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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


Shaping the Network Society: The New Role of Civil Society in Cyberspace grew out of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility's (CPSR) Seventh "Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing" (DIAC) Symposium, held in May, 2000. Fifteen essays by contributors from academia, grass-roots organizations, independent media, and the American public library system address challenges and opportunities for civil society in a world ever more pervasively networked by new information and communication technologies (ICT).

In book's introduction, "Shaping the Network Society: Opportunities and Challenges," editors Douglas Schuler and Peter Day state: "The purpose of the book is to lay some initial groundwork for understanding the actuality and potentiality of new, generally Internet-based, forms of information and communication for social amelioration and social change" (2). In their conclusion, "Prospects for a New Public Sphere," they reaffirm this aim, and summarize its motivation: "Our intention is to illustrate the diverse nature of civil-society responses to global network-society developments conditioned by transnational corporate influences" (353). These responses, they stress, "represent images of society in stark contrast to the uncritical visions of competitiveness and profit offered up in the principles, norms, and practices found in the dominant visions of the network society . . . Our intention is to frame a network-society discourse in which ordinary citizens participate in shaping their sociotechnical environments" (353-354).

Shaping the Network Society argues that cyberspace does offer new opportunities for fostering open, many-to-many, self-organizing communication in which ordinary people do not just consent to be governed, but, as social actors and active citizens, create and shape their shared social life. While this book's focus is thus to explore and bring to wider awareness opportunities for promoting democracy and social justice which ICT enables, it emphasizes that opportunities depend on resources, and that most of the resources are controlled by what the editors describe as "global technocapitalism, [which] like previous forms of capitalism, continues to foster a great deal of alienation and suffering" (325). Furthermore, as Craig Calhoun writes in "Information Technology and the Public Sphere," ICT "plays an important role . . . in making it possible for globalization to combine decentralization and dispersal of activity with concentration of power" (237). Therefore, the prospects for democracy and social justice are uncertain at best.

All the contributors urge people -- we citizens -- to take initiative to conceive and implement alternative uses of new media, to build what Gary Chapman, in "Shaping Technology for the 'Good Life,'" describes as "'social capital' . . . networks of trust and self-sufficiency that are the backbone of democracy, particularly the concept of democracy as friendship . . . and the 'good life' in cyberspace" (59). Several essays document functioning examples in order to reveal pitfalls and accomplishments. Along the way, they stimulate readers' imagination, actions, and hope.

Many of the volume's contributors are concerned, as Cees Hamelink writes in his essay "Human Rights in the Global Billboard Society," that "increasingly large areas of social activity are withdrawn from public accountability, from democratic control, and from the participation of citizens in the decision-making process" (80), by multinational corporations and today's neoliberal environment. Hamelink extrapolates the concern other contributors share about where we are headed. The fusion of global technocapitalism and ICT has led, according to Hamelink, to a "global 'fun-shopping' culture," developing "against the backdrop of globalizing poverty" (68-69).

In civil society, public policies are determined not by the power of some to impose their agenda on others, but by what Habermas (1993, p.163) described as mutual recognition of "the unforced force of the better argument." Calhoun cites Habermas's analysis of an imaginatively evocative precedent: "The emergence in the eighteenth century of a widespread ideal -- and partially successful actual practice -- of open debate concerning questions about the public good and policies for pursuing it," a debate facilitated by institutional supports for public communication in media new to that time, "notably the newspaper and the coffeehouse" (244). In contrast, as Susana Finquelievich, in her chapter, "Community Networks Go Virtual: Tracing the Evolution of ICT in Buenos Aires and Montevideo," notes: "Habermas stresses the fact that a citizen's individual opinions, when given as an answer to a specific demand (e.g., a public opinion survey), do not constitute the public sphere, because they are not inscribed in a process through which public opinion is constructed" (152).

Case Studies

In "Civil Networking in a Hostile Environment: Experiences in the Former Yugoslavia," Veran Matic, of Radio B92, recounts a struggle to present news and encourage citizen involvement under brutal government repression. Matik describes how extensive networking, utilizing both land and wireless connections, enabled gathering and dissemination of news despite the police repeatedly "storming the offices" to shut down facilities. Reporters were trained to compose stories using laptop computers, and to post them from anywhere to the Internet or via satellite. Distribution was done in parallel via many different media, from "radio programs . . . sent via Internet to Amsterdam . . . and then beamed back to local radio stations and individual listeners," to "VHS cassettes . . . screened in town squares, clubs, and cáfes" (162).

Many of the contributors focus on digital cities or community networks. In "A Polder Model in Cyberspace," Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens describe how initial failures of democratic organization of the Amsterdam Digital City (DDS) led to later disappointing commercialization. In "The Soil of Cyberspace: Historical Archaeologies of the Blacksburg Electronic Village and the Seattle Community Network," David Silver compares two American electronic village initiatives. The Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV) was implemented top-down, by a university (Virginia Tech) and a telephone company (Bell Atlantic). Its orientation was to be "a test bed for services that will be demanded by customers in the future" (305). Conversely, the Seattle Community Network (SCN) was implemented bottom-up, by local social activists and open-source software advocates. In contrast to BEV, SCN "conceived their users as citizens rather than consumers . . . [and] early experiments . . . focused on community involvement and civic engagement" (323).

Kate Williams and Abdul Alkalimat, in "A Census of Public Computing in Toledo, Ohio," examine publicly accessible computing resources in one mid-size American city to explore "how different social processes are influencing the informatization of society and the persistence (or not) of the digital divide" (85). Socio-economic distribution of publicly accessible government sites was found to be random, commercial sites were located according to market demand, close to upper income groups and university students, and community sites were mostly located in rich and poor areas but not the middle strata. And in "Rethinking Telecenters: Microbanks and Remittance Flows -- Reflections from Mexico," Scott Robinson proposes creating public Internet access facilities -- "cybercafés with a social conscience" aka telecenters -- for migrant communities in the United States to keep in touch with and safely and inexpensively remit funds back to their home communities. Robinson notes, "savings on costly telephone calls and the usurious transfer tax currently being paid to Western Union . . . and fellow competitors could more than pay for [these] dual telecenter networks" (186).

Nancy Kranich, in "Libraries: The Information Commons of Civil Society," points to challenges "uncertain quality and expanding quantity" of information pose for society (290), and warns that "deregulation and privatization has shifted the information policymaking arena to the private sector, where questions of the public interest are harder to raise" (297). After recounting how America's public libraries have functioned since the time of the Founding Fathers as facilitators of democracy, Kranich argues that public libraries play a key role, today, in counteracting erosion of the public sphere, facilitating everyone's opportunities to participate in digital-age democracy. According to Kranich, public libraries facilitate literacy to help overcome "the digital-content divide" and provide uncensored Internet access to the disadvantaged. Moreover, they structure meaningful access to information, and also provide physical facilities to host civic association, for everyone.

Shifting focus from social to personal, Howard Rheingold, in "What Do We Need to Know about the Future We're Creating? Technological Reflections," recounts his seduction by the computer, first by word-processing and then email correspondence and virtual communities. After finding himself one day wondering "Where did the last seventeen years go?" (263), however, he changed his focus "from thinking tools to thinking about tools" (266). Rheingold notes that the prefix "cyber" comes from the Greek word for "steersman," and seems to sum up a concern shared by many of the volume's contributors when he asks: 1) Who is doing the steering? and 2) Where are we going? In response to widespread fatalistic belief that "You can't stop progress," Rheingold instead asks: "Progress toward WHAT?" (268). He proposes the problem is not technological "determinism," but people's "somnambulism" about technology.

A vision for our networked future

In their conclusion, "Prospects for a New Public Sphere," editors Day and Schuler reaffirm their goal of cultivating "civic intelligence . . . not for the purpose of assimilating or selling but for the purpose of understanding and of providing mutual aid and support" (374-375). They re-emphasize that "current institutions, notably governments and businesses, often fail to address or even recognize what needs to be done" (374-375).

Day and Schuler, and practically all of the contributors, urge each of us to step in and help fill the void, to become active in building social capital to bring into being in our networked world a lively public sphere nurtured by a rich information commons. In such a social world, "cyber" reclaims its etymological root meaning -- "steersman," as Rheingold noted above. Each citizen gains opportunity not just to use ICT, but to participate in shaping our shared sociotechnical environment. The "space" in "cyberspace," in turn, thus becomes a technologically enhanced "civil society," in a Habermasean sense.

By presenting many options, some of which may be new to the reader -- including this reviewer who came to the book with over 30 years of ICT experience -- and case studies of implementations, Shaping the Network Society does not just describe, but also contributes to this endeavor. The editors and contributors "await the future with anticipation -- and hope" (374), tempered by recognition of the challenges global technocapitalism, with its vast resources, brings to bear, in pursuit of its proponents' very different designs for our networked future.

Jürgen Habermas, Justification and Application, trans. Ciaran P. Cronin. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993 (Original work published 1991).

Brad McCormick:
Brad McCormick has worked in Information Technology as a computer programmer for over 30 years. He holds a doctorate in communication in education (Dissertation: "Communication: The Social Matrix of Supervision of Psychotherapy," 1994).  <bradmcc@cloud9.net>

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