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:
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? Hasnt 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 dont 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 conferences 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 Woolgars parting gift to all conference participants predicted: