Making the case for a Local Internet History – an Essay

What South African stories should be mainstream on the internet? Photo by Marc Steenbeke on Unsplash

In March, I was asked to “write an essay expanding on the importance of global and local engagements on the history of the Internet. What is the cultural difference of a localised nature, that shapes the internet experience that can help us understand local internet histories and cultures?” in my university course Introduction to the World Wide Web as a Creative Medium.

I was also given this quote as a springboard:

We believe in a broad conception of the histories of the Internet  likewise has potential as an area of intersection among scholars working in sub-fields such as communication histories, history of computing, radio history…” (Haigh, Rusell & Dutton 2015:155)

This was my response:

In this essay I will investigate the dominant ‘global’ perspective of the Internet and why it’s important to recognise this perspective as ‘local’ communities increasingly use the Internet. To clarify, global in the context of the Internet means a universal perspective and pattern, while local means a specific and localised perspective and pattern. I will then touch on the current barrier to entering conversations on the Internet and how local communities can shape the future through changing their mindset from viewers to creators on the Internet. This will hopefully lead to the abolishment of the current distinct and uneven geographies of the content on the Internet and usher in a new era of rich local Internet content. Examples from my own experience and references to reputable literature on the topic will be used.

There are several differences between global and local perspectives on the Internet. In Manuel Castell’s book The Rise of the Network Society (2009) he says “few people in the world feel identified with the global, cosmopolitan culture that populates the global networks and becomes the worship of the mega-node elites. In contrast, most people feel a strong regional or local identity. Thus, global networks integrate certain dimensions of human life and exclude other dimensions.” [1]. This statement confirms the different between global and local perspectives. Castell (2009) notes that these very few communities identify with the global perspective, but their psyche is dominated by it. Additionally, Manovich & Lovink put forth “the operating systems, icons, menus, and interfaces are regarded as somehow “global” elements, both omnipresent in the interface and ubiquitous in computing.” [5] in their paper Digital constructivism: What is European software? (1999). This statement explains how many items on the Internet are not neutral but have a “global” identity that should not be ignored when considering the history of the Internet.

It is important to analyse the differences between local and global perspectives. This is because “as nations and global organizations focus more explicitly on Internet policy and governance, appeals to the history of the Internet will become even more significant to its future development and use.” [4] as said by Haigh et al. in Histories of the Internet (2015). The history of the Internet must be analysed from many levels of perspectives to help the future developments and ensure certain communities are not, and do not feel, excluded from local content creation on the Internet in the future. This will allow for a global conversation on Internet policy and governance and more local-tailored content for specific regions and countries to develop. Graham also articulates in Inequitable Distributions in Internet Geographies (2014) that “the uneven data shadows and digital divisions of labour matter because they shape not merely the contours of websites but what we know and what we can know about the world. They shape how we augment and bring our everyday lives into being.” [3] Addressing this narrow world view will add to the development of nations that have more control over their Internet presence and are able to have their voices heard in global conversations.

There are various types of engagements with and on the Internet. The view of what the Internet is “has evolved to encompass not just the hardware and software of the network itself but the mind-bogglingly diverse variety of human activities conducted over it. Televisions, telephones… taxi companies, and record labels have collapsed or reinvented themselves in the face of Internet-based competitors.” [4] Therefore, the Internet acts as a medium for a plethora of different engagements and experiences for different communities, interests, and subjects. Each community, being global or local, has different challenges and interests with different needs and solutions. It is the responsibility of local communities to realise this and change their mindset see the Internet as theirs and something they can harness and change to suit their needs. However, hindering this is the fact that many countries and entire regions still have poor or even no Internet access.

There might be several restrictions on access to the Internet that means only certain engagements with the Internet are viable. Graham (2014) points out that “some parts of the world simply lacked the physical connections necessary to be well connected to the global grid. In 2009, for instance, some parts of the world were much better connected than others, and some were not connected at all (e.g., East Africa did not have any fibre-optic cables connecting it to the wider world). This lack of fibre-optic connectivity meant that Internet access was significantly slower and much more expensive in East Africa than in much of the rest of the world.” [3] This lack of connectivity is the first issue that will need to be addressed to involve certain regions in global Internet conversations and creating their own Internet content. Little progress in the developing world will be made until this happens. This physical lack of connectivity, or limited connectivity, could also explain the frugal nature of Internet users in certain regions and the lack of local content – people will rather take available resources from the Internet than make their own content if there is a restriction on their usage of the Internet. This is as it will directly and immediately benefit them. Recently the conversation about access to the Internet has shifted from the lack of physical connections to the fact that some communities may feel alienated from using the Internet in ways that will benefit them. This is as they feel historically excluded from global conversations and events on the Internet.

There might be a historic feeling of alienation for several local communities preventing them from engaging in certain ways on the Internet – such as creating local content. “Johan Galtung (2002), in his article ‘Americanisation versus Globalisation’, argues quite pointedly that ‘Americanisation’ [is] pushing out part of cultures – either deliberately or unintentionally – not only among elites but also within entire nations.” [2] – a quote taken from Gittinger’s Is there such a thing as ‘cyberimperialism? (2014) Similarly, Graham (2014) pronounces “in an age of almost ubiquitous potential connectivity, so many people are still left out of global networks, debates, and conversations.” [3] Furthermore, Graham (2014) articulates that “Improved Internet connections alone are unable to democratize participation and knowledge, and it is easy to forget about a lot of underlying structural and social barriers in the context of the expectations, buzz, and hype surrounding the changing connectivity in the Global South.” [3] This means certain communities may be afraid to express their views and use the Internet for their needs as they might feel it was not created for them. This leads to a lack of local Internet content, even if the required Internet infrastructure is available. If the required infrastructure and local communities have the mindset of creators on the Internet, a whole world of rich local content could be created from exciting new perspectives.

There are many different lenses local communities have for viewing the concept of the Internet and the content on the Internet. Graham (2014) declares that “by 2013, the Internet was used by over 2.5 billion people around the world. The fact that over a third of the global population uses the Internet means that there is both figurative and literal space to produce more locally relevant information about much of the world.” [3] This means there are so many untapped local opinions and perspectives than have been historically unexplored. It is hoped that if Internet usage were to increase in these unexplored communities, many new local perspectives could arise. However, local communities will first have to address the unwelcome and complacent mindset they have about themselves and what they can be and do on the Internet.

Content on the Internet created by global communities and other local communities affects how local communities perceive their own culture. Again, Gittinger (2014) argues that “trends and tastes are promoted in the global marketplace, which acts as a forum for different cultures to ‘market’ themselves and whatever unique features they think are both emblematic of their society and are features they want to share, if not promote, in the global culture found online.” [2] Gittenger (2014) also wonders if “the Internet – as a model of deep imperialism as I have defined it: intrinsic, invisible, unchallenged – is capable of subverting or ‘contaminating’ the local or traditional culture?” [2] This contextualizing of local culture can help local communities put their own views and culture into a global perspective. This means local communities can have a more holistic view of their culture in relation to global cultures and histories. However, global cultures can also affect local ones, restricting them from creating their own unique online voices.

I do believe that global culture and tradition can ‘contaminate’, or at least influence and overwhelm, local ones. In my experience, if people start to make content from a local perspective, they will follow the global norms of interacting on the Internet instead of creating their own ones. An example would be my website I created for myself in 2018. The tutorial I used to create the website was made by an American. Several artefacts that I copied are American in nature. For example, I used an American ‘.com’ URL instead of a South African ‘co.za’ one. Additionally, I used a User Interface (UI) template for the website created by an American, instead of making my own one. I did this as it is the standard for interactions on the Internet and I subconsciously believed at the time that I would be treated seriously in the global perspective if I followed these certain norms. It was also convenient to follow the established norms. Nevertheless, this hindered my ability to create my own local UI and several local Internet creators in the future might feel pressure to do the same.

Finally, viewing and engaging with many local and global cultures and histories helps people have a more holistic view of access to the Internet and the content on it. This means that there is not a single history of the Internet. Haigh et al. (2015) argues “[with the Internet], as elsewhere, history is being written … by the victors. To no one’s surprise, this history too often flatters them, marginalizes the role of key colleagues, and denigrates the work of their vanquished rivals… Instead, it is a necessity to rely on multiple sources and to evaluate all of them critically.” [4] Each of these histories is valid and should be considered when trying to unpack local Internet histories and cultures in a global context. Once this unfair history is accepted, the way forward is for local communities to realise the complacent and possibly subservient mindset they currently have about their place on the Internet and start to become creators, not just viewers as they previously were. Local communities cannot change history, but they can start to make new history.

In conclusion, there is a difference between local and global engagements with the history of the Internet. Much of the history of the Internet has been dominated by the global perspective. The separation of global and local perspectives is important as it informs us of the politics, biases, and prejudices we might have about our engagements with the Internet. These engagements vary from different communities, who have different wants and needs for what the Internet is to them. It is up to local communities to start to harness the power of the Internet for themselves. However, a large barrier to entry for many local communities is the physical lack of infrastructure to access the Internet. Another barrier to the historical feeling of exclusion from engagements on the Internet and the mindset that local communities are not creators, but complacent viewers. If this can happen, many new and relevant perspectives can be shared on the Internet. This will hopefully lead to the abolishment of the current distinct and uneven geographies of the content on the Internet and usher in a new era of rich local Internet content.

The catalyst for change is not only infrastructure, but also a creator’s mindset. Photo by Tony Stoddard on Unsplash

References

[1] Castells, M. 2009. The Rise of the Network Society. DOI: 10.1002/9781444319514.

[2] Gittinger, J.L. 2014. Is there such a thing as ‘cyberimperialism?’Continuum 28(4):509–519. DOI: 10.1080/10304312.2014.907873.

[3] Graham, M. 2014. Inequitable Distributions in Internet Geographies: The Global South Is Gaining Access, but Lags in Local Content.  Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization9(3-4):3–19. DOI: 10.1162/inov_a_00212.

[4] Haigh, T., Russell, A.L. & Dutton, W.H. 2015. Histories of the Internet: Introducing a Special Issue of Information & Culture. Information & Culture: A Journal of History50(2):143–159. DOI: 10.1353/lac.2015.0006.

[5] Manovich, L. & Lovink, G. 1999. Digital constructivism: What is European software? An exchange between Lev Manovich and Geert LovinkContinuum13(2):165–173. DOI: 10.1080/10304319909365790.