Identity   /   Fall 1999   /    Articles

The Citizen and Cyberspace

Mike Featherstone

Partial setup for programming of screen control for the 1987 Ford New Car Announcement Show, Detroit, MI. From left: Brad Smith, art director; Sung Soo Lee, creative director/producer; Bob Kassal, executive producer; Paul Jackson, programmer/producer.

John Thompson’s book The Media and Modernity was published in 1995, yet it fails to discuss the Internet and the development of cyberspace. These are important developments in terms of his typology of face-to-face interaction, mediated interaction, and mediated quasi-interaction.11xSee John B. Thompson, The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media (Cambridge: Polity, 1995). The Internet is clearly a form of mediated interaction, sharing some of the characteristics of the letter and telephone. Like the letter it is a scriptural form, yet it is almost like the telephone in that the exchanges between parties can be almost instantaneous and relatively simple to initiate. It is like a conversation, except that it uses the written word; it is also possible for multiple users to participate in the same “conversation.”

Yet the next stage of the Internet, which we are just seeing emerge, really deserves a classificatory category of its own; for simplicity we can call it virtual interactivity, although this only captures limited dimensions of its characteristics. It is a multimedia form, combining text, speech, music, video, and images; hence it has the combined characteristics of the telephone, radio, video, television, newspapers, books, etc., yet with a massive potential difference from the conventional media in the extent of programming and archive material available for access through increased “bandwidth.” Also important is the capacity to configure material in databases, which can be accessed and searched rapidly from many points of view. The data is hypertexted or hyperlinked so that non-narrative modes of investigation entailing jumps within and across texts become the habitual mode, in contrast to the linear mode we are used to with reading books and other texts. New discontinuous, parallel-accessing modes of reading and viewing akin to channel-hopping with television are in the process of being developed.

In the first place, these developments promise the fulfillment of a long-held dream of humanity, that of completeness—every piece of written or recorded knowledge (image/music/text) will be immediately available. Yet the corollary is the problem of navigation, selectivity, and sense: now that everything is available, where do we go and why do we go there?

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