cover art for virtual culture book

Virtual Culture: Introduction

by Steve Jones (

This excerpt is the introductory chapter from the book Virtual Culture from Sage Publications, Ltd. (London, England). It is © by Sage Publications and Steve Jones, all rights reserved.

Although the story of computer-mediated communication (CMC) and the Internet is still being written, we already know that there are (at least) two sides to it. The side we most commonly hear about is of their development and implementation, and this has been historically what we have heard most. We also hear much about Internet engineering, its business and commercial applications, its potential for entertainment.

The side we hear less about (sometimes we hear nothing at all) is of the consequences of that development and implementation, of the uses to which we mean to put the technology, and the social outcomes desired, and hence this book -- Virtual Culture.

But daily we become more savvy about technology. For instance, it seems quite commonplace to us that every technology has two sides to its consequences; on the one hand for every technology we develop in an attempt to improve life, we believe we also will, on the other hand, find life impoverished in some way. Such has been our experience with a variety of technologies, from nuclear power, with its capacity for generating electricity and for destruction, to the written word, with its capacity for preservation and dissemination of information and for its origination of silent readers. Once we are accustomed to a new technology we accept both sides, preferring, one suspects, to assume that as the technology is refined its negative consequences will also be better engineered. But our impatience shows through while we wait for those refinements, as this excerpt from a 1929 magazine article demonstrates:

The average human being of to-day is not impressed by miracles....He reads in a newspaper that plans are being made to connect New York with Tokio (sic) by telephone. "I doubt that it's practical," he may remark. But the next day he discovers that the thing has actually been accomplished. The day after that he himself calls up Tokio and, if there happens to be a few minutes' delay in putting the call through, he complains bitterly about the service. (Sherwood, 1929, p. 1)

It is likely that most people have had similar experiences. Once we see that something functions as it should, we believe it should function even better. And woe be it if does not function properly, as when a videocassette recorder mysteriously does not record a program for which we have set its timer, when we lose a connection while talking on our cellular telephone, or when our computer freezes and crashes. Our attention at that instant is absolutely riveted on the technology that has done the unexpected, that has thwarted our attempts to blend it with our activities, and our attention is drawn toward the object and away from ourselves and our own expectations. We are, simply, more likely to restart the computer than to think of alternatives to it, or of how it shapes and defines the activities we like to believe we solely define, or of how we (and not its designers) think it should work.

Many of our everyday activities are dependent on the smooth functioning of our communication technologies (encompassing those from writing to satellite transmission), and interdependent on our ability to understand them, to be "literate" in their languages, be they ones with few letters and words and little syntax (a television remote control, perhaps) or ones with complex rule sets and grammars (a computer language). Irrespective of their complexity we are still required to learn about them or be left behind. What modern businessperson, for instance, does not have need or use of a business card, fax, e-mail, etc., now standard business tools? But we are impatient in this instance, too. As these tools develop we seek still other tools to better integrate them and manage them.

It could be claimed that our impatience with technology stems from our anxiety toward it, in which case one could trot out any number of anti-technology neo-Luddite platforms. And there is some truth to that claim, for there are those who are appropriately skeptical and worried of our new technologies and their impact on our lives and social relationships. The late Joy Division singer Ian Curtis (1980) sang, "We could go on as though nothing was wrong/And hide from the days to remain all alone/Staying in the same place, staring all the time/Touching from a distance, further all the time," words that have a sharp edge to them in this age of the Internet: But a key word to note is "could," for it denotes that its opposite, could not, is also possible: again, two sides to every story.

If we were truly able to trace the roots of our impatience when it comes to technology, I believe we would find not that it has arisen from anxiety, but rather from the expectation that technology will, almost naturally, become better, for, in the main, we believe that it has done so. In somewhat crass terms, one consequence of this expectation is consumer near-paralysis in the face of ongoing developments and inventions. Should we wait to buy a new computer because a newer, faster, bigger one is almost on the market, or do we buy one immediately and risk its obsolescence? (Little risk, really, as obsolescence is unavoidable eventually.) Or do we wait until the moment of the new one's introduction and purchase this one at a discount? Do we buy that videocassette recorder in VHS or Beta formats? And what is this new "DVD" thing that is supposed to come to market soon? We know that whatever we use today will be replaced by something better tomorrow.

In the case of communication technologies our expectations are focused primarily on three areas: transportation, communication and storage. Each of these plays a central role in the development of CMC and the Internet, too, and it is common to find the Internet considered a transportation device (witness Microsoft's "where do you want to go today?" advertising campaign1), a communication device (e-mail, the "I-phone," etc.), and a storage device (a form of networked encyclopedia). Most all of our communication technologies have, at one time or another, been vested with similar (though generally less "sophisticated") abilities.

What has been the outcome of these investments? In regard to transportation, it is possible to move more information more quickly than before, in different media. As Carey (1989) has pointed out, communication and transportation are inextricably linked:

It is not an infrequent experience to be driving along an interstate highway and to become aware that the highway is paralleled by a river, a canal, a railroad track, or telegraph and telephone wires. (p. 203)

The grid system of streets and highways that gives North America its distinctively different (and, some say, homogenous) look when compared to cities in other nations extends to grids of other kinds, to power and electrical grids, and communication networks. Though Carey claims that the telegraph broke the connection between communication and transportation, for it enabled messages "to move independently of and faster than transportation" (p. 204), that connection is still with us in some sense. And it threatens to expand as the Internet's particularly American qualities (the use of English, its technical development, its users values) structure its use around the world.

With the invention of radio one might have thought that wireless communication would make the separation of communication and transportation clear and the grid obsolete, but not so. Our existing grids are used for new purposes, but ones related to communication and transportation nevertheless; telephone lines bring us not only voice but data (and thus sound and pictures -- and the Internet), cable television lines do the same, power lines will likely do so as well, and these lines follow our roads, as those have structured the location of our buildings. Satellite communication has made us a little less dependent on these grids, but not sufficiently so that we may do away with them altogether, and given the size of our investment (both material and human) in their construction, is that a surprise? And is it thus a surprise that we consider the Internet an information "highway"? The grid is still with us, reminding us that William Gibson's "Matrix" is in the here and now (though maybe not perceptible in the ways he envisions it will be).

What has the grid done for us, what has been the return on our investment in it? John Brinckerhoff Jackson (1980) asks us to look at it not only in terms of that which has been built (the roads, the wires, etc.), its content, so to speak, but in terms of the landscape, its context. Jackson finds that the highway "is merely a symbol of how we have learned to organize space and movement" (p. 124), and that the spatial organization it engenders is of greatest importance. His most telling comment is that the contemporary division of space brought about by highways is "seen as temporary, and communication...essential; the dwelling favors the open plan" (p. 125). I might add that the computer, its software and hardware, are seen in the same way, and perhaps we consider modern life less in terms of social mobility and more in terms of the "upgrade."

The grid systems we create, then, are structuring but not permanent, rigid but permeable; they flex. So it is with our attempts to map a grid of the Internet, the virtual, onto our existing grid of the non-virtual. We try to bend and twist both grids until they fit one on top of the other, but they always snap back into place and defy an easy interlock, perhaps like "smart" metals and plastics that regain their original shape on heating. Several essays in this book address the issue of the boundaries between the real and the virtual, assessing the shape and porousness of these grids, and we find that with the application of some intellectual heat they do not always spring back into old shapes but assume entirely new ones.

In regard to communication, we are, not surprisingly, also able to move more information more quickly than before, in different media (the link between communication and transportation is yet to be completely broken). Jackson (1985) is illuminating on this point too, as he notes that:

Communication can be defined in several ways: it means passage from one place to another, and it means the transmitting of a message. In terms of the highway, it means an unending flow of traffic -- perhaps much of it essentially aimless, a kind of search for some place or person to help reinforce our identity; it also means the signs and billboards and lights and signals -- a chorus of communication such as no generation has ever before seen. (p. 46)

His description of the highway is as good a one of the Internet as I have found. The contributors to this volume examine the flow of traffic, but not for its own sake. Rather they seek to discover and critique that "search for some place or person" about which Jackson writes. The use of CMC and the Internet is part of what Jackson, extrapolating from a study done in Holland, sees as "the need for sociability, the need to use one's own personal possessions...the need to collect experiences, and the need to run dangers" (pp. 47-48).

There is another need, and it is the third area of our collective focus on communication technologies; storage. As we collect experience we must find someplace to put it. It seems nigh on impossible to continually add objects, symbols and processes to our lives without letting others go, so what we try to do instead of subtract is store them. Whether the space is real or virtual, our capacity to keep filling it is undiminished (such is the nature of imagination), but our capacity to encompass it, in the sense of embracing it, putting our arms around it figuratively, to understand it, does not grow at the same pace. Having information and knowing what it means are entirely separate domains. As Ebben and Kramarae (1993) noted in a slightly different context, we must set aside our "assumption about education (as) rooted in the notion that knowledge is an accumulation of matter" (p. 21).What we sense is that we are constituted by information almost as much as we are constituted by blood, skin and bone, and that, no matter the recording method we may use to externalize the memories and experiences we store, without us they would not make sense.

Conversely, without those memories and experiences our lives would not make sense either. Having "connections" does not simply mean hooking up a wire (or radio wave) from one place to another. In the old Eastern European sense of the term, "having connections" means having a thread that links us to others' thoughts, duties, rights, responsibilities and obligations. It is, in truth, neither "who one knows" nor "what one knows" but the two combined. In their own way each essay in this book is concerned with connecting in that latter sense, and our collective concern should, by all means, focus there.

The present development of a global information infrastructure by way of the Internet brings these three strands (transportation, communication, storage) together in interesting ways. But what are the consequences for us as we invest them with those capacities? To invest in one area must mean that we disinvest in another. Richard Hoggart (1970) wrote that apart from the "expedient answers" technology may provide we are "in the area of value-judgments," for "every choice made opens that possibility to human beings or closes that one, makes that more likely or that other less likely" (p. 112). What do we choose to leave behind as we adopt and adapt to new media technology? What might we gain from our new investments? These are the questions raised in this book. They come from a variety of perspectives, engaging and joining theoretical work in sociology, political science, economics, communication, feminism and history with observation and participation of the content and context of CMC and the Internet. The authors have kept a watchful eye on the landscape that we are forming with these technologies; sometimes that landscape is visible on our computer screens, and sometimes it is not. No matter where it may be visible it behooves us all to keep it in view, for it affects us all -- and it promises to keep changing.


1. Microsoft has in this advertising campaign asked a question that sounds like ones asked by myriad American college students and members of "Generation X" who can engage in a seemingly never-ending call-and-response round-robin based on two questions: "What do you want to do today?" followed by "I don't know, what do you want to do?" The dissipated ennui of these questions is similar to that of the Web surfer who, faced with an almost limitless array of sites to visit, is overwhelmed to boredom.


Carey, J. W. (1989). Communication as culture. Boston: Unwin &;Hyman.

Curtis, I. (1980). Transmission. Fractured Music.

Hoggart, R. (1970). Two ways of looking. In R. Hoggart, Speaking to each other (pp. 106-113). New York: Oxford University Press.

Jackson, J. B. (1980). The necessity for ruins. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Jackson, J. B. (1985). The social landscape. In S. Yates (Ed.), The essential landscape (pp. 45 48). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Sherwood, R. E. (1929, July). Beyond the talkies -- television. Scribner's(24), pp. 1-8.

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