Setting E-Commerce Aside: A Conference Review

By David Silver, University of Maryland


Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing 2000: Shaping the Network Society: The Future of the Public Sphere in Cyberspace Sponsored by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
May 20 - 23, 2000, Seattle, Washington, USA

Setting E-Commerce Aside: A Conference Review
By David Silver, University of Maryland

As we slouch towards the real millennium, Internet dreams have turned quickly into desires. The worthy yet too often utopian hopes of cyber-jumpstarted cultural, social, and political revolutions have been ditched largely for IPOs, untaxed e-commerce, and millionaire teens and twenty-somethings. Indeed, for many, the dominant mantra of our times may very well be: start up, pitch fast, sell out.

But not for all, including the several hundred scholars, students, activists, artists, community leaders, computer scientists, politicians, techies, and freaks who showed up last weekend in Seattle for "Shaping the Network Society: The Future of the Public Sphere in Cyberspace," sponsored by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and organized excellently by Doug Schuler. Informed, perhaps, less by the Nasdaq and more by the events that went down during the WTO protests in the fall, conference attendees were asked what directions and implications does cyberspace foretell for community, democracy, education and culture? What is the public sphere in cyberspace? What should it be? How can people use it? And what experiments, projects, and policies should we initiate?

To answer such questions, conference organizers threw a wide net, attracting folks from within and without academe, folks from across the disciplines, and folks from around the world,

including Argentina, Australia, Canada, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, the United States, and the former Yugoslavia. Matching the international flavor of the conference was organization diversity: on the first day alone, artists, activists, and scholars representing Adbusters, the American Library Association, the National Telecommunications and Information Agency, Paper Tiger Television, PovNet (Poverty Network), the San Jose Information Technology Planning Board, the Seattle City Council, the Social Science Research Council, the Society for Old and New Media, the Vancouver Public Library, and a few dozen colleges and universities delivered papers and conducted workshops. For this conference attendee -- still jazzed by but growing weary of academic conferences; quick to test theoretical frameworks and methodological minutia but even quicker to test applications -- the diversity was a welcomed bonus.

So what went down? The conference was divided largely into three categories: research sessions; workshops; and special events. There were ten research sessions -- Regional Snapshots;Foundations; Crossing Boundaries; Socio-Technical; In the Community; Museums, Libraries, and Culture; Public Policy Issues; Public/Private Sector Tensions; Looking at the Community; and New Models -- ranging, as their titles suggest, from conceptual frameworks and research models to disciplinary and inter-organizational convergences to public policy and community applications. Unfortunately, the research sessions were held concurrently (more on that later), which prevented this conference attendee from sitting in on all the sessions.

The ones I did attend, however, were amazing, and provided equal amounts of questions and answers, complex dilemmas and partial solutions facing progressive- and community-minded cybernauts. For example, in the research session title Foundations, an international panel of scholars explored and discussed a number of models with which to assess online environments. Ian Beeson, Professor of Computer Studies and Mathematics at the University of the West of England, presented a number of theoretical positions to understand better the ways in which communities might use hypermedia to tell their individual and collective stories. Jenny Preece, Chair of the Information Systems Department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and author of the forthcoming book Online Communities: Designing Usability and Supporting Sociability, addressed the multiplicity of definitions of online communities and argued for the need for online communities to support well designed usability and well supported sociability. Celia Romm from Central Queensland University in Australia analyzed existing literature on community informatics and applied her Autonomy/Harmony model to four case studies. Finally, Erik Stolterman from the Department of Informatics at Umea University in Sweden argued that creating a public sphere in cyberspace is, in part, a matter of design, a process in which members of the community must be involved.

My own research session, Socio-Technical, was comprised of graduate students from a number of American universities and, informed by theories of human-computer interaction and models of participatory design, explored the intersections between interface design and online community formations. Kelly Parker, a graduate student in Philosophy from Grand Valley State University, examined the potentially dramatic social and political implications of the Open Source/Free Software movement. Josh Berman, a graduate student in Computer Science from Georgia Institute of Technology, showcased The Turing Game <>, an online environment he developed with Amy Bruckman, to reveal the ways in which identity is expressed -- and tweaked -- within cyberspace. My own presentation, growing out of my work in American Studies and the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies at the University of Maryland, challenged the prevailing and dangerous assumption that the Net is a neutral, barren, and settlerless frontier, and argued instead for the need for scholars to explore the cultural and historical construction of online communities. Finally, Warren Sack, a recent graduate of the MIT Media Lab, wowed the audience with Conversation Map <>, a piece of software he developed to map visually the kinds of threads and interactions that take place within discussion lists.

Like most conference attendees, I solved the problem of concurrent sessions by racing frantically between rooms, hearing a paper here, sitting in on a Q and A there. The result was worth the effort. In this manner, I was able to hear Maja Kuzmanovic, a digital artist par excellence from Amsterdam, brainstorm and discuss what a truly participatory and interactive cyberspace would/could look like. Similarly, Adrian Mihalache, a Fullbright Scholar from Romania currently visiting Western Michigan University, offered a review of existing discourses of cyberspace and concluded with a spirited call for a second generational countercultural movement. Eszter Hargittai, a graduate student in Sociology at Princeton, explored the discrepancy between accessibility and prominence of public interest, not-for-profit content on the Web, and offered a list of useful guidelines for such organizations to get their word out.

Finally, Murali Venkatesh, an Associate Professor and Director of the Community and Information Technology Institute at Syracuse University, discussed early findings from a large scale grant to construct a number of community networks for New York-based economically disadvantaged communities, focusing especially on the gap between technologists and community organizers.

While the research sessions sought to bridge research and application, the workshops provided a forum to discuss past, ongoing, and future projects. Again, the spectrum was international, and conference attendees learned about projects from around the world and brought to life by non-profit organizations, public interest institutes, local governments, and universities. Although the nature of the projects was diverse, a common theme among many was an attempt to bridge the so-called Digital Divide. Thus, we heard from Susan Kretchmer, Rod Carveth, and Nancy Kranich, who presented a workshop titled, "High Tech, Low Tech, No Tech: Moving Beyond Economics to Bridge the Digital Divide," and from Bruce Takata and David Matteson, who conducted a workshop titled "Bridging the Wisdom Divide: Beyond the Knowedge Era Part I & II."

Another common goal was to develop a set of strategies to reimagine and reinvigorate community networks. Towards this goal, William Belsey presented early findings on Igalaaq, Canada's first arctic community access center, while Evergreen State College students John B. Adams & Matt Powell showcased new software which allows online applications of Robert's Rules of Order. One of the most rewarding -- not to mention well attended -- workshops was an impromptu one convened by Peter Royce, coordinator of the Vancouver CommunityNet, to discuss the current state of community networks. With all the chairs taken and with a few folks standing, representatives from Davis Community Network, Eugene Free Community Network, Petaluma Community Network, Seattle Community Network, Toledo Free Net, and Vancouver CommunityNet shared their experiences, frustrations, and plans for the future.

In addition to research sessions and workshops were a number of special events, including the plenary sessions. The first plenary, Patterns and Implications of the Network Society, featured Oliver Boyd-Barrett from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, California, and Craig Calhoun, President of the Social Science Research Council in New York. Unfortunately, the third panelist, Veran Matic of B92 Radio and Internet in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, was unable to attend due to the recent seizure of B92 broadcasting equipment. The closing plenary featured Gary Chapman of the 21st Century Project at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Bill Joy, Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems, and Howard Rheingold, author of many books, including The Virtual Community and Tools for Thought. The session focused on Joy's recent article in Wired, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us" <>, with Joy providing some background on the article and with commentary from both Chapman and Rheingold. The audience peppered Joy with agreement and challenges, and raised questions concerning the role of corporations (like Sun Microsystems) in the situation Joy describes, the need for spokespeople like Joy to work with existing organizations, and the barriers to healthy dialogue on new technologies and society.

The closing plenary was followed by what many conference attendees described as the most debaucherous conference-sponsored event in recent memory. Held at the hip club iSpy in downtown Seattle, the event was organized by local students, artists, and activists and sponsored by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. Featuring live bands on one level and throbbing techno on another, the party also included a "cyber fashion show" (which apparently means lots of tight black leather and lots of exposed flesh) and a fire show seemingly organized by a local chapter of the Burning Man movement. Fun and confusion abounded.

Like all conferences, Shaping the Network Society was not without a few flaws. Most notably, organizing the first plenary around three men and organizing the last plenary around three men is unsettling to say the least, and stood in stark contrast with issues of cultural diversity addressed by dozens of research panelists and workshop conveners. Similarly, while questions of race, gender, and class were explored by many sessions, issues of sexuality were altogether missing.

The other flaw was an embarrassment of riches -- there were simply too many interesting sessions and workshops going on concurrently. Unlike most academic conference which offer a dizzying array of (often unrelated) scholarship, Shaping the Network Society enjoyed -- and succeeded because of -- a carefully crafted focus. The result, as noted earlier, was a mad scramble between papers, where frantic conference attendees tried to fit in as many papers as possible.

The timing of Shaping the Network Society could not be better. Today, as cyberspace becomes synonymous with e-commerce and many folks' idea of an online public sphere is a chat room on AOL, forums like this are desperately needed. Indeed, as cyberspace continues to be colonized by commercial interests, progressive- and community-minded artists, activists, community leaders, computer scientists, journalists, politicians, scholars, students, techies, and freaks need multiple, international forums like this one to discuss what's happening, where were heading, and how to turn the tide.

As an academic, I found the conference to be a breath of fresh air compared to the commercialization of cyberspace that is currently taking place within society in general and within academia in particular. Advertisements for companies like Blackboard and WebChat have turned the first ten pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education into a shopping mall for distance education companies. Moreover, whether you like David Noble's ideas or not, what he describes is certainly taking place at an alarming rate; as I write this conference review, many courses at my university have been transformed from traditional to entirely online, as deans, provosts, and presidents continue to run their departments, colleges, and universities as mini corporations. Finally, the kind of corporate-sponsored scholarship which marks the sciences has made its way into the humanities. Witness, for example, US WEST's funding of the "research" institute, the Center for Digital Culture, whose most recent white paper is titled, unsurprisingly, "E-Commerce and the Digital Frontier."

While thousands race to make bank in cyberspace, it is refreshing to see so many cybernauts from around the world brainstorm, discuss, and help construct public space on the Internet. Although many battles against the forces to recraft cyberspace into have been lost, the fight -- and dance -- is not over, as was clearly evident in full force in Seattle.

David Silver is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of Maryland and the founder and director of the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies. He can be reached via his Web site at <>.

Submitted by Gail Stewart

Updated June 07, 2000

Last updated: November 2009