Contributed Paper
at the International Conference
"Electronic Commerce"
Metsovo, Greece, July 4-6, 1997
 

 

ACCOUNTS OF SOCIALITY
IN THE INFORMATION SOCIETY

 

Moses A. Boudourides

mboudour@duth.gr
http://www.duth.gr/~mboudour/


It is generally acknowledged that the current developments of information and communication technologies (ICTs) restructure the world and predicate the advent of the information society (IS). Through their potential capacity to transcend the space and time delimiters, some theorists have suggested that ICTs are facilitating the emergence of unprecedented configurations of human sociality in the IS. This technosociality appears in either new (inter)active social relationships or in new forms of collective/distributed subjectivity composing the so called "virtual communities." Apparently, these new computer- and network-mediated patterns of human interaction, formed in the informational process of globalization, are reshaping the global marketplace towards network-oriented economies, the development of electronic commerce and the growth of electronic communities possessing particular consumer needs.

In this paper, we try to investigate the forms of sociality and community emerging in the IS as the development of ICTs corresponds to new forms of social action and communal experience. We start by presenting a brief sociological analysis of the concepts of community and society from the promodern period until modernity and postmodernity. Then, focused on the globalization processes of the IS, we discuss the extension of social relationships in modernity which in a sense might be considered to imply a further advance of social integration. At that point we evaluate the notion of a virtual community and attempt to explore how and where these new environments of electronic sociality are articulated within the locus of urban social life. Next we enter the debate about construing the self and managing identities in the context of CMC, processes which stress the role of the contested condition of postmodernity. Finally, we examine the relative adequacy of the discussed perspectives and we conclude by an attempt to assess the compatibility and complementarity of the various accounts of sociality in the IS.

Community - Society

Today networks of CMC do constitute a reality, the Internet being the most prominent and popular among them. However the CMC reality does not lie in the physical low or high speed connection networks neither in the hardware/software of the wired platforms of computers. This reality should be searched in the symbolic connections resulting from computer- or technology-mediated human interaction and the emergence of self-organized social associations that overcome physical space and time. In this sense the social and cultural specificity of CMC should be directed to the foreground of a sociological discussion focused around the notions of community and society from their traditional concepts until their modern discourses or their postmodern discontents in the context of the IS.

The structural changes and transformations at the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century societies in the period of the Industrial Revolution could be traced at the level of the articulation of the social relationships at that time. According to the pioneering work of the German sociologist Ferdinand Toennies (1855-1936), a shift was taking place from community/Gemeinschaft to society/Gesellschaft. Toennies’ Gemeinschaft is the traditional and natural grouping of people based on kinship, proximity, and intimate face-to-face contacts, as in the example of a tribe or of a peasant village. His Gesellschaft refers to impersonal associational and legal relationships in which contracts and tokens such as money were holding people together, as in the example of the modern city or state. Thus, in Toennies’ dichotomy it is the original (a priori) nature of community, which is contrasted to the optional nature of association. Gesellschaft is formed on the conscious choices of relatively independent individuals, while the essence of Gemeinschaft is the subjective being and belonging together (Toennies 1887).

Max Weber took up Toennies’ views identifying communal relationships on the basis of subjective feeling, blood affinity (kinship) or proximic bonds (neighborhood). To these he was opposing the rationality of society, where people were held together through structured associations. As Weber argued, "Communal relationships may rest on various types of affectual, emotional, or traditional bases ... but the great majority of social relationships has this characteristic to some degree, while being at the same time to some degree determined by associative factors" (Weber 1922, p. 41). Incidentally, the above Weberian separation of subjectivity from rationality is strongly criticized by Calhoun as bluring rationality to objectivity and not conceiving the linkage between the experiential and the structural dimensions of communal relationships (Calhoun 1980). Moreover, Weber was considering such a loss of community to be a prerequisite for the advent of the modern society: "the traditionalistic attitude had to be at least partly overcome in the Western World before the further development to the specifically modern type of rational capitalist economy could take place" (Weber 1922, p. 71).

Obviously the notion of "community-lost" came into widespread usage as a result of concrete change in a period of social and economical transition. However, as Calhoun remarks, "it rapidly lost its comparative dimension and became for many authors a static category, referring, rather loosely, to a geographically or administratively bounded population, not to a set of variety of social relations" (Calhoun 1980, p. 106). So, Calhoun suggests that "we need to develop a conceptualization of community which allows us to penetrate beneath such simple categories as city, village, town, country, to see a variable of social relations. ... The relationship between community as a complex of social relationships and community as a complex of ideas and sentiments has been little explored" (Calhoun 1980, p. 107).

In fact, more recent sociological research attempts to reconceptualize difference and change in social life by conceiving community not so much as producing social relationships but as being itself socially produced and constructed. For example, Effrat (1974) adopts an instrumentalist perspective based on involvement and interaction to categorize community in three main types of human activity: community as solidarity in institutions, community as primary interaction, and community as institutionally distinct groups. In the context of the recent technological developments of ICTs, Jones (1994) supports that it is the third category making the most sense of communities emerging in the IS: CMC engenders community as institutionally distinct groups, although CMC might be a primary source of interaction, which nevertheless is a function of a community defined as an institutionally distinct group. Moreover, Jones proceeds further to view in this way the attained computer- and network-sociality as following Etzioni’s "I and We" paradigm, which stresses "the interlocking, mutually dependent relationship of individual and community ... [as] the We signifies social, cultural and political, hence historical and institutional forces, which shape the collective factor - the community" (Etzioni 1991, p. 137).

Another interesting discussion about the effect of communication and on-line networks to human social activity is given by Jan Walls (1993), who is considering social participation in groups within a community and the strategies of task achievement by the group depending on the common relationship pattern of the community. In this setting, Walls distinguishes relationship-based from task-focused group performance and he attributes the role of communication "either as a means to achieve firm goals through flexible social relationships or as a means to maintain firm relationships by achieving flexible goals" (Walls 1993, p. 157). Although he characterizes the former as the dominant function of communication in gesellschaft, he stresses the fact that both roles exist simultaneously in both societies and communities, since any act of communication will have both content and relationship dimensions (Watzlawick et al. 1967, chap. 2). In particular, CMC and networks of on-line communication "may be best suited for functioning as task-focused sociotechnical systems, which offer information, ideas, or other forms of enrichment to users whose stable relationship-focused affiliations are not on-line" (Walls 1993, p. 153).

The Extension of Social Relations in Modernity

For some thinkers advances in ICTs can contribute to globalization processes and extend the most basic trends in social integration more often than they have countered them (Calhoun 1992). There are plenty of metaphors describing the modern informational globalization. Marshall McLuhan’s (1964) "global village" refers to the technological reshaping of social space implied by the shrinkage of distance in the "new Galaxy" of communication. Harold Innis’ (1952) "time- and space-binding" is raising the importance the "new time" regime in this period. Similar is Paul Virilio’s (1984) "lost dimension" extending the spatial disappearance to the accidental collapse of time and investigating their urban consequences. The analysis of time plays a central role in the work of Anthony Giddens (1985) too, whose "time-space distanciation" dramatically overcomes the time-space constraints in the information and communication era. David Harvey’s (1989) "postmodern condition" of "time-space compression" is claimed to result an economic and geographical global reshaping of capitalism by revolutionizing "the objective qualities of space and time that we are forced to alter, sometimes in quite radical ways, how we represent the world to ourselves" (Harvey 1989, p. 240).

A common denominator in all the above approaches to grasp and explain social change in the age of modernity is the fact that a massive expansion of indirect social relationships has been facilitated by the advances in ICTs. In a sense, the prevalence of indirect, mediated relations over direct, face-to-face relations, which are typical of traditional and early modern societies, signifies a constitutive characteristic of modern societies. In fact, the direct relationships in premodern societies were differentiated according to Cooley’s language (1909) in "primary" and "secondary" ones. Cooley’s "primary" relationships linked people mainly as the enactors of specific social roles and the "secondary" relationships involved whole persons linked to each other in public institutions and in political participation. (See also the discussion in Nisbet & Perrin, 1977.) Moreover, Calhoun (1992) supports, not only the increase of importance of indirect relationships characterizes modernity, but their expansion is accompanied with a shift in balance between two kinds of indirect relationships. By extension from Cooley’s notions of "primary" and "secondary" relationships, Calhoun conceptualizes two kinds of indirect relationships, "tertiary" and "quaternary."

According to Calhoun, "tertiary relationships need involve no physical copresence; they may be mediated entirely by machines, correspondence, or other persons, but the parties are well aware of the relationship" (Calhoun 1992, p. 218). Examples of "tertiary" relationships are distance banking or electronic commerce transanctions between customers and personnel and citizens’ contacts with their political representatives mediated by a variety of media. The media through which such a relationship is carried out help to "filter out" the physical and social cues of the communicants (Boudourides 1995). However, mutual recognition and intentionality exist as well as the possibility of identification.

As for "quaterniary" relationships, according to Calhoun, "by contrast, (they) occur outside of the attention and, generally, the awareness of at least one of the parties to them" (Calhoun 1992, p. 219). They are, says Calhoun, the products of surveillance, of monitoring people’s actions, tapping of telephones, or hacking into a computer database. They can be used to trace the behavior of particular individuals or groups for purposes of control or persecution and also to provide marketing information. (On electronic surveillance see David Lyon, 1994.)

Although it is clear that ICTs multiply the range of indirect social relationships, it is not that obvious that they contribute to the accomplishment of social integration. In fact, the apprehension that new technologies supplant human labor is obscuring this matter, because it is merely restricted to quantitative aspects of production. On the other hand, computerization and other ICTs not only enable the automation of production processes but they reorganize the information flow through these processes. This qualitative feature of information technology is well presented in Beniger’s (1986) "control revolution," i.e., the rapid technological innovation in the infrastructure of transportation and telecommunications at the end of the 19th century that restored the economic and political control lost during the Industrial Revolution. According to Calhoun, the transformative power of new information technologies aims "to organize more of social life through indirect relationships, to extend the power of various corporate actors, to coordinate social action on a larger scale, or to intensify control within specific relationships" (Calhoun 1992, p. 221).

Calhoun’s (1992) analysis of the extension of indirect relations and their contribution to social integration is directed against the "industrial society" theories, which, although were developed as alternatives to Marxism, they exhibit the same neglect of social integration with Marxism. For example, Daniel Bell’s (1973) notion that information replaces labor as the source of value fails to account for the achievement of social integration. Stressing the potentiality to expand social integration through indirect relationships, IS enabled by ICTs does not constitute a break with modernity according to Calhoun: "There has been no basic shift in the form of social integration such that a new sort of society might reasonably be declared to exist. The changes that have occurred and are occurring are more or less of a piece with the changes that have occurred throughout the modern age. ... Capitalism’s relentless pushing is a major source of this continuous social (as well as technological, economic, and cultural) change" (Calhoun 1992, p. 225).

Virtual Communities and Social Interaction

Having discussed the expansion of indirect social relationships in the modern IS, it remains to explore whether these relationships do produce a particular type of communities, the so called "virtual communities," claimed to support new types of social interaction within electronic space. Licklider and Taylor, as early as in 1968, were anticipating virtual communities as "on-line interactive communities [which] in most fields will consist of geographically separated members, sometimes grouped in small clusters and sometimes working individually. They will be communities not of common location, but of common interest. ... [They will] support extensive general-purpose information processing and storage facilities ... [and] life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity" (Licklider & Taylor 1968, pp. 30-31).

The expansion and the disembodiment of indirect relationships in virtual communities, many argue, provoke a strengthening of the civic and public modes of interaction and participation by providing open public fora for debate and mobilization. Some proceed further to laud the Internet as "a model for a truly anarchic society where information is freely exchanged, control and regulation are impossible to exercise where there is no hierarchy" (E. Bell 1994). Theodore Roszak notes "its spontaneously democratic and libertarian spirit" and suggests that "the coffee houses of eighteenth-century London, the cafes of nineteenth-century Paris were rather like this: a gathering for every taste and topic" (Roszak 1994, p. 185). In fact, there is a major struggle going on between the business and government interests pushing for the commercialization and regulation of the Internet and those libertarians wanting to protect its open, free, and unregulated character (Ogden 1994).

Not a few discover in virtual communities a sense of convivial urbanism that has been lost in the physical and social transformations towards postmodern urbanism. Geoff Mulgan, for example, argues that "given that the architecture and geography of large cities and suburbs has dissolved older ties of community, electronic networks may indeed become tools of conviviality within cities as well" (Mulgan 1991, p. 69). Howard Rheingold (1994) interprets the turn to virtual communities as a search by people who are alienated by the repressive and instrumental character of daily urban life.

However, independently of the ultimate reasons making people use CMC or other ICTs enabled modes of communication, the question is whether such CMC does build a community or it is an evidence of Beniger’s (1987) "pseudo-community." For Beniger, a pseudo-community is "a hybrid of interpersonal and mass communication," part of "the reversal of a centuries-old trend from organic community - based on interpersonal relationships - to impersonal association integrated by mass means" (Beniger 1987, p. 369). In other words, as face-to-face communication has been always associated with community, a technology-mediated (or simulated) "face-to-interface" communication is associated with "pseudo-community" (Jones 1994, p. 27). Beniger’s criticisms of pseudo-community focus on the insincerity (or inauthenticity) of simulated personalized communication and on the lack of genuine community about which Howard Rheingold is wondering: "Is telecommunication culture capable of becoming something more than ... a ‘pseudo-community,’ where people lack the genuine personal commitments to one another that form the bedrock of genuine community? Or is our notion of ‘genuine’ changing in an age where more people every day live their lives in increasingly artificial environments?" (Rheingold 1993, pp. 60-61). To answer these questions, Jones accepts that "one of the measures of genuine community ought to be its relationship to action (political or otherwise)" (Jones 1994, p. 25). Apparently such a view, offering a political legitimization of communal authenticity, may be used to determine the relation between community and power, through which it may even assess the very constitution of a virtual community. Unfortunately the conclusions that could be drawn from this point of view are not so encouraging for virtual communities. According to Jones (1994), "the situation in which we find computer-mediated communities at present is that their very definition as communities is perceived as a ‘good thing,’ creating a solipsistic and self-fulfilling community that plays little attention to political action outside of that which secures its own maintenance" (Jones 1994, p. 25).

Beyond the self-referential solipsism of virtual communities, severe doubts have been raised about the extent to which the public and urban places of social life could be reconstructed inside the electronic regime. Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin (1996) are very sceptical of the strong claims of virtual communities as they argue that "public interaction on streets and in public spaces offers much more than can ever be telemediated" and that it is very hard to substitute "real face-to-face interaction, the chance encounter, the full exposure to the flux and clamour of urban life - in short, the richness of the human experience of place" (Graham & Marvin 1996, p. 231).

Moreover, the information which is available on-line is often of questionable usefulness, obsolete, and often an overload of low quality (Roszak 1994, p. 165). Virtual communities are overwhelmingly dominated by a white, male technological Úlite, while "the poor, the excluded and the disenfranchised who have tended to suffer most from the polarisation and privatisation processes in contemporary cities tend to be overwhelmingly excluded from virtual urban communities because they do not have the skills and finance necessary to participate" (Graham & Marvin 1996, p. 232). In addition, the fragmented seclusion of virtual communities implies risks that "ethnic groups [will] collect in their own electronic communities, libertarians speak only to libertarians ... inevitably, the effect will be to shatter local geographic communities and ultimately weaken the national community" (Brown 1994). The eventual risk could be that "telematically linked communities could fragment our larger society, enabling each of us to pursue isolation from everything different, or unfamiliar, or threatening, and removing the occasions for contacts across lines of class, race and culture" (Calhoun 1986). In other words, to quote Mike Davis (1993), "urban cyberspace - as the simulation of the city’s information order - will be experienced as even more segregated, and devoid of true public space, than the traditional built city."

Postmodernity and the Information Society

The history of communication technologies reveals a dramatic change brought by CMC and modern ICTs. In the past each of the invented technologies was simply providing devices and machines, enhancing human communication by a simple mechanical prosthesis of the human. Now the new information technologies seem to imply a structural reconfiguration of the terms involved in human communication, engaging humans and machines in more intimate relationships. As a result there is a series of emerging social forms of machine-mediated human communication. The computer networked "cyberspace" and the artificial environments of "virtual reality" are transposed to the bodily experiences of physical space. The "deferred time" of multimedia applications and CMCs disturbs the irreversible flow of "real time." "Telepresence" and "televirtuality" extend the range of copresence and interaction.

These current developments in ICTs have provoked debates as to whether the social realities produced by these technologies can still be discussed within conventional sociological terms. Jones, for example, is wondering whether such "new social formations may require new forms of inquiry" (Jones 1995, p. 7). For this purpose, he quotes James Carey to a call for a "sociology of border crossing, of migration across the semipermeable membranes of social life" (Carey 1993, p. 179). Indeed, there are plenty of lessons to be derived from the experience of relationships developed in CMCs concerning difficulties in managing identities and the acute issues of anonymity or pseudonymity occurring in such communicative processes (Boudourides 1995). A lot of this evidence comes from the study of the computer- and network-mediated environments of MUDs, or Multi-User Dimensions (Boudourides 1995). And all this experience is challenging is the notion of the stable self, posed as the center of social relationships in modern sociology, and whether the self can now accommodate with the dynamics of subjects and identities set in motion by the converging, interactive electronic technologies.

As a matter of fact, Mark Poster (1995) declares that the new ICTs are inaugurating a "second media age." Avoiding the traps of technological determinism, Poster begins from the assumption that the "broadcast model" of communication is doomed to recede in an era of electronic media that allow for many producers, distributors and consumers and articulate their relationships in a web of multi- and hyper-media of communication.

The heart of Poster’s argument lies in the different ways he considers that subjects are constituted in modern and postmodern contexts. According to him, classical sociologists of modernity were absorbed in stressing the supremacy of the centered, rational, autonomous individual of modern times. As they were involved in observing the market economy and political power, they were focused on action (labor) and institutions (bureaucracy). David Lyon rightly remarks that "trapped as they were in the world of print culture, they could only show how the rational individual might be liberated through class struggle or how instrumental rationality was making social organisations one-dimensional, lacking spirit" (Lyon 1997, 30). But in this way, they missed the communicative aspects of social life and the means or "interfaces" to attain communication, language being one of them, when conceived more than a mere instrument to represent reality.

Now Poster suggests that electronic culture actually promotes theories (as postmodernism and poststructuralism) that "focus on the role of language in the process of the constitution of subjects" (Poster 1995, p. 59). Thus, in the "second media age," the place of the modern, rational individual is given by Poster to a subject that is "multiplied, disseminated and decentered, continuously interpellated as an unstable identity" (Poster 1995, p. 57), that is exactly the subject of the computer- and network-mediated communicative processes enabled by the development of ICTs. Since through these technologies those excluded and marginalized by modern rationality and authority might express themselves and become part of a political movement, Poster considers the postmodern subjectivity as posing dangers and challenges to modern institutions and structures. This emerging social order could then be thought of as "a social form beyond the modern, the possibility of a postmodern society" (Poster 1995, p. 59).

One of the political issues addressed by the postmodern deconstruction of the self is based on the new relations that the self takes with respect to the body. Recent poststructuralist works reconnect body and self by analogy to the human/machine combinations produced in the information era (e.g., in Haraway’s, 1991, feminist politics). As humans and machines interact more profoundly and intimately in CMCs and ICTs enabled realities, according to these views, the self starts to be reconfigured as a composite technosocial construction.

Modern vs. Postmodern Accounts of the Information Society

Above we were concerned with two different perspectives of sociality in the IS. On the one hand, we examined a modern account, Calhoun’s (1992) analysis, which refers to the expansion of indirect social relationships through the action of rational, autonomous social agents in technologically enabled media of communication. On the other hand, we discussed a postmodern account, that of Poster (1995), putting the emphasis on subjectivity and the constitution of an unstable identity within the communicative discourse and electronic language through channels of CMCs. These divergent approaches indicate the complexity of the processes composing the social reality of the IS and challenge modern sociology with some very crucial questions about the role of ICTs in the construction of the IS.

Actually what is at stake in the above approaches concerns the transformations of the social in the IS, which are conceived in two competing ways, i.e., as two different social processes, not simply two different focuses. However, seen from the opposite point of view, the perspective of each process leaves unanswered some very important questions. For example, what is the relation between social integration and cultural transformations or between global and local characterizations of social change? Could it be possible for Calhoun’s perspective of universal social integration to find a non-Úlitist political expression without resorting to the notion that local discourses can form a basis of a moral critique of the IS? On the opposite side, does the ICTs enabled identity construction imply the end or the decrease of importance of social and public actions outside the self-referential subjectivism of local discourses? Or is the medium into which Poster’s processes of self-construction come to existence an asocial vacuum?

Whatever the adopted perspective of sociality in the IS, according to David Lyon, the extent to which it will be "consequential will depend on how subjectivity and meaning are understood and mobilised within them. And if they are to be politically consequential, questions of access, participation and co-ordination would also have to be addressed. The shift from a centred subject or from predominant rationality does not have to lead to a vanishing or irrational subject" (Lyon 1997, p. 36). Moreover, it is hard to imagine any sort of technosociality without the involvement of some "subject" or "self." As Scott Lash and James Urry (1994, p. 168) argue, it is communities of "shared meanings" that emerge within the new electronic networks, not just those of shared interests or properties. And the only way to make sense to think of these communities is by assuming the existence of a free self at least to the degree of recognizing the other under the context of a broader meta-narrative, as Lyon (1997, pp. 36-37) points out following the ideas of Vattimo (1992).

Despite of some apparent incompatibilities between the modern and the postmodern accounts of the IS, they both have important insights to offer to the understanding of the social reality of the IS. Therefore, one could agree with David Lyon (1997, p. 37) in considering them compatible and accepting them both in a complementary way.

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