The Pay-Per Society: Computers and Communication in the Information Age

Vincent Mosco

The eight chapters in this book explore facets of the ongoing role of computerization in the commodification and privatization of information and communication. The first chapter sets out the uniting rationale of the work, namely, "the shift from commons organization to private corporate ownership." The second discusses research methods pertinent to this topic and emphasizes the need to remove (self- imposed) inter-disciplinary barriers to critical communications research in North America. These are crucial preambles to the dense chapters that follow. Unfortunately, as contextualization they may ultimately be more long-lived than the cautionary tale against following American trends to free trade and deregulation that inspires the author in his Acknowledgements and the concluding chapter.

Democracy is rarely raised -- at least by communication researchers--as a criterion for the evaluation of new media technologies. In a field in which the critique of the utopian promise of media links (computer, radio, telephone, telegraph, press) is more highly developed than any positive methods for evaluating experiments in communication that have tried to counter the usual hierarchical and uni-directional sender-receiver forms of organization, it is refreshing and instructive to encounter a chapter devoted to democratic communications.

Professor Mosco looks at some of the few examples of (usually) workplace-based challenges to the pervading worker- and consumer-surveillance use of computers, rather a poignant roster. He distinguishes between the physical deconcentration of operational and routine matters which computers can allow in complex organizations, and the actual delegation of power to more participants. Democracy, not surprisingly, is in short supply. More attention, however, might be given to the questions of the definition of democracy. Social and cultural fragmentation, limited forms of autonomy, and the temporary strategic use of dominant communication technologies may not represent the ideals of the great society, the Public, or proletariat, depending on one's point of view. But do they not represent forms of communicative practice that can be called democratic?

The question of the role of State pervades the remaining chapters in the book. Few would argue that federal communication regulation in the United States or Canada now constitutes a mediating or partnership role, if indeed it ever did. Professor Mosco suggests in his studies of telecommunications, labour, "the military information society and Star Wars" and U.S. communication policy, that the steady displacement of communications regulation to a kind of complaints department, with decision-making lying elsewhere, is consistent with the captured State in trans-national capitalism.

Many fascinating issues are raised by this book -- to use a cliché, each chapter could provide the basis for a book in itself. Although Professor Mosco appears most concerned with deregulation and Free Trade and the menace to democracy posed by communication-industry-set priorities, his analysis is sensitive to many of the anomalies that arise during the experience of general trends. He is also consistent with his second chapter throughout the book in examining in each case the theoretical options available for making sense of the commodification of communication.

The shift from commons to private ownership is a topic in communication that deserves more attention from other researchers. Some interesting work has been done in relation to communication law (see Myles Ruggles, The Audience Reflected in the Medium of Law [Ablex, forthcoming 1992]), but too many of us labour under the illusion that the "commons" is a securely established -- legally, morally, and constitutionally--principle of communication media to which we can address our complaints of inaccessibility. This is one example of the kinds of work that deserves encouragement in North American universities. Or perhaps to be more precise it represents the kind of fundamental scholarship in communication -- like this book -- to which undergraduates, students in journalism and production, and the general public deserve as much exposure as do those of us involved in critical communication research across North America.