Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Virtual Webs…, Downey

In Virtual Webs, Physical Technologies, and Hidden Workers: The Spaces of Labor in Information Internetworks, Downey attempts to demystify “cyberspace” in two primary manners: to provide a historical context for the World Wide Web by comparing it to the century-old internetwork of telegraph, telephone and postal mail, and to make a plea for ethnographic and geographic accounts of the hidden labor force in the technology industry.

For his first task, Downey examines the “digital information internetwork” (aka the Internet, which combines telephone, computer, and radio/tv) in relation to the “analog information internetwork” (which combines the three communication media mentioned previously). Both of these internetworks are based on decentralized networks that operate heterogeneously with a shared protocol, and both rely on institutional managers, internetwork customers, and production laborers to operate. And in terms of human geography and the production of space and time, “both used new socially constructed technologies to create new socially constructed spatialities” (217).

Downey is especially interested in what he terms laborers of boundary work, those “who maintain the links, transform the content, and police the boundaries between those networks” (225). Looking at both of these internetworks, Downey questions whether the “complexity of boundary work [has] increased along with the complexity of the material technology?” (226) In his view, the best way too answer this question is by engaging with ethnography that is grounded in history and geography. In particular, he calls for ethnographic research on help desk workers who are situated precariously as “simultaneously hidden and revealed, often physically located in a remote site…yet virtually the first point of contact between company and consumer” (231).

In closing, Downey concedes that he cares little whether the reader buys his argument about the two internetworks, but hopes this framework has led the reader to “reconceptualiz[e] old technological phenomenon in a new way” (234) and to recognize the physical presence of human laborers that create and maintain the world of cyberspace. Maybe Cisco is right; maybe it is the human network.

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