Measuring National Borders on the WWW

Measuring National Borders on the World Wide Web, Alexander Halavais, M.A. Thesis, 1998.



The Internet trumpets the demise of the nation-state, or so many would have us believe. They argue that the Internet exists outside of physical space, where national borders have no place. They say that as more and more of our social relationships move from the physical world to cyberspace, the nation plays a decreasingly important role in our affairs and in our identities. There are supporters of this process: those who claim that national government is a thing of the past and only those institutions fit to exist in an informatized world should survive. There are others who worry that the homogenization and de-spatialization that the Internet brings with it will do irreversible harm to local culture and world-wide diversity of thought and custom, all the while increasing the gap between rich and poor.

What is more difficult to find is a sensible critique of the idea that the Internet is by nature globalizing, and that it leads inevitably to the demise of the nation. That computer networking favors the global over the physically local, that it destroys borders rather than reinforcing them, seems to be a forgone conclusion. Given the importance of some of these arguments not only to the future of nations but to the future of the world system, it is vital that the connection between this new medium and the globalization of society rest on more than pure conjecture. The pages that follow are an attempt to show both what that connection is thought to be as demonstrated by the academic and popular literature, and to demonstrate the process by which we may gain some understanding of how the Internet actually relates to national and territorial borders.

To probe the relationship of this new medium to the global social changes now underway, I will rely on two perspectives. The first of these questions the relationship of space to the “space adjusting technologies”: transportation and communication. Does space retain any meaning when subjected to social and technological forces? Is the socially constructed idea of space changing, and if so, what is it becoming? What do the metaphors for computer networking tell us about popular conceptions of this created space? How does the “infostructure” presented by the Internet and the World Wide Web relate to the physical infrastructure of copper and silicon that supports it? All of these questions relate to how we organize our view of the Internet spatially.

That organization brings to the fore a second perspective that has recently been gaining wider acceptance. Many have noted that the modern revolution in information technology has done more than extend the spatial reach of traditional institutions. The emergence of networked communications has supported an increase in networked structures in society. This is a fundamental shift in social organization. Just as bureaucracy was the social cornerstone of the industrial revolution, dynamic social networks have become the basis of many of the successful organizations of the
informatization era. Hierarchical organization of information processing, epitomized by the mainframe computers that ruled the seventies and much of the eighties, have given way to distributed and dynamic network-based processing. The idea of networks is intimately tied to the Net, but the social transformations taking place are far more chthonic. The “PC Revolution” of the 1980s in many ways foreshadowed the emergence of organizations in which the technology was distributed rather than centralized—where the idea of keeping information localized actually led to increased networking. Likewise, identity has moved to being more individual and at the same time more heavily reliant on the relationships among individuals.

These two perspectives work well together. It is difficult for us to think of a network without imagining a space in which that network is inscribed. Likewise, “space” does not exist outside of an arrangement of objects or ideas. It is what comes between objects and is therefore key in describing relationships and arrangements. Throughout the course of this thesis, the ideas of space and of structure commingle, providing an interstitial foundation. But this foundation is only visible through the tensions it creates with earlier social regimes. We recognize that concepts of space have changed for large groups of people through anecdotal tales of trans-oceanic friendships and business relationships. We see the evidence of a more networked society in guides to becoming a “free agent” in the business world and observations that we are “bowling alone.” Just as a Bronze Age metallurgist must have judged his own progress against his isolated Neolithic neighbors, we only see the inklings of a new age within an élite “net set,” which bears much in common with the “jet set” that came before it. It is in this difference that we might identify the diffusion of a new social structure. This difference also creates the stresses of a complex social system in the midst of a state change.

I have enlisted these two perspectives as an aid to uncovering latent structures and their inherent tensions within an important domain. The idea of a “nation” underlies much of our social theory—particularly during the course of the present century. Social organization, exemplified by the electronic communication networks that knit it together, has presented a challenge to traditional state institutions. These institutions rest their identity on particular spatial and structural relationships and are, by design, resistant to rapid adaptation. As the early swellings of a sea change have made themselves felt in these two areas, those who guide state institutions face the daunting task of recreating themselves for a new era. While they may recognize some of the potential difficulties entailed, by and large those institutions and individuals who have traditionally led nations now find themselves without the tools they need to measure and to affect society.

The discussion and observations that follow are intended to highlight the need for such tools, and provide a working example of how one such methodology is applied. A discussion of spatial and structural relationships is used as an introduction to the possibility of measuring the extent to which social structure has superseded the institutions of the modern state. The answer to this question comes to us through a body of communication research: communication networks provide both the means and an indicator of the vast social changes that are now taking place. The survey described in chapter three provides an example of such an analysis and the answers (and questions) it can provide.