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Imagining the Internet, 16 October 2012

A liveblog of Robin Mansell's public lecture based on the new book (OUP, 2012, ISBN 978-0-19-969705-2)


  1. I will be attempting to liveblog this event and also share some content that people are posting on twitter with the event hashtag.
  2. Key questions raised by chair Sonia Livingstone - what is the nature of the information society, how should it be managed and whose interests should it serve? Professor Mansell's audience are a combination of interdisciplinary academics and policy makers from diverse perspectives.
  3. Imagining the Internet How do we imagine our social existence in the age of the Internet? One way is time and space - where we are. What social norms, what values are informing our thoughts? Anything we express today can be monitored and watched. How can we think about this from a diverse set of disciplinary perspectives? Social imaginaries do not start with C. Wright Mills. I aim to transcend the left and the right, not take the obvious answer. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor offers a guide. The questions are profound and it took ten years to write this book.
  4. The pre-Internet world: people started to focus on information processing. Can you control technology? People imagined ways of processing information. People thought machine dreams. The hope was that human beings could gain control of their environment through machines. These ideas have not gone away. The present: we focus on content. Traditional type media has not gone away, but we have moved into an era where it is assumed that technology is empowering us. This leads to the idea that bottom-up action is enabled by the Internet ie. development initiatives, Arab Spring, Russian wildfire help map.
  5. But who sets the norms of the Internet age? For example, 65 per cent of music is illegally downloaded. What does this mean for content production and who decides. The British government's stand is to criminalise the downloading of content, but there is a pushback from groups such as the Pirate Party. This debate is often portrayed as David vs Goliath. But it is more complex. What about the BTs and other ISPs, who are on "our side" but it serves their interests.
  6. A dominant set of views have defined the norms and values of the information society. This contains a paradox - copyright creates creativity but we should not regulate the Internet. The alternative view is that copyright is a restriction. But with the exception of copyright, the two imaginaries are actually very similar.
  7. Both views see themselves as constructing the good society, but also see themselves as in conflict - a win for one is a loss for the other. If we leave things to develop without intervention, we leave decisions to unaccountable groups - both corporate and social movement. We need new forms of governance. The automation of everyday life is cumulative. What can be done today may be excessive in the future.
  8. There are many developments occurring that are simply not part of the public policy discourses at the moment. This is what we must think about.
  9. Bill Dutton: the importance of the book is that it refocuses us on policy. We have tended to focus on technology. Attention then focused on patterns of use, with what effect and institutional consequence.
  10. Only now, governance and policy are rising as a more important focus. We have moved away from the idea that the net is just a cool innovation. Now we know it is too important for policy makers to leave alone. This book is therefore extremely timely.
  11. The book also provides direction: break the monopolies of knowledge; fostering creativity; augmenting the human mind.
  12. The problem with the good society is that people differ on how to get there. Much policy has unintended consequences. This makes policy formulation contentious
  13. Some thoughts for debate. People do tend to think in terms of evil market vs. policy interventions. But can we separate them? Nothing is not public policy. The question is the nature of public policy. For example, the Digital Economy Act is policy that supports the market. If we get policy wrong, there will be negative social consequences.
  14. We don't necessarily need a revolution in society, but it is empowering. The idea of the fifth estate means that institutions can be held accountable, building a more pluralistic society. Also what of the forth estate? Many of the examples give us reason to worry whether the empowered, networked individual will be undermined by policy. Defending copyright puts ISPs in the business of tracking what users do, and links them with government.