Introduction: Contingency and Control Online
First Monday

Introduction: Contingency and Control Online by Thomas M. Malaby



It seems likely that for many readers, the collection of authors herein may seem unusually disparate: historians of technology alongside social geographers, game designers next to anthropologists, and so on. While it is common to hear interdisciplinarity within the academy lauded for its own sake (and there is little doubt that most academics interested in a common topic find the cross–fertilization in methods and theory refreshing), the bringing together of this particular group merits further explanation, as it illuminates some of the core issues that future research on governance online must confront. In putting together the conference and publications of Command Lines, Sandra Braman and I sought to develop a current understanding of the changing nature of control online, and we were immediately drawn to the implicit forms that governance takes; that is, to governmentality in the broad sense and its potential for transformation. Examples of this include broadly shared practices and expectations, like those actors employ in the market, but also the regularized practices specific to domains of action such as political activism (in this special issue, see Yang, Kraidy, and Paul) or political campaign operations (Bogost).

In order to develop a productive way to think about such disparate cases, we approached scholars from a number of different fields, guided not by any attempt to be slavishly interdisciplinary, but instead by who was asking the most interesting questions, whatever the surface difference in disciplinary language. The conference format allowed us the time together to bridge these gaps, and begin forging a set of research questions that can be asked as research on online governance moves forward. At the heart of our common ground is the following observation and question: Governmentality is emergent through the shared practices over a group over a long period of time, but this has particular implications for its existence online; How do new shared experiences by those online come to generate new expectations?

How do new shared experiences by those online come to generate new expectations?

It is in this vein that we made a point of bringing scholars on virtual worlds to the table, blurring the boundary between these spaces, no longer dismissible as merely playgrounds for the connected, and other domains of human action (Malaby, 2006). The new frontiers of (re)thinking about such bedrock legal concepts as property, contract, and law itself are the online spaces where millions of people are playing, yes, but in doing so always socializing, working, exchanging, and creating. This lesson extends beyond the study of law itself (where much of the early scholarship on virtual worlds began); as increasingly durable and consequential, online communities are key sites from which to apprehend the reformations of governance happening now.

Governance, it is always important to remind ourselves, is not reducible to control. By taking a processual approach to governance, the Command Lines authors see it as a continual and open–ended project, one which encompasses both intentional projects by institutions, groups, and individuals, and the unintended consequences that inevitably unfold over time. In the flow of complex social processes, which move through time and, undeniably, generate new outcomes, we must recognize the countervailing force to any effort (explicit, implicit, or systematic) to control, and that countervailing force is contingency. The contingency inherent in the emergence of new social practices and expectations looms over all aspirations of control, and governance in all its forms is best seen as the outcome of a dance between efforts to control and the various and generative sources of contingency, including improvisation, evasion, and innovation. As Paul puts it in this volume, “what constructs control and authority also encapsulates the possibility of undermining and dismantling it.”

Governance, it is always important to remind ourselves, is not reducible to control.

In this sense, any effort to understand attempts to establish control that does not acknowledge sources for contingency is necessarily partial. This is an anti–positivist claim, to the extent that I reject the possibility of reducing process to law–governed sequences. Instead I take seriously the recent acknowledgment of chaos and chance as fundamental features of both complex systems (in an objectivist sense) and human experience (in an interpretivist sense). Theorists who take postmodern approaches, adeptly finding the indeterminacy of any claim or event, have tended not to go further, being satisfied with fulfilling the critical project of displaying the limitations of structural accounts. I here seek to highlight for the reader the multiple sources of contingency in the context of online social action that arise in the Command Lines pieces that follow.

In this respect, I follow Alasdair MacIntyre’s assertion of the ineradicable status of unpredictability in human life [1] , a position for him inspired by Machiavelli. As MacIntyre notes [2], “Machiavelli certainly believed as passionately as any thinker of the enlightenment that our investigations should issue in generalizations which may furnish maxims for enlightened practice. But he also believed that no matter how good a stock of generalizations one amassed and no matter how well one formulated them, the factor of Fortuna was ineliminable from human life.” MacIntyre goes on to inquire broadly into the sources of unpredictability in human life, and the framework I present here (first presented in an early form in Malaby, 2003) echoes his effort. This framework is particularly valuable for the vital effort to recognize online the interplay between control and the moments in which the unexpected emerges in discourse and practice.

This set of sources of contingency includes the stochastic contingency of discrete chance events, often amenable to quantification in aggregation (such as rolls of the dice, distributions of cards, and series of these — but also more catastrophic events, such as illness or accident). Under the advent of computing technology — specifically, in Janet Murray’s term, its procedurality (Murray, 1997) — this kind of undpredictability becomes a powerful and implicit aspect of computer games, as Ian Bogost discusses in this collection of papers (even when the randomness created is not “truly” random — it need only be practically random). This source of contingency is usefully distinguishable from performative contingency, that which is involved in a person’s execution of a performative act (that it be done well, poorly, or fail completely). The risk of failed execution of social actions was perhaps first recognized in the case of speech acts by Austin (1962), and is a fundamental but oft–forgotten aspect of social practice. Social contingency, by contrast, denotes the fundamentally elusive nature of others’ points of view. For MacIntyre this is the “game–theoretic” form of unpredictability [3], but it is important to note that all of these forms have a presence, in different degrees, in games (see below). Finally, semiotic contingency is the ever–present potential for any interpretive system to be called into doubt, to be unable to interpret any given singular event in time (such as in the question of theodicy, where a moral system collides with a particular chance event).

Fundamental in the original formulation of this framework was a recognition that contingency is always a factor for actors as they seek to apply existing practices to new circumstances (Malaby, 2003; see also Malaby, 2002). This insight can be productively applied to the emergence of governance online, and thus the authors of Command Lines have found, for every new and existing form of governance online, also the presence of ungovernable possibilities. To name just a few, Leopoldina Fortunati finds new affordances of new technology in the uses of mobile phones, which in turn generate new challenges and possibilities for governance. Edward Castronova, who has previously demonstrated the emerging realness of the economies of online worlds, here points to how the real stakes of these worlds transform, but do not wholly eradicate, fundamental public policy questions. Ian Bogost notices the unique power of computed games to calibrate and generate contingency, placing a participant in the midst of unpredictable situations, where the consequences of their actions play out in dramatic and sometimes chilling ways, thereby generating perhaps new forms of knowledge about events.

The game designers that build the virtual worlds discussed in several of the contributions know these multiple sources of contingency in practice, because compelling games themselves are built upon a careful calibration of these sources. This is what makes virtual worlds, themselves built on game software architecture, useful arenas for exploring the interplay of control and contingency — they are built to be open–ended. In contrast to, for example, the technological regime of airport security (see Kitchin and Dodge), which aspires to eliminate the unpredictable entirely, virtual worlds are built to balance the presence of both regularity and indeterminacy. In them, we can see how the various sources of contingency outlined above combine to constitute the space for improvisation, accident, and innovation within an arena nonetheless governed by law, code, and convention.

Some readers may recognize in this juxtaposition of control and contingency a similarity to the debates over structure vs. agency in late twentieth century social theory. This is not coincidental. The practice theorists (Pierre Bourdieu, 1977; Anthony Giddens, 1984; Michel de Certeau, 1984; and, Marshall Sahlins, 1976), sought to transcend the dilemma of structure vs. agency through an attention to social practice in a way that partly inspires my approach here. Structure and agency were, for the practice theorists, opposing and equally unappealing solutions to explaining social reproduction and change. Structuralist accounts invoked, in one fashion or another, a determinative structure outside human experience, whether historical materialism, cultural cosmology, or structuralist thought. Agency, by contrast, elevated key social actors to a pedestal on the stage of history, crediting individual character, genius, and intention with the roots of social change. By eschewing both of these solutions, practice theorists drew attention to how social change is only and ever the result of existing practices confronting new circumstances. It is the tension between reliable practices and expectations based on past experiences and the potential uniqueness of any new situation — the extent to which one or more sources of contingency are present — that accounts for both social reproduction and change.

The authors in this special journal issue also participate in a theoretical re–evaluation of the relationships between law and society that began to appear in the early 1980s with critical legal studies (e.g., Unger, 1983), regime theory (e.g., Mayer, et al., 1993), analyses of the use of private law to create public law (e.g., Dezalay and Garth, 1996), and arguments for the movement of the locus of constitutional activity from the national to the global level (e.g., Jackson, 1988). These ideas, which have deep roots in legal realist thought, developed in specific response to political turbulence, experimentation, and what many believe has been an evacuation of governmental forms of actual democratic content. The types of emergent forms of governance discussed in this special journal issue, therefore, appear within the context of reconsiderations of the ways in which society is structured that are appearing within a number of practice arenas and discursive communities. These features cannot be predicted by looking at constituent elements or relationships, and change in one constituent entity or relationships changes all others, and emergent features may or may not endure.

This effort both to balance the treatment of control and contingency within an understanding of governance, and to keep in view the various modes of governance themselves, influences the shaping of this special journal issue. We have eschewed grouping the articles that follow into separate sections, which would impose too heavily one governing logic on their relationships to each other at the expense of others. Instead, we have chosen to link the chapters each to the next in one possible way (we hope, a particularly helpful one), showing how one circuit of thought can traverse the ideas herein; happily, the online publication of these articles invites yet other orderings.

This journey begins with a perhaps counter–intuitive subject: the role of sound in governance and its current transformation through digitization, as discussed by Jonathan Sterne and Emily Raine. This article establishes two key ideas for the issue as a whole. First, they convey the everyday dimension of governance: how our moment–to–moment lives are steeped in it, surrounded as we are by a world of (at times, purposeful) sounds. Second, they chart the shift to the individual that digital sound technology makes possible — providing not more autonomy, but instead expanding the scope of governance to include the imperceptible. The extent to which our mundane experience may increasingly be governed by imperceptible processes is a question that runs through much of these pieces, extended in its critical consideration in the penultimate article by David Levy.

The embedding of software in objects and systems surrounding the practices of air travel allows for a regulation of bodies that need not be selective and dependent on human review. Instead, it relies on the massive computational potential of computers to hand over regulatory practice to those systems themselves.

Rob Kitchin’s and Martin Dodge’s consideration of another aspect of the everyday, air travel, builds upon this attention to the potential of digital technology to govern by exploring the implications of its ability to capture information, marking a shift in the center of gravity for governmentality, from surveillance toward its combination with capture. The embedding of software in objects and systems surrounding the practices of air travel allows for a regulation of bodies that need not be selective and dependent on human review. Instead, it relies on the massive computational potential of computers to hand over regulatory practice to those systems themselves.

China and its attempts to govern amid these transformations in technology is a foundational case of such techno-political projects, and is the subject of Guobin Yang’s chapter. He outlines a framework for understanding the nature of informational politics which both allows for new techniques of control and new means for contesting it. He points out that the activists concerned with China have successfully exploited technology to become a player on the Internet–mediated informational landscape, an arena which the Chinese state has sought extensively to exploit. Yang demonstrates the limits of formal governance given the contingent affordances that the Internet provides.

Marwan Kraidy goes further to consider not only the encounter between the state and activists, but that between the state, in this case Saudi Arabia, and the broader, technologized, Arab public. The popularity of Star Academy, a Lebanese reality television program broadcast throughout much of the Arab world, prompts critical response from religious and state leaders, but it is how the show transcends multiple new technologies that reveals the new position of the state vis–à–vis other forms of governance. The “hyper–media chain” of television, the Internet, and mobile technologies in Saudi Arabia and beyond allows for the emergence of new ideas and practices, which together constitute a form of governmentality which evades conventional forms of state control. Further, it not only upends the state’s authority in Saudi Arabia, but also collides with other forms of governance, such as the religious, as it effectively multiplies the range of religious authorities that can sit legitimately in judgment about particular issues.

Kraidy’s and Yang’s work on these state–citizen engagements prompts us to think further about the position of users and new technologies. What are the unintended consequences of the encounter between them, as users confront and improvise from the new affordances that these technologies bring, and do so in ways that outstrip the imaginations of their producers? In addition to the implications of this for state control, what does it imply for the governance mechanism that is the market itself? Leopoldina Fortunati considers the case of the mobile phone specifically, and demonstrates how the contingencies of the user–device encounter can have powerful implications not only for subaltern groups, who can productively find and seize upon these new possibilities, but also for the design and production of the devices themselves. Fortunati shows how structural inequalities, underwritten by market and state control, nonetheless always carry the possibility of change, and change which is not restricted to the quiet and futile resistance of hidden transcripts (Scott, 1992). Instead, Fortunati suggests, the user’s encounter with new technology can be a site for significant, if not total, liberation.

The role of users in the development of technology has long been recognized in the context of software design, where the complexity of the systems and the emergent quality of bugs demanded attention to how users engage systems. For computer games and now massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs, also known as virtual worlds) built upon their architecture, the extent to which users, like Fortunati’s mobile users, can make use of the affordances of the software has become contentious, as T.L. Taylor addresses in her article. The persistence and complexity of these virtual worlds has led to the emergence within them of lasting moral communities, real economies, and competencies coming to be valued in seemingly offline domains (most notably military training). Taylor argues that the designers of these worlds must confront the political participation of their users, and see them also as participating in the design and governance of virtual worlds. Not only do these users’ practices come indirectly to shape the design of these technologies, as Fortunati outlined, but, Taylor suggests, they increasingly and inevitably come to govern in and of themselves.

For Richard Bartle, this possibility raises an issue that is, in political terms at least, ultimately intractable. As a leading designer of virtual worlds, he is aware of the powerful position of their designers, and argues that it is impossible to see them as analogous to real world governments. Instead, given the degree of their control over the physics of these environments, they are better understood as gods. In short, this means that ultimately any allowances which designers make for other forms of governance in their worlds are ultimately a sham, as they cannot abrogate their power even if they so desire. Virtual worlds then become problematic for existing governments, Bartle argues, because their increasing consequentiality makes governments interested in controlling them, but the nature of their governance (god–like) is inappropriate and incompatible with formal tools of governance. Bartle then argues for the continued and unregulated sovereignty of virtual world designers over their creations on the basis of their artistic involvement in these worlds as preferable to any alternative.

So what happens when the design and construction of a virtual world seeks to follow Taylor’s advice, and evade Bartle’s conundrum, by involving users in design from the outset? We can see how these issues play out in an unintended way in the case of the virtual world Second Life, considered by Thomas Malaby. By controlling the world’s code, but turning over the creation of its content to its users (more than 500,000 of them by August 2006), Linden Lab sought to govern through an elevation of the power of complex systems, trusting that forms of governance would emerge in the same way that the world has spawned a market (with, as of August 2006, approximately US$3 million in trade per week). Yet at the same time, in their coding of the world, and their continued efforts to maintain and expand it, Linden Lab could not avoid inscribing multiple ideas about content into Second Life itself, many of which trail behind the new forms of content that emerge there. “Content” is a core part of what Second Life is (and is supposed to be) but at the same time it is always in flux amidst the complex relationship between Second Life’s makers and its users.

Given these constraints and possibilities of virtual worlds, Edward Castronova extends their possibilities for fundamental questions of public policy. He asks whether virtual worlds, through their demonstrated ability to generate virtual commodities with durable market value, herald a full–fledged economy of meaning, where the value of objects more closely reflects the diverse preferences of consumers. In this sense, the longstanding governing force of the market itself may be reconfigured through the synthetic nature of virtual worlds, where production and distribution costs are vastly reduced. Ultimately, Castronova asks, does the synthetic flexibility of these worlds, combined with the real stakes within them, mean that an answer to von Schmoller’s Social Question of income distribution will be solved within one of them first?

Christiane Paul’s consideration of the digital networked commons also engages the implications for public policy. She confronts the limits of control and asks to what extent public art has exploited this to enhance the possibilities for various kinds of interventions. By considering the range of existing digital networked public art, Paul is able to chart the specific grounds for the potential of this medium. The meeting point of networked technology, collaborative art, and political engagement sparks new possibilities for artists, argues Paul, and furthermore suggests the potential for the redefinition of public space itself.

The potential of the digital to redefine core elements of civil society is also taken up by Ian Bogost, but here it is the way computer games themselves are coming to play an increasing role in politics and activism that is at issue. Bogost suggests that the procedurality of computer games, their ability to simulate immersive and contingent environments, such as the fall of the World Trade Center towers, and furthermore their potential to locate the user at any point in that simulation, together have enormous implications for citizens as participants in civil society. The nature of knowledge for them about events and issues is potentially shaped by procedural games, and their turn toward expression (as opposed to prediction) opens new possibilities for political action.

David Levy, by contrast, expresses deep concern about the continuously divided attention that technology’s proliferation makes possible. How, he asks, are we to govern ourselves when digital society impinges upon us unceasingly? By contrasting the thought of contemporaries Vannevar Bush and Joseph Pieper, Levy is able to interrogate the consequences of having our attention always turned everywhere but at ourselves. This “politics of absence” precludes time for reflection, for leisure in the original sense.

Sandra Braman concludes the issue my charting out a research agenda, one which will guide scholarship on online governance as we proceed. Weaving together the lessons of this collection with a broader understanding of the transformations in the nature of government, governance, and governmentality we are experiencing, Braman navigates the rocky shoals of their mutual influence for us, and points the way forward. The reconfiguring of the forms of governance precipitated by the advent of digital technologies makes a number of new demands on researchers, including a willingness to rethink old categories, engage work across disciplines, and look in new places. The articles throughout this special journal issue signal the primary contours of this emerging scholarship, and set the stage for our thinking about how the multiple lines of command we encounter online collide with the potential for change, however small, that those same technologies afford. End of article


About the author

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



1. MacIntyre, 1984, pp. 88–108.

2. MacIntyre, 1984, p. 93.

3. MacIntyre, 1984, p. 97.



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Editorial history

Paper received 15 August 2006; accepted 25 August 2006.

Contents Index

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Introduction: Contingency and Control Online by Thomas M. Malaby
First Monday, special issue number 7 (September 2006),

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