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Virtual Publics: Policy and Community in an Electronic Age

Editor: Beth E. Kolko
Publisher: New York: Columbia University Press, 2003
Review Published: November 2005

 REVIEW 1: Nathan Rambukkana

The first thing that struck me about Beth Kolko's edited collection Virtual Publics: Policy and Community in an Electronic Age was that it was a truly multidisciplinary endeavor. Grown out of a 1997 American Studies Association panel on "The Global, the Local, and the Virtual: Space, Community, and Politics Online," this collection of 13 papers comprises contributions from multimedia artists, an architect, educator/activists, a legal theorist, a theater scholar, and the usual complement of communication scholars, cultural theorists, and philosophers. In addition, several of the contributors are currently pursuing non-academic vocations in fields from high-tech design to telecommunications. This breadth of approach and range of voices makes this an elegant collection that takes us out of the ubiquitous references to similar literature and somewhat-hackneyed arguments [1] that can make reading collections on "virtual communities" and policy issues seem occasionally like endless merry-go-rounds where little new information or argument is added with each turn. By contrast, this collection creates a composite vision of the state of academic, civic, pedagogical, and commercial engagements with Internet technologies in a discussion borne not (or not only) from within the interdisciplinary discourse that has accrued around this topic, but from the multiple and various disciplinary discourses that touch this subject.

Divided into two sections dealing broadly with "Users and the Structure of Technology" and "Technology and the Structure of Communities," this collection's focus moves from the general to the particular starting with more far reaching and theoretical chapters and then moving into a section informed mainly by "reports from the field": chapters that grew out of observations of cybercultural projects, both from participant observers and project leaders, and those assessing the relative merits of projects from without.

In her introduction, "The Reality of Virtuality," Kolko prefaces our engagement with the collection by laying out an argument that “the Internet is a complex and often incompletely understood influence on public discourse and public life, that while offline interaction affects online activities, what happens online also shapes what happens in face-to-face environments” (1). As such, this marks the collection as a departure from the more abstract arguments about the "nature" of virtual spaces, ones that often ignore that the people who are engaging with each other in these spaces are not simply avatars or ephemeral beings who do not otherwise live and inhabit the "real world." The fusion of theoretical insight with practical grounding in the works of this collection also situate them within what Barry Wellman (2004) calls the "third age of internet studies" in which "more focused, theoretically-driven projects" (127) build upon the ubiquitous data collection and often groundless enthusiasm that typifies the first ten years of Internet study. The type of project being mounted here is modest but fairly fundamental. In Kolko's words: "Each individual essay demonstrates how the use of technology raises a series of questions about the effect it has on our lives" (2). It is important to note that in this statement there is no allowance for a space between "our lives" and "our virtual lives." This is due in large part to the fact that the overall frame of this collection collapses the virtual into the real, not as an ephemeral supplement, but as another realm of existing real things. As such, the collection as a whole is aligned with Deleuze's mobilization of the virtual-as-real, as well as with some of the recent scholarship on affect and how influences in different realms can interact with each other across different layers of "reality" [2].

The first essay of the collection, Gilbert B. Rodman's "The Net Effect: The Public's Fear and the Public Sphere," is a great overview that situates people's fears about an encroaching and sinister technology in relation to actual shortcomings of the possibilities for public participation in a wired world. Eschewing simple dichotomies, he concludes that "the Net is simultaneously good and bad, empowering and alienating, educational and misleading, populist and elitist" (39).

The second essay is Paul Schiff Berman's "The Internet, Community Definition, and the Social Meaning of Legal Jurisdiction." Through a fine-boned analysis of jurisdictional law, Berman posits that the types of spatial metaphors we attribute to Internet spaces can determine how those spaces are treated jurisdictionally. In addition, he concludes that the transformations of geographical boundaries and relationships inherent to late capitalism, transnational commerce, and a geographically dispersed Internet put pressure on many space-related precedents in law.

The third essay, "Architectural Design for Online Environments" by Anna Cicognani, makes the compelling argument that insights from within the world of architectural design could (and should) be used for designing online spaces. An interesting facet of this essay is that it engages the process of design at so many levels: from the sheer exigencies of coding structures to the meta-psychological ramifications of ordering (or re-ordering) virtual spaces.

The forth essay, "Community, Affect, and the Virtual: The Politics of Cyberspace" by J. Macgregor Wise, is a profound philosophical engagement with the notions of virtuality and community from a perspective that takes current theory surrounding affect and applies it to the problematic status of the "virtual community." One of the strongest chapters in the collection, due in part to its reflexive focus that at one point directly interrogates the theme of the collection, Wise counters the notion that the Internet is a space devoid of affect by pointing out that affect, in fact, abounds in cyberspace, but might be too broadly dispersed to be captured effectively as emotion.

The first section's final chapter is Helen Nissenbaum's "Securing Trust Online: Wisdom or Oxymoron?" In this chapter, Nissenbaum ably parses the notions of "trust" and "security," valuing both as integral components of productive and sustained Internet engagement, but warning us against the dominant trend in cyberspacial discourse of conflating the two. Notable is her conclusion that increased security can often curtail the development of trust, as opposed to promoting it.

The second section starts with Tara McPherson's "TV Predicts the Future: On Convergence and Cybertelevision." Though a solid history of one step in the story of convergence between the web and television, with some good insights, its scope is a bit limited, focusing only on MSNBC and the first steps in what was, by the anthology's publication date of 2003, a much richer story. Mary E. Hocks and Anne Balsamo follow with "Women Making Multimedia: Possibilities for Feminist Activism." In elucidating the process of developing their project, an interactive and agglomerative multimedia presentation on current state of women in the world, the authors use radical specificity not to tell but to show how they consider "new technologies more as a reality engine than a message transmitter" (196).

The eighth chapter is also by a multimedia artist. Mitch Geller's "Is it Art, In Fact?" interrogates the notion of truth and authority with relation to the notion of the factual in multimedia texts. Though his project of creating artwork that blurs the distinction between reality and fiction provokes insights into the nature of authority, its obscure pop culture references and oddly disembodied quotations make it less than immediately useful, and oddly out of place in this collection.

The next two texts explore the role of the university in relation to cyberspacial environments. Allison Regan and John Zuern's "Making the Virtual Real: University-Community Partnerships" documents the successes and challenges of creating and running an ongoing computer literacy project with KPT, a public housing project in Hawaii. This chapter is exemplary both in the nature of its excellent project and in its candor in including a discussion of some of its failures -- a productive element that does not always get focused on in the literature. From a different perspective, Collin Gifford Brooke explores the encroaching specter of entirely distance education in "Where Do You Want to Learn Tomorrow? The Paradox of the Virtual University." This chapter, though intriguing, is unconvincing, as its basic premise that the university will ultimately fall to the ubiquity of virtual education is a little too technologically determinist for the reviewer's taste, and a little too far-fetched to be fully believed.

The final three chapters address directly the notion of virtual communities and what they may come to mean to those using them as part of their everyday lives. In "Community-Based Software, Participatory Theatre: Models for Inviting Participation in Learning and Artistic Production," Susan Claire Warshauer evaluates the educational software tool ExploreNet from a perspective informed by her status as a theatre and communications scholar. Through exploring the concept of online agency in relation to character agency in theatre presentations, she is able to formulate some useful insights and suggestions, though risks at times conflating the two separate modes of action.

David Silver explores the texture of day-to-day life in the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV) in "Communication, Community, Consumption: An Ethnographic Exploration of an Online City." As part of his expansive work on BEV, Silver uses a multi-sited ethnographic approach to evaluate just how users engage with, and evaluate their relations to, the online shadow of their actual city of Blacksburg. A notable moment in this paper is when Silver explodes the notion that communities have to be unified to be truly functional, noting that is it often conflict that is an energetic and generative force in community discourse.

Finally, in "Can Technology Transform? Experimenting with Wired Communities," Mark A. Jones offers a useful structural analysis of why many ventures to produce transformative wired communities fail to achieve their desired results. He posits three criteria that must be fulfilled in order to have a "successful" wired community: a unifying vision, participating organizations, and receptive users. As such, Jones models an interesting plan for such projects, though is perhaps a little too limiting in what he considers a "successful" venture.

As a collection, Virtual Publics is true to its name: it assesses the notion of what a virtual public might be from various standpoints, using multiple possible meanings for these terms and using multiple methodological tools. This is, in fact, one of the strongest benefits to this collection. In reading it, one is introduced to myriad approaches to the productive academic intervention in the discourse of the virtual public, as well as to strategies and tactics for mounting successful projects both in cyberspace and in physical spaces. The various frameworks and methodological approaches, taken together, offer a wealth of insight into the possibilities of success and failure, as well as maps to help avoid the pitfalls of the latter. And this holds as true for the academic wishing to engage with cyberculture, as for the activist, entrepreneur, or project leader wanting to engage in it.

The only major drawback that this collection has is that since the seeds for it were sewn in 1997, some of the research reads as a bit dated for a 2003 publication. For example, discussions of online spaces begin and end with chat rooms, MUDs, MOOs, and listservs while the more recent phenomena of multi-user 3-D environments and even the ubiquity of instant messaging are absent from the discussion. This, however, is a minor point owing no doubt more than anything to the slowness of the publishing process than to serious faults in authorship, and is nothing but a small coda to an otherwise excellent collection.

[1] Such as over the "possibility" of community. This topic is dealt with quite comprehensively by Wise in his chapter, "Community, Affect, and the Virtual: The Politics of Cyberspace."

[2] For more work in this area, see the work of Massumi (2002).

Massumi, Brian, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Wellman, Barry. "The three ages of internet studies: ten, five and zero years ago." New Media & Society 6.1 (2004): 123-129.

Nathan Rambukkana:
Nathan Rambukkana is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Joint Program in Communication at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He studies sexuality and new media technologies, with a special focus on alternative sexualities and the Internet. His work has appeared in The Journal of Bisexuality, GR: Journal For The Arts, Sciences & Technology, and in the collection Plural Loves: Designs for Bi and Poly Living.  <n_rambuk@alcor.concordia.ca>

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