Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class

Arthur Kroker

Michael A. Weinstein

They just keep on coming. What once was a mild flurry of books on the nature of virtual communities and cyberspace has now become almost a whirlwind. These books run the gamut of sensibilities, from the potentialities of on-line communities (Herz, 1995; Rheingold, 1993) to the perils of virtual life (Slouka, 1995; Stoll, 1995; Talbott, 1995). Some adopt a more theoretical and nuanced look at the intricacies of virtual systems and the socio-psychological implications thereof (Stone, 1995; Turkle, 1995) or at the confluence of virtual systems design with the urban environment (Mitchell, 1995). Most of these books, however, are written for a cross-over audience: the academic and the general reader.

A recent book from this oeuvre, yet catering to the undergraduate-to-graduate school audience, which will undoubtedly stake a claim as one of the more definitive collections, is Steve Jones's edited compilation entitled Cybersociety. This collection brings together eight articles from an international cast of academics, who discuss aspects of community and computer-mediated communication (CMC) in various virtual systems, including Usenet, MUDs (text-based virtual reality systems called multi-user dimensions), IRC (Internet Relay Chat), software, and computer games such as Nintendo.

Jones dubs the new and emergent social formations brought about by CMC "cybersociety." This is akin to Linda Harasim's (1993) definition of "networlds" as encompassing a social dimension, which she subdivides into three distinct yet often overlapping networlds: social networlds, networkplaces, and educational networlds. Social networlds consist of forums for informal conversation, such as newsgroups available on Usenet; conferences available through private systems, such as WELL, Prodigy, AOL, and CompuServe; as well as Internet services including IRC and MUDS. Networkplaces--inhabited by corporate, industrial, academic, and entrepreneurial workers--are networlds designed to facilitate and promote work-related activities at the office itself, or through telecommuting. Educational networlds include colleges and universities, K-12 schools, distance education projects, and community-based projects. Harasim further distinguishes networlds by their temporal-spatial qualities: they are place-independent ("anyplace communication"); asynchronous ("anytime communication"); allow for greater group interactivity; and are predominantly text-based.

In Jones' introductory chapter, he attempts to lay out the framework for a theoretical grounding of how to study cybercommunities. This is a difficult endeavour, for many reasons. First, because there are so many different types of cybercommunities, no pat description of virtual communities will suffice. Second, the notion of virtual communities is still in an evanescent and neoteric stage, so a level of flexibility and open-mindedness is needed. These caveats tend to go against the grain of certain forms of academic inquiry which would like to put everything neatly into a tidy, beribboned box. Nevertheless, there are several consistent strands of enquiry that many of the contributors take up which are worth more than a glance: namely, the notion of identity, issues concerning access, how virtual communities are shaped by system design, the development of community norms on various systems, and how computer software and simulated experiences aim to organize cultural experience.

The promises of cybercommunities are many. Some feel that the "Digital Nation" will link people together, not only cybernetically, but also for the benefit of the individuals acting within their real-life neighbourhoods. Heralded as a major social revolution, technological pundits claim that connecting via computer will be as ubiquitous as connecting through the telephone, using electricity, and brushing our teeth before bedtime. Computer networking, so the determinists claim, will lead to more "democratic" communication, since contextual cues such as gender, voice, age, class, and race are usually hidden through the plain ASCII interface of most text-based systems.

However, the perils of cybercommunities have also become the focus of recent media and policy attention. There are the hysterical embellishments concerning raunchy and offensive content on the net which our youth could be subjected to with a mere mouse-click: Sex! Pornography! Perfidious pedophiles! Unfortunately, these unfounded fears have recently become a reality in the United States, with the passage of the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996 and its contained provision, the Communications Decency Act. Sceptics of virtual communities also fear that too much attention paid to virtual experiences will come at the expense of our real lives and locales. Virtual communities, then, will only create pseudo-communities, where commitment can be as easy as logging out. As many of the contributors note, access to computer networks is now confined to a rather homogeneous elite: if you're white, male, college-educated, and technologically literate, your chances of being on-line are better than most.

Usenet, the "user's network," or the "poor man's Arpanet," is a worldwide distributed bulletin board system supported mainly by Unix machines, and this is the virtual system that the majority of the Cybersociety contributors analyze. Usenet is widely available on academic and commercial sites, and consists of thousands of "newsgroups" organized around a multifarious array of topics which are grouped into "hierarchies" where users post and reply to "articles" or postings.

McLaughlin, Osborne, & Smith design a "Taxonomy of Reproachable Conduct on Usenet" as a preliminary approach to the questions of Usenet standards. Conduct ranged from incorrect /novice use of technology, bandwidth waste, violation of networkwide and newsgroup specific conventions, ethical violations, inappropriate language, and factual errors. "The rules of conduct on Usenet as currently constituted can be understood as a complex set of guidelines driven by economic, cultural, social-psychological, and discursive factors both within and outside the network" (p. 107). MacKinnon applies a Hobbesian perspective and analyzes Usenet in order to scour for signs of what he calls the "Leviathan" in computer-conferencing networks: "the institution of censorship or moderation of the messages written by the network's users" (p. 112). Baym was a participant-analyst in the newsgroup rec.arts.tv.soaps (r.a.t.s.), and uses her experiences to articulate a framework in which to ascertain how communities are created through CMC. This structure consists of the overlapping nuances between external contexts (what draws people to participate in a particular forum); temporal structure (where and when people access the forums); system infrastructure (how Usenet is designed, with its multithreaded posts); group purposes (what is the purpose of the forum); and participant characteristics (demographic features such as gender, age, class, etc.). Aycock & Buchignani examine the Usenet discourse (principally sci.research.careers) surrounding the Valery Fabrikant affair, and are concerned with how to use Usenet discourse as ethnography. Fabrikant was the Concordia University professor who murdered four of his colleagues in 1992. Part of his diatribe was carried out in the very public space of various Usenet newsgroups and through flooding the personal e-mail boxes of academics and administrators throughout Montreal universities. In fact, his spate of multiscreened messages was so voluminous that it crashed the McGill University computer network, which acted as the network hub for all the academic networks in Quebec, several times.

Although Usenet newsgroups are in the public realm, and the authors do not reprint or attribute authorship to the posts that they quote, the issue of how to conduct ethical social science research on Internet communities, and the myriad social dynamics of groups and diverse on-line forums is a salient issue. What could be some of the proposed ethical guidelines as to how human subjects' guidelines should be framed in an era where the potential for studying ubiquitous networked communities is so readily at hand, yet subject to much abuse and misguided motivations? (See The Information Society, 1996).

Elizabeth Reid offers an adroit analysis of how participants in MUDs negotiate and create given and newly invented social cues which their virtual characters portray. In the absence of visual effects, "MUD players share both a stage and an understanding of the rules and ways of breaking rules that allow them to speak meaningful lines. They are able to read each other in far more than a textual fashion. With the inventiveness and lateral thinking has come a set of tools and symbols enabling MUDs to become a social environment within which MUD users experience human dramas as strongly as they might in actuality" (pp. 172-173).

Friedman explores the participatory nature of computer games, a field which has been woefully neglected by academics. Simulation, interactivity through cinema and textual metaphors, and cognitive role-playing are just a few of the devices game developers and players assume. Fuller & Jenkins investigate the interactive games systems of Nintendo as a cultural artifact, revealing New World voyage narratives permeating the travels and foibles of video characters like Super Mario. And, finally, Kramarae offers a trenchant criticism of some of the gendered metaphors and origins used to describe the information infrastructure, such as cyberspace, information superhighway, and the electronic frontier. She argues that unless young girls and women are ensured access to the evolving networks, society will become increasingly polarized, and that the humanization of cybercommunities will not happen unless women are actively involved in their design, development, and diffusion.

From the structured nuances of Cybersociety, we come to the fractured, recalcitrant, and meandering prose of Arthur Kroker & Michael Weinstein. In the last few years, the Krokers (Arthur and Marilouise) have become cyber-darlings on the virtual and real-life lecture circuit. This winter season alone has witnessed several magazine portraits of them, in diverse sources such as Wired, Saturday Night, and 21c. Heralded as the pre-millennium McLuhans, or "McClones" (Kingwell, 1996), psychic heirs to Innis, and the nightmare of Grant, the Krokers have come to epitomize Canadian thinking on cyberculture.

Data Trash was composed by Arthur (although the spirit of Marilouise must be there) & Weinstein through Internet exchanges, and reads like a haphazard collection of late-night perambulations along crusty modem lines. It is best read with a couple of double-cappuccinos under the belt, with the stereo and television blaring:

We are data trash. And it's good. Data trash crawls out of the burned-out wreckage of the body splattered on the information superhighway, and begins the hard task of putting the pieces of the (electronic) body back together again....Data trash loves living at the violent edge where total human body scanning meets an inner mind that says no, and means it. When surf 's up on the Net, data trash puts on its electronic body and goes for a spin on the cyber-grid. (p. 158)

The basic thesis of Data Trash is sane: in our current "cyber-authoritarianism" and "pro-technotopia movement," buttressed by hyperbolic claims as to the knowledge-creating, capitalist-creating, and job-creating promises of the information infrastructure, any voices that are critically examining the rhetoric and claims of technological pundits and governments will be silenced--"wired shut." This new Virtual Class, epitomized (but not named) by Neo-Con Techno-Boosters such as Newt ("give every ghetto kid a laptop") Gingrich, Alvin & Heidi Toffler (1995), and the Progress and Freedom Foundation (1994) in the U.S., and Ted Rogers, Stentor, and John Manley in Canada, has reached its apotheosis through recent proposed guidelines as to the deregulation and competitive nature of our telecommunications industry (see Canada [1995] and CRTC [1995] for Canadian proposals; United States Congress, Telecommunications Act of 1996).

Kroker & Weinstein map out the trajectory of (dis)informediation tactics taken by the Virtual Class, including using the metaphor of the information superhighway as a deterministic ploy to make people think that it's "on-line or die," and pushing the illusion of interactivity and consumer choice, all at the expense of personal privacy. What is frustrating, though, is that within Data Trash, Kroker & Weinstein's claims as to the covert agendas of technophiles and the hidden agenda of the information economy are not backed up with enough actual references or citations. I have heard Kroker in person, and much prefer him in his performative sense. His prose takes on a hypnotic quality of its own, like a latter-day rap poet extolling the complexities of our digital angst.

References

Canada. Industry Canada. The Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC). (1995, September). Connection, community, content: The challenge of the Information Highway. URL: http://info.ic.gc.ca /infohighway/final.report /eng/images/cover.gif

CRTC. (1995, May 19). Competition and culture on Canada's Information Highway: Managing the realities of transition. URL: http://www.crtc.gc.ca /eng/highway/hwy9505e.htm

Harasim, Linda. (1993). Networlds: Networks as social space. In Linda M. Harasim (Ed.), Global Networks: Computers and international communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Herz, J.C. (1995). Surfing on the Internet: A nethead's adventures on-line. Boston: Little, Brown.

The Information Society. (1996). 12(2). URL: http://www.ics.uci.edu/~kling/eic122.html

Kingwell, Mark. (1996, February). Geek with an argument. Saturday Night, pp. 75-77.

Mitchell, William. (1995). City of bits: Space, place, and the infobahn. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Progress and Freedom Foundation. (1994, August 22). Cyberspace and the American dream: A Magna Carta for the knowledge age (Release 1.2). URL: http://www.pff.org /pff /position.html

Rheingold, Howard. (1993). The virtual community: Homesteading on the electronic frontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Slouka, Mark. (1995). War of the worlds: Cyberspace and the high-tech assault on reality. New York: Basic Books.

Stoll, Clifford. (1995). Silicon snake oil: Second thoughts on the Information Highway. New York: Doubleday.

Stone, Allucquere Rosanne. (1995). The war of desire and technology at the close of the mechanical age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Talbott, Stephen L. (1995). The future does not compute: Transcending the machines in our midst. Sebastapol, CA: O'Reilly & Assoc.

Toffler, Alvin, & Toffler, Heidi. (1995). Creating a new civilization: The politics of the third wave. Atlanta: Turner Publishing.

Turkle, Sherry. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

United States Congress. 104th Session. Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996, 652. URL: http://www.eff.org /pub/Alerts/s652_hr1555_96.act

  •  Announcements
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Current Issue
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Thesis Abstracts
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo

We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

SSHRC LOGO