Will the net add to consumer activity and civic life? Will world-wide Usenet discussions, up-to-the-minute legislative news listerve and WWW pages, chat, e-mail chain-letter petitions add to consumer activity and civic life, or remove people from it?
"Computer-Mediated Communication and the American Collectivity: The Dimensions of Community Within Cyberspace," by Jan Fernback and Brad Thompson, a paper presented to the 1995 meeting of the International Communication Association presents one view.
Fernback and Thompson cite past outbreaks of technological utopianism to question the claim that on-line communications can strengthen civil society: "Citizenship via cyberspace has not proven to be the panacea for the problems of democratic representation within American society; although communities of interest have been formed and strengthened...and have demonstrated a sense of solidarity, they have nevertheless contributed to the fragmented cultural and political landscape of the United States..."
The authors cite several arguments and conclude "... it seems most likely that the virtual public sphere brought about by [computer mediated communication] will serve a cathartic role, allowing the public to feel involved rather than to advance actual participation."
The counter argument by Howard Rheingold and others suggest 'communications do not offer a utopia, but they do offer a unique channel for publishing and communicating, and the power to publish and communicate is fundamental to democracy. Communication media are necessary but not sufficient for selfgovernance and healthy societies.
The important stuff still requires turning off the computer and braving the uncertainties of the offline world. When we are called to action through the virtual community, we need to keep in mind how much depends on whether we simply "feel involved" or whether we take the steps to actually participate in the lives of our neighbours, and the civic life of our communities..'
One can bet a small fortune that the American political parties will not dare ignore the Internet in the Presidential election nor will any of the other political campaigners from now on. They have already made up their mind. Business leaders are still mostly waiting.
That on-line communication can bring about off-line activity is well proven as the 'Carnival Against Capitalism' demonstration on June 18th 1999 in London showed. The significance of this event is that there was a link between an essentially Internet based political process and a near riot and it was manifest.
In looking at activism later in the book, we shall explore the subject in more detail. The critical element for the commercial world is one of judgement: 'To what extent will virtual communities affect my business for good or ill.' There are significant political communities evident in Internet Society and it is important to both recognise their existence and the power they can have in commercial life. Shell and Greenpeace showed this over Brent Spar. Greenpeace used the Internet to generate activism on the streets, influence the media and to affect mainstream politicians. Shell, and the rest of industry caught in the headlights of Internet activism froze and showed the potential commercial dangers of capitalist society being maginalised by not recognising the new political potential of the Internet.