Losing the Visions Shaping Internet Studies

As a senior academic in the field of Internet Studies, I am worried. I fear that the visions and visionaries of the early years in the emergence of this field are being lost as the field matures into a less multidisciplinary enterprise. I should emphasize that this field remains one of the most burgeoning fields in academia, making it too large and diverse to draw any definitive conclusions on its present state and future. However, from my personal experience on advisory boards, visiting committees, journal boards, and in research over the decades, there seems to be some dominant trends that could be dysfunctional for this field.

The most worrisome to me is an apparent loss of big thinkers who are challenging our conceptions of the future of communication and information technologies like the Internet. Thinking back, I would name individuals, in no particular order, like: ‘the’ Ted Nelson, who coined the term of hypertext; Doug Englebart, whose team invented the mouse and envisioned the role of computing in augmenting intelligence (AI); Alan Kaye, who envisioned new ways of programming and interfacing with computers key to the rise of personal computing; Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, who invented TCP/IP and continued to be major thought leaders on the future of the Internet; Tim Berners-Lee, whose team at CERN invented the Web; and Howard Rheingold, who created “The Well” and promoted a vision of a virtual community; and Star Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff, who did some of the earliest studies of the social implications of networking. My colleague Mike Noll pioneered work on video and tactile telecommunications, such as in designing the video phone for 2001: A Space Odyssey. I could go on and must apologise for not naming many others, but these individuals were visionaries of central importance to the birth and excitement surrounding studies of the Internet and related digital media.

Bill (left) speaking with Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson at the OII circa 2004

A second trend has been the maturing of the academic field of Internet Studies. As universities and academic journals emerged around this inherently multidisciplinary field, increasing rigour and sophistication characterised research on the factors shaping the Internet and its implications in areas ranging from the household to governments and the workplace and its application in nearly every arena, from agriculture to the medical sciences. This growing sophistication drove the field to recruit faculty who not only understood the Internet and its applications but also had serious disciplinary training in the methods and questions dominating their discipline or even sub-discipline. Academic units focused on Internet studies began to bring in students coming out of departments of sociology, geography, political science, philosophy, and even students of physics and computer sciences who understood how to analyze big data sets – that is, computational analytics. However, greater strengths in each of the disciplinary traditions and methods that make up this multidisciplinary field often failed to bring in those with an excitement about the history and future of the Internet and its role in society.

These two developments gave way to a third trend which might be characterized as the disciplinary capture of Internet Studies. Initially, I and others envisioned Internet Studies as inherently multidisciplinary. For example, how could one understand the role of the Internet in voting without a background in political sciences but also in computer sciences and engineering as well as other fields, such as psychology? Departments became more multidisciplinary, but students of political science were still trained and socialized to publish in political science journals, and so forth across all the disciplines. Moreover, as the Internet became more central to nearly everything we do, nearly every discipline began to appropriate Internet studies in its own programs of teaching and research. What would a department of sociology look like today if it did not have a fundamental interest in the Internet and related social media?

There are undoubtedly exceptions to each of these trends, particularly since the field is becoming so large and diverse. However, it seems blindingly obvious that the focus of research has changed to more disciplinary pursuits and the visionaries have been lost in this movement to the disciplines. Academics in political science and public administration are studying the governance of the Internet, applying their old theoretical frameworks to Internet governance and regulation. Sociologists are studying networks, but such as by using data gathered from social networking. They will advance theory and research on sociology rather than the social implications of the Internet. Legal scholars focus on copyright, privacy, human rights, and more, but in the context of the Internet. They are more likely to focus on how to replicate copyright online than to come up with alternative approaches to intellectual property.

This is all fine, but it is not generating new visions of the future of communication or information. Maybe the idea of a ‘metaverse’ comes to mind, but Jaron Lanier and others pioneered virtual reality in the 1980s, so I’m not yet convinced this is a new and compelling vision. That said, many innovations fail and then succeed, like video communication.

It may be that visionaries and academic researchers are simply not compatible, but I believe they can be complementary. If Internet Studies loses its visionary edge, it could lose its entire reason for being. Perhaps academic departments or units of Internet studies should have major funding for visiting appointments of one or more individuals with big ideas on the future of information and communication technologies like the Internet and related digital media and their implications for society. Imagine every department with someone questioning where technology and society are headed in the information and communication sphere. Futurism? No. I think it could be a valuable stimulus to shaping the future of research in this field. The question is whether you can find these visionaries and interest them in helping to shape our field.

In the early 2000s, when Ted Nelson was visiting the OII for several years, our colleagues were convinced that the Web was one of the key innovations shaping the future of the Internet. It was, but it took a person like Ted Nelson to question the virtue of the Web – he had an alternative vision. Such challenges are the stuff that can make an academic department more than the sum of its faculty.

One thought on “Losing the Visions Shaping Internet Studies

  1. Comment posted by Bill Dutton with permission of Cheryll Aimee Barron:

    Lots of mental wheels turning … this post makes me wish I could watch an incisive, sparky debate on whether we actually need a fresh crop of Tim Berners-Lees, Ted Nelsons and so on or ingenious, exceptional cleanup artists — technologists capable of rescuing us from any part of the chaos that the internet pioneers have inadvertently inflicted on us. I mean visionaries capable of squeezing some of the toothpaste backwards. ‘All lives end in failure,’ some sage said in a comments section I was scanning recently, and while I’m not sure I agree with him, it’s plain that those pioneers are victims of the Law of Unintended Consequences. At least as much as the rest of us.

    Forty years ago, some of the internet pioneers at Xerox PARC told me they were sure that massively enhanced communication would be the most stunning gift of computer research to humanity by 2000. By the late aughts, they were aghast at their failure to anticipate the ugly forms that amped-up exchanges over vast distances would take. I’m trying not to say, the dark side of social media … Once, Tim Berners-Lee was looking forward to people using the web to advertise casually and cheaply, with no trickery or manipulation, things they might want to sell each other. But about a decade and a half later, he was — rightly — condemning advertising-centred internet publishing as a cancer, because nonstop privacy invasions, tracking and profiling have come with it. … The pioneers were so keen on a free and open internet that they somehow overlooked security and designed machines that practically put out welcome mats for hackers — and we are still stuck with the consequences of that lapse. … Finally, worst of all, we can already see, from the ways early AI is being used against our best interests — in seemingly innocent mobile apps from household names like Verizon — how much control over our time and our lives we’re losing to software marketed to us as agents of magical convenience.

    How much ingenuity and effort are being devoted to dialling back any of this? There’s a lot of talk about Web3 as a saviour — especially from the blockchain visionaries, some of whom are impressive — but with few specifics or results, so far.

    I hope that you can arrange for this debate and make sure that it’s streamed online to let me attend.

    Cheryll Aimee Barron


    You (Bill Dutton) say,

    ‘I expected to be corrected by people telling me about the new crop of visionaries, but not one has been mentioned.’

    Could this be because they belong to the next generation — X-ers — who despair that anyone older will ever understand? The conversations about blockchain technology I’ve found most enlightening are exclusively between members of that group, and all its most fervent advocates seem connected in some way to Andreessen Horowitz, which announced something like two weeks ago that it was starting a new fund devoted to cryptocurrency ventures (I think).

    When I sent a young tech wizard who worked for the Obama administration the keiretsu-cooperative paper I wrote for you, he said he was sure I was right about the direction in which publishing should evolve — but that it would never happen until all the legacy journalists had moved on to the next world.

    ‘My response was that if he had not designed it the way he and Kahn did, it probably would not have become the phenomenon it has become.’

    I suspect that you’re right, even though we’ll never know about the ‘counter-factuals’ — e.g., how Ted Nelson’s Project Xanadu rather than Tim Berners-Lee’s WWW might have turned out.

    ‘… many are trying to address the problems associated with the internet and social media, but often in ways that will throw the baby out with the bath water – over-regulating and over-moderating for example.’

    I couldn’t agree more. And where are the people qualified to regulate intelligently, with the right training?

    ‘I think some of the issues like control over our time and attention are more clearly first-world problems when juxtaposed with the new Cold War around information.’

    I didn’t explain what I meant about the apps well — it involves too many details that require ferocious condensation. Will try again. I can see that the way I put it really does make it look as if I was talking about First World flea bites, not the Orwellian manipulations I actually had in mind.

    … A closing thought. I am wondering how you can get Gen X-ers to discuss your visionaries question.

    My very best wishes —


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