Living in Cyberspace: Myths and Realities
Living in Cyberspace: Myths and Realities
Report of a meeting
26th January 1999
Goring Hotel, London
This report comprises the Rationale for the meeting; one page statements from each of the three projects presented; and a brief overview of the Discussion.
An initial tranche of 22 research projects was designed to address the central question of the Virtual Society? Programme: are fundamental shifts taking place in how we behave, organise ourselves and interact as a result of electronic technologies? The answers will have a crucial bearing on the quality of life, on commercial and business success, and on the future of our society.
The early indications from some of these projects suggest we need to revisit a number of widely held assumptions about the nature and prospects of "virtual society". Electronic technologies seem not always to effect us to the extent or in the direction we imagined. Popular declarations that technologies will substitute for major social functions, contrast with the finding that they more often augment existing practice. Can these kinds of contra-finding help us make more realistic assessments of the advantages of the new technologies, for work organisation, public access, and social inclusion? Can we now enjoy a period relatively free of cyber hype? Even Nicholas Negroponte recently declared that the digital revolution was over. What are the implications for the much vaunted impacts on society? How best can we distinguish between the promise and the reality of life in cyberspace?
To discuss these issues a meeting was held on Tuesday 26 January 1999 in London. The first aim of the meeting was to introduce and discuss initial findings from a sample of three projects in the Programme: Gateways to the Virtual Society: innovation for social inclusion (Dr Sonia Liff and Dr Fred Steward); Social Contexts of Virtual Manchester (Dr Penny Harvey); and The Virtual Market Place? Implications from the financial services (Professor David Knights).
The second aim was to consider how best to take this work forward. The current portfolio of projects addresses a wide range of different technologies and distinct applications areas. Yet it is evident that current social science capacity merely scratches the surface of the vast range of technologies and the speed with which they come on stream. So a key task is to identify the priority areas for social science attention. What areas and technologies should we be researching next?
The Programme is already committed to building strong relations with its various audiences and "users". We believe these audiences should play a significant role in helping shape the research. So it is important to identify the kinds of fruitful partnership which can drive future work. What forms of user-researcher relationship work best in this area?
In sum, the meeting aimed to:
Surveys show that access to the Internet is uneven and dominated by more affluent, employed males aged under 35 (Which Online 1998 survey). UK government policy expresses a commitment to much wider social inclusion in the information society (e.g. through IT for ALL).
US research has shown the potential of small, local, community-based computer facilities to attract a different mix of users in terms of gender, income, age and ethnicity. To find out if there are similar opportunities in Britain we have surveyed the recent emergence of telecottages and cyber cafes throughout the UK.
Results show that these facilities successfully attract a broad cross section of the population, including many inexperienced users, who use computers and the Internet to pursue educational, work, leisure and social goals.
However these facilities are not just used by those with no other access to technology or those who could not afford to get connected at home. This suggests that people value a social context for learning about and using technology and that the need for public access facilities will not disappear rapidly in favour of home access.
The mix of those in work and those seeking work or studying found in these centres is likely to facilitate social inclusion. The mix of new and more experienced users may create a distinctive learning environment.
Our research shows that these organisations see themselves in a variety of ways (often evidenced by their web sites). Some are very locally based, others have a more global orientation; some stress access to work, others fun and recreation. These approaches are likely to appeal to different types of users. This underlines the importance of maintaining a diversity of forms of access rather than promoting one single model.
UK public policy has tried to promote access through initiatives focused primarily on existing public bodies such as libraries and colleges. There is a risk that the new forms of social entrepreneurship represented by telecottages and cyber cafes may be neglected. Given the apparent success of these organisations in promoting social inclusion in the virtual society it is important that new policy approaches are found to which embrace a diversity of organisations.
· an ethnographic and historical study of the introduction of new information technologies in Manchester, by both public bodies and private organisationsWorking Hypotheses
· the impact of new information technologies is misrepresented both by academic and more popular media.
· people do not clearly distinguish between the virtual and the non-virtual; nor between utopian and dystopian images of the "information society".
· how new is all this "innovation"?Highlights
· A key problem in the use of ICTs for urban regeneration is the tension between place-based and distance applications. This is exacerbated by the ways in which public sector funding seeks simultaneously to develop specific places and undermine the constraints of place. This particularly affects the much vaunted public/private partnerships on which the public development of these technologies depends. Place-based telematics also tend to a nostalgically-oriented future, which reinforces the importance of place in the ways in which development and change is imagined and put into practice.
· Despite a general ethos of the importance of user-led solutions, in practice the commercial demands that stimulate continual technological innovation reinforce the presence of technology-led solutions. It is still very common to find "ideas in search of users". The Infocities initiative has clearly demonstrated this dilemma at a European level.
· The most successful partnerships for technical innovation appear to be those which foster the development of place through cross-sectoral collaboration. The problems that occur in these relationships often come down to very different understandings of the nature and potential of "networks", and of the relationship between information and communication, information and knowledge.
· Social inclusion is a key issue for the Manchester telematics strategy. There is a gap between the technological push to promote access (and increase users) and the interests of the local (excluded) groups. Projects such as Infocities are attempting to bridge that gap, producing an important group of brokers, who have in many respects become the driving force of these initiatives for technological change. Understandings of the motivations of this crucial group of users is therefore as critical as the knowledge of the "needs" of "end-users" which are usually subordinated to commercial and political "needs" of the broker group.
· This project is seeking to record the discourse concerning 'virtuality' within the practitioner community and subject it to some critical examination;
· 'Virtualisation' means primarily delivery to customers via remote or electronic channels but also refers to transformations in the value chain resulting in more partnerships, alliances and outsourcing rather than vertical integration;
· 'The virtualisation of personal banking is changing the face of Britain's retail financial industry' (Andersen Consulting, UK, 1995);
· 'The evolution of the "virtual bank" has transformed traditional banking forever.' (Ernst & Young);
· Technology is tending to empower consumers so providers have to respond to the demand for customised products and services;
· The US is often seen to be the leader on virtualisation and it is in the use of the internet but in terms of smart cards, mobile phone links etc, Europe is ahead;A critical view
· The term 'virtuality' is often used to claim a 'progressive', state of the art, fashionable status (e.g. Tesco);
· Many supposedly 'virtual' distribution networks depend on traditional technologies such as the telephone (e.g. Schwabb) or paper (e.g. electronic bill payment in US);
· Change is incremental rather than revolutionary - only 15% is direct mostly through post and telephone; less than 10% use telephone banking as much as once a month even though 40% had access; only 5% use computer banking;
· Duplication - traditional co-exist with virtual channels.Assumptions
· Drivers are not consumers or technology but the institutions in their concern to retain or expand market share;
· Drive comes from active network-building between providers, technology suppliers and consultants;
· Problems of social exclusion;
· Assumptions of consumers restricted to highly rational conceptions of their needs and of buyer behaviour;
· Attempted lock-ins through electronic media;Summary
More hype than substance partly because of investment barriers, consumer reluctance and perhaps the fear of a 'brave new world'.
The discussion yielded a large number of points and suggestions for further research. A selection is given below:
a. A central concern is how best can we understand the various complex structuring of virtual space? It is widely supposed that cybermedia will break down societal (and other) barriers, but the evidence is that this is not so. Virtuality is not homogenous. For example, it is not at all clear that access gateways (such as cyber-cafes and tele-cottages) are providing new opportunities for access; rather they seem to be supplementing the access people already have (Liff and Steward). It is also clear that a range of (sometimes mutually incompatible) viewpoints coexist about the nature and importance of the information society/virtual society. We need to examine differing concentrations of activities (market segmentation) within cyberspace. What, for example, will happen to the ecology of intermediaries in our society; how will cyberspace create and destroy them? Given the apparently divergent experience of other countries, it is important to emphasise international comparisons.
b. In the face of the complexity of these developments, there is a high degree of hype. It is important to demythologise the hype (Knights). But it is also necessary to try to distinguish between overblown claims and the changes and emergent trends that are occurring. It is perhaps especially important to understand who is perpetuating different versions of the potential and problems of virtual society, and why.
c. There is always a problem in trying to tease out the social and cultural dimensions in projects which are ostensibly "technology led" (Harvey), because of the widespread (erroneous) view that technological development must be treated as prior to the social dimension. This is becoming recognised as an almost classic difficulty.
d. The much heralded "death of distance" would seem to be overblown. Ideas about "place" and "space" turn out to have (often very) different meanings according to the constituencies using them. This is well illustrated by virtual Manchester's widely varying concern with space as spoken of by those with public sector funding; the voluntary sector; and the commercial sector (Harvey).
e. One problem of researching virtual society is the difficulty in keeping up with the very latest technologies. The necessity for careful in-depth research means that the studied technologies are no longer cutting edge by the time the results emerge. Against this it was pointed out, firstly, that the "very latest" technologies are usually "latest" to only a minority of users. Most people continue to use and experience technologies some way behind the cutting edge. Secondly, that the challenge for social science research is to extract the generic lessons from technology development and use, to suggest frameworks for analytic and critical thinking, regardless of the specific form of the technology in question. Even so, it is clear that much more research needs to be targeted to key areas of development, such as digital interactive television.
f. As in previous meetings, the discussion highlighted concern about trust. The new technologies entailed new forms of interaction, for example a move (further?) away from face to face interaction. Consequently, in the new milieu, our taken for granted conceptions of trust and identity need to be reworked. This is especially the case in e-commerce. At the same time, it is clear that certain important continuities exist between current and future virtual worlds. Thus, for example, brand loyalty (trust in brands) can often be readily translated into cyberspace.
g. The (potential) change in the basis for interaction also has profound implications for questions of ownership and regulation. If the basis for interaction changes, then existing assumptions about who owns what and who is entitled to which rewards, also require re-examination. Hence there is concern about the problem of copyright protection in cyberspace. Similarly, changes in the nature of interaction require attention to the issue of regulation. The focus here is regulation of both content (how to regulate the transmission of "bad stuff" - pornography etc) and access (how to ensure opportunities for exploiting the new technologies are widely available).
h. The problem of access goes hand in hand with the question of social ex/inclusion. In the purportedly new social structures of cyberspace who is in and who is out? The importance of understanding the cyber activities of young people was especially emphasised, as a pointer to likely future trends, and against a background of some uncertainty about the age and gender of current users. Certain categories, such as children with long term illnesses, are key contenders for investigation into the potential for inclusion of the new technologies. At the same time, we need to be cautious in assuming that everybody needs or wants the kind of social inclusion that comes with the Internet: what kind of inclusion, and on whose terms?
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