This text was presented at the conference “Web Culture: New Modes of Knowledge, New Sociabilities”, Villa Gillet, Lyon (France), February 10th, 2011. Check against delivery. Click here for the .pdf version. Click here for the French translation.
In today’s presentation I will focus on the kind of social structures that users of computer-mediated global online communication networks (notably, the Web and social media) contribute to put in place. The point I will try to make is that science understanding of Web-based sociabilities has progressed enormously in the last decade, and that this should inform public policies touching on the Web, its regulation and governance.
WHERE HAVE ALL THE COMPUTER BUMS GONE?
Early glimpses into the social implications of ICT at a micro-level (that is: for the users themselves) date back to the mid-1970s and focus on the negative effect of these technologies. At the very origins of computer culture, we witness the emergence of the stereotype of the socially awkward computer hacker, isolated by the calculating machine which alienates him and keeps him apart from his peers. This characterization dates back to a time before the Web. In his Computer Power and Human Reason : From Judgement to Calculation (1976) Joseph Weizenbaum delivers us the portrayal of this subculture of compulsive computer programmer – or, as he liked to dub them, “computer bums”.
These are “possessed students” who “work until they nearly drop, twenty, thirty hours at a time. Their food, if they arrange it, is brought to them: coffee, Cokes, sandwiches. If possible, they sleep on cots near the computer. […] Their rumpled clothes, their unwashed and unshaven faces, and their uncombed hair all testify that they are oblivious to their bodies and to the world in which they move. They exist, at least when so engaged, only through and for the computers.”
Since this first occurrence, and for a long time, common sense has almost unmistakably associated computer use and social isolation. Cultural analysts, novelists, commentators have been developing on this trope. Iconic cyberpunk author William Gibson, famously described Case, the main character of Neuromancer (1984), as a cyberspace-addict incapable of functioning in an offline social situation.