Finding a voice in Cyberspace: Utterances and their ethical consequences


Anand Mitra
Ph.D. Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies
Dept. of Communication
Wake Forest University


The increasing availability of the Internet and the tendency to live in cyberspace has transformed many key elements of everyday life, particularly in places where the access to the Internet has become relatively ubiquitous. Indeed, the ease of access is not necessarily dependent on geographic location nor is it necessarily determined by traditional parameters of development. For instance, countries such as India, which still belongs to the category of “developing” nations, have perhaps got easier access to the Internet than countries which might be considered more “developed” on traditional scales of measurement. In a city like Kolkata, for example, one can enter a cybercafe and browse the Web for up to one hour for a fee of less than one US dollar. This tendency is increasingly leading to a re-thinking of the relations of power in cyberspace, where the power vectors do not necessarily mimic the way power is distributed in real life.

Associated with the questions of power is the inevitable issue of ethics in cyberspace. There are many different ways in which the question of ethics of cyberspace can be presented as demonstrated in a recent issue of the journal “Communications of the ACM,” where topics from business ethics to privacy are discussed. The underlying theme of all the different manifestations of the ethical issues of the Internet, however, reduce to questions about who can be trusted on the Internet and what parameters must be invoked to make judgments of trust. In this paper, some of these fundamental concerns are explored through the use of a case study approach examining a set of Internet texts and what they say about the questions of power and trust in cyberspace.

It is argued that cyberspace can be conceptualized as a discursive space where the determinate moment is when a Netizen chooses to “speak” in cyberspace perhaps by authoring a Web page or a posting to public listserves. It is at that moment that a “voice” is articulated in the global discursive space and what the voice says enters the public sphere of cyberspace. This determinate moment, I argue, is particularly poignant in the case of the Internet, because the technology of the Internet has made it possible for anyone with access to a computer, a network and minimal knowledge of computers to place an utterance in cyberspace. Consequently, I argue the construct of voice is particularly important in thinking about the issue of power in cyberspace. However, unlike traditional media, the ability to have the voice is no longer dependant on financial or cultural capital but merely on the ability to get to a networked computer and acquiring some basic computer skills.

The significance of this transformation of speaking power lies in the way in which the change can call into question the way in which speaking power has been structured in real life. Traditionally, the ability to speak was dependent on vectors of power that related with geo-political placement. Some were able to speak purely by virtue of the fact that they were placed in a more powerful position while others were silenced because they were relatively powerless. Arguments about international news that triggered the New Information Order movement of the 1970s focused on such inequities of power and their consequences on the representational abilities of developing and developed countries. In cyberspace, however, the traditional structures of power of real life are now distilled into discursive power and representational acumen. In cyberspace, voice is constructed by strategic use of signifying processes such as the construction of Web pages and postings on listserves. Simultaneously, for the audience of the Internet, the key parameter for judging the power of an utterance in the public sphere of cyberspace is the eloquence with which the voice can speak.

This condition, however, presents an interesting ethical conundrum because both the trustworthy and the dishonest can mobilize discursive eloquence to make their point. In other words, the ones who are desperately needing to find a voice to present their perhaps marginal conditions are cohabiting cyberspace with the ones who are out to dupe and deceive. Thus, the user must make some cautious choices about who to trust and who not to trust. Eventually, this choice is based on a series of factors of which, I argue, the discursive strategy of the speaker is most visible and tangible.

Thus, this paper would first offer a textual analytic approach that would consider the ways in which the trustworthiness of a speaker in cyberspace can begin to be understood by looking at the representational strategies used by the author. Following that, and using examples from traditionally marginalized speakers (women from South Asia), the paper would make the argument that being trustworthy in cyberspace is a necessary condition for the growth of this mode of communication, particularly when the traditional parameters of trust are absent in this space.

In summary, the paper would first explore the conditions that make voices in the discursive cyberspace trustworthy. Following from that I would argue that users of the Internet need to understand the conditions of production of the Internet voices and then make judgments about the veracity of the voices. These strategies are important ones because it is these factors that would ultimately describe the ethos of cyberspace in terms of who inhabits it, how they inhabit it, and what reactions they can expect to their existence in cyberspace.