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...The Social Construction of Electronic Space
Anita Greenhill & Gordon Fletcher
Griffith University

Abstract: Computer-mediated communication is a phenomenon of post-industrial society. As a consequence of the interactivity and persistent textual nature of this form of communication, new spaces of sociality are constructed which can be analysed and interpreted with the epistemologies and methodologies utilised in understanding more conventional places. This approach reveals that electronic spaces are constructions firmly tied to the cultural and social experiences of real-world existences. Electronic identities, then, are built from this wide base of experience and real-world identity rather than, as is sometimes claimed, begun afresh. These connections to understood material culture and the prevalence of the typed word in electronic spaces permits a digital archaeology, inspired by material culture studies, which is both revealing of the users of these spaces as well as the wider social constructions of post-industrial society.

Keywords: Social Space, Computer-mediated Communications, Identity, Internet.

The more changes there are, the more does it seem to be only the same thing over again. (Karr, 1861:54)

Every technological change has an equal capacity for the enhancement and degradation of life, depending on how it is used (Jones Seventh Law). (Jones, 1982:231)

The increasingly significant role of computer-mediated communication within contemporary society provides an opportunity to study a range of material culture items which have a provenance measured in months rather than millennia. The spaces created by this human interaction, however, remain interpretable from within an interdisciplinary discourse of anthropologically informed social theory which provides one of the few successful methodologies and theoretical models to interpret the significance of the Internet in post-industrial societies (Bell, 1973:13 ; Jones, 1982:1,4-5). Discussions of information technology are often discredited as being irrelevant to the general public who may not have access to any form of computing power or the Internet. However, while the distinction between information rich and information poor is a legitimate consideration, this, in itself, should not prevent study of the social implications of networking technology (Jones, 1982:173). The currently circulating popular phrases of Information Superhighway and surfing the Net all indicate that, regardless of personal access to the Internet, there is a high level of awareness, although not necessarily knowledge, about this space.

A Working Definition of Electronic Spaces

In understanding electronic spaces, and conceptualising sites of computer-mediated communications as places, it is necessary to emphasise a definition of material culture that can encompass items which exist primarily within the ether of cyberspace (cf. Ingersoll, 1987:2-3). Material culture items are generally described as those things that have had human interpretation applied to them (Richardson,1989:172 ). This definition incorporates objects that have any form of observable physical proximity to the daily lives of humans or have been incorporated into the wider body of human understanding through the creation and maintenance of shared imagery or meaning (Argyle, 1969:95; Hill in Hayward, 1990:4). A definition such as this includes all points of human communication including speech, non-verbal signalling, and any physical object used to convey meaning, whether intentionally or not, in a visual or textual form. Such a definition enhances Tilleys notion that, in utilising material cultural items to understand meanings within societies, we must go beyond the pure surface meanings of objects to observe their underlying reality (1989:188).

The extreme example of a mathematical equation, such as the ubiquitous E=mc2, as an item of shared cultural knowledge reveals the capacity of material culture to convey a variety of meanings (Leach, 1976:19). The diversity of meanings that are interpreted from this equation also indicate that material culture items with a heavy reliance upon ideational signifiers are accepted features of post-industrial and industrial societies. The variety of imagery and understanding that E=mc2 engenders between individuals and across cultures suggests that shared items of material culture produce meaning that is both temporary and highly contextual. Significantly, for our argument, the ascription of meaning to material culture items is a two-fold process which creates, recreates and reinforces shared and individual experiences, that in turn produce what is known as culture (Hodder, 1989:77; Richardson, 1989:173). Electronic space encompasses many of these interactive processes of meaning creation and possesses a plethora of publicly observable and understandable material culture items that can be associated with any identifiable place.

The apparent explosion of diversity and self-referential manipulation of publicly accessible media expressed in, for example, personal World Wide Web home pages, reveals a broad and diverse landscape of electronic space and its occupants. The categories and distinctions which differentiate individual users and spaces, parallel conventional socio-economic distinctions that constitute real-world social relations. However, the emphasis of these individually dichotomised distinctions has been altered as a consequence of the global, textual and anonymous nature of the social relations that electronic social space engenders (Gumpert & Drucker,1994:169,170). It is, therefore, the examination of social space, itself an item of material culture and in turn the material culture items that exist within this space, which provide an avenue for the understanding and social positioning of electronic spaces in this post-industrial era.

A Map to Electronic Social Spaces

Electronic space, and particularly the space created by the global network described as the Internet - which is the current focus of our research, is an artefact of the consumption-orientated post-industrial information economy of the mid-1990s. Electronic social space is, itself, a relatively new item of material culture. Until the advent of telephony and CB radio, the precursors of computer networked communications, there were no effective technological means to produce interactive or instantaneous, but spatially distant, communication between more than two people (Biocca, 1992:8). It is this communicative feature of electronic networks, undertaken within an experientially distinct but functionally familiar environment, which initiates the simulation of a physical interchange and consequentially the perception of a social space (Ostwald, 1993:17; Gumpert & Drucker, 1994:169).

Electronically crafted space contrasts with many features of the spaces of our everyday life (Adrian, 1995:[2]). The space is indefinite and infinite while all the places within it remain instantaneously accessible. Electronic space does not provide any references that enable a meaningful Cartesian, or even Euclidean, understanding of its form, sharing, in this respect, many similarities with the ideational spaces crafted by literature and individual imagination (cf. Leach, 1976:52). This is our key point of digression from what have previously been defined as the places of stimulation and interaction with material culture. The space of electronic sociality does not share a corollary with any physical places. But, as distinct from the crafted spaces of literature, electronic spaces can be, though not necessarily, participatory and interactive. The action of entering electronic social spaces makes any available electronic experience an immediate possibility without any definite confirmation of these possibilities, or even their existence. The user is, in effect, spatially located everywhere at once while being nowhere in particular (Adrian, 1995:[3]). Despite this indefinite existence between the physical and ideational, electronic social space as a space of human exchange in its broadest sense, has a distinct and identifiable material culture.

To date, experiences most identifiable with this indefinite existence have been speaking on the telephone, reading literature, talking on a CB radio, receiving conventional mail or watching television and films. However, none of these events in our daily lives has incorporated such a definite dislocation from our surrounding actuality to new, apparently distant, electronically crafted spaces. The place that is experienced, however, allows it to be analysed and discussed as readily as if it were a Midwest US town, a magazine or a refrigerator. The most visible distinction, which is to the researchers advantage, is the primarily textual nature of the material culture items of these places. In the chat areas of the Internet, for example, the participants are provided with textual cues to prepare them for the tone and role they are expected to assume; these are comparable to the culturally significant cues for interaction received in daily analogue life (Richardson, 1974:5,8). Textual prompts can also provide the basis for electronic artefacts created by the users but based on common associations with the cues and shared cultural experiences of electronic and analogue spaces. These artefacts range from an entry in a guestbook or the public response to a query, to full sites of web pages and listserver archives. This activity provides the foundations for electronic culture and its implied complexity of inter-relationships, sub-cultural constructions and distinctions, and arrangements of power and privilege.

The Material Culture of Electronic Spaces

The existence of a social space without physicality pre-dates the development of electronic networks and is, arguably, a component of all interpretations made by humans of any cultural heritage to comprehend their physical world (La Gory & Pipkin, 1981:30,31). The distinct material culture of post-funerary existence, found in the descriptions of Valhalla, Hades or Heaven, provides an indication of the variation and intricacy possible in the crafted but culturally tied worlds of both literary and oral traditions. Other descriptions of cultural origins and legendary achievement rely upon the reader or listener having a strong conceptualisation of the space in which the actions are undertaken (La Gory & Pipkin, 1981:33). These descriptions provide a sometimes immense catalogue of material culture items at the disposal of the post-funerary and fantastic people occupying these spaces.

However, after the possibility of immediate experience is lost, real material culture, and the space that defines it, tend to shift towards the same conceptual existence as primarily ideational places. Our experience of the post-industrial world and its material culture is largely based upon metaphoric and metonymic association provided by the culturally specific output of the electronic media and mass education systems (Ingersoll, 1987:1; Gumpert & Drucker, 1994:172). As an example, the Prime Ministers office in the BBC comedy Yes, Prime Minister, may offer a better metaphor for the material culture items contained within than is provided by the real but unseen British Prime Ministers office. Similarly, our metonymic cataloguing of Queenslands Gold Coast, if we are aware of its existence at all, focusses upon the activities, imagery and geography associated with the immediate coastline. This is despite the majority of the Gold Coasts population living in housing developments distant from any beach and many residents conscious avoidance of the actual coast. Highly contested spaces also indicate that many of our personal catalogues of material culture items associated with specific places share many common culturally reinforced features which may have only a distant connection to any physical truth. Within post-industrial societies the combined effect of mass education and media and other institutional systems are significant sourcebooks towards the construction of these common images.

An examination of current descriptions and mass media presentations of electronic social space, and in particular the Internet, provides just such a series of common imagery. The popular portrayal of the Internet vacillates between representations as a place of seedy pornography markets populated by wayward teenage techno-freaks and a place for do-good Silicon Valley hippies looking for a utopian existence or plotting to subvert all forms of now, apparently, archaic governmental and social organisations. Within electronic spaces pre-existent cultural knowledge is utilised to create a place that is both familiar and navigable. The portrayal of the Internet as an international pornography conspiracy arguably provides an analogy with the red-light districts of the inner city and provides an opportunity for the morally outraged to lobby for electronic urban renewal legislation. However, more substantial cultural knowledge is also being employed that replicates and extends conventional notions of interaction and spatially. The obvious analogies of the telephone and television have contributed extensively to the shaping of electronic space by providing widely conceived understanding through which sociality can be mapped onto this new space (Adrian, 1995:[1]).

The personal and instantaneous interaction of a phone conversation shares many similarities with the experience of email and the retrieval of static Web pages. More generally, telephony brings the user the awareness of the potential for communication and, hence, interactivity. The average urban white pages provides an index of potential communicants within a definite physical range without any limitation on who can be contacted. However, social and cultural criteria prevent a telephone user from randomly ringing or communicating with the unknown other. These restrictions provide a direct analogy to email which is usually not initiated randomly. However, email, perhaps as a result of its newness, its lack of physical contact, or textual orientation, provides fewer social, cultural or physical barriers to communicating with an other. Emails will often be sent, on the slightest hope of receiving assistance or advice, to the indistinct but definite group of knowledgeable who are sometimes synonymous with the publicly visible in Net communities. Talking to strangers, an unusual practice in the real world, is heavily mythologised within the confines of electronic space (cf. Gumpert & Drucker, 1994:171). The operating rationale for the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and Webchat is that there is always a selection of strangers willing to communicate with other strangers on an, albeit, rudimentary level of intercourse. This ability extends the telephones potential for interaction by placing the chatter within a space where this communication is expected and encouraged. These particular environments have an influence upon the expectations of the occupants of all electronic places, shaping a perspective which feigns egalitarian communicability. This illusion can simultaneously obscure and subject women and non-mainstream groups to interactive exploitation in situations where individual electronic identity reveals apparently real affiliations or configurations.

However, despite these linkages, the design methodology of a telephone generally limits a conversation to two people (Adrian, 1995:[2]). This feature and the hard-wired nature of the linkage indicates that computer-mediated communication is not simply a glorified type of telephone system but an implementation of technology which makes space.

The inheritance of computer-mediated communication from television, video-viewing and cinema are also evident in a number of ways. These media create a non-interactive space, which, while not unique, distinguishes it from most activities of daily life (Inglis, 1990:134 & Ostwald, 1993:7). The one-to-many broadcast technology of television creates an audience/producer dichotomy which does not permit fluidity between these roles (Adrian, 1995:[1]). The sharing of visual and textual information is, similarly, confined almost exclusively to the production side of the dichotomy, prohibiting mass contribution to the construction of prevalent patterns of common social imagery (Richardson, 1974:3,4 ). The visually orientated nature of televised information and imagery cannot be expanded upon within a technology which is neither hypertextual or multi-threaded. Thus, the imagery of material culture items the viewer witnesses play important connotative roles which contribute to the construction of sociality but may be consciously missed, ignored or misinterpreted. The televised images are effectively released to public consumption and interpretation upon their broadcast and, although video recorders have changed this one-way relationship on an individual level, they do not redress the broadcast nature of television. The linearity of broadcasting also restricts television programming to a rigidity that predetermines the sequence of imagery and information being received (Lyotard, 1993:90-5). The simultaneous stream of images, spoken commentary and, occasional, explanatory text cannot be altered to suit individual audience members preferences. The viewer is prohibited from requesting more text but less commentary or a series of multiple images without any oral information while they watch television. Computer-mediated communications, and the social spaces in which these communications are undertaken, overcome the limitations of a linear and broadcast medium, reinforcing the post-industrial nature of these spaces by allowing a more humanistic, interpretive and interactive process across the entirety of meanings associated with, and generated through, this space.

The human construction of electronic space has drawn upon many socially shared but partially perceived material culture items to create a familiar, though mainly textual, place. The most direct example of this cultural inheritance is found in the various interactive Multi-User Simulated Environments (MUSEs) in which participants can become a crew member on the Enterprise, visit 16th Century Transylvania, or experience a theme park. The significance of these experiences lies in the level of human to human interactivity available in a space that exists largely with the conceptualisations of the users themselves. Electronic social space can make our personal catalogue of ideationally realised material culture items as real as the South Pole or Miami Beach while reconfirming mass-media and mass-education inspired imagery and perceptions.

Electronic space, as in physical space, does not demand participation or engagement. The optional nature of the users role in specific spaces contributes to the construction and maintenance of certain perceptions within those spaces. The influence of the World Wide Web on the conduct of social life within the Internet is an indication of the effect lurking can have upon the construction of social spaces. The introduction of the World Wide Web to the Internet created a two-dimensional visual environment which enabled people to surf. The claimed advantages of the World Wide Web, particularly the visual orientation of its interface, allowed people to treat the Internet as a type of slow moving television set or, alternately, as a series of pages to be turned, enabling them to adopt a more familiar role as an audience member rather than a participant or, in more heroic terms, a cyber-citizen. While this orientation may be construed as holding negative consequences, its existence, combined with the popularity of personal computers, is the basis for the almost exponential growth in the claimed number of Internet users over the past two years. The strengths and popular claims made for the World Wide Web tend to stress its television-like qualities while many of its features as a new media are accepted without any consideration for the implications. The reasons for this step backwards may rest solely with the perspectives and biases of media and intelligentsia who contribute to the shaping of popular culture (Hartley, 1992:41). This current situation emphasises the cultural biases which construct the television as a familiar and non-threatening implementation of technology. The treatment of new media in this manner is also reflected by the inability of academia to identify a useful or relevant field of analysis which could counter the populist and often simplistic interpretations that have so far emerged in discussions of these new technologies. In the construction of new media as unthreateningly television-like, a range of culturally and generationally specific knowledge has been utilised to invent its interactive space (Rushkoff, 1994:148). These inventions present a range of conflicting and contradictory perspectives which are similarly experienced in other realms of sociality. The variations between the librarian and academic, Gen-X Net-surfer, and high school student personify an ostensibly generational triptych of users and formulate a power structure which could be defined by the classic sociological division of age. The people cannot, however, be neatly or arbitrarily pigeon-holed with this single criterion. The reinforcement of particular inventions and the background of specific social knowledge contribute to a more inclusive model of social distinction on the Net. For the information professional, the Net and particularly the Web, is a powerful but untamed library. The publicity and popularity are generally dismissed by them as hype and an obfuscation of the power of the medium. These people are also, at an institutional level, the police force of the Net, one of their recurrent duties being to discourage surfers from using chatlines and other interactive services and give preference to those people who want to use the Internet as an information archive. This static perspective dramatically contrasts with the concerns of Net-surfers. The formulation of the Internet as a site for surfing reflects the altered perspectives and the postmodern recycling of icons by what author, Douglas Coupland, describes as Generation X, a misnomer that identifies a condition of post-industrial identity rather than any definite age group (Coupland, 1991:15,34 ; Lieberg, 1995:722). The appellation of the term surfing introduces a series of cultural, generational and almost nihilistic values which philosophise, at an extreme, that nothing exists beyond the next Web page. The philosophy and analogies with the surfie sub-culture of the 1960s are repetitive themes of many of the inventions of the Internet. Surfing, then, takes the surfer to a variety of places which have little context or relevance to ones daily lifestyle but these issues are subservient to the possibilities and actual activity of surfing.

The introduction of the Internet into the framework of mass-education has, however, allowed conventional power formulations to be reaffirmed through existent systemic institutions. The anti-porn/Net-censor industry, for example, has arisen in response to the demands of concerned parents and citizens. These concerns, however, reflect the range of approaches to information technology and the differing priorities developed in response to specific cultural inventions (Rushkoff, 1994:31). Students in mass education systems, who actually have Internet access, are either encouraged to participate in, or individually seek out, the interactive capabilities of the Internet. These users differ from their educators, for whom information technology is generally treated as an appendage to their existing cultural knowledge and thus shapes email-based services as the major focus for their interaction. The institutional student is, however, directed to the Net as the source for a wide-ranging and contemporary series of concerns and services. The potential and possibilities of interaction through the Web and other, more visual or interactive, components of the Internet such as CU-SeeMe are crash-tested by these new users. These users also test the communicative preparedness of users in electronic space, exploiting the interactivity of the medium by posting, out of naivety or heightened expectation, to any forum or public space with the expectation of near instantaneous responses. These interactions emphasise the experience and treatment of cyberspace as an intimate but global backyard. There is a difficulty in quantifying these assertions into a distinct taxon of users, but an examination of educational sites on the Web and the Usenet News provides strong evidence for the culture of querying as a recurrent theme of electronic space and computer-mediated communication.

These appellations of a particular mode of interaction and conceptualisation to a generational criteria obscure other cultural influences acting upon the inventions of the Net as a social space. Among these cultural distinctions for electronic space is the development of English as the lingua franca of exchange and communication. This has become so prevalent that Web sites which are situated in regions where the primary language of communication is one other than English provide a second translated page. The predominance of English in the primarily textual material culture of the Internet is an indication of the specific cultural, social and political environments in which computer-mediated communication and the manufacture of electronic space has been conducted.

The historical developments which contributed to the conceptualisation of the Web and its execution draws much impetus from increasingly sophisticated military requirements and, more generally, from the maintenance of methods of control over dispersed complex societies. As an example, the first large-scale implementation of Holleriths punch card tabulating machines, in the US census of 1890, allowed legislators to more fully understand their constituents in a manner which contributed to the rapid quantification of the nation-state (Jones, 1982:104). This knowledge provided facts which allowed taxation, immigration, economic, educative and social policies to be justified, prioritised and maintained. Military control factors were the later impetus for the first electronic computers which shortened the time necessary for the calculation of missile trajectories and code decryption. Similarly, concerns for the security of military data beyond a nuclear holocaust prompted the establishment of multi-sited widely dispersed computer networks through the 1960s and 1970s. The de-emphasis upon military strength with the dissolution of long-standing East European power structures placed the focus for the means of social control upon economic institutions and, particularly, in the context of electronic communications, telecommunications companies which provide one of the two necessary services for the continuation of global computer-mediated communications. The combination of these conditions has shaped a particular technical method of internetworking, contributed to the invention of the Internet as a space, and promoted a range of cultural and sub-cultural positions which respond to this situation.

Sites of Electronic Identity

Electronic identity is closely linked to the surrounding social space and the meanings attached to the material culture items contained within. The maintenance and development of this identity is undertaken through the use of material culture cues that are both textual and public (Leach, 1976:15). This process is a human process and does not differ from the conventional construction of ones identity in relation to the generic other. However, electronic identity is more heavily reliant upon definite, more permanent, material culture than is arguably the situation within the analogue world.

Electronic identity is expressed through the individuals presentation of words and symbols (Argyle, 1969:75). The .sig (or signature) utilised by people in their email provides an insight into both the users identity and, usually, among conventional users, their personal identity. Similarly, the return email address or home page address (URL) reveals certain symbols associated with a persons electronic identity. The information publicly passed by the domain name fragments, *.com, *.edu or *.de holds the same social significance as an art style or body modification may have to a particular cultural heritage. Email messages that originate from people who maintain accounts on sites that contain *.edu may be accorded different respect or response than those from a *.org or *.com address. Specific domains, the name of the computer handling the individuals email, are even the target of unflattering jokes in the tradition of Irish and blonde jokes, most notably, aol.com is the source of considerable amusement. America On-Line (AOL) represents a visible and relatively large group of people who were, and are, seen to exist outside the founding philosophy of the Internet, having, as they do, one of the first commercial providers of Internet access as their email host, and hence, part of their electronic identity. AOLers became a visible and, for many, an annoying part of the Internet in the middle of 1995 when the service provider created a direct linkage to the Internet for its members. This decision initiated an en masse series of postings to various publicly accessible noticeboards and Usenet newsgroups by a generally inexperienced body of people who could be paraphrased as, Hi, this is great, please email me if this works. Someone@aol.com. The visible identity and the various levels of Internet faux pas embodied in this simple message soured other Internet users to the advantages of cheap commercial access to the Internet. The name of the domain is also the source of derision among Silicon Valley hippies who invoke computer-mediated communications as the harbinger of destruction for Enlightenment concepts such as the nation-state (Poster, 1995:[1] ). These electronic icons, however, are often misinterpreted or indistinguishable to people viewing the culture from outside. These examples can be likened to conventional material culture research and anthropological interpretations which examine social relationships and interaction through the medium of identifiable artefacts. Electronic identity remains tied to social and cultural real world values of status, prestige and power. People who identify themselves as webmasters, the controllers of World Wide Web computers, particularly of important web sites or programmers who have contributed significant software to the Internet as public domain, hold positions which parallel those given to nation-building polictians, famous architects, owners of media or rock stars. Examples of these significant identities are the two founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, John Barlow, the Grateful Deads lyricist and cattle rancher, and Mitchell Kapor, the original Lotus 123 developer, both of whom are well known digerati (digital glitterati) but who both made significant contributions of capital attained from their successes in the real world to fund a voice for their beliefs on-line. However, as with specific domains contained within email or Web addresses, these personal identities have exceeded their real world existence to become inventions of mythic proportions.

Other activities and textual signs of activities also impart a particular identity, both electronically and in reality. There are a variety of on-line activities which enhance an individuals prestige and identity. The act of being labelled among the ranks of mythologised hackers, holding membership to the WELL in San Francisco, or claiming to have possessed an email account before the Internet was a big thing are all markers to a particular identity construction. These markers all depend upon a particular quality which could be described as on-line longevity and is valued highly enough that great efforts are made by people outside this group of old-timers to appear to hold membership in some way. None of these myth-building activities are unique to electronic space but importantly these identities are built, almost entirely, upon visible and readily reproducible electronic material culture. The source of their mythical identity is, in part, a result of electronic space being constituted as a primarily consumption-orientated space (Lyotard, 1993:16-7). These people fulfil, or are seen to fulfil, the much rarer role of producers, or even, tool-makers.

Consuming Space

Electronic space is a post-industrial space. It is a space for consumption and the provision of services. This imbalance is achieved, in part, by the hidden production abilities of real space but, largely, by the minimal production processes necessary to individually service an extremely large body of consumers. An example of this is the service provisions of the company which provides the most popular Web browser, Netscape. Netscape popularised the Web with its easy-to-use and graphical Web browser. This browser also allowed the user to access Netscapes own Web site for up-to-date and voluminous information regarding the use and, in an extreme example of the self-referential nature of electronic space, correct installation of the product. This scale and level of information was, and is, unprecedented for a piece of software that is shareware for academic use and has a thirty day free trial period for other users. The spaces that Netscape has created for colonisation are rapidly being signposted with information as an almost coincidental consequence of the software development process, the word-processing output of institutions and the single-minded dedication of individual producers. The information provided by Netscape and other entities with similar philosophies was, and is, extensively and repeatedly consumed, assisting in the creation of further points on the electronic map. A map which is not just a representation of the relationship and position of points but also is the entity being represented (Leach, 1976:51).

Consumption is not, then, measured solely as a financial cost to the user but instead, and appropriately for a post-industrial space, by the users knowledge and access to information (Hayles, 1993:177). The relationship between producer and consumer, on the Net, generally remains unburdened by the need for definite transactions at anything beyond a technical internetworking level.

This situation re-emphasises the taxonomy of users who interact concurrently within electronic places but for whom the commercialisation of the Internet underpins either the success or failure of global computer-mediated communications. The Baby-Boomer philosophies which are currently driving the development of secure credit card transactions across the Internet reflect a conceptualisation of the Internet as a virtual shopping mall similar in purpose and construction to the tele-mall shopping that dominates late-night television programming (Adrian, 1995:[1]). This perspective and philosophy contrasts with the Net-surfers approach to marketing and selling on-line. The oft-cited business success stories of the Internet generally involve a more convoluted series of two-way communications between the consumer and producer/seller (cf. Jones, 1982:239). Software publishers, such as Apogee the creators of the shoot-em-up 3D DOOM, the most popular computer game to date, often release a test or early version with some type of freely useable public domain licence. Those who use this software can often ask questions and seek solutions to problems directly from the publisher, if not the actual programmer. The users who develop a must have relationship with the product can then purchase a newer, larger or better product for what, in the software industry, could be described as dirt-cheap. The significance of these sales methods is that the consumer can receive pre-sales service. Providers of free information have also avoided the assumptions of user-pays schemes by placing the financial burden upon commercial providers of Internet access or products. Webcrawler, one of the first Web search engines, was recently sold to a commercial provider of on-line access with the arrangement that the author of the program would remain within the employ of the company and continue to develop his core code, itself a particularly significant material culture item. These latter schemes have a definite heritage to the commercial strategies of free-to-air television in which advertisers apparently pass their costs on to the consumer. This arguably ties the commercial aspects of the Internet to those parts which hold television-like qualities and ensures that, while these are the only techniques being utilised, the interactive and un-television-like parts of the Internet will remain dominated by less financial orientated exchange.

As the most graphical and popular aspect of the Internet, the World Wide Web commanded a significant level of attention from the popular media and business through most of 1995. This attention reinforces much of our argument that electronic space primarily contains places for consumption-orientated activities. Print articles and magazines of the Internet press concentrate upon providing large lists of URLs to sites that are assumed to be interesting or cool to its readership. These cool lists also provide a taxonomy of sites for the digital archaeologist to both chart and position within classificatory schema. What is emerging within the electronic spaces described as the Web is both a taxonomy and a hierarchy of sites that are defined in post-industrial and consumption culture terms. Web pages are considered in the light of particular criteria which usually include content, presentation and, the more indefinite, experience. That such a diverse series of material culture items such as Web pages, with only their medium of presentation as a common linkage, should be considered in this generic manner is an indication of the prevailing homogeneous inventions by which the Internet is understood.

Each Web page conforms to certain requirements that all Web pages share and remains at a certain level, through technical necessity, equal. However, the relationships and contexts within which Web pages are placed introduce both political and cultural forces which demolish the possibility for the development of any egalitarian myths surrounding electronic space (cf. Jones, 1982:174). Although the Web, and more generally the Internet, are described as tools of empowerment for distinct and identifiable communities of interest, the relationship between real and electronic spaces impinges upon the full political realisation of this empowerment.


The reordered power structure of electronic space is seen by some as an opportunity for a near utopian global community (Rushkoff, 1994:21). This perspective founds much of its idealism upon the rapid acceptance of digital networking technology within very specific and unusual nodes of contemporary post-industrial society. This Silicon Valley/Academia perspective assumes that the remainder of the world will adopt this technology or risk isolation from the burgeoning Information Superhighway and membership as a cyber-citizen. The particularity of this perspective ignores the economic disparity both intra- and internationally that still remains the primary criteria for defining the information rich. The burdens of the real world are not absolved within an electronically crafted space which is only a reconfiguration of existent sociality and cannot be interpreted as a new or unfettered construction (Ostwald, 1993:6). Similarly, the cultural, historical and generational biases of post-industrial consumption culture have directed the occupants understanding and socialisation within this space (Rushkoff, 1994:181). The identities, inventions and material culture that are currently found electronically are an indication that such constructions cannot develop in isolation from pre-existent formations. The material items of this space may therefore be analysed in terms of a conventional cultural mapping or digital archaeology.

This paper attempts to position contemporary material culture forms, such as those of electronic social space, within a recognisable intellectual tradition, namely material culture studies. This positioning emphasises the usefulness of utilising material culture studies, both as a tool for the analysis of contemporary society as well as understanding cultural constructions of the past, and among those people whose cultures are strange, even to those who actively participate in them. It is therefore appropriate to utilise such analytical tools both in the observation of ones own culture and for cultures that are different. Embracing such notions does not, however, construct any form of imperative that these interpretations must be right. The use of material culture to provide some understanding of social organisation and interaction remains a complex and difficult process, as are all attempts to understand human society. The existing cultural baggage that the social scientist carries cannot be disregarded (Magee, 1973:65) and opens up possibilities for misunderstandings and alternative interpretations. This, however, does not mean that such attempts should be abandoned as hopeless, but rather embraced as part of the academic processes associated with the continuation and recycling of knowledge. The dynamism of post-industrial society provides the social scientist with an expansive range of material from which to interpret the meanings and constructions of society. We have attempted to assert these notions through the presentation of such constructions as electronic identity, role formations, shared cultural meanings and the ability of individuals to position themselves and mutually comprehend electronic space. These avenues of interest are but a few of the many interpretations that emerge if the possibility of digital archaeology is embraced.


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