Please cite as:
Warschauer, M. (2000). Does the Internet bring freedom? Information technology, education and society. 1(2), 93-2001

Does the Internet Bring Freedom?
by Mark Warschauer

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 determinist views. The firms she studies did not all "informate". Some were not able to make the necessary adjustments to fully take advantage of information technology, and thus suffered problems. But information technology did create conditions which made certain kinds of changes beneficial.

Zuboff's research is complemented by that of Kling and Zmuidzinas (1994), who examined the development of 40 work groups over a period of three years. Like Zuboff, they found that transformation of organizational structure was not uniform, but depended on factors such as managerial ideologies about appropriate work organization, the strategies for implementing technological change, the social organization of technical support and work, the occupational power of the worker and work group, and the degree of integration of the computerization in the worklife of the user and workgroup. A key factor in the transformation process was what they call workplace visions, a set of interconnected beliefs and guiding philosophies about the current situation and desired outcomes of work organization and the role of computing in accomplishing those outcomes. They found that workplace visions were not static, but were affected by a range of social and technological factors.

Technology and School Reform

The relationship of technology to educational reform has been an object of much speculation, but less study. One of the most in-depth investigations of this relationship, at least as it applies to computers, was conducted by Sandholtz, Ringstaff, and Dwyer (1997). The authors conducted a ten-year study on the introduction of computers in five US schools in diverse social contexts. Interestingly, their findings paralleled those of Zuboff. They found that the introduction of computers created a dynamic whereby a change in social relations was necessary to fully exploit the new technology. Teachers who were not amenable to new social relations experienced frustrations with using computers and in some cases abandoned using them. But teachers who were able to create more flexible and decentered classrooms featuring project-based activity, collaborative learning, and peer tutoring reaped positive results. Students became much more engaged and motivated and took greater responsibility for their own learning process. And as in the business world, a key element determining the success of reform was the implementors' vision, in this cased defined as teacher beliefs. Teachers' beliefs evolved over time and were affected by the amount of support that teachers got from administrators, the extent of access teachers and their students had to computers, and their initial results that teachers got from introducing computers in their classrooms, as well as teacher's underlying educational philosophy.

A study that I carried out of Internet-enhanced learning in three colleges and universities found similar results (Warschauer, 1999). The study showed that the way that instructors introduced computers was highly dependent on their beliefs about the teaching and learning process. Instructors who believed in student-centered, collaborative learning made use of computers to facilitate that. Instructors who favored a tighly-controlled learning situation attempted to use computers in a way that would facilitate that. In other words, initially all the teachers used computers to try better implement their own vision. But those teachers who were open to a more decentered classroom soon found that the Internet was a powerful tool for implementing that, and they allowed classroom dynamics to emerge that were much more decentered than what had existed in their classes before (due to the possibilities for decentralized communication allowed by the Internet). Meanwhile, a teacher who had tried to use the Internet in a highly controlled way ran into student resistance. The same students who had more obligingly played a passive role without computers and the Internet were less willing to do so in an online, networked classroom. In this case, instead of abandoning the use of computers, the teacher began to reconsider her own beliefs about teaching and learning processes and redesigned her classes to allow students' more authority and control.

The Internet and Society

It is much more difficult to study the impact of the Internet on an entire society, since so many variables are involved in societal change. One way to consider this issue is to examine the situation in countries governed by authoritarian regimes that have allowed introduction of the Internet. Do political and social changes result?

A number of authoritarian governments, including Saudi Arabia and China have now allowed the Internet in their countries, albeit under controlled circumstances. In most such cases, the Internet reaches only a small percentage of the population though, due to a combination of low economic development and government restrictions. In one authoritarian country, though — Singapore -- Internet penetration is quite high, so that country provides a better example for understanding the potential impact of the Internet. A study of the Internet and political control in Singapore has been carried out by Garry Rodan (1998)of the Asian Research Centre at Murdoch University in Australia. Rodan explains how Singapore's national technology planners laid out a strategic plan in 1992 for the country's development as an "Intelligent Island," based on a Disney-like vision of a national high-speed network connecting wall TVs, picture phones, interactive tutors, and electronic places of businesses (see Sandfort, 1993). These plans for a safe, sterile, nationally-enclosed intranet were soon taken over though by the take-off around the world of the technically-superior Internet, and government officials made the pragmatic decision to upgrade their plans to allow Internet connection. By 1996, more than 20 Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were operating in Singapore providing access to some 200,000 people [at that time, roughly 7% of the population, \Rodan, 1998 #2288}. The rapid growth of the Internet posed both an economic opportunity for Singapore and a political threat, since it opened up doors to a range of political and social views not normally allowed in the country's tightly controlled media. To head off this threat, the government initiated draconian regulations to bring the Internet under control, requiring all organizations and individuals with Web pages discussing religion or politics to register with the Singapore Broadcasting authority and all ISPs to forcing all ISPs to prevent the availability of "objectionable content" (including content which can "excite disaffection against the Government" or "undermine the public confidence in the administration of justice"). These tight controls, combined with the Singapore government's efforts to publish its own views online, let Rodan to conclude that the Internet can be "harnessed by some states to consolidate a climate of fear and intimidation and create new opportunites to disseminate propaganda and information in their favor."

However, events which have occurred since Rodan completed his article suggest that the situation may not be as gloomy as he feared. Opposition to the regulations within Singapore and around the world led the government to relax them in November 1997. Current Web restraints are directed principally at pornographic rather than political sites, and other forms of Internet communication, such as e-mail discussion, flow without restriction. Meanwhile, the growing role of information technology in society is emboldening Singaporean citizens to challenge media censorship, and such challenges and debates are now being aired more openly than ever before in Singapore. For example, the country's most prominent newspaper recently published an essay by two prominent figures with close ties to the government questioning the feasability and wisdom of tight government control of the Internet or other media in an era when a free flow of information is required for social and economic development (Yeo & Mahizhnan, 1999).

It is still too early to judge the long-term impact of the Internet in Singapore or other authoritarian states. It is though easy to note positive anecdotes of how people use the Internet to help overcome, or at least publicize, government repression. Gays and lesbians in China connect with each other on the Net using US-based servers, and then use their new-found connections to assert for more of their rights to a normal life. Independent media outlets in Serbia inform the international community about government attempts to shut them down. And social activists of all strips use the Internet to share information, organize protests, and publicize their causes. The Internet by itself is certainly not a magic bullet that will sweep away all oppression, but it does provide an important tool to the public that can help counterbalance power from above.

Toward a Critical Theory of Technology

In analyzing examples from business, educational, and societal contexts, a common pattern emerges. The Internet by itself does not bring about any automatic, pre-determined results, either negative or positive. The impact of the Internet depends on broader institutional and social contexts and transformations. But, as Kranzenberg noted, the fact that new technologies are neither good nor bad does not imply that they are neutral. The Internet's design and history, flowing from the telecommunications industry in the United States, carry with it certain biases. Some of these biases might be seen as negative for prospects of human freedom. To use the Internet fully usually requires access to resources (computers, phone lines, English language, etc.) which are available only to a minority of the world's people. In that sense, the Internet can heighten unequal access to information and power. But in other senses, the Internet is the most liberating medium ever invented. Those who do have access to it (and access in this case means not only physical availability, but also the requisite language, communication, and literacy skills) can receive, exchange, and publish an unprecedented amount of information without necessarily having to use the channels established by a few major mass media. Because of this, introduction of the Internet does help bring about a changed social dynamic. As the Internet spreads, communication from below of all sorts becomes possible, presenting challenges to those who seek to assert control from above. As Zuboff (1988)noted of informating processes more generally, the informating power of the Internet "sets knowledge and authority on a collision course" (p. 310). When people are increasingly able to access information, communicate easily with others in their community or around the world, and independently publish their own views, they are usually less willing to accept arbitrary control of their lives from above. This in itself does not guarantee political freedom ; those in authority can also use the Internet to monitor and clamp down on citizens or employees. But freedom begins not in legislative bodies, corporate boards, or educational administrations, but in the human spirit. And every time people use the Internet to access a piece of information previously denied to them, contact a person previously out of reach, or reach deep into their hearts to share a message that they couldn't have otherwise published, I believe that the human spirit is strengthened.

The Internet will not be a magic carpet ride to liberty. To paraphrase Joe Girard, the elevator to freedom is out of order; you have to use the stairs one step at a time. The introduction of the Internet can shake up institutions and help people realize possibilities they didn't conceive of before. It can thus help facilitate new possibilities of struggling for human freedom. But achievement of human freedom comes only from hard work to achieve personal and institutional change. On some occasions, people in authority, whether politicians, business leaders, or educational administrators, will have a forward-looking perspective of how the Internet can informate their societies and institutions, and will launch reforms that devolve power and control to individuals. More often, though, it will be those from below--citizens, workers, students, teachers--who will have to seize the possibilities offered by the Internet to themselves strive for power, control, and freedom, often against resistance from above. The Internet, as other technologies, will be a site of struggle, as suggested by a critical theory of technology (Feenberg, 1991; see also Kaplan, 1995).

In summary, new information technologies provide a powerful means to help make the 21st century the freest ever for humanity, whether in educational, occupational, or societal contexts. But to achieve such freedom will take vision, commitment, and struggle in our schools, our workplaces, and our society.


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