Field Statement – Internet Studies


In this field statement, I detail the concerns of internet studies from a cultural perspective. Considering both research and epistemological processes, I set out to codify the development of a discrete realm of cultural scholarship, and to set down the grounds for further work on the deployment of internetworked technologies into struggles of creative work to affect power relations in the contemporary global South. To these ends, I first survey literature from historical, geospatial, and technical sources, to establish the boundaries of the field. Next, I bring focus on the various methods that constitute the practices of this field. I then address perspectives on the development of the internet as a cultural object, interrogating their origins and trajectories in terms both structural and ethical. Finally, I examine theoretical conversations about the impact of the internet on broader cultural patterns of work, consumption, and subjectivity.

The rubric that I impose on the field asks simplistic questions to obtain complex answers. Primarily, it inquires after the status of the internet as a cultural object. When I define “the internet,” two specific parts of that definition resonate. First, what is unique about the internet? Second, what does a cultural study of the internet entail? These lead to historical investigations: how did the internet as we know it develop, what kinds of labor were involved, and how has its cultural significance changed over time? I also encounter architectural questions: who maintains and manages each layer of the internet’s technological stack, who composes and follows each protocol, and to what purposes? Finally, I place the internet in sociocultural contexts, to examine its political and economic impacts on its own conditions of production and reproduction.

Culture itself forms the central puzzle facing internet studies. Rife with contradictions (for example, between capital and regulation, piracy and copyright, labor and lesiure, and others), the ontological and epistemological instability of the internet as a cultural object manifests in conflicts between people, machines, and practices.i Meanwhile, its historical patterns of growth and increasing complexity emerge in broad, loosely taxonomized sets of resources. Drawn from internet architecture, labor and political economy, science and technology studies, media and communication studies, social theory, and historical study, these sets raise concrete problems of how to identify an academic discipline of culturally focused internet studies, of what contributions are made and missed by extant theory, and of whose interests are served by the contemporary internet’s structure and operations.ii Since, as the editors several recent anthologies and collections of related research all indicate, internet studies has only just shifted from an interstitial irruption within more firmly-established academic traditions into a burgeoning discipline in its own right, the debates over its defining characteristics and purposes have not yet resolved, and so this forms the central purpose of this document: to trace the process of defining internet studies, and thereby to help constitute the field as such for further research.iii

An eclectic collection of methods, drawn from historical, cultural, media studies, and technology studies come together here to help answer the central question of definition and purpose. I apply specific tactics of observation and analysis that reflect the media I examine.iv Historiographical issues confront the inhumanly vast and wildly unstructured data set that confronts studies of the internet itself.v Meanwhile, structural matters invite a hybrid of an archaeology of new media with a political-economic interrogation of the production of those Cultural critique then incorporates discrete technical, social, and political practices of reading and writing.vii Neither technologically determinist nor socially constructionist arguments rest unexamined; neither historicist nor presentist explanations of phenomena hold sway; neither teleological nor ontological positions neatly characterize the scope and significance of the field. Rather, I concentrate on the structures and methodologies of internet studies as I attempt to reflect each layer of the technological and cultural stack on which the internet is built.

The outcomes of this field include an organized set of resources for teaching and further scholarship. The bibliographical and analytical work done here can help build courses on the Internet itself, on new media, in media studies at large, on computing and networking (especially humanities computing and the digital humanities, or on introductory computational social science), and on technology and society. Most centrally, it serves the immediate purpose of preparation towards a dissertation proposal, research, and writing on the subject of the internet’s development in Western Equatorial Africa. I continue here with definitions and descriptions of the object of my field’s object – that is, the internet of internet studies.

Definitions and Technical Roots for Internet Studies

In existence since the mid-twentieth century, and still undergoing accelerating structural change on a yearly basis, the internet is neither abstract nor metaphorical.viii It is also more than the set of links between existing computer networks.ix Rather, it comprises a complex set of interactions, between people, technology, and processes, that spans the planet and affects the daily life of nearly a third of the global population.x The people involved range from developers to creators to end-users, bound by no single cycle of production or consumption, but including producers and consumers of various scales.xi The technology, a vast and complex system in itself, includes a variety of hardware, software, protocols, and programs, arranged into permutations of stacked layers across geography and time.xii Media as divergent as the senses, including computationally unique media such as software or glitch-art, are arrayed, stored, and transmitted over the internet, while their development shapes the development of the internet’s other facets in turn. And the processes involved include structural, cultural, and historical patterns that combine to permanently impact modern society. Technical literature on the definition, organizational character, and high-level architecture of the internet sets the scene. The internet today comprises some dozen layers, from physical infrastructure through interfaces for end users. It encompasses thousands of networks, millions of applications and machines, billions of links, and trillions of pages.

These layers operate in concert to host, run, package, send, access, and interpret each online object. Networks form the baseline units of which the internet is made up. With types ranging between public and private, virtual and physical, metaphorical and concrete, networks are the touchstone and the cornerstone of both the idea and the artifact of the internet. As sets of connected agents – machine, human, or virtual; inclusive of the set of connections themselves – the network provides the material and also theoretical basis for our research.xiii

In this conception of the internet, I encounter conflicts between those groups, such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the United States, or the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) of the United Nations, who wish to define it as a communications medium akin to telephony or broadcast television, and those like the American FTC (Federal Trade Commission), who seek to define it as a commerce and trade platform like the stock market. Still others, such as the public face of the Association of Internet Researchers, believe that the internet constitutes a public utility, similar to the electrical power grid or water supply system. I adopt a middle position here, balancing a complex and often contradictory definition of the internet as primarily a concept, and only secondarily as an artifact or tangible phenomenon.xiv

Regardless of the legal or formal definition of the internet, its impact on modern communication and media is clear. In practice, ideas of “new media” have largely folded into the internet – studies of digital media, human-computer interaction, and computer-mediated communication now appear alongside those on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube with startling regularity. I use media, then, in the broadest possible sense for this statement, following McLuhan’s prescient if aphoristic sensibility.xv

In a given instance of internet studies or selection of the internet under examination, its immense complexity can quickly become obscured in order to observe something meaningful about a small part of its architecture. The vocabulary describing the stack that comprises the internet begins from discussions of structure and infrastructure, and is the result of extensive revision, negotiation, and technical development undertaken by the non-governmental bodies that monitor and maintain the rules for that stack, such as the Internet Architecture Board.xvi

Layers refer to the various levels of the stack, and help differentiate between one part of the technical architecture and another, such as between networking and presentation.xvii Links form the backbone of the network architecture, and provide connections between documents, pages, and other artifacts online.xviii Links signify more than just edges of the networks they inhabit and connect. They also allow us to describe, graphically and mathematically, the structure of the relationships between people, processes, and ideas that inform the growth and change in those networks.

Protocols, such as the rules just mentioned, govern the conduct of machines and people, and the bounds of possible processes, that act online. Their complicated history of standardization and organization stretches back to the 1970s and 1980s. Much of their structure is large databases. The Internet Protocol, or IP, maintains the numerical addresses of devices and locations online, and combined with the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP, the rules for passing information between those addresses), it defines the internet as we know it. Next comes the heirarchical Domain Name System (or DNS), which correlates those IP addresses with written names such as and comprises the single largest database in the world. It recently began to incorporate non-Latin domain names, such as those written in Chinese, Arabic, and other character sets, creating a vast increase in possible domain names. The Hypertext Transmission Protocol (HTTP) describes how browsers interpret web sites, the Simple Mail Transmission Protocol (STMP) defines how email is sent and received, and the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) manages the movement of files from local machines (like a personal computer) to websites and back again – every time you download a file, you obey the transfer protocols in addition to most of the others mentioned here. In moments of development and change, they encounter situations for which they have no existing rules. If this field attends to those moments of disruption, protocols provide a measure of cultural influence on internet structures.xix

Platforms mark out a broad category of standardized frameworks for the development of programs and applications. They include the set of servers, scripting languages, databases, and operating systems that power specific systems such as LAMP, J2EE, or Windows stacks. However, the term can also refer to content management systems such as WordPress, and application frameworks such as .NET, which live just behind the user’s interface with a web site.xx Applications are a similarly broad category, including objects as varied as email, games, social networks, and other user-facing programs.xxi In recent years, a critical shift has taken place on, in, and around the internet: the rise of Platform as a Service and Software as a Service markets, that far outstrip other areas of online commerce. Services take on a specific role online in the prevailing market, political, and behavioral currents on the internet. These will help prescribe the methodologies, approaches, and underlying assumptions that will structure further research. They will also help point the way to more interesting questions of production, reception, and social organization around the internet. xxii

The impact of social organization for and through the internet cannot be ignored here. Its major constraints, practically speaking, are issues of access. This statement does not assume the ubiquity of internet access for vast majorities of the population, and thereby cannot assume an equivalance between online and offline social organizations.xxiii Similarly, it cannot assume the presence of community in a given scenario online.xxiv What it can observe, however, are social interactions, as well as commercial activity on record, the exchange of commodities and cycles of production and reception.xxv Most importantly, it attends to patterns and shifts in the internet’s fundamental architecture.xxvi

Having detailed some constitutive elements of the internet, it might be worth stating what, in the view of this field, it is not. The internet is not a computer.xxvii It is not a series of anything, especially tubes.xxviii It is not, itself, a medium – though some have called it a medium of media.xxix Similarly, it is not a platform, though of these it contains In short, one cannot simplistically refer to “the” internet as a single coherent object. xxxi Though this invites grammatical backflips, it would be technically more correct to use “internet” as an adjectival modifier rather than a noun. Still, for the purposes of this statement, the definite article often appears, to the effect of presupposing an internet where one appears to exist.

Methods of Internet Studies

Internet histories include the well-documented events, interactions, and innovations that preceded the contemporary situation. It also includes the conditions under which those events took place, to inform ongoing research into internet development in other parts of the contemporary world. And, these posts stemming from the skeptical position of cultural scholarship, it also questions who gets to write the history of the internet, and with what sources. This line of questioning leads us back, cautiously, to the major themes of the semester.

As it is told through authoritative sources such as academic histories and the Internet Society, internet roots reach back to the 1960s.xxxii The foundations of packet switching and open network architecture were developed then, leading to ways of organizing the quickly growing number of nodes and networks such as TCP/IP. ARPANET, the first such instance of a broadly distributed network, extended its scale, and began to link with other networks. Applications such as email and telnet developed within these first ten years, along with other protocols such as the DNS index and FTP.xxxiii By the mid-1980s, the number of networks had grown, as had the number of their uses — list services, news groups, and internet service providers began to proliferate. In the early 1990s, several networks merged together under an open architecture in a modern incarnation, finally named the Internet. It was also then that the most famous application — the World Wide Web — appeared in use, leading to further development and interaction among users.xxxiv Over the last twenty years, the Web has risen, given way to web 2.0, and the internet has become a household familiarity. But the fifty-year history under question cannot remain so linear and smooth when interrogated through more critical lenses, such as those provided by critics of techno-utopianism or of dystopian futurism.

One important question to arise from historical investigation centers on how an archive of internet history is compiled. There are at least two ways of gathering data in this context: individually, or collectively. The same goes for producing knowledge. In large aggregations, vastly different archives of data — not to mention their interpretations — can arise compared to those set out by individual researchers. A canonical historiography that depends on an assumption of linear progress bolstered by examples of minute details, great men (and women), and technological determinism (e.g. – a problem arose when the size of the internet grew quickly, so a solution to naming conventions and indices was developed) also appears in these contexts as a history written by insiders, whose personal insights into their own contributions to the internet remind one of nothing so much as oral history.xxxv This raises the question, in turn, of mediation for internet historians — a huge number of internet histories are available online.xxxvi Many of these take the same forms as the tools used to manage data for internet development: log files, version control systems, memory caching, backups, and indexing come to mind. Their visibility seems to matter a great deal: being able to search, via the internet, for information about the internet seems an obvious necessity; books about the internet can seem superfluous or easily outdated by comparison.xxxvii This assumption cannot hold under the ongoing accretion of information and knowledge about the internet produced by those both knowledgeable and ignorant at once in the same formats. So I encounter the fundamental historical question of continuity and rupture. The internet is not an event – it is more like an era.

Non-digital (analog/codex) histories still maintain a popular foothold in the field.xxxviii To compare academic scholarship with crowdsourced or collectively generated knowledge requires attention to this process in venues such as Wikipedia, where collective contributions are peer-reviewed on the spot and reverted or erased if insufficiently conforming to the standards of the group.xxxix The adoption and diffusion of the internet as an innovation does not precisely follow the smooth and exponential path so often charted by its chroniclers, because it outgrows its own boundaries while reaching a minority of the world’s population in practice, continually intensifying rather than homogenizing offline culture.xl However, a computational aspect history of the internet, which entails analysis of an unimaginably vast collection of raw data of all sorts (on the order of yobabytes and more), is not yet produced for our records. Sixty years into its existence, internetting has changed so much that internet historiography is also on the verge of change. Along with this shift, other methods of studying the internet have struggled to find their own roles.

Computer sciences, particularly those concerned with networking and human interfaces (two widely separated parts of the infrastructure), form a core piece of internet studies. Without a solid understanding of these technical elements, studies of internet behavior struggle to clarify the distinctions between different types of internetting, interactions and circumstances. The digital humanities, perhaps due to this general lack of communication with computer science, has struggled to define itself as a cohesive body of work. Here, I identify the thread of a methodological outlier in humanities and social-science research, which focuses on digital objects through methods specific to those objects. Historical methods remain crucial to internet studies, especially in light of their long-standing attention to media. Media archaeology, grown out of historical attention to the substance and archive of a recorded life, contributes the on-ground methodology of internet historiography through its most recent shifts in object and form. Ethnographic work’s two poles – the study of people via the internet and that of people who use the internet – both factor into the burgeoning of cultural internet research. Its challenge in the field is to maintain an awareness of the degree to which technologies and processes play into the human elements of internetting. Finally, lessons from aesthetic and especially literary studies contribute an important piece to this puzzle: the struggle with representation and representing, so key to contemporary critical theory, plays out uniquely through the internet, as compared to other venues. Internet studies must bridge these methods in order to cohere.

I attempt to triangulate between historically, technically, and socially informed methods in this section, because through their confluence, a clearer picture of the internet as a unique cultural object can be formed. This picture can help move the object of research through different specific studies while maintaining consistency of definition and the ability to compare one instance of internet-making with another across time and other contexts.

Significant Topics and Themes in Internet Studies

I turn now from summaries of the methods and background issues involved with the field to more specific analyses of focused problems. The case in point is the curious interplay of market and economic themes in discourses and studies of the internet. There are several fascinating phenomena associated with the rise of the internet as a platform for trade as well as communication and computation. These, however, have roots that run deeper than their own emergence, in the economic and historical conditions that undergird the internet’s development. As trade and commerce proliferate online, they mimic (at least at first) the structure and behavior of their non-internet predecessors, which themselves must shift or extend their positions to accomodate this competition. As internet markets continue to grow and find their own forms, their effects on their non-internetted counterparts deepens. And as financial instruments and economic models become more closely attuned to internet machinations, it becomes easier – from a cultural or social standpoint – to overlook the most obvious historical and global correlations to this situation.

Among the many phenomena that mark the internet’s relationship to economics and markets, three in particular stand out. Dependence on algorthmic trading — the use of predictive and analytical formulae to determine the best course of individual action and decision-making — extends far beyond internet use. Its prominence in stock, bond, futures, and other markets leads to ever-increasing complexity, as any given actor ought to account for the algorithmic behavior of any other, algorithmically. A related boom has taken place in artificial collective intelligence and machine learning, where behaviors and choices made by individual actors can be aggregated and analyzed. This teaches the very platforms on which internet markets are built how to respond, suggest, and lead to individual behaviors in the future. Finally, industrial-scale production of industrial-scale technologies — computers and programs beyond the commodity hardware available to mass-market consumers — becomes the backbone of internet economies. Yet such production takes place often at distant removes from the industries that depend on its consumption.

This distance finds reflection in the rampant, often speculative investments in and on technology holdings. Bubbles arise where financial products rely on technological sophistication beyond human control. Yet the fact that investors require advanced computation to make decisions draws further investment into the sector as a whole. Seen in this light, when asset companies — those startups whose main value comes from their human capital rather than their products or services — proliferate, disproportionally to traditionally modeled businesses, their over-valuations seem less rash. Still, our ability to accurately assess and analyze the value of high-tech labor falls continually into question on this basis. And labor takes a huge variety of often-obscured forms in this realm. Its common misrepresentation as uncomplicated socialization or communication is one reason that the FCC and FTC cannot agree on whose jurisdiction the internet falls under.

One of the most common euphemisms for the internet’s transformation of labor, e-commerce, carries a vast range of implications. The list includes Whatever-as-a-Service (Xaas), social gaming, and online retail, and offline sales of technology products that quickly grow obsolete. Pornography online deserves its own field statement, both for its economic and political scopes, and for its troubled yet entrenched cultural status. Digital currency markets such as Bitcoin exchanges are slowly recovering from their unstable entry into global financial awareness. The unctuous domain name registration and trade have new fecundity on IPv6, now that non-Latin names are for sale. Management consultancy also finds opportunity online, especially through search engine optimization, content management, and social media marketing. And, in appropriately hushed tones, vast economies of waste grow alongside these other industries. The removal and recycling of high-tech hardware complements the swift obsolescence and deprecation of software. The North’s computing’s detritus ships to the South, especially to scrap heaps in Africa, where it can be melted down in acrid, smoking heaps, salvageable metal hiding in its ashes for those brave enough to find it.

The most prominent critiques engendered by such an image include those of postcoloniality, globalization, neoliberalism, post-Fordism, or late capital. All these describe the general economic conditions under which markets emerge and operate. They also name the political, social, and historical conditions under which the internet itself developed — indeed, under which it was possible for such a thing to occur at all. Whatever its name, this formation structures both the concept and the study of the internet. In particular, drives me to investigate labor, in the sense of what work structures value for the internet. Concomitant with that impulse, however, comes the recognition that just as contemporary global conditions of capital structure the internet’s existence and manifest connections between disparate actors around the world in its development, the same conditions obscure those connections by emphasizing superficial commercial discourses.

So I confronts a material contradiction that escapes these categories of technical and economic thought. Something political, cultural, social — borderline spiritual — also factors into common senses of the internet as a marketplace. This raises communicative questions, of identity, anonymity, and pseudonymity, that persist in the midst of and behind monetary relationships. At its base, the internet cannot reduce into a bourgeois public sphere, because capital and technology both complicate who can speak beyond those questions of publicity and publication. Further, the presence of an internet, or of access or connection to it, does not necessarily connote end users’ agency in such a context.

One way to approach these question is to ask how one measures the energy efficiency of the internet. The factors that influence that measurement include the rate of electricity consumed by mobile devices and their chargers, personal computers, modems and routers, servers, and data centers. Most significantly, the energy required to cool those machines can stagger the mind. A proper study of this use must also account for the amount of energy invested in the production of the same machines. Efficient consumption of resources serves the interests of the largest discrete consumers and of the utility providers who make the resources available to aggregate consumers, but without discriminating between economic and ecological criteria. For example, GreenPeace’s recent “Dirty Data” report, which embroiled Facebook and other companies in P.R. and legal battles, argues that large IT firms, especially data centers, continue to consume energy in 19th- and 20th- century industrial factory patterns, rather than embracing “clean” energy as wholeheartedly as efficiency. While new facilities constructed over the past few years by Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft certainly deserve their accolades for efficient design. Efficiency, however, only provides one lens onto the original question of garbage or waste.

In a scholar’s ideal world, the proportion of electronic energy consumption that is spent specifically on the generation of content for the internet — in terms of software and media — would have to enter into these equations. But these productive or creative uses of e-resources might also present a contradiction to be managed. On its face, these uses would seem to mitigate their costs, because they give depth and interesting significance to the internet. However, the curious problem of digital waste takes a turn here, because the distribution and circulation of software and digital media relies on replication and deprecation. The latter should come as no surprise, given that a new version of your smartphone has already come out, and that the computer you bought last year is already hopelessly obsolete. Documentaries and news articles have chronicled the growth of piles of discarded computers and other electronics in Ghana, India, and China are Northerners’ outsourced landfills.xli The environmental, ecological, and public-health stakes of these landfills, and of the scavenger economics that sprout from them, are also undergoing scrutiny now by federal and international regulatory bodies.

But the deprecation of old software and media also exacerbates consume-and-discard cycles. This is because of how users share and save data. Each time an email is sent, or a file uploaded or downloaded, or a tweet sent, or a post published, its data are not usually moved between locations, but copied. And the data that users need or expect to be reliably available exist on many servers at once, for purposes of redundancy or network latency. The iteration of this habit, in trillions of such operations each second, means that the storage space that users consume continually grows. It appears more efficient in short terms to simply purchase more hardware and waste more space than to reconfigure the ways that users manipulate data. Bytes are cheap, and it is far easier to move bits than atoms. So, our internetting architecture favors — and in some ways, requires — this model of over-production, redundancy, and eventual discard.xlii

To broach the further questions that attend a study of excess online, internet studies has begun to produce the tools to ask how many must die to build a new computer, and who they are. Such a study would begin with a map of the paths, across the globe, of deprecated software, hardware, and even networks. In it, I would ask who gets, uses, buys, breaks, discards, scavenges, and recycles internet waste. This might engender a better understanding of the cultural values of internet junk, of wastes of time or spent attention. This approach certainly highlights the frivolity of certain investment bubbles, since the value that things like social networks add can be measured against their real operational and ecological costs. At its core, it can help us understand what our garbage tell us about the contemporary internet, and about those who make and use it.

A related, divisive question raised by considerations of death and waste are those of newness and innovation. Techno-optimists such as Clay Shirky proclaim the revolutionary, world-changing emergence of the internet a wholly unique phenomenon.xliii Others such as Wendy Chun and Roy Rosenzweig describe its continuity with older forms of media, communication, technology, or ideas.xliv And each vein has its proponents and detractors of the internet’s cultural effects, which seem ubiquitously manifest, though not unequivocally ethically or morally valenced.xlv Since I am concerned, here, with not just cultural effects but also cultural conditions for today’s internet, though, I cannot neatly reduce my approach to any of these positions.

Ethical valences for interpretation of the internet as an historical phenomenon abound in the scholarship, but no clear outcome for internet studies is yet established or made disciplinary.xlvi Rather, conflicting positions such as those between proponents of open-source movements and supporters of systemic copyright restriction assign their particular ethics to their concepts of the internet — e.g. as a resource that should be widely shared versus a threat to stable ownership of information. xlvii

Instead of this rhetorical position, I suggest another way of asking the question – a way that rests implicitly in the same discussions and arguments about newness. What is historically significant about the internet? Asking this way gives insight to the comparisons and contrasts that characterize earlier studies of the internet. First, compared to other networks, the familiar trope of the internet as a network of networks rings clear. This refers to the architecture of the internet as the abstracted incarnation of multiple disparate computer and area networks.xlviii The protocols and structures referenced here (HTTP, FTP, FTP, DNS, and so on) each certainly contribute to the sense that the internet constitutes something markedly new from what existed before.xlix But though they structure its architecture, these rules and practices do not define the internet, even in combination. Instead, the single most significant technical feature that distinguishes the internet from any earlier networks must be identified in packet switching and its attendant modes.l When this technique overcame circuit switching as the most efficient and reliable widescale method for transferring information on all-digital networks, the internet was made fundamentally What we see in popular visualizations of network structure, however, tends to belie this important shift in processes. The diagram of nodes and edges that are unmistakably to the brain, to roads, and so on, shows only a snapshot of the internet’s link structure.lii Considering evolutionary — that is, the temporal and historical — aspect of its definition, the internet does indeed operate differently from other, older networks.liii

Similarly, we cannot think of the internet as a giant computer, though its digital, electronic, and data-processing characteristics do stem from the same categories of engineering as those of specific devices. It remains an unqualified error to point to people typing or clicking at a PC, laptop, tablet, or smartphone, and to immediately assume or state that they are “using” the internet. The crucial difference is that computers can operate without a connection to a network, and when connected, as mediators for just a handful of that network’s layers, whereas interconnectivity between computers and networks is the very purpose of the internet. In this way, the idea of the internet (or its constitutive parts) cannot be bound to any single node.liv I would further suggest that reductive machinic metaphors do not produce a robust description of the internet, let alone in-depth analysis.

But when I juxtapose the internet against media, the waters draw murky. After all, digital media comprise the contents of the sites on the internet, and these are both manifestly different from those that came before, as well as insufficient to explain the whole. Digital media differ from older media because their objects are interactive, replicable, and can contain other media within them. However, digitalia are not equivalent with the internet. The two exist independently of one another. lv

Rather than reduce the complexity at hand, I attempt to keep these concepts of media at the platform, application, and presentation layers of the internet. So doing, I find that related distinction between the internet and the social, political, economic, or other formations often reduces to a rhetorical conflation. Understanding the position of media within the encompassing system of the internet also complicates governmental confusions over its jurisdiction. As recent internet legislation demonstrates, ranging from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to the broadly protested Stop Online Piracy and PROTECT IP Acts, the and including debate over the Research Works and Federal Research Public Access Acts, Congress faces an epistemological dilemma.lvi

They express this in ostensible concerns over the flow of information or of cultural objects, that have real roots in concerns over security, jurisdiction, and economics. The dozens of different committees and subcommittees that have to attend to internet legislation, from commerce and finance to homeland security and foreign affairs, also testifies to the lack of a deep understanding of the internet’s structure. And at the root of all this misunderstanding lies the incongruity and asymmetry between the internet and the nation. That is, because Congress has clearly defined purposes regarding the nation, but America has no unequivocal relationship to the internet — one cannot say that the internet is ‘in’ America, or that America is ‘on’ the internet, for example — Congress struggles to articulate its own role and responsibility when the internet’s structure is at stake.

Internet usage also contrasts with other practices of reading, writing, listening, or viewing. Structures of feeling produce the critical historical insight that the conditions of one’s access to the internet deeply inform how one makes meaning out of connectivity and other internet functions. Even the use of the verb ‘internetting,’ simultaneously self-evident and obscure, indicates a suite of affective and sensory modes of perception not bound to precisely the types of encounter that older analogues present. The clearest example of this phenomenon comes when I sit at a computer or hold up a mobile phone or tablet to connect to the internet, and engage a vast, often obscured or invisible, set of messages that make possible, and then sensuous, the contents of the media to which I direct our attention. This means that I must wait — if only for fractions of a second — to receive the mediated object that we request. Further, it remains an object of scientific fascination whether one’s attention is more difficult to direct for extended lengths of time as a result of extended or regular internet usage. Regardless, it shows why the most important computer and web applications are the browser and the search engine: indices hold as much meaning and value through meta-data as do the contents of media, and users often struggle to hold multiple fronts in short-term memory at once. So, although internetting involves reading, writing, listening, and viewing through similar patterns of sitting and paying attention as do books, movies, and so on, a fundamental distinction remains in the multiplicity of each point of attention online.

Comparing internetting with other ways of transmitting, sending, encoding, broadcasting, sharing, hiding, or otherwise inscribing data and information also shows that the most important historical distinction between older mediations and internet mediation age is a function of complexity. From writing’s evolution out of phonetic and ideographic speech to printing’s establishment of the page and book as the elemental units of communication, to the rise of real-time recorded media in audio and video films, we have drawn ever-increasing amounts of information into increasingly concentrated forms. It might seem incongruous to describe the internet as a further concentration, since the processes and protocols of encryption and transfer sprawl across multiple layers of hardware and software in order to translate language or image into voltage differences and back again. However, the amount of tacit knowledge packed into a single 140-character tweet rivals the Gutenberg bible in terms of technical complexity and craftsmanship. This is not an exaggeration: the unencrypted binary code for that given tweet, if printed in the same format as early presses, would fill a book roughly the same size. We deal in bits and bytes as casually as with nickels and dimes, though we need not see or understand their scope at any given moment.

Perhaps the only moments when we must become aware of these issues (assuming a certain set of privileged points of access to computers and the internet) are those when the complexity fails to make itself sufficiently invisible. Glitches in our systems manifest themselves as points of access to reflexive consciousness. This is not a major point, but it does raise questions about how the internet compares to other ways of connecting with or isolating from others, naming others and selves, or making other uses of information and technology. Specifically, the common anxieties over semi-ubiquitous computing, communicative addiction, and human-machine interaction find their outlet in these glitches. Further, our abilities to forge communities are called into sharp relief when the machinations that allow seamless textual or visual interaction fail; how much do our communities depend upon these kinds of technologies, or exchanges of digital information, as opposed to human connections at some less determined level? Finally, our abilities to encounter others — so richly possible on an open internet, though so often ignored as we become niche consumers who continually narrow down our options for news, entertainment, cultural objects, knowledge, art… — are severely compromised if our interactions take place in such large part online. The historical significance of distributed, interest-focused, intensely personal groups made possible through the internet and only the internet becomes quite clear in the absence of an easy connection from any member of those groups to any other. In short, we feel the cultural effects of the internet most clearly when we cannot exploit the cultural assumptions that generate its form.

So there we have some unique qualities and a sense of the historical significance of the internet. As an “all” “digital” network of networks, based on packet switching, comprised of a deep and complex set of layer stacks, undergoing an accelerating pace of change, and bringing people together through lolcatz, the internet stands alone in human history as both a phenomenon and a phase. Where it develops from here, of course, is an entirely different question, contingent upon economic, cultural, and legal factors yet to be determined. But its newness can no longer be taken for granted, especially in our research. We must approach internet studies without mystification, without valorization, without facile generalization. There we will find ways to think about its import, and its ongoing history.

Technology industries require massive investments, of capital for infrastructure and of labor for support, in addition to the engineers and designers who are their most visible participants. This highlights a massive gap in existing research about the internet: how we study its related labor. We have not yet established rules to know what counts as internet work, to know who works, and to map or test where. We have no standards yet for how labor is valued online, beyond anecdotal accounts and too-broad national-level census statistics. To fully grasp the nuances and scope of how labor coexists between humans and machines, we look beyond myopic speculations on the psycho-social effects of social media, or the grand reductionism of Marxist determinism and alienation. We are concerned, here, with laying down a program to find out how labor operates on a broad scale, and indeed, how passive and active labor each affect the structure of the internet itself.

In another aspect, consumption of internet content also counts for labor, as [citation here] reminds us: we do work for content providers every time we view a page with advertisements, for example. Simply spending time on some sites makes those site owners money. And this curious inversion of labor, from producing to consuming power, often overshadows the incredibly complex labor that does produce those artifacts and lifestyles. So, in order to study such a broad and knotty terrain, the research approach could involve quantitative measures such as social network analysis to determine the value of labor and the relationship of humans to computers in general, as well as qualitative measures such as ethnographic and interpretive analyses of labor practices in these varied situations. Another approach would not map specific enterprises as a subset of an assumed general market, but would instead abstract the differences in labor from earlier, Marxist and other models, approaching the questions theoretically.

Theoretical Conversations

Whether one accepts straightforwardly deterministic speculation or not, whether one prefers to think the mind and the collective mind as functions of or factors in computing, we are bound by mediating forces. As the paragons of privileged speculation, Marshall McLuhan and Lev Manovich stand unchallenged as the sources for media and software theory in the United States.lvii Their conceptual frameworks are most contentious when held against certain French thinkers’. McLuhan’s insight that all media contain as a message a prior medium finds a counterpoint in Regis deBray’s analysis of media as overlapping paradigms, rather than linear progressions.lviii Manovich’s later contributions to software theory as a field in its own right takes as a direct target the archaeology of media as expounded by Michel Foucault, whose concentration on print and writing as valid archival data severely limits his historiographic impulses.lix But taking these two Anglo writers’ work on their own, we can unpack just where they stand, as well as their utility and inspiration for contemporary thought.

Rather than designing or modeling replicable, reliable, verifiable experimentation on which to base evidence for his claims, Marshall McLuhan concentrates on the phenomenological appearances of subjectivity and user experiences of media, writ large. His most famous claim from Understanding Media – the Extensions of Man is deceptively oversimplified: “The medium is the message.”lx Mostly, of course, this means precisely what it says – the content of a message coextends with its form In other words, the range of possible expression or communication through one medium is unique to that medium, and the same message appears quite differently in another.lxi As McLuhan unravels further speculation throughout the book, though — attempting to categorize media as ‘hot’ or ‘cool,’ trying to draw a linear history of media that finds later introductions to mass culture indispensible in giving earlier media form, and arguing that end-to-end mediated communication forms the basis of social life — his central aphorism finds some substance, depth, and complexity.lxii Perhaps it is this subtle intuition, borne out by a humanism extended to the media around us as tools of a shared subjectivity, that drives McLuhan’s recurring or resurgent popularity in communication and media studies.lxiii But whether his claims endure due to self-perpetuating popularity or due to their perceived relevance to a generation of burgeoning media scholars without the conceptual tools to discuss technological underpinnings of media, their impact on the field ought not be understated.lxiv

Lev Manovich, writing decades later, takes a remarkably similar approach to the mediation of information and expression. His focus on digital media and software also relies on the linear historical track implied by McLuhan and many others, in which new media supercede older media. Taking “new media” as an homogenous group, circumscribed by a logic of networks and databases, a social space of virtuality, and a language of programmable code, Manovich does broach a question left unasked by McLuhan – that of poetics. How creativity is constrained or enabled by the structural factors of media becomes simultanously banal and deeply problematic when the medium in question is interactive and programmable. On one hand, because software does not simply record and hold its contents to be played back, but rather relies on input and output, reading and writing, one’s ability to create (with) it multiplies exponentially compared to static recording technologies. On the other hand, in Manovich’s view, the pattern of linear diegesis – wherein a message is (perhaps creatively) encoded for a (perhaps technically literate) user to decode, individually or in select groups, the very interactivity of the medium is cancelled out by its eventual mass adoption. The critical shift here, then, is to construct an archive that includes digitalia for cultural research.lxv

This turn in attention to the activity of building an internet-specific study relies on assumptions either optimistic or pessimistic about the state of internetted and machinic subjectivity. The positions drawn from Friedrich Kittler, Jaron Lanier, and Henry Jenkins provide the clearest set of alternative future views and delineate much of the lines of argument for internet studies’ ethical valences. Friedrich Kittler’s essay “There is No Software” asks us to remind ourselves, at each turn of our studies, how our actions are circumscribed and made possible by our machines.lxvi When we interact with machines in the course of riting in particular, how we understand that interaction depends on that awareness. If we remain ignorant of the technical (especially material and technologial dimensions of computing, then our insights into their cultural functions will remain correspondingly crippled. Kittler leaves off explaining how much an awareness, or a lack thereof, influences or determines our day-to-day behavior, but his demarcation of the stakes of the discussion forces that consideration.lxvii It also calls into question our political and historical investigations, tying them directly to the development of hardware.lxviii As Kittler concentrates on the abiding complexity that computing brings to simple changes of venue for discourse, he invites further debate on the specific changes wrought by abstraction of computing in daily life, working life, and the developing world.lxix

Jaron Lanier’s recent You Are Not a Gadget strikes a different cautionary note. The virtual-reality prodigal and staunch, liberal humanist pieces together a radical critique of popular trends in computing and techno-social practices. An elegy for the agora, framed against the rise of the “antigora,” dominates the collection of essays. Lanier’s discussion of public-private distinctions online, including the details of their mutual reliance and construction, serves end-users well in this era of Anything-as-a-Service. Indeed, he provides perhaps the most faithful translation of Kantian ‘cosmopolitanism’ and hospitality that we are likely to engage with, for the internet. Episodic rather than holistically argumentative, Lanier’s individualized rants are collected and named a ‘manifesto,’ but if he follows this tone poem with a more focused, politically coherent program, researchers in the humanities and social sciences would be loathe to ignore it. Lanier’s position doesn’t serve the interests of the internet as such, of course, or of economic markets, or even of the agora that he observes as diffracting into silos. His technical expertise lends his rhetoric instead to a conflation between aesthetics and politics, and inscribes end-users as sovereign subjects. In short, Lanier insists that human-scale values and interests ought to drive our technological endeavors.lxx

A social thinker, an eternal optimist, and a proponent of the significance of superstructural, cultural phenomena, Henry Jenkins maintains a remarkable attention to that human scale, scarcely considering the technical architecture behind Convergence Culture. As staunch a liberal humanist as one can find, Jenkins considers communities as spheres of production, especially of recycled work. Coursing through online content, tracing its recontextualization and reprogramming, he does present an extended, focused argument, if only suggestively, about the state of human affairs online. If Lanier serves as a latter-day Kant, then Jenkins is surely as close as we will see to a Habermas for the internet. To be clear, though, Convergence Culture does modify the “public sphere” paradigm for different mediations and technologies, rather than adopting it wholesale. But it maintains the same allegiances: class-agnostic, ahistorical, sweeping claims and categorical perspectives taint the text’s political whispers, because they lack a critique of real conditions under which connections are made online. The basis of convergence confronts that serious flaw, the digital divide, only tangentially. Its benefit, then, lies in its nuanced approach to the description and taxonomy of cultural objects online.

What spectrum makes these three thinkers’ works comparable? The garden path ends, not in a disciplinary triumph, but in the collocation of absent themes from their positions. First, agency – or, more properly, the conditions under which human agency confronts technological development – must find an account that does not privilege either machines or humans, ontologically. Second, the lack of a programmatic politics binds the three. Without claiming that the necessary prerequisite or outcome of scholarship and argumentation is a call to action, the distinction between liberal humanism (including Kittler’s liberal post-humanism) and a broader implementation of politically conscious data and interpretation would bridge these abysses. Finally, subjectivity informs each work, and in each work it appears as nothing other than a teleology. The minor differences between what counts for subjects in each text do not override the search for origins and endpoints in all three — as in so many other works of cultural critique. Their narrowness of foci limits what questions they can each ask about origins, instead leading them to take the advent of computing almost on faith. In contrast to this spectrum, further research must ruthlessly search out historical details, and deliver them in a broadly culturally conscious framework.lxxi

On matters of human to human interaction, mediated through computers, Sherry Turkle’s trilogy of psychoanalytic speculations offers popular reading. Our deeply mediated interactions with one another rely on an intense and often invisible network. Invisible, that is, until it fails. This raises the stronger point; our interactions now rely on perpetual connectivity. Being together means we must be tethered to a third network – at least until personal servers become viable options for storing our vast recorded databases of personal information, and even then, the reach of internet-based social media may have entrenched itself more deeply than many of us care to admit until pressed. Being together means being alone, then – in the sense that we must each attend to our devices nearly constantly. Turkle points out the strange inversion here. We may have begun to use computers to connect to one another; now our computers us, our interactions, to connect to one another. It is no exaggeration that the loss of connectivity or hardware can cause deep anxiety to many of us. Likewise, Turkle does not stretch reason to explain young peoples’ nostalgia for an imagined past in which the self existed in a less mediated, copied, avatared state – the allure of solitude has its roots in the same changes as that anxiety of isolation. Further, when we are physically together, but each attending to a different mediation of something absent, we perform the same half-presence as we expect from automatons. These are not so separate, the robotic moment and the networked life.lxxii

Three writers who focus on the use and rhetoric of media, rather than on their inherent characteristics or their ethical valences, come together here. Wendy H. K. Chun demands that our attention to the social contexts of emergent technologies center on the political matters of force and sovereignty. Lisa Nakamura draws our attention to myriad, and structural, irruptions of old inequalities as manifested in ostensibly transcendent new media. And Lisa Gitelman pointedly reminds us, through a meticulous and engaging historiography, that what we call ‘new’ in media has older histories than we often care to admit, that all media were new once, and that any divergent practice or technology enters a complex set of other, perhaps related, media, in which nothing can be outgrown, only deprecated. Together, these thinkers provide good scholarship on which further research can be modelled, and provocative questions that demand further thought.

The focus in Wendy Chun’s Control and Freedom , technologies of visual recording and especially surveillance, unpacks a paradox. The same technologies that liberate our individual capabilities inhibit and overdetermine our social liberties. Bounded by class and social status, technological development does not escape – and often exacerbates – inequalities and injustices in human world. Likewise, she argues, our desires for and about cyberspace manifest themselves through race, gender, and sexuality. Chun’s attention to cultural objects such as art and literature, however, strike discordant in the context of such questions – at least, to these ears. This is not to fault her basic approach, but to reflect that my own expectations for such claims would seek out infrastructural, technologically founded evidence for technological, structural claims. The strength of Chun’s arguments, however, are to show where those types of issues bleed into — and react against — the very ephemera on which she concentrates here. On that front, her work continues to prove useful and relevant to contemporary internet research.lxxiii

Lisa Nakamura’s breakout study, Digitizing Race, takes up the tools of visual culture studies – so often a staidly nineteenth-century undertaking – to provide a refreshing, honest and penetrating exposure of latent and systemic racisms and sexisms in and on the internet. As in Chun’s observations, the exacerbation of existing human conditions appears to accompany the rhetoric of transcendence – or at least amelioration – of those conditions. And Nakamura goes on to emphasize the proliferating consequences of even tiny decisions of design and architecture. In her detailed explication, text and cursor, directory structure and browser layer, all combine to maintain the invisibility of raced and gendered subjects online. It should, perhaps, be added that an ongoing under-representation of non-whites, online and in the development of internet layers (barring, perhaps, young Asian and Jewish men), along with gender gaps that mirror existing digital divides, adds to the problems faced by some of those most affected by Nakamura’s critiqued issues. Her analysis of the literal dis/appearance of race and gender online leads us to other questions, such as where data centers are placed in relation to other industry, or to residences. The jobs available to the least socially privileged continue to follow the patterns that she has identified. In this way, her meticulous genealogy puts embodied knowledge into play against a discourse of disembodied, idealized life that so often permeates digital scholarship.lxxiv

With a scholarly narrative that takes place on a different historical scale, Lisa Gitelman’s Always Already New also breaks from the other two works here in its methodology. Rather than articulate the knowledge of hidden subjects against a more conventional, heirarchical, privileged knowledge, Gitelman concentrates on a methodologically rigorous media archaeology. Her central claim — that new media – or any recording technologies – are never so new as they seem, and that simultaneously they all claim to provide constant newness, strikes to the heart of how new media operate conceptually. Meanwhile, she takes a longer view historically than most studies of digital media, reaching back over a century to glean insight from the statements of technicians, inventors, marketers, and users alike. Since she focuses on technics and structures more than on media’s subjective effects or users, Gitelman’s argument forms a strong basis on which to model other studies, such as this one. The places where contemporary research might reach beyond her conclusions — such as in search of unique significance to more recent emergences in technology, or the political valence of technical crises — do not diminish her contribution to a continuing critique of media’s hysterical claims to our attention.

Together, these thinkers have demystified some key conundrums in modern media and technology. Their critiques of class, race, and gender iniquities as motivating factors for the development of supposedly liberal or liberatory innovations unpacks a central paradox of the internet: its ongoing structural centralization in the hands of a very few technically elite people, mostly middle- to upper-class white men. Their collective attention to the significance of minor details in the design, production, dissemination, and consumption of digital media should inspire other researchers to hone our focus as well. Finally, the deeply historically grounded approach undertaken by each of these scholars ought not to be lost on those seeking to follow in their paths. Just as categories of subjectivity are not erased online, temporality persists there too, albeit in unique and sometimes troubling ways.lxxv

Wendy Chun’s introduction to the volume New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, establishes the state of internet research as far as media studies are concerned. What emerges at the limits of this research, made clear by her analysis of the variations on political-economic, visual-cultural, archaeological, systemic, and aesthetic themes taken up by the contributors, is the mobilization of an opposition between continuity and rupture, in both historical and theoretical terms. In other words, media studies – especially new media studies – is founded on the claim that it can mediate between change and continuity.lxxvi

Other useful pieces crop up throughout the reader. For example, in Wolfgang Hagen’s analysis of the development of programming languages, we find a robust model for computer science as an object of cultural study, if not for the internet as such. As he processes symbolic information, he successfully navigates problems of generalization, to manage the contradiction of writing a history invested in traditional scholarship but so deeply inflected and organized by programmatic thought that its form follows that of a source code repository rather than that of a review essay. McKenzie Wark takes the opposite approach to the contradiction between temporal and perceptual diminishing around the concept of an event as mediated by globally distributed technology, and the capacity of critical theory to make arguments and draw insights about those events. Arvind Rajagopal, more cautiously, takes on the question of perception directly. He recognizes the materiality of the mediation between old and new structures of thought (that is, mediated media), and asks after their instrumental, historical, and linguistic importance. However, he does so inconsistently – a more sustained treatment of his same topics should

On the topic of lived effects, Lisa Nakamura gives the clearest and most penetrating explanation of the paradox that faces media and technology researchers. As we confront the question of post-humanism’s consequences, such as machine intelligence, increasing automation of mundane tasks, or the acceleration of virtual worlds, we must do so from a perspective embodied by humans’ lived realities. Nakamura establishes firm footing for those who would critique the internet’s apparent gender-, race-, and class-neutral claims. She demonstrates both the machinic qualities of critical theories of such subjectivities, and the humanist characteristics of technological innovations. In so doing, her essay provides us with an acid that dissolves the entrenchments of stereotypes. As contemporary critique, her work continues to serve as a model for others.

In this section, I have tried to thread together representative arguments on the cultural impact of the internet from a variety of perspectives. What binds these as contributions to the field of internet studies is their attention to the interplay between machines, people, and processes, an attention that underscores the significance of the material alongside the historical and theoretical. For theories of the internet as a cultural object, it is an attention that cannot be placed aside, regardless of the ethical, methodological, or epistemological outcomes of each intervention.


Just as multiple histories and origins compete for narrative primacy, internet studies as a field confronts a multiplicity of voices competing for legitimacy and resources. The various methods and epistemologies outlined here have common threads amid their differences. The bridges between their specific techniques can serve to build out a coherent, unified concept and theory to help internet studies continue to solidify its internal structures and theoretical boundaries. The principle of selection here concentrates on practitioners and practices of internet studies that address the question of how the internet structures, and is structured by, cultural changes.

To that end, it excludes certain approaches and perspectives in the service of engaging with this more concentrated set of voices. For example, I have omitted approaches from social network analysis, ethnography, and political science. These areas and modes of inquiry are neither less valid nor less significant in their contribution to debate about the internet; however, since they rarely seek to connect the inner workings of the technologies at hand to the experiential, social effects that they more often describe, they remain tangential to the central questions of this field.

Further research will help understand the longer-term shape and path of internet studies. The academic programs, publications, and institutions that support the development of internet studies will produce a wealth of data on their impact and effect, the analysis of which might provide deep insight into how the field makes and changes information over time. An ongoing debate over the possible futures of the internet, particularly of its political economy, will have to be checked against the real outcomes of those processes, and these may differ due to geographical and technical circumstances. And there are as-yet-unknown developments in technology, aesthetics, and politics that the field will have to take into account as it grows and further establishes itself.

Finally, this field statement has resulted in three concrete outcomes for my own research. I have gathered and annotated a wealth of bibliographic material, hopefully useful beyond this exercise for teaching and learning. I have tried to mark out a theoretical and methodological position for this field in further research, which will concentrate on creative work in West Africa in the context of the internet’s development there and the region’s power structures. And I have iterated the material concerns of cultural studies over the layers of the internet’s stack, in support of this same research, teaching, and learning.


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lxxiiTurkle, Sherry, Alone Together, n.d.

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lxxvLisa Gitelman, Always Already New (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2006).

lxxviPat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, eds., First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Genre (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).

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