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Cyberanthropology: The Global Expansion of the Internet

 Research Project carried out by
Paula Uimonen
Department of Social Anthropology
Stockholm University

e-mail: uimonen@i-connect.ch
URL: www.i-connect.ch/uimonen


Summary

This project addresses some of the social and cultural factors influencing the development of the Internet in developing countries. The research focuses on the people who promote and influence the introduction and usage of the Internet in different institutional contexts. These cyberpioneers play an instrumental role in the development of the Internet, forming the social core of the transnational social networks, netscapes, of Internet users and developers. The research will elucidate what the Internet represents to these pioneers and how their activities and perceptions influence the expansion of the Internet in different social contexts. In order to capture the transnational reach of the Internet, the data gathering process will be conducted through multi-site fieldwork in Geneva, Malaysia and Laos, combined with extensive use of the Internet.

Theoretical Framework

This research will elucidate the social relations influencing the development of the Internet, with an emphasis on the patterns of meaning thus produced, externalized and distributed. In emphasizing the cultural meaning influencing the expansion of the Internet, this research will build on recent theoretical frameworks developed in sociology and anthropology on the social nature of technological development (Escobar, 1994; Pfaffenberger, 1992; Bijker et. al., 1993; Heap et.al., 1995; MacKenzie and Wajcman, 1985; Webster, 1995). This perspective highlights the fact that social actors and groups of actors play a determinant role throughout the process of technological development. Their activities are in turn influenced by cultural interpretations of technology, i.e. the cultural meaning given to new technologies. The advantage of this perspective is that it allows a framework which can pinpoint the actual process of technology-induced social change by a closer examination of the social relations which shape the development of new technologies. The development of the Internet will here be assessed as a dynamic socio-cultural process taking place at several overlapping levels.

At the micro-level of Internet development are the individuals and groups who promote, advocate and influence the introduction and usage of the Internet in different contexts, here termed the cyberpioneers. The working hypothesis of this research is that out of the millions of people who are using and developing the Internet, the cyberpioneers form a distinguishable and influential group of people (Uimonen, forthcoming). They identify very strongly with the new medium and devote a considerable amount of time to using and developing it. Their activities are in turn shaped by their perceptions of the Internet, perceptions which influence and are influenced by the medium itself (Escobar, 1994). The research will outline the profile of this social category (age, gender, social standing, educational level etc.). Moreover, it will assess what the Internet represents to these people and how their views are reflected in and shaped by the development of the Internet.

The activities of the cyberpioneers will in turn be assessed with regard to the particular institutional environments in which they carry out their activities. This research is based on the understanding that cyberpioneers play an instrumental role in the introduction and expansion of Internet usage in different institutional contexts. The research will assess the role played by the cyberpioneers in this process. Emphasis will be placed on the extent to which specific institutional cultures restrict and/or promote the usage of the Internet and for what reasons.

These institutional settings are in turn part of more complex social arrangements at national and international levels. Thus macro-level structural conditions and trends, especially that of globalization, will also be included in the analysis. By facilitating transnational flows of information and exchange, the Internet builds upon and enforces the process of globalization (Hannerz, 1992, 1996; Castells, 1996, 1997, 1998). This research builds on the assumption that Internet users and developers form transnational social networks, here termed netscapes (cf. Appadurai, 1990, 1991). Netscapes refer to the transnational social domains of users and developers of the Internet, the core of which are made up of cyberpioneers. The research will explore shared as well as divergent characteristics of the netscapes of cyberpioneers in different locations. It will thus elucidate the development of the Internet as a transnational process which is responded to in different ways in different cultural contexts. Particular emphasis will be placed on the asymmetric relations reflected in this process, between and within different countries.

 

Research Locations

By focusing on the expansion of the Internet in developing countries, this study will address pertinent gaps in existing research. Although the rapid expansion of the Internet is receiving a great deal of attention world-wide, there is remarkably little research done on its development from a transnational perspective. Moreover, most Internet research is carried out in countries which are at the forefront of Internet development, mainly in the North (see reference list). As of yet relatively little research has been conducted on the expansion of the Internet in developing countries.

Multi-site fieldwork will be conducted in three different localities in order to appreciate the transnational character of Internet expansion. The areas chosen for the research can be defined as center, semi-periphery and periphery, with regard to degree of modernization, place in the modern world order, and Internet penetration. This type of research builds upon a new approach to ethnographic fieldwork, combining anthropological methods of inquiry with greater scope of study than is normally the case (Hannerz, forthcoming; Marcus, 1995). Over the last few years a number of studies based on multi-site fieldwork have been carried out at the Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University, allowing me to draw on the methodological and analytical experiences of my colleagues.

Fieldsite 1: Geneva

A strategic location for this study is Geneva, Switzerland, with its large presence of international organizations influencing the development of the Internet in developing countries — in other words a "center" area. An increasing number of Geneva-based development agencies are incorporating Internet and IT strategies in their development programs. The city is also host to important regulatory bodies, such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Several high-level international conferences focusing on IT and Internet development in the South have already been held in the city, and more such meetings are planned for the future.

The entry point for fieldwork in Geneva has already been identified and research has been initiated. A local interest group, which is part of the Geneva chapter of the Internet Society (ISOC), presents a unique opportunity to follow initiatives aimed at expanding the Internet in developing countries. This group, known as DevSig, has some 100 members, most of whom are professionals working in Geneva and either directly involved with Internet development in developing countries or generally interested in this issue. Many of the members are employed by UN and UN specialized agencies. The group meets regularly on a monthly basis, during which specific topics, projects, and/or events are presented and discussed, and shares information through an e-mail network between meetings.

Fieldsite 2: South-East Asia

While the research in Geneva will elucidate international debates and activities with regard to the development of the Internet in the South, the research carried out in South-East Asia will assess the actual situation in selected developing countries. South-East Asia is a region of relatively rapid economic growth and modernization, yet with considerable diversity with regard to Internet penetration within as well as between the different countries of the region. Furthermore, previous research and past experiences have given me considerable familiarity with the region.

Two countries, representing areas which can be defined as "semi-periphery" and "periphery", will be focused upon, and 3 months of fieldwork will be carried out in each. The research will assess similarities as well as differences, related to the particularities of each country as well as their role and place in the modern world order. Both experiences will also show localized responses to external forces, in other words how global trends are received and responded to in different contexts.

Fieldsite 2a: Malaysia

Malaysia is a relatively modernized country, a so called emerging economy, here defined as a "semi-periphery". The country is now actively pursuing a share in the global information technology market, and a place in the "Global Information Society". In 1996 a Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) project was launched by the Prime Minister, the aim of which is to leapfrog the country into digitized modernity. A high-tech digital zone will be constructed in a 10-by-40 kilometer area stretching from the center of the nation’s capital Kuala Lumpur. Intensive lobbying has brought together some of the most prominent multinational information technology corporations, intent on establishing themselves in the MSC. The government hopes to draw on the expertise of these for the benefit of the country’s own development. The Malaysian initiative has received a great deal of attention world-wide, and is seen by many as a possible model for developing countries.

This study will elucidate the ideas and values underlying the MSC initiative, interpreted within the Malaysian context as well as Malaysia’s place in the modern world order. Particular emphasis will be placed on how these ideas fit into the Malaysian social and political context. The research will also investigate the ways in which Malaysian Internet developers respond to the particular characteristics of the Internet.

Fieldsite 2b: Laos

In the second country chosen for this research conditions are quite different. Laos, here defined as a "periphery" area, is classified as one of the ten poorest countries of the world. The country falls far behind its richer neighbors in the drive for IT-generated development. Annual investments in telecommunication have for instance been but a fraction of that of Malaysia and Singapore, and the estimated levels of PC penetration are among the lowest in the region (ITU, 1997b). Although the Internet has been used by the Laotian diaspora for several years, no access to the Internet has been available within the country itself. This is, however, slowly changing. An e-mail server was recently established in Vientiane, in joint collaboration between the country’s Science, Technology and Environment Organisation (STENO) and the Pan Asia Networking program (PAN) of the Canadian development agency International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Although this measure is far from the provision of full Internet access it does represent a first step in transnational connectivity in a country which has long been relatively isolated from the international arena.

Methodology

The nature of the research topic and the locations in which research will be carried out necessitate a combination of methodologies. Ethnographic research is traditionally carried out through methods of participant observation, i.e. through spending time with people over an extended period, listening and observing as well as carrying out informal interviews. These methods will be used during fieldwork at the different research sites, providing a deeper understanding for the different circumstances in the locations chosen for this study. Thus I will spend time with selected informants, following their professional activities in their institutional environments as well as in cyberspace. This will in turn be combined with more quantitative methods, such as questionnaires, to enlarge the range of informants. The questionnaires will capture the demographic profile of the respondents, their experiences with Internet development and their perceptions of the Internet. Desk research on relevant literature will be combined with regular use of the Internet.

In all locations a smaller group of main informants will be identified and followed more closely. Interviews with these informants will be conducted on a more regular basis and they will constitute the main source of the data gathering process. These informants will be selected on the basis of the following criteria: a) active involvement in the development of the Internet in developing countries, whether in theory (e.g. policy makers) or practice (e.g. computer engineers); b) relatively solid knowledge of the Internet, whether through usage or technical development, and c) a reflexive attitude to the Internet.

I will also rely heavily on the Internet itself for research in all localities. E-mail communication will be used both for initial contacts with informants and for interviews. This will enable me to communicate with the informants chosen for the study when face-to-face interaction is not possible. A Web site has already been designed for the project, allowing information to be disseminated. It is also used for discussion forums and on-line surveys (see http://www.i-connect.ch/uimonen). Other Internet applications explored in this project include newsgroups, listservs, chatrooms, netmeetings and video conferencing.

Ethical Considerations

Research of this nature provides significant challenges as well as opportunities to the investigation of social actors. It is in many ways a new field within social science research in general and anthropology in particular. As a result, new methodologies need to be developed, suited to the particularities of the new environment. This is not to say that certain principles which have been developed in the past need to be discarded, but rather that they are accommodated in new ways.

I have so far found that the focus of my research allows me to conduct a more transparent research project than is often the case in social science research. The ease with which information can be shared over the Internet allows me to share information about my project with informants. For instance, the Web site I have developed for this project gives the respondents to this study a clear introduction to my work as well as my background. In introducing my work I have also been able to clarify ethical issues such as the protection of the identity of the informants as well as their right to not being part of the study. In Geneva, where fieldwork was initiated during the autumn of 1997, I presented my work to the group I intend to focus on in a formal meeting. This gave the informants the opportunity to ask various questions as well as to judge whether they wanted to be part of the study. Draft chapters of the final monograph will also be shared with the respondents, for their comments, through electronic means.

While this project allows for greater transparency, its field of investigation also poses certain problems. A considerable part of my data gathering process is taking place in cyberspace. While some documents thus retrieved are official publications, others are peoples’ personal messages posted to electronic mailing lists and discussion groups. While the latter are generally considered public information, it is often clear that they are not intended for use beyond the discussion at hand. In these cases I tend to use a vague source of reference, hiding the identity of the person who posted the message, unless I can get in touch with them directly to ask if the material can be used. Moreover, it is impossible to ask for the consent of informants in virtual environments which change very rapidly. This is particularly the case with electronic mailing lists and newsgroups, where subscribers and users come and go. In these environments, where I tend to be a passive onlooker, I employ the above mentioned strategy when using material thus obtained. I am encountering similar problems in public meetings, such as conferences, where I also employ similar solutions.

Dissemination of Research Results

Given the vast and rapidly changing phenomenon that this research aims to capture, I consider it imperative that research results are disseminated quickly and widely. Thus I have incorporated a proactive dissemination strategy into this project from its very outset. The publishing and networking capacity of the Internet itself facilitate this process.

As a result of my preparatory work, I have already published several articles and papers (see www.i-connect.ch/uimonen/paulawho.htm). Some of the material I have prepared so far has mainly been of general character, discussing broad, albeit pertinent, issues of relevance to the topic investigated. The purpose of these has been to contribute to ongoing debates by emphasizing social issues which tend to be neglected in the specialized fields of technical experts and policy makers in international and national organizations. I have also prepared more specialized material which reflect a deeper understanding of the subject I am studying, material which is currently prepared for publication.

In addition to publishing papers and articles, I have also participated in relevant international conferences. Whether taking place in a physical location or in the virtual environments of cyberspace, these conferences have brought together prominent social actors involved in Internet development world-wide. This has allowed me to make a contribution to ongoing debates, while drawing on the experiences of others.

The Internet has also facilitated my ability to network with others in the field. Through browsing as well as by following on-line discussions and mailing lists, I have over the last few years established contacts with a number of researchers, Internet developers, development practitioners and policy makers working in the same or related fields.

 

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1er Congreso Virtual de Antropología y Arqueología
Ciberespacio, Octubre de 1998
Organiza: Equipo NAyA - info@equiponaya.com.ar
http://www.equiponaya.com.ar/congreso

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