FM Reviews
First Monday

FM Reviews

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Richard Coyne.
Cornucopia limited: Design and dissent on the Internet.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005.
cloth, 284 p., ISBN 0–262–03336–4, US$39.95.
MIT Press: http://mitpress.mit.edu/

Richard Coyne. Cornucopia limited

Coyne is Professor and Chair of Architectural Computing at the University of Edinburgh and like his earlier book, Technoromanticism: Digital narrative, holism, and the romance of the real (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999; reviewed in First Monday at http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue6_11/reviews/) this book is more about ideas than technology; here he uses a range of metaphors to investigate his central theme, that of design being a threshold activity and from this perspective it can be used to explore the network economy. This he describes as transactions of electronic commerce, finance, business and communication and also as a social condition.

His starting point that the network economy depends on design and that design as a threshold, edgy, activity which occurs at the margins and “gaps between solidities” is used as a context for looking at the network economy from a design perspective. The metaphors he then uses are the household, the machine, the game and the gift. Within each chapter Coyne sets up positions within the metaphor and uses a range of actors to offer different perspectives — these actors include the thief, cynic, trickster, etc. They are offered as devices through which a designer might look for understanding and stimulation and ways to map the environment.

... I have to admit that at times I was bewildered by the arguments and dazzled by the distances travelled.

I hope I’ve accurately described the process because I have to admit that at times I was bewildered by the arguments and dazzled by the distances travelled. For example in chapter 5, “Liminal Computing,” Coyne lays out the legends of Odysseus, Hermes and Prometheus to illustrate the idea that the beggar, the trickster and the cynic are common through history and often admired and this serves his discussion about the uncertainty with which we must view our online life — can we ever be sure of the honesty and reliability of the services or site or agent at the other end of the wire?

Jung is then introduced to analyse Hermes and establish that the character has an affinity with the threshold, the space Coyne identifies for the designers. Breathtaking stuff but also, for me at least, difficult to follow and keep pace with. The crossing and re–crossing of boundaries, as we look for and at the edges runs as a motif through the book but the multitude of perspectives left me confused. The edge takes on so many characteristics that I started losing sight of it.

I enjoyed this book — in the main — however, it is challenging to read because of the ideas and arguments,and also because of Coyne’s rich writing style. I found the metaphors strained in places but that also helped me understand what Coyne was aiming at; I needed to see the destination to question the metaphors. It’s interesting and repays close attention; I’ve read some sections repeatedly to enjoy the leaps and others simply to try to keep up. This is clearly an academic work and poses a number of interesting questions about how the Internet is shaped and the credibility, or otherwise, of some of the things we take for granted online. A fascinating read. — Nigel Gibson End of Review

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Sarah Oates, Diana Marie Owen, and Rachel Kay Gibson (editors).
The Internet and politics: Citizens, voters and activists.
London: Routledge, 2006.
cloth, 228 p., ISBN 0–415–34784–x, £70.00.

Sarah Oates, Diana Marie Owen, and Rachel Kay Gibson (editors). The Internet and politics

This contribution to Routledge’s “Democratisation” series offers a collection of chapters about the relationship between the Internet and politics. The contributors come mostly from the U.K., with a smattering from other European countries and the U.S. The subject matter of the chapters is more diverse, covering Hizbollah, Russia and the Ukraine among other tasty subjects.

The aim of the book, which emerges from a conference on the topic, is to examine the Internet as a means of political communication and to give scholars tools to answer questions in that field. One of its aims is “to build a cross national understanding of how the Internet transforms familiar political institutions and interactions within the nation state” (p. 2). Another is to build “a concrete understanding of the methods needed to approach the study of the Internet, from the formulation of hypotheses to research design to data analysis” (p. 2). These are ambitious aims, and unlikely to be met fully by a series of case studies, which is in fact the content of the book. Its ambition is also limited by the case studies themselves being limited to the developed world. While the Internet’s spread in most developing countries is marginal, the way in which it is being used are so different that any attempt to build either theory or a research model on just the experience of the developed world is likely to find itself sidelined within a very short time. With this caveat, the book as a whole offers some very interesting case studies and explores a variety of ideas in a fruitful way.

The authors acknowledge that they are working in a very fast changing field, and one in which everyone has an opinion, and they also point out, cogently, that not every opinion is always backed up by data.

The authors acknowledge that they are working in a very fast changing field, and one in which everyone has an opinion, and they also point out, cogently, that not every opinion is always backed up by data. The fast changing nature of the field is illustrated by the fact that the contributions were originally written for a conference in 2003. They have been updated but still bear only the slightest reference to the “blogosphere,” which, in the intervening period, has become an almost unnaturally fertile field for investigation.

The book falls roughly into three sections. The first examines general issues around political mobilisation and the Internet in mainstream politics. Diana Owen’s chapter investigates the image of the young politically disengaged Internet user, and finds that it is wide of the mark in many ways. Jensen examines the Minnesota e–democracy project and finds that it does not introduce new people to politics but rather strengthens the resources of those who are already politically involved. This tends towards the school of thought that says the Internet has not changed power relationships at all, but is used effectively by those who already have power rather than those who do not. Lusoli and Ward consider the use of the Internet by the Countryside Alliance in the U.K. in its defence of country activities and particularly fox hunting with hounds. Their conclusions reinforce those of Jensen — new supporters were by and large not attracted by the new medium but it amplified the involvement of those who were already committed. Wright then considers U.K. government strategies for encouraging political participation on the Internet.

The second section considers more outsider groups. Conway examines the interesting case of Hizbollah.org in what she calls “cybercortical warfare,” and Reilly looks at the situation of terrorists in Northern Ireland. Conway finds Hizbollah’s use successful, Reilly finds the Internet unhelpful to paramilitary organisations. A comparison of the two situations would have been illuminating. Notably, the foremost examples of use of the Internet by outsiders are organisations that already exist — the Zapatistas in Mexico, and the anti–globalisation movement, or groups, such as hacktivists, who eschew organisation. This issue is given less exploration than I would have hoped, beyond the assertion, repeated several times in several places that the Internet is not very useful for creating new organisation.

The third section looks at non–democratic states. In one of the best considered contributions March examines the use of the Internet by Russian political parties, while carefully outlining the particularities of the Russian political scene. Schmidt looks at Russian non–governmental organisations, concluding that there is potential but it is as yet unrealised. Krasnoboka and Semetko look at a particular phase of Ukrainian history, coverage of political protest in the crisis of 2000, comparing a newspaper, and TV channel and an online news outlet, again taking the particularities of the situation into account.

There is a final chapter by Brandenberg on the theme of the virtual public sphere, knotting together various strands of philosophy and research practice into a consideration of whether the Internet forms a new kind of public sphere. In terms of theoretical input this is the most stimulating chapter of the book, encapsulating neatly what is probably the most widely accepted view that the Internet is capable of democratisation and diversification but in practice so far has tended more towards customisation and exclusion. This is where the book’s reach falls furthest short of its ambition. The case studies are themselves interesting and illuminating, and they do include methodological insights such as March’s use of content and form analysis. But by and large they do not add up to anything more than a series of possibilities. This is probably all that could have been asked, making this a worthwhile book even if it has bitten off more than it can chew.

In one area I suspect that the authors have particularly constrained themselves by using a narrow focus. This is a book of political and media theory; it takes a political science or media studies view of practically everything without a wider view of the way in which the technology is developing. Wright considers issues which the authors call institutional such as Web design — I would have labelled this as technical, along with a host of other issues which would be considerably illuminated by specialist input from technology or the understanding of science. This issue is particularly important if we consider how the developing world is using technology, with widespread and quickly spreading use of mobile phones, and independently powered units such as solar powered routers coming on to the market. The dynamics of a billion Chinese or Indians using the Internet via their mobile phones would change entirely the course of prospective research.

Within their own terms too the various authors allow an occasional looseness to slip in — in more than one place there seems to be an assumption of the shared space created by the old mass undifferentiated media, rather than seeing their use as socially contingent.

Nevertheless, this is an informative and thought provoking book, well worth a read. — Rob Parsons End of Review


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