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The Internet Imaginaire

Author: Patrice Flichy
Publisher: Cambridge, MA & London: MIT Press, 2007
Review Published: February 2008

 REVIEW 1: M. Beatrice Bittarello
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Patrice Flichy

Patrice Flichy's The Internet Imaginaire, originally published in French in 2001 and now translated into English by Liz Carey-Libbrecht, is a dense, clearly written, and well-structured analysis of the Internet imaginaire. In the book, Flichy explores the reasons behind the success of the Internet by asking why we have all agreed to adopt Internet technology and focusing on (mythicised) representations of the new communication technique. As he argues: "In the final analysis, what we have to look at are the social actors' justifications for their engagement in the Internet project and the frame of representation of these new technique that has enabled designers and users to coordinate their actions" (2).

Methodologically, Flichy draws upon Barthes's peculiar interpretation of myth, intended as a "metalanguage" that has the ability to transform, "a particular story into a natural representation" (7), and on Bruno Latour's (1987) "sociotechnique network approach," a constructivist model "in which innovation can start at any point and not necessarily in the fertile brain of a brilliant inventor" (3). The most important influence on Flichy's thinking is, however, Paul Ricoeur (1986), whose ideas about utopia and ideology Flichy applies to the analysis of the development of a technical imaginaire.

Following Ricouer's opposition of utopia and ideology, Flichy elaborates a model -- an ideal-type theory -- divided in three phases. The initial "subversive utopia" that proposes a catch-all object is followed by the "project utopia" (a phase peculiar to the technical utopia) that is the trial and experimentation stage. At this point, when designers meet other social actors, a "boundary object" is constructed, which differs from the initial catch-all object and "is situated at the boundaries of several social worlds" (11). At this point, the utopia becomes "mask ideology," where "aspects of reality are readily concealed in order to promote the new technique" (11). When alternatives are cast-aside, we reach the stage of the "legitimizing ideology." The positive function of ideology is to mobilize actors, designers, and users -- or, to use Ricouer's original schema, to establish group identity and (societal) integration. It is easier to follow Flichy's reconstruction of the Internet imaginaire by keeping in mind this schema outlined in the introduction.

The book follows a chronological order that corresponds to the various stages of the transformation of utopia into ideology. The first part of the book examines the technological imaginaire associated with technical projects and produced by politicians, industrialists, computer scientists, and hackers as well as social experimentators and innovative users. The discourses they created about information highway, Internet as University, and online community utopias "spawned the Internet myth" (107). In particular, Chapter 1 examines the imaginaire of politicians and company directors. Flichy follows the transformation of Al Gore's "information highway" from mask utopia to liberal ideology, to the identification of information highways with the Internet. Chapter 2 focuses on the imaginaire elaborated by computer scientists and the academic community, and on its connection to the 1960s counterculture. Chapter 3 follows the crucial appearance of the new utopia produced by the counterculture -- that of online communities embodied in projects. The utopia of "communication and interaction" replaced the initial utopia of distance calculation (e.g. the use of computers by scientists located in distant places by time-sharing), thus "orienting future technical options and their uses" (65). Finally, Chapter 4 considers how once the two socio-technical frames (Academic Net and Community Net) had been set, how the phase of mass diffusion following laboratory research and early trials began.

The second part of the book is perhaps even more fascinating, since it examines Internet imaginaire as "complete imaginary construction encompassing all aspects of new digital society" (107).

Chapter 5 follows how the Internet entered communication and media theory, religious discussions, and popular culture, which all elaborated on the Internet as an alternative new world, a space for freedom, experimentation, and disembodied experience ("religious" or not). Chapter 5 focuses on how the discourse(s) of what Flichy defines as visionaries (McLuhan and Teilhard the Chardin, for example), futurologists (such as Alvin Toffler), and science fiction writers (William Gibson and Bruce Sterling) have been chosen and used, particularly by the magazine Wired, to construct a cyber-imaginaire. Although perhaps Flichy could have stressed with more emphasis the intertwining of discourses on cyberspace and the development of new religions (and of different modulations of concepts of religion and spirituality), he does use a few examples, including the Extropians. Also, purposeful representations of cyberspace as "other world" or "heaven" (i.e. as "sacred space"), which play a key role in the construction of a cyber-imaginaire, and are mentioned in the introduction, could have been explored more in depth, since they are found in cyberpunk writers and appear to be entirely consistent with Flichy's interpretation.

The following chapter examines Virtual Reality, showing how this is an interesting case of multiplicity of imaginaires, revolving around the body/mind relationship as well as the relationship between engagement (and risk) and disengagement, the latter being encouraged by the anonymity and weak links of cyberspace. The chapter includes a re-examination of Donna Haraway's (1991) concept of the cyborg which is a particularly important element of the book since feminist critique has criticised the masculinist slant of most literature on cyberspace, and highlighted how the cyber-imaginaire is indeed a strongly gendered construction. Haraway is one of the few feminist theorists mentioned by Flichy, though several other feminist theorists have stressed even more forcefully than Haraway the explicit attempt to erase embodied knowledge which dominated early constructions of cyberspace, a point that does not emerge with clarity from this chapter's discussion.

Chapter 7 focuses on the place of politics and laws in the cyber-imaginaire, highlighting how certain modulations of the imaginaire, such as the dream of a cyber-democracy and the idea that laws are not applicable to cyberspace, reflect the position of easily identifiable political groups. For example, the cyber-libertarian position that imagined cyberspace as independent and ruled by the market, thereby opposing any restriction to free speech, trade, or exchange on the Internet, even when such position was patently favoring big corporations against the rights of individuals, as clearly highlighted by Flichy (163), was connected to sectors of the Republican party. One of the most important points in Flichy's analysis is that just as citizens are not merely consumers, neither can politics be reduced to free market. However, Flichy criticizes Arthur Kroker's (1994, 1995) idea that the new digital society is simply an ideology masking market domination (165). Even if Flichy ends up downplaying such an idea as oversimplifying, rather than unfounded, Kroker's concerns deserve attention, since the exclusion of the masses from cyberspace, or their access only to the commercial sectors of the Internet, is, today, a harsh reality.

The final chapter examines how the new commercial and economic discourse that started in the mid 1990s has modified the cyber-imaginaire. According to Flichy, the idea of freeware, rather than creating a new economy, has simply encouraged businesses to find ways to adapt to the Internet culture of free sharing. The idea of a new economy based on the Internet and free exchange was, from the start, an illusion.

In the book's conclusion, Flichy writes: "The Internet imaginaire, like the technology accompanying it, was born in the particular context of the United States but subsequently became universal" (211). However, I am not fully convinced that the Internet story is mainly (or even exclusively) a US history for two main reasons. The first is that the book itself offers some data that would need further reflection and study. For example, is it casual that both Linus Thorvalds (the creator of Linux) and Tim Berners Lee (who invented the World Wide Web) are not Americans and have been working in European institutions? What I find interesting is that both innovators were and are strong supporters of a sharing culture -- this could suggest that at least some of the most libertarian models and peer-sharing technical contributions have been developed by Europeans. This is not to contrast American and European culture, but rather to suggest that broadening the perspective by a comparative study of how Europe (and other cultural areas of the globe) has participated in the construction of the cyber-imaginaire could, perhaps, lead to a slightly different conclusion.

The second is that Flichy himself is a French (and thus European) scholar, as are many of the thinkers that form his theoretical framework. This prompts the question: why are some of the most interesting studies on the construction of the human beings-technology relationship (which includes the Internet) by European scholars or inspired by the works of European (especially French) philosophers, including Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault, and, more recently, Deleuze?

Translating and re-publishing a book more than six years after it was first published is a risky move in a rapidly changing discipline as Internet studies. However, The Internet Imaginaire is surprisingly up-to-date and, although in my view Barthes' and Ricoeur's definitions of myth and ideology are controversial, this does hinder the overall validity of the book's argument, evidence, and conclusions, especially because of Flichy's attention to the
connections between economic, social, and political aspects. Further, by highlighting how those who write (academically or not) about the Internet are often influenced by the "myths" they have helped to create, the book also invites all of us to be more careful in our analysis of cyberspace phenomena.

Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Arthur Kroker, "Interview with Arthur Kroker." Radio Canada, July 23, 1995.

Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class. Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1994.

Bruno Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Paul Ricoeur, Lectures on Ideology and Utopia. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

M. Beatrice Bittarello:
M. Beatrice Bittarello has a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Stirling. Her main research focus is Internet Paganism, and she has published articles on Goddess pilgrimages (Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, 2006), on body, religion, and technology in popular culture and contemporary Paganism (Journal of Contemporary Religion, forthcoming 2008), and on mythopoesis on modern Pagan websites (book chapter, Ashgate 2008). She has also written on the issue of ancient and contemporary virtual worlds (Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet, 2007). Her comparative and interdisciplinary approach draws upon religious studies, cultural studies, and feminist critique methodologies.  <m_bittarello@yahoo.it>

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