Internet = Democratization?

Cyberdemocracy: Internet and the Public Sphere by Mark Poster:

If the technological structure of the Internet institutes costless reproduction, instantaneous dissemination and radical decentralization, what might be its effects upon the society, the culture and the political institutions? (205)

Reading, Writing, Hypertext: Democratic Politics in the Virtual Classroom by Joseph Tabbi:

Whether a decentered and interactive [virtual community] can in fact produce a democratic impact must depend, not on the hypermedia itself, but on the “larger social contexts in which the system is used.” (241)

Computer interfaces, for instance, are still embedded in “class-bound values and [a] general corporate orientation” as reflected in “documentation in which there is a ‘preponderance of white people and icons of middle – and upper-class white culture’; software applications that represent the ‘virtual world as a desktop;’ passwords, copyright protections, and levels of privileged access that sustain notions of ownership and class hierarchy…” (242)

Progressive Politics, Electronic Individualism and the Myth of Virtual Community by Joseph Lockard:

The political geography of cyberspace effectively mirrors the prevailing patterns of global resource distribution. Vast swaths of the world remain entirely unserved by Internet. On one hand this is simply a reiteration of the existing asymmetrical information orders; on the other, it’s an exacerbation and new order of magnitude in international disparity…

Confusing improved communications with international community is another easy mistake of technological enthusiasm. Educated Victorian opinion made the same error when hailing the Eastern Cable Company’s Suez-Aden-Bombay submarine cable for reinforcing and consolidating the British Empire as a unified community. The sense of closeness engendered when governmental instructions could be wired from London to India within hours was a measure of improved capacities for control of the imperial periphery… [C]ommunications globalism and near-simultaneity, two characteristics attributed to “virtual communities,” have been present for quite awhile. The Internet simply sets a new standard for the technical expression of these characteristics. The comparison suggests that ideologies of metropole/periphery relations and international order inform the extension of Internet just as thoroughly and more complexly than its technological predecessor of a century ago, the colonial cable system (228-229).

Now as then, emergent cyberspace ideologies commonly promote credence in machine-mediated social relations and their benefits, together with mystifications of individual, community, and global relations. Progressive politics should seek to analyze, clarify, and demystify these relations. Otherwise there will be little to separate the celebration of cybermachines from the then-progressive nineteenth-century infatuation with machines as the realization of human liberation (230). ■

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