Interrupting the Uptopian Subect of the Internet
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Copyright © 1994 by Terri Palmer. All rights reserved. Text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the written consent of the author. Under, Over and Around the Net: Interrupting the Uptopian Subect of the Internet Terri Palmer, July 27, 1994 In the past five years or so, electronic communications such as e-mail and Internet news have become quite popular. The Internet has grown tremendously in the past several years, and has over 20 million users. The Internet will probably become one of the most important links between schools and businesses of the future, and thus it is important that writing teachers be familiar with the special advantages and limitations of this new environment. And much has been written about proper conduct on the Net, much of it focusing on the unique character of Net-based communication--namely, the production of great volumes of text by largely unknown and unseen people. Further, most of these discussions attribute the birth of a new democratic tradition to that very fact: after all, the argument goes, since no one can see anyone else's physical person, the traditional barriers of race, class, and gender will vanish in this new medium. Thus, the world of the future will be based on fair, rational evaluations of other people's arguments. Given that so many people are influenced by this argument and that it thus produces very real practices of electronic communication, it makes sense to examine these claims and see whether they hold water. After all, these models of discourse determine what is acceptable and unacceptable on the Net, and thus, even as they promise a diversity of opinions on the Net, they can paradoxically limit the range of discussion on the Net. Specifically, the argument that race, class, and gender do not affect the presentation or reception of ideas on the Net can be used as a filter: because these concepts are seen as secondary to the real nature of discourse on the Net, mentions of them can be result in accusations of partiality. Accordingly, I would like to examine the claims that pure subjectivity, free of outside "political" associations such as gender or nationality, can be achieved in electronic communication. I will discuss these claims as made in the popular media and in academic writings, as well as some of the uses these are put to on the Net itself. I then wish to discuss these claims within a Bakhtinian framework, viewing postings as Bakhtinian utterances, and thus as dependent on users' material exerience--including experience as members of a given racial, national, or other group--to help expose some of the contradictions in the claims made for a prejudice-free Net. I also wish to discuss some of the dangers inherent in such attempts--namely, that certain kinds of expression have become privileged on the Net as "unbiased," even though they are as ideologically loaded as the "biased" postings that discuss social issues from viewpoints outside the mainstream. I will bring up some examples from the Net that show the specific breakdown of the ideal of context- and prejudice-free discussion on the Net, and will end the paper with a discussion of the ramifications of these discussions for teaching. Discussions of Subjectivity on the Net Discussions of subjectivity are fairly common in popular literature concerning the Net. For instance, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (or EFF), a self-proclaimed advocacy group which lobbies against governmental regulation of the Internet, "publishes" many such documents via their world-accessible FTP archives. One of them, Michael Hauben's "The Net and Netizens: The Impact the Net has on People's Lives" claims that "social limitations and conventions no longer prevent potential friendships or partnerships" over the Net, that the Net is "a grand intellectual and social commune" in which "the excluded sections of society...have a voice," and that "it is virtually impossible to tell what kinds of people connect to public bulletin board systems." Another piece in the EFF archives by Howard Rheingold compares the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) to "a salon, where I can participate in a hundred ongoing conversations with people who don't care what I look like or sound like, but who do care how I think and communicate." Rheingold waxes poetic about this escape from our "carnal vessels": "Because we cannot see one another, we are unable to form prejudices about others before we read what they have to say: Race, gender, age, national origin and physical appearance are not apparent unless a person wants to make such characteristics public." According to these articles, users apparently write from some idealized self, detached from their real-life environment. Academics echo these sentiments. Steven Jay Bolter in _Writing Space_ states that "instant access is an aspect of the electronic utopia of literacy, in which the barrier between writing and thinking dissolves and all symbolic information, anywhere in the world, is as immediately available to writer/reader as his or her own thoughts." While Bolter admits that "in the electronic writing space, the goal of immediate writing remains as distant as ever," he does not abandon the project itself. Richard Lanham takes a slightly different tack in _The Electronic Word_, proposing that "the 'theorized' race/gender/class curricular debate" do not really matter any more. (_The Electronic Word_, p. 473). What does matter is how best to convert literary works into electronic form. Lanham argues that "expressive parameters," meaning things like structure and the relation literary to non-literary text, are more easily adjustable in electronic text. (_The Electronic Word_, p. 475) He thus concludes that "the conceptual, even the metaphysical, world that digital text creates...is the world of postmodern thought" (_The Electronic Word_, pp. 480-481). Lanham then suggests that this will mollify leftists in the academy, thus treating political concerns as incidental when speaking of electronic texts. George Landow proposes in his 1993 _Hypertext in Hypertext_ that critical pluralism, which "excludes from consideration as merely accidental all matters of 'gender, race, class position, sexuality, nationality, and material interests'" by subsuming them, is not a problem in hypertext. Why? Because "the (politically) responsible, active reader...chooses his or her own reading paths, the responsibility lies with the reader." In other words, an electronic text is so flexible as to allow the reader to read what is "really there." Younger academics also follow this trend. Elizabeth Reid's piece "Electropolis," well-known on the Net, says of a popular Internet talk program that "the anonymity of interaction...allows users to play games with their identities. The chance to escape the assumed boundaries of gender, race, and age create a game of interaction in which there are few rules but those that the users create themselves." (Ms. Reid is incidentally continuing this line of argument in a forthcoming publication.) People who post messages to Internet bulletin boards, henceforth known as "posters," try to put these ideas into practice. One poster asked if "racism could finally come to an end" if children were allowed to communicate only through electronic means, since these would forbid "color, creed or sex bias during interaction." The general idea is frequently expressed in an aphorism, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog," taken from a New Yorker cartoon. However, when controversial issues arise and posters do try to discuss race, class, or gender on the Net, the above arguments allow for angry confrontations wherein some posters insist that prejudice is impossible on the Net, and that race, class, and gender affect neither a posting's composition nor its reception. These topics can then be labelled inappropriate or irrelevant to netnews. The following example occurred in a discussion of providing Internet access to the poor: This is kyberspace, what is here is words, thoughts, ideas, NOT races, genders, sovereignties...Why the hell do you dwell on gender based sovereignty and class systems when your refering to cyberspace? Are you lost little girl? Learn to use ideas instead of genders, learn to use words instead of races, learn to use thoughts instead of class-systems... In general, these insistences that race, class, and gender have no substantial place on the Net seem to come when liberal, leftist or other non-"mainstream" opinions are expressed. A telling warning is seen in "EFF's Guide to the Internet": You can usually tell a spewer's work by the number of articles he posts in a day...Often, these messages relate to various ethnic conflicts around the world. Frequently, there is no conceivable connection between the issue at hand and most of the newsgroups to which he posts....If you try to point this out ...you will be inundated with angry messages that either accuse you of being an insensitive racist/American/whatever or ignore your point entirely to bring up several hundred more lines of commentary on the perfidy of whoever it is the spewer thinks is out to destroy his people. In general, these posters seem to assume that race, class, gender, nationality, and other concerns have nothing to do with the Net, and that bringing them up is to introduce an "ideological" point of view. This argument is not always made, of course, but it can be a very powerful silencing mechanism when it is used. For instance, the poster who denied the presence of race, class and gender in "kyberspace" also noted that the Net was founded by "the greatest bastion of the patriarchy itself, the military," and stated that posters to the Net were cynical capitalists--and yet denied that either gender or class could make its presence felt on the Net. Yet he was able to justify a lengthy, vicious attack on someone else by characterizing her positions as irrational and biased, while denying that patriarchical or capitalist posters brought any similar bias into these discussions at all. A Bakhtinian Perspective The above discussions are characterized by their insistence that language is an abstract system whose uses carry no context with them. Though Bakhtin may seem an incongruous source to call upon, given that most theorists who write about the Net draw upon poststructuralist models of subjectivity, nevertheless he is useful here. Bakhtin, in contrast to the abovementioned writers, argued that the study of abstract models of language did not fully explain concrete uses of language. He therefore took a materialist view of language, one that I think will highlight some of the complications seen in Net interaction. To begin, I would like to view netnews postings as Bakhtinian utterances, as defined in "The Problem of Speech Genres." They involve clear changes of speaking subjects: the end of a post is the end of one speaking subject's "turn." The specific posting is finalized; posts to newsgroups allow for the possibility of responses, allow the author to "vocalize" their authorial intent, and contain genres specific to this medium (many studies have been done on this elsewhere). Viewing these posts as utterances allows for the most important step of all--viewing them as concrete, situated uses of language, largely constructed from others' utterances. As Bakhtin noted in "The Problem of Speech Genres": When we select words in the process of constructing an utterance, we by no means always take them from the system of language in their neutral, dictionary form. We usually take them from other utterances, and mainly from utterances that are kindred to ours in genre, that is, in theme, composition, or style. (p. 87) In other words, there is no "pure" use of language free of outside connotations--that, to the contrary, all utterances are inherently connotative of some situational meaning other than the dictionary definition. Or, as Bakhtin puts it: ...[O]ne can say that any word exists for the speaker in three aspects: as a neutral word of a language, belonging to nobody; as an other's word, which belongs to another person and is filled with echoes of the other's utterance; and, finally, as my word, for, since I am dealing with it in a particular situation, with a particular speech plan, it is already imbued with my expression. (p. 88) Bakhtin later specifically repudiates the idea of the context-free utterance, one that relies only on the singular mind and intent of the speaker: The speaker with his world view, with his evaluation and emotions, on the one hand, and the object of his speech and the language system (language means), on the other--these alone determine the utterance, its style, and its composition. Such is the prevailing idea. But in reality the situation is considerably more complicated. Any concrete utterance is a link in the chain of speech communication of a particular sphere....Utterances are not indifferent to one another, and are not self-sufficient; they are aware of and mutually reflect one another....Each utterance is filled with echoes and reverberations of other utterances to which it is related by the communality of speech communication. (pp. 90-91) That is to say, speakers "build" utterances from utterances they have heard or used before. But these are of course dependent on the genres the speakers are most familiar with, on what they have been exposed to, and this is determined largely by the people who surround them and the roles they fill--in other words, the very material conditions of race, class, gender, nationality, age, and so forth. The arguments for context-free communication on the Net are then more doubtful, as the poster's choice of words is at least partially determined by their own contexts; to assume that the utterances which inflect and partially determine their ways of speaking will vanish under given situations--such as the introduction of a computer terminal--is wishful thinking. Further, as Voloshinov argued in _Marxism and the Philosophy of Language_, all uses of language are fundamentally ideological. Voloshinov noted that: 1. Ideology may not be divorced from the material reality of sign (i.e., by locating it in the "consciousness" or other vague and elusive regions); 2. The sign may not be divorced from the concrete forms of social intercourse... 3. Communication and the forms of communication may not be divorced from the material basis. (p. 21) Every exchange, every utterance, expresses some ideological stance. Everyone occupies some ideological position, and Voloshinov argues that this position is present in their uses of language. The difficulty on the Net is that the "ideological" topics of race, class, and gender have been defined by some posters as not present in netnews. Further, since posters bring with their sensibilities from "outside" the Net, and since these sensibilities reflect the mainstream associations of the terms "gender" with women, "race" with blacks or other non-whites, "class" with the poor, and "nationality" with the Third World, what is often meant by the statement "there is no race, class, or gender on the Net" is that the opinions, mannerisms, and behavior of women, non-whites, and the poor are irrelevant, as they are presumed to coincide with those of white, middle-class males--once you hide their faces, that is. To claim that these issues are relevant is to utter a non sequitur according to the rhetoric of the Net, and to thus define oneself as irrational, biased and therefore safely ignored. However, when disagreements and misunderstandings occur on the Net, since there are no other explanations for behavior other than the qualities of the disembodied consciousness, the only recourse is to lay the blame on the mental faculties of the aberrant poster. Posters who fall outside the pre-defined norm are thus stuck between a rock and a hard place: if they stick out for their non-standard beliefs or speech and are criticized for this, they cannot explain this by referring to external factors, for this is considered illogical, an argument for the weak-minded. However, since they can't defend themselves with those explanations, it will be presumed that their differences stem from their own stupidity--and they lose again. This neat trick, conversely, allows for attacks on views outside the mainstream--since the attackers are presumed to hold no ideological position, and thus their attacks are considered only logical, rather than from any personal bias. This is roughly the argument, for example, of the poster who referred to "kyberspace": after defining acceptable positions for people to hold on the Net according to social structure, he denied another poster the right to refer to those. The fact that these discussions occur at all is probably due to the fact that the Net is largely a homogenous "place," though not so much now as in the past. The Net has historically been the domain of scientific research institutions and very large businesses, both in the U.S. and abroad. And these communities, as has been noted elsewhere, are fairly homogenous across race, gender, and most of all class: largely white, largely male, and largely middle- to upper-middle class white-collar and academic workers. Even now that most universities have Net access and that private companies offer access, nonetheless it remains fairly enclosed: universities are typically attended by the children of the middle- and upper classes, and the outlay for computer equipment and private account fees is great enough to dissuade the poor. So in some loose sense, the Net is a homogenous group, in that a large percentage of its users share economic, educational, and oftentimes cultural interests. This can be seen in the sorts of newsgroups available on the Internet: there are more devoted to conservative politics than to liberal or leftist, and most of the recreation groups refer to such pursuits as bicycling, heavy-metal music, and other fairly middle-class pursuits. Further, many of the most popular newsgroups began in the even-more homogenous past of the Net, and what was appropriate was determined then; many of the earliest posters to these groups are still around, and will occasionally pass judgement on what legitimate topics for discussion and what are not. Paradoxes and Problems I will spend the last part of this paper examining some locations where the conflicts and paradoxes created denying the social nature of language arise. The most obvious of these is gender. This difficulties women experience on the Net are well-known enough that Newsweek published an article on it--even the EFF put an article about this in their archives. I therefore will spend little time on it, noting only two points of interest. First, women apparently have troubles escaping harassment and marginalization even when they adopt male pseudonyms. Leslie Regan Shade's "Gender Issues in Computer Networking" suggests that women are often made uncomfortable by the discussions on the Net. The confrontational style adopted by many posters also seems to discourage many female posters, which is probably partially due to women's socialization to be less aggressive. Second, an interesting phenomenon is often seen on the Net: men will post notes claiming that they are women. Called "gender-bending," this practice is presumably a means of amusement or self-titillation. Usually, these men will not only claim to be female, but will also try to "talk like a woman" by discussing stereotypically female interests (such as their weight and measurements), by using intensives, "cute" words, and many, many exclamation points. Other posters will then dissect these posts in minute detail, and will argue whether or not small details of wording and of reported facts and behavior resonate with their opinion of how a real woman speaks and acts. In effect, these episodes directly contradict the idea that there is no gender on the Net, because people are perfectly willing to work with their past experience to "read" the authenticity of posters claiming to be women. A more subtle effect might be noted in the use of correct grammar and diction. In nearly every "Frequently Asked Questions" list on the Internet, the grammar or spelling flame (or combination criticism and insult) is strongly discouraged--meaning that it is considered bad form to criticize someone else for their spelling and grammar. This is in accordance with the idea that the Internet is made for the free exchange of ideas, and that relatively small matters of form are unimportant. However, despite all these warnings, the grammar and spelling flames recur (usually followed by criticisms of the flamer's grammar or spelling). Further, in many flame wars (protracted and usually vicious exchanges of insults) that start on other subjects, the various posters' grammar and diction will come under close attack. Individual words and phrases will be singled out for angry, contemptuous abuse; oftentimes the general tone of the message will be seized upon as proof of the posters' state of mind, so the short sentences of a too-blunt message might be used as proof that a poster was incapable of more complicated grammatical structure. In most events, the offending poster will be accused of raw stupidity. Style becomes substance, effectively, and perceptions of incompetence rapidly degenerate into perceptions of mental defectiveness. The language and diction that are approved of, unsurprisingly, are those of the middle class. Proof of this can be seen not only in the spelling and grammar flames that attack non-standard usage, but also in the style guides that exist on the Net. These largely advocate the same kind of formal usage that is found in business-writing textbooks: short sentences, brief and to-the-point messages, close adherence to a topic, etc. Further note of this can also be made in the types of posts that are popular: while extremely academic diction is considered an affectation, the typically well-regarded post reflects standard usage and diction, as well as proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Further, the most popular forms of writing on the writing groups, such as rec.arts.prose, reflect popular influences in science fiction and top-selling thrillers. Postings that violate these norms, by being too esoteric or too sloppy by these standards, are often subject to criticism as being bad--not different, but bad. A few newsgroups, at the other extreme, focus on more avant-garde writing, and these are extremely class-conscious: anything that is too mainstream is similarly condemned. In all these cases, a certain standard of writing is taken as indicative of not only good writing, but also of clear thought: those who do not conform to these standards are often harshly criticized. This in particular seems to be a problem for ESL posters, whose non-standard uses of the language are often seized on in flame wars, and for newcomers to the Net. The worst offenders are considered to be undergraduates with new accounts and subscribers to Internet access providers (such as local bulletin board systems and large companies like Compuserve and America Online)--and these are also the posters most likely to be on the edges of the academic and global business worlds. Effectively, these posters experience the same difficulties that the less-well-educated and ESL speakers typically experience off the Net, as they are judged by their speech and grammar, much as people are off the Net. This treatment in effect differs little from the world outside the Net: the writing style people learn, the literature they read and learn to refer to, is very strongly based upon class, race, gender, location, and age. The way these posters use language is thus related to their background. When they are then judged by their uses of language, however, these factors are ignored, and their transgressions are met with accusations of personal failure. Conclusions The Internet is a very exciting "place" at the moment, it is true. However, the idea that it is a utopia is rather misleading. Those who believe that posters can freely speak their mind on the Net neglect to mention that there are preconceived notions of what is acceptable on the Net, and that these ideas have been largely predetermined by a fairly homogenous group of users. Further, the fact that these ways of "speaking" are denoted as normal and natural, even while being "logically" unrelated to "external" factors, is a fairly insidious and effective way of limiting discussion on the Net. This does not prevent posters from outside the mainstream from discussing their views, of course, but any resulting reprisals may be somewhat misleading. Nor does this mean that many people will not adapt to the conventions of the Net, only that flames against offenders ought not to work on the immediate assumption that that flamee is stupid. What is to be done? In the first place, the realization that the Net is not a utopia should be adopted. Internet usage is frequently pushed as the universal solution to academic problems. This uncritical attitude towards the Net can then result in subtle forms of marginalization taking place in the very place celebrated as "safe." Students ought to be made aware of conditions on the Net, specifically that certain ways of "speaking" are privileged as much on the Net as off. Further, they must be aware of the forces at work that will attribute all difference to personal failure. As the Net becomes more and more popular, they are increasingly likely to meet members of other social groups who may not "speak" in any way familiar to them, and may be prone to judge these people by unwittingly loaded standards--or, perhaps, to be judged by them. Academics in particular have a responsibility to argue these issues whenever they arise, whether it be in the classroom, in their writings, or on the Net. Terri Palmer is a doctoral student studying Rhetoric in the English Department at Carnegie Mellon University.
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