Misunderstanding the Internet

By James Curran, Natalie Fenton, Des Freedman

© 2012 – Routledge

208 pages

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pub: 2012-03-06
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About the Book

The growth of the internet has been spectacular. There are now more 1.5 billion internet users across the globe, about one quarter of the world’s population. This is certainly a new phenomenon that is of enormous significance for the economic, political and social life of contemporary societies.

However, much popular and academic writing about the internet takes a technologically deterministic view, assuming that the internet’s potential will be realised in essentially transformative ways. This was especially true in the euphoric moment of the mid-1990s, when many commentators wrote about the internet with awe and wonderment. While this moment may be over, its underlying technocentrism – the belief that technology determines outcomes – lingers on, and with it, a failure to understand the internet in its social, economic and political context.

Misunderstanding the Internet is a short introduction, encompassing the history, sociology, politics and economics of the internet and its impact on society. The book has a simple three part structure:

  • Part 1 looks at the history of the internet, and offers an overview of the internet’s place in society
  • Part 2 focuses on the control and economics of the internet
  • Part 3 examines the internet’s political and cultural influence

Misunderstanding the Internet is a polemical, sociologically and historically informed textbook that aims to challenge both popular myths and existing academic orthodoxies around the internet.


‘The research is impressive, and the arguments are persuasive, a classic of media history and analysis’ Irish Times

'Misunderstanding the Internet is the book I have been waiting for since the late 1990s. It is a superb examination of the Internet, how we got to this point and what our options are going forward. James Curran, Natalie Fenton and Des Freedman have combined to produce a signature work in the political economy of communication. They have combined hard research with piercing insight and a general command of the pertinent literature. This is a book I will be using in my classes for years to come.' Robert W. McChesney, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA

'This clear-sighted book provides a sometimes provocative yet solidly grounded guide through the competing claims and hyperbole that surround the internet’s place in society. Deeply sceptical about the transformative potential of the internet, the authors combine an incisive history of the recent past with a call to action to embed public values in the internet of the future.' Sonia Livingstone, LSE, UK

'A deliciously fact-driven corrective to Internet hype of all kinds. Highly recommended.' Fred Turner, Stanford University, USA

'This is a very important book, scholarly, informative and full of useful references, it offers a piercing critique of old mythologies about new media. It is essential reading for students and teachers of mass communications and all those who wish to understand the real impacts of new media on our society.' Greg Philo, Director of the Glasgow University Media Group, UK

'Curran, Fenton and Freedman deliver clear, evidence-based, and balanced analysis of the implications of the Internet on social and political life. A welcome antidote to the hype that pervades commentary of this matter, Misunderstanding the Internet is a most helpful resource for teachers and scholars alike.' Pablo J. Boczkowski, author of Digitizing the News and News at Work

'Recommended. Curran, Fenton, and Freedman present a timely, three-part evaluation of the hype and hope surrounding the Internet… the work will be useful to those interested in the Internet's social impacts and implications.' G.A. Mayer, CHOICE magazine

'…an inspiring title that requires further reflection. It is a comprehensive introduction to political economy of the Internet and digital media. It summarizes a great volume of sources and presents them in new, sometimes unexpected contexts. Therefore, it helps to understand not only the digital communication environment but also our society as a whole.' Roman Hájek, International Journal of Communication

'This book's particular strength is to provide a broad overview of the many social, political and historical forces that impinge upon the more idealistic outcomes sometimes promised by the internet. The crisp analysis of salient issues makes the book key reading for students of the mass media, providing a mature synthesis and articulation of the real impact of the internet. This book is relevant to anyone considering the social and political implications of the internet and it provides an important counterbalance to the literature that is focused more exclusively upon the technology and its capabilities.' Hugh Griffiths, Digital Journalism

'…Curran, Fenton and Freedman manage in this short introduction to the internet to offer not only a comprehensive overview of the literature in both camps, but also a unique contribution to the latter that culminates in a timely and coherent call to arms for regulatory reform.' Simon Dawes, European Journal of Communication

'James Curran, Natalie Fenton and Des Freedman present a critical perspective, based on a political economy of communication approach rooted in Marxist tradition, to debunk the idea of the transformative power of the internet over society. By understanding these misconceptions, the book attempts to reinterpret the internet. From historical, legal, economic and political perspectives, the authors convincingly uncover many of the internet's myths…In their conclusion, the authors have suggestions for what can be done. Through regulation, the corporate influence on the internet could be decreased…This call for regulation sounds convincing to the reader due to the thorough analysis the authors provide…As compelling as the introduction of internet taxes, changes in intellectual property rights, and a deliberate public policy are, and as important and urgent (as the authors by their analysis demonstrate) as these needed changes are, it is unfortunately unlikely that society will live up to this challenge.' Christina Neumayer, MedieKultur

Table of Contents

Part I Overview Chapter 1 Reinterpreting the Internet, James Curran Chapter 2 Rethinking Internet History, James Curran Part II Political Economy of the Internet Chapter 3 Web 2.0 and the Death of the Blockbuster Economy, Des Freedman Chapter 4 Outsourcing Internet Regulation, Des Freedman Part III Internet and Power Chapter 5 Internet and Social Networking, Natalie Fenton Chapter 6 Internet and Radical Politics, Natalie Fenton, Part IV Looking Forward Chapter 7 Conclusion, James Curran, Des Freedman and Natalie Fenton

About the Authors

James Curran is Professor of Communication at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is Director of the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre. He has written or edited 21 books about the media, including Power Without Responsibility (with Jean Seaton), now in its seventh edition, Media and Society now in its fifth edition, and Media and Power, translated into five languages. He has been a visiting professor at California, Penn, Stanford, Oslo and Stockholm Universities.

James Curran is the 2011 winner of the ICA's C. Edwin Baker Award for the Advancement of Scholarship on Media, Markets and Democracy.

Natalie Fenton is Professor of Media and Communication at Goldsmiths, University of London where she is also Co-Director of the Goldsmiths Media Research Centre: Spaces, Connections, Control, and Co-Director of Goldsmiths Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy. She has published widely on issues relating to media, politics and new media and is particularly interested in rethinking understandings of public culture, the public sphere and democracy.

Des Freedman is a Reader in Communications and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of The Politics of Media Policy (2008), co-editor of Media and Terrorism: Global Perspectives (2011) and one of the UK representatives on the management committee of the COST A20 project that examined the impact of the internet on the mass media. He is a co-editor of the journal Global Media and Communication and a researcher in the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre.

About the Series

Communication and Society

This series encompasses the broad field of media and cultural studies. Its main concerns are the media and the public sphere: on whether the media empower or fail to empower popular forces in society; media organizations and public policy; political communication; and the role of media entertainment, ranging from potboilers and the human interest story to rock music and TV sport.

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
COMPUTERS / Internet / General
LANGUAGE ARTS & DISCIPLINES / Communication Studies
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Media Studies