history, generations, the Internet, and cyberculture

With the decline of Kulturhistorie in German sociocultural anthropology diachronic approaches to culture and society somehow went out of fashion, sometimes even got ostracised, and synchronical approaches started to reign supremely—became tacitly paradigmatic, became fashion. Speaking in a bold and simple style. But I learned that there is no modern sociocultural anthropology without a historical component. In other words: There is hardly any sensible approach to society and culture which completely neglects the diachronic dimension. This is true for all kinds of cultures, e.g for cyberculture, and for academical cultures.

The cultures of sociocultural anthropology—that is what anthropologists did and do, thought and think—can be categorized differently. Alan Barnard for instance proposes the following divisions: a) by diachronic, synchronic, and interactive perspectives (Barnard 2000:9) b) by perspectives on society and on culture (11). But, when trying to get an overview of anthropology more often than not one falls back on a diachronical order. Barnard’s book is organized in exactly that fashion.

I started to talk about diachronical accounts of academical cultures because academical discourse is inseparably intertwined with both cyberculture and the rise of ‘modern ICTs’. Cyberculture and ICTs in turn are intertwined, too. Jakub Macek‘s Defining Cyberculture (v. 2) (Macek 2005) does justice to this circumstance and historically divides cyberculture into early and contemporary cyberculture. The former—upon which the essay’s focus lies—is subdivided into four historical periods. Having established this, Macek focusses on cybercultural narratives which he senses to be “the key defining characteristics and the most important symbolic inheritance of the mainstream from cyberculture.”:

Early cyberculture, which I understand as a diversified cluster of social groups and their discourses and cultural practices, can best be characterized in my opinion with the help of cybercultural narratives, i.e. accounts of the nature of advanced information and communication technologies that emerge within its framework. Although these narratives cover a wide range of topics they have an identifiable core that ascribes certain typical characteristics to technology. They describe it as an agent of social and cultural change, as a means of empowerment but also as the tool of new forms of power, they link it with the emergence of a new cultural space of temporary freedom and a catalyst of change in relation to the authenticity of lived experience.

While reading and reviewing broadly scoped essays and articles on cyberculture and analogous issues it struck me that in most cases a diachronical approach is at least one of the essential pillars of interpretation and/or analysis. Building upon his essay Lessons from the history of the Internet (Castells 2001a) Manuel Castells in The culture of the Internet (Castells 2001b) identifies and describes “four layers of the culture that, together, produced and shaped the Internet.” (60) This layers can, or better: have to be understood both diachronically and synchronically. That means that with the emergence and development of ‘modern ICTs’ they came into being one after another. But in my understanding one historical layer did not replace its predecessor. Rather all layers remained and from a certain point on exist side-by-side. Albeit not in there ‘original’ form. The layers are: the techno-meritocratic culture, the hacker culture, the online communes, and the Internet entrepreneurs. Castells sums it up like this:

The culture of the Internet is a culture made up of a technocratic belief in the progress of humans through technology, enacted by communities of hackers thriving on free and open technological creativity, embedded in virtual networks aimed at reinventing society, and materialized by money-driven entrepreneurs into the workings of the new economy. (61)

Christine Hine‘s diachronic review of the academic approaches to the Internet is divided into two parts. She strives to clarify her argument of the Internet as culture and cultural artefact and hence at first reviews the approaches that have established the Internet as a culture. Then she reviews the approaches which take the Internet to be socially shaped in production and use. (Hine 2000:14-40)

But also articles which ‘only’ review academical approaches to cyberculture follow the historically oriented pattern. For example David Silver‘s Looking backwards, looking forward: Cyberculture studies 1990-2000 (Silver 2000), which was written as an introduction to Web.studies: Rewiring media studies for the digital age (Gauntlett 2000):

In an attempt to contextualize the chapters found in this volume, this essay traces the major works of scholarship on cyberculture from the last ten years, seen in three stages or generations. The first stage, popular cyberculture, is marked by its journalistic origins and characterized by its descriptive nature, limited dualism, and use of the Internet-as-frontier metaphor. The second stage, cyberculture studies, focuses largely on virtual communities and online identities and benefits from an influx of academic scholars. The third stage, critical cyberculture studies, expands the notion of cyberculture to include four areas of study—online interactions, digital discourses, access and denial to the Internet, and interface design of cyberspace—and explores the intersections and interdependencies between any and all four domains.

And then there is the classic piece The anthropology of online communities (Wilson & Peterson 2002) by Samuel M.Wilson and Leighton C. Peterson:

This article addresses the phenomenon of Internet-based groups and collectives, generally referred to as online communities. In reviewing anthropological approaches to these groups, we must raise several questions: How have scholars approached online communities and online communication in general? Is the concept of community itself misleading? How are issues of power and access manifested in this arena? And given that the Internet and the communication technologies based upon it—as well as all the texts and other media that exist there—are themselves culturalproducts, will an anthropological approach to these phenomena necessarily differ from other types of anthropological investigation? (449-450)

In my view the five texts briefly discussed above (Macek 2005, Castells 2001b, Hine 2000:14-40, Gauntlett 2000, Wilson & Peterson 2002) mutually complement each other and are obligatory reads for everybody who wants to academically belabour cyberculture, the Internet, and related issues—particularly obligatory for ‘cyberanthropologists’.