Winter 2004-2005

Book Review
Shaping the Network Society: The New Role of Civil Society in Cyberspace
by Daniel Schackman

Shaping the Network Society book cover

Edited by Douglas Schuler and Peter Day
The MIT Press
Cambridge, Massachusetts
London, England
© 2004
Order online

This superb collection of essays comprehensively illustrates the potential of civil society to thrive in the globalized, market-driven, transnational, information and communication technologies (ICT) sphere. What emerges in the three sections, "Civilizing the Network Society," "Global Tales of the Civil Network Society," and "Building a New Public Sphere in Cyberspace," is a blossoming use of ICT for civic engagement counterbalancing the commercial pursuits of transnational corporations. The global civil society movement has, as evidenced in this volume, effectively used digital media for social change, from Indymedia web productions around the world to an independent radio station in Yugoslavia that presented an alternative to official state propaganda during that country's wars and leadership crises.

The book includes some thought-provoking material of particular interest to the community technology field. In "A Census of Public Computing in Toledo, Ohio," Kate Willams and Abdul Alkalimat refer to a recent Pew Public Internet Project report that shows that only 51 percent of the adult population in the U.S. is aware of public access computer sites. This would seem to indicate a need for CTCs and other public computing venues to do more community outreach and public awareness campaigns. Susana Finquelievich's article, "Community Networks Go Virtual," offers a fascinating illustration of how citizens of Buenos Aires used the Internet and the Web to organize political and civic discussions, community meetings, and public protests during the financial and political crisis that gripped Argentina in December 2001. Notably, CTCs, cybercafes, and Internet kiosks provided free or low-cost connectivity for people who lacked on-line access at home, thus providing them the means to stay connected with and participate in the daily events. This active role of CTCs in public discourse and community organizing in Argentina presents an interesting model for CTCs in other countries.

Scott S. Robinson's "Rethinking Telecenters: Microbanks and Remittance Flows - Reflections from Mexico," proffers an idea to "…expand the extant, fledgling network of community telecenters using either satellite or local Internet service provider (ISP) Internet connections linked with local and regional microbanks." One wonders whether CTCs in the U.S. and other industrialized countries could partner with such ventures in developing nations, thus providing a vital link between immigrant communities and their homelands. In "Libraries: The Information Commons of Civil Society," Nancy Kranich describes the digital divide as being not only about computer access but also access to information, what she calls the "digital-content divide." Kranich suggests that libraries are key public institutions that can help bridge the information gap. It might be interesting to think about how CTCs can play a significant role in ameliorating this inequity, and about the relationship and similarities between libraries and CTCs.

The book also contains some interesting in-depth depictions of the development of community networks. In "A Polder Model in Cyberspace: Amsterdam Public Digital Culture," Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens describe how a "Digital City" was built without significant attention to community building, thus failing to form a social network and rendering the project defunct. Fiorella de Cindio, in "The Role of Community Networks in Shaping the Network Society: Enabling People to Develop Their Own Projects," offers a more successful outlook on civic engagement in community networking in Milan, though it is clear that this is a foundation that still needs to be built on. David Silver's "The Soil of Cyberspace: Historical Archaeologies of the Blacksburg Electronic Village and the Seattle Community Network" provides a thoughtful comparison of these two divergent models of network development, top-down corporate sponsored vs. grass roots volunteer-based, and the consequences thereof.

Schuler and Day conclude that there are great possibilities for cyberspace to become fertile ground for a burgeoning civil society in which networks of local and global interests cross-pollinate, and they encourage further research and development to nurture this growing movement.

Daniel Schackman, previously a VISTA with CTCNet, is one of two VISTA Leaders with the CTC VISTA Project and Assistant Editor of the Community Technology Review.

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