Review: Misunderstanding the Internet

James Curran, Natalie Fenton and Des Freedman tackle internet determinism in their book “Misunderstanding the Internet” (2012). They guide the reader through time from the inception of internet technology to see what expectations we formed in our societies about this technology--to be both let down and to be surprised. Curren, Fenton, and Freedman address the overly optimistic – “Edenic” – predictions about the internet’s effect on all facets of human life, with expansive references to related sources. 

Though the Internet Determinist might perceive Curran, Fenton and Freedman’s book a chilling dead-end, I beg to differ.  The authors simply rethink, reinterpret and reframe the extreme generalizations one often encounters about internet utility.  What gives this book particular credence is that the writers complement their position with an abundance of real cases, from the 1980s through today.

Curran, Fenton and Freedman propose a moderate framing for how we characterize the internet’s utility and effects.  Be it predictions made by scholars, journalists, or thought leaders of democratization or economic equality, to name just a few, the authors respond to previous thinkers and argue that the internet will neither serve a revolutionary role nor be immediately obsolete.  They provide ample evidence from both sides of the spectrum on a myriad of topics.  “Misunderstanding the Internet” advocates for the softening of the concept of the “Internet” (with a capital “I”) to internet with a lowercase “i”.  This call is not unprecedented in the history of technology in human society: the printing press and dawn of newspapers also began as The News Press before it turned into news press.  This application of historical sociology of technology is welcome.

“Misunderstanding the Internet” does not embark on solving a question; rather, it is advocating a change in framing of the topic of the internet and human society.  Curran, Fenton & Freedman do not follow a formal methodology.  They describe social and political thought leaders’ hypotheses about Internet use at various points in history – their credibility is bolstered here by the fact that they consistently present opposing points of view.  The book is also replete with real statistics and demonstrations of how most opinions were too extreme.

The pragmatist will gain satisfaction from “Misunderstanding the Internet” because of the way it addresses how the internet, society and politics has evolved, and then provides fair guesses for where it will go.  An academic may finish this book unquenched, with a thirst for detailed theoretical exposition that the authors do not present.  However, they do have an excuse: theory and reality are often divergent.  Theory, they might say, is detached from the actual occurrence of events in real life.

This book can easily serve as a canonical reading in the field of technology studies because of its historical detail.  It presents a vivid timeline of how the internet has been perceived and how it has been utilized since its inception.  Any collection of credible books on technology studies will be enhanced by having this thorough book on case-studies and perceptions.