Alan R. Kluver
National University of Singapore
I have never seen people miss the scale of what's
going on as badly as they
are doing it now. The Internet would do no less than bring world peace by
breaking down national borders. Twenty years from now, children who are
used to finding out about other countries through the click of a mouse are
not going to know what nationalism is. One of the reasons people underestimate
the consequences is they forget how quickly children grow up.
- Nicholas Negroponte, Director, MIT Media Laboratory
Any new channel of communication among the people
and organizations of this
world is likely to contribute to increased understanding hence greater peace.
- Michael Dertouzos, MIT Media Laboratory
On a May 2001 National Public Radio broadcast in the US, a commentator argued that the presence of the Internet, because of the possibility it provides for youth to interact globally on issues of mutual interest, like the Harry Potter books, would eliminate national borders and geographical distance. He argued that by interacting with other youths via information technologies, "their sense of connection is going to change the world in unpredictable and hopeful ways." Because the Internet provides the ability to publish one's own opinions via a worldwide medium, the "founding and maintaining assumption is that (foreigners) have something interesting to say." Thus, children are "not living in a world of strangers and foreigners and enemies, they are in a world of conversation, with people with names and faces."
This commentator's attitude places him firmly in the center of public opinion about the hopeful possibilities of information technology. Cyber-utopianism exists in many forms, and there are advocates, such as Negroponte and Dertouzos, who argue that the Internet will positively benefit every single aspect of human life. As recently as 1998, Negroponte reaffirmed his belief that in the future, "kids will not know the meaning of nationalism." Although in the last few years many academic analysts have rejected utopian claims for the Internet, the prevailing public sentiment towards Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) is still that they will eliminate human divisions, democratize totalitarian societies, eliminate material poverty, make unprofitable businesses profitable, and finally, do the weekly grocery shopping, and perhaps even the washing. But of all these, perhaps the most intriguing is the claim that the "computer-aided peace" prophesied by Negroponte and Dertouzos will overcome the barriers of language, geography, culture, history, and plain vanilla nationalism to increase understanding and eliminate tensions between countries. My purpose in this essay is to examine this one aspect of cyber-utopianism, and to determine whether the Internet really does facilitate the formation of a "global consciousness," especially with regard to the issue of international political relationships.
I will do this by first summarizing arguments that support the belief that the Internet diminishes nationalism, and then exploring the nature of the Internet experience, focusing especially upon three critical characteristics of the Internet that vitiate against the sort of "unmediated" contact that has been promised for the medium. These three are the customizability of the medium, the overwhelming amount of information it provides, and finally, the commercial nature of the recent development of the Internet. Of course, the Internet is evolving so rapidly that it is impossible to foresee what it will become, but it is still possible to chart the rudimentary nature of the technology to discern its impact on human communication. Analysts of the Internet often slip into a form of technological determinism, and argue that technology shapes human culture. However, our experience with technologies demonstrates that there are decidedly human factors that shape technology into what we want it to be, which is not necessarily what may be best for us.
Finally, I will illustrate the gap between the potential and the reality of the Internet by a case study of the recent conflict between the US and China over the crash of an American spy plane with a Chinese fighter, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot, and the forced landing of the American plane in China. This is an illustrative example for several reasons, the first being that as two of the world's largest political, economic, and military powers, their relationship is of critical significance to the rest of the world, and yet the tie between the two nations remains one of the trickiest relationships in global politics. Second, both nations are well represented on the Internet. While the US currently dominates the number of global web users and web sites, China has also been making incredible strides in wiring the nation, and a good proportion of China's educated elite has significant Internet access. Finally, this is an appropriate example because of the vast historical, political, linguistic, and cultural differences between the two nations, thus providing an ideal illustration of how information technologies do or don't overcome these differences. The lessons should be applicable not only to the US/Chinese relationship, but also generally to the experiences of every other wired nation.
There is no doubt that popular media such as novels, movies, and magazines, have an inordinate role in shaping political consciousness, particularly when people have little experience with or understanding of foreign nations. There are several factors that contribute to any medium's power to impact our perceptions of others, including its format and various technological issues. One of these is the ability of the medium to create narrative frameworks that influence perception and subsequent responses to issues and events. The exemplary media for this are motion pictures, television shows, or novels. By presenting a story, these media types, when well executed, are able to draw an audience into an alternative world and experience. Another factor is the ability of the medium to provide relevant and timely information concerning the subject; this is seen in newspapers, news programming, and radio. The daily cycles of data gathering, editing, and presentation make these ideal media types to present constantly new information. And finally, our perceptions of others are influenced by the extent to which the medium provides a context for reasoned and critical reflection on information. Books, for example, because of the physical task of writing, printing, distributing, buying, and reading, invite more methodical and reasoned analysis than does a daily broadcast, which is quickly forgotten soon after it ends.
There are political consequences to this, in that the perceptions generated and sustained by media influence public discourse concerning international affairs. A citizen might not understand the impact of a trade deficit or military cooperation with another nation, but is expected to make informed choices nonetheless. Just as Henry Luce's Time Magazine empire and Pearl Buck's novel The Good Earth influenced American involvement in the Second World War in favor of China, so the more recent film Red Corner helped to solidify perceptions of China as an oppressive and powerful police state. These portrayals have a powerful impact in establishing the boundaries for policy, as the politicians responsible for foreign policy ultimately have to answer to a citizenry or a political apparatus in some form.
What new media technologies add to previous technologies, the argument goes, is access. Whereas newspapers, movies, magazines, and broadcast communication technologies require an elaborate system of information gathering, editing, and production, as well as an elaborate technical distribution system, the Internet makes everyone a publisher and everyone a librarian, in that anyone can both produce and retrieve an unprecedented amount of information. The gate-keeping and agenda-setting functions of the traditional media establishments are bypassed in favor of search engines and directories. Ideally, this means that any person with Internet access (still a fairly small number, confined primarily to the developed world) can gain information about any issue, event, or place, without the restrictions of time, expense, geography, and politics that used to limit such information gathering.
Moreover, the relative freedom of the information technologies means that governmental restrictions can be easily subverted. Just as the gate-keeping functions of newspaper or television news editors are subverted, so are the restrictions introduced by political leaders. An economic or political embargo is much more easily enforced on the sea-lanes than it is through the Internet. Thus, even where there is government prohibition or restriction, the Internet frees individuals for interaction across national boundaries.
The value of the Internet, then, lies in the ability of citizens to come into direct contact with others unlike them, bypassing traditional mediating forces. Rather than our perceptions of foreign nationals being shaped by reporters, filmmakers, or producers, the argument goes, we encounter them on their own terms, within their own contexts. By chatting with strangers in chat rooms and reading international newspapers online, we believe that we are learning about foreign cultures and perspectives directly from the sources. This line of argument goes on to postulate that through this online exposure, we learn to deconstruct our own attitudes, and begin to understand the limitations of our own perspectives. The ultimate result of this process of exposure, according to such reasoning is - as expressed by Negroponte - the end of nationalism. Our politics, then, become more rational, more inclusive, and less bounded by our own parochial lenses.
Because of these factors, early analysis of information technologies praised the Internet as a "technology of freedom," in De Sola Pool's phrase. In fact, the Internet does provide ample opportunity to gain knowledge about far away places, and offers a means of interacting across geographical expanses. In this sense, it is an ideal medium for establishing the sort of "cyber-peace" that is so earnestly desired. However, the Internet technologies, while empowering certain human desires, minimize the potential for fulfilling others. All media types have their own unique technological and cultural characteristics that make them useful and appropriate for certain kinds of interaction, but not for others. The motion picture, for example, is an ideal format for storytelling, but is not as well suited to other types of communication. In fact, the various functions and types of communication commonly grouped under the name "Internet" have vastly different natures and potentials.
One key technical characteristic of the Internet that makes it highly desirable is in fact one of its biggest drawbacks as a means for civic engagement, and that is its customizability, or the way in which the Internet is driven primarily by user desires. Because it gives complete control of the media experience, and hence exposure, to the user, the Internet allows people to insulate themselves almost completely from anything that they don't choose to see. By personalizing news portals, web search guides, etc., the user is able to completely isolate himself or herself from issues that require knowledge and experience outside his or her own.
Although this feature is useful for sports fans and hobbyists, it can be a death knell for public discourse. Not only are citizens likely to miss complex and nuanced discussions of public interest, they could effectively isolate themselves from even the most rudimentary exposure to anything outside their own narrow experiences and interests. Andrew Shapiro notes that by over-personalizing the web experience, it would be possible for a news junkie to miss news of a Libyan invasion of the US, in favor of immediate and personal news. As Shapiro says:
A second key technical characteristic of the Internet as a means of shaping perceptions of others is the overwhelming amount of information it supports. It is clear that the Internet enables "netizens," that small, affluent, highly motivated group of net political activists, to gather, process, and archive information, but in many ways, as Nye argues, the abundance of information degrades democratic processes, primarily by overwhelming consumers, thus causing them to rely on intermediaries to interpret that overabundance of information. Ultimately, this diminishes the quality of decision-making, giving an appearance of public participation but with the outcomes ultimately being ordained by the opinion leaders, producing what Nye calls "thin democracy."
Since this amount of information is inherently overwhelming, critical importance is placed on the search engines to sort it in a meaningful way. How this happens in practice is that each search engine uses its own protected algorithms to sort information. What many Internet users don't realize, however, is that it is possible for commercial interests to pay the search engines to rank their sites higher than they would otherwise be. It is also possible for a skillful web designer to trick a search engine, by incorporating metatags or other bits of text that are invisible to the viewer on the page, so that the page appears higher on the list of results than is warranted by its content. Since there is so much information, the ability to find what one is looking for is determined by a user's skill in choosing search words and his or her patience in sorting through irrelevant sites.
For example, if a citizen of the United States wishes to access "virtual China," the amount of information is more or less inexhaustible. A search in June of 2001 on Google for "People's Republic of China" uncovered 246,000 possible sites of interest. The more general term "China" produced 14,500,000 sites. Since an average viewer will only read the first three or so pages of results, the content on those pages is critically important. Moreover, although it provides a few words to summarize or preview each site, a search engine does little to help viewers find the most important, relevant, or balanced perspectives on whatever issue they are seeking.
There is a third important characteristic to remember about the Internet as it currently exists, and that is its commercial nature. The network was originally built to facilitate military communication, and then academic discourse, and it was later broadened to include any user who was willing to pay for Internet access. It has since become a primary vehicle for commerce, and most of the investment in the Internet infrastructure and access has come from commercial sources. In fact, this commercialization of the Internet since the mid 1990s has fundamentally altered both its infrastructure as well as its content.
The commercialization of the web has brought about an architecture more conducive to the authentication of personal identity, so as to make commercial transactions more personalized and more secure. Thus, cookies now track users' online habits, and electronic signatures guarantee one's identity, completely undermining one of the prevailing myths of the Internet, that of the anonymity of its users. What used to be an outlet to explore various perspectives and experiences, even forbidden ones, has become a highly efficient mechanism for tracing personal habits and interests, for all but the most sophisticated of users who are able to reclaim their anonymity.
Thus, one of the great ironies of the web is that commercial interests have played a role in developing the technologies to overcome those aspects that most worried authoritarian governments, such as that of the PRC - thereby demonstrating one aspect of the interchange of commercial and governmental interests. Although users in China, particularly savvy ones, are able to skirt government control over their surfing habits, the ability of the government to track illicit visits to Taiwanese web sites, for example, has increased by leaps and bounds. Rather than bringing about political liberty, economic growth has actually contributed to the ability of the state to better monitor Internet activity.
There is another aspect of the commercialization of the web that has minimized the threat of the new media to the old: the established commercial interests have been able to reassert themselves with vigor as primary providers of content. Although there are a handful of Internet-only news sites that have generated sufficient traffic to stay afloat, the overwhelming majority of news and information sites are controlled by old-economy media giants. CNN, Time, and The New York Times have been able to capitalize on their brand names to maintain their control over new media sites. The recent merger of AOL and Time-Warner illustrates well that the radical new world promised by Internet visionaries has been co-opted by existing media giants. Thus, the same procedures of news gathering, editing, and production that prevailed for earlier media types remain firmly entrenched, and in fact, strengthened by their resilience and ubiquity. Only the largest news outlets post overseas reporters, and then only in the most "significant" of nations. Moreover, reporters who cover international affairs often rely on government sources or on the "collective wisdom" of the group of reporters. This reliance upon official sources creates a de-facto consensus among news outlets on critical issues, one that is not necessarily broken by the web.
It can thus be seen that despite claims of the Internet's ability to open new doors and create new understanding between peoples, there are many drawbacks which mitigate against such open communication. To the factors cited above innumerable others could be added, including issues of the digital divide, language, and economics. I would like to illustrate my argument with a case study of international conflict, and an attendant examination of how the Internet functioned in mediating perceptions between two nations.
Usage of the Internet has exploded in recent years. As of early 2001, over 50 million Americans were using the Internet on a daily basis. Most of them received and sent email, while significant numbers also used the Internet for entertainment and information gathering. Similarly, reports from the China Internet Network Information Center (CINIC) estimated in January of 2001 that there were approximately 22 million Internet users in China, with a user being defined as someone who spent at least one hour a week on the Internet. Estimates of the number of Chinese Internet users, however, are notoriously unreliable, given the fact that most Internet accounts have multiple users. Email is the most widely used Internet feature among Chinese, although news gathering and chat lines were also popular. 84% of the information gathered was news-related, while 77% of the material that Chinese users accessed was in the Chinese language, and 70% of that material had to do with domestic issues.
However, in spite of all this Internet activity, there remain clear divisions between the two peoples. On April 1, 2001, when the news broke that a US surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter had collided, the Internet became a hub of activity for gathering and publishing information concerning the event and the subsequent political stand-off between the two governments. Public interest among citizens of both nations was high, and this interest was expressed through web activity, including online chats and forums, news gathering, and hacking.
CNN's "China Forum," for example, which for the previous two years had averaged approximately 20 posts a day, immediately jumped to an average of over 3600 posts a day, with both American and Chinese participants, though Americans by far outnumbered the Chinese. By the middle of June, the number of postings had fallen back to less than 200 per day, which is still significantly above what it had been before the spy plane stand-off.
Rather than demonstrating a commitment to peace and understanding, the posts carried stereotypes and distorted images of China. One poster wrote:
Not only did many of the postings recommend a confrontational political strategy, but another poster argued that the US should "bomb China." Of course, not all messages were as inflammatory, and while there were voices of moderation, such a chat room becomes an online equivalent of a trash television show, in which participants make outlandish comments because that gets attention.
Similarly, the Qiangguo "Strong Country" forum hosted by the People's Daily newspaper in China (which also hosts an English language forum) saw a huge boost in activity, with participants debating China's options in the conflict. Needless to say, few Americans participated in the Chinese forum, as only a statistically insignificant number of Americans can read Chinese. During this event, the Internet became an important means of bypassing the official media gatekeepers. Chinese users frequently posted news stories from unofficial, including US-based, news sources, which were then removed by technicians. Posters would then repost the same stories, with titles and bylines changed to escape censor scrutiny.
In fact, the censors in Chinese chatrooms found it quite difficult to monitor the posts and keep them in line with government requirements. The forums regularly hosted articles with titles like "Showing the Ugly Face of American Hegemony," "Never Bully the Chinese People" and "What a Shameless America!" Nationalistic fervor among many Chinese was explicitly anti-US, and in an attempt to prevent anger at the US from turning into an attack on the Chinese government, censors deliberately deleted some of the most inflammatory material. One angry Chinese netizen wrote:
For a brief time, however, some of the Chinese sites did have cross-postings from American forums, including the most provocative ones. For example, one post on a Chinese site reproduced an American suggestion to end the impasse by sending "a SEAL team to extract the aircrew" and "blowing up Hainan island."
What is most interesting, though, about this jump in Internet activity is that it was driven by traditional news media. Although the Internet became a means for expressing personal opinions, those opinions largely followed the lines provided by broadcast news outlets. It is highly likely that the majority of Americans and most Chinese heard about the crash from more traditional media, and continued to get most of their information about the events from those same media.
Moreover, the web helped to mask the one-sided nature of the information sources about the events. Americans, who continually argued that the Chinese people had no access to "objective and unbiased" information about the crash because of their government, by and large assumed that the Western news sources were freer to report the "truth" about the incident. Most never considered the fact that everything that the Western news sources broadcast, printed, or placed on the World Wide Web, came directly from US government sources. In spite of the fact that CNN had no independent observer in the plane crash, nor in the negotiations between the two nations, nor in the airbase where the US crewmembers were kept, Americans believed that the Western news sources which dominated the web told an objective story. In fact, the potential to access alternate points of view, such as those published by various world media outlets in Asia or elsewhere, went largely unused. Few Americans, if any, began to log in to the China Daily web site to understand the Chinese perspective, and a miniscule number had the Chinese language skills to access the hundreds of other web sites where they might have seen other perspectives. Remarkably, on the "closed communication" side, in the People's Republic of China, there was a greater tendency to rely on US news sources for information about the event, illustrating that in fact, where there is the most regulatory openness, there are often the most closed minds. As a general rule, Chinese Internet users are more likely to consult US-based news stories for most international events.
The biggest news story about the Internet in the US-China stand-off, however, was the ensuing battle where hackers of both nations squared off to see who could do the most damage to web sites based in the other country. Literally hundreds of sites, including governmental and commercial sites in both nations, were overwhelmed by hackers who either took over the sites, posted graffiti, or shut them down altogether through denial-of-service attacks. Wired News even wondered if the event would be the first world cyber-war. After just a few days of attacking these sites, though, the hacker groups eventually gave up, presumably to engage in less politically taxing activity, and in the face of pressure from both governments to discontinue their actions.
It seems that in a time of international crisis, the Internet did little to alleviate tensions. This contention is supported by a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press immediately after the spy plane stand-off. The findings of the poll showed that in spite of the flurry of web activity, attitudes towards China had actually hardened among the American populace. There was an increase of 9% - from 61% to 70% - in the number of people who viewed China as either an "adversary" or a "serious problem," as compared to the results of a similar poll conducted in March of 2000. In fact, in the official report of the poll, the researchers seem to have found it surprising that attitudes towards China had not become more antagonistic during the stand-off, and there is no mention at all of the supposed "peace-making" effect of the web. The "peace effect" is, perhaps, an illusion.
In summary, there are various reasons why the Internet and the new media have not usurped the role of traditional media in recreating the world. Although technological advances have opened up new opportunities for knowledge and the transfer of information, it seems clear that the Internet is not in itself going to remake human nature. The case of the Chinese-US cyber-war illustrates that the Internet is as conducive to increasing hostility as it is to peacemaking, given the platform it provides for extremist sentiment, stereotypes, and inflammatory rhetoric. The technological optimism which sees in the Internet the end of nationalism and parochialism is grounded not only in a romantic understanding of human motivation, but also an unrealistic understanding of how the Internet functions as a medium for human interaction.
 N. Negroponte, "Internet is Way to World Peace." CNN Interactive, 25 November 1997, available online: https://www.cnn.com/TECH/9711/25/internet.peace.reut/
 M. Dertouzos, What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, p.218.
 D. Weinberger, "World Citizens." National Public Radio. All Things Considered. Commentaries. May 2001. Available online: https://www.npr.org/programs/atc/commentaries/2001/may/
 N. Negroponte, "Beyond Digital." Wired 6.12, December 1998. Available online: https://www.media.mit.edu/people/nicholas/Wired/WIRED6-12.html
 See, for example, D. Nimmo and J. Combs, Mediated Political Realities. New York: Longman, 1990.
 I. De Sola Pool, Technologies of Freedom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.
 A. Shapiro, The Control Revolution. New York: PublicAffairs, 1999, p.107.
 E. Kamarck and J. Nye, Jr (eds), Democracy.com? Governance in a Networked World. Hollis, N.H.: Hollis Publishing Company, 1999, p.12.
 P. Howard, L. Rainie, and S. Jones, "Days and Nights on the Internet: The Impact of a Diffusing Technology." American Behavioral Scientist 45, summer 2001. Available online: https://www.pewinternet.org/papers/paperspdf/NWU_Howard_dailynetuse.pdf
 China Internet Network Information Center, "Semiannual Survey Report on the Development of China's Internet." January 2001. Available online: https://www.cnnic.net.cn/develst/e-cnnic200101.shtml
 CNN China Forum, Wednesday 04/11/01, 2:46:52pm (#50003).
 CNN China Forum, Tuesday 04/03/01, 2:33:12pm (#20024).
 "PRC Chatroom Censorship Criticized - in a Chatroom of Course." Web message posted at Chinese Internet Research Group. Available online: https://groups.yahoo.com/group/chineseinternetresearch/message/141
 M. Delio, "Is This World Cyber War I?" Wired News, 1 May 2001. Available online: https://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,43443,00.html
 The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, "Public Behind Bush on Key Foreign Issues: Modest Support for Missile Defense, No Panic on China." 11 June 2001. Available online: https://www.people-press.org/china01rpt.htm