THEORY AND PRAXIS ON THE INTERNET: A CRITICAL EXPLORATION OF THE ELECTRONIC FRONTIER 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 authors. 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 difference. 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: http://www.peacenet.org). 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 allows 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. BIBLIOGRAPHY Atchison, Chris. 1997. "Emerging Styles of Social Control on the Internet: Justice Denied." Unpublished manuscript, Simon Fraser University. 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