The Internet Imaginaire

I have recently finished reading a translation of Patrice Flichy‘s wonderful 2001 book, L’imaginiare d’Internet, published in English this year by MIT Press as The Internet Imaginaire. (MIT Press, Amazon). My French is woeful (and certainly not up to academic reading, and certainly certainly not up to sociology), so while aware of the book (I used a very good Flichy extract in an Open University course I took two years ago), I had to wait for the translation … and then when I spotted it in the US in July, my budget didn’t stretch to the (admittedly pretty) glossy hardback. Thankfully, I nabbed a library copy back in Dublin.

There is very little buzz around the book, it seems, and it’s a shame. (I’m sure that reviews in academic journals etc will make their way into print soon enough, of course). For while it is ‘five years out of date’, and it’s a translation, it should be considered as an important contribution to both the ‘Internet history’ and ‘cyberculture’ fields. Basically, Flichy’s methodology included a fairly close study of issues of Wired (and other sources) in the 90s, alongside contemporary news reports, documents and major histories (e.g. Hapfer’s Where Wizards Stay Up Late, etc). It involves a good dollop of sociological analysis but even in translation, it is far from dense or unreadable. It is one of the few books I have read, in quite a few years reading this stuff, that tries to tackle the ideology and political positioning of the ‘cyberelite’; typically it is either ignored or overtheorised, but this is quite down-to-earth and ‘aware’ of trends in politics, economics etc more generally.

The ‘imaginaire’, left untranslated, is defined in fairly simple terms. “We encounter more than simply a project or common intention; what we witness is a collective vision or imaginaire“. This is discussed in terms of policy-makers, designers and scientists, and (in most detail) communities and community leaders. I can’t think of a book that has tackled the questions Flichy does in this way at all – and the reader is left with a desire to chase up some of these sources, particularly those relating to the mid-90s period, the transition between the old Internet and the beginnings of its commercial phase. Indeed, my one regret is that this translation does not include an ‘update’, as the economic ‘crash’, the continuing process of telecoms industry liberalisation (which Flichy is deeply concerned about even in terms of the 1996 Telecoms Act in the US), the Web Thingey buzz, are certainly subjects that are enlightened by this ‘new’ book, written before they happened.

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