This subject matter of this study is the first decade of Internet connectivity in Israel. This study looks into the infrastructure, the physicality, the bureaucracy, and institutional aspects of the Internet. It is about the struggles between the various actors involved in bringing the Internet to Israel and other relevant actors, and decisions that were made by the state and non-governmental organizations, such as the Inter-University Computing Center, as part of that process. It is not about the things that people were doing with the Internet, or the meanings that the general public attributed to it. Rather, it focuses on the nitty-gritty of the arrival of the Internet to Israel and its diffusion around the country: which connections were made? When? What problems were involved? It also investigates the social, political, and cultural background against which the Internet can be seen to be spreading throughout the country: what kind of regime did Israel have in the mid-80s? And in the mid-90s? How might these changes be related to the introduction of the Internet-not in the sense that one caused the other, but in terms of the broader processes of change that characterized Israel during those years, such as globalization and liberalization?
This study focuses on the technology of the Internet: on the cables and wires that carry the Internet around the world; on the legal and administrative processes that are called into play as the Internet reaches a new country. Thus, while not driven by a new social phenomenon such as Internet dating or the uses of social networking sites, this study nonetheless sheds light on the social contexts in which the processes described in the course of this dissertation are embedded. By not taking the technology for granted, this study shows that the infrastructure behind the Internet is also a social phenomenon with a political economy, no less than the social and cultural forms that are based on that infrastructure.
Based on interviews with over twenty key players and analyses of a large number of press articles and other documents, this dissertation is underpinned by two major theoretical bodies of literature: Science and Technology Studies (STS) and globalization. For adherents to the STS approach, a “technological enterprise is simultaneously a social, an economic, and a political enterprise” (MacKenzie, 1987, p. 198). STS scholars believe that “although technologies clearly have impacts, the nature of these is not built in to the technology but depends on a broad range of social, political and economic factors” (Mackay & Gillespie, 1992, p. 686). It is these insights that inform the current study, with different emphases adopted in the different chapters.
The current study also makes prominent usage of Saskia Sassen’s approach to globalization, and in particular her conception of it as “multiscalar”. In particular, given that “most global processes materialize in national territories and do so to a large extent through national institutional arrangements” (Sassen, 1999b, p. 410), I study the national institutional arrangements surrounding the Internet in Israel and explore the struggles over their establishment. Sassen also stresses that globalization is something that must be produced. Similarly, this study seeks to demystify the arrival of the Internet in Israel, a central aspect of the country’s globalization over the last 20 years. In order to do so I look into the specific actions and decisions that accompanied the arrival of the Internet as a commercial enterprise in Israel.
The findings of this study are presented in four chapters. This first of these examines the diffusion of the Internet to Israel and its subsequent commercialization. It focuses on two critical moments. First, the initial connections made between Israeli computers and networks in Europe and the United States, and second, the commercialization of the Internet, that is, the opening up of the Internet to use by private customers from their homes or businesses. Given that Israel is clearly not the kind of totalitarian regime that has strongly resisted the Internet, or at least placed stringent restrictions on its use, such as North Korea or China, it would seem churlish to say that its arrival in Israel was not in some way “inevitable”, despite the technologically determinist undertones of such a description. However, this is not to say that the process of its arrival should be taken for granted. For instance, closer examination of the Internet’s diffusion to Israel reveals the importance of physical movement in space by certain identifiable individuals between Israel and the United States. It also suggests that Jewish ethnic ties played some part in Israel’s early connection to certain academic networks. While the literature on the diffusion of the Internet outside the US discusses the variables that determine the speed of its spread in a given country, my approach is to closely observe the process by which the Internet arrives at a new country in the first place.
The second major focus of the chapter is on the commercialization of the Internet. I describe how the network went from being a closed academic network to its gradually being opened up to the public at large. In this, Israel would seem to have advanced relatively slowly. By asking why that was, and by comparing the process of the commercialization of the Internet in Israel with its diffusion to that country, and the different speeds at which those processes took place, I am able to throw light on broader processes at play in Israeli society. I ask how it is that as Israel became more institutionally similar to the United States, the diffusion of the Internet to and within Israel seemed to be taking place at a slower pace. I suggest that the answer to this problem lies in the different levels of activity involved: in the first instance-bringing the Internet to Israel; receiving the .il suffix-the state was not involved. Instead, there were local initiatives by individual actors and small groups. However, the latter process-the commercialization of the Internet-enacted the bureaucratic mechanisms of the Israeli state as the Ministry of Communications was required to draw up licenses, issue them, and so on.
The analysis in this chapter is conducted at a micro level, identifying specific actors and pinpointing their role in the processes discussed. However, their contributions are also placed in broader context. This context is very specific to Israel of the 1980s and 1990s. In particular, my analysis reveals the importance of informal Jewish networks and migratory movement through space in understanding the timing and mechanics of the diffusion of the Internet to Israel as a process of globalization, and highlights the institutional and bureaucratic contexts of two major moments in that process.
The second chapter focuses on the emerging Internet Service Provision (ISP) industry in Israel in the early 1990s. Developing ideas presented in the previous chapter, it deals with the process of its formation, which we could also call the commercialization of the Internet in Israel, referring to the fact that the Internet ceased to be a service provided for free by academic institutions for its members, becoming instead a commodity purchased from private enterprises. Although the entrepreneurs and owners of ISP companies are at the heart of the analysis, the chapter also refers to the Ministry of Communications (MoC), Bezeq, and experts with no financial interest in the Internet, such as representatives of MACHBA (the Inter-University Computing Center).
The chapter opens with a discussion of how to theoretically conceptualize the set of owners of Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Concluding that they cannot be said to form any kind of community, I draw on Bourdieu to analyze the relations between one another and with the field of power, represented here by the Ministry of Communications. I report on three distinct sets of attitudes to the MoC and Bezeq-indifference, indignation, and acceptance-which characterized the founders of small, medium-sized, and large ISPs respectively. I argue that these sets of attitudes are explicable in terms of actors’ location in the field, and their habitus. In particular, I focus on the attitudes of the medium-sized ISPs, and discuss the changing shape of the field and the entrance of big business, which I relate to the liberalization and globalization of the Israeli political economy, and especially the de-monopolization of Bezeq, both in the market for internal phone calls, and more notably regarding overseas telephony.
The chapter concludes with a discussion of macro level processes, in particular the globalization of Israeli society and the liberalization of the country’s economy. I argue that these processes are reflected in the ownership of the ISPs that appeared in Israel in the second half of the 1990s, two aspects of which are immediately clear: firstly, the involvement of foreign investment; and secondly, the involvement of the Israeli economic elite, populated by people with what I describe as a global habitus. Specifically, the chapter shows that one does not need a global habitus to be an Internet expert; however, as the Internet became more global and adopted more of the rules of the global economy (for instance, a few large companies dominating an industry), the people lacking a global habitus found themselves being left behind. This forced small ISPs out of business, while making life much harder for the medium-sized ISPs. Sensing that they were losing their ability to define the field of Internet provision, with the rules of the field shifting from those of the Netizen to those of the Transnational Capitalist Class, I argue that the owners of the medium-sized ISPs were left with nothing but anger as their main resource.
Drawing on the insight from STS that that technologies are not socially neutral either in their design or their consequences, Chapter 5 looks at the linkage between the technology of the Internet as it emerged in Israel during the early 1990s, and the various values associated with it, especially techno-utopianist values. All technologies are value-laden-they are instilled with values by the people who develop them, and they have the potential to change society in morally significant ways. While the values associated with some technologies are not always explicitly discussed, other technologies are subjected to intense normative debate. The Internet belongs to the latter set of technologies, with arguments for its democratizing influences put forward on the one hand, and assertions regarding its role in alienating individuals from one another in modern societies on the other.
The chapter inquires into the values associated with the Internet in its early days in Israel, asking questions such as: how was the Internet represented? Were there differences in perceptions of the Internet among different groups of actors? What values were seen as accompanying the Internet? What was the perceived affinity between those values and the technology itself? I ask these questions in relation to press representations of the Internet, and the ways that founders of ISPs and individuals intimately connected with its import to Israel talked about it. I find that while the press adopts a largely utopian tone when talking about the Internet, which, I suggest, resonates with changes in Israeli society in the early 1990s, and especially the peace process, the people who were actually bringing the Internet into the public’s homes talked about it quite differently. Rather than seeing the worth of the Internet as lying in purported external consequences, they were enthusiastic about it as a technological development in and of itself. I suggest that technological experts gain “existential pleasure” from seeing the Internet diffuse, and that they are not driven by any potential it might have to make the world a better place, however one might understand that. In general, it appears that the closer the actors referred to in this chapter were to the actual provision of the Internet to people’s houses in Israel of the mid-1990s, the further they were further from the global discourse of technological utopianism.
The final chapter of this study moves away from the infrastructure of the Internet in Israel. However, it nonetheless remains “behind the scenes” of the Internet as we use it, looking instead at the technologies that enable the representation of Hebrew letters on our computer screens. In very simple terms, the problem with Hebrew in the context of computers is that Hebrew is written from right to left, while computer code, such as the code behind Hebrew-language web pages, is written from left to right. Another problem, obviously, is that Hebrew is not written in Latin characters. These are problems shared by a number of other languages in the world, all of whom seem to be converging on a shared solution-that of the Unicode system of encoding characters.
With regard the specific case of Hebrew, I show how competing solutions for working with Hebrew have given way to one dominant technology. I link the processes at work in the Israeli context with the broader issue of the “multilingual Internet”, and use them to ask whether the commonly accepted solution for representing non-Latin texts on computer screens is an instance of cultural imperialism and convergence around a western artifact. Rejecting this interpretation, I suggest that the currently dominant technology actually enables the localization of the Internet in diverse countries across the globe.
The four main chapters that comprise the body of this dissertation approach different aspects of the arrival and diffusion of the Internet in Israel. They look at the Internet’s very arrival; its institutionalization as a commercial field; the values associated with it by various actors; and the infrastructure behind the usage of Hebrew letters on web pages. What binds these various concerns together is the way they relate to questions of globalization, especially those relating to how globalization is produced by specifiable people in specific circumstances.