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Technology

Vol. 11, No. 1
ISSN: 1546-2676


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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM,
Vol. 11, No. 1. 
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1546-2676. Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 1999. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, 1749 Hamilton Road, Suite 106, Okemos, MI 48864. Telephone: 517.351.8335

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The Internet as a Practical Problem: Empowerment in the Electronic Global Village

Marsha L. Rehm

Dr. Rehm is Associate Professor, Department of Family and Child Sciences, College of Human Sciences, Florida State University.

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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 research.

“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 one’s 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 meanings?

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 Problem

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 systems—computers 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. (p. 210)

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 information—an 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?

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 lives—making 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 need—without 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 projects—you wouldn’t want a highway where you couldn’t choose your own route and destination, after all. (p. 105)

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 one’s 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 heart’s 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 cyberspace—and be judged according to the merit of their ideas.

Social empowerment

At the same time that individuals and families can empower themselves by using the Internet, a democratic society grows as each individual begins “constructing one’s 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 person’s 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 planet—a 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 world—sharing 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 possibilities:

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 Oppression?

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 anonymity—exerting 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 nation’s problems—they merely add new and sometimes troubling dimensions to the problems we already face throughout society” (Burstein & Kline, 1995, p. 111).

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 dependency, cyberaddiction.

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 culture.

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 one’s 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 skill—the ability to “surf” from site to site, enter a newsgroup, or “log on” to a discussion to find immediate answers to narrowly-defined problems—with moral goodness (Green, 1984). Individuals in the future are likely to strive to attain the valued traits—aiming 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 constraints—transcendence 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.

Redefining community

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 identity—experimentation, fluidity, fantasy, and anonymity—also 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 Sciences

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 Opportunities

“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 sciences—including 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 Internet.

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 Critical Action

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 metaphor—posing 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 profession’s 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 practice—encouraging 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 Postman’s (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 relationships—the family.

Initiate Research

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 one’s comfort and skill in using the Internet and one’s 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 children’s 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).

Conclusion

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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