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Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times

Editor: Megan Boler
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008
Review Published: November 2009

 REVIEW 1: J. Patrick Biddix
 REVIEW 2: Mary K. Bryson

In 1991, a few years prior to the information and communication technology (ICT) proliferation at the end of decade, media commentator Howard Rheingold, in "Electronic Democracy," estimated, "the combination of personal computers and the telephone network might prove as important to citizens in the information age as the printing press has been for several centuries." Rheingold's prediction lent optimism to activists, advocates, and concerned citizens -- with this technology, everyone might finally be able participate.

Throughout the next decade and well into the new millennium, writers, researchers, and hopefuls continued to decree the change potential of ICT. Accounts in mainstream media, academic journals, and books chronicled the role of ICT in alternative news media, online advocacy, and cyberactivism to suggest a prophecy fulfilled. Perhaps ICT was the "great equalizer" as foretold? In Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times, Megan Boler and her contributors question the evidence of substantial, lasting, democratic change.


Boler begins with a considerable introduction to the issues of digital media and democracy. Prior to a detailed discussion of each chapter's contents, Boler provides a synopsis of her intent for the edited volume:
It is my hope that through our collective insight, we spark further interrogation and intervention precisely around the question of whether and how diverse types of media interventions challenge dominant media, what new forms of tactical interventions take in these hard times, and where precisely lies public interest and its representation in media in the face of oligarchies and media moguls. (10)
A glossary follows with contextually-defined terminology used throughout the volume. The next nineteen chapters, organized into three sections, contain a mix of critical essays, interviews, and theoretical applications. A brief overview of each chapter follows.

Chapter Synopses (1-5)

Chapters 1-5 comprise the first section, The Shape of Publics: New Media and Global Capitalism. Chapter 1 is an interview with Robert McChesney, cofounder and president of media reform organization Free Press. Interviewer Boler works alongside McChesney to contextualize relevant background information shaping his philosophy on the critical role of media/the press acting as a balance to self-government in a democracy.

Chapter 2 is an overview of the issues critics and researchers face when attempting to study tactical media, defined as "expressions of dissent that rely loosely on artistic practices and do-it-yourself (DIY) media" (38). Alessandra Renzi discusses the difficulties in precisely defining this medium in an essay introducing the "slipperiness" of TM practices as unstable constructions within fluid spaces.

Chapter 3 is a theoretical comparison of CMC politics to capitalism ("communicative capitalism") arguing communicative interaction as a form of exchange. Jodi Dean's discussion on message saturation as limiting to democratic potential is notable, evidencing a central theme of the book. She writes, "the intense circulation of content in communicative capitalism forecloses the antagonism necessary for politics" (103).

Chapter 4 is an interview with Geert Lovink, media observer and practical theorist. After an introduction to the backdrop of the interview (the Howard Dean campaign), Boler and Lovink engage in a discussion on the nature and appeal of networks and networking, presenting a distinctive argument on how the architecture of technology (as opposed to the user alone) is intrinsically tied to capability, effectiveness, and utilization.

Chapter 5 revisits concepts presented in the previous four chapters to introduce elements of impending (and in some cases, arrived) control in the evolving architecture of the communications structure. Ronald J. Deibert calls for a deeper convergence of advocates, NGO users, and grassroots media to ensure the basic structure of the Internet has a place for human rights.

Chapter Synopses (6-12)

Chapters 6-12 comprise the second section, The Changing Face of News Media. Chapter 6 demonstrates the rhetorical devices used to confuse and to convince us democracy is enacted, while actual practice often violates its core principles. Susan D. Moeller ties this chapter to the previous section with a discussion of the "business of media" as a serious detractor to the balance press is supposed to offer in a democracy. Woven into this chapter is an underlying theme of missing context in today's 24/7 news reporting, which results in a less engaged information consumer.

Chapter 7 is an interview with Amy Goodman, host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, a widely broadcast independent news program. Goodman discusses the need for a media that covers power, not covers it up, shifting the administration's culpability for the lack of direct evidence to go to war to the media's inability or unwillingness to challenge its rationale. An overarching message is that the mere capability does not produce democracy; but sustained commitment to discourse, challenge, and action is required to ensure political accountability.

Chapter 8 reveals a severe limitation in extant alternative media theory -- the lack of practice accounts beyond "celebratory" accounts of technological liberation. Chris Atton calls for future research divorced from transformative perspectives for the sake of yielding true critical inquiry.

Chapter 9 is an interview with Deepa Fernandes, journalist and media activist whose widely distributed work has regularly appeared on ABC, BBC, and the Pacifica Network. Boler elicits numerous examples evidencing Fernandes' commitment to the significance and potential of access to participatory media as a transformative and empowering force for communities.

Chapter 10 discusses alternate futures for tactical news media, an account closely paralleled to both Chapters 2 and 5. Axel Bruns sets up a dichotomous discussion pitting traditional medias' constraints of providing controlled, isolated "facts" and "conflict narratives" against citizen journalists' ability to contextualize news to promote debate and deliberation. Bruns presents OhmyNews as a model toward understanding a citizen journalism approach to alternative media.

Chapter 11 critically examines the blogosphere as a powerful tool for significantly affecting media. Using the questions raised in 2004 over President Bush's service record as an exemplar, D. Travers Scott dissects other blog "tempests" to uncover the elements of a perfect storm in the blogosphere. He notes that most sensations become "blogflops" due in part to the inability for news to consistently spread in this medium. He reveals the necessity for conflict between elites, a perceived injustice, and a route to change (agency) as essential elements of a blog firestorm.

Chapter 12 is an interview with Hassan Ibrahim, a veteran journalist who has covered conflicts throughout the Middle East currently working as a senior producer for Al Jazeera English. Ibrahim discusses the cultural challenges of presenting news in English, the importance of having a perspective from the Middle East in the rest of the world, and his vision for Al Jazeera to become a voice for the people, continually free of political intervention.

Chapter Synopses (13-19)

Chapters 13-19 comprise the third and final section, Tactics in Action. Chapter 13 is an interview with Shaina Anand, media artist and filmmaker who founded ChitraKarKhana.net, a Mumbia-based independent media outlet. Interviewers Renzi and Boler guide a discussion on Anand's particular forms of media activism/tactical media, evidencing the importance of collaborative efforts and the technology employed.

Chapter 14 uses the term gambiarra (Portuguese for alternative ways for solving problems) to describe activist expressions of repurposed technology. Using pictorial examples, Ricardo Rosas demonstrates this concept to advance a discussion of how technology is reconditioned for multifarious forms of activism -- from artistic projects to direct action.

Chapter 15 discusses "social Web" technologies such as YouTube, Wikipedia, and Facebook in the context of activism, noting today's activists have become increasingly reliant on social skills, technological competence, and mobile devices. Trebor Scholz gives a brief but surprisingly deep account, rife with examples of contemporary activism in today's context. "Don't launch a Web site," he concludes as advice to aspiring contemporary activists, "start up a community" (363).

Chapter 16 discusses tactical media as a form of serious play, evoking the term satire as used by Jonathan Swift to describe the humor in various projects as critical discourse. Particularly, Graham Meikle uses the Revolution: USA project to demonstrate opportunities afforded by tactical media for collaborative learning and development using this medium.

Chapter 17 analyzes the online discussions following Jon Stewart's 2004 appearance on Crossfire to situate Stewart's comments as reflective of a more widely shared public concern on the state of democracy in the United States. Boler and Stephen Turpin contend that the popularity and importance of political satire is that it provides the needed space to allow us to consider and discuss history in the context of how it is presented as unfolding.

Chapter 18 uses Stormfront.org, a popular online White supremacy community, as a case study for exploring another facet of electronically-reliant democratic practice. R. Sophie Statzel notes cyberspace offers a communicative venue for helping reduce prejudice, though the popularity of Stormfront and the lack of a large-scale, similarly unified counter voice suggests supremacists may have a head start in working toward a future more in line with their ideology.

Chapter 19 is an interview with Brian Holmes, cultural theorist and activist who has participated and written about numerous anti-globalization demonstrations around the world. Via an email exchange, Holmes offers his view of the state of media and activism, contextualized in his experiences and observations. The chapter serves as an efficient and effective summary of the previous discussions on tactical media and democracy with a view of possible futures.

Concluding Thoughts

Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times lends an important grounding to a field saturated with optimism. Theoretical and analytical contributions are woven alongside notable practitioner perspectives to pattern a volume that can serve either individually or collectively as a reference for contemporary theory and practice.

Readers unfamiliar with terminology and phrasing common to discourse/critical media analysis may find the non-interview chapters of this volume challenging. Specifically, within-discipline prose at times detracts from otherwise well-developed arguments in chapters 2, 3, and 17. For this reason, readers only marginally familiar with discussions of space and/or alternative media theory may in some sections be frustrated by what seems prose for the sake of prose.

Digital Media and Democracy offers a grim but much needed view of digital media as not-so-liberating as we perhaps wish to consider. Boler and her contributors contend that we may have been duped into believing that because the potential exists, the reality follows. As Boler notes, "in short, these scholars and journalists do not buy the hype of democratization that often characterizes discourses around digital media" (34).

Rheingold, H. (1991). Electronic democracy: The great equalizer. Whole Earth Review. Retrieved June 1, 2009.

J. Patrick Biddix:
J. Patrick Biddix is Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Research Methodology in the Department of Curriculum, Leadership, and Technology at Valdosta State University. His primary research interests include college student uses of technology for civic engagment, career pathways in student affairs, and research methodology.  <jpbiddix@valdosta.edu>

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