Tag Archives: internet

Cyber- digital- virtual- … space?

Following on from my post earlier, I’ve been thinking about another issue that I discuss in my thesis. It’s related to the notion that there’s really no use for digital dualisms (real/virtual, offline/online, etc) that are often deployed when talking about the Internet.

Something I didn’t get around to mentioning but intended to was the fact that I still find the concept of cyberspace useful, but I am struggling with the terminology.

Due to the fact that my research investigates geography and place identity (i.e. our relationship and identification with the environments we inhabit – taking ‘place’ as different to ‘space’ in that place is “location (space) made meaningful” [see Tuan, Cresswell]) and social networks, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about what cyberspace means in the early twenty first century.

cyberspace

cyberspace: not quite this hectic, as far as i know. is that a body? do we even need bodies in cyberspace?? (hint: yes) //source//

I’m sure it has different meaning today than it did in the early 1990s, when cyberspace was posited as a futuristic, disembodied, dislocated Other world. It was firmly situated within the realm of the online/virtual, and in cyberculture studies the tension between our physical reality (perceived as flawed, restrictive; at a time when the (western) world was experiencing the first true dissolution of geographical boundaries, the body was an encumbrance to freedom) and the desire to exist purely as data inside the network.

Have you seen The Matrix? That, really. Jacking in, logging on, and dropping out: it was all about information, where to find it, and how to absorb as much as possible.

The only real problem with this was that it wasn’t entirely feasible. As far as I know, in 2013 science has still not found a way to separate mind and body, allowing the psyche to be uploaded to the network in order that one may live as a series of ones and zeroes, free from the constraints of ill-health, age, race, gender, death, and the need to pee. And that’s not to mention the ethical issues. I receive emails from my department reminding me to review ethics clearance for my research, which involves trawling blogs and social media and waxing lyrical about them. I can’t even imagine trying to get ethics clearance for a project that would essentially kill the physical body whilst preserving the human mind inside a machine.

Tres complique!

So it’s fair to say that cyberspace, as the ultimate pre-dot-com-bubble-burst buzzword, is probably no longer useful in the 1990s sense. However – and this is where it might get a bit mind-blowy (or maybe not) – I firmly believe that we now live in cyberspace.

This is where I come back to Nathan Jurgenson’s post that I commented on previously. He argues that there’s no need for digital dualisms, and I agree. When was the last time you used Google Maps your mobile phone to find your way to a friends’ house? Have you ever used Urbanspoon to find a restaurant recommendation when you’ve been out in town and want something good that’s within walking distance? Have you checked in on Foursquare or Facebook Places, or uploaded a photo to Instagram (they’re geotagged, you know), or tweeted from a festival? Have you asked for recommendations, or visited your national news website and automatically been directed toward the local news?

This is cyberspace, friends.

In many ways, ‘cyberspace’ forms a useful portmanteau – cyber referring to information (rather than virtual or fake), and ‘space’ to, well, geographical space – for labeling the relationship between data and materiality. When we participate and contribute content (status updates, photographs, videos, music downloads, check ins, reviews, ratings), we’re telling the network something about us, and about the places we inhabit. Our interaction with our physical surroundings is richer and more complex because “it” (the Internet – or more accurately, the algorithms and programming that allow information to be fed back to us as users) knows so much about us, our world, and what we want. Isn’t that a grand thing?

Like I said at the beginning though, I do struggle with the term ‘cyberspace’, probably because it is difficult to shake off the 90s connotations. The second you say ‘cyberspace’, it conjures up images of ones and zeroes and terrible (but awesome) movies like Hackers.

It’s also a term that I can’t help but want to use ironically, because it’s just really naff. But what should we say? Is there a good way to describe this network of information that coexists with our physical world?

On digital dualism (or why, in 2013, are people still fear mongering the Internet?)

I’ve spent the better part of the past 48 hours editing a chapter of my thesis called ‘Always online: How social networks and mobile phones re-embodied and re-placed digital narratives’.

The crux of the piece is that over the course of the past ten years (what some might call the ‘Web 2.0‘ era), and particular over the past five years since smartphone ownership rates skyrocketed and Internet-enabled mobile devices became the norm, the dichotomies of online/offline and virtual/real have become less meaningful, and certainly less useful, ways of describing the relationship that we, the users, have with the Internet. Not only has the Internet moved rapidly from being the haunt of geeks and researchers to a tool that everyone uses, but really, we’re always online. Having access is something that we take for granted; the trade off of ubiquity is that we’re never really alone, and never really ‘offline’.

I read this blog post by Nathan Jurgenson, a doctoral researcher from the University of Maryland, about the tendency of society – particularly the mainstream media – to still reduce life to digital dualisms, despite the fact that the notion of there being anything at all ‘fake’ about the Internet is far out of date. It was a timely post for me, as he’s managed to say in 500 words what I’ve been battling with for the past two days (more eloquently, of course).

The term that Jurgenson uses is digital dualismsThis is the notion that the dichotomies I mentioned above – online/offline, virtual/real (and others, like disembodied/corporeal, mind/body) – are absolutes when it comes to the Internet. It is the idea that everything that happens online is fake – and that, somehow, we possess the ability to switch ourselves on and off – connecting and disconnecting from ‘the matrix’ (hi, 1980s cyberpunk fantasies).

Digital dualism is the attitude that regards the Internet as some kind of digital other-space, and the interactions and relationships that are enacted within that space as entirely fictional.

virtual-reality-8

zomg virtual reality. this is how i access the internet. /source/

For most of us in the field of Internet research, online space stopped being perceived as a virtual Other a long time ago. For me, it began with the move toward an increasingly social web. Once upon a time (in a land far away), people would go online and construct alternate identities for themselves. They weren’t necessarily fake, digital representations of the self, but they weren’t quite the same as the everyday offline self, either. It was not always the norm to use our real names and post photos of ourselves on publicly accessible profile pages, nor was it the norm to connect online (via social network ‘friendships’) with people we knew offline. It happened, definitely, but not on the scale that we today perceive as standard, thanks to Myspace, Facebook, and the like. Without going in to the details of how Jurgenson’s post arose (you can read the full story here – basically it involves an American college footballer being duped into a relationship with a woman who didn’t exist, and the media are calling it a “digital hoax”), I instead wanted to highlight some of the things that he’s said that really exemplify how incorrect many attitudes are to the way so-called “digital” life works.

For some reason, users – especially young ones – are depicted in the mainstream media as possessing a plethora of social ineptitudes as a result of always having their eyes glued to their smartphones. Their only real skills, some would have you believe, are taking selfies and demonstrating nonchalance toward anything that happens in the ‘real’ world. They’re portrayed as so disconnected that they’re more zombie than human, lost causes aimlessly wandering the digital (ahem) streets of cyberspace. Probably on the Information Superhighway. When they’re not too busy surfing the net. And sexting.

Jurgenson writes:

The point isn’t that there exists a digital world that’s fake; it’s that there isn’t a digital world. The hoax is the invention of some cyber reality we’ve traded the offline for, where interaction is fake. The hoax is this conceptual error that Egan and other digital dualists rely on to make many of their arguments.

These writers get mileage out of calling this a “digital deception” and declare the Internet “fake” in order to have a convenient answer (“technology!”) for real, messy, complicated, human problems like celebrity, romance, and deception. Blaming technology also provides a simpler solution: “less technology!” And as I discuss in my IRL Fetish essay, by constructing the digital as some “other” place, and then judging that as “virtual” and less real, one can then value their own non-use as more human and deep.

I couldn’t agree with this any more. For some reason that makes absolutely no sense to me, but complete sense to most, the Internet and its goings-on are still a convenient scapegoat for real, complicated human problems. Young person has a naked photograph plastered all over the web? Blame Facebook! Celebrity attacked by the public via social media? Blame Twitter! Parents don’t know how to control their children? Blame teh intarwebz!

Here’s a thought. Perhaps the reason that the media and, it must be said, many parents, are still demonising the Internet is because they’re from a generation that didn’t grow up online, and this technology is still relatively new to them. As such, they lack the skills to adequately interpret the place that it has in society. It’s like that idea that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Likewise, the Internet (which is not actually a sentient, autonomous being, incidentally) doesn’t create hoaxes – people do. People attack and hurt and deceive each other, and it’s high time that we (the collective We – society) realised that. The Internet is merely a communications tool. It’s the same as a telephone or a CB radio or a letter, for god’s sake. Without people, these are inert objects and systems.

Map-of-the-Internet

the internet: not as terrifying as you think. //source//

I’d really recommend that you read Nathan Jurgenson’s post. He makes a lot of sense. More than me. My prediction is that to the society-leading adults of the future, this malarkey over cyber-hoaxes and general digital fear mongering will seem completely ridiculous. They’ll have grown up online, they’ll have already made the mistakes that we’re accusing them of now making, and they’ll have come up with ways to deal with it – from different parenting skills, to formal education, to the relaxation of hype in the media. More to the point, online behaviour will just be common sense because it will be normal. Nobody who grew up with a telephone fears the unseen dangers that lurk on the other side of the line, and the media has, for the most past, stopped with the moral panic about television.

It’s called technology, everyone. It changes, and sometimes it’s a bit scary, but it’s not always a bad thing.

It’s not the end of the world: Why journalism will live to fight another day.

The fear mongering has got to stop.

All over the place, people are mourning the death of an industry that, in reality, is very much still alive and kicking. Journalism is dead!, they cry. Long live journalism!

Journalism is not dead. Journalism is not even dying. Journalism is alive and well, and it will remain so for a very long time. Perhaps journalism looks a little different to what it used to, but people look a little different to what they used to. Technology looks a little different to what it used to. Jobs, cars, families, cities, the weather – it all looks a little different to what it used to.

Fact: Newspaper sales have declined. This is undoubtable. They’ve been declining for a long time; pre-Internet, pre-Web (they’re different things). Yet it seems like digital technology gets the vast majority of the blame.

Here’s a thought: it’s not all the fault of the Internet. The Internet hasn’t killed newspapers, and it certainly hasn’t killed journalism. One cannot use ‘journalism’ and ‘newspapers’ synonymously. That’s like using ‘writing’ and ‘quill’ synonymously. Did Mr Bic kill writing? No. Did computers kill writing? Gosh no! 

The Internet has not killed journalism.

There are many reasons why newspaper sales are in decline.

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that people are getting married at a later age. In 1950, the average age of women at marriage was 20.3, and males 22.8. In 1970, 20.8 and 22.3 respectively. In 1990, 23.9 and 26.1.

Working on the grounds that Australia would have similar statistics to the United States, in 2009 Australian women were getting married at an average age of 29.2, whilst men were 31.5. They were a massive 8.9 years older if female, and 9.2 years older if male. In real terms, this means an additional 9 years outside of a “traditional” family structure, wherein it might have been usual for the man of the house to purchase a newspaper on his way to or from work, and bring it home to the family. Potentially an extra nine years spent in education (which, it could be argued, results in a population that is generally better educated and more informed, and thus more selective about the news they consume – news that doesn’t necessarily come in tabloid form). Nine years spent living alone, or in shared housing, where perhaps no member of the household purchased a paper – not because they don’t care about the news, but because young people these days – particularly young unmarried people – live very different lifestyles to their ancestors. They work longer hours and travel more, for example – especially women.

The media is up in arms over declining newspaper sales because to them – the people that have always printed their news on paper – there is no alternative. The only news worth knowing is the news forged in ink and paper in grand printing presses in the basement of newspaper institutions. It’s simply not the case though.

Suggesting that declining newspaper sales means a decline in quality journalism does a massive injustice to the youngest generation in this society. Here are a group of people who probably won’t buy newspapers, because their entire lives, they have been able to get more up to date, more analytic, and more varied news online. They don’t remember a world without the Internet; many of them don’t even read from textbooks in school, instead learning on iPads and laptop computers. To suggest that this generation, somehow, is disengaged and ignorant is so completely incorrect. This is a generation that is more informed, more connected, and more bombarded with content than any group that has come before. They are selective and, dare I say it, savvy. They know what they want and they know how to get it. They understand how to sift through the immensity of junk that clogs what the traditional media would probably still want to call the information superhighway, with a snort, of course, in order to get to the best material.

They will demand quality journalism. They will demand content that informs and entertains. They will demand the ability to interact with the media, to contribute to the media, and to shape the way that news is delivered. They won’t pay, though, for access to what sits behind paywalls.

And that’s really what all this is about: media moguls flapping their arms in a state of panic because their precious news empires are at the brink of collapse.

The sooner that journalists are put back in charge, the better. Journalism isn’t a job that anyone does just for the hell of it. There are plenty of jobs that you can do with only one eye open, making it through the week just to live for the weekend. Journalism is not one of those. It’s a hard slog being a journalist; it’s really hard to be a good one. The businessmen that currently own the Fairfaxes, New Limiteds, and Dow Jones’ of the world don’t get this. They see declining profit and they fire quality journalists, because that’s the only perceived way to continue to make a living.

These journalists – the ones kicked out of the traditional newsroom and effectively onto the streets – are the future of journalism.

The sites are already out there. Huffington Post, Slate, Crikey, Gawker: all sites that offer strong, analytic news written by people who know what they’re talking about. People will invest in this kind of news, through programs like Kickstarter. If the Internet has proved absolutely nothing else, it’s that there are people who are willing to pay very good money for projects they believe in. Crowdfunding has emerged as an incredibly effective way of financing projects from films to videogames to books to technology, so why not news?

That’s the beauty of the Internet: people are willing to contribute what they can to make it (and, by proxy, the world) a better place. Look at open source software. Look at wikis. It goes against everything that capitalism has ever taught us, when people offer their skills – for free – to contribute to the greater good, be it new software, or knowledge, or whatever else.

Journalists won’t have to work for free because there will be crowdfunding. Journalists won’t have to work for free because advertisers will withdraw their money from old media and invest more in online news. The news that is produced will be high quality, because people value their reputation above all else. The argument that online news lacks quality just doesn’t fly.

Show me the quality in newspapers. Perth, Western Australia, is effectively a one paper town. The West Australian has Monday-Saturday editions, and The Sunday Times is, obviously, sold on Sundays.

Show me the hard news in The West.

Show me the hard news in The Sunday Times.

 

It’s wise in a city this small not to burn one’s bridges, but it’s laughable to look at those papers and then complain that quality journalism will die when the presses power down for the last time.

This is an exciting time to be writing. We know more about the world than ever before. We have greater opportunities for learning and connecting with people and teaching others than ever before. The youngest members of our society have been born into a world of information overload, and they’re going to want to do something to make it a better place. They’ll do that using their words.

Journalism isn’t dead. Long live journalism.

Researching networked, place-based identities

(or: four years of work in a couple hundred words)

My PhD research is a complex thing. And by “complex”, I mean “super geeky”.

It started out as an exploration of place identity – that is, our sense of self that ties us to the places that we inhabit, and the places that we are from – in the context of blogging.

Over the past four years it’s changed a thousand times, but I’m now nearing the end and need the hard data to back up what I’ve been observing for the past few years.

I’m looking at the idea of re-placing the self online.

Once upon a time, in the 1990s, there was no room for place or bodies online: you sat behind your computer (no mobile Internet back then!), left your physical self behind*, and adopted a new identity. Slow connection speeds and clunky interfaces made it difficult to represent the real online, and as such the virtual world looked very, very different.

Now though, thanks to a number of factors (including mobile technology, social media platforms, and the general ubiquity of the Internet) place has begun to matter once again. When we’re online, we tend to replicate our offline selves, rather than adopting a persona. Indeed, this line between online and offline doesn’t really exist anymore. Our profiles tell other users what our name is, where we’re from, and show them what we look like.

My research looks at the way that physical place influences our online sense of self. Online, we re-place our “real world” place networks, through blogs and social media.

Through gathering information about Perth bloggers, the platforms they use, and the networks they share, I am trying to paint a picture of what Perth looks like online. I’m also interested to know how far these networks extend offline, and will be getting in touch with bloggers over the next month to see if anyone would like to participate in providing me with this information that isn’t so easily seen online.

If you have any questions, please just leave a comment or email me.

*to some degree. We never have quite reached that cyberpunk fantasy of being able to detach ourselves from our physical being and live online forever!

Geek out!

When Rhys is away I like to use up our (immense) download quota by streaming things off the Net whilst I try to sleep. Previously I’ve watched lots of SBS & ABC TV shows, but there’s nothing I really want to watch at the moment, which is fine because I have discovered the Oxford Internet Institute. Oh holy geekazoid! Is there nothing better than dozing off to sleep listening to Net geeks talk about nerdy Internet stuff? I think not!

There are a whole heap of webcasts online on a range of Net-related topics, some interesting, some not, but worth checking out if you’re at all partial to some casual Net-related dicussion that you don’t actually have to be a part of!