Digital Disconnect | Robert W. McChesney

Summary of: Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy
By: Robert W. McChesney


In ‘Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy,’ Robert W. McChesney takes readers on an insightful journey into the true nature of the internet and its evolution in relation to capitalism and democracy. The book summary delves into the debate between internet ‘celebrants’ who view the web as a tool for prosperity and equality, and ‘skeptics’ who argue it has made people more shallow. McChesney tackles the misconceptions surrounding capitalism and sheds light on the political economy of communications, the role of advertising, and the impact of the internet on journalism. The summary leaves readers better informed about the complex dynamics of the digital revolution and its implications for society.

The Internet Debate

The internet has been a catalyst for debate, with celebrants and skeptics being the two schools of thought. Celebrants believe that the internet’s capacity to connect and share information worldwide will trigger a more equal society, scientific advancement, and leisure. On the other hand, skeptics opine that the universal flow of data does not guarantee an increased understanding. Author Eli Pariser accuses the internet of creating filter bubbles where users are subjected to a protective sphere that impedes unanticipated creative thoughts.
Skeptics believe that people become less capable of critical thinking and become shallow with the ease of obtaining information from the internet. Both perspectives remain ignorant of the political and economic context of the internet. Several power-wielding entities use the web to undermine an equal society, as we witness in China, which denies free speech but allows business use of the internet. Therefore, understanding the digital revolution demands scrutinizing capitalism and the political economy.

The Capitalism Fable

Capitalism, as we know it, is an ideological fable. The market rarely produces what people need, inequality is embedded in its DNA, and class mobility is limited. Advertising is the lifeblood of capitalism, and it fuels an explosion of emotions in consumers. At its core, capitalism means continually growing firms and economies. The internet age has opened us to critical discussions on capitalism and the society it creates.

Capitalism, Democracy, and the Media

The relationship between capitalism, democracy, and the media is a complex one. While they are often treated as equal, they are very different, and the intersection of these three forces can result in depoliticization and disempowerment. Powerful corporations, in particular, have the ability to distort democratic systems, leaving citizens, especially the poor, with little power and choice. The media, commercial or otherwise, is often seen as a reflection of public interest, but in reality, it is shaped by market forces and has its own set of biases. The emergence of the internet presented a new critical juncture for media organizations, where changes could be made to the system. However, the digital revolution has also been compromised by capitalist appropriation and development of the internet. Ultimately, reconciling the monopolistic commercial news media with the requirements of a political democracy is a challenge that requires careful consideration and action.

The Capitalist Taming of the Internet

The internet was initially seen as a democratic force that would not succumb to government censorship. However, huge corporations capitalized on its potential and quickly turned the once-free service into a capitalist sector. Although the US government only partly funded the internet, it spent far more on it than the Manhattan Project. More than one-third of university researchers involved in the research behind the internet received national security agency funding. The emergence of Apple, Netflix, and e-books on the internet heralded a new era of monetization. The public service was no longer free, but instead, one that the great and powerful exploited. Consequently, those who once sought freedom online now have to negotiate their way through a minefield of commercial interests. Although the internet was supposed to herald the dawn of democracy on a global scale, this has not come to pass. In conclusion, what was once seen as a beacon of hope is now just another tool in the hands of the powerful.

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