Internet – Synthesis – Methods and Approaches

While composing the preliminary reviews of literature that surround this post (it being posted retrospectively – something pops up here about the instability of blog-time, no doubt) certain tendencies and distinctions among the many approaches to internet studies have cemented. As the time comes to distinguish my own approach and its component pieces from the existing ones, both those which contribute to it and those from which it makes more sense to distance ourselves, a synthesis of those reviews comes into form. Tracing those groups in the literature that hang together, marking the details and purposes and focus of the ongoing project, and then arguing for the validity of a fresh approach and method, this post will form a temporary holding point en route to the field statement’s proposal and procedure. But we begin just by restating the themes of the semester so far.

The initial distinction to draw within the literature can be expressed as progressive vs nostalgic, technophilic vs technophobic, utopian vs dystopian, or other such dual attitudes towards the topic. Such a division does little to mark important themes in the research, but it does help to underscore the fact of such an argument, which as we know is a good place to start thinking. Since so many authors, researchers, and thinkers are so dissatisfied with the development of the internet as it continues to fragment and complicate itself and our lives, their arguments against that direction build to fever pitches when the questions of method are arrayed against them by those more willing to accept or promote rapid development. This fault line is also where we find the most fervent discussions of determinism still underway in the literature: negatively inclined researchers point to the most advanced examples of technology’s impact on daily life, while positively inclined ones highlight the points at which social or individual intent and action shape the technologies themselves. Economic and political discussions are similarly fraught with this duality, as those policy discussions that affect the internet – or which the internet affects – such as copyright and piracy issues, e- and m-commerce and computational trading, protests, labor laws, pornographic regulation, and on, all seem to invite repetitions of each perspective’s analysis.
Close on the heels of this debate comes the fight over the status of humanism – as an ethical, ontological, and practical consideration. Those nostalgic holdouts for an ancient set of values, who often demand a return to an imagined Eden wherein humans lived in harmony with a divine Nature, unsullied by machines and artificiality, just as often paint over the atrocities carried out in the name of that humanism. Their injustices are no less profound than those of the contemporary world, but more hashed over. However, the proponents of a leap beyond humanism, be it a transfer of conscious life to “our” computers, or the gathering-together of machine and organism into sublime cyborg form, all too commonly simply assume that such a transformation can encompass those currently deeply disenfranchised, cut off from the fundamental elements of such a technologically advanced life. Their willful ignorance of the consequences of this global imbalance contradicts the immediacy and progressive outlook of their politics.
We have also seen the rise of media theorists, all speed and vector, category and experiment, social life and psychic secret, who claim to seduce and unlock the truths of our consumption and production of mediated language (and it always seems to return to language for these writers). But the outcropping of media into technology confounds these ideas of humans transmitting messages through opaque, nigh on magical channels, whose constitution can influence the very being of those messages, but whose machinations are banal beyond reckoning for their critics. The terms of carnal attraction, of socially constituted and often romantic mores, that permeate these theories from so many different disciplinary backgrounds, can withstand some scrutiny moving forward, since theirs are terms of critique and ostensible values beyond those of economics or morals. In other words (I got too caught up in my words just then), media theory fails at the very moment when its power could be revealed, because it tends to refuse to engage with its own assumptions that technology operates outside of human values, and humans communicate without respect to the technologies that mediate daily life. This is clarified by the explosion of ostensibly scientific OR literary explanations of the ‘real meaning’ of some marketable software as the next revolution in communication, or perhaps of the content of advertisements distributed online, without any equally meaningful attention given to the conditions under which such statements are made possible, disseminated, and understood.
Enough whining, then, abut the vagaries and insufficiencies of extant internet studies. The purpose, after all, is to work towards a study that will avoid these problems, introduce as few new ones to the research process as possible, and provide some meaningful interpretation of a carefully organized and taxonomized collection of data. To approach this burgeoning collection, a multifaceted technique is necessary. It might be called a materially contingent methodology, because its specific tactics of observation and analysis depend upon the medium and material under examination at any given moment. However, it follows a specific, three-tiered structure, which incorporates historical, critical, and theoretical approaches.
First, we can take an historical approach, one which I call indexical. This means that it begins with – or constructs, if necessary – an index of the source materials, in order to determine their temporal and historical significance. This approach contrasts with archival research because its unit of analysis does not necessarily live in a physical archive, but the archive can itself be indexed. It breaks with media archaeology because it is concerned not with the origin of particular statements, but the relationships between those statements at a structural level. And it remains separate from the historiographical traditions of political economy, for example, because it works from a longer-term perspective even while treating the problems of a contemporary situation. An historical index is both a requisite component and a likely outcome of this statement.
Second, its critical approach to the material also inhabits a perspective unique to cultural studies and to its object. It is not strictly a technical critique, because the concentration of technical development on specifically economic outcomes does not serve the broader research purpose under construction here. It is likewise not strictly a social view, because there are inescapably asocial and antisocial elements of the internet that require close attention in their own right, not to mention the anthropomorphic incoherence of assigning traditional social characteristics to machines, which this method will not attempt. Third, although it attends to policy and regulation among its themes, the approach’s critical perspective does not end at the political level, because the internet’s effects on our lives supersede the political on a regular basis. This cultural critique depends upon the assimilation of and independence from all these discrete elements.
Finally, its theoretical lens has a precarious position to hold. It cannot accept the technologically-determinist argument that our tools define our subjective characteristics, because there is too much evidence – even at a preliminary level – to support the contrary thesis as well, that we socially construct our technologies in daily life and design. It must balance between historicist and presentist views of the time in which the internet exists, develops, and transforms itself and us. And it cannot rest on a straightforwardly teleological explanation for the purpose or even the direction in which the internet undergoes its historical development. Despite all these disavowals, and without a clear name in mind for it, the project will attempt to hold to a nuanced theoretical course that manages these contradictions and incommensurabilities, while examining historical and cultural detail at every turn.
One clear benefit of this multifaceted approach is its insistence on reality as the grounds of research and theory. For example, by layering research methods in concert with the layers of internet protocols, practices, people, and technologies, this approach makes possible the falsification of a simplistic machine/human divide without descending into overwrought cyborg fantasies. Another is that the ability to scale the size of a data set, and to include multimedia data under the same rubric as straightforwardly literal prose, can be, if not reconciled, then at least held in concert at once in the service of a unique goal. Finally, towards the constitution of a field of internet studies within cultural studies, this set of practices can begin to constitute a proper research method for the topic.

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