Cyberspace and Governance

By Muralidhar, Srihari Hulikal | Review of Management, December 2015 | Go to article overview

Cyberspace and Governance


Muralidhar, Srihari Hulikal, Review of Management


Introduction

Our lives are mediated by an increasing number of technologies. The Internet can be seen as an exemplar of global connectivity, which is a hallmark of the globalized era we live in. Increasingly, our professional and recreational activities are moulded by this connectivity. The challenges to global governance are probably best illustrated by the extra-territorial, seemingly unregulated nature of cyberspace. This essay looks into the issue of cyberspace in an attempt to explore the relations between the 'global' and the 'local'. Cyberspace illustrates a highly complex interaction between global and local forces which make it difficult to regulate by individual nation-states. We live in a world where "local transformation is as much a part of globalization as the lateral extension of social connections across time and space... what happens in a local neighbourhood is likely to be influenced by factors - such as world money and commodity markets - operating at an indefinite distance away from that neighbourhood itself" (Giddens 1990, p. 64). Morley (2002, p. 2) expresses the role of media and ICTs (information and communication technologies) in this regard in a most succinct manner: 'the sitting room is a place where, in a variety of mediate forms, the global meets the local'.

Technology and Change

Technology has always been seen as a key instrument of social change. From the invention of railways and atom bomb, to cell phones and computers, technological change has had a powerful impact on social behaviour. In recent decades, information and communication technologies have come to increasingly mould our lives, the societal and state institutions that are in place, and knowledge production. Castells argues that the Internet can be seen as the backbone of these transformations and its impact is difficult to discount (Castells, 1996, 2001).

In the 1990s, the Internet was seen as a revolutionary force which would bring about the 'death of distance', the emergence of the virtual society, and so on. Castells sees it as the best example of the 'space of flows', as the truly global technology which characterizes the essence of the 'network society'. He argues that the Internet has become 'the technological basis for the organizational form of the Information Age' (Castells, 2001:1): 'Core economic, social, political, and cultural activities throughout the planet are being structured by and around the Internet, and other computer networks. In fact, exclusion from these networks is one of the most damaging forms of exclusion in our economy and in our culture'. (Castells, 2001:3, quoted in Aas 2007, p. 175)

On the other hand, critical scholars, who have tried to temper this celebration of the Net as an emancipatory agent, have pointed out that technology may have far less vivid and less foreseeable consequences. The so-called 'social shaping of technology' approach contends that technological change has to be understood within the larger framework of social and economic change (Aas, 2007:154). The Internet is not only a global, 'unrestricted' medium, but is also used in local spaces and conditioned by local contexts. How it is used is determined by a number of social, economic, and cultural factors. Rather than being a universal medium, the Internet reflects a deeply stratified and divided global condition. Internet access is unequally distributed, creating a digital divide along class, racial and ethnic lines within countries, as well as between the global North and the global South (Castells, 2001). Cyber-connectivity should therefore be perceived as a symbol of privilege at the global level.

Hints of 'technological determinism' are quite common in popular and mainstream media representations of the Internet which tend to exaggerate its emancipatory potential and understate the significance of the social context and of the individual agency. Critics have called for moving beyond crude, cause-and-effect reasoning about technology. …

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