Social Imaginaries of the Internet

The notion of the ‘good society’ has many contested meanings and nuances, but is generally about social justice and how it can be achieved (Mansell 2012). The philosopher Martha Nussbaum suggests to think of it as a helpful picture helping us to “think creatively about what justice can be in a world” (2006 414). Mansell calls it “unreasonable” to simply leave the development of our communication system to chance and ignore its evolution when “some of its features are inconsistent with the values of the good society” (2012 22).

Therefore, some thoughts about about this communication system called Internet.

Rodger Silverstone (2007 26) insists that the communication system, by mediating our lives, “constitutes our worldliness, our capacity to be in the world”; the relationship between the communication system and our capacity to be in the world therefore “clearly matters for the lives of people everywhere” (Mansell 2012 6), thus dealing with the consequences of our visions of the information society is an important enquiry. Robin Mansell is ‘Imagining the Internet’ (2012) by exploring two opposing tales of how to envision a world increasingly mediated by digital information and communication technologies: the ‘information society’ we live in. The information society is understood “to be arising from an evolutionary process with intrinsic benefits based on the emergent complexity of the technologies of the communication system”. Mansell situates those within what he calls ‘social imaginaries’–“the way people in the information society make sense of their visions and practices and how this is influencing the communication system that is so central to people’s lives” (ibid. 9). The prevailing visions of the information society then are:

  1. The dominant social imaginary, giving priority to market-led commercial developments, in lines with the interests of economic growth. Technological change is seen as an unpredictable process and nothing should be done to intervene in the evolution of the complex adaptive system for it would produce a greater instability within the it. An unregulated market system would create optimal outcomes, assuming private intellectual property ownership rights are enforced.
  2. The alternative social imaginary, highlighting collaborative production and consumption of information outside the conventions of market exchange. Also here, the process of technological change is emergent, but human agency is deployed to create the best conditions for the decentralized sharing within a commons-based peer production model. An empowerment of individuals achieved through decentralized collective action and the ability to make choices is valued.

However, “the prevailing visions of the information society are never settled” (idib. 6), and a new understanding of the two plausible, but contradictory paths is needed to move forward:

“The path towards cooperation in an information commons is presented typically as consistent with equality and social justice, but it does not resolve the problem of how to monetize information production in the virtual realm in order to pay for the non-virtual essentials of life. The path towards market-led development of the information society seeks better means of monetizing information production, but it does not address the problems of inequality and social injustice that emerge as new technologies and modes of information production become integrated ever more tightly into market-based institutions” (ibid. 23f).

Such questions are important, for the Internet is “mediating most people’s lives in increasing number of ways” (ibid. 3). By examining the persistent conflicts between the dominant (market-led) vision and the increasingly popular alternative (an expanding information commons) vision, Mansell sets out to argue that these accounts misread the implications of the two paradoxes of complexity and information scarcity. A paradox occurs when two correct statements are contradictory. The paradox of information scarcity describes the fact that in a digital environment, information is costly to produce but virtually costless to reproduce. Following from that is the challenge of how to create incentives for a diversity if information to be produced. The paradox of complexity describes the situation that, following from the emergent complexity of the technological system behind the screen, there are intrinsic benefits that lead to both a loss of control and at the same time to greater control, achieved through programming within a decentralized system.

Mansell suggests several interventions promoting a new social imaginary of the information society which “resists the excesses of the market without abandoning it, and which encourages experimentation and creativity in mediated environments, with less risk to human beings” (ibid. 13). For such a social imaginary to occur, the paradoxes of scarcity and complexity have to be rendered to the foreground instead of being ignored and re-read by substituting the dichotomous either/or ways of thinking with both/and ways of thinking. Adaptive action then “cannot resolve or eliminate the experience of paradox,” but it can “suggest ways in which reconciliation leading to new pathways can begin to be imagined and ultimately acted upon” (ibid. 184). There are three areas where adaptive action and policy corrections are desirable and urgent:

  1. Monopolies of Knowledge: There should be a critical stance to the point that automation of the communication system automatically leads to “productivity improvements” and that there may be limits to the capacity of “intelligent machines” should be tasked to make choices. Unequal power relationships that influence who has knowledge would be decoded and information diversity “outside the framework of the commercial market would start to encourage a new social imaginary of the information society in which information is understood, not as a ‘thing’, but as a component of the multiple knowledges that are essential for learning” (ibid. 186).
  2. Facilitating Online Creativity: The evolution of the communication system should be corrected in a direction so that the “values of the good society would be served by both the market exchange model for digital information and the information commons model” (ibid.). Citizens need to be empowered to participate in online environments by creating market incentives for the production of digital information and incentives for the sharing of information. For example, artists might be compensated for their efforts by allocating a share from general taxation to information creators. Eventually, expansionist intellectual property rights legislations would be rolled back as to “minimize the creation of new monopolies of knowledge and to facilitate the opening of the digital commons to creativity” (ibid.).
  3. Augmenting the Human Mind: Citizens need to be protected from unwanted intrusions into their digital lives and what they deem private: “the right to be free from surveillance would not be seen as an unaffordable luxury in the face of an emergent complex adaptive system” (idib. 189). It would be questioned whether excessive surveillance should really be the taken-for-granted norm or whether those should be limited. It would be acknowledged that the corporate and state practices are “already well down the path to a non-neutral network,” and debates would focus on the reality of the mediated world behind the screen.

Generally, an improved knowledge of the “interactions within a multi-level communication system” leading to the “genesis of the paradoxes of information scarcity and complexity” is needed. The scholarly community is likely to give rise to unexpected developments and becomes part of the new social imaginary. Researchers should be “open to surprises that disturb their conventional ways of seeing” and be thus more “likely to be cognizant of news of difference” (ibid.). A new social imaginary is important for it is “in no-one’s interest to preserve the status quo” (ibid. 192).


Mansell, R., 2012. Imagining the Internet, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nussbaum, M.C., 2006. Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Silverstone, R., 2007. Media and Morality: On the Rise of the Mediapolis, Cambridge: Polity Press.

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