On Monday 5 December 2022, LSE’s Department of Media and Communications will hold a public event to celebrate the legacy of Professor Emerita Robin Mansell. We have invited some of Robin’s present and former colleagues and students to contribute their thoughts on the impact she has had both on them personally, and on the field of information and communication technologies theory and practice. João C. Magalhães, Assistant Professor in Media, Politics, and Democracy at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, completed his PhD at the LSE under Robin’s supervision.
A non-trivial question when reflecting on the legacy of Robin Mansell is – where should one start? For her career has been not only remarkably prolific but also multifarious. There’s Robin the theorist, who unearthed unsuspected links between very different disciplines to make critical sense of our perplexing communications systems. There’s Robin the academic leader, who headed the IAMCR, edited landmark publications, and played a major role in the internationalization of our field and in the establishment of the LSE’s Media and Communications Department. She has been also a paragon of the “impactful” academic, a bona fide scholar who for decades worked with policy makers and tech developers. And there is of course her role as educator and mentor. Robin helped form a generation of researchers, supervising over 40 PhD students. That’s a staggering number in any discipline but particularly impressive in media and communications, where doctoral candidates often write book-long theses based on extensive fieldwork.
So, indeed – where should a reflection on her legacy start? It would be foolish for me to try and comment on all these aspects. But as someone who has been profoundly influenced by Robin’s ideas – first as a reader of her work and then as her MSc and PhD supervisee – I’d like to suggest that her 2012 monograph, “Imagining the Internet”, offers an inspiring entry point.
I first encountered this book as a graduate student and I was immediately puzzled by the title. Why would anyone write about how the Internet is imagined, I remember thinking? And how was such “imagining” connected with “communication, innovation, and governance”, the book’s subtitle? The contrast between the subjective experience of imagination and the impersonal systematicity of power and economics sounded to me novel, subversive – and alluring. I borrowed the book from the LSE library not knowing that it would shape much of my own thinking in the coming months and years.
“Imagining the Internet” remains, in my view, the best introduction to Robin’s intellectual project. Not that the book is written in an “introductory” style. This is a dense, at times demanding text. What I mean is that the book seems to dialogue with many of the topics and theories she had engaged with before without, however, overly focussing on any specific area – regulation, political economy, development etc. The goal is precisely to offer a panoramic view of the taken-for-granted ideas (the imaginaries) that shape how communication systems are designed, governed, and used.
In so doing, “Imagining the Internet” remains, ten years on, one of the most creative critiques of the first decades of the Internet, exemplary in its rigour and ambition.
Drawing on Charles Taylor’s social philosophy (but also on critical systems theory, economics, and cybernetics, to name but a few of her typically eclectic inspirations), Robin’s account persuasively demonstrates that there were two broad imaginaries shaping the sociotechnical production of the Internet, particularly in the West. On the one hand, there was the “dominant social imaginary”. This assumed that the “good” information society would emerge from lightly-regulated markets, whose proper functioning in turn depended on controlling the digital flows of information through the enforcement of intellectual rights. On the other hand, there was the “alternative social imaginary”. According to this view, the Internet would be beneficial as long as it was collectively controlled by decentralized networks of private actors. Those who adopted this vision assumed that self-organized communities led by an elite of software developers should govern the Internet from below, producing and circulating information as freely and openly as possible. Intellectual rights, if enforced, could impair the flourishing of this digital “commons”.
These visions were locked in a stalemate created by two paradoxes, Robin pointed out. The paradox of information scarcity meant that information was simultaneously imagined as “costly to produce”, thus needing to be made artificially scarce to incentivise “creativity, diversity and growth” (dominant imaginary) and also “costless to reproduce”, in which case creativity, diversity and growth could only emerge when information was “freely distributed” (alternative imaginary). The paradox of complexity concerned how to account for the emergent intricacies of our digital communication. From the dominant perspective, such complexity was leading to a loss of control; from the alternative view, it was engendering new, decentralized forms of government.
Robin describes these views clinically and critically. Despite their differences, she says, both camps converged in their superficial view of technological progress as inherently good and “beyond human control”, in their often self-interested scepticism towards governments and states, and in their naïve (or intentionally ignorant) understanding of the entanglements between power and justice. In a way, those “dominant” and “alternative” views were the offspring of a wider neoliberal imaginary, rooted in morally impoverished dreams of achieving freedom through a “natural” technocracy – or at least that’s how I read them.
To some extent, the issues “Imagining the Internet” examines and theorises about have changed drastically in the past decade. The copyright wars that dominated regulatory debates in the late 1990s and 2000s have cooled off following the development of massive automated filters (think of YouTube’s Content ID) and new business models, such as those of paid streaming platforms. Complexity has only increased but its control has been refashioned as a service offered not by decentralized networks but by the mammoth corporate brainchildren of those networks – Big Tech conglomerates. We need not understand how data are produced and machine learning systems operate to enjoy the seamless experience of scrolling through our news feeds.
It is not the case, however, that disputes over information and complexity control disappeared. Left unattended, those paradoxes have in fact festered and multiplied, creating new and contradictory sets of intractable problems: unaccountable speech control, widespread misinformation, and exploitative communication systems that we fundamentally distrust – but don’t know how to abandon. It would take more than a blog post to untangle these transmutations. However, let me just note that it is not absurd to think that our Big Tech-centred Internet is now underpinned by a social imaginary that looks like a merge between the imaginaries Robin so precisely depicted a decade ago. Information freedom and decentralization seem now to be taken as necessary for the design of centralized systems of monetizable information control. It is as if that “alternative” view had captured the “dominant” position, adopting some of its assumptions and becoming a hybrid that we are still trying to understand.
And as we develop critical vocabularies to construe these fairly novel systems, it is worth mentioning an idea present in that book and in Robin’s entire body of work: however complex and concentrated, communication technologies remain somehow malleable and ambiguous. Pervading “Imagining the Internet” is the horizon of possibility and reform: an urge to resist the odd charm of simplification and fatalism, to reject any form of determinism – be it utopian or dystopian. Of all lessons Robin taught me, this is one I keep learning.
This article represents the views of the author and not the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.