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Book Review of Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace by Laura J. Gurak
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 8 Number 2 1998

Book Review of Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace by Laura J. Gurak


Dr. Kenneth Hacker
Department of Communication Studies
New Mexico State University


The author of Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace , Laura Gurak, observes how the Internet opens up exciting and perhaps revolutionary means of communication which can be used for political activism.

This book offers a refreshing alternative to futurist and golly-gee speculations about computer network activism. It starts and remains inductive, thus making generalizations about cyberactivism that are empirical and realistic. These generalizations might be used for further research and eventual theory building.

In the tradition of Habermas and others committed to enhancing public spheres for political discourse, Gurak attempts to show how computer-mediated communication (CMC) can be used to create new social spaces.

Rhetorical theory concepts of ethos and delivery are employed to explain empirical observations of online discourse in two major case studies of net-based protests -- the Lotus MarketPlace protest and the Clinton Clipper Chip protest. The author provides useful histories of these technologies, how the conflicts began, how the protests developed, and how Internet communication facilitated the protests. The Lotus MarketPlace CD-ROM had data about 120 million consumers in the U.S. More than 30,000 people asked Lotus to remove their names. After this and other protest actions, Lotus eventually canceled release of its product. In 1993, the Clinton administration announced the impending release of a government-owned encryption algorithm known as the Clipper Chip. This innovation also met a storm of protest over the Internet. Yet, despite nearly 50,000 signatures of protest, the White House continued its plans, albeit in altered form. The contrasts between these case studies are central to the book and provide fascinating data indicating why net activism sometimes works and sometimes fails.

Gurak helps us become aware of the contested nature of net activism and alleged empowerment in general via CMC. She notes how oversimplistic declarations of how CMC empowers users can result from failure to study particular cases of power struggles. While her jab at experimental CMC research is unwarranted, Gurak adds to the growing body of research which refutes assertions about automatic status equalization via CMC.

This book is generally more descriptive than explanatory, but this is not a drawback since rich descriptions of CMC phenomena are still necessary for the research literature. Gurak convincingly argues that new types of "rhetorical entities" are produced by Internet communication. She treats the concept of cyberspace communication with depth and precision, making important observations of how virtual communities differ from organic ("physical") ones, particularly in terms of shared goals and values.

Online ethos is a major concept in Gurak's book. The author shows how easy it is for persuaders in cyberspace to create an ethos which is based totally on texts rather than on their character or even the authenticity of their identity.

I disagree with Gurak's claim that the Internet "flattens hierarchies." I throw that one in the trashbin along similar claims made by other authors -- such as computers make children smarter and CMC equalizes social status. A thorough review of the literature shows that CMC can reinforce hierarchies and it can also strengthen inequalities and status differentials. We need to stop removing the agents who design and manage the technologies from the contexts of CMC which we are analyzing. The agents, not the technologies, determine the effects.

Beyond this one point of contention, I find the rest of the book to be theoretically sound and intellectually stimulating. Gurak observes the ways that class structure affects empowerment. Like many of us who write about CMC and the Internet, Gurak argues that the political benefits of CMC primarily accrue to those with substantial economic and educational resources. Thankfully, she does not fall into the trap of accepting the argument that new spheres of political activism suddenly appear with access to the Net.

Realistically, Gurak shows how online protests are one component among many components in organized political activism. For example, the online Lotus protest was accompanied by critical media reports, research and meetings conducted by the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), etc. etc.

This book helps us understand some specific political communication functions of online protest. These functions include disseminating messages, encouraging debate, mobilizing other channels of protest, etc. Numerous problems with online protest are also noted. For example, accuracy of posted information can be difficult to determine.

Online protests, as described in this book, may provide more public spaces for political debates and information exchange among people who usually do not get many chances to discuss political issues (or even many chances to meet others concerned about them). Perhaps more knowledge about online activism can help us move us beyond some of the incessant critical theory "mindwalking" about oppression without liberation.

Gurak acknowledges what all of us must admit: there is no CMC liberation of any consequence in the absence of changes in political, social, and economics structures of oppression. Whether or not CMC activism produces changes in these other spheres remains to be tried.

I recommend that this book be read by CMC researchers and students, political communication graduate students, persuasion theory graduate students, and anyone else interested in the social implications of the Internet.

Gurak, Laura J. (1997). Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace . Yale University Press. ISBN # 0-300-06963-4


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Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.

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