Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 1/ January 1, 1995 / Page 4

Cybercasting about Cyberspace

by Laura J. Gurak (

What is the future of CMC? Part of our current cultural fascination with technology involves posing this sort of forecasting question, then answering as if the future had already happened somewhere out there in the foggy distance and the question poser happened to have just the right kind of binoculars to peer through the fog and clearly see the future, with its new technologies shining on the horizon. Everywhere we read articles like the past cover story of UnixWorld, promising us "a peek into the future" (Poole p. 53) of the Internet, then going on to tell their version/vision of CMC, in this case, as a booming commercial marketplace with high user fees and no federal subsidies. Or this, from last month's issue of CMC Magazine, where we read a definitive forecasting statement about how CMC will look in the future:

The Information Superhighway will be built, owned and controlled by a consortium of telecommunications and entertainment corporate giants. Access to this private infrastructure will be as controlled, bureaucratic, and as expensive as is access to today's mass television audiences (Strangelove 1994).

The explicit determinism in this way of thinking is frightening, for it completely ignores any human agency in the design and implementation of new technologies. As a society we are, unfortunately, often guided by what David Noble (1986) calls "technological Darwinism:" a belief that technologies develop through some life force of their own; then, through the "natural selection" process of market forces, good technologies rise to the surface, and bad ones simply go away. Consumers, this argument purports, will make the right choices. But as Langdon Winner (1986) has clearly illustrated, technologies are not value-neutral. They are shaped by the political, social, and most of all commercial forces which in turn shape our entire culture. And while it is true that the design of a specific component (the microprocessor, for example) or the current shape of a specific political climate often dictates what the next stage of design will surely be, at the macro level, there are usually many ways a new technology can be developed, implemented and used. But by the time it reaches the marketplace, many of the critical decisions have already been made.

So when asking ourselves about the future of CMC, both in 1995 and the long term, we should really be asking ourselves about the future of our society. And about what we want the world to look like 100 years from now. And about how much each of us is willing to participate in making our technologies work in ways that meet what we consider to be desirable social and political objectives. Even if we do not agree on these objectives, it is better to have the discussion now than to simply accept a future of communication technologies in which we have had no voice. Thus, in the rest of this article, I have outlined what I consider to be some of the prime assumptions about CMC, assumptions that are worth our careful scrutiny. As 1995 begins and the new US Congress steps in to place, we must take an active role in the future of CMC by making our concerns and voices known, especially now that so many government offices are accessible via the Internet.

Of course, I have not defined what I mean by CMC, which could become an article unto itself! These days, the term "CMC" is used to describe the mostly text-based systems, both synchronous and asynchronous, used for communication between humans via computer. One reason I avoid any further definition is because our decisions over the next few years will change how we think of CMC. If increased bandwith and video images are what we choose to prioritize, then CMC may mean technologies like video MOOs. But will this decision be made at the expense of increased access for those who have never used a text-based MOO? How we define CMC will revolve around how we prioritize our design and spending decisions: toward bigger, braver hardware; toward increased access, education, and training; or toward some middle ground between the two.

Assumption 1: CMC Will Radically Change the Workplace (for the Better)

A little history tells us that this song has been sung before. When Zuboff (1988) studied the introduction of computers into the workplace in the early 1980s, she proposed two possible models: computers could "informate" and change the workplace to a more participatory structure, or they could "automate" and reinforce traditional corporate structures. Now, 10 years later, it is clear that for the most part, computers did not radically change the workplace as she envisioned. In many ways, they have merely strengthened traditional corporate hierarchies. Noble (1986) could have predicted this; his classic study of factory automation illustrates two technologies--one favoring labor and one favoring management--and the political and social forces that helped the management-oriented technology succeed. So with CMC, we cannot rely merely on the hardware itself to bring about the positive changes so often predicted: changes like telecommuting, distance meetings, and democracy in the workplace. These changes will only take place if the technology is developed to meet such goals.

Assumption 2: CMC Will Do Away with the Physical Classroom

As one of three faculty members (each from different institutions) who organized and participated in a MOO-based discussion group called "Rhetoric, Community, and Cyberspace" this past fall, I was struck by the power of the technology to allow students and faculty from across the country to come together and have intelligent (though sometimes a bit unfocused!) discussions about a topic. Each Thursday evening during the fall semester, we would all log in from our separate locations and hold what in many ways resembled a graduate seminar. Each week was devoted to a specific article that focused on one topic: flaming, community, democracy, gender. It was a great experience, one that showed me the potentials of using MOOs and other CMC technologies for distance learning.

But it also left me somewhat concerned, much as Joseph Weizenbaum (1976) was when he noticed how strikingly similar the ELIZA software was to a human therapist. One of the most important aspects of teaching (and probably of counseling, too) is the human connection; the ability to determine whether real learning is taking place by looking into the eyes of students and being aware of body language and general classroom ethos. Face-to-face interaction has been characterized as the most "rich" form of communication and is in my experience the best form for the classroom. So the assumption that CMC will eventually do away with physical classrooms is extreme. These technologies will probably increase the ability to perform distance learning, but they will never replace classes as we know them (remember predictions of the "paperless society"?). However, in keeping with my theme here, it is not CMC that will make the changes, it is us as a society who will determine how we want to use CMC in education.

Assumption 3: CMC Will Enhance Democracy

Of all the assumptions, this one certainly bears close scrutiny. A quick look over our shoulder reveals this same claim was made for television, especially cable TV. Remember public access channels, originally envisioned as a way to reinvigorate democracy by providing public spaces and citizen access? Or how about a project called the Qube Tube, which was an interactive TV system allowing viewers to vote on community issues? Christopher Arterton (1987) has studied these and other projects, which initially claimed to offer great potential to our disenchanted democracy. But in the case of TV, instead of lots of robust debates on heavily viewed public access channels, we have lots of home shopping and sound bites.

So CMC is only as democratic as we want it to be. Many of the claims about CMC and democracy stem from the current bottom-up, non-herarchical structure of the Internet, which at first glance appears to allow anyone with access to speak directly to others in the forum. Here in Minnesota, an E-Democracy project during the 1994 campaigns experimented with bringing candidates and issues into the bottom-up forum of the Internet. These ideas illustrate the great potential of CMC for citizen access, but they also illustrate the problems with a true participatory democracy, where everyone--even the flamers and those wishing to spread inaccurate information--have a voice. Also, if we want CMC to be a part of our democratic discourse, we must keep a close eye on the commercial ventures currently interested in the Internet. And we must also grapple with what it really means to provide all citizens with the hardware, training, education, and inspiration to participate.

Assumption 4: CMC is Inherently Egalitarian

Related to the issue of democracy is the idea that CMC somehow provides an open, value-free space, in which all citizens--black or white, male or female--have equal access to the discussion at hand. This assumption is rooted in a hardware-based paradigm, which assumes that anyone with the necessary hardware and skills has equal ability to connect to the Internet and therefore equal ability to speak up. Yet access to hardware and the open-ended nature of most Internet forums (Usenet; unmoderated lists; chats) do not by themselves create an egalitarian space. The same social forces at work in the real world are also at work on the Internet. Susan Herring's (1993) research is perhaps the best illustration of the social biases on the net. Herring, a linguist, has shown in numerous studies that CMC discussions often have a gender bias, with men speaking up more often and more aggressively, and women using more passive language and more deflections, such as the smiley face at the end of what would otherwise be serious statements. There is no reason to believe that CMC has an inherent potential to wipe out sexism, racism, and the many other biases that now plague our society.

So in summary, my predictions about CMC in 1995 are that our society will keep forecasting, in mostly positive terms, about the wonders of CMC for society. And while I at times share this wonderment, as I connect up with my colleagues and friends across the world from my office here in Minnesota, I also worry that the social, political, and humanistic implications of CMC technology are not being fully explored. ¤


Laura Gurak is Assistant Professor in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of Minnesota. Her past articles have appeared in Technical Communication Quarterly and Technical Communication.

Copyright © 1995 by Laura J. Gurak. All Rights Reserved.

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