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Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
The Center for Internet Studies - University of Washington, Seattle
The Center for Internet Studies - University of Washington, Seattle
Marc Lampson, Professor of Legal Research and Writing at Seattle University School of Law, Adjunct Lecturer in Basic Legal Skills, University of Washington School of Law.
"The niche that was not being addressed in our eyes," Chris Coward says, "was the impact of the Internet from a social science perspective - the Internet's impact on societies throughout the world and the impact of the Internet on the social sciences themselves." Coward is the co-director of the Center for Internet Studies housed within the Institute for International Policy at the University of Washington. "Thus," he continues, "our mission is to advance inquiry into the Internet's impact on global society and to move the social sciences to look seriously at the implications of a networked world." Coward's co-director, Rex Hughes, adds, "Our contention is that we can no longer pretend to be explaining the world if we leave the Internet out of that explanation."
The Center for Internet Studies that Coward and Hughes co-direct is one of three projects conducted by the Institute for International Policy (IIP) at the University of Washington in Seattle. Although the Center has existed in different incarnations within IIP over the past four years, its more formal existence began in 1999. IIP is an independent University unit with ties to the Jackson School of International Studies and several other professional schools and is directed by Professor Donald C. Hellmann. The Center's Web site is www.cis.washington.edu; IIP's Web site is www.iip.washington.edu
"From the social science perspective, the changes occurring because of the Internet are unprecedented - it enables new links of human to human that have not been encountered before," says Hughes. "Growing from that is an incredible opportunity also unprecedented - for cross-cultural exchanges." Coward adds that the Center wants to be a "venue where these developments and ideas can be explored. We're an independent unit within the University and by our activities, including course offerings, we hope to serve as a catalyst for exploring these ideas regarding the impact of the Internet on society."
Coward underscores a few of the many questions the Center is asking: "What are the elements in a given society that are resisting the change created by the Internet? What is the friction, if any, between the entrenched institutions and the insurgent interests involved with the Internet? Will this interplay transform the entrenched institutions or not?" And Hughes adds even more: "What are countries doing with regard to the Internet? What is happening in the country despite or because of what the country is doing regarding the Net? What uses are being made in specific countries of the Internet for economic development?" The two tell of just a few of the many exciting developments occurring around the world regarding the Internet in countries as diverse as Ireland and the Dominican Republic and note that "we also have a project that is beginning to look at the impact of the Internet in Japan."
The impact of the Internet on basic literacy or on the increase in English language literacy - and resistances and complications with regard to that are additional issues that Coward and Hughes are following. "The French, for instance, have recently decried the prevalence of English words in the Internet arena and are moving to prohibit the use of English words such as 'e-mail,' insisting that the French use French language equivalents that a group is developing for that purpose," says Hughes. He has at hand a recent article on that topic he downloaded from the Net and he then flips to another article he had just discovered in that day's New York Times about women in Guyana making hammocks and selling them on the Internet and the government there becoming involved in trying to oversee or regulate that activity.
With the energy and keen interest demonstrated by its co-directors, it is predictable that the Center for Internet Studies is active on several fronts, among them, the following: one, under the aegis of the Internet Political Economy Forum, it hosts international conferences on the social impact of the Internet; two, it will host graduate fellows to study the impact of the Internet on various global societies on site in those countries; three, it will begin sponsoring courses, the first one to be on the Political Economy of the International Internet, at the University of Washington; and four, it will host Internet "pathbreakers" who will come to the Center to hold small seminars.
The first of these activities, the Internet Political Economy Forum (IPEF), is an international consortium of universities, convened by the University of Washington and comprised of the University of Washington, Stanford, Harvard, Cambridge, and Singapore National, with affiliated partners in the private and public sectors. The IPEF Web site states that "The Internet Political Economy Forum signifies a unique target of opportunity to establish an international and institutional base for coordinating scholarly programs on Internet political economy studies. The purpose of the consortium is to link scholars internationally across disciplines through research projects, curriculum development, fellowship exchanges, and conferences in Internet political economy studies."
Hughes and Coward note also that the Web site continues about an important point: "The creation of the forum underscores the shared belief among the founding members that viewpoints outside of the Western tradition are essential to fully understand the societal aspects of global Internet diffusion. The IPEF combines and leverages the strengths of the participating universities and offers an opportunity to include each member's regional connections with other organizations in the private and public sectors."
In its first formal year of existence the Center, through the IPEF, has organized and hosted an international conference on the "Internet and the Global Political Economy," held at the University of Washington over two days in September 1999. The program for that conference, as well as the program for the next conference to be held at Cambridge, are available at the Forum's Web site: www.ipef.org
The central premise of the first conference was that "a more comprehensive overview of the Internet's place within the world system was a necessary and crucial component to understanding the new politics and economics of the 21st century." The conference assembled leading scholars and Internet thinkers to examine the deepening relationship between the Internet and globalization. Academic participants included representatives from traditional university disciplines such as political science, economics, communications and international studies. The conference began with a keynote address, "Transforming Impact of Internet," by Dr Vinton Cerf, widely acknowledged as one the "Fathers of the Internet."
The Forum's upcoming conference, IPEF 2000, will be held at the University of Cambridge beginning on 11 May 2000. Entitled "The Internet and power: a revolution in international relations?", it will be hosted by The Cambridge Review of International Affairs and the Cambridge Center for International Studies. "In part what that conference will address," says Coward, "is how or whether national power gets redefined with the Internet being the common thread that might redefine it. It raises issues of sovereignty, control, and enforcement. A variety of scholars will address questions such as whether the State can control the revolution created by the Internet, or whether the State is still alive. Some will argue it is, some that it is radically changed in the new Internet environment."
The upcoming conference's Web site notes the following: building on important questions raised at the first IPEF conference in September 1999, IPEF 2000 addresses the impact of the Internet on power relations in the international system. Nation states, transnational corporations, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are re-evaluating their interactions with each other. Traditional international structures are challenged and new power relations are emerging. The Internet and Power will provide academics, businesspeople, and international affairs professionals with a forum to explore the impact of the Internet's effect on international relations.
Panels will address three issue areas:
the Internet's impact on interstate relations;
transnational corporations, states, and the Internet;
the Internet and non-governmental organisations: changing power relations?
A second focus of the Center is sponsoring fellowships: "We have sponsored a fellow who is currently in Egypt researching the impact of the Internet on traditional Islamic society, particularly its impact on women in those societies - whether it is empowering those women or not, whether it is changing the society or not, and questions related to those concerns," Coward says. "We're hoping to be a home for other fellows who are looking to do fellowships in this area. We see a large number of new scholars who want to do this sort of research but who have few venues within which to do it."
Another Center activity in the Fall of 2000 will be to begin sponsoring courses at the University of Washington on Internet issues. "Deborah Wheeler, our current fellow in Egypt," Hughes says, "will be conducting the course in part through the Jackson School. It will be entitled the 'International Internet Political Economy' and will address many of the issues with which we are concerned at the Center."
Finally, the Center is active in setting up partnerships with private sector leaders such as IBM and Microsoft, "because they tend to ask great questions and because it provides a conduit to expose social science thinkers to these entities - an exposure that does not always happen in the academic environment." These path breakers from many arenas will be invited to the campus and elsewhere to host seminars and provide a forum for the exchange of ideas on the Internet's social impact.
The Center for Internet Studies is fully exploring the vacuum it sought to fill at its inception and its research and projects will likely be an exciting focus of attention for the Internet community in the years to come.