Howard, Philip N.: The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Quest, Linda
Pub Date: 09/22/2011
Publication: Name: International Social Science Review Publisher: Pi Gamma Mu Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Pi Gamma Mu ISSN: 0278-2308
Issue: Date: Fall-Winter, 2011 Source Volume: 86 Source Issue: 3-4
Topic: NamedWork: The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Howard, Philip N.
Accession Number: 279722825
Full Text: Howard, Philip N. The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. xiii + 285 pages. Paper, $24.95.

Philip Howard is a professor of communications. So is this a social sciences book? Yes, it has won sociology prizes. Moreover, politics and rhetoric were equated in ancient times, and political science is a social science. Yes, if "the medium is the message" in real-time and real-life. The electronic media broadcast messages of relative advantages, deprivations, and disparities to all who tune in, although mass media might confuse users about what is entertainment, what is propaganda, and what is real. Social networking through the Internet brings in participant-observers to make it personal and to give context. This book contributes to sociology and political science (comparative politics, "relational" political science) and to psychology and economics. Digital Origins is likely to be useful to historians also, going forward. This is not a book to read cover-to-cover, yet it is too important to skim leisurely or superficially. Rather, read the introduction, the conclusion, and the appendix first, then chapter one, to focus on the mission, findings, methods, and structure of chapters. It is carefully crafted and deliberate.

"Origins" is used in the book title. The word "cause"--both as noun and verb--is used throughout the text. This is troublesome in systematic comparative analysis. Among the seventy-five countries in the study, there are commonalities of varying degrees. These are adroitly and transparently handled--the analogy is calculus with "fuzzy" methodology and set-theoretic manipulation, to derive necessary and sufficient conditions to cause either democracy or dictatorship. However, the implied determinacy and inevitability are too obviously falsifiable. Recall Neil J. Smelser in Theory of Collective Behavior (1963), who bridged sociology and political science. He used an adaptation of value- added sequencing (from economics) and the language of facilities, agents, and conduciveness to provide tools that are more predictive, not just explanatory after the fact. These niggles may be dismissed if we argue that communications is not a social science or that this study is not cross-disciplinary. Nevertheless, both points, social science and cross- disciplinary, are granted regarding Howard's substantively valuable book.

The inductive proposition is that the future of Islamic states in the networked world is democracy--unless they are oil-rich and if oil remains the global fuel of choice. The technology of the Internet is conducive to both dictatorial digitization of government operations and repression regarding the populace and democratization of demands from the populace regarding government. The word "conducive" does appear in Digital Origins: Going online facilitates coordination according to users' choices. Social networking and cellphones per se are pre-political and parallel forms of communication. Rather than "cause," such terms as "correlate," "influence," and "support" are other less dogmatic and more demonstrable descriptors of what they permit (but do not require).

Mechanics and effectiveness of "fuzzy" techniques in comparative methodology are demonstrated in ways intelligible to practitioners in comparative politics. The introduction and the appendix are both excellent in that regard, with explanations, graphs, and tables. Howard's elucidation of the "dictators' dilemma" is clear and can be recommended to undergraduates. Tabulations of Wired State outcomes are informative and readily useful apropos benefits such as remittances, Internet communications technology (ICT)-led growth and development, and state capacity correlated with Internet cache protocol (ICP) and Internet protocol (IP) policy effectiveness versus risks such as people finding their voices.

But is the Internet necessary and sufficient to democratize regimes? Do markets, coffee shops, funerals, prayer meetings, worship services, and similar places and occasions of public aggregation cause rebellion or revolution? No. Do they have the potential to focus grievances, to air shared discontents, to choreograph protests and demonstrations? Yes. So too have calendars, town criers, lamp-lighters, gossips, and broadsides. Postal exchanges are slow. Industrialized print media, telegraphy, telephony, radio, television, and faxes are faster. Internet is speediest to date. Access and distribution are vaster. Have any of these caused regime change? No. Facilitated, yes, they can do that. They are conducive to articulating and aggregating publics' opinions--and to attracting international broadcast media attention even in countries where governments own and dominate the local media. Mobilizing popular will to act politically is possible but not guaranteed, though political will is what is necessary and sufficient to do so.

Howard's book--highly recommended for both its content and methodology--includes the Iranian elections of 2009. Social networking and cellphones were involved but did not cause or consummate a revolution at that time. Earlier, in 1979, there was revolution in Iran, before there was any Internet. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini used videotapes from exile to arouse pro-Khomeini forces to sweep away the Shah. Typewriters and carbon paper were used by expert typists to reproduce The Power of the Powerless by Vaclav Havel et al. as samizdat in the years before 1989. (1) Since Digital Origins has appeared, upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt during January-February 2011 were influenced and mediated by the Internet, with e-mails and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Briefly blocking those in Egypt and jailing the Google manager for the region did not reduce momentum for political change.

Howard offers several practical recommendations for allowing the use of electronic media to promote democracy: (1) Discourage export of censorship software. Censoring pornographic websites to protect cultural values turns into suppressing political content. (2) Finance construction of public information infrastructure in developing countries. Infrastructure supports the work of the state and allows democratic discourse. Commercial Internet services impart stability and certainty for the private sector. (3) Encourage Internet use among civic actors. Civil use via computers and mobile phones competes with regime-vetted broadcasts, partisan propaganda, and extremists' messages for public opinion.

Linda Quest, Ph.D.

Professor of Political Science

Pace University

New York, New York


(1) Samizdat was a key form of dissident activity across the Soviet bloc in which individuals reproduced censored publications by hand and passed these documents from reader to reader. This grassroots practice to evade officially imposed censorship was fraught with danger as harsh punishments were meted out to people caught possessing or copying censored materials.
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