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Virtual Society?: Technology, Cyberbole, Reality

Editor: Steve Woolgar
Publisher: Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002
Review Published: July 2004

 REVIEW 1: Peter McKenna

Virtual Society?: Technology, Cyberbole, Reality, edited by Steve Woolgar, presents a selection of essays based on a large-scale (3 million c.US$5 million) research program examining the social science of electronic technologies. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for the UK, the research is interdisciplinary and British, but arises primarily out of Sociology departments in English Universities. This geographical and intellectual location does not necessarily affect the general applicability of its key themes and analyses.

Most of the seventeen contributions describe the various constituent ESRC projects, covering a wide range of topics that are both topical and significant, ranging from mobile devices to internet usage to virtual reality. Each contribution was originally presented as part of a May 2000 conference in Ashridge, Hertfordshire, entitled "Virtual Society? Get Real!" The book achieves a strong sense of coherence through frequent cross-references between its chapters, which are also convincingly grouped in terms of theme.

The volume's distinctive themes include the virtual and the real, as well as location and exaggerated reports of the death of distance and the collapse of space. Unfortunately, some of the ESRC projects appear to have been omitted due to space: for instance, qualitative research on the virtual university and the role of technology in education is not represented. Fortunately, a fuller account of the program is 'virtually' available at www.virtualsociety.org.uk.

The collection is firmly premised on the well-trodden notion that technology is socially determined as well as determining; that it is falsely presented as neutral; and that its significance and impact are often greatly exaggerated. The critical approach is summarized in the subtitle neologism 'cyberbole' -- a coinage which, incidentally, predates Woolgar's 1999 reference by at least four years (Mark Dery, a cyberculture critic from the Wired circuit, used it back in 1995). Prime examples of 'cyberbole' seem to arise when computing people lapse into pseudo-sociological discourse to over-sell a technology that will, for instance, "modify in depth our way of thinking . . . our relations with the others" (22). While critical of the more obvious cyber hyperbole, contributors do occasionally appear to espouse a more considered form of 'cyberbole': we witness the Editor, for instance, indicating that ICTs "require us to rethink the very basis of the ways in which we relate to one another" and suggesting that museums should properly be designated "offline museums"! (18). There is an inclination to a moderate cyberbole, whereby the emperor's extravagant new clothes have simply been held up at the tailor's. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing: one of the five slogans used to categorize the contributions -- "the more virtual the more real" -- provides a considered antidote to populist negativity about technology removing people from reality. Geoff Cooper, Nicola Green, Ged M. Murtagh, and Richard Harper's "Mobile Society? Technology, Distance, and Presence" is immediately easy to relate to, and contains many thought-provoking observations concerning body language and privacy.

Jon Agar, Sarah Green, and Penny Harvey's "Cotton to Computers: From Industrial to Information Revolutions" provides a fascinating and highly readable account of network initiatives in Manchester. The case-study traces the historical, political, and economic construction and localization of ICTs in Manchester, and acutely observes the political partiality to a 'technical fix' for social problems. However, the level of detail -- and the probing of the 'technical fix' -- has limits. Like many of the more theoretical chapters, it is concerned with electronic technology as a black box, and gives little concrete detail either of the technology or of its actual use.

To be fair, The Editor justifies generality on the basis that they can't cover everything; however, the lack of particularity concerning practical applications is especially frustrating when it comes to the role of expensive network technologies in the regeneration of a particular urban center and particularly deprived neighborhoods. What are the actual uses of the technology in such neighborhoods, and is it a good use of money? Who uses the public multimedia "kiosks" and drop-in access, and for what? Are electronic "community" resources primarily used to train unwaged adults in how to use the technology itself? If so, is this really the door to further education and employment? Is IT training implicitly assumed to be a good thing, or even a (technologically determined) goal in itself? Are there specific but deeper questions concerning technologically facilitated edutainment and museum economies, their public resourcing, cost effectiveness, and class base? Disagreements, rivalries, and complaints among administrative elites are more present than grass-roots experiences. This reality gap in the depiction of "actual experiences" lends a certain virtuality or vicariousness to an otherwise intelligent and perceptive discussion.

Some of the contributions do provide particularity and actual grassroots experience. There is a study of students' use of networked PCs for private study ("Virtual Society and the Cultural Practice of Study," by Charles Crook and Paul Light); a qualitative study of people, drawn from newsgroups, who use computers for social support ("The Reality of Virtual Social Support," by Sarah Nettleton, Nicholas Pleace, Roger Burrows, Steven Muncer, and Brian Loader); and a study of email usage and non-usage which draws on a collection of specimen email exchanges ("Presence, Absence, and Accountability: E-mail and the Mediation of Organizational Memory," by Steven D. Brown and Geoffrey Lightfoot).

Data in an "offline" book about rapidly changing technologies (and societies) inevitably outdate quickly. The statistical trend concerning the numerical inequality between women and men using the Internet has not, for instance, proved as persistent as some of the authors assumed it would be. Although this gap has not been eroded quite as rapidly in the UK (and Europe) as in the US, it is differences in the frequency and intensity of Internet use that have come to seem more statistically significant. Yet differences and disparities are no more unique to the Internet than the failure of user-centerdness is distinctive to new technologies. Such features are avatars, not of the technology, but of larger economic and political inequalities, and as such are not remediable in isolation.

A further condition of any "offline" book is that there are always more topical technologies and cyberbolic themes. The diffusion of Bluetooth -- a radio technology for local wireless data transfer technology which may soon be as ubiquitous as the industry claims it will be -- appears to offer scope for early and wide sociological analyses, as well as closer examination of its applications, and the way it locally substitutes data communication channels and provides the potential for ad hoc networks. The huge investment of the mobile industry in third generation mobile telecommunications technology (3G mobiles) is starting to enter the real world of "virtuality." It will soon be possible for sociologists to engage in real case studies examining technology push, allegedly "exciting" market application (such as videotelephony and movie distribution), and how demand is created for expensive (and very small) mobile video. The scope also must exist for finer-grained studies of the less visible enabling technologies (such as Java) that lie behind the spread of wireless and miniature applications.

Alternative and future directions might include input from the well-established computing/information systems sub-discipline of user-centered design, which could (in some cases of technologically driven systems) provide the possibility of change as well as interpretation.

In conclusion, both the web site and the book offer plenty of seminar material for computers and society courses across a variety of disciplines, as well as short and mostly accessible reading for anyone interested in engaging with the social shaping and impact of digital technologies today.

Peter McKenna:
Peter McKenna is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computing and Mathematics at The Manchester Metropolitan University. A computer scientist with a strong arts background, he teaches multimedia and programming. His research interests include the pedagogy of multimedia and computer aided learning, and gender and programming.  <P.McKenna@mmu.ac.uk>

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