Curtin University of Technology
It is a common claim that the internet provides or enables a liberatory space, a space that is inherently equalising and non-discriminatory. This claim is premised upon two characteristics of internet use. First, the interactive nature of the technology offers all who have access the possibility of being heard - it enables a space for the voice of Others. The second characteristic derives from the fact that most communication online is enacted textually. This method of interaction renders it free from the visual or audile cues of embodied particularities. Thus, those people who experience social or political discrimination on the basis of such particularities are liberated through the act of going online.
These claims have some surface truth: the use of the internet does widen access for those who have previously been restricted in their individual and collective representations. It enables greater access to information as well as the possibility of disseminating information from a wider source base (thus potentially disrupting political and social power structures). The internet also removes some of the particularities that are the basis for individuals experiencing discrimination in 'real space' through disembedding such interaction from the embodied particularities of the user. Therefore, it is certainly correct that the technologies of the internet can empower those who have been marginalised, unrepresented or suppressed locally, nationally and globally. However, to adopt these claims uncritically is to fail to recognise the paradoxes inherent in using abstract processes of technology to connect with Others across space and time. This article explores some of these paradoxes, to argue that any claims as to the internet's empowering or disempowering possibilities require critical examination and are less than straightforward or unproblematic.
Much has been written about the opportunities that this technology offers the individual: the internet's equalising and liberating space increases an individual's interconnective possibilities, enables communities to be accessed according to the individual's (shared) interests, and offers the chance of multiple viewpoints being disseminated. Yet very little, it seems, has been written about the impact of the internet on the types of relations enacted between individuals. I will argue that the increasing use of technology to mediate social relations heightens both interconnectivity and visibility whilst simultaneously increasing the discreteness and compartmentalisation of the individual. As such, while the use of the internet empowers the Other (and communities of Others) it also distances the user from her/his social environs and encourages the proliferation of individuated and instrumental relations with the Other. I will take each point in turn and explain in more detail what is meant by such statements.
The first point in the argument relates to the heightened interconnectivity and increased visibility that can be achieved through the use of the internet. There have been copious amounts of material written extolling such potentials (so I will be brief). Much has been made of the fact that anybody can be a publisher on the net. Despite some of the difficulties of ensuring that they are found online, the internet certainly opens up the prospect of those who have been unable to establish a solid presence in other media broadcasting information representative of their concerns and priorities. The internet also allows communication with Others in a manner that is increasingly freed from limitations of geography or time. In a sense, online time becomes your time: your information gathering, information dissemination and social interactions are not restricted by the immediate temporal constraints of your physical environment (when programme schedules, operating hours, and the realities of timezones constrain such activities in 'real space' and 'real time').
Such customisation, however, also heightens subject individuation. Benedict Anderson (1991) writes of the important role that newspapers played in uniting nations and in creating citizens' conceptualisation of simultaneous (shared) national time. With the internet and the option of transcending the temporal constraints of your nation, there develops a disjuncture between the time that you live in your physical world, and the time you experience online.
This individuation and its associated compartmentalisation form the second part of my argument. Individuating processes are enacted on a number of levels. Phenomenally, I would suggest that those interactions that are extended through technological means are inherently individuated activities - they are enacted in physical isolation and are conducted with others who are located elsewhere geographically. The participants therefore effectively detach themselves from their immediate surroundings to interact in cyberspace. They compartmentalise themselves and the relations that are practised online from the other areas of their lives (except where these online engagements are used to supplement existing face-to-face relations). Representations of self are also thinned, as they are lifted out of the complex embodied settings in which they are immersed to become textual representations online. In other words, these relationships and their participants are abstracted out of and away from their immediate environments.
The techniques and actions employed in online interaction - the typing on a keyboard, the navigating of software and of hardware - require a certain degree of abstract knowledge. This includes a comprehension of how to enact these techniques, but it also includes acquiring a conceptual understanding of the processes that will take place. For example, the sending of email is a more abstract process than writing a message by hand and delivering it in person. Not only must a person have a knowledge of how to send email (the techniques), but s/he must also understand that typing a command on a keyboard will send a screen message through a network to another person somewhere else (the processes). Such knowledge is not automatically acquired through 'natural' socialisation processes. This is graphically demonstrated, for example, when a child first encounters a telephone conversation - there is a certain amount of conceptual learning that has to occur for the child to realise that: a) a person is not 'in' the phone, or b) it is only a person's voice that has been extended across space, and that neither the person nor the surrounding environment can be seen.
It is arguable that the processes that are instituted through technological mediation precipitate certain changes in how we see ourselves in the world. Such claims are not new. Jack Goody (1986), for example, has argued that the earlier movement from an oral to a literate culture provided the means for people to engage in more abstract cognitive processes. Goody asserts that writing enabled people to perceive themselves as detached from objects and experiences. Writing and literacy created a distancing, thereby separating subject and object, and this led to a new way of envisaging, creating and theorising individual self-identity. This distancing also allowed the presenter of ideas or messages to reflect upon these ideas and messages, by enabling her/him to look over, ponder, and alter the content of writing.
Goody suggests that it was through such processes that individualism became possible. Individual achievements, tasks, and thoughts were able to be recorded and examined later by anyone, regardless of whether the individual to whom the record referred was personally known. This differed from pre-literate society where oral communication swallowed up individual achievement and incorporated it into a body of transmitted custom. The adoption of writing also enabled the suspension of time and space or at least made them more easily negotiated. As Nunes puts it: "... writing serves as a means of calling forth presence, of making the subject 'here' without being here" (1997: 168). Current communication technologies and their increasing incorporation into social life continue these processes.
The technological extension of social relations - a process that includes the compression of time and space, an increase in the speed of information transmission, and a changing experience of embodiment - accelerates or heightens such individuated activity. An online participant's actions are often readily identifiable, and frequently entered into after some reflexive and editorial processes are employed. These processes are less manageable in face-to-face situations, despite the old adage to 'think before you speak'. However, the possibility of self-reflexivity is accentuated once the information or communication is 'detached' from the communicator. The information then becomes a separate entity, able to be viewed, modified, recorded and, in some cases, deleted (a possibility often wished for in a face-to-face situation!). There are obvious differences, then, in the expression of face-to-face relationships as compared to relationships where the subject is "'here' without being here". It could be claimed that all communication is 'extended' or mediated - through language, culture, facial expressions and so forth. Nevertheless, the degree of distancing that takes place when the communication is 'detached' through its external recording and transmission is vastly greater; an abstracting process occurs as the communication is 'lifted out' of its embedded context.
More importantly, the distancing that takes place when the interaction is abstracted away from the site of the body, to be performed on screen, also results in the enactment of objectification processes. With such interaction, relations are subject-projected inasmuch as they are consciously directed by the subject toward the Other and towards the interaction.
At this point I wish to introduce to the discussion two forms of intersubjective relations. These will be called, for the sake of simplicity, radical and instrumental relations. The former term refers to those relations that are mutually constituted and mutually respectful of the Other. In The Inoperative Community (1991), Jean-Luc Nancy writes of community taking place at that point or moment where 'singular beings' meet. Here - in his terms 'at the limit' - the space is mutually but incompletely shared. This is a recognition not only of the importance of respect for the Other and the accommodation of the Other's difference, but also of the ontologically social nature of human existence.
By instrumental relations I am referring to those relations that, in effect, objectify the Other. These are subject-projected relations, ie. directed outwards from the subject towards the Other, though they are not necessarily intended as harmful. Instrumental relations include both those relations that are intended to control the Other, and those that project the understanding of the self onto the Other - to understand the Other as the Same. Such relations either eliminate the Other through the perception of the Other as standing reserve (to use a Heideggerian notion), or they swallow the Other through their inability to allow space for the Other's difference. Interactions conducted through abstract and individuated processes are more likely to be subject-projected and thus instrumental in nature. For example, Lynn Schofield Clark argues that individuals who initiate or enact relationships online frequently display individualistic characteristics which are accentuated through the focus on self-gratification - and thus on more instrumental relationships. She writes: "I think the fact that the 'other' in the relationship is hardly considered, or is assumed to share one's level of commitment and self-gratification, is telling" (1998: 181-182).
Concern for and accommodation of the Other is encapsulated within the understanding of radical relations. Radical relations, because of their mutually constitutive nature, incorporate respectful reciprocity between participants, while reciprocal acts within instrumental relations are more likely to be calculated in order to achieve certain outcomes, or treated as self-gratificatory measures. As Cheris Kramarae notes with regard to abstracted or cyber intimacy:
The removal of reciprocal demands can be perceived as liberatory for the individual but it also points to an increasingly individuated subject who engages in instrumental acts, thereby objectifying the Other.
It seems that nowadays more and more importance is being placed on autonomy and individual control over all aspects of one's life, including relationships. Technological extension filters out physical exposure to the Other. The fact of lived physical proximity to Others is increasingly becoming a lifestyle question. Online, the removal of embodied difference renders the Other as the Same - interactive partners are therefore chosen according to shared interests or shared practices. The accentuation of individuality undermines awareness of the social, and leads to its being considered as a resource to be accessed rather than as something within which the individual is already necessarily immersed. As Nikolas Rose comments:
Technology is often linked ideologically to the attainment of individual freedom. The rhetoric surrounding the internet graphically demonstrates such a conceptual linkage. Yet the notion of freedom which underpins this ideology is one that ignores/underplays the importance and richness of social relations and community. When I refer to the subject or the individual I am referring to a person whom I understand to be inherently social. Indeed, to borrow from Charles Taylor, I would assert that: "One is a self only among other selves" (1989: 35). Our relations and interactions with others are fundamentally important to who we are, how we see the world and how we interact with Others. These relations are situated in various ways within time and space. However, the forms through which such sociality is enacted are not given but socially constructed. This understanding of freedom is one that privileges the individual out of context, as if the individual were not socially embedded and socially constituted. Such a disembedded understanding of the individual is encouraged by the increasing use of technologically extended social practices.
It seems to me that if social relations are to be experienced as enriching and accommodating of the Other's difference, then radical relations need to be encouraged. We therefore need to consider and foster those forms of relation that recognise the existence and importance of our sociality. The ways in which online relations and practices (banking, commerce, community) are increasingly promoted as the most desirable form of interaction for the individual do not incorporate such recognition.
All who try to theorise community - ways of being-together - face the difficulty of negotiating what I refer to rather awkwardly as the integrative/differentiating dilemma. The dilemma is how to formulate an ethically appropriate theory of community which avoids the exclusionary and conformist practices of past communities, yet is able to recognise the ontologically important aspects of being-together. This entails grappling with the balance between concerns for the freedom or autonomy of the individual on the one hand, and for social integration on the other.
For some writers, internet technology can offer a solution to this dilemma. Mark Poster, for example, sees the potential for a multiplicity of identity to be enabled through the technological and linguistic possibilities of mediated communication (differentiating) while asserting the promise of community within cyberspace for such multiple identities (integrative). And he is not alone in his beliefs. However, I have serious reservations about such technologically derived 'solutions'. I would counter such suggestions by pointing to the oft-discussed interconnectivity of the Western individual (who seems to be moving towards the cyborgian stage of having a mobile telephone permanently moulded to her/his ear) and the simultaneous and widely noted isolation of this same individual (Rose 1999: 66).
There needs also to be recognition of the importance of physical bodies and the impact upon these bodies of our ways of being-together, and the ways in which we understand such being-together. As Nancy writes:
These bodies cannot be removed by simply relocating social forms in an abstract, technological realm. Such a conceptual manoeuvre is a denial of existence. In practical terms, it is also an impossibility. The interconnection and relations between the extended and the immediate need to be acknowledged and theorised more adequately.
Such criticisms of extended or mediated relations could attract claims that I am simply displaying nostalgia for earlier forms of being-together. However, I have not attempted to argue that earlier modes of being-together are necessarily more rewarding or more radical. What I have suggested is that abstracted and individuated experiences of the self, as a consequence of the processes that are instituted through the use of technology to mediate social forms, are likely to lead to instrumental relationships with the Other.
It could also be argued that earlier or more embodied relations and ways of being-together can be similarly instrumental and objectifying of the Other. This is indeed true. One only needs to turn on the news - or to look through historical accounts - to realise that such objectifying ways of being-together also abound amongst less mediated communities. Technological extension is certainly not the only manner in which abstract or instrumental relations are realised. The focus therefore should be placed upon realising more radical relations within and between our varying forms of community - both in 'real space' and in cyberspace.
The ways in which we practise technologically extended social relations heighten the focus on the individual and diminish awareness of the individual's social embeddedness. While social activity undoubtedly takes place online, and is experienced as meaningful by many people, there is also no doubt that the social relations practised there are frequently objectifying, intolerant of difference, and less than radical. These online relations are important but not all-encompassing, and need to be recognised as such. The valorisation of such relations as bounded self-fulfilling social forms - and as the vision of the future - fails to take into account ontologically important, complex, and rich relations of dependence and interconnection. As Kevin Robins (2000) notes: "Such [virtual] empowerment entails a refusal to recognize the substantive and independent reality of others and to be involved in relations of mutual dependency and responsibility." (85) It is problematic to concentrate solely upon technological social forms as if these exist in isolation. Further study therefore needs to be conducted on the ways in which abstract and technologically extended forms coexist and intersect with other forms that are more embodied, and how we should be prioritising or working with these.
Finally, we need to address a central question: How can there be room for the Other within the sphere of the self-absorbed, instrumentally-focussed, disengaged individual who views difference as a useful resource, or who can - with a click of a mouse - simply avoid the Other? The promotion of radical relations must involve a discussion of the ways in which we employ technological mediation, our understanding of the uses of the internet, and the prominence we give to social relations online. Remembering the value and importance of the embodied and the embedded is a beginning.
 It must be asked why so many commentators believe that the removal of these embodied characteristics from any technological representation is so positive and unproblematic; for example see Poster (1995) and Turkle (1995). It seems to me that to celebrate the removal of embodied particularity is to celebrate the transformation of the Other into the Same. It is to lose difference.
 For example, many of the chapters in the volumes edited by Holmes (1997) and Bell & Kennedy (2000) explore such issues.
 A well-known example of internet use heightening a repressed group's visibility is the Zapatistas' political use of the internet. See the Accion Zapatista Report, Zapatistas in Cyberspace, for a comprehensive overview.
 See Willson (1997), and Kolko and Reid (1998), for discussion of the 'thinned' self or identity that is displayed/enacted online.
 My sister tells me that while I was on the phone talking to my small nephew the other day, he was pointing the telephone handset at the items he wanted to show me, unable to understand that in fact I couldn't see these things. For him, the voice was me, and therefore had all the other attributes of me as well, including vision. The notion of mediated communication and of technology carrying my voice across space is something that will have to be learnt. This learning is not simply restricted to children; it would have to be undertaken by anybody who had not been exposed to such technological processes.
 These concepts are very loosely based on Nick Crossley's (1996) discussion of intersubjectivity.
 See Willson (1997) for further elaboration of Nancy's understanding of singular beings, the limit, and community.
 The concept of standing reserve describes a mode of thought that views natural elements as resources (and thus in terms of their potential to satisfy a particular need); see Heidegger (1977).
 As Paul Morris notes: "Beginning from the assumption of the existence and reality of the individual, who then, and only then, forges links between herself and other separate and discrete individuals, it becomes all but impossible to conceive of any sort of community at all. One plus one plus one plus one plus one just never seems to add up to more than a number!" (1996: 226) The solution to such a problem is a recognition of the importance of the social.
 See for example Turkle (1995) or Rheingold (1993).
 I have argued elsewhere (Willson 1997) that the assertion of multiplicity as a consequence of technological capacity alone seems reductive to me and overlooks the complex interweaving of subjectivities that is necessary for the individual to be able to undertake any directed activity, and not to be dispersed and immobilised completely.
 The term 'compear' has a very specific meaning for Nancy. It is used to describe an appearance, presentation, or exposure between/to singular beings.
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