I’ve noticed that there’s a prominent streak of exceptionalism in thinking about science as well as about the Internet. In both cases, there’s a sense of otherness, of separation, of being a sui generis entity in the world and in history.
I made the connection reading David King’s piece for the Sciences and Democracy World Forum, Why we need ‘another science’. The essay argues that scientists must recognize the ways that science is shaped by society — that it is not exceptional in being immune to outside influences. This is in contrast to a line of thought, recently popular, that science is being “corrupted” by political or economic imperatives. The problem is that science has always been shaped by economic and political agendas — necessarily so, because scientists are humans, working in and funded by human institutions. (I’m reminded of the quip that ideologies are like accents: everybody has one but you.) By failing to recognize that, we lose context and arrive at a weaker, narrower understanding of our problems and opportunities.
This strikes me as being very much in the vein of science and technology studies — the study of science and technology as social forces, and as being shaped by social forces.
I wondered if I was alone in my thinking, and Google pointed me to Jasanoff, et al.’s Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. The highlighted excerpt is revealing.
As to the Internet, the thought arose most recently in reading Chopra and Dexter’s Decoding Liberation (which I have been in the process of reviewing for an inexcusably long time). The book has an unfortunate habit of — often just after criticizing it — slipping into Internet exceptionalism, assuming cyberspace is a new place immune to control or influence by the state or corporations. Of course, this is nothing new to anyone familiar with the sociology of the early Web or its predecessors. The argument was made maybe most audaciously in John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.
It would probably be hard to underestimate the influence that Internet exceptionalism has had on the development of public policies toward it. The EFF, one of the most influential organizations in cyber policy, was co-founded by Barlow. It echoes everywhere from tax policy, to concerns about cyberbullying, cyberstalking, online sexual predators and the like, to copyright — as reflected in its very name, the DMCA is premised on the Internet’s differentness — to the Net neutrality debate (where one side tries to save the Internet from corporate control, while the other side wants the government’s hands off the Internet). More recently there’s pushback — from activists, academics, lawyers, and technologists — but it’s still a quite popular strain of thought. (The latter link is the most shocking: after years of consensus among techies of all political stripes that regulation = bad, here’s a call for a regulatory regime created explicitly for the Internet.)
This raises all kinds of questions I’d like to know more about. Is there a connection between scientific and Internet exceptionalism (maybe owing to the Internet’s history as a byproduct of science)? What has been the history and the evolution of each? (Did people see telephony as an “exceptional space”? Is this a pattern of how we respond to new technologies?) Does every sector and hobby think of itself as exceptional — is there a cattle exceptionalism, a freighter exceptionalism, a military exceptionalism, a bird-watching exceptionalism…?