The Lasting Lessons of "Imagining the Internet"

The Lasting Lessons of “Imagining the Internet”

On Monday 5 December 2022, the LSE Department of Media and Communications will hold a public event to celebrate the legacy of Emeritus Professor Robin Mansell. We invited some of Robin’s current and former colleagues and students to share their thoughts on the impact she has had both on them personally and on the field of IT theory and practice. information and communication. João C. Magalhães, Assistant Professor in Media, Politics and Democracy at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, completed his PhD at LSE under Robin’s supervision.

A non-trivial question when thinking about Robin Mansell’s legacy is: where to start? Because his career was not only remarkably prolific, but also multiple. There’s Robin the Theorist, who unearthed unsuspected connections between vastly different disciplines to bring critical meaning to our confusing systems of communication. There is Robin, the academic leader, who led the IAMCR, edited landmark publications and played a major role in the internationalization of our field and in the creation of the LSE’s Department of Media and Communications. She was also a paragon of the “impacting” scholar, a bona fide scholar who worked for decades with policy makers and technology developers. And there is of course her role as educator and mentor. Robin helped train a generation of researchers, supervising more than 40 PhD students. That’s a staggering number in any discipline, but particularly impressive in media and communications, where doctoral students often write book dissertations based on extensive fieldwork.

So, indeed, where to begin a reflection on his heritage? It would be foolish of me to try to comment on all these aspects. But as someone who was deeply influenced by Robin’s ideas – first as a reader of her work, then as a master’s and doctoral supervisee – I would like to suggest that her 2012 monograph, “Imagining Internet”, offers an inspiring entry point.

I first came across this book as a graduate student and was immediately intrigued by the title. Why would anyone write about how the internet is conceived, I remember thinking? And how was such “imagination” related to “communication, innovation and governance”, the subtitle of the book? The contrast between the subjective experience of the imagination and the impersonal systematicity of power and economics struck me as new, subversive – and seductive. I borrowed the book from the LSE library not knowing that it would shape much of my own thinking in the months and years to come.

“Imagining the Internet” remains, in my eyes, the best introduction to Robin’s intellectual project. Not that the book is written in an “introductory” style. It is a dense text, sometimes demanding. What I mean is that the book seems to engage with many topics and theories that she had previously engaged with without focusing too much on any one specific area – regulation, political economy, development, etc. The aim is precisely to offer a panoramic view. ideas taken for granted imaginary) that shape the design, governance and use of communication systems.

In doing so, “Imagining the Internet” remains, ten years later, one of the most creative reviews of the first decades of the Internet, exemplary in its rigor and ambition.

Drawing on Charles Taylor’s social philosophy (but also critical systems theory, economics, and cybernetics, to name just a few of his typically eclectic inspirations), Robin’s narrative convincingly demonstrates that there were two major imaginaries shaping the sociotechnical production of the Internet, particularly in the West. On the one hand, there was “the dominant social imaginary”. This assumed that the “good” information society would emerge from poorly regulated markets, the proper functioning of which depended in turn on the control of digital flows of information through the respect of intellectual property rights. On the other hand, there was the “alternative social imaginary”. According to this vision, the Internet would be beneficial as long as it was controlled collectively by decentralized networks of private actors. Those who embraced this view assumed that self-organizing communities led by an elite of software developers should rule the Internet from below, producing and circulating information as freely and openly as possible. Intellectual rights, if enforced, could hinder the development of this digital commons.

These visions were locked in an impasse created by two paradoxes, Robin pointed out. The information scarcity paradox meant that information was simultaneously imagined as “expensive to produce”, therefore having to be made artificially scarce to induce “creativity, diversity and growth” (dominant imaginary) and too “without cost to reproduce”, in which case creativity, diversity and growth could only emerge when information was “freely distributed” (alternative imaginary). The complexity paradox how to account for the emerging complexities of our digital communication. From the dominant point of view, such complexity led to a loss of control; from another point of view, it engendered new decentralized forms of government.

Robin describes these views clinically and critically. Despite their differences, she says, the two camps have converged in their superficial view of technological progress as inherently good and “uncontrollable by man”, in their often self-serving skepticism of governments and states, and in their naive understanding (or intentionally ignorant) of the entanglements between power and justice. In a way, these “dominant” and “alternative” visions were the offspring of a larger neoliberal imaginary, rooted in morally impoverished dreams of achieving freedom through “natural” technocracy – or so it is. as I read them.

To some degree, the issues that Imagining the Internet examines and theorizes about have changed dramatically over the past decade. The copyright wars that dominated regulatory debates in the late 1990s and 2000s died down following the development of massive automated filters (think YouTube’s Content ID) and new business models, such as those paid streaming platforms. The complexity has only increased, but its control has been reshaped as a service offered not by decentralized networks, but by the gigantic corporate brains of those networks – the Big Tech conglomerates. We don’t need to understand how data is produced and how machine learning systems work to enjoy the seamless experience of scrolling through our news feeds.

It is not the case, however, that the conflicts over information and complexity control have disappeared. Left unattended, these paradoxes have actually deepened and multiplied, creating new contradictory sets of intractable problems: inexplicable speech control, widespread misinformation, and exploitative communication systems that we fundamentally distrust – but don’t know about. no how to give up. It would take more than a blog post to unravel these transmutations. However, let me note that it is not absurd to think that our Big Tech-centric Internet is now underpinned by a social imaginary that resembles a fusion between the imaginaries that Robin portrays so accurately he ten years ago. Freedom of information and decentralization now seem to be seen as necessary for the design of centralized monetizable information control systems. It’s as if this ‘alternative’ view has captured the ‘dominant’ position, adopting some of its assumptions and becoming a hybrid that we are still trying to understand.

And as we develop critical vocabularies to interpret these relatively new systems, it is worth mentioning an idea present in this book and throughout Robin’s work: as complex and concentrated as communication technologies are, they remain somehow malleable and ambiguous. “Imagining the Internet” is the horizon of possibility and reform: an urge to resist the strange charm of simplification and fatalism, to reject all forms of determinism – whether utopian or dystopian. Of all the lessons Robin taught me, this is the one I continue to learn.

This article represents the author’s point of view and not the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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