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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

    "If this is a digital revolution, who are we rebelling against?" (10)
Democracy and New Media presents, supports, and debunks a variety of assumptions and expectations that have accompanied our new digital media environment. These essays are adaptations of public forums and conferences from the Media in Transition conferences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1998 to 2000. This book continues a timeless discussion: namely, the effect that new technologies have on culture. It defines the political and cultural aspects of democracy, offers domestic and global examples, and encourages the reader to reconsider what he or she expects of new technologies.

The assumption that new technologies will save us from ourselves is pervasive in popular, non-academic sentiment. The idea that the Internet will suddenly make everyone more politically conscious is refuted in the first pages of the book. The Internet is compared to preexisting innovations in broadcast media including print, newspapers, and television, in essays by Lloyd Morrisette and Doug Schuler. They argue that despite expectations of a technological utopian society, many other media have tried and failed. So why does the Internet hold so much promise?

In their introduction, co-editors Henry Jenkins and David Thorburn introduce many major theories regarding democracy and media. They pose the question, "Is democracy a particular structure of governance or a culture of citizenship or some complex hybrid of the two?" (2). This integrated duality is the basis for much of the discussion. Democracy is not just a political structure; its existence depends on a variety of factors, all of which are affected by new media. Using quintessential theories including Raymond Williams's technological determinism and Habermas's public sphere, Jenkins and Thorburn summarize the pre-existing theories that are of relevance to the rest of the book. The introduction defines democracy, challenges the myth of inevitability, and introduces new democratic terms like "netizen" and "Napsterization." This chapter serves as an excellent refresher course for the media theorist and a detailed summary for the casual reader.

After the introductory chapter, the book is divided into three parts: How Democratic is Cyberspace?; Global Developments; and News and Information in a Digital Age. Although many of the essays overlap, the layout structures the argument and creates a trajectory that takes the reader from basic to advanced theories regarding American democracy and cyberspace, then expands these theories through global examples, and finally presents a series of case studies that investigate the dissemination of news and information using said theories.

Part I directly addresses the expectation and assumptions of cyberspace. It looks at the effects of technology on the various types of democracy. In his essay "Which Technology and Which Democracy?" Benjamin Barber outlines the various types of democracy and the aspects of life that technology affects including speed, solitude, images, information, segmentation, and the privatization of media. This section continues on to describe the relationship between democracy and citizen in American history. Michael Schudson's chapter, "Click Here for Democracy," addresses the development of American democracy and the behavior of the American voter while Philip Agre follows with a history of how mediation and representation have affected civil society. These chapters emphasize the importance of communities in the democratic process, prompting Amitai Etzioni to ask "Are Virtual and Democratic Communities Feasible?"

A theme throughout the book is the citizen's role in democratic cyberspace. In his chapter, "Who Needs Politics? Who Needs People? The Ironies of Democracy in Cyberspace," Roger Hurwitz flips this to address how politicians have used the Internet to affect citizens, citing such evidence as online discussion forums and the use of political websites to call citizens to action. His detached analysis of politics and the Internet leads perfectly into the following two chapters by Ira Magaziner, the former senior advisor to President Clinton for internet policy development, and David Winston, the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Despite originating from different political camps, their perspectives on the Internet as a political tool are delightfully positive and citizen-oriented. Although incorporating policymakers and analysts as part of the discussion is refreshing, their political rhetoric is exposed in Barber's response to Magaziner: "the word 'democracy' is never used when there's a discussion of government" (126).

Part 1 concludes with a prophetic vision by Nolan Bowie entitled “Voting Campaigns and Elections in the Future.” Written in 1996, before the contested 2000 election and 2004’s techno-politics, it presents a community wherein new media has infiltrated our political processes. He predicts that the political environment in 2004 will disillusion, disaffect, and alienate voters resulting in a 22% of the electorate turning out to vote. The chapter then describes the resulting changes. The editor's note claims that "Bowie's time frame is mistaken -- the crisis occurred earlier than predicted" (143).

In Part II, Global Developments, the theories regarding the political process and new media are expanded worldwide. To initiate this global discussion, Adam Clayton Powell III discusses how the Internet is changing the way that people search for their news. The fact that Croatians prefer to read the Washington Post online proves the blurring of the expected news audience. This phenomenon is further addressed in Andrew Jakubowiz's chapter, "Ethnic Diversity, 'Race,' and the Cultural Political Economy of Cyberspace," which traverses the border between virtual communities and global developments.

Other essays in Part II are individual case studies regarding specific countries that have used new media to foster community and political systems. Cristina Venegas provides an in-depth analysis of Castro's relationship with media over the past forty years while Ashley Dawson addresses how television is changing race relations in post-apartheid South Africa. By investigating how these burgeoning communities are affected, we are better prepared to recognize what new media can offer our established political system. This section provides examples for and against many of the theories presented in Part I. It allows the reader to observe theories in action by using examples from nations in change.

Part III, News and Information in a Digital Age, narrows the discussion towards news and information dissemination. John Hartley's chapter on the frequency of public writing looks at what we, as citizens of a digital world, demand from our news sources and stories, an essential component for understanding how new media affects our expectations. We expect news to be available on demand and are willing to sacrifice in-depth analysis for immediate coverage. According to Christopher Harper's analysis, in "Journalism in a Digital Age," internet-based news becomes its own entity that uses the conventions of journalism combined with user interaction.

Robert Huesca and Brenda Dervin's analysis of hypertext and journalism offers something often missing from cultural research: comparative studies. They investigate how readers interpret multiple media formats and include extended interviews with their subjects. Ellen Hume's chapter, "Resource Journalism: A Model for New Media" continues to address how we interpret news. In our technophile state of mind, we have become dependent on the presentation of messages, and can be seduced into thinking that good presentation somehow validates mediocre material. With a play on McLuhan's classic quote, she proposes, "it is the message, not the media, which is the problem" (331). Ingrid Volkner then expands these trends in online journalism to a global discussion by integrating how the political and media infrastructure limits the citizens' acquisition of information.

David Sholle defines information in "What is Information? The Flow of Bits and the Control of Chaos," an exciting and descriptive exposé on how individuals interact with information. Although its position in the book seems rather unusual, it serves as an introduction to the final chapter by Peter Walsh, which looks at how the Internet can change personal interactions with information. Walsh concludes the book by stating that the Internet will destroy the expert paradigm; in a mediated world where everyone has a voice, everyone becomes an expert.

Overall, the essays cover a wide range of topics and offer multiple viewpoints regarding the potential of the Internet. The book functions as a discussion between theorists, policy makers, independent media producers, and activists. There is a brief biography for each of the contributors at the back of the book, which I found helpful. The authors' fields of interest and history are essential to understanding the perspective of each essay and remind the reader of the diverse background necessary for intelligent discussions around media theory.

The irony is that in a discussion regarding new media, the editors have chose to publish in old medium. I found myself desperate to add to the discussion but impeded by the format, especially when reading about the possibilities of the Internet to foster discussion and elaborate ideas. The choice to write a book is concurrent with theories regarding frequencies of public writing but many of the arguments seem dated due to the changes within the past five years. The conference does have an online supplement and makes available many of the papers presented at the various Media in Transition conferences, but dialogue is limited to the question, "Is the web democratic?" This lack of discussion impedes deliberation in cyberspace, something that seems contradictory to the themes of the book.

I also felt that the discussion was limited in its content. Democracy and New Media effectively defines new media as the Internet and each of the chapters explores how the Internet has, can, and will change our daily lives. But it does not discuss the emergence of cell phones, mp3 players, or any other technology from the past decade. Disregarding the individual capacities of these devices, the opportunity to access the Internet while separated from a computer is significant. It is now possible to receive political commercials directly to your cell phone, a ubiquitous technology, yet the discussion neglects this topic among other new media inventions.

Even in this frustration, I enjoyed the use of real life examples, which tend to make theory accessible and understandable to the layperson. Schuler offers a series of Seattle-based websites that foster community and organize voters. Huesca and Dervin present a study that objectively addresses the subjective user preferences for online journalism techniques. The political contributions from Magaziner and Winston recognize the real life applications of media theory.

Democracy and New Media is an amazing resource of cultural studies; the essays foster discussion among a variety of groups despite race, gender and class. It presents theories that were popular at the turn of the millennium and allows the reader to construct their own assumptions of what media can do for the democratic process. Despite the book’s limitation due to the time lapse between production and publication, I feel that it is more appropriate and necessary now. Its themes presage present trends in popular culture including movements such as moveon.org and documentaries like Outfoxed and Control Room. Therefore, it also addresses the discrepancy between expected events and actual occurrences. The book presents scenarios from 2000 and allows the reader to use his or her present knowledge to endorse or refute these statements.

Although I found the style of the book refreshing, it is not intended for a popular audience, where this discussion is so desperately needed. The book attempts to educate academic readers (and hopefully voters) on his or her place in the democratic system and how that position changes with the use of new media. In short, the book demands, ask not what your country can do for you, but what new media can make you do for your country.

Charisse Corsbie-Massay:
Charisse Corsbie-Massay is currently a graduate student in the Critical Studies department of the School of Cinema Television at University of Southern California. With degrees in Cognitive Neuroscience and Comparative Media Studies, she is currently investigating the effect of mainstream American media on the cognitive development of American youth.  <charisse@alum.mit.edu>

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