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Book Reviews

E.con: How the Internet Undermines Democracy

by Donald Gutstein

Digital Democracy: Policy and Politics in the Wired World

by Cynthia J. Alexander and Leslie A. Pal, eds.

Cyberpower: The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace and the Internet

by Tim Jordan

Remember 1994? In those days, the Internet was still known as the information highway, and the media was filled with stories about how online technology would one day make the world’s accumulated knowledge available to even the smallest hamlet in the most remote corner of the country. All we needed to figure out was how to build the information highway so that the “on-ramps” were widely accessible.

Five years later, we’re not much closer to that utopian dream, and a variety of writers have come up with differing theories to explain why. Donald Gutstein, a senior lecturer in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, lays the blame on the federal government. E.con: How the Internet Undermines Democracy is Gutstein’s accessible and well-researched account of how the Canadian government has allowed corporations to hijack the Internet to suit their own bottom-line enhancing purposes. “Corporate propaganda has successfully blurred national interests with business interests,” says Gutstein in his introduction. “[It has convinced Canadians that] what’s good for the information industry is good for Canada.”

In September 1997, the federal government announced its Connecting Canadians program, an initiative designed to make Canadians “the most connected people on Earth” and to “build a stronger democracy through direct citizen participation.” The program outlined strategies for Canadians to take advantage of online opportunities in six key areas, including e-commerce, education, business, government, and culture. Gutstein contends, however, that the government was only really interested in boosting e-commerce. (It’s symbolic, he says, that the program fell under Industry Canada’s purview rather than that of the Treasury Board, which handles the government’s information holdings and administers the Privacy and Access to Information Acts.) In E.con, he argues that the “Connecting Canadians” program was not about enhancing democracy at all, but selling out the country’s public institutions to the highest bidder.

Gutstein’s arguments, however, don’t always lead convincingly from A to B. In his discussion of the public education system, for example, he suggests that a donation of computer equipment by Silicon Graphics to Toronto’s Centennial College will eventually lead to the takeover of the institution by private interests. “It won’t be long before the college centres become an arm of industry, with benefits accruing to shareholders of global computer and information corporations while costs are underwritten largely by Canadian taxpayers.” What about the benefits to the students from corporate donations? What if students use their skills not to work for Hollywood studios, as Gutstein suggests, but to launch indigenous animation companies that hire other Canadians? Does this undermine democracy?

Nor did Gutstein entirely convince me that the Internet is actually to blame for all the phenomena he observes. Since 1985, Statistics Canada has been printing fewer publications, hiking its prices, and moving into electronic publication. Gutstein asserts that eventually most, if not all, of StatsCan’s information will be made available for a fee – a consequence he blames directly on the agency’s decision to move into electronic publishing. But StatsCan started charging for its publications under the Mulroney administration, years before the Internet became a mass medium, prompting one to ask whether the agency’s decisions stem from the spread of online technology, or from changing views in government about what should be provided to citizens “free.”

One may not always agree with Gutstein, but he asks the right questions, presents compelling arguments, and sounds the alarm over the creation in Canada of a class of information “have” and “have-nots.”

Digital Democracy: Policy and Politics in the Wired World contains a dozen essays based on presentations made by Canadian and American scholars in 1996 at the Atlantic Provinces Political Science Association. In his preface, Edwin Black contends that “The ever-spreading use of information technologies is transforming both how we are governed and the institutions of that governance.” The mostly academic (but accessible) essays that follow explore the use of information technology in such areas of the public domain as national security, censorship, political parties, information property rights, and privacy. Unlike Gutstein’s work, the essays are more observational than persuasive.

Readers will pick and choose the topics of their interest, but Leslie A. Pal’s “A Thousand Points of Darkness” is a fascinating case study of the grassroots opposition to a U.S. bill that sought to criminalize obscenity on the Internet. Pal’s study of the U.S. Communications Decency Act indicates that because so many different groups had something at stake if the CDA passed into law – and because they were all linked to the Web – political opposition grew quickly and mobilized effectively. Although Pal hesitates to draw any sweeping conclusions, he suggests that the Internet can dramatically lower the barriers to political involvement, foster a less hierarchical movement, and open up the potential for more fundamental democratic politics (in startling contrast to Gutstein’s thesis).

On a larger scale, Ronald Diebert examines in a thought-provoking contribution how the Internet and communications technology have accelerated the process of globalization – in both production and finance – and are diminishing the ability of individual nations to set their own agenda. States around the world are increasingly conforming to the pressures and values of “global capitalism” and a growing web of international organizations (WTO, EU, NAFTA, etc.). His conclusion? That social, economic and political practices are “decoupling” from the realm of nations.

Cyberpower: The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace and the Internet is the most academic of the three books here, and, like Digital Democracy, seeks to describe the various effects of online technology on culture and politics, though in a much more theoretical way. Interestingly, author Tim Jordan also examines the fictional world of cyberspace, as imagined by authors like William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, and others, suggesting that much can be learned from cyberfiction about the impact of the Internet on the real world.

The author presents a detailed history of the Internet, from its beginnings as ARPANET, includes a short discussion of the Communications Decency Act, and spends rather a long time examining statistics about who uses the Web. Jordan also provides a chapter-length discussion of the virtual individual, including a fascinating look at the alternate worlds people create on the Net.

Much of the discussion that follows will not be of interest to a general reader, but for those with a keen interest in theories about cyberspace, and how power manifests itself differently in the online versus the real world, Cyberpower presents a useful overview.