Cybersociology Magazine: Issue Five

Book Review by Wessel Janse van Rensburg

"Cyberdemocracy: Technology, Cities and Civic Networks." Edited by Roza Tsagarousianou, Damian Tambini and Cathy Bryan (1998). Routledge: London


"The revisiting of debates on civic networking and electronic democracy, the emerging of hopes for democracy similar to those of the 1960s and 1970s, albeit within a new terminilogical framework, suggests that a critical investigation of the empirical basis for the claims of advocates of electronic democracy, such as that undertaken by the contributors to this volume, is a necessary and valuable exercise." - Cyberdemocracy, p. 13

Cyberdemocracy the book is exactly that. An evaluation of the empirical basis for the often disparate claims made about the potential of computer mediated communication (CMC) to enhance or revive "democracy". The projects evaluated in it, relates to the recent establishment of civic networks in a number of US and European cities.

The book not only shows how different understandings of "democracy" has led to different approaches in bringing about an electronic incarnation of the concept. But also that where many of these projects did have broadly similar objectives and used the same technology, the outcomes differed significantly. It thus provides evidence that the social outcomes of information technologies is not inherent in the technologies themselves, but in the way they are utilised.

Important issues, such as universal service, and the role of the public sphere, that were previously addressed mainly in debates around ownership of telecommunications and broadcasting, resurfaces in Cyberdemocracy. However, in the context of this book, the issue is not only about the economic efficiencies of monopolies and consumer rights. It is rather whether the provision of democracy itself, through new technology, could be left to the market. Can the provision of democracy be used to stake a claim for a new public sphere? Interestingly, although universal service would seem as a logical precursor to electronic democracy, only one of the projects examined in the book, Bologna's IperBolE, tried to found their civic network on the idea of universal access and attempted to make this a reality (Chapter 5).

Questions pertaining to Freedom of Speech are inevitably raised. Cyberdemocracy shows that often the impersonal character of CMC may make users less inclined to abide by "normal" rules of civility. Different approaches are presented, such as the City of Santa Monica's experiments with moderation. (Chapter 7)

It should be noted however that Cyberdemocracy does not attempt a vigorous analysis of these issues, but chooses to focus on the experiences of the different city projects.

The projects discussed presents a range of approaches to the use of CMC in the provision of forms of electronic democracy. Some of the projects are private initiatives, such as Amsterdam's Digital City. (Chapter 2). Others were started in a top-down fashion, by government institutions themselves, such as Greece's Pericles Project (Chapter 3). Some of these projects concentrated only on the provision of information, such as the case in Berlin (Chapter 4), others promoted public debate, while yet others explored the possibility of electronic referenda (Greece). In the case of the US's Neighbourhoods Online, the project is not bound to a particular city, but aims to empower citizens by encouraging the formation of local citizens groups and initiatives.

The empirical approach of this book has its disadvantages. Almost all the examples and figures used in Cyberdemocracy are from mid to late 1996. Unfortunately, the relative short history of the use of CMC for the provision of forms of electronic democracy, the rapid changes in technology and exponential increase in the number of persons with internet access, makes a lot of the information dated. Many of the contributions in Cyberdemocracy contains technical information (such as the types and numbers of servers, modems, routers etc.) and interface diagrams, that is now of only historical interest.

 


 

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Wessel Janse van Rensburg (wessel@hrc.westminster.ac.uk) is studying for his MA at the Hypermedia Research Centre, University of Westminster. He originally trained as a lawyer in his native South Africa where he worked for some time on Desmond Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Wessel was the editor of South Africa's largest student run newspaper and has had articles published in a number of South African newspapers and magazines.

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