Exceptionalism in science and in cyberspace

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…?

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2 Responses to Exceptionalism in science and in cyberspace

  1. samirchopra says:

    Gavin,

    I’d be very interested to get pointers on where you think our book indulges in “Internet exceptionalism.” I was discussing this with Scott Dexter, and he pointed out that in many ways, the “the character of the internet is completely orthogonal to a lot of our arguments…free software did pretty well without the internet at all” And as I was thinking to myself, while we had this conversation, that we do mention the character of cyberspace in Chapter 5, but there we describe it not as a distinct space, but an all-pervading one, and one that is all too subject to the influence of state and corporation!

    So, in sum, a) the central arguments of the book do not rely on cyberspace to have any particular nature at all

    b) I think we are quite explicit that the world of technology (and consequently cyberspace) is impinged on constantly by law and socio-political-economic pressures. And it is not clear that cyberspace needs special treatment – its just that it is most readily influenced by the contours of the particular techniques that underwrite it i.e., software.

    best,
    Samir

    • Gavin Baker says:

      Samir,

      I noted a few points in chapter 5 where the text seems to assume (implicitly) a separateness of the Internet, even as it (explicitly) denies it. e.g.:

      … These constraints [social, architectural, financial, and legal] originated in the physical world, but are now to be found as well on the Internet. [emphasis mine] …

      … No longer are issues of diplomacy or jurisdictional reach barriers to enforcing the law. States may simply use the “long arm of the code” to implement decisions and policies that can have impact even outside their borders. …

      In the first quote, the use of “now” (rather than, say, “also”) suggests a sense of intrusion: that we are saying “there was the Internet, but then the physical world’s rules started to creep in”.

      In the second quote, other than being demonstrably false (it is an issue of diplomacy — see the Global Internet Freedom Act), it also suggests that this kind of cross-jurisdictional influence is entirely novel, which isn’t exactly accurate. Comparisons come to mind: cross-border broadcasting and interference; export regulations, and the influence of exported products (including the regulations that shaped them) on the importer country.

      It’s not pervasive throughout the book or seemingly intentional, but it seems like there are a few slips here and there.

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