Kappa Omicron Nu
The Internet as a Practical Problem: Empowerment in the Electronic
Marsha L. Rehm
Dr. Rehm is Associate Professor, Department of Family and Child Sciences, College of Human Sciences, Florida State University.
As a new information and communications system, the Internet poses a
practical problem that demands reflective and critical thinking on the part of
individuals and families. This article explores how the Internet can empower
individuals and families by enhancing autonomy, offering opportunities to
contribute value in an ever-changing world, and facilitating relationships
among diverse individuals. The article then argues that not only must we
critique information flowing through the Internet, but we also must reflect
upon its power as a metaphor and structure that shapes the way we view
knowledge and human beings. Finally, suggestions are made for family and
consumer sciences professionals including: helping families gain access and
skill with the Internet, facilitating dialogue about how the Internet shapes
everyday life, critiquing human consequences, and conducting related
Here we sit in the Information Age, besieged by more information than
any mind can handle, trying to make sense of the complexity that continues to
grow around us (Wheatley, 1994, p. 145). The Internet is a revolutionary
phenomenon that enables millions of individuals across the globe to access,
exchange, analyze, and create vast amounts of information. As a major factor in
the information highway, the Internet is a vast network system that processes
data and information between innumerable sites in the virtual electronic world
called cyberspace. Because the Internet personality has been
characterized as everything from free and egalitarian to wild and anarchic, it
is no wonder that it has generated tremendous excitement, promise, and fear in
the popular imagination (Burstein & Kline, 1995).
Most thinkers who contemplate the sheer amount of information, escalating
rates of knowledge production and change, and immediacy of world-wide
communication made possible by technologies like the Internet agree that the
quality of everyday human activity is impacted (Postman, 1992; Webster, 1995).
As Seel (1997) points out, new information technologies provide tools and ways
of thinking that shape every aspect of our lives:
Taken as tools, they assist one in specific tasks associated
with study, communication, or leisure. But taken as a whole technology, a
unified world of systematic processes, they come to dictate ones
perception of reality and to dominate every sphere of life. (p. 25)
The Internet is one of the major technological systems currently changing
how we define knowledge, personal value, and social relationships (Postman,
1992; Webster, 1995).
As it becomes a more common aspect of everyday life, a practical question
arises concerning what to do about the Internet in terms of solving
problems of the family (Brown, 1980, p. 101). As Lewis and Gagel (1992)
warn, Technological literacy has economic, political, moral, ethical,
ecological, and indeed even psychic or spiritual aspects (p. 135).
Technologies like the Internet can be used for enlightenment or manipulation,
for social cohesion or social fragmentation (Brown & Baldwin, 1995;
Postman, 1992; Webster, 1995). Thus, the Internet becomes a significant
practical problem requiring reflective thought and emancipatory action.
Critical questions must be addressed such as: How does the Internet shape the
self and society? How can we shape the Internet with justifiable values and
The challenge for family and consumer sciences is to continue our long
tradition of empowering individuals and families to create human significance
(Baldwin, 1996; Brown, 1980; Brown & Paolucci, 1979; Vaines, 1993) within a
complex and sophisticated information environment. The overall purpose of this
article is to critically explore the Internet as a practical problem related to
individual and family empowerment. After a brief definition of the Internet,
the article first examines how it can positively shape individual and family
life. Second, it critically examines problems both directly related to the
Internet as a tool and the more subtle consequences that arise as the Internet
becomes a new structure and metaphor guiding thought and action. The last
section suggests ways that family and consumer sciences professionals can take
leadership in helping families engage in technical, reflective, and
emancipatory action regarding the Internet.
The Internet as a Practical
The Internet was launched in 1969 by the Department of Defense to ensure
that information essential for national security could continue to be
distributed if any part of the system failed. In the 1990s the Internet evolved
into the largest public electronic superhighway connecting over 20
million computers all over the world (Wresch, 1997). Poole (1997) likens the
power of the Internet to the quickness and complexity of a global sized brain:
Messages in the form of electromagnetic pulses flash
simultaneously and ceaselessly in all directions. Axons and dendrites are
equivalent to network systemscomputers and transmissions media. The
neurons are equivalent to people who are drawn closer and closer together into
a global community where every individual depends more and more on everyone
else. This is the stuff of science fiction, yet it is becoming a reality today.
This global super brain provides an estimated billion users with the
information offered by 13 million hosts (including governments from
the White House to local agencies, businesses of all sizes, universities and
schools, and individuals). Because the Internet enables people to communicate
with each other through a variety of electronic mail and discussion group
options, it has also been likened to a global village or virtual community
(Poole, 1997; Wresch, 1997).
The most popular highway on the Internet is the World Wide Web,
which combines the interactivity of video games, the information of text, and
the aesthetic appeal of graphics and video (Poole, 1997; Seel, 1997).
Individuals and organizations can relatively easily and inexpensively create
their own sites for the Web with one or more pages of visual and textual
informationan appealing option that currently prompts an addition of
5,000 new Web pages each day (Wresch, 1997). All in all, the Internet is truly
a remarkable world filled with information and open to imaginative
possibilities for education, entertainment, and communication.
At the same time the Internet presents a new tool to improve lives, it
clearly poses a practical problem about what to do with the
informational possibilities offered and how to use it for personal and social
empowerment. As Shor (1992) reminds us, Problem-posing goes deeply into
any issue or knowledge to indicate its social and personal dimensions (p.
43). Although the Internet poses new and still-to-be judged influences, this
section explores some of the emerging views on the likely positive and negative
consequences on individual and family empowerment.
A New Means for
Empowerment can be broadly viewed as the full development of human potential
(Baldwin, 1990). Empowered individuals take steps to understand, define, and
act upon their personal and community needs (Baldwin, 1990; 1996). As noted by
Baldwin (1996), technical action can be taken to improve some aspects of
well-being, and, in that sense contribute to empowerment. Individuals have
always used technologies to improve and make the most of their
livesmaking life more efficient, safer, and more interesting, or in other
ways facilitating the achievement of goals. We use calculators to ensure
accuracy and save time, the telephone to communicate, and television to gather
news and to relax. In much the same way that we have benefited by learning to
use other available tools, we can develop Internet competence and technical
skill to find new information pertinent to our lives and communicate with
others about common needs.
Yet, the Internet differs from other technologies in its potential to
transform our lives (Poole, 1997, p. 211). Options such as the Internet
give individuals unprecedented autonomy to meet unique wants and needs (Elkind,
1994). Never before has one single technology enabled us to shop, go to the
movies, get up-to-the-minute news, make and enjoy friendships, engage in
discussions about issues, conduct research in libraries, and gather a wide
range of information on any interest or needwithout leaving home. As
Burstein and Kline (1995) point out, the personal choices are unprecedented for
a technological phenomenon:
Perhaps the most important quality of the Internet is that it is
the most dynamic and wide-ranging interactive mass medium in history. You
decide what you want to do on it, when you want to do it, whether you want to
do it alone or with others, and so forth. Interactivity, of course, is a basic
premise of all Info Highway projectsyou wouldnt want a highway
where you couldnt choose your own route and destination, after all. (p.
If empowerment is enhanced with more autonomy and self-direction (Brown,
1993; Baldwin, 1990), the Internet can provide a valuable tool for individuals,
families, and communities.
Personal and family empowerment
One of the more obvious benefits is that individuals and families can find a
panorama of informational choices that reflect particular needs, special
interests, and unique hobbies. Information quickly accessible over the Internet
can help us grow as individuals and families by building opportunities.
Combing through this constantly changing information, [we] can determine
what choices are available and what resources to rally in response
(Wheatley, 1994, p. 91). Interactive information experiences can enhance
understanding of personal needs and prepare families for upcoming challenges
(Garmer & Firestone, 1996). When new information found via the Internet is
imaginatively connected with ideals, goals, hopes, feelings, and values,
individuals and families can change their lives for the better.
Empowerment is enhanced when families gain a more reflective and holistic
understanding of their own lives rather than becoming overly dependent on
experts (Brown, 1993). The Internet allows individuals to build their own
expertise. Ordinary people can research libraries and informational sites and
compare online advice given from a number of perspectives. Individuals and
families can exchange practical ideas and join online discussions with
kindred spirits who have similar situations or interests. The
Internet enables information-gathering across the world without traditional
barriers of distance, time, and sometimes cost.
Empowerment entails the development of creativity (Rehm, 1989; 1993),
personal voice (Giroux, 1988), and other qualities related to the active
construction of ones own experience and social context. The Internet can
provide ordinary families with new opportunities to become what Freire (1985)
calls subjects of their own lives rather than objects
used by others. As a tool for creative play, the Internet can
become an important venue to resist entrenched and oppressive ways of thinking
(Stivale, 1997). The Internet can potentially nourish imaginations and deepen
emotional commitment to visionary ideas (Garmer & Firestone, 1996).
Individuals and families can join discussion groups around social issues,
publish their own work, or inform others about home-based businesses and
grassroots action groups (Garmer & Firestone, 1996). What we can
imagine can thus guide
our technology to generate something that makes
the world closer to our hearts desire (Egan, 1992, p. 166).
More specifically, the Internet disembodies the mind from gender, class,
ethnicity, and other characteristics too often used to marginalize and
discriminate against people (Morgaine, 1993; Shor, 1992). Most physical
disabilities are rendered irrelevant (Kato & Hackman, 1997). Because
individuals represent rather than present themselves on
the computer, Wilbur (1997) suggests that we are encouraged to consider
the hardiness of our concepts (p. 7) over any physical biases. The
Internet increases the power of individuals to insert their voices and ideas
into the public arena of cyberspaceand be judged according to the merit
of their ideas.
At the same time that individuals and families can empower themselves by
using the Internet, a democratic society grows as each individual begins
constructing ones voice as part of a wider project of possibility
and empowerment (Giroux, 1988, p. 64). Dialogue within an engaged
community has potential to deepen levels of mutual understanding about
information, draw individuals into more active social roles, and generate
creative possibilities for action (Baldwin, 1996; Helgesen, 1995; McLaren,
1991). Each persons voice is valuable and essential for the
critical diversity that is needed to raise important questions,
notice oppressive power relations, critique social conditions, and reach new
levels of consensus and understanding (McLaren, 1991; Vaines, 1993). Like waves
spreading across a sea, information becomes richer and more empowering as
people share diverse perspectives (Helgesen, 1995).
If Profuse links are the defining characteristic of the Information
Age (Lipnack & Stamps, 1994, p. 157), then the Internet offers
profuse opportunities to participate in a global dialogue. Perhaps the greatest
benefit of the Internet is the opportunity to create widespread interchange of
ideas and build far-reaching relationships among diverse people over the entire
world. As Lipnack and Stamps (1994) imply, people can enter a global
conversation that makes the world more of a community.
Something entirely new is wrapped around our planeta way
for one person to communicate with many at a very low cost, regardless of where
they are in time or space. Spontaneously and with little planning, a global
conversation and an information freeway have erupted in less than a decade,
making next-door neighbors of people in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, Bangalore,
India, and Johannesburg, South Africa. (p. 157).
As Baldwin (1996) notes, democracy requires responsible individuals who are
prepared to subject their beliefs to public critique and participate in the
collective control of social life. All people who can get online have, at their
fingertips, the power to enter a new social arena for dialogue. The
magic of the Internet is that it is a technology that puts cultural
acts, symbolizations in all forms, in the hands of the participants
(Poster, 1997, p. 211). The Internet can bring together ordinary individuals to
exchange ideas about political issues. Individuals can state opinions and
request feedback to grow in social understanding. They can participate in
moderated discussions in which everyone in the audience can
speak and add to public meaning. Schools, business people,
professionals, workers, or researchers can conduct projects with groups from
across the worldsharing interests and problems and generating new ideas
as a global team.
Importantly, The technology network supports the people network
(Lipnack & Stamps, 1994, p. 158). As hooks (1994) claims, empowerment takes
place as we step across traditional confines and boundaries to carve out new
In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor
for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and
heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to
move beyond boundaries, to transgress. (p. 217).
With near primitive conditions of a frontier (Wilbur, 1997, p.
8), the Internet is just such a world without boundaries. Individuals can
overcome physical limits, and online communities can evolve in grassroots
fashion to address almost any human challenge.
A New Form of
Although we now have a new tool to greatly enhance our ability to meet
personal, family, and social needs, the Internet demands a critical
perspective. As Seel (1997) cautions, We live in a world where technology
is taken for granted. Nothing has greater power over our lives than when we are
unaware, unquestioning, and uncritical (p. 21). The Internet is gaining
at least a degree of power over our lives, and this section critiques some
related concerns. Some concerns relate to the more obvious need to question the
quality of information flowing within the Internet and the need to ensure
equitable access. Other concerns are more subtle in the way the Internet
provides an entirely new metaphor and social structure that highlights speed,
distance, and anonymityexerting powerful consequences on the way
individuals think and the way society structures interactions.
Issues of quality and access
Empowerment includes freedom from biases, compulsions, hostility,
self-doubt, lack of understanding, and unreflective acceptance of ideologies
(Morgaine, 1993). However, because there are so few real world
consequences to Internet behaviors, biases and habits can be sustained with the
practice of seeking out only information which conforms to stereotyped or
rigidly safeguarded preconceptions (Poole, 1997; Seel, 1997; Wresch, 1997).
The Internet and new technology are not the source of our nations
problemsthey merely add new and sometimes troubling dimensions to the
problems we already face throughout society (Burstein & Kline, 1995,
For example, pedophiles and child pornographers lurk online in effort to
entice children into dangerous conversation and action; militant groups publish
materials promoting cyberhate or actual tools of violence;
cyberaffairs blossom online; verbal harassment occurs; and
misinformation abounds on every issue from dieting to child raising (Stivale,
1997; Foster, 1997). As a world that is totally free of censorship,
People can, within the confines of law, distribute whatever they want in
the way of text, still images, and video (Poole, 1997, p. 214). The
Internet itself is so compelling to some people that they fall victim to a new
Whereas some individuals take questionable liberties with newfound freedom
of the Internet, others do not have the opportunity to even try to benefit from
Internet information and communication opportunities. Unfortunately,
information systems are not equitably distributed in society, and many families
are likely to suffer marginalization because they do not have access to the
same information and computer opportunities that are available to others
(Baldwin, 1996; Freire, 1985; McLaren, 1991). The Internet is already a
significant site of cultural transformation and production in its own
rite (Porter, 1997, p. xvii). People who do not have easy access to
computers, knowledge of the Internet, and related technological competence miss
out on these opportunities to actively participate in the transformation of
Redefining personal life
A less obvious challenge to empowerment is the way a technological society
redefines the very nature of knowledge about the person and social relations
(Green, 1984). According to social critic Neil Postman (1992), we are becoming
a technopoly, loosely defined as a society in which technologies
monopolize and become the ultimate standard for our thought and action. The
Internet as a metaphor for life highlights immediacy, intense variety and
options, skill, entertainment, and anonymity. As Postman warns:
New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the
things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we
think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts
develop. (p. 20)
Creative autonomy, intellectual depth, and dialogical development of meaning
are fundamental to empowerment (Morgaine, 1993; Rehm, 1993; Vaines, 1993).
However, the Internet can undermine the development of these reflective
abilities. Technologies such as the Internet can come to dictate
ones perception of reality and to dominate every sphere of life
(Seel, 1997, p. 25). Because information comes to us quickly one
screen at a time, we come to view the best knowledge as that
which is packaged into lively, entertaining and instantly gratifying forms.
Individuals can become unthinking consumers of the electronically-produced
meanings flowing over the Internet. They can become beguiled by sophisticated
images, leaving little desire to creatively grapple with complex issues
(Baldwin, 1996; McLaren, 1991; Webster, 1995).
Even before the Internet became available to the general public, Green
(1984) warned that a technological mindset leads individuals to expect that we
can find a tool to quickly solve every problem. We impatiently look for
technological solutions rather than undertaking the time for pride in craft,
reflective human interaction, and critical struggle. As Postman (1992)
observes, successful use of the Internet and other technologies often depends
more on skill than on ideas. Because the Internet environment is multilinear
and encourages the continual shifting of attention, it changes our very view of
personal success (Tabbi, 1997). We are even likely to equate efficiency and
technical skillthe ability to surf from site to site, enter a
newsgroup, or log on to a discussion to find immediate answers to
narrowly-defined problemswith moral goodness (Green, 1984). Individuals
in the future are likely to strive to attain the valued traitsaiming to
be quick and efficient rather than reflective and painstaking.
Baldwin (1996) claims that empowerment depends on the development of mature
identity associated with reflectiveness, self-understanding, and critical
awareness of external reality and possibility. Indeed, whereas we used to
assume that identity evolved and developed within real contexts, the constantly
shifting world of the Internet challenges existing notions of both reality and
identity. Virtual reality and information experience is much more ambiguous and
open to fantasy than is physical, tangible experience. Many computer
users seem to experience the movement into cyberspace as an
unshackling from real life constraintstranscendence rather than
prosthesis (Wilbur, 1997, p. 11). An Internet-based identity thus is
fluid, represented by words rather than actions or gestures, continually
experimental, and potentially fragmented and confused (Foster, 1997). The
individual on the Internet also works alone without tangible social context.
This type of autonomy can disintegrate into self-absorption without fear of
social critique and grounded consequences (Seel, 1997).
Particularly troublesome to the formation of identity is the way that young
people are being shaped by the Internet. The entertainment and information
options of technologies like the Internet support, enhance, and
increasingly define their identities (Seel, 1997, p. 17). There is danger
that young people can become so intent upon exciting and multiple information
experiences that they fail to become involved in the situated, grounded
experiences necessary to learn how to make reflective, creative, and wise
choices (Baldwin, 1996; Brown & Paolucci, 1979; Brown & Baldwin, 1995;
Rehm, 1993). Because the Internet makes it relatively easy for creators of
information to mass-produce hidden agendas, distort ideas, and manipulate
receivers (McLaren, 1991; Webster, 1995), impressionable youths are vulnerable
to uncritical acceptance of oppressive ideologies.
Also troubling is the potential effect of the Internet on the relationship
between individuals within a society. Social empowerment demands that we
clarify information, contrast multiple perspectives, discover common ground,
reflect on ideas, and define shared visions as we interact and form
relationships with each other (Brown, 1993; Vaines, 1993). We build traditions
and social strength by enacting ideas and assessing the consequences. Yet the
Internet makes it especially easy for individuals to distance themselves from
the contextualized dialogue that raises new ideas, challenges our biases, and
eventually leads to synthesis of new ideas and social commitment. Elkind (1994)
argues that new technologies create social fragmentation.
One of the many ironies of the postmodern world is that, with so
many sources of information and avenues of communication available at our
fingertips, we run the risk of a loss of community, of a shared view of the
common good. (p. 25)
Such detachment from a community leads to a number of negative consequences:
impoverished social imagination (McLaren, 1991), loss of socially shared and
creative meaning (Polanyi & Prosch, 1975), diminished sharing in decision
power (Baldwin, 1996), and forfeiture of the security that comes with
membership (Green, 1984). Such detachment from the concerns of others can
further support manipulation of thought and distortion of human relationships
(Baldwin, 1996; McLaren, 1991).
Empowerment ultimately occurs when we set forth a project that captures the
social imagination and act to transcend existing realities (Freire, 1985;
hooks, 1994). Social imagination grows as dialogue reflects how community
life should be constructed around a project of possibility (Giroux, 1988,
p. 72). Although the Internet enables the growth of virtual
communities, Poster (1997) maintains that public talk is confused
and complicated by the electronic form of exchange (p. 209). The very
features that redefine personal identityexperimentation, fluidity,
fantasy, and anonymityalso redefine the nature of community and society.
If individuals can represent themselves in multiple and even conflicting
ways over the Internet, the nature of public interests and ideas will also be
viewed as multiple and conflicting. This flux leads Poster to argue that
consensus is denied in the arenas of electronic politics (p. 209).
Because the Internet public sphere is virtual, it offers multiple
representations of a plurality of worlds; the Internet simply does not have the
capacity to facilitate or even allow stable societal norms. Lockhard (1997)
contends that the Internet addresses the desire for community rather than
the difficult-to-achieve reality of community (p. 224) and enables more
political voyeurism than activism.
The ambiguity of real personal characteristics and experience
also can hide the very issues that call for collective action. The
featurelessness of individuals on the Internet denies the
diversity of its users (Lockhard, 1997, p. 227). It is more difficult to
address common challenges related to gender, class, or ethnicity when such
features are hidden behind the computer, and cyberspace can become a
substitute for the material reality of coexisting and cooperating
(Lockhard, 1997, p. 226). Rather than challenging inequities, the Internet may
mirror existing social patterns.
Thinking about our past potentially helps us have more understanding
of why we are doing what we do in our everyday action (Coomer, 1985, p.
59). Postman (1992) warns that technologies can render history irrelevant
because their very attraction lies in their provision of immediate answers to
immediate needs and wants. Ideas about what is right, true, just, and beautiful
that have produced great cultures throughout history get lost when we live by a
metaphor of quick images and short pages of the Internet. We come
to find that longer narratives, theories, and discussions (about how present
situations evolve to reflect relations of power) become unattractive and
burdensome in comparison.
As valuable as the Internet can be in finding efficient solutions and
enhancing communication, we must recognize its power as a metaphor and
structure for living. As such it has power to undermine community dynamics,
marginalize those who are unsophisticated in information technologies, and numb
creative and moral sensitivity. Certainly, the Internet poses a significant
practical problem for families and a need for reflective endeavor on the part
of family and consumer sciences professionals.
Implications for Family and Consumer
The Internet is undeniably a part of family life in the world today, and
family and consumer sciences professionals have an obligation to help people
approach this new technology for empowerment rather than oppression and
fragmentation. Helping families embrace the future is a leadership
imperative we can continue to fulfill if we persist in adopting new ways of
seeing families in relation to the world and in changing the ways we serve
families (McGregor, 1997, p. 12). We must not only promote Internet
skills and knowledge to help families keep up with new opportunities, but we
also must facilitate the reflective meanings, dialogue, and critical action
needed for empowerment.
Promote Technical Action and
Recognizing the importance of the material elements of family life, we
as a profession have focused to a considerable extent on human needs such as
food, clothing, and shelter, and on techniques for meeting them (Baldwin,
1996, p. 5). Family and consumer sciences professionals must continue to seek
new technical information resources and use appropriate tools to thrive amidst
challenges of the present and the 21st century (Goldsmith & Shelfer, 1996).
Because a fluctuating environment demands constant rebirth of
expertise (Leonard-Barton, 1995, p. xv), each professional first must
learn to use the Internet to seek out the particular sources most useful to
their own professional roles.
Goldsmith and Shelfer (1996) provide an excellent overview of a wide variety
of electronic resources pertinent to family and consumer
sciencesincluding online databases (topics ranging from social
demographics to particular ethnic groups), online government documents and
university library holdings (topics ranging from health to consumer issues),
and electronic discussion groups. All family and consumer sciences
professionals can draw on their knowledge of research and practice to develop
their own lists of valuable online resources to share with those we serve.
Egan (1992) notes, Imagination must dwell within rationality if
rationality is to serve human life and enrich our experience (p. 166).
Once we identify Internet resources, we must imaginatively explore meanings and
implications of information and weave new ideas into practical situations
(Wheatley, 1994). For example, the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences
at Illinois State University offers a career course on the World Wide Web. This
type of course appears to increase communication between instructor and
students, student excitement, and individualized learning (Hayden & Ley,
1997). Dietitians, family counselors, consumer advocates, child care workers,
textile specialists, retailers, and other professionals and professional groups
could offer Web pages and similar interactive educational services over the
With a core mission to promote family well-being (Baldwin, 1996), we can
take reflective leadership (Andrews, Mitstifer, Rehm, & Vaughn, 1995) in
initiating dialogues and action groups concerning access of individuals and
families to the Internet. Many citizens, schools, and workers are marginalized
because they lack technological resources (Elkind, 1994; McLaren, 1991; Green,
1985). As Wresch (1997) notes, states and localities have initiatives to make
technological access more widely available. We can lobby to get the Internet
available in every school and other public places where people congregate. We
can propose scholarship or cooperative programs to help
disadvantaged families and workers purchase computers, learn the Internet, and
afford technical services.
Of course, For home economists to provide only technical information
or to formulate public policy themselves ignores family members self
interpretations and their need for freedom from internal and external
constraints (Brown & Baldwin, 1995, p. 28). Family and consumer
sciences professionals can play a major role in helping individuals and
families problematize the Internet and its metaphorical influence on everyday
life. If we help families reflect upon how it shapes their well-being, we also
help them become architects of their own lives.
Facilitate Reflective Dialogue and
We must not allow the excitement of the Internet to overshadow its potential
for misuse and even oppression. Brown and Baldwin (1995) warn that the
profession historically has overused a technical approach when working with
individuals and families, a warning that is especially important in a society
where information technologies abound and diverse special interests can be
promoted (McLaren, 1991). We must help individuals and families adopt a
reflective and critical attitude toward the Internet (Brown and Paolucci; 1979;
Baldwin, 1996). Information is never neutral; rather, we must help families
become aware that information is
for those purposes, for
those sorts of groups, with those sorts of interests
developing (Webster, 1995, p. 220).
We must help those we serve reflect on the values promoted in Web sites as
well as values promoted by the Internet as metaphorposing questions about
meaning and purpose, interpreting ideas, and critiquing consequences on
individuals and families. We need to ask questions about how to maintain
freedom, justice, responsibility, caring, and vision (Brown & Baldwin,
1995; Webster, 1995) in a world increasingly dominated by technological skills
and ways of communication. Critical questions are especially important
regarding the Internet: How does specific Internet information relate to
examined values and beliefs? What are the consequences of virtual discussions
about particular issues? How does the Internet shape our reality and
experience? How do we define communities? How does the Internet shape thinking,
consumer patterns, and identity?
Information generated from dialogue and reflection becomes dynamic and vital
only as people draw it into their situated contexts and develop a sense of
membership in a common cause (Green, 1984). As diverse people share multiple
perspectives, understanding grows, consensus builds, and creative projects can
be generated. If in the name of diversity, the users of the Internet can
justify their essayistic forum as one that serves the public interest in
concrete and demonstrable ways, it would represent a step in the direction of
an egalitarian public sphere (Knapp, 1997, p. 194). Family and consumer
sciences professionals can provide concrete examples of how the Internet
enables individuals and families to address social concerns.
For example, many professionals and families are working together on The
Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) to facilitate ways for parents
to control the kinds of material children can access on the Internet (Poole,
1997). Family and consumer sciences professionals could facilitate their own
specialized critical and consensus-building groups to assess and act upon the
full range of Internet related issues. Both electronic and local action groups
could form to address concerns such as: ways families can prevent addiction and
harassment on the Internet, special needs of women and minorities over the
Internet, how the rapid explosion of information affects meaningful family
life, and policies to facilitate Internet responsibility.
Chappell (1993) and Elkind (1994) emphasize that we need to pay special
attention to the need for a sense of community in an information age that can
so easily fragment and isolate us. Perhaps our professions greatest
strength is our tradition of placing a concern for human significance at the
forefront of any social problem. As Foster (199 7) argues, the basic qualities
of caring are more essential than ever before.
This spirit of community is essential to the vitality of virtual
communities. That which holds a virtual community intact is the subjective
criterion of togetherness, a feeling of connectedness that confers a sense of
belonging. Virtual communities require much more than the mere act of
connection itself. (p. 29)
The spirit of community and belonging is essential to the individuals and
families served by the profession. For example, consumers and retailers must
work together for a safe, just, and equitable global economy; both youth and
the elderly must play active roles to build communities rich in history and
possibility. We should work with those we serve in raising questions related to
meaning, identity, knowledge, reality, and other issues that keep the spirit of
the common good alive in emerging virtual communities.
Chappell (1993) suggests that organizations place the language of
relationship in their everyday vocabulary and practiceencouraging talk
about family and sharing personal stories about issues of importance to the
family. Family and consumer sciences professionals can take leadership in
making sure that everyday life beyond the Internet is rich in human
relationships and connections. Engaging conversations, spontaneous stories,
planned stories, fun gatherings, and celebrations of community can counteract
Postmans (1992) fear that technology will soon provide all social
answers. We can counteract the Internet standard of speed and fragmentation by
highlighting an equally powerful metaphor that highlights quality, meaning, and
The Internet offers new and valuable avenues for research. Empirical studies
can provide observable evidence (Fanslow, 1989; Zimmerman, 1989) about
questions such as: What is the relationship between ones comfort and
skill in using the Internet and ones sense of autonomy, creativity, or
social membership? How effective are particular Web sites in helping
individuals and families solve particular problems? What is the relationship
between Internet use and childrens cognitive, social, physical, and
emotional development? How do families use the Internet, and what are the
perceived benefits and problems? How does using the Internet compare with using
old fashioned methods to solve particular problems?
Hermeneutic studies are needed for deeper understanding about motives, uses,
biases, intentions, values, and feelings (Daines, 1989; Hultgren, 1989) related
to information and the Internet: How do families come to create meanings for
information gathered from the Internet? How do they describe the experience of
online communication and information-gathering? How do families interpret the
effects of the Internet upon their well-being, freedom, and sense of community?
How do social meanings influence the use of the Internet? What is the nature of
communication over the Internet? In what ways does the Internet influence the
nature of imagination in family life? What are the feelings of families that do
not have access to computers and the Internet?
Critical studies are needed to help us facilitate a free society where
people think and talk together about moral questions that affect society
(Coomer, 1989, p. 168). Critical studies could be undertaken to: challenge
accepted meanings about information obtained over the Internet and about the
Internet itself, reveal power relations and distortions of meaning with various
types of information exchange, question the power of families in establishing
standards for information, and bring to light ways that families create desired
ends concerning the Internet. Critical studies can reveal insights into the
ways that the Internet expands or diminishes personal and family empowerment
and critical freedom in the social sphere (Strom & Plihal, 1989).
Because the Internet is becoming a valued tool in everyday information
experiences, and because it is has the potential to become a potent metaphor
and system to guide personal and social life, there is a pressing need
for on-going critical assessment of the role of technology in our lives
(Seel, 1997, p. 29). Insofar as the Internet helps empower individuals and
families, we have an obligation to integrate it into our professional
practices. But no technology can replace our personal connection with
information and with each other.
What is clear at this stage of the game is that an engagement with
virtual community in any adequate, rigorous way will involve us in the
painstaking negotiation of a complex field of meanings and associations
(Wilbur, 1997, p. 12). If we imaginatively participate with the Internet and
critically reflect on our evolving and complex information environment, we can
generate liberating possibilities.
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