On Streeter’s The Net Effect: A Culture Digitally Dialogue

In this Culture Digitally dialogue, we discuss Thomas Streeter’s book The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet (New York University Press 2011), part of the “Critical Cultural Communication” series edited by Sarah Banet-Weiser and Kent A. Ono. This dialogue emerged out of an Author-meets-Critics session at the Eastern Sociological Society Meetings in Boston in March. Participating are


Tom Streeter, “Opening Salvos”

The Net Effect involves a lot of storytelling, and I state my key arguments in paragraphs, not aphorisms or pie charts. I’m someone who believes that the well-wrought word, applied with the old fashioned tactics of subtlety, irony, and insight, constitutes an essential form of inquiry into social life. That said, the stories in The Net Effect are not stories for stories’ sake. I outline a specific method, make some big causal claims, and offer large generalizations. The stories I tell offer significant cases of culture shaping both economics and technology rather than the other way around. I argue that our sense that the internet is somehow inherently democratic are to a significant degree a product of an accumulation of historical accidents. I truly believe that there’s little or nothing inherent in internet technology that makes it more democratic or anarchic than other communication technologies. I go so far as to avoid the language of affordances or potentials, which still tend to assume there’s something inside the technology itself. I try to show how what we call the internet is actually something bound up with specific pre-existing traditions, and in doing so try to make “the internet” a set of events in need of explaining, rather than something that gets used to explain other things. But then I also show that the way we have imagined or fantasized about the internet has had causal effects on its development and role in society; culture becomes the technology, in a sense. In other words, the internet is democratic, not because of the technology but because we have made it so. And that makes me more hopeful than the idea that the internet is a technological fix for democracy; if the latter were true, I’d find that very depressing.

The Net Effect was born in the late 1990s, when the tidal wave of the internet was breaking over us, and my career habit of being skeptical about claims of technological novelty was a lonely position. Making the case that the dot-com stock bubble was a bubble won you few friends back then. At the same time, I knew even then that one would not be able to discuss the past three decades of human history without discussing the impact of the internet. While there was a lot of mythology and a lot of overblown technological determinism, these ideas mattered and calling it stupid or false consciousness simply wasn’t enough. Evgeny Morozov has published a couple of books about the folly of “technological solutionism,” and he does a good job poking holes in a lot of the overblown claims and half-baked ideas floating around in association with the internet.

People refer to something called the internet without ever defining what it is they are actually talking about. That kind of demystification is useful, but I’ve always sought to go beyond pointing out the logical flaws in dominant discourses and instead get at why these patterns keep resurfacing over the decades, and how and why they matter, in spite of–or because of–their inaccuracies.

This is partly why I found it useful to focus on romantic individualism and its projection onto computer technology. Romanticism is a kind of cultural toolkit that constructs the self, not as a rational and self-interested homo economicus, but as expressive and an ongoing development. I look at the function of romanticism in specific historical contexts, and in interaction with other formations such as utilitarianism and managerialism. Romanticism is a set of cultural habits that in certain contexts has been used repeatedly to map meaning, in this case onto computer communication. My method is more Foucaultian than Hegelian, meaning that I try to show, in concrete, empirical ways how that mapping happened. I trace how romanticism from the 1960s influenced computer counterculture into Wired magazine and beyond into the open source movement. I also explore the romanticism’s role in various policymaking moments, from the internal politics of neoliberalism to the creation of openings for non-neoliberal discourses.

My hope is not that scholars will use this book to do more research on the internet, but that they will engage the book’s arguments about the relations between culture, capitalism, technology, policy and politics. I think it is high time that we abandon the lingering tendency in internet studies to assume that what’s interesting is new. In that I hope to shatter the coherence of that term internet, and instead encourage others to untangle the complex cultural components and technological pieces that comprise what we talk about when we use the term.


Laura J. Miller, “Histories of Playful Use”

One of the things I most appreciate about The Net Effect is Tom’s approach of considering how technology is influenced by culture in contrast to the usual perspective that looks at technology’s effects on social life. I get so exasperated by the typical ahistorical, acultural, breathless view of digital technologies and their impacts. Like Tom, I remain dubious of claims of technological novelty, a position which tends to lead my students, at least, to be disappointed in me. Therefore, we can really use this kind of study, which helps us understand how that very breathless perspective, as well as other sets of ideas, have influenced the development of digital technologies.

Here we get an argument about the influence of an ethic of romantic individualism on the development of the internet and other computer technologies. I am simultaneously convinced by it, and skeptical of it. On the one hand, there is lots of historical and current evidence for romanticism in the digital realm. Most recently, we can look to how Aaron Swartz has, since his death, been turned into a heroic figure, someone who appears to embody the ethos that The Net Effect describes: “romantic dreams of freedom, self-expression, and the dramatic overthrow of the powers that be” (p. 133). Without diminishing the awfulness of any young person who takes his own life, we can note the oddity of so many people rallying around the cause of liberating JSTOR files, which are not exactly the kind of property, intellectual or otherwise, that most people care about. The ethic of romantic individualism does help explain this phenomenon.

When reading The Net Effect, I was reminded of the University of California’s once-fantastic Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC), Melvyl. In the 1980s and ’90s, Melvyl’s command system allowed for the most sophisticated search and display functions. But it also had a playful and rebellious dimension. To exit the system, you could type any number of synonymous commands: quit, logoff, exit, bye, farewell, etc. Foreign languages were also observed, e.g., adios, adieu. And, for those in the know, if you were unhappy with your session, the command “fuck off” was equally effective as a way to exit. I learned about this when I was in library school, where many of us loved this violation of the usual norms of propriety.

Melvyl still exists, but it now looks much the same as any other menu-driven OPAC. The old Melvyl was dismantled by the assumption that even an educated public was uninterested in and incapable of learning slightly complex skills when interacting with computers, and instead preferred “user-friendliness.” That speaks to a side of the story of the internet’s development that is not really covered in The Net Effect. Tom emphasizes the pull of exploration and fun that computer engineers and early adopters experienced, which led to embracing applications such as Mosaic. These kinds of processes were not just about opening up possibilities–they were also about shutting possibilities down by elevating fun over functionality. I remember in the 1990s how much I loved Gopher and was not especially impressed by Mosaic. I realize that I was probably not typical in this regard, but my point is that I wonder if The Net Effect exaggerates the pervasiveness of the cultural tropes connected to romanticism. Might the fun side of the internet have sometimes been experienced to some as irritating? Was a desire for efficient functionality simply an artifact of tired bureaucrats or neoliberal champions, as The Net Effect implies? I suspect that other cultural traditions have played a major part in shaping digital technologies as well.

This question of the strength of romantic individualism may relate to a firmer distinction that ought to be made between the design and use of digital technologies. The Net Effect helps us understand how computer scientists responded to certain cultural tropes, but we should ask whether users responded in the same way. I recognize that this isn’t an altogether fair criticism of the book, as Tom’s purpose was to examine the impact of culture on technological development, and therefore, it makes sense to focus on the people who were actually involved in the development process. It can still be instructive to consider at least the early adopters. The Net Effect mentions that these included the people who had to type the bosses’ letters, as well as professionals who did their own typing. For those, as well as other workers, computer use was mandated. Whether we are talking about the 1990s or today, computers are as much if not more a requirement of the job than an outlet for creativity. Similarly, the internet’s much-heralded benefit of easy communication can be a burden — how many of us dread opening our overloaded inboxes now — as can be the requirement to create one or more selves for social media in addition to the self who has to operate in various physical domains of everyday life. What do we know of those people, especially early adopters, who did not experience the Internet as an avenue of self-discovery? Are their experiences more hidden because the cultural tropes to describe their experiences are not as strong? Or could it be that we don’t know much about them because in the early years, they did not have the kind of outlets provided by cheerleaders of new technology like Wired?

Certainly, romantic individualism has been a powerful force in American culture more generally, and The Net Effect helps us understand that impact in a more nuanced way than my remarks may suggest. The Net Effect highlights the important sociological question of whether cultural ideas actually need to resonate with people’s experiences for those ideas to persist. Especially when considering the book’s discussion of neoliberalism, I am inclined to answer both yes and no. I was actually not convinced by Tom’s argument that neoliberal ideas and rhetoric were important for shaping perceptions of computing. Initially, most users got internet access as a freebie, either through work, school, or the public library. Even when commercial Internet Service Providers started to take off in the 1980s, a lot of users could avoid subscription fees at home by dialing in to employment or educational hosts. This experience, along with a broader political discourse, encouraged a conception of the internet as a public good, not a private commodity. Americans certainly became more willing to pay for internet access over time, especially when broadband took off in the 2000s. But despite an ever-larger chunk of the household budget going towards communication, the discourse of the internet as public right remains.

The Net Effect pushes us to contemplate not just technological paths taken, abandoned, and ignored, but also the fate of cultural paths.


Gina Neff, “A Method Primer”

Bruno Latour famously appealed to scholars to investigate the “socio-technical assemblages” that comprise our contemporary technologies. He is also famously vague about how to do that, and that’s precisely what Tom Streeter teaches us in The Net Effect.

The Net Effect covers a broad span of the things, procedures, ideas and cultures that make up what we call “the internet”–microcomputing, technical standards development, and open software, yes. But also ideologies, cultural beliefs, and historical antecedents. As a result, the history of things plays second fiddle here relative to the history of ideas. This is too bad, because that’s really where Streeter shines and adds a refreshing new lens on our ability to think through communication media.

The Net Effect is reminiscent other great social histories of communication media such as Claude Fischer’s America Calling and Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture. Streeter’s history is just as impressive in its cultural scope as these two, but surpasses them in his reach for a much bigger and unbounded object, “the internet.”

The Net Effect is almost – I stress almost—too broad in scope, and at several points as a reader I wanted more from the book on all of these topics. The ambition of this book is both its key strength along with one of its few shortcomings. There are the roots of three different histories in this book, and I can only hope that Tom will decide to take those up for his next projects to produce a three volume set on the histories of the internet.

The strength of this broad scope of The Net Effect is that it allows Tom to draw connections across the “assemblage” of what we call internet. It reminds me of the project that Thomas Hughes, the comparative historian of technology, sets out for himself in Human-Built World: that technology development in the US and German traditions can be understood as culturally rooted in relationship to our competing desires to control our world and to let God make the plans. Like that book, this one is as ambitious in its scope and impressive in its ability to build a rich cultural history that links ideas, literature, and discourse. Streeter’s focus is on the role in computing of the romantic individual, “a self that is understood as the source of a dynamic, inner experience that calls on us to live creatively beyond the bounds of predicable rationality.”

I was left wondering how Streeter makes sense of the particularly American cultural imprint on the internet when the contemporary practices are global. From China to Facebook, we have multiple practices that now comprise this thing we call the internet. I was left wondering what how expansive and elastic Streeter’s historical explanations can be for contemporary experiences.

Streeter carefully traces what he calls “thrilling ideas,” and herein may be his single biggest contribution. I would like to propose that The Net Effect is enormously useful as a methodological guide for doing cultural, sociologically informed work on technology and ideas. Theoretically, we have long known that ideas and ideologies of technology shaped by communities, culture, and institutions and social structure. The Net Effect is instructive in how to do this by tackling the “microstructural problem of the interplay of idea and institutions by looking at connections on three levels: shared felt experiences association with technologies; cultural traditions that people draw on to make sense of those experiences; and articulations between those linked traditions and experiences with political ideas, particularly political ideas that shape policymaking around internet structure.” In this, Streeter creates a textured look at the connection between objects and institutions, and anyone wanting to reproduce this method would be well served to look at how he lays out the rise of personal computing.


Mary L. Gray, “The “male sort of loneliness” of the internet”

Streeter’s The Net Effect explores and historicizes some of the pleasures we associate with making rather than consuming the Internet. I couldn’t help but think about the social meaning and value of NextDrop, a service in India that notifies customers—predominantly women—that water will soon flow to the local public well. Without NextDrop, sisters, daughters, mothers, and wives must wait around, wondering when (or if) potable water, pumped once an average of every 2-8 days, will head to their neighborhood anytime soon. Like so many dot.com (or dot.org) startups launched under the flag of social entrepreneurship, NextDrop takes up the absence or shortcomings of public investment in basic infrastructure. And, as many such social media enterprises do, it extracts value through intimate exchanges (voicemails and text messages) with others. What is made and consumed in that moment? Residents don’t get better water quality or improved flow. Women receive the comfort and relief of reliable information—information most men and women in the Global North receive the moment they turn on their water faucets. While the idea of romantic individualism seems far removed from the slums of Bangalore, the experiences of women using NextDrop encapsulates the tensions between self and capital that Streeter lays out.

Streeter references “a male sort of loneliness,” quoting engineer and Wired writer Ellen Ullman, to unpack how certain expressions of selfhood and individualism adhere to computing. He argues that it is important to attend to the constructions of masculinity that make their way into universalizing tones of a romantic individual struggling–or communing–with the machine. While I agree that this masculinity (or masculinities) and its relationship to technological innovations discussed in The Net Effect need to be considered as part of complex dynamics rather than particular categories of people in the fixed sense, I can’t help but want to attend to how constitutive, integral, and indivisible masculinity is at every turn in this story. I wonder if the idea of romantic individualism gets organized by gendered/racialized/embodied notions of the self from the get-go so that it becomes impossible to think about a service like NextDrop without thinking about gendered division of labor and who hacks what in places like Bangalore.

The Net Effect looks beyond notions of utilitarianism on the one hand and technologies of self-expression on the other. These tenets work themselves into not only our understanding of technologies, particularly the personal computer, but the implicit mandates that fuel what’s funded and built next, and the passion that permeates these projects. But parts of The Net Effect seem to suggest or shore up a certain division between Marxist social critique and what some might call identity politics here. How do we decide when libertarian ideologies touted by cyber-pundit Esther Dyson matter more than the social fact that these ideologies are communicated by a woman? How do we decide when a social media service, like NextDrop, consuming and consumed by women, is or is not a story about gender vs. technological innovation? Could gender ever be disentangled from the stories we tell without losing a sense of the Net Effect?


Tom Streeter, “Responses”

Thanks to Professors Miller, Neff, and Gray for their kind and immensely intelligent comments. I am especially grateful that they highlight aspects of The Net Effect that I’m not sure are evident to potential readers: Laura Miller notes that the book does not just poke holes in net hyperbole in the manner of Evgeny Morozov, but offers an explanation of its character, persistence, and political valences; Gina Neff, that the book has a specific method for uncovering and analyzing the relations between culture, technology, and society; and Mary Gray, that it addresses the complexities of pleasure in technology. And they each, in the kindest way, point to gaps, to stories the book leaves untold: the book after all is almost entirely about white educated American men, and its critical stance would necessarily point to people and life worlds beyond those narrow and privileged confines (which all three in their own work do address in fascinating ways). So I accept those important criticisms, encourage readers to approach the book with those untold stories in mind, and plan in future research to explore a few of those out-of-the-spotlight folks whose lives and labors have made possible the relatively privileged worlds I look at in the book.

More specifically, Laura Miller points to all those who experience computing technology as drudgery, that majority upon which float the minority who experience it as a thrill, and worries if I am exaggerating the extent of both romanticism and the neoliberalism I argue was at times its fellow-traveler. Methodologically, the way I deal with those questions in the book is to judge discourses not by their pervasiveness but by their effectiveness: romanticism matters to the extent that it was a necessary if not sufficient condition of real world decision making (e.g., the dot-com bubble), not by the extent to which it is shared, an extent which I make clear in the book is not universal, even among the computer literate. And I do suggest that it did play a role in social struggles, not in terms of a grand dichotomy between oppressors and oppressed but in a more fine grained dynamics of particular places in white collar hierarchies (hence the discussions of the hearts and minds of “cubicle dwellers”). Those who turned to a romantic self-understanding of computing were often drawn to it in part because of a sense of the lack of authority or respect received from the more utilitarian or managerial discourses favored by their bosses. Similarly, Laura is absolutely right that people’s experience of computing was often not congruent with markets and private property; one of the ways that experience was articulated was in the non-neoliberal open source movement I elaborate in the book. In particular moments romanticism could become articulated with neoliberalism – just as at other moments it could become articulated with non-neoliberal discourses like the open source movement. (One leg of neoliberalism is the assertion that private property is necessary to innovation and production; writ large, open source may have no necessary political commitments, but nonetheless kicks that leg out from under the neoliberal policy edifice.)

All that said, “romanticism” is one of those rich, everyday words that both invites associations while risking blurriness; that may be part of what Laura may be worried about. I could have instead used, say, Colin Campbell’s phrase “modern autonomous imaginative hedonism” to force the reader to do the work of grasping my argument in more precise terms – but then, I’m afraid it would be a much less accessible book. (Campbell himself used “romanticism” in his book’s title, while exhaustively breaking it down into parts in the text.) Laura has inspired me to think about a follow-up essay on specifying romanticism in contemporary culture that would more fully address the concerns she raises.

Gina Neff gently points to the very American context of this book, which ignores the global character of the internet. Point taken. Compelling cultural analysis requires some immersion and is thus difficult to do well across cultural boundaries; the bits of thick description in the book are tied to my own personal experiences, as is the whole analysis to some extent. But I do hope that I and perhaps others will be able to take up Gina’s question in further work. For example, the hagiographic treatment of Steve Jobs after his death, which fits cleanly into the analysis of The Net Effect, was taken up by young people in China, though not in Korea or Japan. That deserves a closer look.

More broadly, Gina notes how, in this rather average-length book, I try to tackle that big “and unbounded object, ‘the internet.’” She is absolutely right that there is something sprawling about what I try to encompass, and she is right to put quotes on “the internet”: after all these years, it is finally starting to dawn on us that we more often than not leave the term undefined even as we build our careers on it. My reason for making that sprawl a central object of the book is that one will not be able to explain the political, economic, or cultural history of the last thirty years without reference to “the internet,” even if what we imagine to be technological questions turn out not to be. So yes, the “internet” in the book’s subtitle is more a word – a rich, powerful, historically significant word – than a technology.

I do accept her implication that artifacts still matter, however, and her invitation to follow some of the threads started in the book. So there are two directions to go in further work: first, there is much historical explanation (and deconstruction) left to be done of how all that energy around the term “internet” congealed, and second, there are numerous rich cultural/political/technological studies to be done of specific artifacts in everyday life, which I touch upon in the book but deserve fuller elaboration.

Mary Gray’s comments raise one of the most difficult questions for me about the book, the question of gender. The obvious and persistent masculinist associations with computer technologies cry out both to be superseded – there’s a feeling that we just need to finally get beyond it, and whenever I talk to female undergraduates about it I start by saying that computing is a great career for them – but nonetheless it kind of haunts cultural approaches to technologies in a way that is difficult to handle. Yes, romanticism as I define it – roughly Emersonian – is associated with masculinist tropes and ideologies. Whenever self-expression and exploration are defined purely in terms of breaking free, of going off heroically on one’s own, then there’s probably something important being obscured, and as often as not, it is work done by women.

Mary references the point in the introduction where I mention the influence Esther Dyson, who as a libertarian would argue that her identity as a woman is irrelevant to her actions and role. On the one hand, Dyson’s gesture of transcending the body is a central one to the libertarian culture of the internet; Dyson had no small role in articulating that gesture with politics. On the other, there’s a false abstraction in that gesture; there’s no abstract individual apart from our historical bodies, one’s gender does matter, and that false abstraction has a lot to do with what’s wrong politically about how people make sense of the internet. Tagging that individualism as Ullman’s “male sort of loneliness”, as I briefly do, helps situate the discourse, at least metaphorically. But in the end, I think I have to accept Mary’s suggestion that there’s something unfinished if not woefully lacking in this part of the analysis. Perhaps there’s an essay to be written about Esther Dyson’s body, about the way her status as a woman figures in her political presence against her wishes. I think such an essay would be very difficult to write well.