Home

Dissertation

Dissertation
Research
Publications
Resumé
Resources
About

 

Summary

Summary of Paula Uimonen's Transnational.Dynamics@Development.Net. Internet, Modernization and Globalization, prepared by Professor Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture (TIK), University of Oslo, in his capacity as opponent at the examination of the dissertation, Stockholm University, 30 October 2001. The full text of the summary is reproduced with the kind permission of Professor Thomas Hylland Eriksen.

"The concept of the social network was introduced in the 1950s by British social anthropologists John Barnes and A. L. Epstein, as they struggled to conceptualise the form of social organisation characterising societies lacking corporate groups. The network was conceived as a fluid, horizontal and transient form of organisation wholly dependent on the persons who were reproducing it, and thus quite different from the stable, structured societies envisioned as typical in much 20th century social science. In the social theory of the last couple of decades, the contrast between that which is stable and fixed and that which is fluid and unbounded, has been gived enormous attention, and for good reason - the last decades of the 20th century were characterised by transnational flows of unprecedented scale: migration, tourism, trade, investments as well as all kinds of signs transmitted via communication satellites. The contrasts, and potential conflicts, between the territorial power of states and deterritorialised networks were thus recognised and to some extent theorised well before 11 September, by the likes of Zygmunt Bauman, Anthony Giddens, Ulf Hannerz, Manuel Castells and John Urry.

Now, this original and intriguing dissertation by Paula Uimonen deals with one particular aspect of globalisation, or should we say glocalisation - a term from Roland Robertson that she uses herself - namely that to do with the development and dissemination of the Internet family of communication technologies. It is a non-territorial network par excellence, to many the single most important symbol of deterritorialisation, and although its ideological focal point is clearly in California, which is a place in physical terms, it is integrated by way of network nodes and spiders rather than hierarchies and leaders. On this background, it seems entirely appropriate that Uimonen begins her dissertation by acknowledging her debt to network theory, describing the Internet, in fact in the very first sentence of the thesis, as "a network of networks". It is unbounded, transnational and fluid, and many commentators as well as Internet pioneers have been inclined to believe that it represents an entirely new form of social organisation, disembedded from traditional loyalties and national identities, transcending the bounded nature of localised communities and paving the way for a truly global identity. Although these and similar ideas are dealt with in the dissertation, they are seriously challenged as the author moves from a social history of the Internet to her case studies, that is political discourses about Internet implementation and use in two South-East Asian countries. One of her main objectives, which has been achieved in a fully satisfactory way, thus consists in demonstrating the essential unpredictability and variation in the social appropriation of technology. Although there are interesting nontrivial similarities between approaches to the Internet in Malaysia and Laos, the differences are also very considerable.

I now move to a critical summary of the thesis.

The first chapter introduces the topic, emphasises the social nature of the Internet and warns against distinguishing the "virtual" from the "real". The author also states her position briefly in relation to others who have written on so-called virtuality, electronic communication and technology more generally, questioning unilineal notions of modernisation and globalisation, and discarding what she calls postmodern approaches as a kind of exoticism where only the more spectacular and outlandish aspects of the Internet are engaged with. Instead, she proposes to use a set of concepts taken from Hannerz' work on cultural complexity, notably that of management of culture along different, specified dimensions which interact in different ways. This is a wise decision, which may enable her to achieve an acceptable level of accuracy when she talks about large-scale phenomena. The fieldwork itself is also described in this section. Now, the Internet has been studied exclusively online by some scholars, but there is general consensus in anthropology that this method is not sufficient. Unlike, say, Miller and Slater's study of the Internet in Trinidad, this thesis is based on multi-sited fieldwork, in Geneva - which could in some respects be regarded as a European hub - and among elites in Malaysia and Laos. As is stated on p. 19, large parts of the thesis depend on written sources. We will later have to discuss whether this decision was altogether fortunate, given the overall aims of the project and the expressed wish to delve into the management of culture.

The second chapter offers a historical account of the growth of the Internet, and rightly emphasises the close connection between the American countercultures of the 1960s and the emergent ideology of electronic networks. Here, it is also pointed out that the open and versatile nature of this technology, as it spread during the 1970s, implied that it could be put to a lot of uses, most of which were unknown at its initial implementation. Among other things, she exposes the common myth that the ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet, was essentially a military network: it was civilian and academic from the outset. The chapter ends with the rise and fall of so-called dot com hysteria and the growth of the Open Source movement, which tries to retain the decentralised and democratic spirit of the Internet in the face of Microsoft's monopoly capitalism and commercialisation in general.

The third chapter presents early attempts to promote the Internet in the Third World, describing the complicity between NGOs, UN agencies and local entrepreneurs in doing so. The chapter also contains a fascinating account of the networking abilities required of Internet pioneers, who must be regarded as the main characters in this piece; notably their competence as brokers or entrepreneurs. This is a topic I would like to go more deeply into in our discussion, as it is not altogether clear what they mediate between. Thus on p. 62: "In the case of the Internet pioneers, they use their strategic positioning in existing networks to further the development of complementary networks, all of which are joined in the network of networks, the Internet." Fine, but one inevitably has to ask: what do these networks look like, and what do the brokers translate between - politics and society, lifeworlds and the community of electronic technology, Western culture and local culture? Whatever the case may be, in the final and arguably best part of the chapter, the author describes the transnational network of Internet pioneers and its lofty cosmopolitan ideals, sensibly noting that national identities need not be threatened by the growth of this "network of networks".

The fourth chapter introduces Manuel Castells' influential work on the network society, stressing in particular the conflict potential inherent in the new, or perhaps just rejuvenated, power structures. On the one hand, a new, ostensibly global informational paradigm was developed by the G7 countries in the mid-1990s; on the other hand, the neoliberal ideology underpinning it concealed important power discrepancies between and within countries; the G7 policy showing by default the difference between the interacting and the interacted in a globalised world. The author rightly identifies the dynamic relationship between inclusion and exclusion pertaining to networks in general (and the Internet is no exception), and also discusses the notion of "leapfrogging" popular in some third world countries, perceived as a shortcut to development, jumping over the tedious and filthy stage of industrialisation as it were. The author further notes, with a perceptible amount of exasperation (revealing her double role), that politicians frequently resist the expansion of the Internet, presumably because it challenges their territorial power. The chapter ends with a brief discussion of tensions between structures and flows, and the author differs, perhaps, from other authors in emphasising that flows are not necessarily directed in a linear, evolutionary fashion. With this in mind, we eagerly turn to the second, more locally embedded part of the thesis, which describes and compares the experiences of Malaysia and Laos with the new online world.

The fifth chapter, or what I prefer to see as the first chapter of the second part of the thesis, offers a regional view of the Internet in Southeast Asia. Initially noting some similarities between the countries in question - ethnic complexity, elitist politics and a strongly positive attitude to modernisation through economic development - it moves towards an assessment of Internet pioneering in the region, describing both differences between "advanced" and "backward" countries, and the ambiguous role of the Internet in nation-building: On the one hand, it is an extension of literacy and educational skills, and contributes in no small measure to economic development; on the other hand, it is non-territorial and transnational, and seems to erode the traditional power base of politicians. Moreover, it is indicated that the people who connect to the Net in the region are people who are also embedded in globalising practices in other contexts; unlike, perhaps, the situation in more affluent countries.

The sixth chapter, perhaps the richest in ethnography, describes the peculiar form of modernity developed in Mahathir's Malaysia, which may be the best extant example of a country which has, or is in the process of, moving directly from an agricultural economy to an informational one under the authoritarian guidance of the Prime Minister. The potential of the Internet as a vehicle for civil society and social criticism is identified and described; a dimension which is obvious in a highly computer literate, slightly authoritarian society such as Malaysia. This subversive potential is naturally viewed as an unintended side-effect by the politicians who were responsible for the rapid growth of Internet use in the country.

The next, and penultimate, chapter on Laos is no less interesting, and offers an interesting exercise in comparison. This country shares few characteristics with Malaysia; it is thinly populated, poor and less ethnically heterogeneous; it has a government calling itself socialist, and it is naturally less wired than Malaysia. The Internet seems to be accessed largely from Internet cafés, and members of the Lao diaspora are instrumental in its development, especially with regards to content. The kind of long-distance nation-building which is facilitated by the Net is mentioned, and would certainly be an interesting focal point for a later study. One official interviewed expresses the government's ambivalence clearly, stating that the Internet could "contribute to our socio-economic development", adding that it should not "serve as a destabilizing factor, creating confusion among the people". This statement encapsulates a main ideological tension of the 1990s, namely between neo-liberalism and statism. The question is whether one can have one's cake and have it too.

Now for the conclusion. It is brief and pointed, and develops the idea that the "culture of networking" represented by Internet pioneers, is at odds with state interests, which explains many of the problems encountered by Net enthusiasts worldwide. The thesis ends on a normative, moderately utopian note.

As the audience will have realised by now, this is not a standard anthropological treatise. It is about as far removed from village fieldwork as one can get. Now, human, culturally mediated activity does bring us very far indeed from villages these days, but there is sometimes a price to pay for this. Clearly, this in many ways admirable work is a powerful attempt to offer both a description of the network logic and ideological underpinning of the Internet and an analysis of the role of the Net in a couple of South-East Asian countries. In both respects, it succeeds. It is also an elite study, an uncommon sight in a subject whose practitioners usually looks at greater society from below. So far, so good. On the other hand, I would like to challenge the author's methodology. On the positive side, the comparisons between Laos and Malaysia are consistent and convincing; there is no comparison of apples and pears here. On the other hand, it must also be said that the data underpinning the argument of this thesis are sprawling and varied. There is nothing wrong with this. However, for an anthropology thesis there is a conspicuous lack of native points of views - they are only hinted at through the rare informant's statement, and hardly ever through thick descriptions of life-worlds. Many would actually claim that this is what ethnography is about. I would not go thus far, but in order to penetrate the many dimensions of "cultural management" fully, it is my distinct feeling that more context would have been required. The fieldwork in Geneva, Malaysia and Laos seems largely to have consisted in structured interviews with selected members of the political elite and the networks of Internet pioneers. There seems to have been precious little of that time-intensive hanging around which is typical of most fieldwork. Now, I do not want to promote a puritan view of how to go about doing anthropology, and it goes without saying that one cannot rely on Malinowski-style village fieldwork if the object of study is a deterritorialised network. However, as the author also makes clear, people continue to live in places, and the intersection of their embedded lives with global flows is, perhaps, best described as glocalisation. I would have loved to see more of that embeddedness; hopefully we will se this in later work. In the end, we learn little about actual Internet use in either Malaysia or Laos, and how it can be seen as an extension of, or is otherwise related to, pre-existing skills and activities. Quite often, data is not properly contextualised, as for example when the thesis says that "an informant says..." without describing his or her positioning in the network in question. Further, the author herself is an agent in the contexts she studies, and she positions herself convincingly early on. However, it seems to me that the division of labour between Paula Uimonen the policy analyst and Paula Uimonen the social anthropologist has not always been fully negotiated and that the two occasionally merge. The academic treatise slips into the policy report in several places, for example when the author passes judgement on the IT policy of Prime Minister Mahathir. What we are interested in as social anthropologists is the meanings of his discourse and their social implications, not whether he is right or wrong.     

This much said, I must conclude that the thesis is an original and very valuable contribution to our still embryonic comparative understanding of the Internet. It covers a lot of ground and succeeds surprisingly well in its attempt to demonstrate the awkward relationship between Net and State, and more generally, between deterritorialised networks and territorial power structures. It certainly shows - and this is intended as a compliment - that more work urgently needs to be done on Internet use in non-Western countries."