Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Counterhegemonic Discourses and the Internet

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Counterhegemonic Discourses and the Internet

Article excerpt

Judging from the number of hours that the average person watches television, it seems that the public' is electronically engaged. The electronic world, however, is by no means fully established, and it is time to take advantage of the fluidity through invention, before we are left with only critique as a weapon.

- Autonomedia 1995

The vast expansion of telecommunications - a largely unintended outcome of the microelectronics revolution - has created numerous channels for the acquisition, processing, and monitoring of information, an integral part of what Manuel Castells labels the "informational mode of production" (1989, 1996). These systems form a fundamental part of the growth of post-Fordist production regimes around the world, contributing to a massive, planetary round of time-space compression (Harvey 1989; Hepworth 1990; Akwule 1992; Warf 1995; Graham and Marvin 1996).

The largest such system is the Internet. Incontestably, the Internet is the world's largest electronic network, connecting (in January 1998) an estimated 100 million people in more than 130 countries (MIDS 1998). The origins of the Internet can be traced back to 1969, when the U.S. Department of Defense created Arpanet, electronically connected computers whose transmission lines were designed to withstand a nuclear onslaught (Hafner and Lyon 1996). In 1984 Arpanet was expanded and opened to the scientific community when it was taken over by the National Science Foundation, transmogrifying into NSFNET, which linked five supercomputers around the United States. Public networks have now been supplemented by a variety of private access systems - among which, in the United States, are CompuServe, Prodigy, and America Online - that allow any individual with a microcomputer and a modern to "plug in."

The Internet, which blossomed at a global scale thanks to its integration with existing telephone, fiber-optic, and satellite systems, was made possible by the technological innovation of packet switching, in which individual messages are decomposed, transmitted by various channels, and then reassembled, virtually instantaneously, at their destination. In the 1990s such systems have received new scrutiny as central facets of the Clinton administration's "information superhighways." Spurred by declining prices of services and equipment and unrelenting media hype, the Internet has grown at astounding rates, the number of users worldwide doubling roughly every year. In an age in which the human-machine interface has become difficult to define precisely, the Internet allows the electronic extension of networks that have functioned by traditional means for many years.

But what of the politics of cyberspace? Much of the Internet's use, for commercial, academic, and military purposes, reinforces entrenched ideologies of individualism and a definition of the self through consumption. Many uses revolve around simple entertainment, personal communication, and other ostensibly apolitical purposes. Hegemonic uses of the Net include commercial applications (Weis 1992; Cronin 1996), particularly advertising and shopping but also purchasing and marketing, in addition to uses by public agencies that legitimate and sustain existing ideologies and politics as "normal," "necessary," or "natural." Because most users view themselves, and their uses of the Net, as apolitical, hegemonic discourses tend to be reproduced unintentionally. Although dominant ideologies are sustained largely outside the Internet, the growing communities of cybercitizens - Netizens - inevitably bring their views on-line with them. Whenever blatant perspectives mired in racism, sexism, or other equally unpalatable ideologies pervade society at large, they are carried into, and reproduced within, cyberspace.

The Internet can also sustain counterhegemonic discourses, challenging established systems of domination and legitimating and publicizing political claims by the powerless and marginalized. …

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