Cyberanthropology: The Global
Expansion of the Internet
Research Project carried
Department of Social Anthropology
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.
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.
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
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 nations 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 countrys 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 Malaysias 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 countrys 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.
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.
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
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
Ciberespacio, Octubre de 1998
Organiza: Equipo NAyA - firstname.lastname@example.org