Does the Internet Bring Freedom?

Will the Internet make the world more free? Some would answer with a resounding yes. Consider, for example, the views of John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who has declared in his widely-circulated "Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace" (1996):

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind….I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear (n. p.)

Barlow goes on to suggest that the world of cyberspace will accord no "priviledge or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth" and that anyone, anywhere in cyberspace "may express express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity" (n.p.)

An opposite view is held by social critics such as Herbert Schiller, professor emeritus of communication at the University of California San Diego. Schiller writes that in the U.S., the country with the most Internet users,

Inequality of access and impoverished content of information are deepening the already pervasive national social crisis. The ability to understand, much less overcome, increasingly critical national problems is thwarted, either by a growing flood of mind-numbing trivia and sensationalist material or by an absence of basic, contextualized social information (Schiller, 1996, p. xi)

Techno-critics also point to the increased possibilities of governments to monitor communications, invade people\'s privacy, and wage high-tech war (Roszak, 1994).

The belief that the Internet will inevitably create certain results, whether good or bad, is called technological determinists, in other words(see discussion in Ebersole, 1995). A common sense response to technological determinism is what has been termed instrumentalism, (Feenberg, 1991), in other words the view that the Internet, like other technologies, is a mere tool which can be used toward any ends. From this perspective, the Internet is neither good nor bad, but rather neutral, and its impact on society will depend on how it is deployed.

In response to these perspectives, I suppport the view of Kranzberg, whose "First Law" states that "Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral" (Kranzberg, 1985, p. 50). Before considering this point, I will first examine the evidence to see in what ways introduction of information and communication technologies is actually impacting real institutions. I will choose examples from three different contexts: businesses, schools, and societies.

Automatizing vs. Informating in Businesses

Some of the most detailed research on the impact of computerization on social relations in businesses has been conducted by Sushana Zuboff, a professor at Harvard Business School. Zuboff (1988)studied eight US companies in depth over a period of five years in the 1980s to evaluate what impact computerization had on their operation. Zuboff noted that initially employers expected computers to help them automate their tasks, but that while automation effectively hides many operations of the overall enterprise, information technology instead illuminates such operations. In other words, information technology improves productivity not by removing information and control from individuals (as in automation), but rather by expanding access to information and control by individuals. Zuboff used the word informate to describe this process.

Zuboff\'s study showed that firms that were able to make the shift from automating to informating processes —by learning how to divest more authority and control throughout the workplace—were best able to take advantage of the information revolution, whether measured by increased productivity, smoother operations, or satisfied employees. And those firms which were not able to make the change faced problems. As a mill worker in Zuboff\'s study explained, "If you don\'t let people grow and develop and make more decisions, it\'s a waste of human life?a waste of human potential. If you don\'t use your knowledge and skill, it\'s a waste of life. Using the technology to its full potential means using the man [sic] to his full potential" (Zuboff, 1988, p. 414).

Some have speculated that the very nature of information technology will cause firms to make forward-looking changes in organizational design (see, for example, Huber, 1990). Zuboff\'s investigation provides counter-evidence to these