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Asia.com: Asia Encounters the Internet

Editor: K. C. Ho, Randy Kluver, C.C Yang
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2003
Review Published: September 2005

 REVIEW 1: Rohitashya Chattopadhyay
 REVIEW 2: Allen Chun
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: KC Ho, Randolph Kluver, and Kenneth CC Yang

Asia.com: Asia Encounters the Internet, edited by K. C. Ho, Randy Kluver, and C.C Yang, stemmed largely from a conference on Internet and Development in Asia held in Singapore in 2001, involving scholars from both Asia and North America. The volume's contributors represent a diverse range of disciplinary backgrounds, mostly in mass communication, information technology, and social science (including political science, business management, and law). Their common interest in a broad spectrum of activities and institutions subsumed by the Internet, which includes Web sites, electronic mail, and online discussion groups on various kinds of interactive media platforms, represents for most part an attempt to assess the social and political ramifications in Asia of an increasingly globalized and mass based form of media communication.

On the whole, the authors are explicitly concerned with the contrasts between Asia and the West, in the way in which this mode of modern technology has been received and appropriated, and to the extent that such reception can be seen as a product of various institutional infrastructures, government policies, socio-cultural values, and economic access found in these countries. In the long run, the concern of most of the writers with the nature and intensity of activity on the Internet impacts ultimately on the possibilities of democratic communication and institutional regulation in the functioning of such a media, as though they are part of an ongoing dialectic.

From its basic orientation, this book should appeal more to hardwired readers of science, technology, and society than to readers in literary and cultural studies in search of imaginative mediascapes and abstract interventions of a different order. The Internet revolution is seen as an advance in communicative technology, pure and simple, with little attempt to theorize how it represents a distinct qualitative transformation in the political economy of information or the bio-politics of society. This unilineal, technocratic understanding of the Internet thus colors in large part the way in which the authors in general understand the nature of Internet as a kind of media (in contrast to "traditional" newspaper, broadcasting, or other print media).

The "critical" orientations of the first five papers, featuring Tim Beal's history of internet use, Anthony D'Costa's chapter on IT's global division of labor, David Lyon's essay on Internet surveillance, Carolyn Penfold's survey of Internet content regulation, and Debora Halbert's discussion of open source and intellectual property regimes, provide the thematic framework for the remaining nine "case studies," which deal predominantly with the advent of politically dissenting online forums and the Internet as alternative public media. The regional coverage in the book is sufficiently diverse (Merlyna Lim on online activist groups in Indonesia, James Chin on Internet and the press in Malaysia, Li Xiquang, Xuan Qin and Randolph Kluver on the scope of Internet news coverage in PRC, Leslie Tkach-Kawasaki on web elections in Japan, Shyam Tekwani on the Tamil diaspora online, Karsten Giese on BBS in PRC, Junko Onosaka on women's cyber activism in Japan, Arul Maragatha Nuthu Selvan on Hindu online communities, and Lee Waipeng and Brenda Chan on Singaporean youths, online and offline). In short, the Internet as media here is a venue for assessing the possibilities of politics.

First of all, the orientation of the first five papers is less "critical" than broadly thematic. Beal's contribution provides a useful statistical overview of the development of Internet in Asia and the role of both government and business in contributing to its growth or acceptability by users in different countries. It is clear from almost all these examples that the Internet is viewed positively for its use as a technology for advancing economic development. On the other hand, its accessibility to all social groups and its ability to provide open communication within an expanded media "public" has produced unintended or unwanted consequences, namely increased political dissidence and undesirable media content. These social and political ramifications tend to be the main concern of most of the following case studies. The essays by Lyons and Penfold then focus on an obvious concern of the late modern welfare state, namely disciplinary surveillance and government attempts to control, if not regulate, the traffic of undesirable communication. This tension between technological possibility and socio-political regulation is a familiar dualism that pervades particularly in an Asian context, where one tends to see a divide between institutional-collective and individual or personal interests.

Institutional regulation is not irrelevant to the issues of globalization and intellectual property regimes that essays by D'Costa and Halbert deal with, but the latter issues are rarely picked up in the actual case studies. In fact, the simple focus on the tension between technology and politics explains why the case studies are overwhelmingly concerned with online communities and to a lesser extent website content, to the unfortunate exclusion of a whole range of issues pertaining to digital technology (which links the information capability of other products such as PCs, cell phones, games, and mobile technology increasingly converging with the net) and the network society itself (the phenomenon brought about by the networking revolution in general).

Secondly, the relationship between the Internet, as defined in this book, and other overlapping phenomena, such as the digital revolution, global-local interactions, and the advent of open source codes, is not really well discussed in any of the essays. There is a sense in which globalization and digitization are distinct processes that transcend many other phenomena as well, but the two keys aspects of Internet, namely the axiom of networking (i.e. the notion of decentralized power contained therein) and the non-proprietary nature of the web that has contributed to its democratic accessibility and open development as a communication medium, clearly define the general framework for understanding its development in Asia and elsewhere. The media itself is what is problematic. In this regard, the roles of government, business, and other institutions in regulating access and content in this communicative field are secondary issues affecting limited aspects of the wider phenomenon.

Despite the concrete foci on technology versus politics, I tend to think that there is room for more discussion on how Internet media and online communities of various sorts constitute unique and important venues for rational (or irrational) communication that transcend notions of public-private, real-virtual, and analog-digital, even in Asia. The fact that the Nintendo generation and the Walkman lifestyle revolution emerged primarily in Asia should suggest, if anything, that the embrace of Internet technology is basically an extension of existing modes of communication, while at the same time that Internet (illusion of seamless communication through networking) is subtly transforming the boundaries between public and private media and breaking down barriers of social access to communicative expression. More interesting perhaps than how the Internet as global digital media extends to and works itself out in different Asian contexts is how the different social and political grounds that characterize Asia have in effect crafted different avenues of development within the Internet. In venues such as PRC (mainland China), where access to information is tightly regulated, the Internet has been an appropriate site for political control between individuals and institutions. In venues where the advent of the PC is less widespread or is the privileged access of a few, the social and political ramifications are rather different. In more developed IT nations, like Japan and Singapore, the advent of the Internet has brought about different kinds of interactive communities and digitally mediated activities that ultimately crisscross and have created more subtle changes in lifestyle and socio-political interaction.

Although Asia.com does cover a diverse range of countries, it neglects to provide any empirical coverage of Korea, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, where Internet has enjoyed a long history, heavy state or commercial support and thus impacted significantly on economic development in other aspects as well. Moreover, much can be said about how the hybridization of digital technology (or maybe just information) across different hardware platforms (PC, cell phones, handheld games, etc.) has contributed to a more complex total lifestyle (and not just political dissidence in particular). In short, I think that a book on the Internet can explore the rich and diverse changes in everyday practices, which are emerging in Asia and elsewhere, but it is necessary first of all to directly confront what the Internet is precisely and in what sense it is an extension of existing social technologies and cultural mindsets. This is in any case still an open question in my opinion.

Allen Chun:
Allen Chun is a Research Fellow in the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, Taiwan. His research interests include socio-cultural theory, national identity, and (post)colonial formations. He also published a recent paper, with Jia-lu Cheng, on Internet in Taiwan, entitled "The Growth of Internet Communities in Taiwan and the Marginalization of the Public Sphere," in Globalization and the Humanities: Nation-States, Disciplines, Virtual Worlds, and Emergent Sensibilities, David L. Li ed., Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press (2004), pp. 169-85.  <achun@gate.sinica.edu.tw>

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