Digital Pluralism

by Nishant Shah last modified Feb 06, 2009 06:31 AM

The Internet, when referred to with a capital I, often gives the notion of a centralised, homogenised, consolidated network of access, protocols and people. Popular representations and imaginations of the Internet ‘make invisible’, the extremely complex, intricate, and varied nature, not only of the uses and the stakeholders of the Internet but also the many forms that Internet itself takes. The notion of pluralism – the belief in multiple knowledges and perspectives, the availability of different frameworks and truths, and the transmit-ability and transmutability of information – is built into the very form of the Internet. It is perhaps more appropriate, given the wide scope and range of the internet and the many different ways in which it intersects with the world around us, to talk of many different kinds of internets.

The Centre for Internet and Society sets out to examine the multiplicity of Internet by looking at the notion of digital pluralism. We seek to theorise the particular concept to investigate the many intersections that the internet has with the world around us. Given the scope and persuasiveness of internet technologies, it would be redundant to produce a list of possible meanings of the internet.  Instead, we conceptualise the internet at three different levels, each demanding its own history, context, materiality and specificities, to produce a more comprehensive understanding of what the internet means and how it responds and reacts to the digitised and networked times we live in.

Internet as Technology

At the primary level, the Internet is a set of protocols, which allows the transfer of data over a complex and almost interminable network. It is necessary, as the internet increasingly becomes central to the crucial mechanics of survival, to recognise it as a technology. The arrival of internet technologies has made a significant impact in the domains of life, labour, language and history, changing the way we understand certain older structures like property, economy, capital, possession, ownership, etc.

So persuasive is the seductive power of the internet, that it often makes invisible the larger questions of freedom, access, and production, in its unfolding. The call to re-emphasise the internet as technology is to examine the economic rhetoric of globalisation, urbanisation and new digital technologies on the one hand, and the alarmist calls around piracy, security, theft and ownership on the other.

Communities of gift economy, of open access to content online, of advocating Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS), of promoting greater inclusion and pluralism of non-licensed softwares and protocols have all emerged around the questions of Internet as Technology. Despite the gravity of the concerns they raise and the unequivocal merit of their activities, very little attention is given to them either by the private sector or civil societies or the government. While there has been a long (and often raging) debate on the internet around these issues, the mainstream media and the larger public remain outside its scope and continue getting implicated in softwares, platforms and digital forms while compromising their rights.

The Centre for Internet and Society hopes, through a model of consultation and collaboration, to actively intervene in this field, to promote the digital pluralism of internet technologies and resist any hegemonic and coercive practices of larger corporate conglomerates and state bodies that may act against public interest.

Internet and its Materiality

The Internet has material consequences. Cybercultures theory, augmented by other instrumental discourses on the internet, incessantly confines cyberspaces to a schism between virtual reality and real life. Such a view of the internet renders the material transactions and consequences of the internet invisible.

As the internet technologies become more pervasive and persuasive, they become an integral part of the mechanics of modern survival. The internet has now become central to the domains of life, labour and language, affecting crucial questions of identity, subjectivity, sexuality, freedom and expression. How do we think of ourselves, not only in relation to technology but also as technologised beings; in a condition of becoming cyborgs? What are the forms of subjectivities that emerge in the technologised transactions of every day? How do we understand the different forms of sexual interactions, mediated and shaped by internet technologies? What are the new kinds of sexual identities which are produced and mobilised by the internet? Is the internet, as is often celebrated in popular discourse, really creating alternative public spheres of freedom or is it producing new forms of exclusion and discrimination?

The Centre for Internet and Society believes that while these questions have cropped up variously, and often emphatically, in the last four decades of Internet presence, there has been very little academic or theoretical attention given to them. The approaches that exist are primarily focussed on the object of change rather than the technologies that shape the change. The accounts provided also, instead of drawing from the mechanics and aesthetics of the technologies, rely on earlier technologised forms to make meaning of the new form. We find it imperative to work for a better understanding of the way the globalised technologised world is being shaped through the wide-spread penetration of Internet Technologies and their material consequences.

Internet and Cyberspaces

Cyberspaces, though a smaller part of the Internet, are the most visible face of the Internet networks. The arrival of the GUI, social networking applications, innovative forms of interaction and networking, online gaming, role-playing and expression platforms like blogging, and virtual worlds, have created a fascinating network of users, distributed across lifestyles and geographies, interacting with each other in unprecedented forms. Cyberspaces, with their ability to immerse the users entirely into the medium, creating a world of incessant interaction – with technologies, with technologised forms, with cultural products, and with the other users, who have translated themselves, using the structures of anonymity and desire – have led to new forms of social, cultural and economic practices which require critical thought and analysis.

Cyberspaces produce many questions – some legal, some judicial, and some about safety, danger, and harm – which need to be answered and engaged with at a serious level. Given the unmoderated nature of access and production on cyberspaces, how do we make a call for safety and caution without compromising the rights of the individual for freedom of expression, speech and being? How do we protect the innocent or the uninitiated, from scandals, scams or situations which might be harmful to them, without making a call for censorship and regimentation? As familial interactions get mediated with technologies, how do we understand the notion of family and the economies that surround it? With new political and cultural mobilisations coming in effect, how do we imagine the space of the public and the political?

Questions like these have a direct bearing on the ideas of individual freedom and right to non-discrimination, while simultaneously asking for a moderated and controlled cyberspatial experience. The design, form, shape and content of cyberspaces all have different implications in these questions, and an analysis of not only the user behaviour or the impact but the very epistemological origins and functions of such forms is important to be studied. These concerns also bolster the idea of digital pluralism of a certain kind – not a neo-liberal call for solipsistic individualism but concentrating on and bolstering the relationships that the individual has with the society and how internet technologies mediate these relationships.

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