Reflections on the ICTs and Society-Conference at IN3

Reflections on the ICTs and Society-Conference at IN3

I attended the ICTs and Society-conference at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) near Barcelona (June 30-July 2, 2010). The first day was a PhD conference track. Two years ago I organized a similar PhD event in Salzburg. My main observation was that other than two years ago, there was this time a focus of many of the students on critical studies of the Internet, ICTs and the role of information in society. And by “critical“, I do not mean asking questions, which all scholars do, but the questioning of structures and practices of domination, which is only possible based on a realistic epistemology (see my critique of Ernst von Glasersfeld’s radical constructivism and Glasersfeld’s somewhat awkward response, which shows that he has no clue what I mean when I say that radical constructivism is a form of normative relativism that relativizes the danger of forms of domination such as fascism). It is my general observation, not only at this conference, that there is a opening up of information society studies/Internet research/cyberculture studies/social informatics (or whatever terms one wants to use to describe this field) towards critical studies that is becoming more and more important within the field. My own experience is that there is also a strong “demand” for critical scholarship by students who work in the just mentioned field. Courses like “Reading Marx’s Capital in the 21st Century Information Age“, “Critical Theory of the Internet/Critical Internet Research”, or “Critical Information Society Studies” that I have taught have proven quite popular. I found many contributions and discussions at the PhD day very good. This is an indication that there is an upcoming generation of talented critical scholars within the field. My only two points of criticism are that each student should have got five more minutes of presentation and that each student should have been required to present besides a framework also some results or theoretical contribution, even if s/he is in the very early stage of her/his research.

The second day started with a keynote talk by William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute. He maintained that “Internet studies” is a multidisciplinary, young, fragmented, comparatively small field with a huge scope and potential. I think that the term multidisciplinarity is not self-explaining, and Dutton did not engage with its meaning. One should at least distinguish between inter-, multi- and transdisciplinarity and it is the latter term that can be most fruitfully applied to Internet studies/information society studies. But doing this requires engagement with philosophy of science. Personally I find in this context the work of Basarab Nicolescu very useful and applicable. “Internet studies” is in my opinion a far too narrow term because it excludes ICTs that are not connected to the Internet (such as mobile phone usage without Internet access) and excludes more subjective phenomena of the information age, such as knowledge work and the knowledge economy in general (where not only the Internet plays a role). The term also implies more a technology-centred focus that neglects subjective phenomena of the information age that are not Internet-mediated. A more broader and inclusive term is for example “information society studies”, as suggested by Alistair Duff in his book with the same title. It is in my view necessary to distinguish different forms of information society studies and this should include theoretical, normative, ethical, philosophical, and critical aspects.  Internet studies is only one part of a larger whole, not the whole itself.

William Dutton presented some results from the World Internet Project (WIP) and maintained that the WIP is a typical Internet studies project. My own impression is that the main challenge for the field is not only to develop it and to overcome its strong fragmentation, but to overcome the lack of theoretical grounding and the frequent neglect of the framing of topics within their overall societal context (fetishistic particularism of topics). I do absolutely not argue against empirical research as such, only against a certain form of empirical research. Projects like WIP are important and absolutely needed for generating a good data basis. I am myself at the moment directing an empirically-oriented research project about surveillance on social networking sites. The problem that I see is that many scholars in the field of Internet studies conduct theoretically guided empirical research or theoretically ungrounded empirical research and that they tend to understand theory as discussing some single definitions from single sources in order to ground hypotheses. They however neglect to give grounds for why certain definitions of concepts are used and not others and how these categories fit into larger theoretical wholes. What they are doing is in no way connected to theory. And by theory I do not mean the kind of work Manuel Castells is doing, who himself wrote that his work is not theory, but that theory is only a tool for him. My argument is that what is needed is not more theoretically-guided empirical research, but more critical, empirically-grounded theoretical work, which is to say that there is a lack of critical and theoretical work. Theorizing the Internet and the information society requires sociological theory, classifications and typologies of different definitions of concepts, comparative discussions of the advantages and disadvantages of definitions, etc. It is for example no wonder that many contemporary Internet scholars use notions such as participation in a shallow way because they neglect engaging with participatory democracy theory. Other approaches are more interested in theory, but are rather eclectic – they take single concepts from single theories that are applied to examples. Frequently it is forgotten to give grounds for why a certain interpretation of a theoretical concept is used and not another one. Theorizing the Internet and the information society requires philosophy and concepts of society, information, modern society, capitalism, democracy, etc. Building these theoretical foundations, and building them in a critical manner, and engaging in empirical studies that interact with theory and – importantly – take the macro context of the economic, political and cultural development of society into account, has too long been neglected. But, as already mentioned, I am quite confident that this is about to change.

So my feeling is that different forms and ways of doing information society studies need to be distinguished and that one also needs to take a look a the power structures of the field. What are dominant paradigms? What are alternative paradigms? Is there a struggle of paradigms? Which kinds of work tend to be funded to a large extent, which ones to a small extent? In order to establish a good information society, we need discussions of possible meanings of concepts like sustainable information society, participatory Internet, informational capitalism, digital democracy, etc, empirical research that tests to which extent and in which ways such concepts exist in reality, ideology critique that questions information society myths, discussions of the normative and political implications of research, interfacing with the political level, etc.

László Karvalics, founder of ITTK, presented hypotheses about Frank Webster‘s works on the information society, which in his opinion are fundamentally flawed. I agree with László on many other issues related to the information society discourse, but not on his view of Webster’s work. He misses one fundamental point, namely that it is a crucial hypothesis of Webster that “informational developments” are “being heavily influenced by familiar constraints and priorities” (The information society revisited, p. 31). Webster reminds us to be cautious about claims that we have entered a new society that can be found in works of information society thinkers like Daniel Bell, Alvin Toffler, Peter Drucker, Nico Stehr, or Manuel Castells and that one should not forget about class and power structures in information society analysis. Nicholas Garnham has expressed the same critique in the following words: “the shift from energy to brainpower does not necessarily change the subordination of labour to capital“. For me, there are two interfaced levels of analysis, what Marx termed the productive forces and the relations of production. At the level of the relations of production, contemporary society is still a class society, although the exact subtypes and composition of classes change (also partly due to informatization, as Erik Olin Wright has shown). At the level of the productive forces, we can observe and measure the rise and effects of digital technologies, knowledge work, etc. The informational productive force thereby become a means of class domination, but, as Marx knew, also advance the antagonism between the productive forces and the relations of production, which expresses itself for example on the Internet as antagonism between free sharing and capitalist appropriation of information. So the effect of IT on the class structure is antagonistic, but has not resulted in the dissolution of the class structure, but its differentiation.

An interesting session organized by critical scholars from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Safiya Umoja Noble, Sarah Roberts, and Miriam Sweeney from the School of Library and Information Science, focused on the role of the “critical” in ICTs and society-studies. In my opinion it is absolutely essential to discuss what “critical studies” actually means, in which ways critical studies of the Internet, ICTs and the information society can be best conducted, given grounds for, institutionalized, diffused, networked, etc. Of course there are no easy answers, but the important aspect of this session is that it is an indication that quite some people have started thinking about these questions.

William Dutton tweeted that an alternative to critical thinking is analytical skepticism understood as the questioning of taken-for-granted assumptions. Well, scholarship is always a form of analytical scepticism, questioning is a core process of any science, any research, any theory, etc. Analytical skepticism is therefore not an alternative to critical studies, but part of all studies. To purely focus on analytical skepticism clearly is not a good option because not all forms of questioning society are automatically good forms of questioning. For example questioning the taken-for-granted assumption of the existence of gas chambers under German fascism (the so-called Auschwitzlüge) or questioning the legitimacy of anti-racism or anti-fascism (which automatically means arguing for racism respectively fascism) are problematic.

Karl Popper argued that science is/should be neutral and value-free. In contrast, I agree with Juliet Webster, who in her keynote talk on the third day maintained that academia and therefore also ICT research is always political and should contribute to the advancement of participatory democracy and socialism.

In the German positivism debate between Adorno and Popper, Popper did not speak of “analytical scepticism”, but of critical rationalism as a form of questioning at the epistemological level, whereas Adorno in contrast spoke of critical studies of society. This shows that this is a discussion, where one can draw on already existing debates. In my forthcoming book “Foundations of Critical Media and information Studies” (Routledge, late 2010), there will be two long chapters discussing the meaning of the critical in general and particularly for media/communication studies and information society studies (Chapter 2: Critical Theory Today, Chapter 3: Critical Media and Information Studies). In the rest of the book, example studies try to show how critical studies of the information age can be conducted. In chapter 2 and 3, I maintain that we should have an Adorno- and not a Popper-understanding of the “critical” and I review classical and contemporary debates about the status of the critical (for example: Horkheimer’s notions of traditional and critical theory, the Nancy Fraser/Axel Honneth debate, the debate about public sociology, different ways of defining “critical theory”) and elaborate a typology of different kinds of critical media and information studies.

On the second conference day, I found many sessions too dense (6 presenters, each with a presentation time of ten minutes). Also in some sessions I got the impression that the topics were arbitrarily grouped. It might be better to have less papers and more presentation and discussion time. Also I am again and again surprised that many senior scholars tend to waste most of their presentation time by making long, unnecessary introductions. Once they really start, their presentation time is over and they are surprised and want to continue talking. Professors and senior scholars teach presentation methods, rhetorical and didactical methods to their students, but surprisingly many of them do not apply these techniques themselves, but have rather boring linguistic styles and presentation methods. The cardinal mistake that one can make in my opinion is to read a paper and to thereby set one’s audience asleep. But this fortunately occurred only a few single times a this conference. My impression is that many students tend to be better in presenting than senior scholars.

The second day also showed how much the room setting influences discussion culture. To organize a discussion in a lecture hall that is comprised of an elevated podium/stage for the speakers and theatre tiers does not foster an open atmosphere of discussion. Personally I hate giving lectures myself in lecture halls that have an elevated podium, but I also do not like that many participants in lectures, seminars, conferences, tend to take seats in the back of the room, not in the front. All of this creates a spatial distance between all participants that harms the possibility for discussions. The best way to overcome this atmosphere of non-communication is to use alternative room and panel settings.

In the morning of day 3, electricity in the larger lecture hall failed due to a malfunctioning laptop. The person who caused this (person known), should be given a conference award because the fact that we had to move to a smaller conference room really proved beneficial for the discussions. Especially the first session in the seminar room on day 3 was alive, dynamic, and full of interesting contributions and discussions. The session was very well structured and chaired. Especially the presentations “Illegal Workers in Virtual Worlds: Unfree Labor, Incivility, and the New Orientalism” by Lisa Nakamura and “Internet in China: Myths and Realities” by Robert Bichler fostered interesting discussions about class, gender, race, censorship, the Internet in Asia, cultural and societal differences, etc. Lisa Nakamura’s presentation discussed good examples (goldfarming, Tila Tequila) for forms of online labour that are shaped by structural racism. It raised interesting questions for me: What is the class status of Tila Tequila? What is the class trajectory of Tila Tequila and how is that trajectory shaped by race and gender? How do race, class, and gender relate on the Internet and create different structurings and stratifications? How can the triple oppression-approach best be applied to the Internet? Lisa Nakamura’s presentation in my opinion very well showed that there is not a single “virtual class”, but that information workers are stratified by different patterns, that there are winners and losers online and different forms of race-, class-, and gender-mobilities.

In the afternoon of the third day, it was again sleeping time with a panel on PhD programmes that only featured the voices of the great professorial masters of PhD programmes, but neglected the voices and experiences of the students studying in these programmes. Also there was more focus on marketing PhD programmes (or research centres, as was the case in another session) than on the failures and problems, as promised by the session title.

Overall, I had great days in Barcelona, had many good new insights, learned about interesting works that I did not-yet know, and very much enjoyed meeting many people. A conference of this kind enables many different organizational modes for panels. For the future, I think that more workshop-style sessions and spontaneous group discussions that interface with plenary discussions should be added.

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