Published in Democratization, 8: 4 (Winter 2001)
Boon or boondoggle? The debate over the Internet and its possible democratizing impact has generally coalesced around two distinct arguments. As ably summarized by Rohit Lekhi in this volume, "the optimistic view suggests that the Internet will facilitate the increased participation and deeper engagement of citizens in the political sphere ... deliver[ing] low-cost participation that is nevertheless direct, immediate and interactive." A second, "more sceptical" view, favoured by Lekhi himself, "suggests that [the Internet] remains beholden to the same commercial and public interests that have [dominated] and continue to dominate other technological media." It can only "reinforce the position of already dominant social groups and political interests" (p. 76). Both the benefits and pitfalls of cyberspace are explored throughout this consistently engaging volume, which originated as a special issue of Democratization. The ten contributions range from explorations of the Internet's role in western democratic life (including its effect on minority communities: see Lekhi's stimulating chapter on "The Politics of African America On-Line") to considerations of its multifaceted, often-progressive impact in and on third world societies (Africa, Indonesia, China).
Jennifer Stromer-Galley's chapter on "Democratizing Democracy" examines the growing role of the Internet in US political campaigns, among them former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura's "net-fuelled drive for the governor's seat" in Minnesota. Ventura spent much less on his campaign than did his better-funded opponents. But by creating a website ("JesseNet") and bulletin board that allowed him to take his message to thousands of potential voters, he still won handsomely. Stromer-Galley places herself firmly in the optimists' camp with her conclusion that, if used appropriately, the Internet may bring about "a more democratic turn in the political sphere of daily life" (pp. 55, 57).
Though few doubt that the Internet has made communication easier, faster, and more cost-efficient than ever before, there remains the question: what kind of comunication? Both neo-Nazis and Afghanistan's repressive Taliban government have found the net an ideal medium for spreading their views, as Peter Chroust points out in his chapter on "Neo-Nazis and Taliban On-Line." For Beth Simone Noveck, meanwhile, "the superficial quality of conversation on the net makes lasting and politically relevant community thus far impossible. The appearance of community masks the realitiy of isolation and atomization fed by life behind the screen" ("Paradoxical Partners: Electronic Communication and Electronic Democracy," p. 32.
Noveck's evaluation is partly belied by David T. Hill and Krishna Sen's study of "The Internet in Indonesia's New Democracy." For these authors, the overthrow of Indonesian President Suharto in 1998 "was the first revolution using the Internet" (p. 119, citing W. Scott Thompson). The Internet became "a space in which to articulate the [opposition's] anti-statist, pro-free market and freedom of speech arguments" (p. 126). The authors draw a fascinating parallel between the café-and-chat-room infrastructure of net communication in Indonesia, and Jürgen Habermas's "eighteenth-century example of the public space which is simultaneously a source of information and a coffee shop," allowing participants to "shar[e] information, opinion, [and] gossip in a way that is simultaneously public but unstructured, un-institutionalized, un-edited" (p. 127).
One departs this exciting little book with only one unfulfilled wish: that the authors had been a tad more self-reflective about the impact of the Internet on their own lives and intellectual activities. In a recent issue of The Nation (12 February 2001), Steven Johnson examines the role of the net -- in particular, the World Wide Web -- in fortifying the contribution of public intellctuals worldwide. The Web, Johnson writes, has created "the ability to center your intellectual life in all of its different appearances in your own 'presence' online, on the home page," thus "combating the problem with the free-floating intellectual ... The web gives you a way of rounding all those diverse kinds of experiences and ideas ... And it also involves a commitment ot real engagement with your audience that perhaps public intellectuals have talked a lot about in the past, but maybe not lived up to as much as they could have." The public intellectual is as central a figure as any in democracy and democratization processes. Might the Internet be providing him or her with a new lease on life?