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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
"Way New Leftists," Jean-Hugues Roy interview with Arthur
and Marilouise Kroker, Wired, 4.02. http://www.wired.com/wired/4.02/features/leftists.html
Stone's site. http://www.actlab.utexas.edu/~sandy/
Mark Dery http://www.levity.com/markdery/ESCAPE/VELOCITY/index.html
Sarah Zupko's site. http://www.mcs.net/~zupko/articles/cyberspa.htm
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
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"event-scenes" in the mediascape. Edited by Arthur and
Notes from March 18, 1999. Last edited on April 1, 1999.
Return to Sociology 304, Winter, 1999.