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Saco's Cybering Democracy

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Cybering Democracy: Public Space and the Internet.

Saco, Diana. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. 296pp. $59.95, hardcover. ISBN: 0816635404.

In spite of the seemingly fertile opportunities offered by the aura a newness implicit in New Media, it's a rare event that a book on the internet presents a critical argument or a novel approach. As a result, I picked up Diana Saco's Cybering Democracy feeling a bit jaded, and dreading what I thought would be a jolly tome on the "groovy" excellence of identity and cyberspace and some speculation about how an ominously vague "we" might benefit from it. Fortunately, I was wrong.

The critical framework which Saco constructs in Chapter 1 makes use of Foucault's notion of "heterotopia," Lefebvre's Production of Space, and deCertau's Practice of Everyday Life. The result is a discussion of space which plays on the estranging dialectic between theory and practice as a space where order is both realized and disrupted, where rules are made and broken. Heterotopia, in Saco's discussion, becomes an indispensable critical term for understanding cyberspace as something more than merely liberating -- cyberspace is an ambiguous territory whose potential lay in its ability to write rules just as much as circumvent them. Continuing her productive trajectory in Chapter 2, Saco embarks on a discussion of Democracy and Utopia which leads through Habermas, Arendt, and American government. In developing such concepts as "democracy" and "public space," Saco fleshes out the idea of the "public" versus the "mass" and alludes to popular discussions of electronic voting, town hall meetings, and accountability in government.

One deficiency in Cybering Democracy is that, in spite of powerful critique of digital technologies, Saco does not engage in a discussion of technology in general. Technological solutions to human problems proceed by increasing their share of who we are. Identity's construction is increasingly fabricated rather than imagined. To discuss cyberspace as an heterotopic "point of passage, an obligatory one" (Saco 211), simply treats the creation of digital space as a cultural event rather than a technological transformation of the self though a uniform matrix. While my distinction between fabricated and imagined might seem to be a matter of semantics, the scale of "manufactured" experience versus "handmade" experience might serve to undermine the virtues of democracy. Insofar as it routes good citizenship through an increasingly narrow range of subjective experiences, passing through the portal of cyberspace might help tomorrow's consumer-citizens to construct identities which see the real world as an adventure in consumer choice rather than an exercise of duty. However, such shortcomings are easy to overlook given the ambitious nature of Saco's project and the relentlesness with which she chases down challenging critical concepts.

In defining the two idealized and seemingly opposed spaces which have both been claimed by technology advocates -- the democratic and the heterotopic -- Saco is able to sustain a highly mobile and sophisticated discussion of the benefits and liabilities of virtual environments. The end result is a study of technology and culture which takes into account social and material inequalities, and which maintains the centrality of human beings and their bodies in the sphere of politics. Rather than offer an escape, such technology offers a powerful point of contrast in that it virtual selves and the spaces they occupy "fail as long as other social spaces continue to be produced by other bodies pressing their demands" (Saco 211). In other words, cyberspace emerges as an ambiguous heterotopia rather than an unambiguous utopia, and in so doing should reaffirm the importance of democratic spaces where human beings can realize their rights.

Davin Heckman