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Reformatting Politics: Information Technology and Global Civil Society

Editor: Jodi Dean, Jon W. Anderson, Geert Lovink
Publisher: New York and London: Routledge, 2006
Review Published: February 2008

 REVIEW 1: Athina Karatzogianni

The book's argument, put forth both by the editors in their introduction and by Saskia Sassen in the volume's forward, is that ICTs enable networked communities, affiliations, and engagements that simply cannot be conceived with the democratic imaginary, as they cannot be housed in additional democratic notions of representation, accountability, and legitimacy. Subsidiarity, multistakeholderism, expertise and reputation management are discussed into a lesser or greater extent by a diverse list of authors as components of the postdemocratic governmentality emerging through civil society organizations and networked ICTs.

Carefully constructed, the volume tackles this necessity for postdemocratic politics by bringing together empirically and conceptually rich analyses on networks, sites of conflict and resistance in civil society, and formats relating to internet governance, ICANN, and the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS). As a result, Reformatting Politics is a very welcome contribution to the field of internet politics, civil society, network theory and ICTs, and the transformations we are experiencing in the governance and political economy of global communications.

In the first part, Networks, Noortje Marres clarifies and offers definitions for the "issue networks" as a site of civil society politics. Marres argues that, although the issue network is conceptualised to be affirmative in that it denotes a form of political organization that is compatible with liberal democracy, it is an "un-innocent" form of political intervention, bringing with it a democratic deficit. Marres uses Heclo's (1978) article "The Issue Network and the Executive Establishment" to remind us that the "issue network" was bound to alienate the broader public -- not so much because they were excluded from participation in issue formation, but because the specialist, technical discourses in which issues were being defined did not "speak" to more general and basic concerns of institutional outsiders" (6). Ned Rossiter convincingly makes the case that "as new institutional forms, organised networks create the possibility of new subjectivities that do not correspond with the modern politicoeconomic subject of either the citizen or the consumer" (32). Rossiter also correctly brings to our attention the need to differentiate our theorising between "organized networks" and "networked organizations" (the latter, modern institutions forced to upgrade their networking capacities). Also part of this Network section is Clay Shirkey's constructive, albeit at times introductory discussion of network theory and power law distributions in networks, which helpfully argues that inequalities in these systems are inevitable, emerging from the normal functioning of these systems (42). Jamie King moves on to theorize openness and the problem of seeing open source as a technosocial precondition for emerging radical democracy, as he finds cryptohierarchies and structurelessness masking power in his studies of People's Global Action, Indymedia, and the Euraction hub. The network part closes with Drazen Pantic's more descriptive chapter on how p2p will challenge the Network news, which somehow begs the question -- hasn't it challenged it already?

Sites, the second part of the volume, sees Lina Khatib's account of how Islamic fundamentalism is communicated as global citizenship. Despite the obvious theorization on the fluidity of this identity as a post-national hybrid and a not so detailed nor original account of various terrorist groups' websites and tactics, we are more than compensated with the way she builds up to the argument that "the groups' websites pay attention to local issues in the countries in which the groups operate, at the same time they advocate a kind of global ethics that links their aims and goals, such as the establishment of a global Pax Islamica" (74). To continue, another site discussed under this section is Merlyna Lim's reformasi in Indonesia, which is an important discussion, as it not only explains, probably for the first time so intelligently, the internet's role in the overthrow of Suharto, but also conceptualises the role of cybercivic spaces: "In other words, the technology allows for the creation of what can be termed 'cybercivic' spaces that facilitate the rise of civil society in such places as Indonesia" (94). However, while the internet can empower civil society, Lim correctly warns, does not always necessarily lead to democratization. Another significant contribution in the Sites part is the one from Okoth Fred Mudhai who is right to complain of the insufficient research on mobile telephony's contribution to activism, especially in the underdeveloped/developing world. Mudhai calls for civil society organizations to seriously consider the constraints of building true consensus on the campaigns suggesting that "use of SMS by transnational CSOs in geographically disadvantaged areas would strengthen collaboration with local counterparts" (116). Similarly, Scott S. Robinson suggests solutions favoring the underprivileged and migrant populations in remittance economies when making a case for microfinance insitutions to be allowed to operate commercial telecom services along with financial services. The section closes with Evan Henshaw-Plath, who successfully argues via mini case studies of Grklaw.net, Polstate.com, and wikipedia that a balance of power and openness, of structure and fluidity are necessary to making a functional organization on the Internet.

The last part, Formats, comprises of four detailed chapters on everything you wanted to know about the more recent history of the global communications reform movement (NWICO, ICANN, and the WSIS) and were too scared to ask. Therein, might lie the only weakness of the book: the likelihood that one of the three parts (Networks, Sites, Formats) might fall out of the personal research interests of the reader (in my case, unsurprisingly, it was the Formats). Worse, I often had the feeling that some of the authors failed to link their subject area to the main argument of the volume, which is full of promise, and somehow it goes unexplored: postdemoctratic theorising for civil society and IT ends up not theorised explicitly enough in the work.

Nevertheless, in Reformatting Politics, Dean, Anderson, and Lovink bring together successfully this very much needed collection, which persuasively argues the case for a different kind of politics to reflect this extraordinary transformation in media, civil society, and the everyday sociopolitical and cultural experience in the global public sphere.

H. Heclo, "The Issue-network and the Executive establishment," in The New American Political System. Washington, DC: A. King American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1978.

Athina Karatzogianni:
Athina Karatzogianni is Lecturer in Media, Culture and Society, University of Hull, UK. Athina has studied journalism, international relations, international conflict analysis, and information technology. Her research explores the ways in which new network forms of technology overlap with the new network biopolitics of sociopolitical movements, and how this interacts with the arborescent forms of ethnoreligious identity formation and the formation of master-signifiers and constitutive exclusions in relation to such identities. Athina is author of The Politics of Cyberconflict.  <athina.k@gmail.com>

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