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Shaping the Network Society: The New Role of Civil Society in Cyberspace

Editor: Douglas Schuler, Peter Day
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004
Review Published: July 2005

 REVIEW 1: Andrew Schroeder
 REVIEW 2: Brad McCormick
 REVIEW 3: Julie Mactaggart
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Douglas Schuler and Peter Day

There ought to be little doubt that making the emergent global market society democratically accountable, inclusive, and responsible to the vast majority of humanity confined to violent poverty and political isolation is the central task of our times. It is from that standpoint that we must judge the value of the digital networks that constitute the infrastructure of globalization. Unlike so much of the apolitical techno-mystification that passes for academic cyberculture studies, Shaping the Network Society, edited by Douglas Schuler and Peter Day, places that task front and center. Through a series of theoretical essays and empirical case studies it evaluates the roles that digital networks have played and might yet play in conducting and producing an as-yet unrealized but still conceivable democratic, global "civil society" bound no longer to the parochialism of the nation state and the inequities of neo-colonialism but rigged across new trans-urban, trans-regional and trans-national geographies in vast reciprocal webworks of technological, economic, social, cultural and political interconnection. For that reason alone, Shaping the Network Society, the outgrowth of a 2000 symposium convened in Seattle, Washington by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, is a book that anyone interested in the future of democracy as something more than a post-facto justification for U.S. oil wars should want to read and to applaud.

The book is divided into three sections: one on ethical frameworks for the "civilizing" of cyberspace, one on empirical case studies of actual "civil society" projects in cyberspace, and another on speculative and empirical projections of an emergent and potential global "civil society" in cyberspace. Each section has its highlights. Gary Chapman's piece from section one on "Shaping Technology for the 'Good Life'" uses the Slow Food movement to develop a materially based counter-ethic to the ethos of speed, disposability and relentless corporate growth that has infused so much of the commercial expansion of the Web. Although he risks an unfortunate theoretical nostalgia by opposing the post-Netscape Web's "technological imperative" to the so-called "social imperative" of Slow Food, Chapman persuasively argues that the successful development of long-term social affiliations on the Internet will require a far more nuanced concept of the "good life" than that which can be provided by the go-go drive of the 1990s towards short term stock market valuations and quick technological turnover. He could have found such an alternative ethos in any number of other quarters but Slow Food's mixture of an aestheticized "good life" with a sophisticated critique of agribusiness, bio-technology and consumer "fast food" marketing is as good a place to start as any. Likewise, Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens provide an invaluable service to democratic net-community builders with their sophisticated unpacking of the political and commercial contradictions that eventually brought down the Digital City project in Amsterdam. This kind of essay can serve both as foundational material for studies of political society in cyberspace and as a kind of pragmatic de-briefing of an important historical moment, in preparation for new stages in the socialization of cyberspace. Lovink and Riemans' piece is infused with a Gramscian spirit of conjuctural specificity rather than the empty declarations of universalism which have marked so-much Net utopianism. The very same spirit of analytical and political specificity, enriched with even greater interest in nuanced historical analysis, can be found in David Silver's piece, "The Soil of Cyberspace," on comparative developments between the Blacksburg Electronic Village and the Seattle Community Network during the 1990s. Silver's piece, coupled with Douglas Morris' worthy history of the Indymedia network, helps to push the notoriously ahistorical field of academic cyberculture studies solidly in the direction of composing a "useful past" for any future democratization of the Internet.

However, at the same time that we should want to build on this book's aims by infusing new research into global cyberspace with a democratic ethic of political responsibility, we should also be skeptical about the sufficiency of this book's theoretical framework for that task. Its contributors ask many of the right questions, but their main ideas are too often mired in the antinomies of modern liberal political thought. As a result, their insights tend to be frustratingly limited. While its heart is certainly in the right place, the visions and diagnoses of Shaping the Network Society are simply not radical enough to get to the roots of our problems.

The main trouble is Shaping the Network Society's relentlessly sunny neo-populist view of Habermas' "public sphere." The background to this discussion is the book's related reliance on Manuel Castells' "network society" as a ruptural transition within capitalism leading towards global dispersal of production systems, consolidation of urban command and control structures, quickening of commodification dynamics, and the re-composition of capital in line with the metaphor of the distributed network. From this description, the contributors to Shaping the Network Society all in one way or another derive the dual notion that the "network society" threatens the very existence of classical democratic ideals while at the same time provides infrastructure for an even more genuinely global and socially interactive set of democratic practices. They do not challenge the underlying assumptions of the "network society" itself, let alone Castells' controversial formulation of it, but instead reaffirm even more strongly the classical virtues of public democracy in order to better govern the apparently inevitable march of the "network society." This leads them, like many otherwise well-meaning liberals, to embrace Habermas' "public sphere" as the single-best description of a properly functioning public democracy and their central point of political judgment. At its best, this impulse promises to infuse the landscape of digital capitalism with a revived political idealism and social activism. At its worst, it truncates possibilities for an alternative radical political imagination by splitting its discourse into an empirically false and non-dialectical binary division between "good" NGOs versus "bad" transnational corporations.

The editors of this volume spell out their preferences when they claim that the "community and civic infrastructures, applications, services, and artifacts outlined here are far removed from the technoeconomic credo that currently shapes the sanitized and homogenous world of dot-coms and transnational corporate media" (353, emphasis mine). Here we have a repeated modern binary in the making, quite similar to the pre-McLuhanite distinction between the digital "medium" and its "proper uses" which concludes Howard Rheingold's contribution. Cees Hamelink does the same, posing "governance agendas" for the "network society" as a stark choice between neoliberalism and "human rights" without questioning the ways that "human rights" discourse itself has played a decisive role in the governing structures of neoliberalism since the 1970s (i.e. "human rights" as one means among many to divide global space into "civilized" and "rogue" nations). Even Oliver Boyd-Barrett's otherwise excellent chapter on the role U.S. neo-imperial power in the construction of global cyberspace still leaves one begging the question: where in the world does one expect to find a "public" portion of the Internet "autonomous" from state and corporate influence given that the Internet itself is at all points, even when it is "open sourced," at least in part the product of states and corporations?

The transnational corporate media that colonized so much of the Internet during the 1990s deserve serious criticism for their roles in cheapening public debate, accelerating commercialization, and widening gaps between rich and poor. But, it is little more than neo-populist fantasy to think that any one of the organizations outlined in this book, from Indymedia to the Seattle Community Network to Amsterdam's Digital City Project, can be so easily partitioned off from the "technoeconomic credo" of institutions like Microsoft, Google, and Cisco Systems which provide the infrastructure for these "civil society" experiments as much as for globalization as a whole. One could just as easily point out that the "civilizing" project described in the editors' introductory prescription of a dose of progressive "civil society" for the dog-eat-dog world of privatized digital capitalism bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Negri and Hardt's critique of NGOs as missionaries for the civilizing project of "Empire" [1].

Why, exactly, should we want to "civilize" the "network society" in the first place? The "network society" is already its own kind of "civilizing" project. What other possibilities might be foreclosed by committing ourselves to that sort of liberal "civilizing" rhetoric? Would it really help to redress global inequality, for instance, to make the internal deliberations of the World Bank available online and open to the general public? Perhaps. But might we not also use the existing framework of digital networks as the basis for an altogether different kind of global financial redistribution system no longer tied so narrowly to the neo-imperial history of the World Bank? Does one choice preclude the other? Shaping the Network Society fails to pose such limit-condition questions, preferring the safer ground of cheerleading for "digital community" and "civil society." The point here is not to dismiss notions of "digital community," nor to defend the sullied reputations of high-tech transnational corporations, but instead to say that engaged political work that claims to be invested in democratizing global cyberspace (and thus the global capitalism of which it is an inseparable part) needs to proceed in media res, from actual social complexities and not from an abstract preference for the little guys versus the big corporations. In these terms, it is well worth asking why none of the contributors takes up in any serious ways the possibility of democratically re-engineering the infrastructural conditions of the Internet itself, at the level of the code, technological capital investment, and the uneven distribution of the underlying hardware? This may be implied by some of the authors' positions, but it is not discussed outright.

The intellectual problems with relying so heavily on interplay between Habermas and Castells are countless, but for the sake of brevity let's focus on just one underlying assumption. This is not simply the well-known question of correcting Habermas' historical blindspots (e.g. the "public sphere" in its "enlightened" heyday was hardly so "public" for women, non-Europeans, non-Whites, unpropertied workers, etc.) These have been capably catalogued and redressed by way of reference to Nancy Fraser's (1997) theory of "multiple publics" in the editors' introduction. It is a question of what the very concept of the "public" means historically in relation to its sustaining oppositions. The most important of these is probably the notion of individual "privacy," which is, like "democracy" itself, almost daily chronicled in the corporate media as being under threat from the likes of credit reporting agencies, military satellites, relational database systems, spyware, spam, and the unscrupulous netherworld of Internet marketing. In the Habermasian public sphere, there is an essential presupposition that private citizens will enter into the public body by leaving behind their private concerns and focusing rationally on matters of the common good.

But what if that very relationship is what needs to be debated and reimagined? What would a political imagination beyond binary distinctions between public and private look like? Would it be more or less useful for helping to redress the concerns of the subaltern subjects that Shaping the Network Society implicitly claims to place at the heart of its analysis? What if it is the very effort to wedge liberal ideas of privacy and publicity into the technological architecture of the Internet, in part to guarantee spaces for "civilized" deliberation, that has guaranteed the continuing social fiction of property in code? What do the global poor really have to gain from guarding the political and legal infrastructure of Western privacy rights over things like the code to generic pharmaceuticals, bio-engineered plants, and Hollywood films? Yes, they should be allowed public access to deliberations over these social priorities. But, for those deliberations one day to be considered directly meaningful to all of the world's inhabitants, because they are carried out among equals rather than among investors and laborers or creditors and debtors, we will need some much stronger medicine than the Habermasian "public sphere" of Shaping the Network Society can provide. The very structure of the Internet pushes us to think beyond the modern antinomies of public and private, not simply to simulate the antinomies of classical liberalism under the conditions of digital capitalism. Those who follow the work of Shaping the Network Society should try to do likewise.

1. Negri and Hardt's critique of NGOs occurs during their opening discussion of constitutive imperial power in Empire. There they describe the new global NGOs as operating according to a kind of "moral interventionism" analogous in form to the role of missionaries during classical imperialism: "NGOs conduct 'just wars' without arms, without violence, without borders. Like the Dominicans in the late medieval period and the Jesuits at the dawn of modernity, these groups strive to identify universal needs and defend human rights. Through their language and their action they first define the enemy as privation . . . and then recognize the enemy as sin. . . Within this logical framework it is not strange but rather all too natural that in their attempts to respond to privation, these NGOs are led to denounce publicly the sinners . . . nor is it strange that they leave it to the 'secular wing' the task of actually addressing problems. In this way, moral intervention has become a frontline force of imperial intervention" (36).

Nancy Fraser. Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the Post-Socialist Condition. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. Empire Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Andrew Schroeder:
Andrew Schroeder became an Assistant Professor of Communications at the University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh after receiving his PhD from the American Studies Program at New York University in 2001 and spending a brief time teaching at the City University of Hong Kong's School of Creative Media. He is the author most recently of Tsui Hark's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004). He is currently at work on two books, one titled Building the Simulation State: Cultural Radicalism and the Virtualization of U.S. Politics in the 1970s, and the other titled Informational Socialism: Globalization, War and the New Politics of Code.  <schroeda@uwosh.edu>

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