May 1997


Utopian Visions of Cyberspace

by Laura J. Gurak

I'm sure many of you have seen the recent television commercial from one of the major telecommunications companies touting the magical ability of the Internet to banish all social ills. "There is no race," someone claims, as a montage of faces flash by. "There is no gender," says yet another bright-eyed Internet believer. All that exists in this wonderful world of bandwidth and bytes is, they tell us, "the mind." Only the mind, full of value-neutral ideas, ready to engage in high-spirited conversation, information exchange, and true communication. Why, it's almost as if we could simply plug a coaxial cable directly into another person's brain and get at their true self, avoiding the messiness of race, gender, and other of these darn confounding variables that get in the way of who we truly are and what we truly wish to say.

This vision of the Internet as a cure for our social ills is a popular one right now, especially for companies trying to sell Internet access to the as-of-yet unconnected, and it is a vision that is slowly pervading our notion of what to expect from this new technology. Yet this vision is false and it is dangerous. First, to the falseness. True, communicating via computer keyboard does not reveal who we are in the flesh. If your name is Chris, and I meet you in person or even talk to you on the phone, I will probably have an idea of whether you are male or female. But on the Internet, I won't know. This concept, that computer-mediated communication (CMC) might allow us to communicate without the interference of social factors, has been explored for over ten years by various researchers. Early studies, such as those by Sproull and Kiesler or Hiltz and Turoff, for example, noticed that communication over computer networks necessarily involved a "lack of social cues." When communicating with the limited character set of a keyboard, physical and social factors such as gender, race, and age are not immediately evident. On this point, the telecommunications commercial and the researchers agree. Yet what researchers have since begun to notice is that this lack of face-to-face communication seems to encourage "uninhibited behavior": aggressive, rude, and sometimes offensive statements. This behavior, often called "flaming," surely does not lend to the utopian vision put forth by the Internet pundits. Furthermore, studies such as those by linguist Susan Herring illustrate that gender does indeed come through quite loudly in cyberspace: the same tendencies of women's language observed IRL ("in real life," an acronym used by netizens to distinguish from life on the net) make themselves known on the Internet, too.

Now, to the dangerous part of the utopian vision. To imagine that a technology, any technology, could possibly allow us to separate our "minds" from our social and emotional states encourages the worst kind of Cartesian thinking and detracts from our responsibility to learn how to live together in a diverse, complex democracy. It is dangerous to believe that you can escape into a space where issues of race and gender do not exist in a time when we need to be facing, not avoiding, such issues. What we could use from the Internet is in fact the opposite of what's proposed by this telecommunications company, and that is a place where we can debate and discuss issues central to our democracy, our communities, and our educational needs.

As many of us know, the Internet and related technologies hold great promise for education and research. I still find it quite amazing to have the ability to connect to a colleague in Europe, hold virtual office hours, collaborate with and teach students at a distance, and send images and sound at any time of the day or night. As we embrace the future and the wonder of life in cyberspace, let us take a critical view of utopian promises made about it and about any new technology: in the living room, in the workplace, in the classroom. Let us also teach our students to be critical consumers and users of this new technology, and let us make cyberspace a place of many genders, races, ages, and cultures: a true global village.

Laura J. Gurak is an assistant professor of scientific and technical communication in the Rhetoric Department at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on the rhetorical, social, and intellectual property issues in computer-mediated communication. She has published widely in technical communication; her recent book is, Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

Copyright © 1997 by Laura J. Gurak. All Rights Reserved.

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