Mar 31, 2010

Let’s Discuss the “Cinternet” and the “Cyber-pluralism” a Little bit More


In the luncheon talk on 16 March at Berkman Center, I used the term of “Cinternet” and proposed the “Cyber-pluralism”. Nevertheless, the presentation was focused on the cases of some Chinese websites.  This may make audience think that I am arguing for an isolated network. Hence hereby I talk a little bit more about it. And looking for criticisms.


A. About the “Cinternet”

The wording of "Cinternet" does not mean I think there is a network isolated from the Internet with clear physical or software boarders. In other words, the term "Cinternet" is not a "part" of the Internet, but a collection of some impressions of the Internet, and the style of the Internet reflecting those impressions.

Different people may have distinct impressions of the Internet. In a teenage girl’s impression, the Internet might be a sphere full of free information resources, enjoyable games and probably a free place for music download.
In her grandmother’s mind, the Internet might be a technological monster with full of porn and dangerous social networking messages. As a combination of the girl and her granny’s impressions, the Internet may become a world with a lot of freedom and at the same time a lot of dangerous information. However, in an engineer’s impression, the texts, images and voices that makes the granny and the kid happy or sad may be all the same – no matter the Child pornography video or the mp3 files - they are just data. He may simply think the Internet as a new tool of transmission and communication, and in his impression, the Internet is different from the previous networks (like the broadcasting networks) not only because of the interactive communication, but also because of the decentralized and distributed way of transmitting data packages. Furthermore, different programmers may also hold different impressions to the Internet: if you are one who focuses on the online payment, you may worry more about the security of the transmission; while if you are a P2P software developer, you may think more about the efficiency of the transmission.

Back to the “Cinternet”, I use this term firstly to summarize an "Internet" reflecting the combination of the impressions of the Chinese Internet users, policy makers and ISPs. In other words, this term can be roughly understood as "the Internet in the impressions of Chinese people.” Secondly, the impressions will react the Internet and be reflected in the mode of E-commerce, the way of Internet governance and even the style of the webpage.  Therefore, the “Cinternet” is the Internet reflecting the Chinese legal, cultural, political, linguistic and even group psychological characters." More importantly, this is a description but not a definition.  The “Cinternet” is not the "Chinese (linguistic) Internet" - a simple Chinese translation of the Facebook's interface does not make the Facebook being a Chinese website. It is not the "Internet (physically) in China" because there are a lot of Chinese websites are stored in the servers out of China. It is not a simple collection of ".cn" domains because this domain can be used by anyone, and a lot of Chinese websites are using .com, .net, .cc, .tv, etc.


B. About the “Cyber-pluralism”

What I want to argue is simple: the social structure and social norms, as well as the legal concepts may affect online ecology profoundly, hence the "single" Internet is not a truth but only an imagination.

The cyber-pluralism is an approach of observing the Internet. The Cyber world is a world with diversities and it can hardly stay  beyond the real world independently without the influences of different culture and regimes. No matter whether you “stand for a single Internet” or not, the truth is that the laws (including “living law”) and the cultures have embedded into the digital codes.  Without this pluralistic patience, one may neglect what is happening and what has happened in China and the Cinternet. I hope the approach of cyber-pluralism can provide a way for both the eastern and the western peoples understand each other.  More importantly, so long as the people’s impressions of the Internet are transforming, those diversities will refresh themselves continuously. 

A few people asked me what is the “common value” of the Internet, or do I think that something should or should not be a universal human right in the Internet age. I think these questions are actully about religion and I really don’t have idea on how to answer them.

Furthermore,  I prefer to discuss the possible trends of the Internet rather than the “common denominators” of the Internet because the latter may lead the “uncommon” aspects of the Internet being marginalized. The Internet as a network of networks is confronting with two possible trends –splitting or collaborating. In some aspects, the splitting may be inevitable, while in other aspects, once most (if not all) stakeholders (either in the east or in the west) accept that their individual impressions of the Internet should not definitely be the solely right one, the connection among the networks (no matter at infrastructure level or at the legal level) may be more smooth.


By the way, I am not a cultural relativist because I believe, and I have witnessed: it is changing.

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