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Cyberimperialism?: Global Relations in the New Electronic Frontier

Editor: Bosah Ebo
Publisher: Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2000
Review Published: August 2002

 REVIEW 1: On-Kwok Lai

With less than 300 pages and 16 chapters, it is indeed a great ambition for the project of Cyberimperialism to address the important yet enigmatic questions of the Internet:

    What new notions of national identities will emerge because of the Internet?

    Will the technology produce true globality by giving people all over the world an opportunity to participate in a wide range of regional and global activities?

    Will all nations actively participate in building the information superhighway or will the Internet simply replay perennial global technological inequalities?

    Will global cybercooperatives provide better ways to manage and share resources within nations and between nations?

    Will the Internet narrow the knowledge gap between the technology rich and the technology poor within nations and among nations? (x).

The informative book begins, in Chapter 1, by an analytical thrust of insightful examination on the multiplexity of cyberglobalization, the compression of time-space relations driven by digitized market force, and the emergence of new global relations shaping by real time, on-and-off line (e-)mobilization of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and cyberactivists towards participatory politics. It notes that the decentralized yet round-the-clock mode of e-mobilization is not just challenging the established inter-governmental governance structure but also extending the possibility for development of cross-national strategies to deal with supra-regional and global problems.

In four chapters, Part I of the book addresses to emerging analytical-conceptual issues in cyberglobalization. Frank L. Rusciano's chapter reveals the "Three Faces of Cyberimperialism," highlighting the strong corporate driven and pro-market approach for the developmental trend towards a new form of global (economic) imperialism which is beyond any state's governance. This critical observation is in line with the 'digital capitalism' debate (Schiller 1999). Yet, a more optimistic approach found in Marwan M. Kraidy's chapter moots a new theoretical framework of glocalization (the dialectics of local interactive / adaptive socio-cultural forces critically engaging with the globalization) to comprehend the complexity of global-local networking: the shaping of media technologies in cultural hybridization, economic decentralization, and political fragmentation. Here, the importance of the adaptive and creative local forces to challenge the globalization should be stressed.

On the other hand, Jonathan Mendilow brings the theories of Tocqueville and Carlyle back in, questioning the impact of the Internet upon the state's governmentality and legitimacy, as well as national sovereignty. Deborah Tong's chapter, "Cybercolonialism," reminds us the new form of imperialism aided by the expansion of the Internet access to/from the developing economies. Both theses cast doubt on the offering and promise of the liberalization force of the Internet.

In my judgment, this part is the most stimulating one, especially when compared with the empirical oriented chapters, though the discussions are somewhat brief -- a renewed discussion in future research exploration is highly expected.

Part II examines global politics in cyberspace. David J. Gunkel questions the over-optimistic view on the multicultural empowerment and draws the contours of a new cultural landscape that has strong structural linkage (and embeddings) to the traditions of cultural imperialism. Despite his somewhat pessimistic outlook on cultural politics, his timely reminder for the nurturing of a self-reflective critical perspective of the Internet's evolution should be fully taken. The empirical studies of Margot Emery and Benjamin J. Bates move into the largely uncharted territories of Internet development in Central and Eastern Europe -- obviously, their development can offer us some insights for reflection, as well as providing alternative developmental models. The related development in the United Kingdom, as examined by Glen Segell in their case studies of May 1997 general elections and May 1998 local elections, echoes the call for a new democratic participatory mode -- the so-called electronic democracy. But the real issue seemingly is the people's control over the politics and their empowerment, rather than the mode of (e-)democracy.

With detailed case studies, I am more than satisfied with the case studies presented in this part, though more can be done in bridging the rhetoric, concepts, and reality of e-democracy.

The four chapters in Part Three of the book address a (perhaps) frequently visited theme, namely, the global economic restructuring as shaped by the cyberforce. Vasja Vehovar's paper casts doubt on the prospects of small economies in the age of the Internet, as virtual monopolies can manage global sourcing and production. In reality, this regime is becoming the mainstream one: the global factory, retail, and marketing networking. Jeffery L. Blevins explores the (post)Marxian and critical political economy perspectives on the prospect of the counterhegemonic media, and questions whether cyberspace can resist corporate colonization -- though the answers are somewhat pessimistic and worrisome. Rodger A. Payne positions new media within the sustainability struggles in the South, and asserts that the Internet can help the mobilization of activists not just locally, but also with support from sympathetic individuals in the North. Focusing on Asian societies, Chung-Chuan Yang outlines the media development issues and the (over-)regulatory regime of these economies.

The last section examines national-cultural identities and grassroots movements in global cyberspace. Laura B. Lengel and Patrick D. Murphy note the dramatic shaping of cultural identities under cyberimperialism, with the manifestation of divided and differentiated identity images between the rich and poor nations. On the other hand, Ellen S Kole examines the empowering processes for nongovernmental organizations, which contribute to a dilemma for activists to be skilled netizens yet alienated from their grassroots. This insightful observation can serve as a good reminder for further empowerment of people in cyberimperialism. Robert G. White's exploration of the cyber-future of Africa highlights the dependency of external aid (from the World Bank alike) for its development of new media, and the potential of new media to transform the socio-economic livelihood of African. Leda Cooks examines the e-mobilization in and beyond cyberspace, reshaping the boundaries of economic space and territorial-based politics of the nation state.

The diversity of theoretical and practical issues covered in this volume is a welcome one. Indeed, four major themes are especially well-articulated in respective parts, yet not consistently argued in analytical terms throughout. The editor has, in most cases, succeeded in selecting the theses relevant to each theme, and most of the contributions are both accurate and concise. Yet, I would prefer more critical reflection from the debates articulated in this volume. First, the overall line of argument that cyberimperialism becomes the dominant hegemony in global capitalism is rightly articulated, given the fact that the Internet backbone is still controlled by developed economies. For instance, 50% of the Internet communications among Asian countries are routed via US because of infrastructure. More specifically, the ratio of the Internet population in Asia Pacific and South East Asia compared with the total of the population in the above area is about 0.5%. East Asia is 0.4%. South Asia is 0.04%. OECD except US is 6.9% and US is 26.3% (UNDP, 1999). The gap within Asian countries is also very deep: around 20% of the adults in the rich part of Asia are online but less than 1% of the people in the poor part use the Internet (ITU, 2000). These figures confirm the digital divides inside and between countries in Asia: the overwhelming majority, especially poor people in poor countries, are the victims of globalization and cannot receive the benefit of the Internet as well as their rich counterparts.

On the other hand, only a few chapters address the positive effects of the Internet on social development, the potential of the Internet's liberalization, and promotion of global and local justice is mostly under-articulated in this edited volume. More specific, the empowerment function of the Internet should not be underestimated, as shown in the networking of anti-globalization activists campaign at global level. Recent protests at the venues (the latest one is the G8 in Genoa, Italy, July 2001 and the G-8 Summits in Kananaskis, Canada, June 2002) of the EU, the G8, the IMF, the WTO, and World Bank summits have been forcefully articulating the fundamental contradictions between the haves and have-nots, and visualizing and exposing socio-economic fault-lines between the rich and poor, the developed and underdeveloped worlds. Operating at global level with local activism, these confrontational scenes have become routine at, as well as creating noises against, international summits of the rich and powerful supra-national agencies which control global capital. Though it is highly questionable about the success of these 'anarchist like' campaigns (are these a new form of e-mobilization?), vis-a-vis global capitalism, the actively engaging developmental debates on equitable share of benefits derived from the economic liberalization / globalization project -- a forgotten, dark and tragic dimension of the champion of global capitalism -- are rejuvenated through the e-mobilization in the post-Cold War era. At the very least, the protesters have done what WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, and the EU have failed to do in half a century: making people aware of the problems of digital global capitalism. The critical engagement of global social movements with, and confronting, the inter-governmental / multi-lateral economic institutions seemingly is more promising than we once thought (O'Brien, et al. 2000). The missing of the elaborated framework with substantial case studies makes this volume lean towards a confirmation of the emergence and persistence of cyberimperialism -- isn't it too early to judge the trend of the Internet development which is in reality much more dynamic, mobile, contingent, and fluid?

The mapping of the new landscape of cyberimperialism and global capitalism -- characterized by eclecticism and the production of fascinating but mostly discrete work -- is a welcome addition to an emerging field of study to understand the socio-political, economic, and cultural adaptation of the Internet, as well as their enhancement for the creative social forces at global scale. The editor and the contributors succeed in creating some order in innovative thinking about cyberimperialism, digital capitalism, and social future and themes alike while embracing the enormous heterogeneity of the political economy of informational society.

The rapid changes which the Internet and cyberspace are undergoing world-wide have led to an increased literature on the topic. Analytically informed discussions, such as those presented in this edited volume, therefore come in handy. Many edited volumes on the interfacing (synergy or decoupling?) of the Internet, global relations, and civil communities suffer from the caveats of the disorganization or lack of focus. In my opinion, Ebo's edited volume stands out differently by combining both analytical insight and good empirical case studies, and is one of the rare exceptions.

International Telecommunication Union (ITU). 2000. Asia-Pacific Telecommunication Indicator. Hawaii: ITU.

O'Brien, Robert, Goetz, A.M, Scholte, J.A. and M. Williams. 2000. Contesting Global Governance: Multilateral Economic Institutions and Global Social Movements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schiller, Dan. 1999. Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market System. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). 1999. Human Development Report - 1999. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

On-Kwok Lai:
Dr. On-Kwok Lai is a professor at the School of Policy Studies, Kwansei Gakuin University, Japan, where he teaches comparative policy studies, focusing on environmental, technological, and urban affairs. He was a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) Fellowship holder at the University of Bremen and University of Bielefeld, Germany and has taught in Hong Kong and New Zealand. His current research interests are on comparative socio-political aspects of urban/environmental transformation under the new informational and high-tech regime.  <oklai@ksc.kwansei.ac.jp>

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