The Information Society and Computer-Mediated Communication
11 / 1997
Among other things, computer-mediated communication (CMC)has made possible virtual communities or ’networlds’, new forms of social organization between people who share an interest and not necessarily a territory or a cultural identity. Virtual communities are ’’social aggregations that emerge from the Net where enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace’’ (Rheingold 1993, p. 5).
Harasim (1994)insists it is not the CMC tools themselves but their use that is important in the constitution of networks into networlds. For this process to happen, a purpose, a place, and a population are required. Swerdlow (1995), on the other hand, insists that when people are already familiar with each other, what he calls ’the power of skin’, then the opportunity is created to continue through electronic relations. But Jones (1995)does not seem to be bothered by the need for familiarity or even of information exchange; he goes even further to say that virtual communities are bound not by transmission of information but by ritual sharing.
Virtual communities have been studied in several areas of entertainment, business and academia. Many of these studies detail how the community is constituted through shared interests and practices, establishing roles and rules of conduct, and generating a virtual reality (VR)with varying degrees of connection with real life (RL).
Turkle (1995)describes three different scenarios illustrating the effects of the ’’move toward virtuality.’’ She calls the first the Disneyland effect, by which denatured and artificial experiences seem real. The second is the artificial crocodile effect, by which the fake and the simulated realities seem more compelling than the real, making the world of direct, unmediated experience devalued. The third one, which could be called the self-delusion effect, is one by which a virtual experience may be so compelling that we believe we have achieved more than we actually have. As we shall see, these effects may well be applicable to the idea of CMC strengthening democracy and development, making the euphoric claims of electronic democracy more like a self-delusional, artificial, Disneyland-like democracy, void of any content and genuine participation.
Even though it is clear that NGOs are not the only active stakeholders in civil society, their infrastructure and activity tends to place them in a privileged situation to take advantage of new communication technologies, and of CMC in particular. I will now examine some of the key issues regarding CMC in Latin American NGOs, with a particular emphasis on Colombia. I will then conclude this section by discussing the implications of CMC on the consolidation of a global civil society.
A Virtual Civil Society?
The effects of introducing CMC, especially electronic mail, have been well documented in businesses, education and research. (Kaye 1992; Valacich, Paranka et al. 1993; Garton and Wellman 1994; Johnson-Lenz and Johnson-Lenz 1994; Rice and Steinfield 1994).
Nonetheless, although there is much debate and speculation about its possibilities, there is extremely little literature describing or analyzing concrete uses and meanings of CMC in virtual communities as part of civil society. We cannot assume that advances in communication infrastructures alone necessarily constitute a strengthening of civil society. Jones (1995)notes that computer networks can cut across and break down boundaries and hierarchies, but they also can create new hierarchies, elites and barriers.
New communication technologies have allowed a decentralization of communication resources and helped to reduce hierarchies of power. ’’For the first time in history, progressive forces have access to communication tools previously reserved to corporations and the military (Frederick 1992, p. 222). Furthermore, as this author puts it, a global civil society is best seen in the worldwide movement of NGO and citizens advocacy groups uniting to challenge problems that are substantially different in scope and character from any that have faced the world before. Problems such as the proliferation of nuclear weapons, imbalanced resource use, hunger and poverty, the destruction of the rain forests, and the developing greenhouse effect are so large in scope and have such geographically dispersed effects that they confound local -even national- solutions (p. 219).
With the increased use of CMC, some authors argue we face an opportunity for the ’’transnationalization of civil participation,’’ as Thorup puts it (in Frederick 1992). Hamelink (1995)suggests there are increasing indications of an ongoing ’’globalization from below,’’ as opposed to the dominant ’’globalization from above’’. For Poster (1995), a new dialogue is possible that configures subjects in a differentiated cosmopolitanism, as opposed to the homogeneous massification that has been feared as a result of new communication technologies.
Transnational civil participation for a differentiated cosmopolitanism in a process of globalization from below, such may be the promise of CMC for development and democracy. As we shall see, these claims may well be overstated. Instead of a transnational civil participation, CMC may be putting into place narrowly-focused and longitudinal communities of interest, or imaginary and nostalgic communities of networked individuals and organizations in Latin America. These emerging communities may benefit from the advantage of fast and inexpensive connectivity, but they do not necessarily contribute to the strengthening of democracy and people-centered development in the region.
The information society has been presented as an instrument for democracy, for postmodernity, and for control. It has been acclaimed as the opportunity for every individual to communicate with the rest of the world and to bring about participatory democracy (Miles, Rush et al. 1988; NTIA 1993; Gore 1996), and as the opportunity for the state or the market to control every individual (Rheingold 1993; Sparks 1994; Splichal 1994; Poster 1995)and constitute a police state in a global hypermarket (Proulx and Sénécal 1995). At the same time, it has been held responsible for the shattering of the grand narratives of progress and modernization, and the reconstitution of the public sphere as a fractal image of postmodern identities (Vattimo 1992; Poster 1995; Turkle 1995).
Nonetheless, there is increasing evidence that neither the happiest dreams nor the worst nightmares that have been proclaimed for the information society have been realized. Furthermore, I share Lévy’s optimism when he claims that technological changes that upset the former balance of power and paradigms introduce the possibility of unprecedented changes and of new alliances and strategies (Lévy 1990). Change is at the same time a risk, a challenge, and an opportunity. In the face of the globalized new world of the information society, what can be the role of civil society which is vital to the construction of genuine democracy?
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Hamelink, C. (1995). The democratic ideal and its enemies. The Democratization of Communication. P. Lee. Cardiff, UK, WACC, University of Wales Press: 15-37.
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This text is part of a larger study on the uses of computer-mediated communication in Latin America.
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