Internet and Society? A tiny word that makes a difference that makes a difference
Global Network of Internet and Society Research Centers. Enquete Commission on Internet and Digital Society. Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. Ever since starting my PhD on the digitisation of the German parliamentary democracy as seen through the empirical lens of Netzpolitik I have been wondering about this little, harmless and, which effortlessly connects the Internet to society within names of institutions, research clusters and political agendas when written down. What kind of relation between the Internet and society can be created by this and, how are they both in turn defined by it and how does this influence our research? This blog entry is an exploration of possible answers to this question from a sociological point of view.
When things are put on a list they change their meaning. Michel Foucault (1984) showcases an obscure classification of animals containing oddities such as animals belonging to the emperor, sirens, embalmed ones and those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush. Read on its own, every entry is quite clear in its meaning. And yet, we wonder which kind of hidden connection binds those entries together on that list. In The Order of Things – showing how lists structure our thought – Foucault induces us readers to ask ourselves exactly this question. Even more than a rational argument the feelings of disbelief and amusement we experience serve to illustrate his point: to reveal how lists – as examples of ordering the world – enable knowledge and form its horizon at the same time.
This detour opens up the general possibility to realise that knowledge, and what counts as self evident, is not an essence contained within singular terms, but rather contingent upon the way in which we connect words. Put together on a list, the Internet and society develop a relationship, which requires as much an explanation as that between animals that from afar look like flies and those that just have broken the water pitcher. So what ways of thinking are opened up to us by connecting the Internet to society by the tiny word of and?
More than a meaningless linguistic accident?
The first possibility would be to read the and as the purely syntactic connection between two words with no further relationship whatsoever implied. This explanation would not only be quite unsatisfying, it would automatically raise the question of why the way of putting the words together like this is not just a remote grammatical possibility of the English language, but is a construction that is actually used to name not just one institution, but multiple ones.
The next possible answer is the most obvious one: the and is intended to limit the scope of both terms to their area of overlap. It might very well be that this was the creators’ original intention when brainstorming the list. It looks elegant on paper, promises a way to logically delineate the focus of inquiry and is quite short, too. As an added benefit this calculus can even be visualized as a neat Venn diagram, with the Internet and society depicted as overlapping circles, their intersection constituting the relevant topics.
This blog entry would be done at this point, if it were not for one thing: the tendency of communication not to feel very constrained by logic or by the intentions of those creating lists, names and distinctions. Our case here is no exception. The best illustration of what happens to this logically unambiguous construction when confronted with social practice can be found within the German Bundestag. In 2010 the German parliament tasked the Enquete Commission on Internet and Digital Society with mapping this intersection of Internet and society in regards to its political significance, both for politics itself and for policy-making.
Clear theoretical definitions vs. wayward social practice
As the commission began its endeavour to map this #Neuland, this political virgin soil formed by the overlapping of the two circles, something unexpected happened: rather than neatly forming a neatly bounded intersection – which then could be isolated and explored in minute detail – the two circles began to dissolve each others’ very essence. In the eyes of the commission no part of society could safely be identified as being completely unaffected by the Internet anymore, in that more and more practices and contextures in which digital media play or could play a role came into view. At the same time, all the attempts to clearly delimit the Internet from other forms of technology outside the scope of the commission failed when confronted with the multitude of mutually exclusive and contradictory definitions found within the various stakeholder statements, expert reports, and public discourse.
One turn of phrase virtually used by all of the German net politicians I conducted interviews with best describes this experience of a practical collapse of meaning. With a sigh escaping their lips, they asserted that Netzpolitik and the task of the Enquete Commission truly is a Querschnittsthema, a cross-cutting topic transcending all established and clearly defined political fields. Contrary to the original intention, the logical definition of a research area of Internet and society or of a policy field of Netzpolitik was not the answer to the question of their delimitation at all. In practice Internet and society and Netzpolitik came to be labels of exactly this problem of failing demarcation, instead.
It was not a better logical delineation that came to the aid of the Enquete Commission in the end. It was the limited resource of time – and the momentum of parliamentary organisation – which instead narrowed down the theoretically limitless field of inquiry created by two static circles breaking down into circular reasoning. The Enquete Commission escaped being trapped in an endless process of unfolding this paradox by being forced at one point to decide on what to focus on and what to exclude. In the end, a broad range of task groups dedicated to specific intersections of digital media and social practices, loosely oriented along established political fields such as labour, education, or various legal areas, began their work – unburdened from the task of clarifying the relationship between the Internet and society in regards to politics as a whole.
A generic label or a tool of research sensitive to difference?
Although tracing how the dynamics intrinsic to organisations – and especially time pressure – serve to resolve problems of logical ambiguities is certainly exciting from a sociological point of view, we still have not arrived at a satisfying answer referring to our initial question: What kind of relationship is implied by the and connecting the Internet to society? Learning from the practical experiences of the Enquete Commission, could it be that listing Internet and society in the end does not denote a generalised interest in the intersection of both as visualised by a Venn diagram? If this is the case, then, society might just be a stand-in for specific social spheres influenced by the various technologies, practices, and communications assembled under the label of the Internet. In this sense, the terms would serve as nothing more but conceptual placeholders for any number of more specified topics such as the Internet and law/politics/economy or science.
Looking at the Enquete Commission as well as at the research institutions carrying Internet and society in their names, this seems to be getting closer to the practical meaning of the connection of those two terms by the word and. Nevertheless, from my point of view, even this leaves something to be desired. Put like this, the construction Internet and society remains on the level of an institutional umbrella, which might be necessary to acquire funding and support to start researching specific phenomena or initiate political discourse but that is to be left behind at the first possible opportunity to get actual political or scientific work done.
Even if we try to leave the overarching label of Internet and society behind to dedicate ourselves to the research of specific practical issues, some of its residue clings to our inquiries and makes itself known.
Research into the relationship of politics and the Internet reveals that, in order to understand it, we cannot think within a political logic only. Internet governance for example is better understood as an attempt to find modes of social coordination, which are able to translate between the heterogeneous orders of worth represented by the participating stakeholders. The result is not pure politics and the goal is not harmony, but better described as a polyphonic arrangement of perspectives instead.Even more: to explain differences in regulatory regimes of digital administration the heterogeneity of local contextures and cultures of practice have to be taken into account.
To understand innovation in times of digital media we learn to conceptually shift the focus away from individual creativity and the old idea of the lone genius creating knowledge. Stressing the importance of assemblages of knowledge production, accessibility and popularization reveals how digital infrastructure changes science as much as paradigm shifts resulting from new theories and methodologies, instead.
Last but not least: Stating that code is law is not about the implication that computer code will replace law. It draws attention to the fact that law itself is but one form of stabilizing social structures of expectation among others and that the interplay of those heterogeneous forms of conditioning social practice is what needs to be explored instead.
Dedicating ourselves to performing research into very specific issues of digitisation thus reveals itself to be anything but a manoeuvre to avoid the big question of Internet and society. It is within each topic of digitisation that we learn again and again that we are only able to make sense of it when taking into account other contextures, their perspectives, logics, and dynamics, too. Attempts to narrow down research into the Internet and society to the Internet and economy, the Internet and law, the Internet and politics etc. for this reason fail in practice.
Internet and society: a promise made
Society is not some abstract conceptual placeholder and no macro-level concept best left to philosophers and sociologists, far removed from empirical inquiries. It is a clear notion of society that allows us to put the experience of the inescapable social embeddedness of our topics into words and to explore its practical ramifications. Internet and society then is not about locating the Internet within one clearly delineated part of society, but about opening up a shared empirical perspective on our various phenomena: Which role do digital media play in the constitution, reproduction, and transformation of the assemblage of contextures called society and how is the specific practice I am researching on embedded into it?
In the end, the list created by and is not about fixing an essence of the Internet and of society in a definite answer. As an empty signifier the and can enable us to ask our questions at an adequate level of complexity instead. This is the meaning contained in names invoking Internet and society and the promise that institutions carrying them have to fulfil.
Foucault, Michel (1994): The Order of Things. Random House.
This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.