Las Metáforas de Internet
Author: Edgar Gómez Cruz
Publisher: Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, 2007
Review Published: June 2009
When readers open Las Metáforas de Internet, they are immediately presented with what the author calls his "contract" for the book. The contract, which is unusual in American publications, provides a list of the main topics discussed on the book. It also functions as an invitation to general readers to learn more about computer-mediated communication (CMC), Internet studies and metaphors, and the origin of concepts such as virtual community, cyberspace, and virtual identity. Additionally, it offers a critique of CMC. This small 140-page publication edited by the Open University of Catalonia is the sophomore effort by Mexican sociologist Edgar Gómez Cruz, who once again explores identities and concepts of the Internet as scholar and user, as well as critic and enthusiast. Las Metáforas de Internet offers an examination of Internet studies as an emergent phenomenon from the point of view of a social scientist.
Edgar Gómez Cruz has been a fellow of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology since 2005, and is currently working on his doctoral degree at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Barcelona. In Las Metáforas de Internet, Gómez Cruz encounters two challenges: first, to provide his readers with a revisionist analysis of Internet studies in a short space; and second, to find a working definition of the many metaphors coined by scholars within CMC studies, including cyberspace, virtual, online identity, and community. The book is divided into five parts: "Internet Discourse and Metaphors," "Cyberspace: The Academic 'Consensual Hallucination,'" "Virtual Community: From Marginality to the Key Concept of the CMC," "Identity: The Representation of the 'Virtual Being,'" and "Cyberconclusions 2.0."
In the introduction, Gómez Cruz re-tells the tale of a group of blind men who after each having touched a different part of an elephant tries to define what an elephant is. Based on this allegory, he states that it is difficult and even useless to describe the Internet, since several concepts that are now used as the foundation in Internet studies come from different sources. Another problem is that those concepts have been taken for granted without a deep examination. He explains that the point of departure for Las Metáforas de Internet is the dissolution of the idea that we have only one concept of the Internet, and that his goal is to review the concepts proposed and used by the most important scholars on Internet studies. It is clear that the scholarship has been published mainly in English, and Gómez Cruz feels comfortable translating these concepts into Spanish. He follows the ideas of Barry Wellman and David Silver to establish that Internet studies can be divided into periods: 1) the 1990s, characterized by optimistic studies about the new technology; 2) a later emphasis on demographics of Internet users; and 3) from 2003-04 to the present, a period labeled by David Silver as "critical cyberculture studies." Gómez Cruz considers David Bell's An Introduction to Cybercultures as an indispensable framework for Internet studies. In addition to Bell, he relies on the writings of Steve Jones, Silver, and the virtual community called The WELL -- the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link -- to which Gómez Cruz belongs. At the end of the introduction, he presents a road map that summarizes the three main essays that comprise the book, and he affirms that even if they seem to be disconnected they are not, since "all of them examine the concepts on which cyberculture is based" (23).
The second chapter resembles the allegory told in the introduction and seeks to answer the question, "what is cyberspace to several theorists?" The title of this chapter and its conclusion are very similar: "Cyberspace: [is] The Academic 'Consensual Hallucination.'" Gómez Cruz sketches the history of "cyberspace" as a term and as a subject of study in a section he subtitles "General Notes About a (Cyber) Space," where he mentions that the scholarly approach to cyberspace studies starts with Norbert Wiener's 1948 book Cybernetics. In the beginning, he comments, the concept was intimately related to the Cold War. The author then examines the term "ciberespacio" (cyberspace) as defined by three dictionaries: the Spanish Royal Academy online dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, and the Oxford English Dictionary. Although these language tools recognize "cyberspace" as a space, they do not offer a concrete definition, but rather suggest a "consensual hallucination." Therefore "cyberspace" means, "an (artificial, virtual, unreal) space created by computer mediated communication" (29).
Gómez Cruz continues by pointing out that this space was created by CMC studies and the phenomenon is unique to the Internet, since studies related to other technologies, like the telephone for example, have not proposed the existence of a similar "space" for them. The chapter also provides the concept of cyberspace according to scholars William Gibson, John Perry Barlow, David Bell, and Michael Benedikt. Even if there is no clear description of the geography of cyberspace, what matters the most is the interaction of online identities and their logical result, which is the creation of communities. Online identities, specifically sexual identities and the relationship between the real and the virtual worlds -- a relationship that Gómez Cruz terms "hyperspace" -- are topics already discussed by the author in his first book, Cibersexo: La última frontera del Eros? Un estudio etnográfico (Cybersex: The Last Frontier of Eros? An Ethnographic Study).
By the end of chapter two, Gómez Cruz has complied with most of the items in the "contract" outlined at the beginning of the book. The third chapter, or second essay, entitled "Virtual Community: From Marginality to the Key Concept of CMC," explores what the author considers to be the key word in CMC and, at the same time, the most important metaphor in Internet studies -- community. Gómez Cruz states that the "virtual community" metaphor heavily influenced the 1990s and even the present decade. He warns social and cultural researchers that this concept was born in the United States, where "there are different computer systems and they are used in very diverse contexts" (52). This is significant because the concept of "community" differs in the American socio-cultural studies from that of the Spanish or Latin American context. It is clear that for Gómez Cruz the academic virtual community represents the first and most important community, both as research subject and as computer user; the other important community mentioned in this chapter is the one created by counterculture movements, such as the neo-leftists, the neo-right, cyberpunks, hippies, and so on. At the end of this chapter, the author examines the concept "virtual community" versus the old concept "social network," because the former term has lost strength among social scientists. In one of the few instances in which Gómez Cruz offers his own reflection about the topic, he observes that the term "community" has re-emerged in social studies in part because of Second Life, Facebook, Myspace, and other social spaces.
Chapter four, "Identity: The Representation of the 'Virtual Being,'" builds upon the ideas discussed in the previous two essays. "Identity" is the third column or foundational principle in Internet studies according to David Bell. Gómez Cruz takes the definition of "online identity" from Wikipedia -- at the time he consulted this source, online identity meant an identity built up with screen names, pseudo names, and even an avatar that can also be used offline. The author explains that this definition is important because it represents a concept formulated by and for Internet users, and also because it emphasizes the dichotomy of real (offline) and virtual (online) identity. He adds that social scientists started to pay attention to online identity after the resurgence of spaces where users were able to interact in anonymity. The rest of the essay summarizes the works of Elizabeth Reid, Sherry Turkle, and Donna Haraway. The focus, affirms Gómez Cruz, has to be on the relationships between individuals and communities, and not on the technology.
The introduction and three essays about cyberspace and its communities sketch a history from the late 1940s to the beginning of the twenty-first century, with special consideration to the 1990s, or what can now be referred to as Web 1.0. In his conclusion, "Cyberconclusions 2.0," Gómez Cruz interprets Internet metaphors as tools used to explain emergent phenomena born from CMC. He adds that it seems that from 2002 or 2004, the history or histories told in this text have been already surpassed; the Internet has become more complex and specialized (103-104).
Las Metáforas de Internet complies with the contract from the first page; however, this contract is not with the general public, but rather with the academic community from the Spanish-speaking world. Las Metáforas de Internet is a succinct history of the scholarship in English on Internet studies and it represents an excellent starting point for sociologists, technologists, and communication researchers interested in the history of the Internet. Edgar Gómez Cruz plays the role of a chat moderator where a community of social scientists reflects and theorizes on computer-mediated communication, online communities, and online/offline identity. In the same way that the Internet has changed since the nineties, he has also changed from his first book to this one: from cyber sex to identity and communities, from Internet users in Mexico to any user, and from playful academic work to a very serious scholarly exercise.
María Lourdes De Panbehchi:
María Lourdes De Panbehchi is a PhD student in the Media, Art, and Text program at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her interests include foreign languages, computers, and literature. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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