Book review – Misunderstanding the Internet

In Misunderstanding the Internet, three authors from Goldsmiths, University of London, set out to debunk the prevailing utopian- libertarian view of the Internet, and its purported transformational power over society. Overturning this simplistic narrative is a goal they easily achieve: fairy tales of technological determinism are neatly skewered on sharpened analysis and deliciously roasted above hot coals of evidence, before being washed down with well-matured insight. The flavour is a complex skepticism, without being bitterly cynical.

The authors offer a correctional antidote to excessive claims for the Internet’s revolutionary potential to create a “new digital economy” and “new digital society.” Having undone this misunderstanding, they go on to create an essential guide – arguably the essential guide – to understanding the Internet’s relationship to the economy, society, and polity at large.

Readers with political allergies should, however, be warned that the book has been produced in an environment that may contain traces of Marxism. This is not a criticism: a central and valid (Marxist) theme is that power matters, and that the Internet is equally adept at amplifying power and inequality as it is at flattening or bypassing them. Internet technology is neither inherently democratic nor despotic, but has an effect that is largely, if not entirely, driven by the context into which it is deployed. Everything that really matters is path-dependent, not technologically-predefined.

The book is divided into three parts, which in turn explore the history and socio-political context of the Internet; its direct relationship to economic and political sources of power, and how new social media enable (or hinder) engagement with those sources of power in order to foster opposition to the status quo.

In the first part of the book, James Curran demolishes the four pillars of the temple of received Internet wisdom: that the Internet transforms the economy, promotes global understanding, rejuvenates democracy, and lastly fosters a renaissance of journalism. Instead, the Internet era is marked by the increasing market power of existing large corporations, and intense market concentration of e-commerce platforms. A Tower of Babel separates us into linguistic islands, and no machine translation can bridge the cultural channels separating them. Democracy is, if anything, designed to give voice to the weak and powerless: the Internet broadly fails to achieve this due to educational and economic barriers. Journalism remains concentrated within existing media structures, with the attention economy firmly reinforcing old hierarchies of visibility and reach. The picture is not uniformly dismal, and Curran picks out notable examples where there have been significant (albeit less than “transformational”) impacts on politics and society.

This is followed by a re-telling of the Internet’s history, taking particular care not to anchor it in a purely Westernized framing. First steps are fateful: the Internet was the product of an unholy alliance between academics and the military – both seeking to evade central control for diametrically opposing reasons. The Internet was never set on path towards democratic empowerment and engagement.

We are reminded that an essential enabling technology – the Web – was a product of a European public service ethos. The subsequent commercialization of the Internet has turned it into a mass- surveillance and tracking system. Those adhering to loftier ideals of openness and transparency in software have met with limited success. The Internet’s supposed role in revolutions and the release of women from repression is mostly marginal, and often regressive. Curran concludes that “society exerts, in general, a greater influence on the Internet than the other way round.” This should come as no surprise, as the same thing happened when newspapers emerged.

Turning attention toward the self-anointed carriers of the Internet zeitgeist, Des Freedman writes a devastating critique of the self-organizing, distance-transcending, scarcity-ignoring hype. This disintermediated world of peer-production by non-hierarchical organizations certainly exists – but it is counterpointed by a far greater increase in the efficiency and power of existing capitalist modes of ownership and production. Creativity and culture are commodified; the gift and attention economy are subsumed by systems of the cash profit economy. Employees of modern Internet giants perform intellectual labors under terms a medieval guild worker would reject. The new gatekeepers of aggregation and attention have a dominance that the old gatekeepers could only dream of.

Freeman follows this with a review of how the Internet is regulated. Whilst acknowledging the insights of Lessig, Benkler, and Zittrain, he rejects the idea that the Internet transcends or evades national sovereign structures. Self-regulatory bodies tend to be weak or captured by corporate interests. The centralization of power through intermediaries makes the Internet receptive to existing state regulatory systems, even if those tend to conceive of people as consumers rather than citizens. Only democratic and representative states have both the means and legitimacy to regulate the Internet.

Concluding the main body of the book, Natalie Fenton makes an excellent case against the politically transformative power of social media. These services are the sucrose and saccharin of the digital world: attractive but lacking life-nourishing power for society as a whole. Systems of mass self-communication are structured subtly to serve the advertising and commercial ends of their owners. This “cultural capitalism” rewards the accumulation of contacts and information by private organisations with little thought to civic engagement issues. Small organisations have small voices, and protest tends towards invisibility. Fenton plausibly argues that “social media will replicate and entrench inequalities,” and that it is a mistake to assume that networks are inherently liberatory.

In a highlight of the book, Fenton goes on to describe how social media reinforces political fragmentation and inhibits solidarity among the disenfranchised, whilst providing an “illusion of direct control through self-expression.” The revolution will neither be televised nor socially mediated.

Finally, the book ends with a jointly authored prescription of the “what” that needs to occur to realize a more just and inclusive digitally-mediated society. The prescription is for institution- building to re-balance the power of state and corporate interests with those of civil society and the public at large. It would, regrettably, have been a more powerful call to action if the book had stopped three paragraphs earlier, leaving the “how” to be considered elsewhere. The proposals for new Internet taxes feel under-developed and mis-targeted.

If there is a philosophical criticism to be leveled at the premise of the book, it is that it may unwittingly fall into the same trap as the targets of its critique, while implicitly assuming that we should be seeing substantive change in “Internet time.” When China’s Premier Chou En Lai was asked in 1972 whether the French Revolution had been a good thing or a bad thing, he replied, “It’s too early to tell.” Likewise, the digital revolution has only just begun to truly reshape society and the economy.

In Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, Carlota Perez presents a compelling model of how these revolutions unfold. They begin with an installation period of three generations, during which the basic technology is developed. For the information technology and communications revolution, this corresponds broadly to the period since the transistor was invented in 1947. This is followed by a turning point of around ten years, which includes a financial bubble and crash. Thereafter, society and the economy reconfigure around the new technology, and a golden age emerges. This later deployment period is similarly around 70 years in length.

We are now only five years from the launch of the iPhone in 2007, which just preceded the 2008 financial crash. Smartphones have only just reached mass usage, and cloud services are prepubescent technologies. We thus also remain in the very early days of the Internet’s long-term impact, since these are vital complementary technologies. For example, the work of Doc Searls in his recent book The Intention Economy describes new citizen-empowering technologies like Vendor Relationship Management. These have the potential to rebalance the consumer-producer relationship. These are still concepts and demonstrations of what is possible. The evidence of history also suggests that some patience is required. The work of Andrew Odlyzko on the 1840s “Railway Mania” – a bubble that makes the dotcom blowout seem trivial – reinforces this long view. It takes a great deal of time for the social and political outcomes of a technological revolution to be felt.

We had enjoyed 150 years of telegraphy, telephony, and texting before the mass use of broadband Internet services arrived. Perhaps future generations will look back and wonder how anyone could have considered that a new method of data multiplexing, traffic control, and network address sharing could have been thought to be socially transformational. The Internet is just another in a long history of idea amplifiers.

Nonetheless, this much-needed book is well timed, well researched, and well argued. It should be considered essential reading for students of media and the political economy of the digital era. It is also highly relevant to policymakers, as well as a rewarding and challenging read for a wider informed and interested audience. Indeed, it provoked a storm of note-taking and idea-making for this reviewer, all of which exceeds the space available to recount here. Therefore I hope you take that as a prompt to engage with this valuable and timely contribution to our (mis)understanding of the information society.

This article was first published in the Journal of Information Policy (2012):

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