Democracy and the ‘Information Age’

Mary Griffiths, Monash University

Christopher May The Information Society: A Sceptical View, Cambridge, Polity, 2002 (189 pp). ISBN 0-74562-685-8 (paperback) RRP $58.25.

Diane Saco Cybering Democracy: Public Space and the Internet, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2002 (296 pp). ISBN 0-81663-541-2 (paperback) RRP $27.65.

Douglas Thomas Hacker Culture, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2002 (266 pp). ISBN 0-81663-345-2 (hardcover) RRP $83.00.

The greatest fear for people is the oldest fear of humanity: fear of the technological monsters we can create (Castells 2001, p. 180).

‘Do you believe in the users?’ (program avatar, TRON).

Internet culture is not a virtual culture but a real culture operating in virtual space… (Green 2002, xxxi).

Richard Rose, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, sounds a bit censorious about people who refuse to join the net, in a recent online report. The report is another in a growing number noting the limited success of the grand Blair government project for getting the citizens of the United Kingdom online by 2005. Advocates of the Blair project claim that using new communication technologies is part of making government accessible and transparent in the ‘new information age’. New Labour is just one of the governments around the world not only spending on broad-based access and IT skills training, but using technology to streamline and overhaul the internal workings of government. Proponents expect democracy to benefit. Not everyone is enamoured of the idea of being connected—or being connected in order to converse with government—but Rose predicts that in future people will think of having universal internet connections in the same way that they once thought of having running water in a house (Ward 2003).

We aren’t quite at that stage yet, even in a networked nation like Australia, but Rose’s comments are not extraordinary these days. They illustrate a major way of thinking about the uptake of new information and communication technologies: as unstoppable, positive, and responsible for shaping attitudes and behaviours in a revolutionary new age. Among the benefits technological determinists frequently mention are global communications, access to information on a scale previously undreamed of, along with all the specific technologically-enhanced gains in health care, education, science, business and government.

Of course, there are more negative, dystopian views of technology’s everyday place in our lives, which run the full gamut of anxieties from fears about security, privacy, surveillance, and cybercrime, to angst about the loss of ways of doing things that have always relied on face-to-face relationships. The primary apprehension is about the speed and power of technological change and its impact because, as many have pointed out, most discussions about technology are about our shared future.

Each of the books under review takes a refreshing ‘let’s-go-back-to-basics’ look at some old ideas about technological determinism, to demonstrate the central idea which links the books—people determine the uses of technology. The sooner this is collectively understood, the sooner we’ll have information society practices which enhance democracy. The books question confused thinking and myths about ‘the information society’, democratic space on the internet, and hacking. They relocate what happens on the internet within the solid world of corporeality and social relations. In different ways, they answer the question about whether technology will bring us a completely different way of living, or whether older ways of doing things can and should continue.

So what is at stake for democracy in the new ‘informationalism’, and the techno-cultures which support it? All three books share a broad theme: research and public debate should engage more closely with how technology can, and should, be shaped in order to serve democratic purposes and with how to make sense of the connections between online and offline activities. Research on uses and users of all kinds still has to include the concepts of place, nation, politics, ethics, time and bodies. Cyberspace inequalities and power relations are formed alongside, and from, the real world.

The radical rethinking required, according to May, means doing away with current grand narratives about the ‘inevitability’ of the shape of information society and also getting rid of unreflective popular fantasies and anxieties about technology. At a time when global security issues are paramount on government agendas, Saco argues that security measures which repress difference mean that ‘safety is not an unqualified good’ (p. 210) for democracy and that the visible body needs to come back into discussions of public space. Thomas’s sympathetic history of hacking suggests that it is our fears of the loss of body and identity in cyberspace that cause our relentless pursuit of hackers for their attempts to ‘free’ information.

What each book proposes, in its own way, is a move to a more careful scrutiny of the specific contexts and cultures of democracy and technology.

THE TROUBLE WITH TAKEN-FOR-GRANTED THINKING

Research and debate should engage with how technology can, and should, be shaped to serve democratic purposes.

May challenges the ‘celebratory chorus’ about the extent of technological change, because he doesn’t accept that ‘the hard-won knowledge of modern life is now outmoded or useless’ (p. 3). He points out that this ‘celebratory’ way of thinking neuters and defuses effective social criticism, to keep returning us to the idea of a ‘new’ age. May rigorously scrutinises four recurring claims about information society: the social revolution, the transformation of economic relations, the change to politics and ideas of community, and the belief that state power is declining, and reveals them as ways of looking at change which support the idea of a particular kind of information society.

But, he concludes, this information society isn’t the one we necessarily have to have.

One of the two strongest parts of May’s argument is the section on the relations between information capital and labour. According to technophiles, in the new information society knowledge work can be made flexible, fast capital can travel, and information can be stored and retrieved quickly without the need to deal with traditional gatekeepers. But May identifies ‘unhealthy trends’ too: new technologies can isolate ‘portfolio knowledge workers’ at home, where the constant presence of technology encourages an intensification and extension of the working day and also makes employment less, rather than more, secure. Thus the flipside of the new capacities of global capital is a growing number of exploited service workers everywhere. The increase in casualisation and the erosion of working conditions that generations of workers struggled to wrest from employers are just two signs of an ongoing power struggle between interests that haven’t changed. The forms of economic relations might have altered, but the substance hasn’t, argues May.

The other strong section of his argument is in relation to political practices, an area of technological impact where he sees the most potential for substantive change. He takes two cuts at it—first in a chapter discussing the intellectual foundations of the strong individualism which technologies are said to encourage, and then in an analysis of claims about the death of the nation state. May is convinced that, in the same way that older forms of argument about capitalism are still useful, so are arguments about the role of the nation state. Information society adherents ‘completely misunderstand what the state does’ (p. 147). Technophiles dismiss the range of state activities because they believe that cyberspace does away with the importance of place. But May shows that nation states continue to protect their citizens’ interests. In the cases of Ireland and India, the state has been instrumental in developing recovery strategies based on technology, geography, and history. India is ten hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time in the United States, for example, and this puts the Indian information workforces at an advantage: they can work more competitively than American workers, and they can do it during American downtime. Ireland has capitalised on its long history of migration to use expatriates to run its recruitment drives for knowledge workers, and its low state-set taxation rates help create investment opportunities for foreign as well as nationally-based investors.

May also covers the ideas of the gift culture, e-mutualism, the violation of rights, and increased surveillance. The book’s appendix on ideas supporting intellectual property rights discussions is a useful background briefing on an increasingly contentious issue.

VISIBILITY POLITICS

New technology can erode people’s capacity to see themselves as citizens belonging to a commonwealth, where at times the common good has to come before self-interest. Is this inevitable? If e-commerce or entertainment are the main end-user applications for the internet, and if people would rather ‘play with computers than program them’ (Thomas 2002, p. 145) or use them for any forms of reflective debate, what longer term impact will new technologies have on democratic practice? Can the internet provide an effective ‘electronic agora’ when people can’t see each other? What does it mean for participatory citizenship? Then, there is also the problem of having too much of one’s private business seen, and freedom eroded by increased government, commercial, and employer surveillance. Diane Saco’s book asks ‘Where is the body located in cyberspace?’ To answer it she uses Michel Foucault’s ideas on the disciplinary power of seeing, and Henri Lefebvre’s conceptualisation of space as socially produced.

May is convinced that older forms of argument about capitalism and the role of the nation state are still useful.

Saco’s opening story memorably makes her book’s animating argument: cyberspace makes bodies visible in particular ways in order to manage them. Her first image will strike fear into technophobes—she recounts the gruesome story of the Visible Human Project, which involved the digitisation and circulation of all the scientific data from anatomical research on the body of a convicted murderer, Joseph Paul Jernigan of Huntsville, Texas. The details of what happened to Jernigan’s body are grisly—but Saco makes the point that, in 1993, the sharing of all this body data was considered a ‘democratising of information’, and that once she wouldn’t have questioned that assumption.

With this anecdote, she introduces the theoretical basis for her argument: Foucault’s ideas about power. Foucault argues that the state governs its citizens with techniques of surveillance and that pathology and penology produce particular ways of making a visible normative ‘truth’ about bodies. Cyberspace provides a new set of conditions through which to consider whether more, or less, individual and collective power is possible for information age citizens. In ‘Wetware’ (cyberspeak for ‘users’) Saco considers anonymity, disembodiment, and accountability; in ‘Hacking Cyberspace’, the internet as ‘a space of politics’ gives way to a different idea—the politics of space. Her work goes straight to the heart of old elitist fears about the management of the governed which can be traced back to the earliest days of democracy. Saco’s thesis is that one kind of ‘true’ democracy isn’t possible, that cyberspace is likely to produce multiple spaces for communication where, if the majority voice doesn’t drown out minority differences, there’s a chance of rethinking ‘public space’ for the benefit of all.

This is a philosophical study with examples drawn from the United States. It doesn’t have many community examples to share, although the debates on technology, encryption, and hacking have relevance for us here. But what I find missing is more local description of users’ reactions to these issues. In Australia and the United States, for example, governments are attempting to construct more participatory online arenas for debate. What is evident is that all levels of government are now rapidly ‘informationalising’ governmental processes by developing full suites of online citizen services, and by reorganising archives and intranets. Webcasting is supposed to transparently demonstrate the work of government and people are starting to tune in, according to a recent report in The Sydney Morning Herald (Adams 2003). Policy consultations run by e-democracy development units such as the Queensland government’s are designed to promote participatory ideals. Across the country over the last five years there have been many pilot schemes using technology to build community, and increase access and skills. The moves are participatory at policy and action levels but, driven by government, they are quite controlled. It remains to be seen whether they will be successful in citizen engagement here.

BAD BOYS AND PANOPTIC SPACE

The treatment of hackers is a sign of these globally insecure times to which Saco refers when she speaks of surveillance. Douglas Thomas’s work is also influenced by Foucault. Hacker Culture traces the origins, changes, and current features of the practice and the surrounding controversies and cultural significance of hacking to democracy. Thomas successfully sets popular conceptions of the net’s ‘bad boys’ against another persuasive explanation for the excessive force deployed in their pursuit and punishment: he believes that hackers embody a broad general anxiety about ‘the loss of the body and identity; the threat of violence; and the fear of threats to national security’ (p. 216). He argues that this anxiety is the reason why hackers are pursued and punished so relentlessly. Thomas sees hackers as part of a largely ethical subculture, at odds with the commercial interests gradually dominating net practices, dating back to the earliest utopian days of programming.

Since Steven Levy’s first full-length description of the phenomenon (1984), hackers have often been footnoted, or had a few descriptive pages devoted to them, in academic texts on internet phenomena and on e-democracy. Thomas’s account is detailed and persuasive, especially on hacker attitudes to the secrecy that supports their activities. This attitude is ambivalent: hackers need anonymity to function, and yet the hierarchies of hacker subculture require acknowledgement of expertise and success, and that means a certain measure of celebrity is necessary. When celebrity arrives, Thomas notes, so do the police.

Today’s hackers see their task as the revealing of power relations that breach their values.

The impasse goes to the heart of the change in new generation hacker ethics, which differ from those set out originally in the Hacker Manifesto. Contemporary ‘white hat’ hackers (the good guys) still believe that information should be free, they support the security of appropriate information, but they are much more prepared to trespass in order to publicise this take on technology, and educate fellow citizens (Welcome to Hackers.com n.d.). Today’s hackers see their task as the revealing of power relations that breach their values. Illegal activity is fine, if necessary. They ‘perform’ technology according to Thomas, who argues that hacker subculture has now engaged with mainstream media, is more self-referential, organised, and more seriously politicised than it was in the days of the phone phreaks, who used to tune in free to the phone lines and ask jokey-serious questions of whoever answered the phone.

Others see a darker future for information societies and democracies if technically expert hackers explore the secured spaces of the net at will, not just because of the proliferating virtual detritus which can make connectivity a nuisance for individuals, and a waste of time and resources to businesses (for example, viruses, marketing spam, unwanted pornography advertising, and cybercrime). They point to the wider questions of democracy: the invasion of privacy made possible by expert self-appointed vigilantes. They might agree with hackers that increased surveillance indicates that power is not being shared more but being reconstituted firmly in the hands of its traditional owners, although they might not want their financial information explored by largely unaccountable fellow citizens. But Thomas is correct when he writes that criminal or nuisance activities are always given a high media profile, and that hackers are stereotyped by mainstream media, and trotted out as the unruly downside of the democratising of information. Hollywood, as Thomas points out in frequent references to films such as WarGames and The Net, has helped popularise, mythologise, and misinterpret hacker culture, preferring not to tell the other, less sexy (because civic) watchdog side of hackivism.

Thomas’s work fills a gap in seeing hacking as a kind of active e-citizenship. Yet his account of the sentencing of convicted hackers by the US judicial system is troubling. He asks if it is justifiable in a liberal democracy that a convicted hacker is forbidden from using the internet forever when programming is his profession? Perhaps many of those whose lives and work were disrupted by the Blaster MS virus recently might think differently, but Thomas concludes by noting the remarks of the hacker in question, Chris Lamprecht: ‘I’m still going to fight like hell. I’ll just have to do it without a Web page’ (p. 237). Saco mentioned the return of the bodily repressed in relation to groups in mobilised street actions—one can imagine banned hackers making very good use of phones.

Two of these well-written books are expensive, but all of them are worth the expense for readers interested in quite hopeful and considered arguments about the continuing power of people to shape technology.

REFERENCES

Adams, D. 2003, ‘Democracy without Soundbites’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 November, [Online], Available: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/11/24/1069522526626.html

Castells, M. 2001, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Gray, C. H. 2001, Cyborg Citizen: Politics in the Posthuman Age, Routledge, New York and London.

Green, L. 2002, Technoculture_ from Alphabet to Cybersex, Allen and Unwin, Sydney.

Levy, S. 1984, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Dell Publishing, New York.

Lisberger, S. 1982, TRON, Walt Disney Studios.

Ward, M. 2003, ‘The Internet Refuseniks.’ November 24 [Online], Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3232586.stm

Welcome to Hackers.com, n.d. [Online], Available: http://www.hackers.com

From 2004, Mary Griffiths will be teaching in the Department of Screen and Media Studies, at the University of Waikato. She is interested in all forms of e-democracy and governance, and writes in the area of communications, comparative media cultures and democratic literacies.