Post preface: For the next few months, Books, Birdies, and Earl Grey will be doubling as a “learning blog” for one of my media classes. Most of my blogs will stick to book discussion, but may look more scholarly in nature.
This semester I am taking a class called “Media, Culture, and Technology” where we are analyzing how media and technology affect or are affected by our culture (who knew?). One of the required readings is Misunderstanding the Internet by James Curran, Natalie Fenton, and Des Freedman (CFF). When I started the first chapter of this book, I was skeptical that I would learn anything I didn’t already have minor knowledge about. I just finished the second chapter, and I already feel inclined to revoke my statement. Not only have I learned some valuable information about how the internet operates in our society, some of the assumptions I had about the internet have been proven false.
The second chapter, “Rethinking Internet History,” explores many of the common misconceptions that surround the internet’s growth and development. One topic it touches on was the prediction in the 1990s “that the global diffusion of the internet would assist the march to democracy” (49). I have always casually nodded my head in agreement with this statement. Free speech, sharing of ideas, intercultural communication, and all in a public sphere that can’t possibly be regulated or controlled—why would anyone think the internet wouldn’t expand democracy? Unfortunately, as CFF point out, this “thesis proved to be overblown” for several reasons (49).
The first is reason CFF mention is that “democracy is only one source of governmental legitimacy” (49). In other words, democracy is not the only way to effectively and adequately govern a country. Dictatorship is also not the only authoritarian regime. There are multiple methods to instilling an authoritarian government and they are used all over the world. CFF mention just a few: nationalism, God’s will, and economic growth (49). The idea that the internet could curtail all of these methods is slightly unrealistic, especially when coupled with the next reason Curran, Fenton, and Freedman point out.
This theory “mistakenly assumes that the internet is uncontrollable” (50). This is not only true for dictatorship or communists countries, but ANY country. Just look at the recent debates about net neutrality and internet freedom in the U.S. over the past few weeks. Forbes, CNN, and The New York Times have all touched on this issue. The New York Times even suggests that net neutrality is “the most important issue facing the internet, since, well, the internet.” This only proves that even in a democratic nation, controlling the internet is a big issue and one that cannot be ignored. This is particularly true when it is a government agency trying to control it. CFF point out that numerous governments “have sought to make the internet a propaganda tool” (50). Basically, the internet is anything but uncontrollable.
I’ve always considered myself an optimist and promoter of democracy and all that comes with it, but I have been grossly naïve in believing that the internet was a successful and feasible way of achieving that. I’m sure that this book will only continue to make me reassess many of the assumptions about the internet’s capabilities and will help me become a smarter and wiser internet user.