April 7, 1998
Social Environment of Cyberspace - II
a. Claims of Interactivity. One of the claims made
by many who promote the new technologies is that the latest versions
of computers and computer programs are interactive or more interactive.
The computer itself is sometimes referred to as being interactive,
media like CD-ROMS and games may be considered interactive, and
the internet is often considered to be interactive. In early
computers, we punched cards and fed them through a card reader
and waited for results to appear. In the case of statistical
work, it might have been necessary to wait until the next day
to obtain the results. The advent of computer terminals and keyboards
connected to computers, along with faster computers, resulted
in a considerable speedup of this process. In addition, when
instructions were typed into the computer, the computer would
often be programmed to return certain messages - making it seem
as if a conversation was being held with the computer. For the
most part though, all that was really changed was that the results
came back much more quickly.
With the development of more sophisticated programs, programmed
to provide responses to a much wider range of instructions, and
with a much wider range of responses, it appears that computers
have become more interactive. Now we can point and click on an
icon, get a result back quickly and the result may be a wide range
of further choices. We again select one choice, point and click,
and may obtain a further set of choices or information. All
this is done very quickly, involves transfer of vast amounts of
information, and involves moving digital information across many
electronic networks and great geographic space. Or in the case
of computer games, sophisticated programs respond to many directives
from the operator of the game. But again, the wide range of
possible responses is automatic, with the electronic impulses
provided by the directions of the operator, and the responses
a result of the computer program.
Stone notes that the Atari executives' views of interactivity
was turn-taking where "the user pushed a button and the machine
did something as a result" (p. 135). Also note the debate
over what an encyclopedia might mean, a debate between those who
thought that different viewpoints might be presented as opposed
to those who thought that the encyclopedia should present truth
Computers and networks today operate faster than most of us can
think or move, but can this truly be considered interaction?
b. Stone on Interaction (pp. 9-12). Stone notes that the
commercial applications of computers and computer games provide
for only a very limited type of interactivity. Stone argues that
"interactivity implies two conscious agencies in conversation"
(p. 11) and for any individual who is working alone with computers
or playing computer games, it is difficult to imagine the machine
as a conscious agent. Perhaps future intelligent machines will
take on more of the characteristics of conscious agents.
Stone uses a definition of interaction "as mutual and simultaneous
activity on the part of both participants, usually working toward
some goal," although not necessarily a common goal (p. 10).
She further notes that there are five aspects or implications
of interaction (pp. 10-11):
Note: Items 1. and 2. appear to be associated with the
goals of the interaction. The goals of the participants must
be similar, complementary, or at least not incompatible. Items
3. and 4. refer to the unplanned nature of interaction. While
a general direction may be noted, part of what makes it interaction
is its meandering and discursive nature.
While it might be possible for these characteristics to be satisfied
with machines, Stone notes that such conditions are likely to
occur only in the case of two conscious agents. The above conditions
may differ somewhat from conventional sociological views of interaction,
but provide a useful perspective on interaction, one that may
allow a discussion of the meaning of interaction in cyberspace.
c. Interaction in Sociology.
i. Mead. Sociological definitions of interaction
focus on individuals who are conscious, acting individuals, who
are capable of taking account of the responses of others. For
example, George Herbert Mead considered the human to differ from
other animals in that the human has a self. By this he meant
that a human being can consider the effects of his or her own
actions, and can be the object of these actions. That is, where
humans might respond in an automatic manner to a stimulus in some
circumstances, in general human action occurs as a result of a
delay in response. For humans, there is generally a process of
consideration and interpretation between the stimulus and the
response. While it is true that each of us live in a particular
environment, face or are part of many structures, and have various
motives, human behaviour is not the result of these, but of how
each of these is interpreted and handled. The individual takes
on the role of others and human action results once this process
has been completed.
Stone's approach to interaction can fit within this framework,
in the sense that she notes that both parties to an interactive
process must be conscious beings, able to respond in much the
same manner as described by Mead. Stone then spells out some
of the processes by which interaction proceeds.
ii. Simmel. One way of looking at the changes associated with interaction and community in cyberspace is to consider them in the light of the larger changes in the forms of human interaction and community in earlier periods. The German sociologist Simmel provides a key to this, contrasting the forms of interaction in rural and urban society. These differ because of the length of contact (brevity and fleetingness in urban society), number of contacts (more extensive), and nature of contact (quick impressions), so that a different type of culture develops in cities, as compared with traditional, rural society. The interactions in urban areas form the social life of cities, and individuals develop personalities consistent with an urban setting. For example, the individual may attempt to be different, to adopt a particular fashion or style, to seek "the awareness of others [and] appear concentrated and strikingly characteristic," (Simmel from Faraganis, p. 156). For Simmel, the urban individual
develops an organ protecting him against the threatening currents and discrepancies of his external environment which would uproot him. He reacts with his head instead of his heart. Metropolitan life, thus, underlies a heightened awareness and a predominance of intelligence in metropolitan man. (Simmel from Faraganis, p. 150).
Since urban society is associated with a new form of interaction,
different from rural interaction, cyberspace as a new form of
social environment might be associated with a different forms
of interaction than what are now common.
Some of the differences associated with cyberspace that may be
relevant for the change in forms of interaction are non-personal
contact, exclusive use of symbols, extremely rapid communication,
extensive room for interpretation, desire and fantasy, and the
possibility of portrayal of multiple selves in this space. While
cyberspace communications originate from physical bodies, the
recipient of the communication may not consider these as grounded
in a sending body. The recipient may not know anything about
the communication other than what symbols have been communicated
- the name, identity, personality, and physical characteristics
of the originator need not be communicated. In addition, these
symbols can be altered and rearranged by others in cyberspace.
As a result, some messages and images in cyberspace may ultimately
have little connection with the original, and even less connection
with the physical body or personality from which they originated.
For those who know each other through face-to-face contact and
traditional forms of interaction but who communicate through cyberspace,
there may also be changes in modes of interaction. With new forms
of communication, there is certainly more room for the process
of interpretation, greater chance of delayed response, a possibility
of ignoring the message, and greater precision in reporting specific
details. These forms of communication may also lead to maintaining
certain types of contact when normal forms of interaction would
not be possible, and may lead certain individuals to interact
who might not normally do so in other contexts.
Simmel could not have anticipated the possibility of or expansion
in electronic forms of communication. But his approach to examining
interaction and its consequences provides a useful model for considering
the nature of interaction and some of the forms interaction might
take in cyberspace.
d. Conclusions concerning interaction.
i. Conscious beings. Interaction is a process that
involves at least two conscious beings, each capable of taking
on the role of the other, being able to interpret rather than
ii. Human-computer interactivity. For the most
part, human-computer relations are not interaction, in that one
participant in this process is not conscious, but responds in
a programmed and predictable manner. Various forms of randomness
and other mathematical models might be used to make it appear
as if the computer was providing a more realistic form of interaction.
In the case of these more sophisticated computer games and where
exact prediction is not possible, computer responses are still
programmed in some manner and they are not the result of interpretation.
iii. Human-human interaction in cyberspace. Interaction
using computers does take place when there are at least two conscious
participants who communicate using computer technology. These
may be people who have had face-to-face contact, or prior voice
or written contact. Alternatively, they may be two individuals
who have no knowledge of each other, but are able to come into
contact through cyberspace. In the latter case, the contact
may become a form of conversation and interaction. It is this
which becomes the interactive aspect of computers and cyberspace.
In this case though, the individuals may know nothing more about
each other than what appears in the conversation - the words or
symbols that are communicated. The context within which this
interaction occurs is quite different than the context in which
face-to-face interaction takes place. It is some of the consequences
of this form of interaction that will become important in considering
how interaction takes place in cyberspace, and what the meaning
of community might be in cyberspace.
iv. Lack of context. Note that the interaction
may be without much context - a postmodern approach. That is,
the personality, physical body, gestures, and mode of speech are
all absent from the communication, and only the elements of the
conversation can be considered, because that is all that is communicated.
The context in which they were written and what was intended
by them may be open to much interpretation. That is, the bandwidth
may be very narrow in these circumstances.
v. Freedom, confusion, or constraint? For some, these
new forms of interaction may constitute a realm of freedom. Those
carrying out the communication are not tied to a constraining
context, interaction may be with quite different people than in
physical, face-to-face interaction, and kindred selves may be
united in cyberspace in a way that is not possible in the physical
world. This also raises the possibility of the multiple personalities
and new identities. Some of these may be harmful, some may be
For others, the context and physical interaction may be so important
that they are unable to function in this new setting, or prefer
not to interact there. Cyberspace may appear uninteresting to
some, and confusing or irrelevant to others. The constraints
imposed by narrow bandwidth and communication in set symbols may
constrain some individuals and some forms of communication. While
Stone discusses phone sex as creating new forms of sexual interaction,
intimacy and sex between selves in physical bodies must still
take place in the physical world. Childbirth, socialization,
family, sports, and much of human labour must still be done with
real bodies. Cyberspace may either be of some assistance or some
constraint in dealing with each of these forms of interaction.
Some of these considerations may provide guidelines concerning
who might interact in cyberspace and who will not, and what can
be accomplished there and what cannot.
a. Meaning of community. While there are many definitions and approaches to community, most of these definitions involve "a group of people in 'social interaction'" (Dasgupta, p. 5). That is, a community must involve more than one person, and usually involves considerably more than two people. People as conscious beings are involved, and they have some form of social interaction which is more than stimulus and response, so that there are processes of interpretation and exercise of the self involved. Some of the ideas that might be connected with community are:
Raymond Williams summarizes the various senses of community as meaning
on the one hand the sense of direct common concern; on the other hand the materialization of various forms of common organization Community can be the warmly persuasive word to describe an existing set of relationships, or the warmly persuasive word to describe an alternative set of relationships. What is most important, perhaps, is that unlike all other terms of social organization (state, nation, society, etc.) it seems never to be used unfavourably, and never to be given an positive opposing or distinguishing terms. (Williams, p. 76).
Note the positive meaning generally attached to community, and
the manner in which discussions of community often refer to the
future or to the past. Often there is an expectation of a coming
of community or the possibility of such, or the feeling that there
once existed a community but that this has been destroyed or damaged.
In this sense, community as an idea may be as important
or more important than the actual existence of common ties and
forms of social organization.
b. Negative features of community.
c. Virtual community. The notion of community has been
extended to cyberspace, perhaps as a part of the use that Williams
identifies as an expectation or a possibility of an improved alternative
set of relationships (alternative to person-to-person, physical
Note that the direct contact community of traditional, rural,
and small-scale society continues to exist in contemporary society,
but is modified by and supplemented with new forms of community
made possible by new technologies of transportation and electronic
communication. Networks of community are established across various
geographic parts of cities by individuals with common interests
or compatibility. In a mobile society with relatively low cost
transportation, these networks of community can extend across
larger geographic areas.
With the advent of electronic communication, such as telephone
and telegraph, the possibilities for development and expansion
of networks were vastly expanded, and some forms of community
have become almost independent of space. For example, the academic
community, sports communities, and political communities extend
across the whole country or the whole world.
Cyberspace, without its high-tech glitz, is partially the idea of virtual community. The earliest cyberspaces may have been virtual communities, passage points for collections of common beliefs and practices that united people who were physically separated. Virtual communities sustain themselves by constantly circulating those practices. (From Stone, "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?").
d. Virtuality as community. In virtual communities, what is either different or similar to earlier forms and meanings of community?
What I see now is that people do develop an elaborate social life in the imaginary space; they develop elaborate multiple personalities, all of which are grounded in a single body: theirs. The learn how to manipulate these personalities - take them out of the box, dust them, run them, put them back in the box, put them away, take out another one. It's a much more elaborated, ramified version of what we do every day in our social interactions; you're not the same person when you talke to the milkman that you are when you talk to your lover. ... it all ultimately comes back to the physical body and how the things that we see happening, these endless ramifications of virtual communities, come back to help, to assist, to increase the potential of, or to make better the physical body. (Stone interview in Leeson, pp. 113-4).
e. Stone on virtual community.
In "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?" (p. 18) Stone notes the following:
Electronic virtual communities represent flexible, lively, and practical adaptations to the real circumstances that confront persons seeking community in what Haraway (1987) refers to as "the mythic time called the late twentieth century." They are part of a range of innovative solutions to the drive for sociality - a drive that can be frequently thwarted by the geographical and cultural realities of cities increasingly structured according to the needs of powerful economic interests rather than in ways that encourage and facilitate habitation and social interaction in the urban context. In this context, electronic virtual communities are complex and ingenious strategies for survival. Whether the seemingly inherent seductiveness of the medium distorts the aims of those strategies, as television has done for literacy and personal interaction, remains to be seen.
f. Conclusions concerning virtual communities. These may
provide options for community beyond what have existed in earlier
times. At the same time, as Stone notes, these virtual communities
have existed before, although in different form and using different
modes of communication. The question is whether the quantitative
expansion in possibilities for connectivity and interaction in
cyberspace will create a qualitative shift in the nature of community.
While there can be a certain independence of virtual communication
from physical bodies, at present this connection is still quite
strong. Most people appear to prefer person-to-person contact
at some point, whether it be prior interaction that is extended
into cyberspace, or initial cyberspace contact that turns into
8. Conclusion to Stone
Stone feels that there are some new forms of interaction, community,
and social organization emerging as a result of the development,
expansion, and immersion in the new virtual and cyber technologies.
The manner in which these will develop is not entirely clear
from Stone, and the title of her book "The War of Desire
and Technology" indicate that the developments could go in
various directions. For one thing, Stone notes that we will all
be altered as we embark on this quest with technology (just as
we were changed with modernity). Page 183 lays out the lack of
certainty concerning direction. However, by indicating positive
features such as desire and other positive human qualities, play,
multiplicity, community, and individual and collective human agency,
Stone raises the possibility of a promising future. By dealing
with some of these aspects, the positive possibilities are clearer
than in much of Kroker's writing.
Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origina and Spread of Nationalism, London, Verso, 1973.
Anderson, Karen L., Sociology: A critical introduction, Scarborough, Nelson Canada, 1996.
Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, New York, The Guilford Press, 1991.
Dasgupta, Satadal, editor, The Community in Canada: Rural and Urban, Lanham, Maryland, University Press of America, 1996.
Dery, Mark, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, New York, Grove Press, 1996.
Farganis, J., Readings in Social Theory: the Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism, second edition, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1993.
Gibson, William, Neuromancer, New York, Ace, 1984.
Kellner, Douglas, "Popular Culture and the Construction of Postmodern Identities," in Scott Lash and Jonathan Friedman, editors, Modernity and Identity, Oxford, Blackwell, 1992, pp. 141-177.
Kroker, Arthur and Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash: the theory of the virtual class, Montreal, New World Perspectives, 1994.
Leeson, Lynn Hershman, editor, Clicking In: Hot Links to a Digital Culture, Seattle, Bay Press, 1996.
Stone, Allucquère Rosanne, " Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?", May 11, 1997.
Williams, Raymond, Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society,
London, Fontana, Flamingo edition, 1983.
Notes from April 7, 1998. Last edited on April 7, 1998.
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