December 1997

An Empirical Look at the Electronic Agora

Book Review: Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace: The Online Protests over Lotus Marketplace and the Clipper Chip
Laura J. Gurak
Yale University Press, 1996
181 pages, indexed.
ISBN 0-300-06963-4

Reviewed by Stephen Doheny-Farina

With Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace, Laura Gurak offers thoughtful observers of computer-mediated communication something to sink their teeth into. Finally, we get commentary on this cultural enterprise we call cyberspace that is based on something more than speculation, theory, and opinion drawn from personal experience. Gurak explores two significant case studies of human action in and about cyberspace -- the Lotus Marketplace protest and the continuing battle over the Clipper Chip -- in order to ground her analyses of the democratizing potential of these new electronic public spaces.

The author has woven together two narratives that illustrate the dynamics of public protest, individual rights to privacy, and new communication technologies into an analysis of the impact the new technologies have on public life. That is, the author uses the Lotus and Clipper Chip controversies as a lense through which we view the Net's impact on our social and political life.

The cases illustrate, according to the author, two approaches to public social action: the bottom-up, grass roots campaign that occured during the anti-Lotus MarketPlace campaign and the top-down, special-interest lobbying efforts that generated the Clipper Chip controversy. The vantage points provided by these two cases can show us how we may be able to choose the more effective "balance between complete anarchy and complete control."

With these cases the author attempts to explore some very compelling questions: Does the Internet have the potential to increase public empowerment, reintegrating individuals to their political lives? Is the Internet democratizing? Does it change the ways we interact with each other and our institutions?

Rhetoric in the Electronic Agora

Just as the author explores the Net via the lenses of the two narratives, she explores the narratives through the lenses of rhetorical theory -- in particular the concepts of delivery and community ethos -- thereby revealing how network communication technologies alter and expand the potentials for deliberative discourse. She defines ethos as "shared technical values" and "shared attitudes toward technology." She notes that "communities of common interest" can coalesce far more quickly and broadly via the Net than they might without the net. She notes that "highly specialized virtual spaces on the Internet make it easy to join a community and quickly understand and assume this community ethos." The author asks how rhetoric is changed when it operates no longer in physically located places but in virtual spaces.

Gurak does an excellent job of explaining rhetorical exigency and the kairotic moment. Her uses of these concepts defuses simple, linear, cause-effect explanations of both stories. These phenomena, the technologies and the varied responses to those technologies, arose out of complex social, political, economic, and technolgical environments.

This book does two important things that few others have yet done: it attempts to break down the simplistic "doom or glory" binary that infects much writing about advances in communication technology and, secondly, as I noted at the outset, it is based upon extensive empirical evidence. At the same time, because we are looking at two intriguing case studies, the book is far more entertaining than typical academic research efforts.

While it is academic in its reliance on rhetorical theory to explain the cases, it is still highly accessible to a wide variety of readers and should appeal to those interested in rhetorical and communication theory, those interested in the rhetoric of science and technology, those interested in public policy, political discourse, freedom of speech and the right of privacy, and those interested in the social impacts of the Internet. In terms of the latter audience, the book explores the much discussed, little analyzed phenomenon of flaming, especially as they relate to some key gender issues. For example, Gurak focusses on the intriguing case of computer scientist Dorothy Denning's problematic experience in the cryptography wars that surround the Clipper Chip case.

Online v. Off: What's the Difference?

The only real doubt I am left with after reading this thoroughly engaging and enjoyable book is the extent to which we can claim that public debate in cyberspace is fundamentally different than public debate elsewhere. Neither case study reveals cyberspace to be a clearly democratic, participatory forum for ethical public deliberation. That's to the author's credit. But she also seems to claim, overall, that the Net is revolutionary. Yet, if the Net is neither inherently democratizing nor a new and better tool for central control, how is it substantively different from the communication technologies that have preceded it?

In the end I'm left wondering: what is really different about social action via the Net and social action without the Net? It seems clear that the qualities of speed and reach are different: online discourse reaches more people faster than offline discourse. Those who believe the Net is inherently democratizing would say that participation is qualitatively different but the author's case studies undermine that claim. Most of what counts for public discourse in the post-industrial world seems to be characterized by polarized political positions advanced by simplistic, key images that attempt to close-off deliberation. In these two cases, large-scale, effective, reasoned deliberation was absent just like it is absent from most other public discourse. I might want to say that the Net serves as merely a faster and more pervasive means to the same arhetorical ends that we see in, say, television advertising.

It is a tribute to the author that the case studies she presents are rendered in such a way that a reader such as myself may be able to develop an alternative reading of the phenomena under study. That alone makes this a valuable book but with its crystal clear rhetorical analysis and highly accessible style, Laura Gurak has provided us much more.

Stephen Doheny-Farina ( is author of The Wired Neighborhood (Yale University Press, 1996) and a professor of technical communication at University in Potsdam, New York.

Copyright © 1997 by Stephen Doheny-Farina. All Rights Reserved.


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