Table of Contents

Comment Icon0 The Internet has been widely viewed as the critical catalyst of contemporary globalization, making it central to debates about what globalization means and where it will lead. A common fallacy involves the idea that the Internet’s supposed nature is one where “information wants to be free” (Clarke, 1999b), that its utility supersedes geography and therefore it is impossible for the local government to control it. Today, civil unrests are being reported online almost in real-time, even when authoritarian nations persistently seek to control information flow. Text messaging was used to rally supporters in a popular political uprising in Ukraine in 2004 and to threaten activists in Belarus in 2006. When Myanmar sought to silence demonstrators in 2007, it had to switch off the country’s Internet network for six weeks. Meanwhile, China pre-emptively blocked sites like YouTube to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Comment Icon0 Regardless of Internet regulation, the myriad of online media platforms allow citizens to use digital tools that are most appropriate for their needs. The pervasiveness of citizen-produced media provides independent, intimate yet public information that resembles attributes of democracy in society. As Clay Shirky stated, “[c]ommunications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring” (2008). In that sense, Shirky had observed that when the common person has access to particular communication tools such as the Internet, interesting applications would start to appear. Such a moment is indicated by radically-reduced costs of collective action for everyone, thus transforming the relationship between ordinary individuals and the large hierarchical institutions that were a dominant force in 20th century societies.

Comment Icon0 Be it through a professional television news broadcast or an amateur mobile-phone photograph gone viral on the Internet, the way the world experiences major events, such as through Youtube videos of violent protests, demonstrates how the human race is more connected than ever before. Comparing the Chicago demonstrations of 1968 to the Iranian elections protest of 2009, the historical difference goes beyond the logistical efficiency seen in the reach and speed of news transmission, to the accessibility of domestic and foreign participation as well. Clay Shirky remarked that the motivation behind this increased participation was likely due to the fact that as a medium gets faster, it gets more emotional. In essence, he noted that “[w]e feel faster than we think” (Shirky, 2009). This increased participation points to how greater social transparency is being afforded by the mass media. For China, this social transparency is bolstered by the fact that an estimated 338 million Chinese were online by June 2009, and that they formed only about 25.5% of the mainland population. The China Internet Network Information Center said subscriptions were growing at double-digit rates, unlike the trend in many Western countries, where Internet penetration has leveled off (CNNIC, 2009). In the midst of China’s online regulations, bloggers would constantly pop up, change addresses, hide behind proxy servers, and use a full range of ‘hit-and-run’ tactics to sidestep the government, but these are still relatively tedious tasks to the majority of Internet users. Does information still want to be free?

Comment Icon0 First coined by Stewart Brand at the first Hackers’ Conference in 1984, the expression “information wants to be free” came about from his realization of the lowering cost of information dissemination. Less known, however, was the fact that the phrase included a counterpoint, which said “information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable” (Clarke, 1999b). In Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (1999), Lawrence Lessig argued that the Internet had no true “democratic” nature since it was created in man’s design, thus we could shape and regulate it anyway we desired. Popularizing the idea of globalization when The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999) and The World is Flat (2005) were written, Thomas Friedman showed how the Internet and related information communication technologies had “made us all next door neighbors”, by killing geography, distance and even language. However, law professors Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu had cautioned that while Friedman might be right to emphasize the Internet’s transformative appeal, the question is whether those changes have had a lasting effect on how nations, and their peoples, govern themselves (2006). Goldsmith and Wu had cleverly pointed out how during the time when Bill Clinton remarked that China’s Internet censorship effort was like “nailing Jello to the wall”, a highly-effective government crackdown on Chinese Internet-based dissidents was also taking place.

Comment Icon0 The apparatus of the PRC’s Internet repression is considered more extensive and more advanced than in any country in the world, simply because it extends beyond the technological realm, and into the legal, economic and social processes as well. The regime not only blocks online content but also monitors the Internet access of individuals. For the record, Amnesty International had noted that China “has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyberdissidents in the world.” The offences of which they were accused include communicating with groups abroad, opposing the persecution of the Falungong, signing online petitions, and calling for reform and an end to corruption (Global Internet Freedom Consortium, n.d.). As such, the idea that the mere presence of TCP/IP spells doom to all forms of tyranny falls short of reality.

Comment Icon0 While popular belief states that the Internet offers potential for positive social change, much of such change has long been negatively reported in the mainstream media of developing nations such as China (Liang, 2007). Yet, where relevant data existed, most publicized cases yielded results that failed to be generalized beyond their specific culture (Lin & Lu, 2000; Lin, 2002; Stafford, 2004; Tewksbury & Althaus, 2000; Park, 2002). In a similar fashion, the portrayal of governments controlling Internet use has often come under fire as a form of social repression. Sussman (2000) had shown that for centuries, governments had learned to censor new media as they were introduced to society. Superseding the government’s will, Abbott (2001) argued that while the Internet did offer opportunities for democratization, the digital divide and growing commercialization will continue to be challenges for national democracy and political transformation. China appears to be selectively perceived as being overtly suppressive online, when similar Internet filtering takes place in at least 40 states worldwide, including countries in Asia, Middle East and North Africa. Related Internet content-control mechanisms are also in place in Canada, the United States and a cluster of countries in Europe (Deibert et al., 2008).

Comment Icon0 Likewise, regulation of the Internet could be compared to that of the mainstream media, where out of 195 countries and territories, 72 (37%) were rated Free, 59 (30%) Partly Free, and 64 (33%) were Not Free, a decline from the 2006 figure (Freedom of the Press 2008 Survey). The concept of ubiquitous worldwide Internet access is indeed a fallacy, as Goldsmith and Wu (2006) had demonstrated through how every country mirrored Internet use with its own specific cultural needs. Internet control, in the form of legal, political and technical regulations, would help protect the way of life enjoyed by individual users. A bordered Internet appears necessary as it takes into account the disparity among individuals, needs and places. Observing how technology was malleable at the will of sociological forces, Lokman Tsui (2005) noted how the inherent need to conserve Chinese values while applying Western technology gave birth to the notion of ‘tiyong’, which referred to “Chinese learning for substance, Western learning for practical use.” In essence, various forms of technology adoption in China have typically been separated between the technology itself and the morals and values that shaped its impact, diffusion and use.

Comment Icon0 Technology is often described as having the most important influence on society. As a theory, technological determinism presumes that a society’s technology drives the development of its social structure and cultural values. Marshall McLuhan’s theory of technological determinism held that the changes in modes of communication evolve human experience (Griffin, 1997). Most interpretations of technological determinism share two general ideas:

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  2. Development of technology is predictable, and is beyond cultural or political influence; and
  3. Technology is autonomous of society, where its social effects are inherent.

Comment Icon0 The attractiveness of this theory lies in its simplicity. While the theory of technological determinism does a good job of analyzing what happened in the past and what is happening now, it becomes inconsistent in predicting what might be the future in communication. For instance, McLuhan discussed politics, education, sex and drugs as changing media, but he avoided talking about what they would do in future, only what they had already done. What the theory largely bypasses is the reality that technology remains part of culture as a whole, allowing its diverse affordances, depending on a particular society’s assessment of its human potential.

Chapter 10.3 – Seduction of Technological Determinism

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