chapter  7
7 Pages

Conclusion: James Curran, Des Freedman and Natalie Fenton


This book has two central themes. The first is that a narrow, decontextualised focus on the technology of the internet leads to misperceiving its impact. This argument is illustrated, in the first chapter, by looking at four sets of technologycentred predictions about how the internet would change society, and then examining what actually happened. The internet did not promote global understanding in the way that had been anticipated because the internet came to reflect the inequalities, linguistic division, conflicting values and interests of the real world. The internet did not spread and rejuvenate democracy in the way that had been promised, partly because authoritarian regimes usually found ways of controlling the internet, but also because alienation from the political process limited the internet’s emancipatory potential. The internet did not transform the economy, partly because the underlying dynamics of unequal competition that make for corporate concentration remained unchanged. Lastly, the internet did not inaugurate a renaissance of journalism; on the contrary, it enabled leading news brands to extend their ascendancy across technologies, while inducing a decline of quality not offset, so far, by new forms of journalism. All four predictions were wrong because they inferred the impact of the internet from its technology and failed to grasp that the internet’s influence is filtered through the structures and processes of society. This explains, it is argued, why the influence of the internet has varied in different contexts. The second central theme of this book is that the internet itself is not con-

stituted solely by its technology but also by the way it is funded and organised, by the way it is designed, imagined and used, and by the way it is regulated and controlled. In the second chapter, devoted to the history of the internet, it is argued that the internet was originally shaped, after its military conception, by the values of science, counterculture and European public service. This largely pre-market formation was then overtaken by commercialisation and increasing state censorship. We are now in the midst of a battle for the ‘soul’ of the internet, which has a global dimension as well as a Western one. This second theme, concerned with influences on the internet, is developed

more fully in the second part of this book. Chapter 3 describes the lyrical, who

see the internet as a technology that promotes a new form of economy and a new state of being: one that abolishes scarcity in favour of abundance, replaces standardisation with diversity, and substitutes hierarchy with participation and democratisation. However, apart from a communitarian strand linked to non-commercial developments of the internet, these accounts are all based on a market model of the internet. What they overlook is the multiple distortions that a market-based internet has developed: corporate dominance, market concentration, controlling gatekeepers, employee exploitation, manipulative rights management, economic exclusion through ‘tethered appliances’ and encroachment upon the information commons. The internet market, on closer scrutiny, turns out to have many of the problems associated with unregulated capitalism. Should we, then, think the unthinkable and contemplate a different way of

managing the internet? This seems to disrespect the much-lauded system we have now. This system is said to be ideal because it entails soft governance rather than oppressive state control, self-regulation through experts and users rather than a regime of oppressive bureaucracy. But recent analysis has shed light on what this complacent self-presentation conceals. In fact Western governments are not as absent as they appear to be, and retain a strategic oversight over computer networks that have increasing military and economic significance. This can take the form of arbitrary interventions, as when the US government exerted pressure on credit card companies to refuse payments to WikiLeaks in a bid to muzzle its embarrassing disclosures. Furthermore, control of the internet is increasingly vested in powerful internet corporations, supported by software and hardware restrictions. Self-regulation frequently means corporate regulation in a form that can threaten the freedom and public-good features of the net. So it is now legitimate to consider whether a better system of regulation – independent of government and market control – should be preferred. To this we shall return. Chapters 5 and 6 focus on the spectacular rise of social media, which has led

to speculation that they will profoundly change social relations. Technology that gives a means of communication to individuals and social networks, it is reasoned, must be collectively empowering. Positive concepts like autonomy, access, participation, multiplicity and pluralism are regularly invoked to reinforce this image of a transformative force. While it is true that social media provide a pleasurable means of self-expression and social connection, enable people to answer back to citadels of media power and in certain situations (as in Iran) may support the creation of a radical counter-public, Chapter 5 introduces a sceptical note. Social media are more often about individual than collective emancipation, about presenting self (frequently in consumerist or individualising terms) rather than changing society, about entertainment and leisure rather than political communication (still dominated by old media) and about social agendas shaped by elites and corporate power rather than a radical alternative. For example, than on

Des Freedman

political change. Social media, in other words, are shaped by the wider environment in which they are situated rather than functioning as an autonomous force transforming society. What, then, is the connection between the internet and radical politics?