Social Construction of the Internet

Here it is finally: the (rough) draft of my field definition essay, meant to define, explain and justify this comprehensive exam as I imagine it… The revised bib follows.

Technology has long been considered the drum beat accompanying the triumphal march of human beings through history. This association with progress is pervasive in modern thought, where technology is typically associated with post-scarcity scenarios boasting varying levels of human achievement. But the notion of technocratic utopia and its implicit theory of technological determinism has met with criticism in recent decades, especially from social constructivist approaches, which analyze technology largely as the outcome of social forces (Callon, Hughes, Pinch & Bijker). Rather than inverting the technology/society hierarchy, however, a more nuanced method suggests itself in considering the subject dialectically; that is, in studying how society and technology are mutually imbricated, or implicated, in modern, (post) industrial (Western) society. Philosophy of technology takes up just this challenge, intending to show not only that technologies are social products, but to illuminate how power and relations of domination infiltrate the technical infrastructure at the level of design and construction (Feenberg). Technology, therefore, is not merely social; it is political (Feenberg, Winner). Although modern technology has tragically demonstrated proficiency for social domination and control, a dialectical approach requires an investigation into concomitant possibilities for human liberation.

This comprehensive exam, therefore, is located at the intersection of society and technology: in the socio-technical. It begins with Marx. In contrast to the timeworn critique of determinism, one encounters a thoroughly constructivist orientation to technology, particularly in Marx’s insistence that social relations shape technology, not the reverse (MacKenzie). Indeed, although capital is congealed labour, it is not an autonomous thing, as labour comprises social relations between people. Thus it is only through capitalism’s alienating labour process that these relations, mediated through things, become reified as abstract labour. Indeed, according to MacKenzie (1999), Marx’s account of the machine during the industrial revolution was an effort to create a theory of the social origins of organizational and technical transformation of the labour process. Lukacs reaffirms that the division of labour and its attendant power relations create the conditions for social change; “technique” is not the cause of modern capitalism but rather its accomplishment.

The Marxian legacy for critical technology studies (or perhaps just this exam) is twofold. It is the insight that technology and capitalism are inextricably intertwined (Kellner). And it is the analysis of capitalism as a mode of social control through a technically mediated labour process (Noble, Braverman). Indeed, an ongoing theme in modern technological development has been control – efficient control of bureaucratic and economic systems, certainly, but also control of human beings – particularly by-products and extensions of communication technologies (Wiener). Control is required to maintain complex social systems, and it is dependent upon information – both the capability to process it and to rationalize it (Beniger). Today’s so-called Information Age is characterized by the “informatization of production” wherein knowledge, information and communication are the products of immaterial labour (Hardt and Negri, 2000). With the gradual eclipse of the industrial economy by one founded on the production, distribution and consumption of informational goods and services, the potential for ever-increasing control poses problems for human liberation.

The centrality of information in this new era is due in large part to the rapid development and dissemination of computers, enhanced further still by their global interconnection via the Internet. The metaphor of the network provides insight into both the Internet and society in general; indeed, digital, economic and social networks map onto one another, pointing to what Castells (2000) sees as the “rise of the network society.” On this account, networking logic provides the basis on which the new information technology paradigm alters processes of production, power and culture (Castells). With the popularization of the Internet in the last decade, it has become evident that a powerful mode of communication has emerged, suggesting that the technology has been rationalized in a way that supports communicative action over control (Feenberg, Habermas). That is to say, restrictions on communication on the Internet (the digital divide notwithstanding) are largely absent due to the conscious efforts of the Internet’s creators, and enhanced and defended by subsequent generations of users. Communicative rationality opposes technical reason – which tends toward domination and control – and provides the foundation for human liberation. Technological rationality (as Marcuse calls it) is insidious because it devolves into background ideology, sedimenting in the technical code of modern capitalist technological systems and devices, and exerting control through technologic hegemony (Feenberg). Democratic rationalization of technology (Feenberg) reveals technical choices as political and reorients technology toward “pacification of the struggle for existence” (Marcuse, 1964).

The social construction of the Internet (Abbate, Castells, Ceruzzi) by an array of relevant social groups is affirmed by an in depth literature surveying the intervention of users in technical design (Berg, Bijker, Callon, Feenberg, Mackenzie, Noble, Pinch & Bijker, Wajcman, Winner). It hints at a reversal in the exercise of control from elite political and economic minority to the global population. The network, structurally rhizomatic, is notoriously difficult to control; the Internet is a social and technical mashup, layering hardware and software with human communication in an ever-changing, amorphous social complex. Thus far, the Internet has resisted rationalization by the market and the state. Neither euphoric conviction in the democratic potential of the Internet, nor technological or economic determinism will elucidate its function in contemporary society (Kellner). It is crucial to understand that the Internet is not “free” by nature: as a socially constructed technology that has yet to reach closure, the Internet can be changed. The technical code of the Internet is not fixed; nor is the code that governs the upper layers of the net’s infrastructure. As Lessig (2006) cautions, the way source code is deployed on the Internet could have far more serious implications for controlling use (and thus users) than real world regulation. Code works invisibly and ideologically to enable and disable certain behaviour in cyberspace that have been taken for granted until now. This is why Feenberg (2004) urges users to defend the community model on which the Internet has evolved against the ever encroaching corporate model, which enlists the legislative authority of government to colonize the Internet for commercial interests.

This comprehensive exam raises many important questions about the future of the Internet – specifically how it may be used to develop and enhance democracy, freedom and economic and social justice. The recognition of its socially constructed “nature” is fundamental to conceiving of social transformation. Technological innovation represents a form of knowing, of knowledge. In contemporary societies, knowledge – particularly scientific and technical knowledge – has been instrumental for social control. Considering knowledge as created rather than received or discovered (Kuhn) has important implications for understanding how societies and their systems (e.g. capitalism) are socially constructed. Thus made, they can be unmade, or remade. One of the plain threats to the social and economic status quo posed by the Internet is its challenge to the knowledge production regime. This has appeared on two fronts: open source software and traditional cultural authorship. The free software/open source movement has inaugurated a new form of production based on collaborative knowledge, opposing the two pillars of capitalism: private property and individualism. The “copyleft” movement generally opposes profit-oriented ownership of cultural material, as well as knowledge monopolies in academia and the culture industry. Is free software development prefigurative, offering a method for achieving goals of democracy and freedom offline? Can users rationalize Internet technology democratically, reorienting it toward more humane applications and functionalities? If so, what are the implications for progressive social change in the real world?


√Abbate, Janet. (1999). Inventing the Internet. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: 1-41. (Ch 1, 3, 6)

√Atton, Chris. (2004). Alternative Internet. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (Ch 1).

√Beniger, James. (1986). The control revolution. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press. (Ch. 1)

√Berg, Anne-Jourun, & Lie, Merete. (1995). Feminism and constructivism. Science, Technology and Human Values, 20(3).

√Bijker, W.E. (1987). The social construction of bakelite: Toward a theory of invention. In W.E. Bijker, T.P. Hughes, & T. Pinch, (Eds.) The social construction of technological systems. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press. (p. 159-190).

√Braverman, Harry. (1974). Labor and monopoly capital. New York: Monthly Review Press. (Part 1 Labor and management; Part 2 Science and mechanization, 3-269)

√Brey, Philip. (1997). Social Constructivism for Philosophers of Technology: A Shopper’s Guide. Society for Philosophy and Technology, 2(3-4), pp. 56-79.

√Callon, Michael. Society in the making: The study of technology as a tool for sociological analysis. In W.E. Bijker, T.P. Hughes, & T. Pinch, (Eds.) The social construction of technological systems. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press. (pp. 83-106).

√Castells, Manuel. (2000). The rise of the network society. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. (Prologue, Ch. 1 & Conclusion)

√—–. (2001). The Internet galaxy: Reflections on the internet, business and society. New York: Oxford University Press. (Ch. 1, 2, Conclusion)

√Ceruzzi, Paul E. (1999). Inventing personal computing. In D. MacKenzie & J. Wajcman (Eds.) Social shaping of technology. Buckingham; Philadelphia: Open University Press. (pp. 64-86).

√Chadwick, Andrew. (2006). Internet politics: States, citizens and new communication technologies. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Ch. 1,2, 9, 10)

√Dyer-Witheford, Nick. (1999). Cyber-Marx: Circuits and cycles of contention in high-technology capitalism. (Ch. 9 “Intellects).

√Feenberg, A. (2002). Transforming technology.

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√Habermas, Jurgen (1970). Technology and science as ideology, in Toward a Rational Society, Trans. J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon Press.

√Hardt, Michael, & Negri, Antonio. (2000). Postmodernization, or the informatization of production. In Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

√Hughes, Thomas P. The evolution of large technological systems. In W.E. Bijker, T.P. Hughes, & T. Pinch, (Eds.) The social construction of technological systems. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press. (p. 51-82).

√Kellner, Douglas. New technologies, technocities and the prospects for democratization.

√Kuhn, Thomas. 1962, 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. (selections)

√Latour, Bruno. (1987). Opening Pandora’s Black Box. In Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 1-17.

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√Lessig, Lawrence (2006) Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. New York: 
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√Lukacs, Georg. (1966). Technology and social relations. New Left Review(1), 39, pp. 27-34.

√MacKenzie, Donald. (1996) Knowing machines: Essays on technical change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Ch 1-3)

√Marshall, Barbara L. 2003). Critical theory, feminist theory and technology studies. In T.J. Misa, P. Brey and A. Feenberg (Eds.) Modernity and technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

√Marcuse, Herbert. (1941). Some social implications of modern technology. In A. Arato & E. Gebhard (Eds.) The essential Frankfurt school reader. New York: Continuum.

√Marx, Karl. (??) The struggle between worker and machine. In Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 15, Section 5.

√—–. (1973) The Grundrisse. Trans. M. Nicolaus. Middlesex, England; Baltimore, MA: Penguin Books. (pp. 670-711).

√Noble, David. (1977). America by design: Science, technology, and the rise of corporate capitalism. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. (Selections – Forward, Intro, Ch 1-4, pp. xi-xxvi, and 3-65, Ch. 8 & 9).

√—–. (1998). Digital diploma mills: The automation of higher education. First Monday, (3)1. Retrieved 20 August 2007 from

+Pinch, T. and Bijker, W.E. (1987). The social construction of facts and artifacts: Or how the sociology of science and the sociology of technology might benefit each other. In W.E. Bijker, T.P. Hughes, & T. Pinch, (Eds.) The social construction of technological systems. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press. (p. 17-50)

√Wajcman, Judy. (1991). Feminist critiques of science and technology. In Feminism confronts technology. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press. HM 221 W35

√Norbert Wiener. (1950). Human use of human beings. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press. (Ch. 1, 10, 11, 12)

√Winner, Langdon. (1986). The whale and the reactor: A search for limits in an age of high technology. Chicago: University of Chicago.

√—–. (1993) Upon opening the black box and finding it empty. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 18(3), 366-378). Retrieved 4 August 2007 from

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