Thursday, July 11, 2013

Book Review: Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy by Robert W. McChesney

What do Internet “celebrants” (Clay Shirkey, Henry Jenkins, Michael Nielsen, Yochai Benkler, Jeff Jarvis) and Internet “skeptics” (Jaron Lainer, Eli Pariser, Evgeny Morozov, Nicholas Carr) miss in their analysis?  Well, capitalism, duh.

This is the central thesis of Robert W. McChesney’s book Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy.  Drawing on his analysis of the contemporary economy in a previous work, The Endless Crisis, McChesney “attempts to connect the digital revolution... to the overriding crises of our times.”  McChesney believes that “most assessments of the Internet fail to ground it in political economy; they fail to understand the importance of capitalism in shaping and, for lack of a better term, domesticating the Internet.”

In the first chapter, McChesney sets the stage by assessing why both Internet celebrants and skeptics fail to account for the capitalist elephant in the room: “Whenever scholars examine their own society, it is generally taboo to challenge the prerogatives and privileges of those who stand atop it and benefit from the status quo, even in political democracies.”  Seeing as how the Internet has become of paramount social importance, McChesney concludes “The democratization of the Internet is integrally related to the democratization of the political economy.  They rise and fall together.”

Chapter 2, “Does Capitalism Equal Democracy?” (“As you may have already guessed, the short answer to the chapter title’s question is no.”) gives a whirlwind tour of how capitalism is affecting contemporary American society.  It briefly covers the historical origins of capitalism before diving into the topics of growing inequality, labor disempowerment, monopoly capitalism, political corruption, advertising, technology, declining growth, and public and private goods.  McChesney then references many formative Americans who recognized the threats of capitalism to democracy (one highlight is Lincoln’s State of the Union address in which he warns against the “returning despotism” of capital over labor).  The chapter ends with a discussion of how capitalism has produced a “golden age of insincere communication” which is “a toxic environment for democracy, and it flames the flames of cynicism,” leading to mass depoliticization.

Chapter 3 introduces the subfield of Political Economy of Communication (PEC).  McChesney introduces the idea of “critical junctures” (abrupt structural transformations that produced previous phenomena such as professional journalism) and suggests that we in the throes of another communication critical juncture.  Whether this can lead to a communication transformation on par with the printing press, he opines, remains to be seen.  McChesney blasts the entertainment media for not delivering what people want, contrary to conventional wisdom, and inundating children with harmful advertising.  He also reviews the various giveaways to media corporations, notably copyright, that keep them afloat.  The chapter then turns to an interesting history of journalism in America, and how capitalism has eroded the profession.  Finally, McChesney notes that “American history is rich with popular involvement with communication policy making” and “in the coming decade there will be a series of policy debates that will be crucial for the fate of the Internet.”

Chapter 4 describes “how capitalism conquered the Internet.”  McChesney recalls the non/anti-capitalist history of the early Internet, and its sudden privatization in 1995 amidst a fury of deregulation.  The Internet Service Provider market, once very competitive, is now dominated by a cartel of firms that are providing comparatively poor service by international standards and continuously lobbying the government to exclude potential competitors.  The rest of the chapter relates how old-guard media companies continue their dominance in the Internet age: copyright, Digital Rights Management, proprietary systems, etc.

Chapter 5 chronicles the new Internet markets that have gone “from competitive to oligopolistic at breakneck speeds.”  Google, for instance, has 70 percent of the Internet search market and 97 percent of the mobile search market.  The Internet giants form monopolies through network effects, patents, proprietary technical standards, anticompetitive pricing, buying out competitors, and large startup costs that raise barriers to entry to potential competitors.  These monopolies are dependent on favorable regulation, taxation policies (and their evasion thereof) and lack of antitrust activity for their survival.  Also, they are heavily dependent on advertising which calls for “violating any known understanding of privacy.”  Even though this book was written before the breaking of the NSA surveillance scandals, McChesney presciently ends the chapter with details about the intermingling of Silicon Valley and the military industrial complex, and how the monopolists really don’t have a choice in cooperating with the national security state.

Chapter 6 tackles the subject of journalism in the Internet age.  It is no news to anyone that journalism is in decline, but the Internet is not the root cause -- the Internet is only “[finishing] off the job that the market began.”  Declining budgets for reporting are leading to substituting corporate PR for news.  Scandals abound, such as local news sites farming out reporting to low-wage countries and algorithms generating editorial content.  McChesney singles out online nonprofit news media as a small bright spot among the sea of darkness that is Internet news.  He proposes public investments in journalism to remedy the dismal situation, noting there are plenty of precedents in American history and sensible policy proposals for doing so.

Chapter 7 finishes the book with a series of policy recommendations.  He also engages in much more radical musings: “If capitalists oppose reforms to make their own system functional, why exactly do we need them?”  McChesney sees a critical juncture coming for both the Internet and society as a whole, and the fortunes of the two will likely track each other.

I fear that such a short summary can not do justice to this book because it is overflowing with argument, information and insight.  It is truly one of the most dense books I have ever read -- dense as in having a high concentration of useful facts and commentary.  It clocks in at just over 200 pages but in that space manages to squeeze the knowledge of maybe ten Internet policy books between its covers.

A strength, and perhaps a fault, of the book is that it spans so many topics -- the Internet, democracy, journalism, advertising, capitalism, etc. -- that it can feel like the narrative is wandering at times.  Nevertheless, the history and data presented are so enthralling that it is hard to care too much when things seem to be headed slightly off the rails.

This work truly sets the standard for Internet policy books.  Anyone serious about Internet affairs would be well served to master the content in order to have a realistic grasp of what the current state of the Internet is and where it is headed.

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