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Report from the Virtual Society? Get Real! – Conference
in England, May 2000


In the first week of May 2000, some 130 researchers (mostly social scientists) gathered in Ashridge House near London to discuss the new information and communication technologies' impact on everyday life and society in general. 47 presentations and 4 keynote speeches were given during the two-day conference held by the Virtual Society? Programme.

The Virtual Society? Programme was founded in 1997 and is headed by professor Steve Woolgar (Brunel University). It unites 22 individual projects at 25 universities in Great Britain. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) finances the programme with 3 million pounds. As the programme is coming to an end in 2000, the conference was an opportunity for the project members, who gave approximately half of the presentations, to reflect on their work and compare it with research activities in other countries. Contributions came from such countries as Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, the USA and Yugoslavia.

Four parallel sessions addressed various political questions (e.g., participation rates, privacy, cyberethics) in different everyday contexts (e.g., telework, telelearning, telemedicine) and in relation to different social groups (e.g., non-users, net drop outs, female users). Socialpsychological concepts often played a key role here. Three examples follow:

  • Contrary to common expectations, in the area of attitudes towards technology, the public is not vehemently opposed to video surveillance in public buildings or on public places and in fact often welcomes it (Brian McGrail). Electronic monitoring in the workplace sometimes is also surprisingly well accepted by those affected (David Mason, Gloria Lankshear, Sally Coates & Graham Button). Can technologies of control empower the very people who are subjected to surveillance? And if so, how?
  • The popular notion that the young generation consists entirely of "computer kids" or even "computer freaks" appears to be a questionable computer-related stereotype. A significant portion of children and adolescents use virtual technologies little or have completely ceased to use it, as they are uneasy with technology or simply disinterested (Keri Facer). It seems that net abstinence is not always the unwanted result of being socially under privileged, but can partly be understood as a conscious decision (Tiziana Terranova, Graham Thomas & Sally Wyatt).
  • Identity on the net is often seen as a matter of anonymity, masquerade, and deception. But both laboratory and field studies reveal that virtual identities are strongly connected to the real self in many ways. People who communicate via newsgroups or chat rooms on a regular basis let others know who they are and aim to validate the authenticity of their virtual self-presentations (Jason Rutter & Greg Smith). Laboratory experiments prove that people, in the course of computer-mediated first contacts, do not generally perceive each other as abstract or anonymous figures. As they cannot see or hear each other they rely to a great degree on those personal characteristics that are perceivable online: for instance, the country of origin can be determined from the e-mail address, the gender from the name. So national or gender identities are well and alive online - along with all their positive and negative side-effects (Martin Lea, Susan E. Watt & Russell Spears).

What the virtual has to offer remained an open question throughout the entire course of the conference. A general consensus was reached, that dichotomisation and dramatisation should be avoided: the virtual is not directly opposed to the real. Instead, we see a multitude of more or less subtle interactions between online and offline activities whose consequences cannot be globally determined but can only be assessed by taking the respective context and user group into account. This will help to put both utopian and dystopian interpretations of the virtual into perspective.

What is the connection between individually and locally differentiated online activities and the overall social trend towards a “virtual society”? Is much of that which is today classified under the label “virtual” really as new as it appears? Hasn’t society always been virtual in a way? Should we stick to scepticism and just keep cool knowing that high hopes inspired by earlier technological innovations usually ended in disappointment? Or should we resist scepticism and acknowledge that virtual technologies have an impact far larger than we happen to understand today. Isn't officially recognizing the importance of the virtual - although in danger of becoming senseless hype - necessary to avoid the mistake of underestimation, especially on a global level, of the extent of the actual transformation now occurring?

We don’t know. And this is what the question mark in Virtual Society? Programme stands for. The conference didn't erase the question mark but added a lengthy footnote to it including a bunch of abstracts and full papers which can be found on the conference website.

The conference’s success cannot be attributed to the presenters alone, but was especially dependent on the perfect organisation by Dr Caroline Ingrim and her assistants. In the renovated former monastery Ashridge, which has been used as a conference centre since the 50s, our every desire was catered to. There, the virtual meets with an especially luxurious version of the real: after an evening dip in the pool, e-mails could be checked on one of the networked presentation computers overlooking the beautiful Ashridge park. Back at the desk at home, the virtual meets with a more ordinary version of the real, just as Steve Woolgar’s parting gift to all conference participants predicted:




© 2000 Nicola Döring