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Democracy and New Media

Editor: Henry Jenkins, David Thorburn
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004
Review Published: September 2005

 REVIEW 1: Barbara K. Iverson
 REVIEW 2: Charisse Corsbie-Massay

Democracy and New Media, edited by Henry Jenkins and David Thorburn, presents 22 essays that grew out of the "Media in Transition" series held at M.I.T. between 1998 and 2000. The book's aim is to be historical, comparative, and accessible. It hits its mark as a volume and in most of the essays. The title terms, democracy and new media, brought me to the book, but with reservations. Would its political essays be too pedantic? What do they mean by new media?

In the first section of the book, "How Democratic is Cyberspace?" the writers describe how digital technologies have transformed the processes of democracy and speculate on what further transformations of the political sphere might occur. The way that corporate interests collide with the public interest and the role of the individual as consumer versus citizen are two threads that run through the chapters in this section. The question of whether
a virtual community can exist and whether it can be self-governing is another one of ideas, and some of the section's contributors look at digital information and mediated communication as well the 2000 election process. The second section, "Global Developments," explores how politics and technology play out in the absence of democracy or democratic traditions. The chapters look at restrictions on Internet in China and Cuba and look at how new media was used in post-Apartheid South Africa. The final section of the book, "News and Information in the Digital Age," examines the relationship of information to knowledge, the definition of information, non-linear narrative navigation, and online news.

Few readers will find every essay of interest, but at the same time few readers will put the volume down without finding a new perspective, interesting comparison, or a useful way of framing the transformations brought about by technology, always unintentionally disruptive, that are remaking our democracy and our media.

In "Democracy and Cyberspace: First Principles" by Ira Magaziner, Senior Advisor for Policy Development under President Clinton, we glimpse the hubris of technocrats at the height of the dotcom boom. Magaziner's principles of a digital economy include the belief in a world led by private actors not government, a market-driven, technology-neutral, duty-free and uncensored society regulated with precision and transparency that ushers in an unending age of prosperity. In response, Benjamin Barber insists that democracy is not bureaucracy. The public sphere is where we make sense of new technology, a point that was accentuated by the dotcom bust. "Citizen and consumer are not the same," asserts Barber, "Consumer choice is choice without power" (131). In hindsight, as oil prices and deficits rise and the climate itself inexorably changes, Magaziner's reliance on privatization to unleash greater efficiency and greater liberty in our political system is problematic. Barber's contention that as private persons we cannot effectively deal with the social consequences of private choices suggests we revisit our ideas about democratic rule.

Political dialogue has shifted from Tom Paine's printed words about ideas to shrill sound bites and the cult of personality, notes Republican Party operative David Winston. In "Digital Democracy and the New Age of Reason," Winston explores our civic life in a world where people do not identify with party ideology but view each issue through a "prism of other values." Winston's description of a place where "culture -- in the broad sense -- has replaced ideology as the battle field for the war of ideas" (134) is truer today than when he wrote the words. Coming to terms with this shift is necessary, whether it is pleasant or not. It is interesting to note that Winston's 1998 provocative observation that there is no "mass" in media is common knowledge today.

Mainstream media like newspapers, magazines, and broadcast television news are losing market share as their audiences decline. There is concern that digital media will undermine local and national communities because it makes a nation of individuals listening to the "Daily Me" on iPods a possibility. Amitai Etzioni addresses this uncertainty in "Are Virtual and Democratic Communities Feasible" by asking: can there be a virtual community and if so, can it be self-governing? Defining community as a web of criss-crossing "affect-laden" relationships wherein its members share a measure of commitment to shared values, Etzioni argues that the answer is "yes." More typical than the wholly virtual community, and easier to maintain, are hybrid communities where virtual communication reinforces a real community. For democracy to exist in one of these communities, Etzioni argues, it must provide for voting, information sharing, deliberation, and representation. All of this is possible so virtual democratic communities seem less a threat than a promise for the future.

In "Frequencies of Public Writing," John Hartley provides a thoughtful way to reconsider the notable decline in newspaper reading documented widely in the media today. This decline gives rise to concerns about the future of the free press and informed citizenry which are conditions of democracy. Hartley's frequency of public writing is a function of time to production, interval between publication events, and "wavelength," or how long each text or "pulse" is in the public eye before the next one from the same source. Print (daily, weekly), broadcast (daily, hourly), and Internet/cable (hourly, instantaneously) are associated with different wavelengths. Hartley argues that public writing has a time/space axis, too, because "the public" implies space. But once space becomes virtual, the sense of civic or national identity becomes portable and not tied to a particular space. The alarming circulation decline might simply be a function of the time axis in modern life, as fast wavelength Internet and slow wavelength monthlies and books are not declining as the intermediate wavelength newspaper is. Hartley's view that public service media are speeding up, not dumbing down, is worth considering and seems to be playing out in newsrooms today where the 24-hour news cycle is replacing the daily edition.

Agenda setting, mediation, gatekeepers and framing are concepts that appear through the essays in this collection like lanterns down a dark hallway. In "Journalism in a Digital Age," former newsman turned academic Christopher Harper traces the contours of online journalism as it redefines the power relation between journalists and users, opens up new kinds of storytelling, allows for non-traditional ways of transmitting news in terms of how it filters, searches, and browses, and provides "communing" for users who can locate like-minded people around stories that interest them. Harper punctuates his definitions with examples drawn from the online Chicago Tribune that was launched in 1996. By fleshing out his ideas with examples drawn from an electronic newsroom, we get a snapshot of new media in time. The online edition is here to stay, Harper argues, though how it looks and works is changing in reaction to technology and user needs.

The chapter "Hypertext and Journalism: Audiences Respond to New Narratives," by Robert Huesca and Brenda Dervin reports on reader surveys regarding whether narrative structures that include hyperlinks assist or impede understanding. In this piece, we realize that readers as well as writers/producers do something new and different when they read text with hyperlinks in it. This research was conducted in the 1990s when people formerly known as readers, a.k.a. viewers/users, were unaccustomed to
non-linear narratives, and their responses reflect their inexperience. New narrative structures and forms of writing call for new reading skills and strategies that develop through experience over time. Readers with more online experience can compare their preferences to the reactions of the study participants. Readers who have been using hyperlinked text for some time may find they prefer non-linear structure to linear narratives.

Democracy and New Media fulfills the editors' aims of being historical, comparative, and accessible. The essays were edited for readers approaching the material without an expert's grasp of both topics. Looking at how community, democracy, and the processes of democracy are being affected by digital technology and exploring the future of democracy in cyberspace with these authors provides the reader with a bit of distance from the heat of the partisan fray. Neither democracy nor journalism is built on bitter partisanship. The historical perspective of these essays calms emotions stirred up the 2004 election. Examining the cultural transformations resulting from the shift from an analog to a digital age and their impact on informed citizens in a self-governing democracy is an exercise worth engaging in that can begin with this book.

Barbara K. Iverson:
Barbara K. Iverson teaches Online Publishing and Production in the Journalism Department at Columbia College Chicago. She writes about technology and media at Iverson's Current Buzz and is interested in virtual communities, blogging, and non-fiction interactive narratives.   <biverson@colum.edu>

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