Sociology 304

March 18, 1999

Introduction to Virtuality and Cyberspace

A. Description in Class Syllabus. In this concluding section of the class, we will discuss some of the social issues related to the new technologies, virtuality, and cyberspace. These will be approached at two levels: (i) through the stories and theoretical approach of Allucquère Rosanne Stone, and (ii) through the theory of the virtual class, as laid out by the Canadian postmodern political and social theorist Arthur Kroker. Through a series of stories and theoretical arguments, Stone examines how individuals create new forms of identity, interaction, and community as they work and play with the new technologies. Kroker presents a broad overall view of the powerful virtual class that has emerged on the basis of new technologies, where the will to virtuality "becomes the primal impulse of pan-capitalism, the mediascape, and post-history."

B. Overview of Issues and Approaches. The topics and issues in this section concern (i) some of the new technologies - particularly those associated with computers and computing and electronic forms of communication; (ii) why an examination and analysis of these might be important in a social sense, and what they might mean in terms of the organization and conduct of contemporary society - the social environment; (iii) some of the connections of these issues to social theory, and the manner in which sociological models might be altered to deal with these issues. Each of these is discussed briefly here.

1. New Technologies and Forms of Communication. Among the types of new technology are computers, the internet, high-speed connections such as fibre optics or satellite, cell phones, software and hardware, chips, data, information, communication, virtual reality simulations and games, and perhaps many more applications of technology. Most or all of these have an electronic base, and although some earlier technologies such as telephones, radio, and television also used electronics, compared with earlier periods the importance of electronic and digital forms of technology has increased in contemporary society. Each of the earlier technologies was associated with changes in social organization, and the new technologies will also have an effect on social structure, institutions, and organization.

There are many other new technologies that we will not examine in any detail in this section - biotechnology, genetic engineering, new medical technologies, and robotics. In addition, there are continual changes or improvements in older technologies in manufacturing industries that produce automobiles, clothing, and a wide variety of consumer and producer goods. Even the service industries undergo technological change, either through new means of organizing work (Macdonaldization, time and motion studies) or through new organizational structures (mergers, changes in management forms and structures). While each of these may be connected to the technologies discussed here, we will focus on the electronic and digital technologies.

The new electronic and digital technologies are usually associated with information and changes in the way information and data are organized, stored, processed, transmitted, and used. The primary features of this appear to be the ability to (a) examine new or different forms of data (administrative records, qualitative analysis software programs, text, controlling and monitoring in manufacturing and consumer goods), (b) handle much larger amounts of data (more records kept in digital format, microprocessors in consumer goods), and (c) work with these data much more quickly (increased speed of microprocessors, communication, obtaining access to data). Many of the technologies are connected with communication - new ways of communicating, increased speed of communication, or new forms of information and data that can be communicated. Some writers and analysts examining the latest technologies argue that these create new forms of space (cyberspace) and new forms of reality (virtual). In most of the discussion, we will not be concerned with the technical details of how these occur, but with what some of the social impact of these new technologies and how individuals and groups use and relate to these technologies.

2. Social Environment of New Technologies. All technologies have a social impact of some type, although there are great differences in the views of social scientists concerning the impact of new technologies. Some have argued that technology itself is the primary force in structuring the organization of society - e.g. the effect of the automobile has been to create lower density cities and suburbs, television has led to the decline of community. Others argue that technologies are not neutral in that they benefit some at the expense of others (automation unemploys large numbers of workers and benefits corporations and the bourgeoisie). While no one can claim that technology is neutral in that it has no effect on social structure and organization or changes in those, the manner in which technology has its effects is complex. There are many unforeseen or unintended consequences to technological change, it is difficult to predict what the effect of such change will be, and the manner in which technology will interact with existing social organizations is always uncertain. In addition, existing forms of social organization often resist new technologies, adapt to them in unforeseen ways, or adopt them more completely than could have been predicted. The quote from Marshall Sahlins on p. xi of Stone is particularly apt:

Collective structures … reproduce themselves historically by risking themselves in novel conditions. Their wholeness is as much a matter of reinvention and encounter as it is of continuity and survival.

This is true of ethnic groups in new settings and it is characteristic of societies like ours that undergo rapid social and technological change.

Since many of the technologies lead in the direction of communication with others, or transfer of information to others, issues related to how this communication occurs, and what forms of interaction take place with use of these new technologies become important. Within cyberspace and virtual reality, even the question of what the self is and what the other is are in question. Stone raises a number of issues related to this in her introduction and in the stories she tells.

When individuals using the technologies by themselves, there are a number of issues that emerge. For example, some of the issues are: (a) is the technology is associated with new cultural opportunties (games, internet), (b) do new technologies save time for users (one of the early expectations), (c) is work carried out more efficiently and productively (allowing the worker to carry out more tasks or the same tasks within a given period of time), (d) are there new forms of individual-machine interaction (computer games, virtual reality), (e) are there more problems and stress, and (f) do the machines change the individual? For this section of the course, try to think of ways in which individual and group action and interaction may be changed as a result of the new technologies, or how individuals may resist such changes.

For society as a whole, there are also a number of issues associated with the new technologies. On one side are those who look on the new technologies as solutions to our problems, capable of creating a new and better world. The article "The Intercranial Internet" by Bran Ferren, New York Times Magazine, March 15, 1998, p. 28 is an example of this technotopian approach. The television advertisements of the hi-tech companies such as Microsoft and AT&T provide a quick view of the potentially positive effects of the new information technologies - better communication, improved ability to deal with problems, greater precision and accuracy, etc. Next week we will look at some of these ads to see what messages they carry.

On the other side, there are those who consider these extravagant claims to divert attention away from the important issues society faces, or look on the new technologies as creating new problems. Two of the main issues that face society, economic inequality and environmental degradation, may not be at all addressed with the new technologies. One of the implication of Kroker's argument is that economic inequality is likely to increase as the new technologies become more widespread, creating widespread unemployment, poverty, and surplus population, while at the same creating a wealthy and powerful virtual class. That is, these technologies may cause unemployment and poverty among those left out of the hi-tech global economy, lead to greater workloads and speedup for some workers in this new society, and create new sources of stress and pressure throughout society.

Regardless of which approach is taken, and both approaches may be correct in some sense, there is no doubt that these new technologies are changing the manner in which we communicate, and they are creating societies and economies which are more closely tied together at the global level. The implications for the economic, social, and political structure of societies are considerable, although it is not yet clear exactly how all these structures will be changed. The chapter, "Introduction" in Escape Velocity by Mark Dery provides an overview of some of the claims of both the doomsayers and the technophiles. His approach is to note that the computer is both "an engine of liberation and an instrument of repression" (p. 14) and he provides examples of how people can reclaim technology (p. 15).

3. Implications for Sociological and Political Economic Approaches. One of the questions that emerges in the study of contemporary society is whether traditional sociological and political economic approaches provide adequate theoretical means to develop insights into today's society. Some of the more traditional sociological approaches such as functionalism and Marxism have been under severe attack in recent years. In response, established sociologists have often modified their theoretical models. Chapter 1 of Folbre, Who Pays for the Kids? shows how much the neoclassical and Marxian approaches have been modified to take account of some contemporary developments and social movements.

Some of these arguments revolve around postmodernism and postmodernity. The general approach of Kroker, the last theorist we will examine, is to argue that earlier theoretical approaches may have been useful in earlier periods, but the break in society and culture that has developed with the emergence of the virtual class is so great that new forms of social and political theory are necessary. One of the arguments here is that the modern period emerged with industrialization and the Enlightenment in Western Europe, but that we are now in a postindustrial era, where traditional forms of extraction and distribution of surplus value no longer hold. Those who adhere to such approaches may present a grim picture of the future (e.g. Kroker, some ecological approaches), they may feel that there are unlimited possibilities for future improvements (e.g. Alvin Toffler, Julian Simon, Bran Ferren), or there may be some mixture of the two approaches (e.g. Baudrillard). Since the new technologies are an important feature of postmodernity, it is worthwhile considering the extent to which traditional sociological, political, and economic models and approaches can adequately explain some of the developments in contemporary society.

Postmodern theorists attempt to develop new approaches to the analysis of society and social interaction. There are many different types of postmodernism, but all might argue that no single theoretical approach provides an adequate understanding of society. Among other similarities might be the view that history does not necessarily progress and that the experiences of various groups are valid, so that Western European ideas of progress may be misleading, inadequate, or harmful. Disciplinary boundaries are not important in these approaches, styles of discourse can be very different than traditional academic styles, and the context and author of a text may be less important than the text itself.

A quick glance at Stone's "Introduction" shows that she discusses the self, identity, the root person, individuality, boundaries, multiple identities, the body, the play ethic, desire, and pleasure. All of these are issues that may have been taken for granted in traditional sociological models - the self and identity were singular and identified with a specific body whose boundaries were clearly defined; desire and pleasure may have been present but were identified with utility and were constrained within limits; human activity was instrumental in achieving certain concrete ends and the work ethic along with balancing utility and disutility allowed the social theorist to produce a model of individual and group activity. All of these are called into question by Stone, in her analysis of the ways in which the new technologies affect the self and identity, the boundaries between the self and others, forms of interaction among individuals and groups. Much of her analysis is also concerned with community - the new forms community might take and what these mean for human interaction.

Kroker's analysis challenges earlier approaches from a more macro or societal level perspective. Kroker uses Marxian, French postmodernism, and some of the ideas of Innis and McLuhan to develop an analysis of a society composed of possessed individuals (rather than the possessive individuals of neoclassical economics and liberalism), dominated by the virtual class (not the bourgeois class), and suffering from abuse value (rather than extraction of surplus value). Such a society is in recline and its crash culture is in simultaneous fatal acceleration and terminal shutdown, with everything speeding up to a standstill.

Much of what Stone, Kroker, Dery and other postmodern analysts of contemporary technological developments say is speculative and some of their analysis will not be particularly useful. But these writers are attempting to focus on some trends that have emerged in contemporary society, and their analyses are worth considering. No single social theory has turned out to provide all the explanations or answers we need, and some of the ideas of these contemporary social theorists will be integrated into new models of society.

4. Summary. In terms of this section of the course, there is much hype concerning the new technologies, both positive and negative. Perhaps these new technologies will result in relatively few changes in social organization. But the use of the technologies is becoming more widespread and integrated into all aspects of life. It is difficult to imagine that society will not change and that we will not have to change our forms of social analysis to understand these changes. It is the experiences of each of us as we use the new technologies that forms the basis for these new sociological approaches. As we work through this section of the course, attempt to consider how you use the new technologies, and attempt to understand what some of the changes associated with these are.

C. Overview of Cyberculture: Mark Dery

Begin this section by reading Mark Dery, "Introduction: Escape Velocity," from Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, New York, Grove Press, 1996, pp. 3-17. Dery's article provides a quick overview of the what the new technologies are, what some of the claims concerning them are, and how we might approach them.

Notes on Dery, "Introduction" to Esape Velocity.

p. 3 - cyberculture on verge of getting escape velocity.

Speedup as result of computer and information engine.

Postindustrial era. Information economy - reduction in manufacturing.

p. 4 - Circuitry and code control more of world around us.

History of computers to personal computer in 1980s.

p. 5 - Internet. From military and then universities. Now commercial.

p. 6 - Widespread use - cyberspace

imaginary space that exists entirely inside a computer.

Labour ephemeral and commodity evanescent - human disembodied.

More time spent in cyberspace.

Is there a "there" there? Place?

p. 7 - Also alters material lives. Chips in appliances. Cell phones, portable comp.

"intelligent agents"?

Virtual reality futurism? Simulation. (Used in military, industrial design, etc.)

p. 8 - New forms of machinery. (See NY Times article).

Robotic life forms. Do away with weak flesh entirely.

Philosophic - breaking free of limits. Millenarianism.

e.g. human level machine intelligence, controls own destiny, etc.

p. 9 - New age plus physics and metaphysics.

p. 10 - Cybernetic connectedness and ability to deliver manufactured goods and data.

US as fountainhead of the new techno utopia - progress, second coming, prol.

Deliverance from human history and mortality.

We will be witness to greatest change.

Ignore need to confront social, political, economic, and ecological problems.

p. 11 - ATT vision. Machines made of sunshine.

p. 12 - Has not lightened our burden as workers.

Office intrudes on vacation, long workdays, etc.

Leisure - promise has faded.

Ability to locate yourself also means ability of marketers and govt to locate.

p. 13 - Privary invasion, errors, bugs.

Economic inequality and environmental depredation.

p. 14 - Computer as engine of liberation and instrument of repression.

Should attempt to expropriate tech from scientists, CEOs, etc.

p. 15 - Reclaim technology.

p. 16 - Intersection of technology and biology.

Growing irrelevance of body as sensory experience. Digital simulation.

Technophiles vs. Doomsaying technophobes.

No way out of history.

p. 17 - Haraway: fragility of lives, escape velocity is a fantasy.

Rhetoric crosses cyberpunk with Pentecostalism.

But - we are here to stay, in these bodies, and on this planet.

Cyber References

Two chapters from Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash: the theory of the virtual class (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994) are available on the internet.

Chapter One, "The Theory of the Virtual Class," is available at

Most of Chapter Four, "The Political Economy Of Virtual Reality: Pan-Capitalism," pp. 66-93 of Data Trash is available at

"Way New Leftists," Jean-Hugues Roy interview with Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Wired, 4.02.

Stone's site.

Mark Dery

Sarah Zupko's site.

University of Iowa, Technology, Postmodernism and Other Stuff


CTHEORY is an international journal of theory, technology and culture. Articles, interviews, and key book reviews in contemporary discourse are published weekly as well as theorisations of major "event-scenes" in the mediascape. Edited by Arthur and Marilouise Kroker.

Notes from March 18, 1999. Last edited on April 1, 1999.

Return to Sociology 304, Winter, 1999.