Culture and Politics in the Information Age: A New Politics
Editor: Frank Webster
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2001
Review Published: March 2005
We all come to texts with our own interests in mind: sifting through the ideas of others for inspiration, hoping that an idea or a phrase will provide an insight into our search for an understanding of the questions we face. The questions facing the essayists in Frank Webster's edited book are varied in their underlying assumptions about the role of human communication, information, and power in the development of humane society and therefore provide a plethora of possibilities for how we might imagine the role of communication workers, technologies, and institutions in the restructuring of social relations, institutional structures and practices, and the struggle toward democracy.
Webster's Culture and Politics in the Information Age: A New Politics engages precisely with questions concerning, on the one hand, dramatic changes in technological innovation, information production, circulation and consumption, and institutional forms, and, on the other hand, increased concentration and control over the material and human resources necessary for maintenance and reproduction of systems of power.
Webster has brought together a collection of essays originally written for a conference at the University of Birmingham in 1999 and subsequently weaved these essays into an edited book through an extensive and insightful introduction that highlights questions concerning the relationship between institutional and structural constraints and human agency. The text is divided into two sections. In the first section, "New Media, Politics and Culture," authors come to grips with the central question of a "new politics" of representation in "the" information age. In the second section, New Social Movements, they struggle with the relationships between the mobilization of social movements and the possibilities of appropriating new technologies in the service of democratizing society. The essays are individually strong and work well as a collective contribution to the importance of communication actors, technologies, institutions and practices, in political and social life.
In Chapter 2, Howard Tumber explores the role of journalism in the information age and locates what he perceives as threats to the role of the journalist in democratic society. Listed among those threats are issues of the increased concentration of ownership and control of information industries, the development of communication technologies that allow increased access to the (unchecked?) production and distribution of information produced by public journalists for a citizenry that has lost confidence in the mainstream professional journalism that marks commercial media markets, and the incessant drive toward globalization of media industries that resituate the journalists mythic role as "watchdog." For me, Tumber's argument suggests the need for a more informed analysis of the dynamics of global capital and the role of information producing industries in rationalizing and normalizing the unequal relations of production and participation in the construction of democratic society. Furthermore, it highlights the need to problematize the journalist's relationship to communication industries that exploit their intellectual labor and the paradoxical affiliations of commercial media and other industries where commercial media actually profit from the production and sale of the citizenry to other businesses -- limiting the role that journalists might play in the mainstream press and rationalizing their production of knowledge in terms of the logic of the market.
Alan Scott and John Street broach the problems inherent in the commodification of information in Chapter 3 through a brief detour through political economy of communication and culture although they move quickly beyond the implications of such an analysis to surfaces and appearances in a postmodernist frame. While acknowledging the possibility that new technologies may provide a framework for a new politics, they conclude by arguing that we may well be facing old politics in new forms. Although they do not recommend it themselves, their conclusion might well take us back to a reconsideration of a political economy of communication and culture (an issue they broach early in the chapter) that could account for the historical trajectory of increased concentration and control over the means of production and the role that communication plays in mystifying these relations in the form of "consumer democracy."
Nick Stevenson, in Chapter 5, engages questions of social justice, democracy, and communication and argues the need for a re-theorizing of the potential role that the media might play in the promotion of such a dialogue. Stevenson registers a concern with the possibilities he sees inherent in contemporary media for the development of an egalitarian communication ethic. What is unclear is how to achieve the goals that Stevenson sets for the "mainstream media" while their economic foundations remain unchallenged. Stevenson wants to see the contemporary mass media become "channels of inclusion"; he wants them to "make sure 'alternative' voices are heard" and he would like to see "increased concern as to the quality and type of information that is regularly crossing the boundaries of nation-states" (78-79). Such concern is admirable although a thorough critique of capitalism and the increasing trend toward concentration and control of both information and other markets, may suggest that the site for such a challenge to the dominant media may well need to come from other quarters. Stevenson is really suggesting that we engage in a process of asking crucial questions concerning the very nature of democratic life and hoping that the relentless turning of the wheels of commerce will stop just long enough for us to pose the questions and have them taken seriously.
More complex and crucial issues taken up in these earlier chapters -- especially in areas related to how substantial changes in the relations between social actors and institutional structures might come about -- find more complex play in Kate Nash's discussion of power in Chapter 6. Nash highlights the differences between identity and consciousness and questions the "volunaristic understanding of power" where change in consciousness might bring about changes in society. Instead, Nash argues that identity is rooted in practices rather than in consciousness. Here Nash points out that while structural constraints need not be determining, they impose limits or boundaries within which social actors play out their various identities. Nash appropriates a Foucauldian notion of power "as a fluid, reversible and invisible 'microphysics' of power" in that "it works to produce particular types of bodily discipline and identities in practices that remain invisible from the point of view of the older model of power as sovereignty" (89). The emphasis here is on understanding the historical situatedness of social actors enmeshed in institutional relations that shape consciousness in mundane practices that are rarely questioned because they are already and always the effect of power. It is worth revisiting previous chapters with the questions that Nash raises here in order to ask substantive questions concerning the underlying assumptions about power and where it resides -- for example, in the case of journalism and journalists in Chapter 2.
The emphasis in the second section takes up many of the theoretical issues and concerns established in the first section in order to explore the practical implications of the uses of communication technologies in new social movements. Furthermore, authors including Alan Dordoy and Mary Mellor go on to discuss the relationship between new social movements and the development of counter-hegemonic alternatives to dominant mainstream media in the form of resistance to the negative aspects of globalization. The issues raised and engaged concern the possibility of mobilizing networks of concerned citizens around the new technologies as an alternative to relying upon the mainstream media. Questions center on the value of computer mediated communication (CMC) for drawing out and establishing new communities of like-minded citizens with questions concerning the possibility for community, the construction of identities, and the building of solidarity around non-face-to-face relations. Jenny Pickerill looks at Green Politics and the mobilization of activists through CMC. Pickerill painstakingly shows how CMC has proved a fertile ground for environmental politics and the development of community. Similarly, Alan Dordoy and Mary Mellor explore the possibilities of technologies of communication for grassroots environmental movements and following a carefully researched analysis, highlight the problematic relationship between "new technologies" and "new communication politics" where until there is a significant shift in the mode and relations of production, the likelihood is that we will see a continued reproduction of unjust social, economic, and political relations. Dordoy and Mellor state it clearly: "We would argue that capitalism remains capitalism, whatever specific form it takes" (181).
Frank Webster's Culture and Politics in the Information Age: A New Politics is a catalyst for questioning the paradoxes of the so-called age of information. The chapters are engaging and thought-provoking and the source materials provide an excellent avenue for further reflection and consideration. This text is a timely contribution to the discussion on communication and democracy for those questioning the overly optimistic celebration of new communication technologies and a new age of participatory politics. As Dordoy and Mellor remind us, the historical trajectory of global capital has hardly shifted and we would do well to consider carefully before embracing any notion that the times have really changed.
Dr. Mashoed Bailie is an assistant professor of communication and media studies at Eastern Mediterranean University in Northern Cyprus where he lectures in the area of political economy, cultural studies, gender and democracy, and media pedagogy. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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