The commodification of technology has made it even easier to reach individuals and groups that are physically distant, but virtually neighboring. In the Information Age, new connections between people and groups of people are being created in the virtual world as much as or more than they are in the physical one. Increasingly, the formation, expression, and spread of ideas and information occur in virtual space as opposed to physical space, where the only limitation is the technological connectedness of the actors. The power of ideas and information is what drives Internet relationships and connections. In particular, ideas can be surprisingly empowering, which may culminate as something intellectual such as scientific progress and technological innovation, or something as simple as free access to news and events from other parts of the world. This paper aims to explore ideas as part of networks in virtual space, how it impacts the connections formed, and the society that is thus assembled, drawing on examples as to how ideas may function through actors and connections on the Internet and World Wide Web (hereafter referred to as the Web).
Although ideas are abstract by nature, they have traditionally travelled through actor connections in the physical world. To define idea, one can consider the definition laid out by Merriam-Webster: “a transcendent entity that is a real pattern of which existing things are imperfect representations” (Merriam-Webster). An idea can be as simple as how to boil an egg, or it may be as complex as freedom. The physical home range and mobility of the individual actors, and also the connectedness of the physical mail system usually limit connections in the physical world. Nonetheless, one would have to have a way of obtaining the mailing address of another actor, after having already somehow established a connection. Such connections still proliferate today, but are not the dominating type of connection, especially among the technologically enabled persons of the developed world whose lives are partially being lived out now in the virtual world.
From the perspective of actor-network theory, it is these new connections and new types of connections that will change how society assembles. Ideas in virtual space have the newfound advantage of being an abstraction within an abstract environment. In addition, new types of conflicts and controversies arise out of the newest virtual realms on the Internet as new possibilities are constantly being created. This results in a diverse network of newly created connections that have assembled society in virtual space in a different way than what is possible to occur in physical space. In this paper, I will explore the role of ideas in reassembling society in virtual contexts.
In his discussion of actor-network theory (ANT), Bruno Latour (2005) attempts to return to the original definition of social, and to return to being able to trace associations, thereby reassembling society. He aims to clarify that, while social has become a term that has come to mean a type of material, it originally meant a “movement during a process of assembling” (Latour, 2005). The actors, nodes, other elements, and connections form a network, which can be analyzed to reassemble society. In this vein, new connections can be made when actors find a common link through ideas.
Latour engages in a discussion of two approaches to sociology: sociology of the social which focuses on non-social phenomena and aims to use ‘social factors’ to explain the ‘social aspects’ of such phenomena, and sociology of associations which is from the perspective that there is no ‘social dimension’ but that society is one of the connecting elements among many interconnected elements. In other words, there is not a ‘social angle’ to frame a question or problem. This would require approaching the phenomenon of ideas in virtual space not as a social side of the phenomenon of technology, but as connections or associations that are unique to the virtual parts of society that exist or that are being created as part of the process.
It is critical to understand social as a process in the context of the connections made with ideas because it is a dynamic process that includes active as well as passive participants. Social in this case cannot be used to blanket describe the interactions that facilitate the transfer of ideas, but it must be the central process that creates associations for ideas to move through and virtual spaces where they can live. This will then give us the ability to describe how the actors and ideas are connected and interact relative to the network at large. Latour’s work gives a framework for viewing the different elements of the network and deconstructing the social process by which actions are taken to reach configurations.
With relatively recent advances in technology, virtual space – specifically in the form of the Internet – has burgeoned into something much greater and larger than could have been imagined, and with greater complexity making it difficult to comprehend as participants of the space. Virtual space has created a new playground for society, but it has also released economic capacity that has led to the globalized trade networks that we see today. With more effort, we can begin to understand the long term role of virtual space as a new environment for new connections to be made and for society to assemble within.
Technology may be considered to “embod[y] the capacity of societies to transform themselves” (Castells, 2010). It is also the enabling element for virtual space to exist and expand and for the Web to become what it is today. Manuel Castells (2010) discusses how information technology as a mode of production was instrumental to restructuring processes of capitalist systems as modes of development (i.e. informationalism). The relationships of production, experience, and power are discussed to explore how human processes are structured and are put into contexts of class relationships, the state and institutions, and people. These relationships have also traversed into the Web. Nations that have come to be able to take full advantage of technology have propelled themselves forward in the global economy. Cross-cultural exchanges are made possible by the new connections and the nearly boundlessness of the Internet. On another level, multinational collaboration and commerce is much more common and easily managed. The power of technology then also becomes the power to transfer knowledge and information through connections, with the Internet as one main virtual space for connections to be made that form virtual networks of conversation and commerce.
Even though these global macro level relationships may take up new connections and meanings, the micro level human processes have also become transformed to adapt to virtual capacities. People who would never have met at during a different technological era are now able to see each other and instantly communicate via the Internet (although we unfortunately do not have holographic projections yet). Not only that, a person who chooses to leave their homeland can remain in touch and informed without the same time lag that such distance would have imposed in the past. This increased ease of contact and general immediacy has implications for the global exchange and transfer of ideas and information, such as that of the role of the Internet in the proliferation of ideas on democracy and human rights. The role of ideas in society within the virtual space will be a function of the actors connected to it, of the nodes and connections that link them up, and of the potential for cross-network travel.
The questions about geography in virtual space could be summed up by the concept of the re-territorializing of knowledge that takes place in virtual space. Squirre (1996) brings up several questions such as:
“What power relationships shape electronic communities? How are social inequalities played out in electronic contexts and geographies of fear represented, negotiated, and potentially re-defined? How may electronic communications connect individuals with other societies, transforming social consciousness? And how might Internet activities create new geographies of leisure, recreation and tourism?”
The new realm of virtual space should “challenge geographers particularly to forge new understandings of ways of seeing and of being in multiple, and multi-faceted worlds” (Squire, 1996). A major goal of the sociology of associations could be to understand what within these relationships and connections have affected how ideas are connected through networks in virtual spaces and whom they are connected to, which in turn have impact on the assembling of society.
In the next part of this series, I’ll be discussing actor-network theory and virtual space together in more detail.
CASTELLS, M. 2010. The rise of the network society, Malden, MA, Wiley-Blackwell.
LATOUR, B. 2005. Reassembling the social-an introduction to actor-network-theory. Reassembling the Social-An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, by Bruno Latour, pp. 316. Foreword by Bruno Latour. Oxford University Press, Sep 2005. ISBN-10: 0199256047. ISBN-13: 9780199256044, 1.
MERRIAM-WEBSTER. Idea – Definition and More [Online]. Merriam-Webster. Available: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/idea [Accessed 18 April 2013].
SQUIRE, S. J. 1996. Re-Territorializing Knowledge(s): Electronic Spaces and ‘Virtual Geographies’. Area, 28, 101-103.
This week, I officially completed a graduate level course on geography and social theory. Having absolutely no background in geography or sociology, it was an interesting experience. What drew me to this module was that it combined spatial thinking with social thinking. With the disease research I’m hoping to do for my PhD, space is going to be a part of it through spatial analyses. As for the social theory part, I’m going to be focusing on diseases that also affect humans so it would be interesting to think about it in terms of both space and the social.
Sometimes I wonder if I am more suited to the social sciences, but then I remember that I cannot understand their dense writing for the life of me. I’m interested in learning about concepts and theories, but I can’t digest writing that is convoluted, especially the ones that even those who are part of that field have a hard time deciphering.
The readings for this course have really challenged me and made me stretch my thinking power. We covered topics and dense writing that I had never been exposed to before or knew existed. The major themes that we covered were space and place, agency and structure, theories of difference, theorizing the city, governmentality and biopower, and performativity and subjectivity.
I handed in my research paper for this class a few days ago, and I’m feeling glad that I took the plunge to take a course that was so far out of my normal range. I’m not sure how much will stay with me as I go back to ecology and biology, but I think it was an interesting exercise in exploring other disciplines. In the past, I’ve taken courses like philosophy of science, urban anthropology, and philosophy and film. Sometimes it takes something so different to bring in new perspective. What I chose to write about was actor-network theory and virtual space (in the form of the Internet to be specific) and the role of ideas in those spaces and contexts. Maybe I’ll post some snippets of it here!
One of the topics that I wrote about for a reaction paper was academic dependency. I think this is a very interesting phenomenon, especially now that I’m interacting more with the academic realm. The last section on performativity and subjectivity made me really think about myself and my identity. You could certainly say that as a scientist, you are expected to “perform” your role as an expert. Performance not in the evaluative sense like what grades you get or where you publish, but performance as in you are the performer and you are performing for an audience. From the perspective of performativity, this would mean performance is what makes you you. This is not saying that everyone is fake. Not at all, your performance of yourself is what makes you real.
How does this apply to science?
I think to really think about this in terms of science, we have to consider who scientists are performing for. At risk of oversimplifying, they are performing for the granting agencies, the academic journals, the department committees, least of all the general public. We may say that we are doing it for the common good, but at the end of the day the common good isn’t what brings in the funding. The pressure to perform to expectations has put so much pressure on researchers, that some have resorted to faking data and misrepresenting results in publications. It is regrettable, but it happens.
I think this largely occurs because they have lost sight of who/what should be the goal audience for their work, the common good. If you are not framing your research in terms of how it can improve current knowledge or improve how things are in the status quo, then what is the point? Not just framing your research, but the greater good should be the driving force for why the research should and is being done. Lying about results does good for no one.
What do you think? Is this social theory a bit too distant conceptually to be applicable to science?
One of the authors that I wrote about before, Nicky Gregson, is now working on science in practice. Though she doesn’t go into much detail about this project, she conducted an ethnography of a university science lab. It will be interesting to see what comes out of it!
Within the discussion of performance and performativity, geographers have an unusual task of combining social processes with spatial contexts. The paper by Nicky Gregson and Gillian Rose (check out her blog on visual culture!) (2000) tackle this in their research activities as well as in their action of writing the paper. The authors argue that spaces are also performative and bring space into the discussion of performance and performativity through their experiences conducting two separate research projects (Gregson and Rose, 2000). Performance as a process of identity is an interesting perspective that permeates this discussion.
Although very different in nature, the two research experiences of Gregson and Rose are interestingly relatable and insightful. The audience and the performer have different positions in the two settings. In the first, the participants of community art programs were the performers but the process was considered by the participants themselves to be more important than the audience. The participants were discovering and performing new parts of themselves through the process, and they did not see the end product as the most important part of the program. In the second, both participants in the car-boot sales were performing and both were the audience as well. The setting calls for a certain type of performance by the salespeople and the customers, some being more elaborate and others being simpler.
Perhaps one of the most important points of the article is that Gregson and Rose are quite self aware of their performance as part of academia. In the “Reflections” section of the paper, they discuss the somewhat ironic feeling that resulted from coming full circle from the fieldwork through to the writing of this paper. The authors found themselves changed by the process of performing academically. They recognize that the writing and publishing of papers is another type of power play in itself, and that the performance of the research itself was not fully complete until they came together to write this article.
Having started in a new school and campus several times, I could say that I have experienced changes or differences in the performance of myself in different spaces based on what I wish to present to classmates and friends (the audience). This could be an example of “self-cultivation” and “self-deployment,” where one can engage in cultivating identity “through multiple modalities of self” (Blackstock, 1997). This performativity of identity leads to diverse spatial performance. Even in a stable life with no new environments or audiences, I am performing different parts of myself in different contexts and spaces.
Perhaps the stereotyped thinking that people can travel the world to “find” themselves is just the releasing the pressure of needing to perform to a regular audience. When traveling, the traveler is constantly meeting new people and experiencing new environments that their performance can change accordingly. There is no historical evidence of a certain performance that ties you down to the expectations of the audience. This in itself can be freeing, where you can choose to deploy and depict the self you wish to.
BLACKSTOCK, C. G. 1997. Anne Bradstreet and Performativity: Self-Cultivation, Self-Deployment. Early American Literature, 32, 222-248.
GREGSON, N. & ROSE, G. 2000. Taking Butler elsewhere: performativities, spatialities and subjectivities. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 18, 433-452.
When I was applying for this program, I wondered how different it would be to start in the middle of the academic school year. I wasn’t sure if it would have been strange or leave me at a disadvantage. Mostly it has felt the same, although in some cases you feel like you missed half of the party.
- You are less likely to fade into the crowd because the number of people starting at the same time as you will be much smaller. This might also mean that administrative staff will be less stretched thin than for the first semester of the academic year, but that might not be true.
- If you have a lot of coursework and/or teaching duties but have summers off in between semesters, starting during the second semester means that you have a bigger summer break in between your first 2 semesters to work on other important things like getting your preliminary research going and preparing for your qualifying examination. This could be a MAJOR advantage to consider since you would get this long break in the middle of your first year, as opposed to towards the end of it!
- Housing could go either way. There might be fewer options for on-campus housing but if you are looking for off-campus housing there might be less competition. This will greatly depend on where you are of course.
There are some disadvantages though, like having to keep telling people that you only just started if they assume that you have been around for a semester already. Another disadvantage might be that you don’t have as strong a bond with your cohort or as big a cohort that you start with and go through your program with, but assuming you have some social ability, I think you could overcome that within a few weeks of being in your lab group.
As an aspiring scholar, it is imperative to open your mind to concepts and ideas from a range of sources. However, academic dependency may be an undermining force that influences academic creativity and should be of interest to anyone of any discipline. Although Syed Farid Alatas discusses this in a specific context in his paper “Academic Dependency and the Global Division of Labor in the Social Sciences”, the situation is generally applicable and is quite similar in other disciplines such as the natural sciences. A particularly interesting angle is how academic dependency may frame and shape ideas, how that impacts research, and overall the trajectory of a discipline over time.
Alatas (2003) describes the dimensions of academic dependency as the dependence on ideas, media of ideas, technology of education, aid and investment, and dependence in the West for skills. The author brings up Project CAMELOT as an example that overtly implies both political and academic imperialism. Although it was quickly recognized as a mistake, government research agendas could be more open with their intentions, whether imperialistic or not. At present, the US government continues to fund research internationally which in some cases might be construed as somewhat imperialist, but proposal wording is thoroughly vetted to maintain political correctness (e.g. agriculture and food security, economic growth and trade, etc. (USAID 2013)). In the case of openness, the countries on the receiving end would at least be aware of the intentions and the implications.
Whether government research agendas of Western countries are displaying dominance overtly or not, the establishment of Yale-NUS and Duke-NUS in Singapore is proof that the West still dominates in many aspects of academics. This obvious and deliberate partnership between NUS and universities from a Western power country can be attributed at least in part to academic dependency if not majorly. Another example is how New York University (NYU) has also independently set up fully functional satellite campuses in several countries around the world, but the reverse does not seem to be happening. In addition to sharing research agendas, sharing authorship between researchers from developed and developing countries is now common practice. Dunkin found that authorship dynamics varied by discipline and between solo and multiple authorship just within University of Sydney (Dunkin 1992). It would be interesting to survey how the addition of Yale-NUS and Duke-NUS will change authorship dynamics among researchers in Singapore.
Alatas asks us to consider academic dependency a crippling handicap for the scientists in developing countries. It seems that one way to overcome this would be for those countries to look inward instead of Westward. However, it may be quite difficult to deviate from the current trajectory pushed by the West (and often pulled by non-West) because academic dependence is already so integrated and accepted and has been for quite some time. Research by the academically dependent on this topic would be greatly insightful for furthering understanding and would increase the awareness and reflection on this issue by all groups.
Alatas, S. F. (2003). “Academic Dependency and the Global Division of Labour in the Social Sciences.” Current Sociology 51(6): 599-613.
Dunkin, M. (1992). “Some Dynamics of Authorship.” Australian Universities’ Review 35(1): 43-48.
USAID. (2013). “What We Do.” Retrieved 19 Feb, 2013, from http://www.usaid.gov/what-we-do.
The extrovert ideal. If you live in the USA, you know what this is. This means speaking up in class, volunteering to be the leader, always being talkative, avoiding “awkward silence,” and generally showing people that you are outgoing. Susan Cain discusses in her book “Quiet” how “extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.” These are all viewed as positive character traits, and are overwhelmingly more highly valued in the US over more introverted character traits like taking time to think before speaking, needing time alone to recover from highly social environments, and generally not being as vocal. This does not mean that an introvert can’t be outgoing at times, or that introverts don’t enjoy talking, it just drains more of their energy rather than energizes them as it might for some extroverts.
The author, Susan Cain, also gave a TED talk about this topic if you want the short version. The main idea is that even though a large proportion of people feel that they are introverts, there is still the cultural expectation to hid or minimize that part of yourself. A book that I read earlier last year, “Covering” by Kenji Yoshiro, talks a lot about social expectations and trying to “cover” some aspect of yourself that may be socially less desirable or acceptable in order to fit in or meet expectations. This is another example where people may feel the need to cover, to give off the impression of extroversion, in order to be normal socially.
As an introvert, I can enjoy attention, but that depends on the situation and I often feel embarrassed easily or awkward when responding to others. I can enjoy talking, but usually I don’t feel comfortable doing so unless I feel confident in what I want to say. I really enjoyed reading this book as a confirmation that my personality is not lacking just because I am more on the introverted side of the spectrum. I can be more outgoing, just usually with groups of people where I know at least some or most of the people.
There is also pressure to be more “assertive” to promote yourself and your own work, at least in the science and research world. It seems that this might not really change, but it helps to know that there are ways for introverts to handle it and hopefully maintain a balance of comfort level. In some cases, Cain describes how successful academics have “carved out restorative niches” for recovering after giving a big talk or going to a big conference.
Interestingly, many chapters of this book focus on advice that would be relevant to teachers and parents who are unsure of how to encourage and support a young introvert. The author talks about situations like what happens when an extroverted parent has an introverted child, and how can teachers create introvert-friendly environments in their classrooms and to buck the trend to idolize and reward extroverts.
This book has helped me greatly with coming to terms with a personal matter, a breakup that happened a few years ago. He realized he did not love me for who I was and was wishing me to be something that I am not: more extroverted. He could not understand why I didn’t feel the need to talk all the time when alone together, was disappointed by my lack of outgoingness at medium-ish size parties of people whom I knew none, and didn’t really get that I needed time to unwind and, more importantly, recover after a day at work. I may have also become more reclusive as the weather was getting colder (perhaps SAD related?), but for whatever reasons, it did not work out and I did not figure out until reading this book that it wasn’t because I wasn’t good enough in some way, but just that we were incompatible on this introvert-extrovert spectrum. It is ok and perfectly acceptable to be my introverted self, and someone will love me for it. In the end, no amount of trying to be more extroverted would have helped that relationship, and I should not have to.
I think there are some mixed reviews of this book, but I think it is a very well written book that every self-proclaimed introvert should read. Extroverts could use to read it too to better understand the perspective of the other side.