Cyberculture: Society, Culture, and the Internet
CYBERCULTURE: SOCIETY, CULTURE, AND THE INTERNET
Few technologies in human history rival the Internet in its speed of adoption and range of impact. The Internet's spread has been compared to the advent of the printing press, which, like the Internet, greatly enhanced the availability of information and the rate of its reproduction. Many have commented on the Internet's ability to transform business and the broader economy, but perhaps an equally profound change is being felt throughout society and culture, where the Internet and the World Wide Web are transforming how people live and interact. The Internet's influence generates a range of reactions from different people, ranging from idealism to cynicism, but however it is received, there's no denying that it has led to dramatic shifts in such areas as interpersonal interaction, work culture, relations to time, expectations of speed and convenience, networking between individuals and groups, and even use of language.
The word "cyberculture" is used in a variety of ways, often referring to certain cultural products and practices born of computer and Internet technologies, but also to specific subcultures that champion computer-related hobbies, art, and language. In the 1970s, cyberculture was the exclusive domain of a handful of technology experts, including mathematicians, computer scientists, digital enthusiasts, and academics, devoted to exchanging and promoting ideas related to the growing fields of computers and electronics. These early cybercultures sometimes advanced a view of the future guided by the progressive and beneficial hand of technological change. But following the commercialization of the Internet and the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s, cyberculture took on a new life, and computer and information technologies took the dynamics of culture and social relations in dramatically new directions.
HOW WE LIVE
The Internet touches many parts of life in advanced industrial societies. Everything from shopping, paying bills, and playing the stock market to news gathering, family interaction, romantic courtships, and play all take place in cyberspace, whereas before the mid-1990s all these activities existed more commonly in the physical world. The Internet profoundly influences what and how children learn, the vocabulary employed in daily conversation, the way people coordinate their schedules and work habits, and perceptions of distance and time. With the ability to jump from China to Brazil to Los Angeles within a minute and with e-mail offering lightning-fast communication, the Web has taken the advancements of the telephone several steps further toward bridging physical distances between people, not to mention time. For that matter, the Internet is a 24-hour-a-day operation, and thus consumers are no longer confined by store hours to go shopping.
Some say the explosion of information technologies changes the dynamics between business, social, and ethical issues. According to this view, as individuals gain access to greater and greater quantities of information, the social and ethical ramifications of business practices will become widely known. This openness, the argument goes, will pressure business strategists to take controversial social issues into account to avoid jeopardizing their sales or, at the least, to avoid missing valuable business opportunities.
Internet and cyberculture enthusiasts come from all shades of political persuasion. Conservatives applaud the Internet's subversion of state functions such as taxation and regulatory interference with the free activity of commercial interests. Liberals applaud the Internet's capacities to network disenfranchised groups and coordinate efforts toward greater social equality. But if cyberculture has been hailed by politicos of all stripes, it is also criticized by as broad a spectrum. Social conservatives railed against the excessive openness of the Internet and its attendant capacity to spread materials and ideas they find indecent or morally or socially unacceptable, while left-leaning advocates warned against the excessive commercialization of the Internet and its tendency to transform social needs and relationships into personalized consumer needs, fracturing social solidarity. Thus, it is safe to say that arguments for and against Internet practices aren't drawn along clear political lines.
THE E-GENERATION GAP
Cyberculture of the 1990s and early 2000s was in a transitional stage, shaped and inhabited largely by those with a foot in both the pre-Internet era and the Digital Age. Children growing up in this period, however, will never know an era when the Internet wasn't an entirely natural component of life, when it was seen as a transformation from the life they knew. As a result, cyberculture's shape is likely to change rapidly as younger generations come of age. Parents may fret over the skills and experiences their children miss out on by being wrapped up in cyberculture, but in all likelihood the Internet will be entwined more and more with daily activities and the distinctions between cybercultures and the dominant cultures will blur.
Don Tapscott, in his book Growing Up Digital, reported that at the end of the 1990s two-thirds of what he called the "Net Generation" used personal computers either at home or in school. According to Tapscott, such children are less concerned about the technology itself, which increasingly is simply part of the background, as about the technology's functionality in their daily lives. In this way, children growing up in highly developed areas of the world in the early 2000s were fundamentally different from their parents, for whom such computer technology was a revolution occurring in their lifetimes, sharply separating, thanks to its speed and impact, the life they knew before the Internet and the one that exists today. This generational dynamic, according to Tapscott, speaking to Communication World in December 1999, was "about to—like a tidal wave—sweep across all of our institutions."
THE INTERNET AND WORK CULTURE
The Internet has greatly changed the nature of work in connected segments of the world. For instance, work increasingly is performed outside of the traditional work place—a central office or factory—and more often in homes and other remote locations. The most cybercultured companies, moreover, more or less do away with the physical models of work, and are little more than interconnecting networks rather than physical, hierarchical organizations. Telecommuting allows workers to adjust their schedules to their own convenience and perform work in the comfort of their home offices. Critics point out, however, that this isn't always the liberating force that proponents chalk it up to be. Telecommuting may indeed allow greater flexibility and some convenience, but it also signals work's encroachment into the personal lives of workers. By blurring the line between work time and personal time, critics contend, the Internet and business cyberculture foster a model of living in which employees are, in a sense, always "on call," potentially eroding the quality of personal time.
The cyberculture of business presents particular problems for established firms looking to remain competitive by adopting e-commerce. At the most basic level, embracing the Internet's technologies, not to mention its culture, can be disorienting if it subverts established traditions. The process of foregoing old supply chains for the efficiencies of the Internet must be carefully negotiated to avoid disintermediation, or losing business by being cut out of a supply chain altogether. Meanwhile, the internal culture of a firm, less easily quantified with statistics and difficult to transform with a new technology, may clash with the style of interactivity fostered by the Internet. Intra-nets largely undo direct top-down lines of communication in favor of a more complex web of interaction between individuals and departments, workers and managers. The Internet also fosters a greater dispersal of information among company members than was normal in traditional company models, where managers were more likely to monopolize information and coordinate plans in a traditional hierarchy. With e-mail lists and electronic message boards available, employees may view such managerial behavior as alienating. Finally, cyberculture in the business world encourages the practice of thinking outside of existing paradigms, and thus businesses hoping to build a strong Internet presence need to encourage innovation and novel ideas among all their employees.
CYBERPERSONALITIES IN VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES
The anonymity afforded by the World Wide Web is another crucial element of cyberculture. Individuals routinely create screen names and, in some cases, online personalities that may or may not diverge from the ones they project in the physical world. Again, this feature could be either a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, the anonymity offers space for individuals who may feel ostracized or isolated to access information and take part in communities that may be practically off limits in the physical world. On the other hand, critics note that the anonymity simply fosters a culture of mischief in which individuals may indulge in social behaviors online that are unacceptable in the ordinary world, perhaps even illegal or subversive activities.
Paul Soriano of the Internet Society pointed out that "the virtual communities of the cyberworld will not cure the acute crisis of identity that the world is suffering." Despite the emergence of virtual communities and the anonymous nature of Internet communications, the myriad ethnic, religious, national, sexual, and ideological divisions of the world are unlikely to disappear as a result of cyberculture and internetworking. Rather, these online communities are likely to find their way into the broader cultural matrix as yet another strand in a complex social fabric.
Some commentators, such as David Holmes in his book Virtual Politics: Identity & Community in Cyberspace, warn that individuals run the risk of losing all sense of identity and community the more they are submerged in cyberspace, with its dissolution of time and space and excessive simulation of reality. Still others see little that is so completely revolutionary in the kind of transformations wrought by the Internet. Christopher Barnatt, for instance, writing in Human Relations, noted that "[a]cross human history, mental activities have invariably come to dominate and 'displace' activities of the body." Moreover, Barnatt argued, blaming the Internet for eroding traditional communities is somewhat akin to the blaming the automobile for eroding the community structures that preceded the rise of "suburban fantasylands accessible only to those with the technology of an automobile." Barnatt likened complaints about the Internet's effect on community to wanting "to protect one hyperreality from the encroachment of another that merely accelerates forward the same sociotechnical agenda."
THE INTERNET: DOES IT UNITE OR DIVIDE?
Cyberculture is heralded for breaking down borders and barriers, not just between nations but also between groups and individuals separated by physical space or by political and social conditions. As a result, some would hold that the Internet fosters a more complex tapestry of relations than ever existed in the physical world.
However, skeptics warned that the Internet wasn't eliminating borders as much as shifting their definition and location. Instead of physical borders separating one people from another, these critics contend, the Internet establishes a border between those use it and those who do not or cannot go online. This "digital divide" was of increasing concern to social activists and policy planners, and to businesses as well, who see the divide as a stopgap to their future marketing strategies. This rift grows as cyberculture drifts away from being a specialized domain for technology experts and toward a force driving social change, economic relations, political policy, and cultural life. If cyberculture increasingly sets the agenda in the dominant culture, those on the "wrong" side of the digital divide will inevitably find themselves more and more isolated and alienated from the societies in which they live.
For regions outside the United States, the cultural implications of the Internet carry another important question: how will the U.S.-dominated Internet affect the sovereignty and integrity of local and regional cultures? The Internet was developed in the United States, as were the bulk of the technologies that support it, U.S. firms constituted by far the largest share of online businesses in the early 2000s, and English was the Internet's dominant language. Thus, to a great extent the models of Internet activities sprang from U.S. paradigms, which many non-U.S. interests eyed with some skepticism. Such fears were often tied to broader concerns about globalization, an economic and cultural force many saw as the sweep of American culture and businesses over the rest of the world. On the other hand, those who see the Internet as a leveling force point out that such technologies, far from steamrolling cultures and local sovereignty, actually provide a level playing field and thus a greater degree of autonomy and competitive leverage to non-U.S. cultures than they would enjoy in the global economy absent Internet technology.
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SEE ALSO: Community Model; Digital Divide; Virtual Communities