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Culture and Politics in the Information Age: A New Politics?

Editor: Frank Webster
Publisher: London, UK: Routledge, 2001
Review Published: April 2003

 REVIEW 1: Joseph Savirimuthu

Richard Fusco (2002) once observed:
    We have entered a time when technology truly enables men and women to "extend" themselves out from their immediate sphere of influence to the entire planet. It is not simply accessing a file from another server, listening to an audio channel from a radio station in a different city, or watching a music video from a country on the other side of the world. It is much more than that. We are at the dawn of the age of total personal creative expression. Everyone can program their own radio and TV station with their own content or content that they collect. Each person will be able to organize the content he wants for himself and make it available for others as well. This is the ultimate way to communicate important information and new ideas. People put far more trust in information that they receive from a friend than they do of traditional media. As this process expands around the world, nothing will be able to be hidden from the masses. Everything will be out in the open. It will enable people to translate who they are into an electronic form that includes their creativity and what they sees as important and relevant.
This is perhaps a truism but its implications for politics and cultures at national and international levels are less than clear. What are the likely implications of the empowering role of technology for orthodox cultures? What is the nexus between politics, media, and technology? How is the age of 'bits' and 'bytes' redefining orthodox holding operations of 'culture' and 'politics'? These are timely questions: but are they new? In Theories of the Information Society (2002), Frank Webster observed that the term 'new' should be viewed with a degree of circumspection. Can one agree with this whilst at the same time acknowledging that the information is leading to a fundamental orientation of norms, values and more generally the role of societies and its institutions?

In Culture and Politics in the Information Age: A New Politics? editor Frank Webster has assembled a selection of essays that attempt to reflect some of the complex questions confronting policymakers, communities, non-governmental organizations, international organizations, and individuals. These papers were first delivered at a conference held in the University of Birmingham 1999.

Before we turn to the contents in the book, it is useful to observe the significance of the interrogative in the title. In his introductory chapter, "A New Politics?" Webster's observations underscores its subtle but critical role when he notes: "At this point we may alert ourselves to the dangers of what has been called presentism. This warns us of a common conceit among the living, that which presupposes theirs is a time of singular significance. Of course, all history is particular, to some degree different from that which went before, but it is too easy to overlook important, perhaps decisive, elements of continuity -- even of consolidation -- which tell often on contemporary political phenomena" (10).

This is one of two caveats when attempting to evaluate the papers in this book. The other is the contemporary political and cultural background against which many of the ideas and arguments are pursued:
    With all such concentration on the new, it is not at all surprising that there is also a good deal of interest in the implications for, and responses of, politics and politicians. After all, if class structures are transforming, then it is evident that political parties must reassess their established appeals to voters. And if globalisation is subverting the nation-state, then politicians at least, throw awry nation-centred policies. Again, if there is evidence in contemporary society of an increasing diversity of lifestyles that are perceived to be incommensurate, then there are inevitably dilemmas for practicing politicians. (5)
Six essays in Part I of the book provide us a snapshot of the relational nature of politics, communities, and media in the age of technology. In"Democracy in the Information Age: The Role of the Fourth Estate in Cyberspace," Howard Tumber questions whether the "race to the bottom" is undermining the traditional role of the media in promoting transparency and accountability amongst the ruling elite. There is perhaps a view held in some quarters that this is already taking place at a worrying pace. That said, one is inclined to question whether the closing of the gap between the quality broadsheet papers and the popular tabloid papers is indicative of a deterioration of rigorous journalism standards. Whilst "cheque-book" journalism is to be deplored, it could be suggested that journalism, and by extension democracy, is in a relatively healthy state when compared with the restricted readership it enjoyed a hundred years ago. Some thoughts on this would have assisted readers who are perhaps less sanguine about the state of journalism in the past. The paper whilst not addressing this issue does hint at a more pressing issue that lies at the root of the concerns about standards and the "dumbing down" of media. The information age and more particularly the expansion of media and its 24/7 coverage, if it threatens to undermine democracy at all, has certainly made it difficult for individuals to better discriminate between "responsible" and accurate information from those which have dubious and questionable origins. An instinctive response to this dilemma would be to suggest that there should be increased government financial support and political commitment to public broadcasting. A case can be made for increasing the role of public broadcasting.

This is a separate argument from that proposed by Alan Scott and John Street in their chapter "From Media Politics to E-protest?" The authors stress the importance of understanding the nuances of public broadcasting and more generally media attempts to increase accountability and scrutiny. Their central argument is that the emergence of a 'new' media friendly attitude by politicians towards the electorate can be explained by reference to what is termed as "old-fashioned instrumentalism." Their thesis is both plausible and well substantiated. In making a case for the thesis the paper is successful in shifting the focus away from media technology towards the way political discourse and presentation has become infused with popular culture. Anglo-American readers in particular will be familiar with the way politicians have now assumed the mantle of "celebrities," and have begun to market their political causes as user friendly consumables and even appearing in so-called "low-brow" entertainment programs. Popular culture has also infected the way political parties and discourse is presented. The 1992 UK general election for example is a case in point and which in large part borrows from the professionalism long evident in the Caucasus across the Atlantic. This of course begs two questions: is the link between politics and popular culture new? does it matter if there is such a link? The former can be easily answered. Politicians have long attempted to show their union with the broad church of the electorate be it kissing babies, attendance at public events, or doorstep canvassing. The newness in politics in the contemporary age, if that is an apt characterization, must result in the way politicians have begun to assume multiple identities like film stars, game-show hosts, and sports personalities. The Thatcher-Reagan era, in retrospect, can be seen as heralding this cross-fertilization. Indeed, non-conventional actors have begun to assert a more visible political role and with the polish of seasoned professionals. The reference to the Carnival Against Capital provides a useful counterpoint to the way the commodification of politics has led to non-conventional actors increasingly taking a center stage in increasing transparency and accountability.

This form of participatory democracy has been ably assisted by the Internet, which has helped make explicit the "public voice." This new form of political engagement, it is observed, directs the dissent and grievances, not so much on governments, as international institutions and multinational corporations. Useful references are provided by the authors of the modus operandi of the new forms of e-protest. If this is the new form of politics taking place the authors are keen to impress upon us the fact that "[i]t is not clear, however, that we are seeing the emergence of new politics in the sense that parties and movements now relate to voters and supporters in entirely novel ways. Parties and movements operate in instrumental ways to promote their interests as organizations" (49). This does not in any way amount to the authors refuting the cultural dimensions in contemporary politics. Indeed, the political scene they suggest is awash with a connectedness between culture and politics on the one hand and conventional and non-conventional actors on the other. The paper is silent however on the second question.

The next chapter, John Tomlinson's "Proximity Politics," extends the insights from his earlier work (Globalization and Culture, Polity Press, 1999) on the cultural implications of globalization to explore the way the process of globalization bridges the distance between the polis and the elite. In developing his idea of 'proximity politics,' the author attempts to draw attention to two key aspects in this term, which draws some inspiration from Manuel Castells. First, the way in which globalization and technology now redefines orthodox structural and phenomenological frame's and consequently creating a complex set of interactive modalities. Second, the importance of keeping separate the ensuing problems created by this new relational environment from commonplace arguments about the nature of globalization and its impact. This is a deliberate and carefully thought out approach. By shifting the emphasis away from characterizing the problems in politics and culture as the product of the globalization of capital, Tomlinson is attempting make the robust assertion, which is "to show that the immediate political issues which global proximity forces upon us are real, significant in their own rights, and not in fact solvable by appeal to some "higher politics" of capital. This is not, of course, to deny that the capitalist market is thoroughly implicated in the structuring of global interdependencies; but it is to suggest that, once established, such proximities pose their own independent and irreducible political problems" (53).

On reflection, many of his ideas find expression in the wave of global politics that is creating a new form of institutionalism. The Ministerial Meeting in Doha under the auspices of the WTO, the events in Seattle, Chiang Mai, Genoa, and London, the Earth Summit in South Africa, and the post 9/11 politics provide important footnotes to the matrix above.

Is there room in the public sphere of politics and economic imperatives for non-economic values? In "The Future of Public Media Cultures," Nick Stevenson provides an important footnote as he explores the moral and ethical conundrums encountered in the age of the media. The public voice in respect of issues that matter like global health, human rights and poverty, Stevenson suggests, has to contend with "the media of mass communications [being] permanently caught between dialogue and fragmentation and engagement and boredom . . . Add to this the further complication that media audiences continue to be fragmented along the lines of taste, class, gender, race, age and nationality in terms of the media they consume" (63).

One conclusion the author draws is that the ensuing dialogic difficulties create a problem of identity. More importantly, the tendency of societies and governments to see "problems" as warranting definitive solutions is questioned. He uses the example of the multichannel universe to suggest the paradox. On the one hand, it creates a set of problems ranging from the decline of public service ethics to audience fragmentation. On the other hand, technology decentralizes the dominance of the state by transferring greater autonomy to local communities and individuals. This account is merely a subtext for his close examination of the ideas of informational capitalism as advocated by Manuel Castells. Nick Stevenson's vision of communitarianism, when addressing the ethical and moral dilemmas, merits close examination. Indeed, all the authors in the books directly or indirectly engage with Manuel Castell's ideas on the Information Age. His trilogy and more recent offering, The Internet Galaxy, will now merit reviewing in the light of the book.

The ideas of Castell are very much at the heart of the thesis advocated by Kate Nash in her chapter, "Contested Power: Political Sociology in the Information Age." Nash argues that orthodox conceptualization of politics and the role of nation-state as the locus of policymaking must now cede ground to a new movement in political discourse. Foucault's model of 'analytics of power,' it is suggested, provides us with a better and more inclusive form of participatory democracy in the Information Age. This is a provocative and uncompromising attempt to reignite orthodox approaches to the sociology of politics. Part I ends with Sasha Roseneil's "A Moment of Moral Remaking: The Death of Diana, Princess of Wales," which is perhaps a surprising addition, recalling the cultural expression of the death of the Princess of Wales. The author argues that the collective spontaneous response to the tragic event reflects a yearning for a new moral order. This thesis claims that 'the political' can be understood as thoroughly imbricated with 'the cultural.' The cognate is that cultural politics outside the normal political conventions can be seen as embodying a core concern with ethics. The difficulty one faces when subscribing to this thesis is whether one can legitimately and accurately distill from this mass public expression to draw broader conclusions about the politics and culture of postmodernity. The conclusions reached may have to be revisited in the aftermath of the events in New York last year, where a different mood seems to be have emerged, at the cusp of the first anniversary.

Part II explores the paradox of globalization. Avid students and researchers of the problems of governance and democracy emerging in the global environment of information net's will find much to reflect upon. The paradox of globalization stems from the way it liberalizes individuals and communities from direct state control on the one hand whilst transferring power to supranational institutions, which potentially seem to threaten democracy. The authors in Part II focus on this new activism, which is arguably one of the defining features of civil society in the Age of Information.

In "Globalisation, Citizenship and Technology: The Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) Meets the Internet," Peter Jay Smith and Elizabeth provide a useful overview of the way the Internet, if effectively used, can further the ideals of democracy. The Internet bridges time and space and this is exploited by pressure groups to enable them to disseminate information speedily and mobilize support. The MAI is used as a case study. This is not merely a historical anecdote since we can underscore many of the insights from this paper in the way policymaking in the OECD, World Bank, IMF, and the WTO is now through being opened up to scrutiny by civil society. Consider for example the effective use of the media and the Internet by NGOs like Oxfam, MSF and ActionAid in compelling the multinational pharmaceutical companies to withdraw from their attempts to prevent the South African government from making available to AIDS/HIV sufferers cheap and affordable drugs. The authors do not make the naive assertion that the NGOs have been instrumental in leading to the collapse of the MAI negotiations in 1995-98. That said, the paper is unequivocal when it observes that political discourse is now conducted very much in an emerging global civil society. One interesting question that could have been explored in this context is why "big business" pays scant attention to the activities of the non-elected organizations that are now assuming the mantle of custodians of civil society. Is this a failure of 'orthodox' political institutions? Or is this a new form of political discourse that assumes unconventional modes of expression? We can agree with the authors that not only is the struggle for control over the public political space far from over but that this new form of activism revitalizes politics. Democracy consequently must become more relevant to ordinary individuals.

In "Weaving a Green Web: Environmental Protest and Computer-mediated Communication in Britain," Jenny Pickerill reiterates this view but stresses that opposition politics must be underpinned by sound planning and coordination. Her case studies, which include the activities of the Friends of the Earth, Save Westwood, Lyminge Forest Campaign, and McSpotlight, highlight the considerable populist appeal of these organizations.

A similar theme can be seen in "Grassroots Environmental Movements," a chapter by Alan Dordoy and Mary Mellor. The authors pursue one of Castells' observations that the Information Age will lead to a new form of political engagement with social movements providing the engine for social change. Their critique of the ideas of Castell in the context of the contemporary political environment provides some important insights on why "new" does not necessarily suggest what it purports to suggest. To put it another way: "The new informational and communications technologies serve to intensify the classical processes of the capitalist form, processes of commodification and exploitation, rather than to shift us into a new social form" (180). This is a robust view and provides us with an opportunity to delve further into the growing role of computer-mediated communication. Mario Diani's "Social Movement Net's: Virtual and Real" explores the possible effects of CMC on social movement activity. This chapter is particularly successful in mapping the complex terrain and layers of CMC.

By way of conclusion, the chapters are well set out and researched and provide a fertile source of bibliographic material which one can draw upon when revisiting, for example, Manuel Castell's magnum opus. One cannot end this review without acknowledging the value of the introductory chapter by Frank Webster. Readers will find that time spent consuming its contents and reflections will pay dividends before proceeding to examine the various chapters. The themes and background for the book are clearly set out, described and critiqued. The introductory chapter also contain vignettes that make space for additional analysis. For example, after elucidating on Castell's central ideas and the criticisms they permit, he advises that we should be a little more critical about claims that the Information Age ushers in a "new" age given that many of the recognizable features mirror the foundations of capitalism. Another point that underscores the evolving nature of capitalism and in keeping with Joseph Schumpeter's (1942) observations is the reference to the "un-British" reactions in September 2000. A mild criticism, in an otherwise stimulating range of topics and supported by a high level of written craftsmanship, is that there is yawning gap in the exploration of the paradox of computer mediated communications. Just as the democratic cause finds new expressions, its twilight dimensions tend to be marginalized. To wit: attempts by animal activists in Huntingdon and the use of emails to flood the servers of its corporate sponsors. The events of 9/11 should provide another opportunity to revisit the tensions that lay embedded in the system of capitalism for another stimulating and diverse range of papers.

The book begins with the observation that we live at a time of unprecedented change. This would seem to be a truism. After reading Culture and Politics in the Information Age: A New Politics?, one is likely to conclude that the interrogative and the proposition after the colon encourages a sense of false consciousness. The Information Age is the Age of the Paradox. Whilst changes have taken place, nothing seems to have changed.

Richard Fusco, "The Dawn of Age of Personal Creative Expression."

Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. New York: Harper & Borthers, 1942. Revised 2nd Edition, 1947. Enlarged 3rd edition, 1950.

Joseph Savirimuthu:
Joseph Savirimuthu is Director for Legal and Business at the Liverpool Law School in England. Research interests include corporate insolvency, the Internet, and cyberculture.  <Jsavirimuthu@aol.com>

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