territories often meant increasing the amount of physical space that separated the individual from others. Cyberspace, however, has proven to be a frontier that contradicted this historical trend. Rather than limiting interpersonal communication, cyberspace facilitates human interaction. In the years since the general public gained online access, the exploration of cyberspace has become a quest to make contact with others via email, chat rooms, MOOs, MUDs, and a variety of other emerging genres. As a result, the exploration of cyberspace has become a process that enhances interpersonal communication rather than limiting it.

All newly explored areas, however, eventually become settled. Such settlement, however, brings with it new divisions of territory – divisions that focus on regulating how individuals make use of that frontier. In the case of the American West, regulation came in the form of fences that affected how individuals moved across physical spaces. In the case of cyberspace, such "fences" are only beginning to emerge, and they attempt to regulate the movement of ideas in a realm designed to facilitate the transmission of information. Communication and Cyberspace: Social Interaction in an Electronic Environment presents an excellent, multi-faceted examination of the online environment – an examination that provides the reader with insights on the nature of this new age of exploration and the mechanisms that might be used to "fence it in."

Edited by Lance Strate, Ron L. Jacobson, and Stephanie Gibson, Communication and Cyberspace explores the online environment from a variety of perspectives including the existential and theoretical as well as the economic and practical. The book therefore provides a diverse examination of what cyberspace is and thus helps readers determine how it affects communication. As the editors explain, "in this volume we are specifically concerned with communication in the electronic environment known as cyberspace" (1).

Effectively examining such a complex new realm – one essentially of thought and expression – however, involves a multifaceted and sophisticated approach. The editors, in turn, do a masterful job of addressing this situation by dividing their book into four key sections. Each of these sections then explores a different aspect of cyberspace communication while simultaneously examining the various ideas that contribute to the complexity of that same aspect. For example, the authors in the book’s first section – entitled "Cyberspace in Perspective: A Theoretical Context" – attempt to define cyberspace so readers can better understand how online media affect the way in which humans interact with one another and with the environment around them. As the editors note in the introduction to this section, the essays "help to clarify the concept of cyberspace, and they all provide theoretical contexts for its study based on communication and related disciplines" (28).

The section then begins with Gary Gumpert and Susan J. Drucker’s examination of how the development/settlement of conventional spaces (e.g., via railroads and highways) provide important metaphors that explain and shape how we understand the development of online interactions. The second essay, John M. Phelan’s "CyberWalden: The Online Psychology of Politics and Culture," examines online media’s ability to allow us to interact with our world while the third essay, James R. Beniger’s "Who Shall Control Cyberspace?" explores how organizations could use cyberspace in an attempt to manipulate (via propaganda) those who interact in the online environment. This idea of control focuses on copyright in an essay by Neil Kleinman (a truly elegant and accessible discussion of the history of copyright and the extension of traditional ideas of ownership into cyberspace). The section then concludes with a fascinating three-fold examination of how the ideas of Plato (examined by Herbert Zettl), Kenneth Burke (examined by Charles U. Larson), and Descartes (examined by Jay David Bolter) relate to online interactions.

The book’s second section – "Function: Cybernetworks and Cyberplaces as Alternatives to Physical Locations and Transportation" – examines how online communication technologies are changing the nature of interpersonal interactions. The result is a comprehensive and effective overview of both the forces shaping how persons use cyberspace to interact and how those forces affect who (which individuals) may use online media.

The section begins with Mark Giese’s excellent overview of the history and development of the Internet (a must read for those interested in the history of science and technology). Next comes Ron L. Jacobson’s examination of how the changing nature of communications infrastructures (via corporate and government policy) can affect the ways in which individuals access and use online media. Frank E.X. Dance then examines how such policies contribute to or affect the digital divide, while Eric A. Zimmer and Christopher D. Hunter balance popular perceptions of online communication against research data that tests the validity of those perceptions. The section then concludes with two essays (by Terri Toles Patkin and by Paul Levinson) that explore educational aspects of online media.

The essays in the book’s third section – "Form: Virtual Reality and Hypermedia as New Kinds of Space and Navigation" – focus on an interesting perceptual problem: How do persons steeped in a world of "real" physical forms understand a cyberworld in which such forms becomes irrelevant? In answering this question, the authors examine everything from the form of the "self" (a masterful analysis by Sue Barnes), the nature of media (examined by Stuart Moulthrop), and the process of writing (explored by Camille Paglia). The section also includes an exploration of how online forums affect teaching and learning (Stephanie B. Gibson’s "Pedagogy and Hypertext") and concludes with a discussion of how our attempts to frame/understand cyberspace can be traced via the medium of film (Paul Lippert’s "Cinematic Representations of Cyberspace").

Through the multi-perspective and multi-faceted presentations in this section, the reader realizes that we are just beginning to understand a new digital realm (as outlined in section one of the book). This understanding, however, comes at a time when various forces and agencies seek to tame or to "fence in" that newly explored area (as examined in the second section of the book). The reader thus finds him- or herself asking, "What steps can we take to understand cyberspace now, before it becomes penned in and our ability to appreciate it and interact in it is inhibited/controlled by the agendas of others?"

This question is examined – and to some extent, answered – in the books’ final section, appropriately entitled "Meaning: Cybercommunication and Cyberculture." Here, four authors overview the ways in which humans are making use of online resources (access and information) as well as explore how the nature of the virtual environment is re-defining ideas of "community." This examination and exploration include
  • Judith Yaross Lee’s overview of how electronic genres/forms bring with them new rhetorical styles that reflect the nature of interactions in such genres/forums;
  • Philip A. Thompsen’s sociological perspective on the nature of communication behavior – particularly flaming;
  • Douglas Rushkoff’s discussion of how the openness and access of online media can contribute to a frenzy to use information for the purposes of controlling others;
  • and Lance Strate’s examination of how cybermedia can affect not only our perceptions of space, but our perceptions of time as well (this examination makes the reader wonder if researchers should begin to explore the idea of a "cyber theory of general and special relativity").
Through these essays, the reader begins to understand how difficult it would be for governments, corporations, or individuals to "fence in" cyberspace. Rather, the true vastness of this electronic environment stretches out across so many different dimensions (e.g., rhetorical and temporal) that there is still ample cyber-"space" left to explore.

Communication and Cyberspace is a complex collection that uses an amalgam of perspectives to preset an excellent, original, and multi-faceted examination of one of the most challenging regions faced by humankind. By presenting such perspectives, the editors provide readers with the depth and the breadth of information needed to appreciate the vastness of this new realm. By organizing the book into four thematic sections, the editors provide readers with a combination of history book, map, and telescope that they can use to explore and to appreciate this new digital space. As a result, Communication and Cyberspace is an excellent resource for researchers, students (both graduate and undergraduate), and armchair "cybernauts" who wish to examine the online environment though a process of reflective study and guided exploration.

Kirk St.Amant:
Kirk St.Amant is an Assistant Professor with the Institute of Technical and Scientific Communication at James Madison University. His research interests include cross-cultural communication, international online communication, and globalization.  <stamankr@jmu.edu>

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