Book review: Frederic Martel’s ‘Smart: The Digital Century’

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New Delhi | Published: September 23, 2018 1:22:03 AM

A book talks about the many internets and the change they are bringing to society.

Book review: Frederic Martel’s ‘Smart: The Digital Century’

When Gil Scott-Heron wrote the song, The Revolution will not be Televised, in the 1970s, not only was it a call for a passive society to take part in the structural change the world was going through, but also an attack on the crass consumerism that was taking over everything. Unfortunately, Heron is not around now to write about the era of the internet. But Frederic Martel’s Smart: The Digital Century makes an effort.

The aim of Martel’s work is not to point to the digitalisation of the world, but to highlight the many facets of the internet that have emerged. According to Martel, the phenomenon of digitalisation and a globalised internet are still years away, as the entity has taken many manifestations to suit the tastes, cultures and regimes of different countries. The ‘Internet’, Martel argues, has become ‘internets’, more localised in form and nature.

Martel surveys people across five continents to present his views on this dialectical relation that the internet shares with the world. He tries to explain how it is changing the world, even as the world, in turn, is working on improving the service itself.

Written in a journalistic fashion, Smart takes over from Martel’s previous work, Mainstream, which discussed the confluence of media and cultures. In his new book, Martel concentrates in a methodical way on the different ideas in different geographies. For instance, he talks about the role of social TV and apps in the Maghreb region, while in Latin America, he focuses on the power of blogging and Twitter. For China and Iran, he is entirely focused on the hyper-localisation of the internet and the regimes’ influence on its services.

A large section of the book, however, remains focused on the American economy and its interactions along with those of the EU market—even Smart, in that sense, can’t ignore the magnanimity of the American market and its impact on the world.

The book is divided into 12 chapters on issues ranging from social TV, gaming and Silicon Valley. It is filled with examples from each of the continents, but concentrated on the features of some. For instance, in the case of Silicon Valley, Martel highlights the different iterations of the region that are coming up across the world. More importantly, he points out how this phenomenon is actively and religiously pursued by governments, but is, in fact, guided by the market.

Similarly, Martel points to the world of e-commerce, where the Amazon model has somewhat been replicated by startups successfully to suit their conditions. However, a lot of Martel’s time goes in explaining the American phenomenon and, even though unwittingly, he can’t escape the bounds of American hegemonic control. In comparison, the analysis of other countries takes a backseat, which is a big drawback, given how Martel has illustrated the different facets of the internet in consonance with the US model of the Internet.

The book also falters in the narration. Despite Martel’s best efforts, there is a lot left to the reader’s imagination. Another problem is the ‘saviour phenomenon’, which the author attaches to the US and EU. He does grip the reader’s attention, but some examples seem too stretched. The problem becomes accentuated when Martel tries to present solutions across geographies; from thereon, the book becomes a maze of internets. Also, Martel stresses too much on the singularity aspect of the internet. But was the internet ever supposed to be a singular entity? In fact, if it had been so, it would have represented yet another example of American hegemony. Though it is right that American content is finding more audience day by day, what’s also true is that the popularity of the likes of South Korean singer Psy is drowning out Americanism, and shall become stronger with more localisation.

Martel’s is an excellent account for anybody trying to understand the different internets. Even with a skewed conclusion, Martel does highlight the problems. However, what the book misses out on is the fluidity of the web. A few years ago, I heard the term ‘glocal’, an amalgamation of ‘global’ and ‘local’.

The internet has been glocal, and its strength lies in being glocal. The #MeToo movement is the best representation of such a phenomenon, where despite the localisation, a global phenomenon is getting localised.

The writer is a former journalist

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