First Monday

Preface to Command Lines by Sandra Braman and Thomas M. Malaby



It is becoming increasingly clear that the shift toward a digital society entails fundamental reconfigurations of forms of governance broadly defined, and this issue is edging steadily into the fields of vision of researchers, policy–makers, and the public at large. As has happened with our understanding of the economics of information (Braman, 2005) and of the processes by which knowledge becomes codified (Kahin, 2004), the informatization of society has deepened our appreciation of the variety of means by which political forms as complex adaptive systems become transformed within the broader legal field (Braman, 2004). At the same time, there has been recognition of the potential contributions of Internet–based social practice since the first utopian fantasies and dystopian fears about what the net might bring; we now see rapidly growing and consequential participation in virtual worlds, networked games, and other online social spaces (Malaby, 2006). Cyberspace, conceptualized broadly here as the electronic domain of human practice and meaning–making, is expanding in its reach and stakes. Beyond these developments, of course, is the recognition that technological systems in themselves may offer potentials for and constraints upon democratic practice, but which of these become realized depends upon actions that range from technical design decisions, all the way through and past policy, to the practices of user communities.

At the current moment, then, we have the prospect of a productive encounter between our developing understandings of information, digital society, and technological architecture, and how all of these contribute to the transformation of multiple forms of governance. The terms “government,” “governance,” and “governmentality” capture such forms in different positions within that Bourdieuvian field: the term government refers to the formal practices and institutions of geopolitically recognized states, governance includes the formal and informal practices of institutions of both private and public sector actors, and governmentality involves the cultural habits and practices that enable and sustain both governance and government (Braman, 2004). Most of the literature on democracy and cyberspace starts from more or less well developed and more or less explicit generalizations about what constitutes effective political practice in government. Difficulties translating and adapting legacy law into terms applicable under contemporary conditions alert us, however, to the fact that emergent forms of governance practice are developing, becoming as or more important than traditional types of political activity in pursuit of political goals.

The authors in this collection, therefore, start from the other end of the stick, by asking: What constitutes political activity within cyberspace, from the ground up? What types of democratic — and what types of counter–democratic — practices are appearing? What are the implications of the cultural habits of governmentality within cyberspace for governance and, ultimately, government? How do these practices encounter, collide with, exploit, and shape the continued design and production of technology? And how is the emergent digital society affecting the relationships among governmentality, governance, and government?

The papers that follow herald the emergence of governmentality and governance within cyberspace, and begin to consider their implications, both for government and for thinking about digital society. This effort includes three core investigations. First, it entails an extension of the familiar discussion about government use of information technologies by looking at some types of practices rarely considered from this perspective. These include: the increasing prominence of technologized simulations and their role in the construction of knowledge and subjectivity; the role of digital public art in reshaping the public sphere and civil society; how users and consumers are refiguring notions of citizenship; and how technologies increasingly interact (in contrast to their typical treatment as distinctly stand–alone by policy–makers). Second, because at the heart of political activity is the question of agency, this effort involves the examination of the ways in which experience within cyberspace affects our ability to exercise specific types of agency. In complex systems, governance implies a never completed project of control, and this suggests that agency, rather than being hard–linked to intention, inheres in the potential for emergent practices and unintended consequences (see Giddens, 1984), a potential that is multiplied by the proliferation of new technologies. Finally, while the design principles of constitutional democracies, as laid out in their founding documents, aspire to structure social relations explicitly, experience within cyberspace has made it clear that technical decisions — how to design computers, and software, and networks — implicitly structure social relations as well. Thus an understanding of the emergence of governance online also entails a consideration of how specific design features have significant anticipated and unanticipated effects on all three modes of governing.

Most profoundly, studying the emergence of political forms within cyberspace throws light on the power of boundaries, in two senses. First, new political forms and practices emerge that shift relationships among the domains of governmentality, governance, and government. The received wisdom about where governance and government begin and end is regularly overturned. Second, the study of power in cyberspace makes clear that the most effective sites of political activity are at boundaries themselves — between content and process, between what is technologically available and what is actually experienced, between regulation from outside of entities and regulation from within, between extra–jurisdictional control and jurisdictional control, between regulation of individuals and regulation of social groups, between parametric and non–parametric change, and between games and politics. The political nature of these boundaries demands that we extend the conversation from governmentality and governance within cyberspace to emergent forms of geopolitically–based government.

One further note: the articles that follow are book–ended by essays by each of us (Malaby’s at the start, Braman’s to conclude) which pursue several key questions which we see as sparked by the Command Lines articles. Our emphases, as readers may note, differ, and productively so, in our view. In attempting to forge a clear–eyed view of the array of governance processes currently unfolding online, we must strike a delicate balance between capturing the points of possibility, where new forms of governance practice emerge, and accounting properly for how existing institutions and practices (largely successfully) are both reproduced and intentionally challenged by actors. Hence the counterbalancing emphases on contingency by Malaby and agency (in the political sense) by Braman. It is our hope that readers of these excellent works of scholarship that constitute the heart of these issues will bear this delicate balance in mind. Meanwhile, a note of appreciation must go to Patrice Petro, whose Center for International Education at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee sponsored the conference “Command Lines: The Emergence of Governance in Global Cyberspace” in April of 2005 at which the conversation that has resulted in Command Lines began. End of article


About the authors

Sandra Braman is Professor of Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Recent work related to Command Lines includes Change of State: Information, Policy, and Power (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006) and The Emergent Global Information Policy Regime (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
E–mail: braman [at] uwm [dot] edu

Thomas M. Malaby is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and co–coordinator of the Modern Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. He has published articles and essays on virtual worlds, practice theory, risk, and mortality, and his book, Gambling Life: Dealing in Contingency in a Greek City (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003) explores how games reveal human attitudes toward contingency.
E–mail: malaby [at] uwm [dot] edu



Sandra Braman, 2005. “The Micro– and Macro–Economics of Information,” Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, volume 40, pp. 3–52.

Sandra Braman, 2004. “The Processes of Emergence,” In: Sandra Braman (editor). The Emergent Global Information Policy Regime. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1–11.

Anthony Giddens, 1984. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Brian Kahin, 2004. “Codification in Context,” In: Sandra Braman (editor). The Emergent Global Information Policy Regime. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 39–61.

Thomas Malaby, 2006. “Parlaying Value: Forms of Capital in and Beyond Virtual Worlds,“ Games & Culture, volume 1, number 2, pp. 141–162.


Editorial history

Paper received 15 August 2006; accepted 25 August 2006.

Contents Index

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Preface by Sandra Braman and Thomas M. Malaby
First Monday, special issue number 7 (September 2006),