chapter  1
31 Pages

Reinterpreting the internet: James Curran


In the 1990s, leading experts, politicians, public officials, business leaders and journalists predicted that the internet would transform the world.1 The internet would revolutionise, we were told, the organisation of business, and lead to a surge of prosperity (Gates 1995).2 It would inaugurate a new era of cultural democracy in which sovereign users – later dubbed ‘prosumers’ – would call the shots, and old media leviathans would decay and die (Negroponte 1996). It would rejuvenate democracy – in some versions by enabling direct e-government through popular referenda (Grossman 1995). All over the world, the weak and marginal would be empowered, leading to the fall of autocrats and the reordering of power relations (Gilder 1994). More generally, the global medium of the internet would shrink the universe, promote dialogue between nations and foster global understanding (Jipguep 1995; Bulashova and Cole 1995). In brief, the internet would be an unstoppable force: like the invention of print and gunpowder, it would change society permanently and irrevocably. These arguments were mostly inferences derived from the internet’s technol-

ogy. It was assumed that the distinctive technological attributes of the internet – its interactivity, global reach, cheapness, speed, networking facility, storage capacity, and alleged uncontrollability – would change the world beyond all recognition. Underlying these predictions was the assumption that the internet’s technology would reconfigure all environments. Internet-centrism, a belief that the internet is the alpha and omega of technologies, an agency that overrides all obstacles, lies at the heart of most of these prophecies. These predictions gained ever greater authority when, seemingly, they were

fulfilled. From popular uprisings in the Middle East to the new ways we shop and interact, society is said to be changing in response to new communications technology. Only technophobes, stuck in a time warp of the past, remain blind to what is apparent to everyone else: namely that the world is being remade by the internet. But as pronouncements about the internet’s impact became ever more

assured, and shifted from the future to the present tense, a backlash developed. A straw in the wind was the apostasy of MIT guru Sherry Turkle. In 1995, she grounds

that they could extend imaginative insight into the ‘other’, and forge more emancipated sensibilities (Turkle 1995).3 Sixteen years later, she changed tack. Online communication, she lamented, could be shallow and addictive, and get in the way of developing richer, more fulfilling interpersonal relationships (Turkle 2011).4 Another apostate was the Belarus activist Evgeny Morozov. His former belief that the internet would undermine dictators was, he declared, a ‘delusion’ (Morozov 2011). There were also others whose initial, more guarded hope in the emancipatory power of the internet turned into outright scepticism. Typical of this latter group are John Foster and Robert McChesney (2011: 17), who write that ‘the enormous potential of the Internet… has vaporized in a couple of decades’. We are thus faced with a baffling contradiction of testimony. Most informed

commentators view the internet as a transforming technology. Their predictions are now seemingly being confirmed by events. However, there is an unsettling minority who confidently decry the majority view as perverse. Who – and what – is right? We will attempt to sketch an answer in this introductory chapter by identifying

four key sets of predictions about the impact of the internet, and then check to see whether these have come true or not.5 We will conclude by reflecting upon the nature of the conditions that result in the internet having a larger or smaller effect.