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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

Douglas Schuler and Peter Day's book, Shaping the Network Society: The New Role of Civil Society in Cyberspace, does service to the idea of global "Net" or "Web" civil societies. Both nets and webs are used to capture. They can be used to sort or to conserve. Because they have holes, some things must necessarily fall through. Others are caught in their weft and weave. Shaping the Network Society performs all of these functions, and more. Within the rich tapestry provided, we begin to get some sense of the commonalities of global efforts in new media -- the successes, the failures, and the places in between where ideas spring up and citizen activists grasp the chance to create opportunity where none previously existed.

The text is divided into three major segments, Civilizing the Network Society, Global Tales of the Civil Network Society, and Building a New Public Sphere in Cyberspace. These segments, identified as Parts I, II, and III respectively, provide a context for ICT and civil society, survey global case studies, and then theorize on the development of new generations of civic applications of ICT. Together, they present not only an engaging sense of the past, the present, and the possible, but of the potential and actual pitfalls of the global cyber-landscape.

Part I

In Chapter 2, "U.S. Global Cyberspace," contributor Oliver Boyd-Barrett asks a troubling question: given a global economic order and an information-entertainment complex dominated largely by the USA, whose interests are really being served by the proliferation of new media? He writes:
    Several interacting trends in recent decades have enhanced the contribution of communications media to globalization . . . digitization, convergence, fusion (the merger of common-carrier and gatekeeper models), deregulation, privatization, concentration, "competitivization," commercialization, internationalization, Americanization, and democratization. (27)
By tracing the relationships between global communications industry trends, economic growth, and overall demographic factors, Boyd-Barrett makes glaringly obvious one of the greatest potential reasons that the formation of a global public sphere, or spheres, may not be possible. A global ICT based on the values of USA corporate hegemony is unlikely to afford space for the fiscal and governing independence necessary for a vibrant and effective public sphere.

Gary Chapman's central question in Chapter 3, "Shaping Technology for the 'Good Life': The Technological Imperative versus the Social Imperative," is relatively straight-forward. Do we let our technologies shape us, or do we shape them? Can a "technological imperative" be balanced with a "social imperative"?

Chapman uses Moore's Law (1965) as an indicator of the "technological imperative" and the Italian "slow food" movement (which originated in 1986, and spun off a version of itself, the "slow cities movement" in 1999 (p. 49)) as representative of a "social imperative" -- one that exists as a potent critique of globalization and post-industrialization/technology. The "slow food" and "slow city" movements share the belief that the "universal" culture promulgated by a "technological imperative" has become homogenized to the point of mediocrity and is, thus, undesirable; they are based on the pursuit of excellence and luxury not reserved for elites but for everybody -- on the promotion of "leisure, taste, ecological harmony, the preservation and enhancement of skills and local identities, and ongoing 'taste education'" (50).

A "slow" movement, or a trend toward preserving quality, identity, and skill on the Internet must focus on a number of areas including skills, open, free information; open source, free software; fostering identities and excellence through communities; closing the digital divide; and tying it all together, e.g., active involving ourselves in the development and use of a vivid, interactive Internet rather then passive acceptance of whatever comes down the line. Chapman's point is perhaps best summed up by a 1987 Stewart Brand quote he provides in the first paragraphs of his article in which the Whole Earth Catalog guru suggested: "Once a new technology rolls over you, if you're not part of the steamroller, you're part of the road" (p. 43, referencing Brand 1987, 22). At the end of the day, the same humans who put technology in place and deified it have to decide that resistance is never futile -- if something isn't working, we alone have the power to go back and start over, to reconceive, to redesign, to retool.

The final contributor to Part I, Cees J. Hamelink, writes in "Human Rights in the Global Billboard Society" that over the past decades we have become a global billboard society rather than a global network -- and that the two are distinctly different. While utopians such as McLuhan, Toffler, Negroponte, and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore suggested that the internet would, ultimately, herald in a new age in civic engagement and human rights, Hamelink posits that the obverse is actually the case -- with the advent of a global society, "essential normative standards of the international human rights regime [specifically, Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 28] are coming under serious threat" (68).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on December 10, 1948. At present date, the document includes 30 articles held to be the right of every human on the planet. Article 28 specifically states "Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized." Hamelink suggests that the increasing "billboardization" (commercialization) of the Internet is directly impairing global citizens' right to free speech, to a democratic order, to equal participation in social life, and to cultural identity. He calls for intervention and governance oversight, but admits that the possibility of mobilization against "a world order that provides uneven access to the world's communications resources and that reinforces a growing gap between knowledge-rich and knowledge-poor nations and individuals" is unlikely to happen (78). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides guidelines for the protection of citizenry against the potential harmful effects of technologies in Articles 1, 5, 6, 27.1, and 29, at a minimum. It would behoove the global network society to heed these guidelines. In our constant drive to go faster, push farther, and sell more, basic human rights must not be permitted to fall by the wayside.

Part II

The studies included in Part II of "Shaping the Network Society" span seven countries and three continents. One gets the feeling that each is a work in progress as, indeed, are the phenomena to which they bear witness.

Kate Williams and Abdul Alkalimat's study, "A Census of Public Computing in Toledo, Ohio," explores computing facilities in Toledo, Ohio. Although they initially break use venues down into three primary settings where citizens may access networked computing -- homes where personal computing occurs, the workplace, where private computing occurs, and venues such as libraries, schools, community centers, and storefronts (the authors include churches), where public computing takes place -- they are primarily interested in public computing and the implications of use patterns on social spaces (86). In the course of investigating four types of public computing sites (government, community, commercial, and university), Williams and Alkalimat find that collected data support, albeit weakly, their initial hypothesis that government sites are fairly randomly located around Toledo, community sites are usually in rich or poor neighborhoods, and commercial and university sites are located within upper-income areas and those where there is a large student population (108). They see the types of public computing as expressions of varying power dynamics, and believe that additional examination of public computing sites will ultimately reveal much about the nature of democracy in a digital age.

Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens, two Amsterdam Internet developers/critics, discuss Amsterdam's new-media culture since its onset in the early 1990s, focusing most particularly on its community network, the Digital City. "A Polder Model in Cyberspace: The Contemporary Amsterdam Public Digital Culture" discusses the lifecycle of a "vibrant and utopian" project on a collision course with its own policies and a pervasive (and conflicting) entrepreneurial mentality.

Some of the issues touched upon in this study resonate across the globe, including the problems on the part of founding (idealistic) individuals with respect to successful organization, articulation of a common vision, inability to gather support and work toward a common goal or goals, and the types of issues that may follow upon privatization of a previously public domain entity. If the lessons revealed by Lovink and Riemens are taken to heart, those who wish to explore the viability of civic activism in the ether may well want first to understand implicitly the potential pitfalls inherent in the varying forms of sponsorship available.

Susana Finquelievich's "Community Networks Go Virtual: Tracing the Evolution of ICT in Buenos Aires and Montevideo" examines ICT operations on either side of the River de la Plata in Argentina, along with the social impact of such use. Finquelivich's evaluation of ICT adoption and use in Buenos Aires civil society focused on the nonprofit civil-society organizations that were instrumental in setting in place an active and engaged civic society following the December 2001 financial crisis and subsequent governmental upheaval; her observations about Montevideo follow activities post 1985, when ex-patriots and academics returned to the country, bringing new ideas about civil society and civic engagement.

At the time of Finquelievich's study (2001), 10% of the Uruguayan population had access to the Internet, the highest percentage of IC connection in South America (146). This is due, in part, to the fact that the government and the corporate world believe it is economically viable (146). Acceptance alone does not constitute the sole point of difference in IC usage of NGOs in the respective countries; the Argentine NGOs tend to act individualistically, the Uruguayan organizations, collectively.

Despite periods of respectable activity, the future of Argentina and Uruguay's NGO-related ICT activity is not clear. Socioeconomic conditions within the two countries remain uncertain; citizen commitment is increasingly sporadic; the costs associated with informatics goods and services, valued in U.S. dollars, continues to rise (154). While the examples of Buenos Aires and Montevideo would seem to indicate that ICT-supported social networks can foster social/civic involvement, the jury is still out on the question of whether or not sufficient commitment exists such that they can impact on the hegemony of political society.

Veran Matic’s chapter "Civil Networking in a Hostile Environment: Experiences in the Former Yugoslavia" is a gripping good read. Matic is the editor of Radio B2–92, a conglomerate of independent media (radio/television/website) that has been in existence in some form since 1989, when it emerged as a "small, urban youth radio station . . . [and] developed into a radio station featuring the best, the most credible, and the most objective current affairs and news program" (160). He discusses the ways media systems are threatened in times of political unrest, as well as the courage, determination, and resilience of media representatives in the face of such abuses.

In chapter 9, "Rethinking Telecenters: Microbanks and Remittance Flows - Reflections from Mexico," contributor Scott S. Robinson discusses a potential "Second World" (or, in other words, a substantive public sphere or spheres) for "First" and "Third World" migrants and/or refugees -- telecenter-based social networks that can be used for great social good, first to serve as financial institutions in villages that do not yet have such institutions, and second as training and education centers. Such community telecenters, which provide low-cost opportunities for "have not's" to transact business over the Internet, are meeting with significant resistance from nongovernmental profit-based entities.

Fiorella de Cindio traces the history of the globally prominent Reve Civica di Milano (the Milan Community Network, or "RCM," founded in 1994) and the part that citizens have had in shaping the social venues within the network. In chapter 10, "The Role of Community Networks in Shaping the Network Society: Enabling People to Develop Their Own Projects," Cindio identifies the themes or "genes" that form the basis of RCM, i.e., academia, computer-supported cooperative work, participatory design, and civil engagement), then demonstrates the synergy between single community and global network. The network, now supported by the RCM Participatory Foundation (patterned along the lines of Amsterdam's Digital City), hosts a vast array of projects, including many in the voluntary sector, the academy, public communication, and more. In concluding, Cindio suggests that success with an RCM-like network model may hinge on the presence of the foundational "genes" and an ability to operate outside local government while encouraging collaboration and dialogue.

While Part II contributors do offer cautious optimism for the future of networked civil societies, the potential for such networks to go astray is impossible to ignore. It appears that such entities must be balanced between government and private corporations, and based on cooperative collectives of owner-participants. Only then will they enjoy the possibility of anything that can be measured as "success." We have to take an honest look at ourselves and ask whether we are requiring more of our cyber-networks than we've proven to be able to sustain in the f-t-f world. And if so, what changes can we make in the ways we interact on earth so that our aspirations in the ether might be realized.

Part III

Just as Part II contributors discuss what has been and is, Part III theorists comment on what might be. In "Information Technology and the International Public Sphere," Craig Calhoun suggests that a global public sphere is necessary to the prospect of democracy. While on the face it might appear that we have come close to realizing the concept of a global public sphere (or spheres), it turns out that one of the perceived greatest strengths of the Internet is also one of its weaknesses. It is largely on the strength of networked nongovernmental organizations that a global economy has been founded. We must avoid the temptation to assume that this is an equalizer. Calhoun writes "The Internet will always be a supplement to, not a replacement for, other connections" (241). It is the development and success of local and regional bases of activism and public discourse that may, in the long run, determine whether committed transnational civil societies are possible.

In "What Do We Need to Know about the Future We're Creating: Technobiographical Reflections," Howard Rheingold, a patriarch of network communities, provides us with a "brief technological autobiography" (254) and those most useful of objects, brakes. Whether we choose to use them or not is up to us. Rheingold posits that technology cannot fix the world, we have to do it ourselves. There is an "I" in utopia, one that has been long ignored. While online social networks do have the potential to shape society, the potential is only as strong as the commitment of the citizens "peopling" such networks. Without active participation in not only our own lives, but in the civic life of the communities we profess to be a part of, networked civil society will never live up to its perceived promise.

Contributor Nancy Kranich suggests that libraries are an important cornerstone of democratic society in her chapter entitled "Libraries: The Information Commons of Civil Society." Libraries are already information commons where citizenry can socialize and exchange ideas. New media can play an important role in the development of a new type of information commons but only if they are conceived of and implemented wisely, with knowledge of what "public interest" might be, and sensitivity to how the diverse needs of global citizens might be satisfied.

David Silver suggests that the field of cyberculture studies would benefit from an historic contextualization of online culture. His contribution to this effort, "The Soil of Cyberspace: Historical Archaeologies of the Blacksburg Electronic Village and the Seattle Community Network," provides a comparison of two of the best known U.S. community networks that have been influential in the development of communities per se: the former, endowed largely by a combination of telecoms and governmental entities, the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV), and the latter, created by computer scientists, software developers, librarians, and homebrew computer nerds with very little funding, the Seattle Community Network (SCN). When we understand the histories of networked societies, we may develop insight into the ways they have influenced communication, interaction, and the development of communities (323). These insights are an imperative if we are to understand the social, political, and economic criteria that make such networks possible.

The Independent Media Center (IMC, or "Indymedia") was launched in anticipation of the World Trade Organization's 1999 meeting in Seattle. It has since grown to over 130 nodes worldwide. In "Globalization and Media Democracy: The Case of Indymedia," Douglas Morris writes that pressure in the form of conservative ideology has been exerted on corporate media such that hegemony is continually perpetuated. Because mainstream corporate media are unwilling or unable to inform publics about global-justice issues and actions, counter-hegemonic alternative media are not only desirable, but necessary to the construction of decentralized public spheres and, ultimately, the cause of justice.

Peter Day and Douglas Schuler close this series of studies with comments on "Prospects for a New Public Sphere." Historically, civic and social engagement has happened at the local level amongst people who have lived in close proximity for much, if not all, of their lives. Those of us who would like to see a vibrant and productive civil society in cyberspace are charged, then, with the question of how to make networked civil communities meaningful to potential participants. In closing, Day and Schuler provide us with a number of recommendations. First, as has been pointed out in a number of studies in this text, an ongoing dialogue is necessary. This dialogue may transpire among government, nongovernmental organizations, and/or civic groups on the Internet, or among academics, policymakers, and those who actually use the web for civil engagement, but it is a necessary and desirable part of the process of creating civil societies. Second, public funding for innovative research into understanding existing global civic societies is desirable. Finally, the perpetuation of civic intelligence (awareness, advocacy, and action [p. 367]) is an imperative among those who would shape network societies.

As Hamelink has stated and many others have inferred, the "billboardization" of the Internet continues, thus far largely unabated. If U.S. telecommunications policy does indeed prove a harbinger of international policy, recent trends in proposed U.S. government legislative action, if successful, could push the Internet further into the shadow of corporate conglomerates. A new bill introduced in Congress (H.R. 2726) by Texas Representative and former SBC executive Pete Sessions on May 26, 2005 appears to seek to limit low-cost, high-speed Internet access in every city across the country. The "Preserving Innovation in Telecom Act" would prevent government entities from providing universal affordable access to broadband services in any area where corporate entities exist to provide such services. To be entirely fair, the Act does incorporate a grandfather provision stipulating that any such government services in place at the time the Act is set into service must be permitted to continue to operate, but there can be no question that such legislation would have a potentially chilling effect on the diversity of providers.

Freedom and equality are uneasy bedfellows. At least within the auspices of the U.S.A., freedom is largely associated with the pronoun "I" -- as in "I can do ____," or "I can earn ____." Equality is the bugbear in the rug of an allegedly democratic society because it implies "we." That "we" is a diverse, messy, frequently disorganized but glorious thing, a collective of people who recognize that "we" are only as strong as our weakest link. Schuler and Day's Shaping the Network Society serves as a cautionary epistle -- if we let our I's tendency towards self indulgence push the Internet into the "freedom" of unabated consumerism, the opportunity to nurture the coveted we of an engaged global civil society (or societies) may be forever lost.

Brand, Stewart. The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT. New York: Viking, 1987.

Julie Mactaggart:
Julie Mactaggart is a Fixed Term Assistant Professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. She is currently teaching an internet course entitled "Privacy, Free Speech, and the Internet," finishing edits on an argumentation supplement co-authored for Oxford University Press, and attempting to negotiate civil space with the five children in the house.  <jrmactaggart@stcloudstate.edu>

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