The Internet in Israel is a thoroughly widespread phenomenon. Around 1.2 million households are connected to the Internet, of which 90% have high-speed connections (ISHITECH, 2006). There are an estimated 3.7m users of the Internet in Israel, or 51.5% of the population, placing Israel among the world’s leading countries in terms of Internet connectivity. To be sure, Israel has its own digital divides (Mizrachi et al., 2005), but these too differ little from those of other industrialized nations (DiMaggio et al., 2001; Hawkins & Hawkins, 2003; Milner, 2006; Van Dijk & Hacker, 2003). Furthermore, Israel has an extremely vibrant hi-tech sector, which has earned the country the tongue-in-cheek nickname of Silicon Wadi. In short, Israel is fully integrated into the world of the Internet, and for large swathes of the population it is an everyday technology which is quite simply taken for granted.
However, similarly to other technologies which we now treat as natural parts of our lives, such as the car or the mobile telephone, the Internet has a history. This history may be seen in purely technical terms: which computer programs were written by whom? Which machines performed what computational tasks? When was the first sub-oceanic fiber-optic cable laid? But the Internet also has a social history: what were the social conditions that ensured funding for the research behind Internet technologies? What configurations of social networks were involved in the diffusion of these technologies? What cultural and political aspects at state level influenced policy regarding the Internet? What struggles took place over the shape of the various computer networks that emerged during the 1980s and 1990s? These are questions that bring us into the realm of sociology, and more specifically, the sociology of technology.
The Internet has a context too. For some, this context is the Cold War and the American military (Abbate, 1999); for others it is the subversive and hippy environment of the original hacking movement (M. Hauben & Hauben, 1997; R. Hauben, 2004; Turner, 2006). In this study, though, the context is globalization, and in particular the globalization of Israeli society, state and political-economy. As I explain below, the conception of globalization represented in Saskia Sassen’s writings is adopted here. Two notions are particularly salient. First, globalization is a phenomenon that simultaneously subsists at various supra- and sub-national levels. That is, the local activities of local actors constitute the global no less than the machinations of the UN, for example. Second, globalization is produced by specific actors in identifiable locations. These theses of Sassen’s inform much of what follows, and I expand on them later in this introduction.
This subject matter of this study, then, is the first decade or so of Internet connectivity in Israel. By “Internet connectivity” I mean connections made between Israeli computer networks and similar networks overseas, even if those networks were not yet known as the “Internet”. As I shall describe below, the first such connection merely involved a computer in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem dialing a computer in the University of Maryland in the United States, transferring the files and messages that had been backed up on the server, and then closing the connection. This connection would be made once a day, during the night, so as to keep its costs down. However, even this minimalist connection proved to be too expensive at the time (1982), and was discontinued.
The first more stable connection to an overseas network was the link to the fledgling European Academic Research Network (EARN), which was established in 1984. For almost a decade, access in Israel to international computer networks was available to academics alone. The next stage was to allow R&D departments of commercial enterprises to hook up. Later, in 1995, the general Israeli public was permitted to buy private Internet connectivity packages from the newly formed Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Some thought this was outrageously late. Others thought Israel was actually quite far ahead of the field. Be that as it may (and I discuss this matter in Chapter 4), it was in about 1996-1997 that the Internet industry started settling down and assuming the shape we are familiar with today: commercial companies selling connection packages to private individuals and businesses. While the internal structure of the ISP industry changed drastically in the second half of the 1990s (of which more in Chapter 4), the institutional shape was by then more or less solidified in the terms just described. The beginning of the period under study, then, is when the first connections to overseas academic networks were made. The end is more vaguely defined as when the Internet had been commercialized and an ISP industry established.
This study, then, 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 (such as Bezeq, the telecoms incumbent, and the Ministry of Communications), and decisions that were made by the state and non-governmental organizations, such as the Inter-University Computing Center, or MACHBA, to give it its Hebrew acronym. One rarely discussed aspect of this process relates to struggles over the very way that Hebrew letters would be represented on computer screens. Likewise, this study is also about the ways the Internet was perceived in the mid-1990s by journalists, commentators, and people involved in the industry itself. It is not, therefore, about the things that people were doing with the Internet, or the meanings that the general public attributed to the Internet (though I am interested in how those closely involved in its diffusion interpreted it). I am interested in 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? I am also interested in 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? It is in a similar spirit that in Chapter 6 I enquire into the social aspects of the technologies that enable the representation of Hebrew letters on a computer screen. I do not ask what words those Hebrew letters make up, but rather look backstage at the mechanisms for putting the letters on the screen in the first place. Here too the processes I uncover feed into wider issues to do with globalization and culture.
Something of what I am striving for can be gleaned from a long article that was published inWired magazine, an online and printed publication dealing with technology, society, and culture. In Neal Stephenson’s piece from 1996, “Mother Earth, Mother Board” (Stephenson, 1996), the author presents us with his extensive research into the FLAG fiber-optic cable than ran for 28,000 kilometers between England and Japan–the same cable described in the Foreword above. The details of the article need not concern us here, but Stephenson’s motivation should. He says:
Before learning about FLAG, I knew that data packets could get from America to Asia or the Middle East, but I had no idea how. I knew that it had something to do with wires across the bottom of the ocean, but I didn’t know how many of those wires existed, how they got there, who controlled them, or how many bits they could carry.
Stephenson’s interest is in the materiality of the technologies that have made the concept ofvirtuality a commonplace. As he says:
[W]e take wires completely for granted. This is most unwise. People who use the Internet (or for that matter, who make long-distance phone calls) but who don’t know about wires are just like the millions of complacent motorists who pump gasoline into their cars without ever considering where it came from.
In this study it is the diffusion of the Internet to Israel and its consequent institutionalization that is problematized. I ask how the Internet got here, what shape it took, and what struggles were involved in the process. In doing so I am answering Susan Leigh Star’s call to study infrastructure, to attend “to the plugs, settings, sizes, and other profoundly mundane aspects of cyberspace, in some of the same ways we might parse a telephone book” (Star, 1999, p. 379). Similarly to Stephenson, Star asserts, “[s]tudy an information system and neglect its standards, wires, and settings, and you miss […] essential aspects of aesthetics, justice, and change” (ibid.). Elsewhere, Star argues that “it is necessary to ‘deconstruct’ the boring, backstage parts of infrastructure, to disembed the narratives it contains and the behind-the-scenes decisions” (Star, 2002, p. 110). One way that Star suggests we read infrastructure is as
a material artifact constructed by people, with physical properties and pragmatic properties in its effects on human organization. The truth status of the content of the information is not relevant in this perspective, only its impact (Star, 1999, p. 387).
This is an approach with which I largely agree, although I would like to steer clear of a language of “effects” and “impacts”. Instead I prefer to ask how the infrastructure of the Internet in Israel was one aspect of a series of cultural and political changes that have made Israel, among other things, a country with widespread Internet presence.
Is this, then, a kind of material sociology of the Internet in a specific national context? Beunza et al. offer the following definition:
Material sociology pays attention to the role played in social relations by artefacts and other physical objects and entities […] Material sociologists […] have highlighted the constitutive role of objects and artefacts in social relations… (Beunza, Hardie, & MacKenzie, 2006, p. 724. Emphasis in the original).
However, I suggest reversing this formulation, proposing instead that we pay attention to the role played in artifacts and other physical objects by social relations. And while I do not doubt “the constitutive role of objects and artefacts in social relations”, it is the constitutive role of social relations in objects and artifacts that are the concern of this study. In other words, the current study is located quite clearly within the theoretical and empirical school of Science and Technology Studies, or STS.
If there is a single underlying tendency, or a shared foundation, to STS research, it is its rejection of technological determinism. The centrality of this concept is clearly indicated by the attention paid to it in STS texts. Mackay and Gillespie, for instance, define it as follows:
Technological determinism is the notion that technological development is autonomous with respect to society; it shapes society but is not reciprocally influenced. […] 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).
For Winner (1999), technological determinism is “the idea that technology develops as the sole result of an internal dynamic, and then, unmediated by any other influence, molds society to fit its patterns” (p. 29). According to Lievrouw (2002), technological determinists see “technology as politically and ethnically neutral, an independent force with its own inevitable logic and motives, or as a mysterious black box that cannot be analyzed socially” (p. 185). Williams and Edge sum up the two main features of technologically determinist arguments as follows:
1. […] the nature of technologies and the direction of change [are] unproblematic or pre-determined (perhaps subject to an inner ‘technical logic’ or ‘economic imperative’);
2. […] technology [has] necessary and determinate ‘impacts’ upon work, upon economic life and upon society as a whole: technological change thus produces social and organizational change (Williams & Edge, 1996, p. 868).
Having identified its be^te noire, STS literature then goes on to explain why technological determinism is wrong. This can be summed up in very general terms by Wajcman’s unequivocal assertion, which is both a theoretical argument, and a program for research. She says:
A technological system is never merely technical: its real-world functioning has technical, economic, organizational, political, and even cultural elements (Wajcman, 2002, p. 352).
More specifically, a number of different reasons are proffered for the deficiencies of technological determinism as a theory of technology. The first reason is ethical, namely the argument that technological determinism encourages passive attitudes to technology–taking it for granted, as given. Instead of adopting an unquestioning attitude to technologies, in a classic text Bijker and Law posit that “[u]nderstanding them would allow us to see that our technologies do not necessarily have to be the way they actually are” (Bijker & Law, 1992a, p. 4). While this may sound like one of the fundamental tenets of any sociological inquiry, making such a claim about technology fifteen or twenty years ago was relatively novel. In any case, one can hardly argue with its veracity.
Second, many researchers have pointed out that the technological solutions that are adopted are not always “the best”. As Wajcman puts it, “it is not necessarily technical efficiency but rather the contingencies of socio-technical circumstances and the play of institutional interests that favour one technology over another” (Wajcman, 2002, p. 352). In this regard, there are two senses of “the best”. The first asks, for whom is this technology “the best”? For the factory owner who is about to bring in a new hi-tech machine? Or for the worker whose job is about to be replaced by that machine? The second sense refers to the fact that, according to some criteria, the prevalent technology is actually inferior to a rejected one. The most commonly cited example is the layout of the typewriter keyboard. The global standard is the so-called QWERTY keyboard, which was developed during the age of mechanical typewriters, and took into account the need to prevent typebars from getting entangled with one another. This implied placing letters that commonly follow one another in non-adjacent positions on the keyboard. Now that this requirement has been made obsolete by the computer keyboard, it has been shown in speed typing tests that an alternative keyboard layout is “better”–the Dvorak layout. This kind of analysis, based on “path dependency”, has been used to show that previous steps in the path influence the next steps to be taken, and in doing so undermines the contention that any accepted technology is by that token “the best” (see, for example, David, 1985).
Third, technological determinism is criticized for seeing technology as a closed box, as immune from external considerations and influences. However, as Thomas Hughes showed in his landmark book on electrification, technologies actually develop in line with a range of other considerations. For example, when “inventing” the light bulb, Edison was driven by economic competition with gas systems, considerations which entered into the technical aspects of his work (Hughes, 1983). Another external influence is often the state. For instance, state funding was crucial to the group of computer scientists who created the first academic network in the US (Hafner & Lyon, 1996), as it is to an enormous range of scientific endeavors. The military, as a subset of the state, is also important (Edwards, 1996). In Israel, for example, the army’s elite computing unit, known by its Hebrew acronym of MAMRAM, has been responsible for a number of innovations, as well as being the source of a considerable number of Israeli computing entrepreneurs, who leave the unit with an extremely high level of technical know-how.
More generally, STS researchers talk about “relevant social groups” (Pinch & Bijker, 1987), asking: who needs a solution to a certain problem? Who defines something as a problem? And who has the resources to develop a solution? For instance, librarians all over the world needed a solution for cataloguing books and texts in non-Latin languages for years, but, as I show in Chapter 6, only when software programmers faced the problem of writing software in multiple languages were resources invested in developing Unicode. In other words, “a problem is only defined as such when there is a social group for which it constitutes a ‘problem'” (Pinch & Bijker, 1987, p. 414). Put crudely, the development of technology is not so much to do with solving problems as deciding which problems to solve.
Fourth, according to the approach identified with the work of Thomas Hughes (1983; 1987; 1988), technologies fit into “systems”. For instance, washing machines have to fit into other systems–water, electricity, drainage–which constrain and shape their design. In other words, no technology is ever utterly independent of others. This is also what Star means when she talks about infrastructures being “built into an installed base”, namely:
Infrastructure does not grow de novo; it wrestles with the inertia of the installed base and inherits strengths and limitations from that base. Optical fibers run along old railroad lines (Star, 1999, p. 382).
Fifth and finally, critics point to the tendency of technological determinists to see technological development as linear. Instead, STS researchers adopt a spiral model. Think, for instance, of how computer software is made: a company releases a non-final “Beta version”; it receives comments and feedback from its users; this feedback is incorporated into the version that is finally released; but even that “final” version is continually updated based on users’ experiences, unforeseen compatibility issues with other software and hardware on customers’ machines, and so on.
All of these points imply that a “technological enterprise is simultaneously a social, an economic, and a political enterprise” (MacKenzie, 1987, p. 198), and 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. Thus, Chapter 3 focuses on the intricacies of the diffusion process by which the Internet arrived at Israel; Chapter 4 investigates the social dynamics involved in the construction of the field of commercial Internet provision; Chapter 5 discusses the values associated with the Internet by various agents; and finally, Chapter 6 offers an in-depth look at the social processes and possible implications involved in the technology by which Hebrew letters and words–which are written from right to left, in contrast to computer code–are represented on our computer screens.
This study, then, draws on an array of theoretical contributions from the STS literature as it observes the first decade of international computer networking in Israel. In sum, five central assumptions of STS research as identified by Bijker and Law (1992a) can be seen as guiding this study:
- Technological change is contingent;
- Technologies are born out of conflict (and thus could have been otherwise);
- This does not imply overt conflict, but at the very least the strategies adopted should be mapped;
- A technology can be stabilized only if the “heterogeneous relations” of which it is a part are stabilized; and
- Strategies and their consequences are emergent phenomena, that is, they result from interactions.
To say that this study is one that falls within the STS school is to say that it adopts a certain perspective on technology. However, there is an important sense in which the main contribution made by STS is methodological, that is, it is tells us how we should (and should not) study technology. When the field was new and Latour and Woolgar were explaining how scientific facts are socially constructed (Latour & Woolgar, 1979), the methodological contribution was novel and rightly took center stage. Today, however, I suggest that the tools of STS be deployed not only for their own sake, but rather to help us navigate other theoretical concerns as well. A main one of these in this study is to do with the literature on globalization.
“Globalization” is a contested term, though Robertson’s by now classic definition still seems to provide a starting point for many: he defines globalization as a set of “processes and actions” concerning “both the compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole” (Robertson, 1992, p. 8). This could be paraphrased as saying that globalization involves two main elements: firstly, the transfer and movement of culture around the world, including the very means that make such movement possible (i.e., information technologies); and, secondly, shifts in identity–from nation-state based identities, to transnational identities, identities whose cultural content is not rooted in one society alone. This implies that everybody is caught in the net of globalization, that it impinges on the lives of all, and that it must be understood as affecting more than just a jet-setting, wealthy elite (Bauman, 1997, 1998; Tomlinson, 1999). Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that different groups have different roles with respect to globalization in its many forms, or that there are those who have more influence over its shape and direction than others.
There are two broad approaches to the concepts of global culture, or the globalization of culture. The first approach is interested in the way in which local cultures develop given processes of globalization, and tends to restrict its analysis to clearly defined units, be they tribes, ethnic groups, cities, or even nations. In other words, the researcher focuses on a particular social unit in an attempt to see how globalization, however he understands it, affects it. This is the model of much of the research conducted on Israel and globalization. Such research takes a certain culture as its object of study, and documents how that particular culture changes as it is impacted by globalization.
The second approach is more concerned with transnational cultures, that is, cultures that are not tied to a particular place, but which cross national boundaries. Leslie Sklair’s concept of the Transnational Capitalist Class is an excellent example of a group of globally oriented people with a shared transnational culture (Sklair, 2000). Those same people are the subject of Bauman’s even more critical discussion of globalization, to which he also adds a transnational understanding of poverty (Bauman, 1998). Further examples are provided by what Connell calls “transnational business masculinity”, by which he means a defined cultural mode which is shared by certain powerful men around the world, and Appadurai’s interest in diasporas (Appadurai, 1990, 1996; Connell, 2000). These are all examples of types of cultural identity, where the members who share that identity are spread around the world, and are aware of the transnational nature of that identity.
My research will draw from both approaches, and will be concerned with Israel both as a locale undergoing globalization, as well as with the creation of transnational cultural identities. Such identities must be seen in context. Perhaps they can be seen as providing an alternative to the strong identity claims made by day-to-day life in Israel (the local), as a way of forging a non-Israeli identity, or perhaps they constitute an attempt to change something about Israeli identity itself, to make it more global in its outlook. These issues will be discussed in Chapter 5.
Notwithstanding the two different approaches just outlined, theory on the globalization of culture has reached a point which is by now very widely agreed upon, and which can be summed up in a single buzz-word–hybridization (see especially Garcia Canclini, 1995; Hannerz, 1992; Nederveen Pieterse, 1995). This concept emerged out of a recognition that theories of straightforward cultural colonialism fail to take account of the more subtle processes at play when a fragment of one culture finds its way into another. It seems that most sociologists and (particularly) anthropologists today agree that a piece of culture (a book, a television show, an idea, a technology) undergoes a certain transformation as it travels from one culture to another. In contrast to the grandly titled “global homogenization paradigm” (Howes, 1996), and in opposition to views that see “Americanization” as a simple process of exporting American cultural goods and models overseas, this process has been variously labeled hybridization, adaptation, indigenization, domestication, or creolization, with the idea common to these concepts being that the cultural artifact in some way changes to fit in with the local, host society. Nothing is simply uprooted and transplanted somewhere else in toto without it undergoing certain processes along the way. Much use has been made of these concepts in explaining at least part of today’s “complex” and “multi-dimensional” global situation, words which appear time and again in writings on globalization–they are used to convey a situation in which the relationship between the nation-state and culture is far from simple; in which local affiliations intensify just as global identifications are also on the rise; and in which culture does not simply move unimpeded from centre to periphery, to name but three of the most commonly cited causes of complexity in the global situation.
James Watson’s excellent collection of ethnographies of McDonald’s restaurants in the Far East shows how the local franchisees maneuver between demands from HQ in America and local expectations of what is considered a restaurant, a meal, hygiene, and so on. The book convincingly knocks down the idea that the arrival of a McDonald’s restaurant necessarily means the arrival of “America”, and shows how McDonald’s restaurants in each country are actually a hybrid of foreign and local cultural practices and values (Watson, 1997). Aviad Raz performs a similar task in his book on Tokyo Disneyland, in which he shows how “the local can appropriate, domesticate, and steer, as well as travel with, global forces such as leisure, post-industrialism, and consumer and service culture”. In other words, he argues that Tokyo Disneyland has been “Japanized” (Raz, 1999, pp. 12-13). A further example is Judith Fadlon’s research on alternative medicine in Israel, in which she persuasively argues that a particularly Israeli version of oriental medical practices has developed, as alternative medicine undergoes a process that she calls domestication (Fadlon, 1999).
These analyses, however, only tell part of the story, and this stems from a tendency to see the host society in rather one-dimensional terms. They do not pay attention to the processes taking place within the host society itself that influence, or even control, the hybridization of a given cultural import, or, more accurately, the exact type of hybridization that the cultural import undergoes. It is common enough to state that when a cultural entity reaches its destination it becomes, say, Korean, Italian, or Israeli. However, such talk glosses over the contested meanings of Korean-ness, Italian-ness and Israeli-ness, and treats the host society’s cultural identity as just that–one identity–and not as a series of identities in perpetual negotiation, in which interests conflict, in which certain groups are stronger than others, and so on. Fadlon, for instance, refers to “order creating mechanisms” that “translate diversity into versions of a dominant narrative” (Fadlon, 1999, p. 206), and talks in general terms about what society “will and will not tolerate” (p. 59) in a medical system. Howes also talks vaguely about the “values of the receiving culture”, as if each culture has one set of values, instead of a culture comprising several sets of competing values (Howes, 1996).
How does this translate into the current research context? Research into the Internet in various countries has pointed to the idiosyncrasies of the network in each locality. In other words, the Internet–a technology that has been globalized, no less than it is a technology that globalizes–undergoes a process of localization when it arrives in a new place. The question I ask here, which is a question infrequently asked, is: what are the dynamics behind this process of localization? Or more specifically, what struggles within the receiving society shape the new product? As I show, especially in Chapter 4, the Internet was a site of struggle between groups of people with competing worldviews. It was these struggles over the definition of the Internet that gave it its specific institutional form. Put differently, there was no homogenous “Israeli context” to which the Internet, a global import, had to adapt itself, as previous studies of globalization seem to suggest. Instead, the “Israeli context” itself was a site of struggles–more regulation, or less? Public access to the Internet, or academic access only?–the outcome of which defined the shape of the Internet in Israel in the period under study in this research.
Saskia Sassen offers a view of globalization that can be fruitfully employed here (see especially Chapter 3). For her, “the global–whether an institution, a process, a discursive practice, or an imaginary–simultaneously transcends the exclusive framing of national states, yet partly inhabits, and gets constituted inside, the national” (Sassen, 2007b, p. 1). This is clearly an accurate description of the Internet: it is a global phenomenon, but yet is bounded by nation states, as represented by the two-letter suffixes each country has been allocated. As each of the chapters below demonstrates, there are deeply local aspects of the introduction to and diffusion of the Internet within Israel, including finding a solution to the technical problem of how to work with the Hebrew language in web pages. Yet at the same time, one seamlessly surfs from sites in Hebrew to sites in English, from sites based in Israel to sites based elsewhere in the world.
This implies what Sassen terms a “multiscalar” approach to globalization. She offers the World Trade Organization as a case in point: “the WTO is a global entity, but it becomes active once it gets inserted into national economies and polities and can thus also be conceived of as multiscalar” (Sassen, 2007b, p. 6). Elsewhere she talks in a similar vein about “overlapping domains of the national and the global” (Sassen, 2000b, p. 221; see also, Sassen, 2003), arguing that to refer to one is to refer to the other as well. To see globalization as multiscalar is to reject “the assumption that if an event takes place in a national territory it is a national event, whether a business transaction or a judiciary decision” (Sassen, 1999b, p. 409). With one eye on the global and the other simultaneously on the local, Sassen encourages studies “where the key conceptual, methodological, and empirical effort is to detect how localities or local conditions are productive in the shaping of an articulation with global dynamics rather than merely victimized by the global” (Sassen, 2007b, p. 9). I contend that the current study makes precisely the “multiscalar” effort that Sassen discusses. Indeed, throughout the following I ask how the field of study “articulates with global dynamics”. 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.
As well as seeing it as multiscalar, Sassen also sees globalization as something that must beproduced. Talking about economic globalization, she says that:
Governments of countries articulated with the global economic system have had to pass multiple legislative measures, regulations, executive orders, and court decisions, enabling foreign firms to operate in their territories, their own firms to operate abroad, and markets generally to become global (Sassen, 2003, p. 8).
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 preceded the existence of the Internet as a commercial enterprise in Israel. But where Sassen suggests that we “examine how the new ICTs have enabled local actors to become part of global networks” (Sassen, 2004, p. 649), I propose to examine how local actors enabled ICTs to become part of global networks.
As mentioned, studies into globalization attribute particular importance to groups that are seen as crossing national boundaries in some way, either because they can thereby serve as the conduits of transnational transfers of culture or knowledge, or because they are held to represent a new kind of post-national identity. The figure of the cosmopolitan is held in high esteem in this regard. Hannerz, for instance, sees cosmopolitanism as “a perspective, a state of mind, or–to take a more processual view–a mode of managing meaning” (Hannerz, 1990, p. 238). For him, “[t]he perspective of the cosmopolitan must entail relationships to a plurality of cultures understood as distinctive entities” (p. 239). As such, not all contact with other countries or cultures indicates cosmopolitanism: “much of that involvement with a wider world which is characteristic of contemporary lives is of this kind, largely a matter of assimilating items of some distant provenience into a fundamentally local culture” (p. 238).
If this is the case, to what extent were the people involved in the import of the Internet to Israel cosmopolitans? More significantly, does it matter whether they were or not? That is, do you have to have a global orientation in order to play a key part in processes of globalization? Sassen’s view of globalization as multiscalar would suggest that you do not. But were there aspects of the Internet’s arrival and institutionalization that did benefit those with a more global outlook? Certain of my findings would suggest that there were.
The four main chapters of findings each deals with a different aspect of tension between the global and the local. In Chapter 3, for instance, I show that the original diffusion of the Internet to Israel was carried out by non-cosmopolitan people, while in Chapter 4, which focuses on the emergence of the field of commercial Internet provision, it transpires that actors with a more global habitus were those who attained dominance. Chapter 5 shows that the very people who were bringing the Internet to people’s homes had a much more “local” orientation than the people who were writing about the Internet in the mid-1990s and that the former did not adopt the global techno-utopian discourse that the latter deployed so naturally in their newspaper articles. Meanwhile, Chapter 6 shows how local computing problems are being given a global solution which in turn, and somewhat paradoxically, serves to reinforce local identities.
As a research project that focuses on the Internet, it would seem quite natural to expect that this study would resonate with and contribute to current debates within the broad field known as Internet studies. However, perhaps the largest contribution made by this study to that field is that nothing quite like it seems to have been carried out thus far. For instance, perusing the papers presented at the Association of Internet Researchers’ annual conference over recent years suggests that no research similar to the current study has been presented there. Moreover, during the course of my work on this dissertation, I did not find any other studies conducted in a similar vein. Take, for example, the textbook, Society Online: The Internet in Context (Howard & Jones, 2004). Not one of the bibliographies of the twenty chapters that comprise that volume contains any of the works cited above in my survey of STS literature. It would appear that study of the Internet is carrying on quite independently of studies of technology.
More specifically, most sociological research into the Internet tends to fall into one of three main categories: social capital and community (for example, Howard, Rainie, & Jones, 2001; Kraut et al., 2002; Kraut et al., 1998; Nie, 2001; Nie & Erbring, 2000; The Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2000); identity, the body and sexuality (for instance, Argyle & Shields, 1996; Featherstone & Burrows, 1995; Hobbs, 1998; Turkle, 1994, 1995, 1999; Ward, 2001; Waskul, Douglass, & Edgley, 2000); and digital divides (for example, Cooper & Weaver, 2003; Crenshaw & Robison, 2006; Hess & Leal, 2001; Kennedy, Wellman, & Klement, 2003; Light, 2001; Norris, 2001; Robinson, Dimaggio, & Hargittai, 2003; Van Dijk & Hacker, 2003; Wilson, Wallin, & Reiser, 2003).
Because this study neither draws from those specific bodies of research nor contributes to them, I shall not review them here in detail. However, it is worth asking why studies such as this one do not seem to have been undertaken. How come such an expansive and expanding literature on a relatively new social phenomenon, or a set of social phenomena, has almost entirely ignored the material foundations upon which it rests?
One possible answer, which I suggest partly, though not altogether, in jest, is that the materiality of the Internet, the cables and routers of which the Internet subsists, is seen as boring. On the face of it, for example, the notion that people might be having some kind of sexual relations over the Internet would appear much more interesting than the discussions held in the Israeli Ministry of Communications about how to license Internet Service Providers. As against this notion, however, I have already mentioned Susan Leigh Star’s call to study “boring things” (Star, 1999), while the story of the recently damaged cable in the Mediterranean Sea further shows that when the technologies we take for granted stop working they become very interesting indeed. In a sense, this entire dissertation endeavors to demonstrate that the infrastructure of the Internet in Israel is of much wider sociological interest than might at first be suspected.
Another reason for the literature’s failure to acknowledge the material underpinnings of the Internet is to do with the disciplinary backgrounds of those who have come to study the Internet. In particular, researchers of the Internet tend to be communications or cultural theorists, or maybe specialists in gender or stratification. In other words, they have an area of expertise–say, consumption, or political participation among minority groups–which they then bring to bear on the Internet. Very rarely, however, do they come from the field of Science and Technology Studies itself. A notable exception is provided by Jennifer Light’s provocative work on the digital divide (Light, 2001). Rather than trying to measure the digital divide with ever more sophisticated tools, Light asks who decided that the digital divide is a problem in the first place, and questions the assumptions behind the belief that that improving Internet access and skills will help the disadvantaged gain access to the benefits of the information age. Taking Light’s article as the exception that proves the rule, it would seem that researchers of the Internet, as multidisciplinary as they may be, have ignored the literature on technology provided by the STS school.
The current project, then, most certainly belongs under the rubric of “Internet studies”, but cannot be readily allocated to any of the categories that seem to have emerged in the fifteen or so years that the Internet has been studied. In particular, by taking up the literature on technology and society, something that is rarely done among Internet researchers, I am able to ask questions about aspects of the Internet that tend to be taken for granted.
Having located this study within the school of STS and Internet studies, and having explained that it pays particular attention to the way that Internet technologies form part of processes to do with globalization, I now locate the research in its empirical context, namely, Israeli society of the 1980s and 1990s.
The historical context of this research, as mentioned, will be Israel of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the first decades of its existence, the state of Israel was characterized by a remarkable degree of collectivism. Politics, economics, and culture were intensely intertwined, and all served the national cause. In the field of economics, for instance, there was an almost formal connection between economic and political power. The state made politically-motivated appointments to business positions and funneled very large funds into various industries, and agricultural and workers’ cooperatives, which in turn were steady suppliers of employment (Shapiro, 1976). Thus the Israeli economy developed as an extremely centralist one, with remarkably high levels of state intervention for a non-communist state.
However, the 1980s saw a period of rapid change, led by the Emergency Stabilization Plan, which was intended to deal with a period of three-digit annual inflation. At root, the changes involved increased market influence on the economy. This included a program of privatization, albeit a limited one, and the focus of industry shifted to exports and hi-tech (Levi-Faur, 1999a; Shalev, 1999). Meanwhile, Israel was placed under pressure by the US to tie itself into the global economy, with the result that a large number of Israeli firms were no longer competitive, as protective tariffs were gradually cancelled. By the end of the 1990s, Israel was held up “as a model of economic liberalization and successful adaptation to globalization and technological change” (Shalev, 2000, p. 129).
This was also the era of the Oslo Accords, and the beginnings of serious hopes for peace between Israel and the Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. Significantly, these hopes were sometimes expressed in blatantly economic terms of a peace dividend to be reaped from both reduced military expenditure, and increased trade as a result of the end of the Arab boycott of Israel (Ram, 2000; Shafir & Peled, 2000a). And indeed, the early- and mid-nineties were years of economic growth and foreign investment. This “normalization” also had a cultural side, as Israel experienced changes in patterns of consumption–shopping centers were opened all over the country, filled with more and more American shops (such as Pizza Hut, Ace hardware stores, Ben and Jerry’s Ice-cream, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Domino’s Pizza, Office Depot, Toys R Us). As I discuss in Chapter 5, the introduction of the Internet to Israel and its diffusion within the country resonated with these cultural trends.
There are a number of good reasons for taking Israel as a case study for research into the arrival and institutionalization of the Internet in a new country. To start, and without lapsing into wide-eyed admiration, few would contest the claim that Israel is today a very significant player in the global hi-tech industry.
Insofar as it enabled cheap and fast communications with colleagues and clients overseas, the Internet was clearly a factor in the hi-tech boom of the 1990s. Other factors commonly cited include the arrival of highly educated immigrants from the former Soviet Union; governmental support for hi-tech incubators; and prospects for peace that attracted foreign investors. A few figures can demonstrate the extent of the boom: in 1990 hi-tech comprised 23% of all industrial exports, rising to 33% by 1997; in 1990, 148,870 people were employed in the various high-tech sectors, and by 1996, the number had grown to 182,950, over 3% of the population; sales of software developed by Israeli companies rose from $450m in 1990 (of which $89m was exported) to $3bn in 1999 (of which $2bn was exported); in 1985 the Athena Fund was Israel’s first and only venture capital company, but by the end of the 1990s there were over 100 venture capital companies operating in Israel; between 1995 and 1999, exports of technology-intensive sectors rose by 68%; finally, it is claimed that about 15% of all world-wide Internet technologies originated in Israel (sources: Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, 1999; Yachin, 2001b; 2001c).
Outside the hi-tech industry, Israeli society, like other western countries, can be seen as becoming more oriented to hi-tech products. There are a number of indicators that support this claim. One aspect is the number of Internet users in Israel–as mentioned, it is reckoned there are over 3.5m Israelis on-line today. Also, Israel’s local expenditure on information technology was estimated at $2.4 billion in 1997, with a steady growth of 12-15% annually (Cohen, 1999). In other words, whilst the growth of the hi-tech industry in the nineties is perhaps most clearly visible and measurable, there are other indicators that show how Israelis incorporate technological advances into their day-to-day life. Israel’s “hi-tech revolution”, then, is not just a story of a group of professionals, but is rather part of a broader process that encompasses wide sections of Israeli society.
However, Israel’s hi-tech orientation goes back further than just the 1990s. Pre-state kibbutzim were innovators in agricultural technologies such as drip irrigation and the use of hothouses. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) also has a long history of research and development, and with their roots in underground armaments factories in the 1920s, Israel’s military industries exported goods worth $4.4bn in 2006. The first Israeli hi-tech start-up proper–Elron Industries–was founded in 1962 by Uzia Galil (who later also set up one of Israel’s first ISPs, and whom I interviewed for this study). In 1964, Motorola established its first subsidiary outside the US, followed in 1972 by IBM and in 1974 by Intel. In 1984 there was enough hi-tech activity to support the founding of the Israel High-Tech Industries Association. In 1988 Israel became the eighth country in the world to launch a satellite into space. I mention this seemingly disjointed array of events to show that while the 1990s were definitely the years of Israel’s hi-tech boom, they rested on a sturdy infrastructure of research and development in a range of technological fields.
In sum, Israel is an established global hi-tech presence. In this context, there are two important ways in which the Internet was institutionalized in Israel very early on in the process of its diffusion across the world. First, Israel was only the third country in the world to be allocated a Country Code Top Level Domain (ccTLD). This refers to the two letter codes allocated to individual countries (for instance, .fr for France, or .de for Germany). The first two ccTLDs to be allocated were those of the United States–.us–and the United Kingdom–.uk–in 1985, the same year that Israel was allocated the suffix, .il. While this does not testify directly to the quantity or quality of Israel’s network connections with the rest of the world, the fact that Israel was so quick to claim its suffix does suggest a high level of awareness of trends and developments in the field. Second, “[i]n February, 1984, Israel became the first international node on the CSNET [Computer and Science Network], soon followed by Korea, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, and Japan”. And third, Israel was only the second country in the world, after Japan, to set up a local chapter of the Internet Society, again suggesting that actors in Israel were keeping themselves extremely up to date on events to do with the Internet.
In Chapter 3, these facts are investigated as findings as I seek to explain the conditions that enabled Israel to be so quick in institutionalizing the Internet in various ways. I present them here, though, to show that Israel was indeed an early adopter of the Internet, and to suggest that it is a more interesting case study because of that.
The final reason for putting Israel forward as an appropriate case with which to ask questions to do with the diffusion and institutionalization of the Internet is because it is generalizable. That is, despite there being aspects of Israel’s culture and political-economy that are unique to Israel, the processes of globalization and liberalization that the country underwent during the 1980s and 1990s would appear to have been common to many other countries around the world at the time, especially after the collapse of the Soviet empire and the increasingly hegemonic status of the American economy and western culture. It is therefore hoped that the current study might be able to provide a framework for similar studies in other nation states.
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. Taking up Strang and Meyer’s classic work on the “Institutional Conditions for Diffusion” (Strang & Meyer, 1993), 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 a 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 (M. Hauben & Hauben, 1997) to those of the Transnational Capitalist Class (Sklair, 2000), 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. The values associated with technologies, however, are not always explicitly discussed. Other technologies, however, are subjected to intense normative debate. The Internet is one such 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. Following Pacey (1983), 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. Defined as “the process by which facts or artifacts in a provisional state characterized by controversy are molded into a stable state characterized by consensus” (Misa, 1992, p. 110), we are witness here to an instance of closure.
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.