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Community Informatics: Shaping Computer-Mediated Social Relations

Editor: Leigh Keeble, Brian D. Loader
Publisher: London, UK: Routledge, 2001
Review Published: June 2003

 REVIEW 1: Paul Bevan

Any attempt to outline an approach to the study of such a diverse subject matter as cyberspace always runs the risk that by the time publication comes around, the form of approach described has already become outdated. Instead of providing a quickly dated "friendly manual," editors Leigh Keeble and Brian D. Loader have selected a wide variety of examples which should instead be seen more as nodes through which to connect with the community informatics (CI) approach.

The individual experiences found in each chapter are collated into four sections which seek to focus a selection of ways that the CI approach has played out in relation to different research questions. Keeble and Loader have taken these stories from the products of a conference based at the Community Informatics Research and Applications Unit at the University of Teesside, UK, providing them with a consistency of approach which, unlike some edited volumes, makes Community Informatics: Shaping Computer-Mediated Social Relations largely coherent in its organization.

Alongside the four key parts of the book, Keeble and Loader also include a brief but insightful introduction to CI and Perry Bard’s intriguing exploration of community and ICT through art (which threatens to creep into "Part I" with its inherent spatiality). The collection also includes an upbeat forward by Howard Rheingold.

Perhaps in order to emphasise the arrangement of these nodes, or perhaps as a whim, I have organized my review of the four main parts in reverse order.

Part IV: Policy implications of community informatics

Of all the parts of this book, this section is the most easily abstracted and provides a range of ways in which CI can influence policy on social inclusion, economic and community sustainability, citizenship, and civic intelligence. To this end, while Michael Gurstein aptly shows how the variety and extent of information and communication technology (ICT) influence has lead to an enabling, decentralised, network tool, sees this as a new level of civic intelligence arising as a product of technoscience.

Doug Schuler accepts that any attempt to predict such a transformation of individual/civic intelligence, a "world brain," or any other form of enhanced democracy has to tread the line between utopian and dystopian sentiments, and so he places due emphasis on the power of communication. According to Schuler, it is interaction which is the essence of the network, and thus of civic intelligence. Although his argument has intriguing facets, the "World Brain" Schuler posits focuses on activist sentiments while underplaying the "passivism" that ICT makes possible (the ever present "lurkers," passive surveillance techniques, and so on).

If Schuler’s community is to organize and engage effectively, it is the central focus of Peter Day and Sonia Liff and Fred Steward's chapters – social inclusion – which must be tackled. The "Digital Divide" is a constant motivation for policy makers who see social segregation along pre-ICT lines (Rural/Urban, Rich/Poor, and so on) as being potentially surpassed, while actually being enhanced. The ways in which CI can use the community as the focal point for social inclusion is not simply a matter of "good sense" but also, as Day pertinently describes, dependent on infrastructure and development related policy making. The devolution of policy emphasis, from the national level down to regional (and for Day, community) levels, provides the potential for increasing inclusion.

Similarly, Liff and Steward see the community as being a central provider of ICT in order to insure that those being "left behind" are given gateways through which to enter the "knowledge economy." What policy makers can take from Day and Liff and Stewart’s chapters is a wider argument for and specific examples of how CI can be effective in making policy makers concentrate on the community level for ICT policy decisions. What the chapters in Part IV provide for ICT policy engagement are justifications for and perhaps even requirements of a community focus. These chapters provide an accessible argument for this focus and whether these communities are necessarily approached through CI is, one would hope, less a necessity than a matter of disciplinary and methodological pedantry.

Part III: Electronic empowerment and surveillance

There is power in ICT, that much is clear, and Part III provides four examples that serve to question where that power rests. Abdul Alkalimat and Kate Williams explore the ways in which ICTs have provided a means for African-American communities to organise and empower themselves. Their theory is simple but effective:
    Social capital --> Community technology centre --> Cyberpower (186).
The implication is that empowerment is a matter of adding technology into the community, with the backing of that community. Power, then, rests with use – or rather the ability and desire to make use – of ICTs. The examples of how ICTs can improve and empower social networks and multi-level struggles are rightly grounded in the support of the community for which they are intended. Importantly, Alkalimat and Williams understand that ICTs do not just represent a new stage for the performance of Black struggle; rather they produce new forms of (cyber)power.

In opposition to the communities of Alkalimat and Williams’ chapter, Agenta Ranerup focuses on what could be described as the "legitimate" communities of democracies – in this case, local government-sanctioned online forums. She provides an excellent review of the role and design of online forums as public spheres that can promote engagement with the political process. If you try to forget that these two chapters are separate works and treat them as more fluid, it is easy to draw connections (and, indeed, disconnections) between CI initiatives started at grassroots levels and those centered around pre-existing political structures. What these connections serve to show is that the desire for the social capital necessary for these thriving communities is apparent at all levels and with such capital ICT can provide contact points between previously disparate elements of the political system.

Whilst C. William, R. Webster, and John Hood examine the impact that closed-circuit television (CCTV) can have upon a community, Tamara Seabrook and Louise Watts chose to highlight the gendered geographies created and modified by CCTV "provision." While Webster and Hood suggest that justifications for CCTV are rooted in the community (preventing crime and so on), Seabrook and Watts find CCTV does not in fact give due emphasis to the community upon which it is based, and is in fact subject to the whims and priorities of particular operators. Surveillance is always a double-edged sword, one which has become increasingly swung since the Sept 11th attacks, and both sets of authors argue for an increased community emphasis and associated integration in order to enhance the usefulness of CCTV provision. However, what Seabrook and Wattis also provide is an important reminder of the subjective, gendered, and spatial nature of ICTs which exist within the community.

Part II: The experience of community informatics

These experiences (although they could equally be termed performances) of CI all mesh together to highlight the multiplicity of community networks and ICT-based interaction in general. Each chapter serves to guide the reader through the experience of experiencing CI, from Fiorella De Cindio, L. Ripamonti, and G. Casapulla's brief but engaging description of Italian "Cyberhunts" to Anne Scott and Margaret Page's superb insights into the specific networks involved in getting people online.

At first glance, Nicholas Jankowski, Martine Van Selm, and Ed Hollander's chapter could be accused of overloading their contribution with the specifics of particular projects from the University of Nijmegen. However, that judgement suggests a lack of proper reading. The title they chose, "On crafting a study of digital community networks," highlights the way in which this chapter needs to be seen as a story of how research is a fluid process which is crafted rather than appears fully formed – the secret which often belies publications. Jankowski et al offer up an excellent cross-section of these projects which, both on its own and as a part of the book as a whole, will serve as a useful introduction for new researchers as well as a general insight in to the processes of CI research.

While Sergei Stafeev provides a number of insights into conducting CI research in Russia which serves as an interesting synopsis of a research project, Birgit Jæger provides a number of "lessons" which are sometimes overly specific but often insightful. Taken together, these two chapters represent good examples of the beginning and culmination of CI research projects and, I believe, should be read as such – taking the intentions of Stafeev along with Jæger’s lessons.

Part I: Community informatics as place and space

Although I will resist the temptation to quote William Gibson, it is plain to see that cyberspace has become the fashionable name of all and any forms of ICT. With spatiality being so central to CI and indeed to any form of internet research, Part I represents an engagement with the very essence of communities, the space (or place) in which they are performed. It is a shame then, that most of the chapters lack an explicit engagement with how ICTs are reforming place and space. Nicholas Pleace, Roger Burrows, Brian Loader, Sarah Nettleton, and Steve Muncer provide a detailed and well positioned example of how computer mediated social support is leading to a distinct space of support (be it within Usenet or other mediums), however they unfortunately stop short of actually exploring that spatiality. Similarly, Erik Stolterman explores what could easily be referred to as the underlying space of cyberspace – the technology, the design, the "architectonic" (46) systems – which provides keen insights into the ways in which cyberspatiality contours usage in a which cybergeographers can easily identify.

Eileen Green and Leigh Keeble provide a series of examples that illustrate how cyberspatiality and the spatiality of the place of connection – in this case, women’s centres – create a sense of place which crosses beyond the "real" world and into the virtual. The environment in which ICTs are operated is an essential element of the online experience which Green and Keeble show to be interlaced with the social and gender relations of all spaces.

Barry Wellman’s chapter is the shining jewel of Part I, if not the entire book, and explores the relationship between place and ICTs. He sees cyberplaces as being imbued with the essential social capital of communities and thus more than simply virtual spaces. While the chapter is a reprint of an article previously published in the Journal of Urban and Regional Relations, it fits extremely well with the more varied engagement with the CI approach in this volume. Moreover, it manages to encompass the variety of intertwined networks of interaction that perform cyberplace through a variety of vignettes and examples. The chapter serves to tie up the other chapters in Part I while also standing alone in providing an overview of the impact ICT can have upon the concepts space and place.

Final Thoughts

I mentioned at the beginning that Keeble and Loader’s choice of chapters has mostly stood the tests of the publication timeline, however the increasing abundance of wireless connectivity screams out for an insightful addendum to all four parts. Scholarship being what it is, I am sure that works in progress are exploring the impacts of wireless ICTs on issues as diverse as place, experience, empowerment, surveillance, and policy. My only sorrow is that it is not a part of this diverse volume.

In this review I have often combined and contrasted several chapters within a specific section of the volume, however I have tried to retain the boundaries of Keeble and Loader’s four part harmony. This is because they have managed to provide a useful structure that contains somewhat interchangeable chapters. For the best reading of this book, I believe readers should treat the chapters within each part as a form of hypertext – each part has central themes that are best illustrated through a combined understanding of all the chapters within.

As a final misgiving, I have to say that the Glossary appended to the end of the book is somewhat superfluous; the chapters are obviously aimed at readers who would know what a CD-ROM is and all important definitions (CCTV, CMC) are provided in the relevant parts of the text. It may well be that the publisher imposed this requirement and, if so, I am sorry they feel that community informatics and internet research in general is at such a stage as to require such definitions.

That small complaint aside, Keeble and Loader’s Community Informatics: Shaping Computer-Mediated Social Relations represents an excellent and diverse outline of the community informatics approach, organized in such a way as to allow readers to harvest a wealth of information through intelligent coalescing.

Paul Bevan:
Paul Bevan is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences at the University of Wales Aberystwyth. His research interests include burgeoning cybergeographies (including transmaterial geographies), the changing nature of location, and the construction of cyberspaces. The latter of which forms the basis for his thesis.  <ppb98@aber.ac.uk>

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