I am delighted to see Bill Dutton’s magisterial edited The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies (Oxford University Press, 2013) just published. This is a really excellent and authoritative review of current research on all aspects of the Internet, with some 26 chapters from leading figures in the field. The 607 page book is divided into five main parts:
- Perspectives on the Internet and Web as objects of study
- Living in a network society
- Creating and working in a global network economy
- Communication, power, and influence in a converging media world
- Governing and regulating the Internet.
Two of the real strengths of the book as an introduction to the field of Internet studies are the very readable style of most of the chapters, and the comprehensive bibliographies that accompany them.
I was delighted to have been asked to write the chapter on the Internet and Development, which Bill suggested should be sub-titled “a critical perspective”! As I write in the summary, “This chapter explores research on the complex inter-relationship between the Internet and ‘development’, focusing especially on the effects of the Internet on the lives of some of the poorest people and most marginalised communities. Much of the literature on Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) suggests that the Internet can indeed bring very significant benefits in the ‘fight against poverty’ (see, for example, Weigel and Waldburger 2004; Rao and Raman 2009; Unwin 2009), but other research is marshalled in this synthesis to challenge this assumption. In essence, I argue that the expansion of the Internet serves very specific capitalist interests, and that unless conscious and explicit attention is paid to designing interventions that will indeed directly serve the needs of the world’s poorest people, then the Internet will only replicate and reinforce existing structures of dominance and control. This argument supports the need for more research that challenges taken-for-granted assumptions about the Internet and development”.
In essence, the Internet is not some benign force for good as is so often supposed. Instead it is being shaped and reshaped by a relatively small group of people with very specific interests. It is absolutely essential that those committed to trying to ensure that digital technologies are used to serve the interests of all peoples in the world, and particularly the poorest and most marginalised, do indeed continue to challenge many of the all too often taken for granted assumptions that the Internet is necessarily automatically a force for positive “development”.