The Internet has a pivotal role to play in civic and social life, but not if it proves to be simply a provider of commercial content.

That was the message from participants at a recent symposium sponsored by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, who gathered in Seattle to discuss "Shaping the Network Society: The Future of the Public Sphere in Cyberspace."

And the public sphere is in danger of being swallowed by commercial interests poised to take advantage of the new medium, speakers warned.

Seattle City Councilman Jim Compton, a former television journalist, said those who develop technology have a moral responsibility to form a new kind of civics. The Internet has the potential to "open up political processes to the people we're supposed to serve," Compton told his audience, but then asked, "If 'Net commerce is the juggernaut, will civic growth be left behind? That happened to TV."

Symposium coordinator Peter Day of Brighton, England, said the Internet held promise for everyone -- provided information technology practitioners, policymakers and theorists like those gathered for the conference May 21-23 continued to challenge current thinking about Internet uses.

"I think the not-for-profit sector probably has a distrust for the commercial side," Day said. "Because of the way the social agenda develops, if the digital divide -- or social exclusion, as we call it on the other side of the Atlantic -- is to be addressed, various sectors have to find ways to work together. It calls for a change of agenda across the board. The main thing is that people think about the issues."

            But accessibility remains a key issue, particularly when looked at from a global perspective. Oliver Boyd-Barrett of California State Polytechnic University at Pomona presented statistics to demonstrate that the World Wide Web is hardly that. Among Boyd-Barrett's findings: More than 78 percent of language on the Web is English, even though only one person in 10 worldwide speaks English. Fifty percent of 'Net users are in the United States, 25 percent in Europe. By 2004, 12 nations will account for 90 percent of global e-commerce. Sixty-two of the largest 100 corporations with a presence on the Internet are U.S. firms, he said.

            Boyd-Barrett told the group there is little evidence of a global public sphere. The Internet is dominated by U.S.-produced hardware and software and is being "harnessed by commercial voices at alarming speed," he warned.

            Craig Calhoun of the Social Science Research Council in New York told the group social scientists have done too little to document the influence of the Internet.

            "If the public sphere stands for political debate, the absence of research leaves us in the world of personal experience and anecdotes," he said. "The field is surrounded by media hype but enveloped by ignorance.

"At stake is guiding society by sharing knowledge," Calhoun continued. "Can we communicate in such a way as to shape our government?"

            Calhoun called the Internet a supplement, not a replacement, for other connections and said the information it provided was, in some ways, a mixed blessing.

Continued in Part 2...

 

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