BFP Book Review: “Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet against Democracy’ by Robert W. McChesney”

A Deep Insight into the Decrepit State of the American Press

By Mark Mondalek


In the beginning it was Big Government that got the ball rolling: subsidized research and directive forays into digital communication in the decades following World War II, all coalesced within the military-industrial complex, perpetual war, and a blood pact between the U.S. government and the corporate giants that grows ever-stronger by the day.

However, most of the early envisages of what the Internet could be were practically utopian by nature––idealistic, if nothing else. The original Internet populace vigorously rejected commercialism, capitalism, and just about any other form of hierarchal ascent. It was the dawning of the Information Age, after all, the birth of the “information superhighway” where knowledge would reign supreme, ignorance fully eradicated from the planet.

It was only as late as the 1990s that people expounded such optimism over the many closed doors of humanity that could thus be unlocked by virtue of the World Wide Web.

So why does it feel as though we’ve opened some sort of Pandora’s box instead?

In his latest book, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy (The New Press, March 2013), Robert W. McChesney takes the deep plunge into the murky waters of a digital revolution––originally developed for the many––that’s been increasingly misappropriated by the few. Harkening back to the very beginning stages, he unravels the historical grounds with which Digital Disconnect is balanced upon: from the transmutation of democracy and capitalism to the advent of the Internet and the current military-government-corporate conglomeration that now completely encompasses it. To let McChesney tell it: “The domination of the Internet by a handful of monopolists, as well as the emerging cloud structure of the Internet, is perfect for the government. It need deal with only a handful of giants to effectively control the Internet.”

Take WikiLeaks, for example, and the banking blockade imposed upon it by Bank of America, VISA, MasterCard, PayPal and Western Union in December 2010, a move that destroyed 95% of the website’s revenue and caused “millions of pounds in lost donations at a time of unprecedented operational costs.” Apple additionally joined the coalition, removing a WikiLeaks app from their website, along with Amazon, who booted them from their servers. Thus, with the ease of flicking off a light switch, the U.S. government and its capitalist coffers had spoken.

While the organization has since procured alternate donation channels, the precedent has clearly been established.

Google, who spent $5 million on Washington lobbying during the first three months of 2012, holds similar keys to whether a website sinks or swims in accordance to what page their monopolized search engine lists certain website addresses on. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was invited to the 2011 G8 meetings to discuss world politics! And then of course there’s the surveillance:

In 2012 the U.S. military formally stated that it “intended to treat cyberspace as a military battleground,” and the most important battleground at that. The National Security Agency is completing a $2 billion complex in Utah that will be the cumulonimbus of Internet clouds. Its “near-bottomless databases” will include “the complete contents of private e-mails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails.” The NSA then has enormous capacity to slice and dice the contents. As James Bamsford observes, for the first time since Watergate, “the NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the US and its citizens.”

To analyze the contents of our cherished smartphones and personal computers is the equivalent of putting one's hand underneath a powerful microscope to reveal the millions of germs swarming all over our skin as we are endlessly tracked, GPS’d, and filed away inside of databases around the globe no different than the one being constructed in Utah as we speak. Writes McChesney: “With SOPA in 2011 and CISPA and ‘cybersecurity’ in 2012, all signs point to the legislative thrust being in one direction: shrinking the rights of citizens and expanding the unaccountable prerogatives of the national security state and Internet giants.”

It is not enough just to say that the island that is our personal privacy is simply sinking anymore, for it has been officially washed away at sea.

McChesney has written or edited over twenty books, all of which seem to circle around the same common themes that Digital Disconnect combines into one sleek, carefully plotted and meticulously researched package. Along with being a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he also co-founded Free Press in 2002, a national organization dedicated to media reform and democratization. Free Press advocates for universal and affordable Internet access, diverse media ownership, vibrant public media and quality journalism.

Massive government spying aside, McChesney’s deep insight into the decrepit state of the American press is perhaps Digital Disconnect’s most chilling subject of all. “As of 2013,” he states, “it seems obvious that if the Internet is really reviving American democracy, it’s taking a roundabout route. The hand of capital seems heavier and heavier on the steering wheel, taking us to places way off the democratic grid, and nowhere is the Internet’s failure clearer or the stakes higher than in journalism.”

In regards to the downfall of journalism––and with it, all hope of a lasting democracy––McChesney does offer a viable solution. It’s something he calls “the citizenship news voucher,” an idea first developed by the economist Dean Baker and his brother Randy Baker.

The idea is simple: every American adult gets a $200 voucher she can use to donate money to any nonprofit news medium of her choice. She will indicate her choice on her tax return. If she does not file a tax return, a simple form will be available to use. She can split her $200 among several different qualifying nonprofit media. This program would be purely voluntary, like the tax-form check-offs for funding elections or protecting wildlife. A government agency, probably operating out of the IRS, can be set up to allocate the funds and to determine eligibility according to universal standards [like those granting 501(c)(3) nonprofit status] that err on the side of expanding rather than constraining the number of serious sources covering and commenting on the issues of the day.

It’s dreamy, yes, and almost something so (potentially) promising that you hate to even bring yourself to imagine it, simply but to spare yourself the heartbreak of remembering how it will never, ever happen. The government recognize journalism as a public good, providing non-profit digital news outlets with the means to survive and hire a full-time staff? It’s strange how––with all this talk about the NSA permeating in the air––such an enlightening proposal as that is what now seems to be the stuff of science fiction.

In the beginning chapter, McChesney rather modestly asserts that his main wish in writing this book is to simply “contribute” to the conversation, “offering no pretense of providing a comprehensive or general theory.”

But what he does offer is an extensive allotment of questions, questions that we too must be asking, debating, and giving strong consideration to, because––with the advancing effects that digital communication continues to have on our daily lives––we may well be too numb to notice it by the time the rug has officially been pulled out right from under us. Apathy and inaction will only help to accelerate the devastation and further expand the divide within our digital age.

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Mark Mondalek – BFP contributing author, is a writer and editor based in Detroit.

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