Isabelle Sabau and Jim Thomas
                  Northern Illinois University
                        DeKalb, IL 60115

(Published in: Critical Criminology--An International Journal. 1997.
Volume 8 (2): 1-7.

Like postmodernism, "Cyberspace" is here to stay.
Cyberspace is simply a metaphoric way of referring to
computer-mediated communication across telephone lines or similar
conduits. The main avenue for this communication, the Internet
(or simply the "Net"), is an international network of
computer systems to which inviduals connect
with their own computers in order to communicate with or
access information from other people.  The enhanced ability to
acquire so much information from so many people so easily and
quickly has led to the label of the current era as the "Information
Age" and the technology that makes it happen as the "Information
Super-Highway." Critical scholars are gradually learning that
a journey down this road can be quite productive.

At first glance, 
Cyberspace might seem an odd venue to pursue critical
social theory and praxis. Our intent here is to suggest why
cyberspace deserves attention by critical scholars as both
a resource and a research venue.

                    The "New Information Age"

Although dramatic and powerful, the current "information
age" is just part of a process begun over a half-mellenium ago
with the advent of the printing press.
Gutenberg's Mazarin Bible, considered the first significant
document printed with movable type (circa 1455), began an
information revolution that over the next two centuries
contributed significantly to the political and cultural
transformation that subverted the power of the ruling elite.  By
providing a means to put ideas to paper more quickly, the
printing press expanded literacy, contributed to the breaking
down of cultural barriers, and capped the late Renaissance's
influence that, by the sixteenth century, had spread through most
of Europe.  Advances in the printing press facilitated the 17th
century expansion of British rights and made possible the "penny
papers" that contributed to eighteenth century political
upheavals. Thomas Paine's _Common Sense_ in 1776, along with the
Federalist Papers, were examples of how ideas distributed through
the information technology of printing shaped the political and
social structures across two continents.

Like contemporary computer revolution, the spread of information
through printing created new
and often competing ways of thinking. 
The later technological advances in communication and mass media (including
contemporary computer-mediated communication) intensified the
formation of the "global village" and the intermingling of
and competition over ideas and ideologies.
The emergence of the Internet as an increasingly open venue 
in the early 1980s, and its
evolution into the Information Highway in the 1990s, has created a
superstructure for the nation's educational, commercial, and
leisure activities stimulated in the U.S. by the Clinton administration (Gore, 1994).
This is creating corresponding cultural
changes as well.

In a prescient essay nearly a decade ago, de Sola Pool (1990: 8) identified five
aspects of electronic communication that are changing society as
profoundly as did the printing press.  First, distance ceases to
be a barrier to communication.  Geographical, social, and other
obstacles to interaction tend to dissolve when people can connect
across the Net.

Second, the separation of text, visual images, and sounds, are
beginning to dissolve in a medium capable of uniting them in an
increasingly seamless stream. You, the reader, are reading these
words on a printed page much the same as they might have been
read if printed on the first printing press five centuries ago.
But, with current technology, you could as easily be experiencing
this content on a personal computer as an audio-visual message
that allows immediate feedback to, and even interaction with, the

Third, computer-mediated communication increasly integrates work
and leisure. With electronic mail or discussion groups, we
communicate with colleagues at home and with friends at work.
For many of us, the demarcation between the two becomes blurred
as we learn, develop communication skills, expand knowledge of
productivity software, and explore other tasks that we import into the
work arena and apply in our jobs.

Fourth, computing elides into communication, which means that:

    ...communicating and reasoning are being reunited. With
    messages converted into electronic bits, they may be not only
    electronically transmitted but also manipulated by logical
    devices and transformed (de Sola Pool, 1990: 8).

The significance of this lies not only in the restructuring of how we
think about how we communicate, but also in how the new form of
communication is beginning to shape social consciousness and
culture by providing replacement norms, vocabularies, and
statuses based on the new technology.

Finally, the "mass media revolution" of one message to a wide
audience is being replaced by the reverse: Mass messages to a
limited and specialized audience. The consequence is a broadening
of diversity of ideas based on the interests of an audience that
selects them. This subverts the "mass society" syndrome
and the corresponding hegemony of a homogenous culture that devalues

                    What's in it for Critical Scholars?

Because critical scholars express more commitment to integrating
theory and action than do their more conventional colleagues,
several core exist strategies for thinking and doing critique.

     NETWORKING. Critical scholars often complain of feelings of
isolation or atomization in their own institutions. Because
Internet-based computer interaction reduces geographic and
political boundaries, communicating with co-ideologues becomes
quicker, easier, and exceptionally efficient.  Whether by
electronic mail (e-mail), electronic discussion groups, or other interactive
means (Thomas and Sabau, 1997), this inexpensive global communication
provides a forum for connecting individuals and organizations.
Electonic newsletters and digests, such as The People's Tribunal
and Computer underground Digest, and countless other electronic
periodicals, offer a useful source for disseminating timely
information to specialized audiences. Academic groups such as the
Progressive Sociologists Network (PSN) or the Critical
Criminology Division of the American Society of Criminology are
examples of how groups can integrate discussion lists,
World Wide Web (WWW) homepages, and other electronic resources to
give their groups visibility, viability, and some cohesion. Some
leftists have ambitiously created their own umbrella Internet
Service Providers or networked systems to stimulate and encourage
communication between groups and individuals.  The Institute for
Global Communications (IGC) and its PeaceNet system illustrate
how an umbrella organization can use computer-mediated networking
to "inspire movements for peace, economic and social justice,
human rights, and environmental sustainability around the world
by providing and developing accessible computer networking
"tools" (1997, IGC mission statement:

     RESEARCH/INFORMATION SHARING. With the proliferation of WWW resources
and homepages, we face a virtual overload of information. That
most of it is useless, unverified, irrelevant, inaccurate, or
mundane makes no less useful the plethora that isn't. Government
documents and statistical abstracts from the U.S., Canada, the
United Nations, or Europe, offer criminologists useful raw and
abstracted data on census, crime, economic, geographic, and other
topics. Homepage archives of organizations such as Amnesty
International serve as a clearing house for information on human
rights abuses, capital punishment updates, and provide connections with
other organizations. The Net also offers a location for
empirical research, as scholars examine "community,"
"deviance," "cultural transformation" and other topics as 
a prism through which to view both conventional society and its
virtual counterpart.

     SOCIAL ACTION. Not surprisingly, the earliest efforts at
using the Net for social action were initiated by computer-savvy
activists who organized to oppose what they perceived as
government abuse of prosecutorial power in cracking down on
teenage computer "hackers." 
The first such organization, The
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), emerged in early 1990 to
resist investigative and prosecutorial excesses by the U.S.
Secret Service and federal prosecutors in the 1990 "hacker
crackdowns" (Sterling, 1992).  The expansion of the Net into
personal, commercial, educational, and leisure domains of our
existence also has led to the importation of many of the same
problems in "virtual life" as in "real life."  Extreme rudeness,
fraud, computer intrusion and destruction, hate crimes, stalking,
harassment, "sex offenses," and other social deviance has drawn
the attention of Net regulators (Atchison, 1997).  Legislation
intended to control access to, behavior on, and content of the
Internet has been passed or introduced in the U.S., Candada,
France, Germany, China, Taiwan, and many other countries.

Attempts at
government control in the form of censorship, law enforcment
privacy intrusions, and curtailment of civil liberties have led
to resistance by groups such as the ACLU, the Open Society
Institute (OSI), the Electronic Privacy Information Center
(EPIC), Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Center for Democracy and
Technology (CDT). These and other groups united to form
the international Global Internet Liberty Campaign (GILC) to
preserve civil liberties and human rights on the Internet.  As a
consequence, the Net has become a battleground over many of the
same organizing issues of state control and repression that have
triggered resistance in more conventional political arenas.

     TEACHING. Internet-based pedagogy allows
students to communicate in ways not amenable to conventional
classroom techniques (Roerden, 1997).  First, the Net gives a voice to students
who might otherwise be silent in class, either because of status,
insecurity, or intimidation.  Second, issues that might not be
addressed in class because of their sensitive 
nature, such as race or sex, can be discussed more frankly and
openly on discussion groups.  Third, topics that can't be fully
covered in class can be supplemented on discussion lists and homepages.
Fourth, questions that cannot be addressed or were neglected to be
in class can be elaborated on 
discussion groups or
interactive homepages.  Fifth, increased Net interaction often
dramatically increases in-class participation by boosting
confidence, providing a context for abstract issues, and stimulating ideas.
Sixth, net discussions and hompeages provide a stronger common
stock of class knowledge from which to draw and by which to share
ideas, experiences, and questions.  Eight, questions by students
can be answered more quickly, and corrections or criticisms are
more easily and immediately discussed by private e-mail.

The power of the Net to explore ideas, connect people, teach
students, mobilize for social and political change, and dissolve
barriers, promises to be an invaluable resource.
It also offers the potential to attain Enlightenment political and intellectual
goals (while also satisfying those who see a more postmodernist impact
of the Net on society).
But, it might be wise to wave a
yellow caution flag to remind us of potential roadblocks on the
"Information Highway."

                          Some Caveats and Afterthoughts

Many of the same problems that we face on the streets also must
be addressed on the Net. Atchison (1997) alerts us to the formal
and informal controls and their targets, and Sabau (1996) and
Stoll (1995)
identify other problems that affect teaching and
social interaction.  Social stratification and discrimination
also become problems, because differential access to the
educational and technical resources to learn and use the Net is,
like other social resources, distributed unequally in most
societies. As a consequence, we risk becoming
two-tiered society
of information haves and have-nots.

Some observers see computer-mediated communication as having a
democratizing effect on interaction, because the Net confers
a degree of physical invisibility that levels such stratifying
characteristics as sex, race, age, or appearance.  However, as
Herring (1994, 1995, 1996) has argued, the "democratization
thesis" may be greatly exaggerated, because cultural barriers
that shape discursive styles are not magically erased on the

There is also an irony underlying the use of the Net to enhance
daily life.  "Virtual reality" becomes not quite, but almost, the
real thing, something having the effect, but not quite the
essence, of that which it symbolizes.  In some ways, it is the
ultimate Baudrillardian (1983) nightmare: The simulacra have
become the things themselves.

Although caution should temper our headlong rush to embrace the
Information Age, it should not dampen our enthusiasm. Like the
printing press, information technology is proving invaluable.
But, like the print medium, it can be used for repressive as well
as emancipatory ends. As a consequence, critical scholars are
obligated to integrate and expand the new medium vigorously to
oppose its use for unnecessary social domination resulting from either
design or neglect by governments or reactionary groups.

The heart of critical thinking and action lies in the possiblity
to explore, without constraint, alternative meanings (Thomas and
O'Maolchatha, 1989).  The Internet
this by providing relatively free access to information, a
reasonably unrestricted means to communicate ideas, and a
demonstrably broad international audience with which to share
those ideas.  In this spirit, the forum provided by CRITICAL
CRIMINOLOGY represents an invitation to aggressively pursue
strategies for using the Net as tool for critique and also as a
window into our culture and address some of the issues raised here.


Atchison, Chris. 1997. "Emerging Styles of Social Control on the
Internet:  Justice Denied." Unpublished manuscript, Simon Fraser

Baudrillard, Jean. 1983. Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e).

Gore, Al. 1994. "Vice President Proposes National Telecommunications
Reform." Speech delivered to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences,
Los Angeles, January 11.

de Sola Pool, Ithiel. 1990. Technologies Without Boundaries: On
Telecommunications in a Global Age. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard
University Press.

Herring, Susan. 1994. "Politeness in Computer Culture: Why Women Thank and Men
flame." In M. Bucholtz, A. Liang, and L. Sutton (eds.),
Communication In, Through, and Across Cultures: Proceedings of
the Third Berkeley Women and Language Conference.  Berkeley:
Berkeley Women and Language Group.

____. 1996  "Posting in a different voice: Gender and ethics in
computer-mediated communication." In C. Ess (ed.), Philosophical
Perspectives on Computer-Mediated Communication. Albany: SUNY

Herring, Susan, Deborah Johnson, and Tamra DiBenedetto. 1995.
"'This discussion is going too far!'  Male resistance to Female
Participation on the Internet." In M. Bucholtz and K. Hall
(eds.), Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed
Self.  New York: Routledge.

Roerden, Laura P. 1997. Net Lessons: Web-Based Projects for your Classroom.
Sebastopol (Calif.): O'Reilly.

Sabau, Isabelle C. 1995.
A Critical Analysis of Selected Problems in Uses of Technology in
Adult Education. College of Education Doctoral Dissertation,
Northern Illiniois University: (

Sterling, Bruce. 1992. The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on
the Electronic Frontier. New York: Bantam Books.

Stoll, Clifford. 1995. Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the
Information Highway. New York: Doubleday.

Thomas, Jim,  and P.A. O'Maolchatha.   1989.   "Re-Assessing the
Critical Metaphor:  An Optimistic Revisionist View." Justice
Quarterly, 6(June): 101-130.

Thomas, Jim, and Isabelle Sabau. 1997 (forthcoming).  "Critical
Criminology meets The Net: 'Carrying the Revolution to
Cyberspace.'" The Critical Criminologist.

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