The Information Society


Letter from the Editor-in-Chief Rob Kling
14(2) 1998

This special issue of The Information Society, 14(2), is devoted to Virtual Societies: Their Prospects and Dilemmas. The issue was organized by Guest Editor Prof. Magid Igbouria and includes seven regular articles and two book reviews. 

This issue took shape in a series of conversations between Magid and me about the research and discussions of virtuality in social life were segmented into specialized topical areas such as virtual classrooms, virtual universities, virtual organizations, and even virtual communities. Most of these discussions ignore the extent to which computer-mediated relationships may also influence social relationships in other social arenas. For example, the requirements a person who is working in an on-line seminar in a virtual university may tie up his family's phone lines more than others expect. The person who tries to use one e-mail address for work and social life may receive some sexy messages at work that risk their jobs. These discourses often romanticize seamless ways of life, even though different social groups often have different conventions or rules, and limited resources for on-line activities. However, societies cannot become "completely virtual" since people are embodied and thus need places and arrangements for eating, sleeping, and so on. Even "virtual organizations" have physical embodiments, since real human beings are located in some specific places when they communicate via computer-networks. 

For example, this special issue could be viewed as the product of a temporary virtual organization composed of the prospective and final authors, the reviewers, the editors, and the publisher's production staff. Few of this organization's members know each other, sometimes by design (as in the relationship between authors and reviewers) and more often by happenstance. While the editors met and coordinated face to face at a conference, much of the communication in the editorial stage was conducted by phone, fax, and email, and included authoring and editorial work spread over three continents. However, various high-interaction teams (such as co-authors, editorial office staff and production teams) worked in proximity some of the time. Despite the international scope of this organization, much of the work was "office work" and was carried out in various physical spaces -- offices, homes, cafes, and perhaps airplanes -- and in a mix of other social relationships. We did not become transformed into "virtual beings" living "virtual lives." But the ways in which much of our communication was mediated by phone, fax, email, and postal mail did influence our working relations, such as the character and resolution of a few minor disputes. 

This kind of temporary virtual work organization is relatively common for special issues of international journals or international conferences. And it entails a mix of issues that is not well addressed in much of the literature about virtuality that tends to emphasize the virtual at the expense of the more commonplace physically situated activities. 

Our call for papers observed: 

Unfortunately, there is relatively little work that examines how people can live and work in societies in which these practices and social forms are widespread and mixed in with face-to-face relationships. This special issue will be a critical forum for studies of the implications of these diverse virtual forms within the larger context of "virtual societies" -- where community life, politics, work, and education depend upon information technologies in addition to, or as substitutes for, face-to-face interaction. 

The special issue opens with Agres, Igbaria, and Edberg's, "The Virtual Society: Forces and Issues." They develop a conceptual framework for empirical research about virtualization in social life. They characterize virtual social relationships as those that are not based on proximate face-to-face relations, and note the increasing frequency that goods and services are distributed through virtual networks. The shift towards virtualization certainly predates computer networks. It relies as much upon transportantion systems and communication via phone and mail as it does upon computer networking or even the Internet! They identify new information technologies as an enabler that is paving the way for societies to be develop more virtual services, virtual social relationships, and virtual communities, but they do not dwell solely on the technology. Rather, they identify a set of driving forces, including global economics and policies and politics; a set of arenas that range from workplaces to communities; and a set of vexing issues that people engage in each these arenas. 

One of the social issues addressed by Agres, Igbaria, and Edberg is social isolation; and they contrast individual isolation and social life. Leah Lieverouw is less interested in individual isolation than in group scale insularity and segmentation. In "Our Own Devices," she argues that in information societies generally, and in virtual social contexts particularly, a distinctive style of interaction to facilitate the communication of difference, heterotopic communication, has emerged. It rests on two cultural foundations: an ideological belief in the positive, socially integrating power of communication, and a prevailing ethic of instrumental rationality, subjective individualism and strategically practiced self-interest. She argues that the ideological foundations are expressed by the use of simulation and spectacle as sources of information; exhibitionism/voyeurism as a communicative style; and the awareness of surveillance. And she sees the individualistic ethos expressed in the competitive use of knowledge as a commodity; a surface globalism masking deep parochialism; lateral as well as vertical information inequity; and the use of public vs. private as strategies for engagement rather than as social spaces with different kinds of rules. 

Lieverouw shows how those who engage in heterotopic communication resort to their "own devices" both in the sense of personal agendas, strategies, interests, and interpretations, and in the form of the telecommunication tools that help realize them. These personal and technological devices allow individuals with specific educational and technical resources to avoid exposure to disagreement, difference, or other information that does not serve their direct purposes or reflect their particularistic views of the world; yet they also help convey the appearance of openness, availability and cooperation. This style of interaction is used strategically in combination with information and communication technologies to gain social or economic advantages, but it may encourage social separatism and parochialism, inhibit the negotiation of disputes, and emphasize competing interests. 

The next three papers focus on social relatonships that develop via the Internet. In "The Net as a Foraging Society," Lee Komito examines the concepts of community life that are most appropriate for understanding groups that depend upon computer mediated communication. The term community is often used casually in discussions of social relations on-line. Komito notes that the concept of community has a deep intellectual history in the social sciences. He discusses three major approaches to the concept of community. He then examines how pre-industrial foraging societies illustrate a wide variation in types and definitions of communities. He argues that social groups in foraging societies exhibit characteristics similar to those observed in technologically-mediated social groups, and shows how these similarities also illustrate the deficiencies of ideal-type definitions of 'community', as well as the artificial nature of a division between 'real' and 'electronic' communities. He concludes that groups which depend on computer mediated communication amongst members, can, and should, be studied using the same social science concepts and methods used to examine any other social groups. 

Michael Mehta and Eric Darier examine social control and governance in "Virtual Control and Discipline on the Internet." They show how the enthusiasm for large scale computer networking has numerous "power effects." One of these effects is to radically intensify modern forms of power in a new regime that they call electronic governmentality. Their article examines these effects by drawing on examples from the Internet, and demonstrates how it challenges some of our most important beliefs about progress, technology and power. Luciano Paccagnella's "Network Centrality and Response to Crisis in On-line Life" is based on a a case study of an Italian cyberpunk computer conference that moved through a succession of crises and moments of renewal. He uses social network measurements as a "barometer" of the social liveliness of the conference. The lexicon used in the messages revealed the presence of an underlying emotional para-linguistic component and strategies for the construction of participants' social presence -- despite the seemingly limited possibilities of expression offered by text-based e-mail. His techniques enable him to describe participants expectations of others, such as newcomers or leaders. His proposes a framework to explain the relationship between experiences and friendships acquired on-line and in real life and considers the role of small virtual communities in the organization and development of global on-line societies. 

The final two papers focus on specific social sites: workplaces and classrooms. In "Distributed Work Arrangements" Belanger and Webb analytically review about 60 research studies about distributed work arrangements, including telecommuting. The argue that the diverse findings from this body of research can be effecively integrated by focussing on the coordination mechanism and communication practices that the work requires. The work of producing this special issue, for example, was organized so that the author-teams were relatively independent, while their were sequential dependencies between reviewers and authors. In contrast, the author teams, editors, and production teams had high levels of reciprocal dependence. Belanger and Webb use these structural characteristics of coordinatiom to provide a framework for integrationg prior research and setting a foundation fo future inquiries. 

In "Students' Reactions to Videoconferencing," Armstrong-Stassen Landstrom, and Lumpkin examine how students who had no prior experience with two-way interactive videoconferencing would react to the use of videoconferencing as an instructional medium by studying specific courses. They report that women reacted less favorably to videoconferencing than men. Students also reported less positive attitudes toward taking a course through videoconferencing at the end of the semester than at the beginning. They also report students' attitudes toward videoconferencing across courses differed across the courses by the end of the semester. Their study raises important questions about the ease of conducting efftcive university courses at a distance by using 2-way videoconferencing rather than one-way video or on-line discussion groups. 

I believe that these papers make an important modest advance in understanding the character of virtual social relations and changing institutions. It deepens the lines of inquiry about virtuality that TIS has been publishing since the early 1990s. Interested readers can find the abstracts of earlier articles on our web site

This special issue ends with the review of two related books: Steve Jones' review of Philosophical Perspectives on Computer-Mediated Communication, by Charles Ess (Ed.) and Nancy Baym's review of Cultures of Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies, by Rob Shields (Ed.). 

Please check our web site for news on forthcoming issues, calls for papers, and abstracts of articles from previous issues. 

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