Katrien Jacobs on Thu, 8 Jun 2000 00:55:35 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Setting E-Commerce Aside: A Conference Review

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  Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing 2000: Shaping the
  Network Society: The Future of the Public Sphere in Cyberspace

  Sponsored by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
  May 20 - 23, 2000, Seattle, Washington, USA

Setting E-Commerce Aside: A Conference Review
By David Silver, University of Maryland

As we slouch towards the real millennium, Internet dreams have turned
quickly into dot.com desires.  The worthy yet too often utopian hopes of
cyber-jumpstarted cultural, social, and political revolutions have been
ditched largely for IPOs, untaxed e-commerce, and millionaire teens and
twenty-somethings.  Indeed, for many, the dominant mantra of our times may
very well be: start up, pitch fast, sell out.

But not for all, including the several hundred scholars, students,
activists, artists, community leaders, computer scientists, politicians,
techies, and freaks who showed up last weekend in Seattle for "Shaping the
Network Society: The Future of the Public Sphere in Cyberspace," sponsored
by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.  Informed, perhaps,
less by the Nasdaq and more by the events that went down during the WTO
protests in the fall, conference attendees were asked what directions and
implications does cyberspace foretell for community, democracy, education
and culture? what is the public sphere in cyberspace? what should it
be? how can people use it? and what experiments, projects, and policies
should we initiate?

To answer such questions, conference organizers threw a wide net,
attracting folks from within and without academe, folks from across the
disciplines, and folks from around the world, including Argentina,
Australia, Canada, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, the United States, and
the former Yugoslavia.  Matching the international flavor of the
conference was organization diversity: on the first day alone, artists,
activists, and scholars representing Adbusters, the American Library
Association, the National Telecommunications and Information Agency, Paper
Tiger Television, PovNet (Poverty Network), the San Jose Information
Technology Planning Board, the Seattle City Council, the Social Science
Research Council, the Society for Old and New Media, the Vancouver Public
Library, and a few dozen colleges and universities delivered papers and
conducted workshops.  For this conference attendee -- still jazzed by but
growing weary of academic conferences; quick to test theoretical
frameworks and methodological minutia but even quicker to test
applications -- the diversity was a welcomed bonus.

So what went down?  The conference was divided largely into three
categories:  research sessions; workshops; and special events.  There were
ten research sessions -- Regional Snapshots; Foundations; Crossing
Boundaries; Socio-Technical; In the Community; Museums, Libraries, and
Culture; Public Policy Issues; Public/Private Sector Tensions; Looking at
the Community; and New Models -- ranging, as their titles suggest, from
conceptual frameworks and research models to disciplinary and
inter-organizational convergences to public policy and community
applications.  Unfortunately, the research sessions were held concurrently
(more on that later), which prevented this conference attendee from
sitting in on all the sessions.

The ones I did attend, however, were amazing, and provided equal amounts
of questions and answers, complex dilemmas and partial solutions facing
progressive- and community-minded cybernauts.  For example, in the
research session title Foundations, an international panel of scholars
explored and discussed a number of models with which to assess online
environments.  Ian Beeson, Professor of Computer Studies and Mathematics
at the University of the West of England, presented a number of
theoretical positions to understand better the ways in which communities
might use hypermedia to tell their individual and collective
stories.  Jenny Preece, Chair of the Information Systems Department at the
University of Maryland Baltimore County and author of the forthcoming book
Online Communities: Designing Usability and Supporting Sociability,
addressed the multiplicity of definitions of online communities and argued
for the need for online communities to support well designed usability and
well supported sociability.  Celia Romm from Central Queensland University
in Australia analyzed existing literature on community informatics and
applied her Autonomy/Harmony model to four case studies.  Finally, Erik
Stolterman from the Department of Informatics at Umea University in Sweden
argued that creating a public sphere in cyberspace is, in part, a matter
of design, a process in which members of the community must be involved.

My own research session, Socio-Technical, was comprised of graduate
students from a number of American universities and, informed by theories
of human-computer interaction and models of participatory design, explored
the intersections between interface design and online community
formations.  Kelly Parker, a graduate student in Philosophy from Grand
Valley State University, examined the potentially dramatic social and
political implications of the Open Source/Free Software movement.  Josh
Berman, a graduate student in Computer Science from Georgia Institute of
Technology, showcased The Turing Game
<http://www.cc.gatech.edu/elc/turing/>, an online environment he developed
with Amy Bruckman, to reveal the ways in which identity is expressed --
and tweaked -- within cyberspace.  My own presentation, growing out of my
work in American Studies and the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies
at the University of Maryland, challenged the prevailing and dangerous
assumption that the Net is a neutral, barren, and settlerless frontier,
and argued instead for the need for scholars to explore the cultural and
historical construction of online communities.  Finally, Warren Sack, a
recent graduate of the MIT Media Lab, wowed the audience with Conversation
Map <http://www.media.mit.edu/~wsack/CM/>, a piece of software he
developed to map visually the kinds of threads and interactions that take
place within discussion lists.

Like most conference attendees, I solved the problem of concurrent
sessions by racing frantically between rooms, hearing a paper here,
sitting in on a Q and A there.  The result was worth the effort.  In
this manner, I was able to hear Maja Kuzmanovic, a digital artist par
excellence from Amsterdam, brainstorm and discuss what a truly
participatory and interactive cyberspace would/could look  like.
Similarly, Adrian Mihalache, a Fullbright Scholar from Romania
currently visiting Western Michigan University, offered a review of
existing discourses of cyberspace and concluded with a spirited call for a
second generational countercultural movement.  Eszter Hargittai, a
graduate student in Sociology at Princeton, explored the discrepancy
between accessibility and prominence of public interest, not-for-profit
content on the Web, and offered a list of useful guidelines for such
organizations to get their word out.  Finally, Murali Venkatesh, an
Associate Professor and Director of the Community and Information
Technology Institute at Syracuse University, discussed early findings from
a large scale grant to construct a number of community networks for New
York-based economically disadvantaged communities, focusing especially on
the gap between technologists and community organizers.

While the research sessions sought to bridge research and application, the
workshops provided a forum to discuss past, ongoing, and future
projects.  Again, the spectrum was international, and conference attendees
learned about projects from around the world and brought to life by
non-profit organizations, public interest institutes, local governments,
and universities.  Although the nature of the projects was diverse, a
common theme among many was an attempt to bridge the so-called Digital
Divide.  Thus, we heard from Susan Kretchmer, Rod Carveth, and Nancy
Kranich, who presented a workshop titled, "High Tech, Low Tech, No
Tech: Moving Beyond Economics to Bridge the Digital Divide," and from
Bruce Takata and David Matteson, who conducted a workshop titled "Bridging
the Wisdom Divide: Beyond the Knowedge Era Part I & II."

Another common goal was to develop a set of strategies to reimagine and
reinvigorate community networks.  Towards this goal, William Belsey
presented early findings on Igalaaq, Canada's first arctic community
access center, while Evergreen State College students John B. Adams & Matt
Powell showcased new software which allows online applications of Robert's
Rules of Order.  One of the most rewarding -- not to mention well attended
-- workshops was an impromptu one convened by Peter Royce, coordinator of
the Vancouver CommunityNet, to discuss the current state of community
networks.  With all the chairs taken and with a few folks standing,
representatives from Davis Community Network, Eugene Free Community
Network, Petaluma Community Network, Seattle Community Network, Toledo
Free Net, and Vancouver CommunityNet shared their experiences,
frustrations, and plans for the future.

In addition to research sessions and workshops were a number of special
events, including the plenary sessions.  The first plenary, Patterns and
Implications of the Network Society, featured Oliver Boyd-Barrett from
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, California, and Craig
Calhoun, President of the Social Science Research Council in New
York. Unfortunately, the third panelist, Veran Matic of B92 Radio and
Internet in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, was unable to attend due to the recent
seizure of B92 broadcasting equipment. The closing plenary featured Gary
Chapman of the 21st Century Project at the LBJ School of Public Affairs
at the University of Texas, Bill Joy, Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems,
and Howard Rheingold, author of many books, including The Virtual
Community and Tools for Thought.  The session focused on Joy's recent
article in Wired, "Why the Future Doesn't Need
Us" <http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html>, with Joy providing
some background on the article and with commentary from both Chapman and
Rheingold.  The audience peppered Joy with agreement and challenges, and
raised questions concerning the role of corporations (like Sun
Microsystems) in the situation Joy describes, the need for spokespeople
like Joy to work with existing organizations, and the barriers to healthy
dialogue on new technologies and society.

The closing plenary was followed by what many conference attendees
described as the most debaucherous conference-sponsored event in recent
memory.  Held at the hip club iSpy in downtown Seattle, the event was
organized by local students, artists, and activists and sponsored by
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.  Featuring live bands on
one level and throbbing techno on another, the party also included a
"cyber fashion show" (which apparently means lots of tight black leather
and lots of exposed flesh) and a fire show seemingly organized by a local
chapter of the Burning Man movement.  Fun and confusion abounded.

Like all conferences, Shaping the Network Society was not without a few
flaws.  Most notably, organizing the first plenary around three men and
organizing the last plenary around three men is unsettling to say the
least, and stood in stark contrast with issues of cultural diversity
addressed by dozens of research panelists and workshop conveners.
Similarly, while questions of race, gender, and class were explored by
many sessions, issues of sexuality were altogether missing.

The other flaw was an embarrassment of riches -- there were simply too
many interesting sessions and workshops going on concurrently.  Unlike
most academic conference which offer a dizzying array of (often
unrelated) scholarship, Shaping the Network Society enjoyed -- and
succeeded because of -- a carefully crafted focus.  The result, as noted
earlier, was a mad scramble between papers, where frantic conference
attendees tried to fit in as many papers as possible.

The timing of Shaping the Network Society could not be better.  Today, as
cyberspace becomes synonymous with e-commerce and many folks' idea of an
online public sphere is a chat room on AOL, forums like this are
desperately needed.  Indeed, as cyberspace continues to be colonized by
commercial interests, progressive- and community-minded artists,
activists, community leaders, computer scientists, journalists,
politicians, scholars, students, techies, and freaks need multiple,
international forums like this one to discuss what's happening, where
were heading, and how to turn the tide.

As an academic, I found the conference to be a breath of fresh air
compared to the commercialization of cyberspace that is currently taking
place within society in general and within academia in particular.
Advertisements for companies like Blackboard and WebChat have turned the
first ten pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education into a shopping mall
for distance education companies. Moreover, whether you like David Noble's
ideas or not, what he describes is certainly taking place at an alarming
rate; as I write this conference review, many courses at my university
have been transformed from traditional to entirely online, as deans,
provosts, and presidents continue to run their departments, colleges,
and universities as mini corporations. Finally, the kind of
corporate-sponsored scholarship which marks the sciences has made its way
into the humanities.  Witness, for example, US WEST's funding of the
"research" institute, the Center for Digital Culture, whose most recent
white paper is titled, unsurprisingly, "E-Commerce and the Digital

While thousands race to make bank in cyberspace, it is refreshing to see
so many cybernauts from around the world brainstorm, discuss, and help
construct public space on the Internet.  Although many battles against the
forces to recraft cyberspace into cyberspace.com have been lost, the fight
-- and dance -- is not over, as was clearly evident in full force in


David Silver is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University
of Maryland and the founder and director of the Resource Center for
Cyberculture Studies.  He can be reached via his Web site at

resource center for cyberculture studies http://otal.umd.edu/~rccs

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