I will not
today address explicitly the question of the "agenda-setting"
dimensions of the new technologies because those dimensions
can be elucidated only by first addressing the subject raised
by the title of our Conference, "Democracy and Digital
Media." Nonetheless, there will be a number of implications
in my remarks, and some entailments of the arguments I make,
that do touch directly on agenda-setting.
to talk without polemic or misunderstanding about the relationship
between the new technologies and democracy, we need to ask these
key questions: Which technologies? And, indeed, which democracy?
For both of these terms have plural referents. I will take a
stab at these perplexing definitional questions, but first,
I need to offer four rather extensive caveats that raise some
central problems about the promise of the new technologies.
to re-emphasize a point at the center of our more polemical
discussion last night, I am not a technological determinist.
Technology has entailments and tendencies, but on the whole,
history shows that it more generally reflects and mirrors the
culture in which it evolves rather than guiding and directing
it. We might want to recall, for example, that gunpowder democratized
warfare in the West, but in China it reinforced the hold of
hierarchical elites. We will notice also that the internal combustion
engine and electricity suburbanized America as a consequence
of the political choice made after World War II in favor of
private transportation (the interstate highway system) and the
industries that supported it (rubber, cement, steel, oil and
automobile); yet at the very same historical moment, those technologies
were put to the uses of a strong public transportation system
words, technologies tend not to be determinative but rather
are conditioned by what is going on in the society in which
they grow, which is why, when I talk about technology, I generally
focus on the characteristics of the society beyond and why,
I think, we really need to be focusing on those characteristics
here today as well.
caveat I need do no more than mention because Chris Harper made
the point in his paper (previously presented) very eloquently.
He reminded us that, we can exaggerate the impact of new technology
by overestimating how much of it is actually "new;"
after all, 98% of the population still get their news and entertainment
primarily from traditional media. We may be working on a frontier
here and in other media labs around the country, but we cannot
allow ourselves to forget that despite the apostles of inevitable
progress of technological convergence, our society at large
has yet to arrive at this frontier. There is no convergence
yet between computers, television and telephones, and some argue
it will never come. In the nineteen-fifties, engineers envisioned
single, multiple-task gadgets in American kitchens, but homemakers
turned out to prefer dedicated machines that did one task --
not a toast-oven-mix-master-blender-peeler but separate toasters,
mixers, ovens, can openers, blenders and so forth. In any case,
most people spend their time in the multiplex, or in front of
the radio and the TV, not on the Net, and when we make generalizations
about democracy and media and gate-keepers and so on, we need
to remember that the real action around censorship, news, entertainment
and 'propaganda' is still provided by television, movies, radio,
in what some people are now calling the "attention economy,"
the competition for attention is such that we don't necessarily
want to conclude that the Net is automatically going to continue
to increase its hold on an ever larger share of our time. Just
because it is an efficient technology from the perspective of
technicians does not mean it will be a successful technology
from the perspective of consumers. Strikingly (though hardly
unexpectedly from the point of view of this skeptical observer),
a recent study in The American Psychologist (summer, 1998) suggested
that internet use actually increases clinical depression in
otherwise normal users. Ought the avoidance of depression be
a criterion for evaluating the web!?
caveat relates to the frequently debated question of spectrum-abundance.
We need to remind ourselves that spectrum-abundance (the multiplication
of conduits and outlets) is not the same thing as pluralism
of content, programming and software. When we distinguish content
from the conduits that convey it, the consequences of monopolistic
ownership patterns become much more obvious. For, as the ownership
of content programming, production and software grows more centralized,
the multiplication of outlets and conduits becomes less meaningful.
I know there
is an element of subjective judgment here. When I turn on the
television and surf the celebrated 50 or l00 (soon to be 500!?)
channels available to me, I am always astonished at how little
real variety there seems to be. Other people say, "No,
no, I can get sports, ethnic programs, history channels, nature
programming, there's endless variety." Yet I fear we confound
variety (different subject matter with genuinely distinctive
perspectives) with segmentation (a narrow-casting niche marketing
approach to selling common products). I will return to this
point later. But I will argue here that our celebrated 'diversity'
means little more than similar kinds and styles of material
being directed towards different marketing niches. There is
distinctive packaging, to be sure, but substantive differentiation
caveat I want to offer is what I want to call the generational
fallacy, which is at play in the history of technology generally.
Those who create and first use new technologies, take for granted
the values and frameworks of previous eras and previous technologies
and assume that new generations will have those same values
and frameworks. Wrapped in the cocoon of present-ness, they
forget that for a new generation introduced to the world only
via the new technologies, the values and frameworks that conditioned
and tempered those who invented the technologies will be absent.
For the second generation of users, this can be corrupting in
ways invisible to the pioneers and inventors.
a simple example-- and I'll come back to this again later --
the Net is primarily text-based. I cannot imagine it will stay
that way. As soon as it becomes technologically feasible, it
will become video- or picture-based. For the transitional generation,
living in a word-oriented civilization (after all, in the beginning
WAS the word!), the Net is simply another device for deploying
words. Yet surely that is a primitive and unproductive use of
a medium. Scrolling texts on the Net amount to little more than
a souped-up telegraph and we have had the telegraph for a hundred
and fifty years. What's new about the Net is the potential for
graphics and moving pictures. "Zines" like Slate are
at best a transition from text to something else, and the older
generation knows that many of the data sets they access on the
net are just as easily consulted in reference books or libraries.
But the generation that's introduced to the technology through
television, computers and the Web is anything but a word-cultured
literati. And, what the new generation eventually does with
the technology may turn out to be quite different from what
those of us who come from a word-culture have in mind. Farewell
that most of the people in this room come from a context that
is prejudiced in favor of text and that we simply assume words
will continue to prevail, if with greater speed and with better
graphics. As an educator, however, I suspect that people brought
up in a world of fast-moving electronic images will lose touch
with the significance and importance of words and cease to use
the new technology as a word-enhancer and instead focus on its
more suitable use as an image-enhancer. The effect of such a
transition from word to image on democracy, where constitutions
and their tacit pledge to promise-keeping anchor our liberties,
is scarcely calculable.
caveats -- explored here only briefly -- probably deserve an
essay in their own right; for they condition everything else
I want to say specifically about the attributes and entailments
of our new telecommunication technologies for democracy. To
be sure, the terms we use are contested, and there will be many
who dissent from my particular characterizations of digital
media and of democracy. However, if you grant me some working
definitions, you may find that my arguments suggest novel dangers
for democracy from technology that is supposed to be democracy-friendly.
They also suggest some remedies.
are we talking about when we refer to democracy? Without being
pedantic, it is possible to elucidate and parse democracy in
a number of different ways. In each case the requirements on
technology are different. In one case, we may say digital technology
is well-suited to enhancing democracy understood in such and
such a way; but with democracy understood in another way, we
may regard the same technological features as hostile to it.
I will differentiate here what I call, "thin" or "representative
democracy" from both "plebiscitary" and "strong
democracy." To each, technology serves as a very different
In the case
of "thin" democracy, representative institutions dominate
and citizens are relatively passive. They are at best what Michael
Schudson yesterday called "monitors." They choose
representatives, but leave those representatives, who remain
accountable to the voters in the abstract, to do most of the
real governing. This is not so much self-government as (in Jefferson's
term) elective aristocracy. Moreover, it creates an adversarial
climate for democracy that pits people against one another and
sharply distinguishes private and public, making liberty exclusively
the product of the former (the Madisonian formula that sets
interest against interest and faction against faction). Under
thin democracy, experts and elites to do the actual work of
government, while citizens remain watchdogs and monitors, primarily
engaged in private lives and private affairs.
version of democracy can be understood as primarily "plebiscitary."
This form of democracy is associated with mass culture and is
sometimes even labelled "totalitarian," since it is
a form of democracy that eschews significant deliberation and
debate and throws important decisions at an otherwise passive
and propagandized public, who rubberstamp Party choices by shouting
out their prejudices. Critics of direct democracy and the referendum
argue that this shortcut around representation too often approximate
a manipulated plebiscite, where private money and private prejudices
almost always triumph, and few would argue that the plebiscitary
model is anything other than a corruption of deliberative democracy.
(Actually, there is ample evidence that the referendum as used
in most American states is less vulnerable to money and special
interests than critics claim -- but that is another matter).
version of democracy can be understood (in the terms of my earlier
book) as "strong" democracy --democracy that, while
not necessarily always direct, incorporates strong participatory
and deliberative elements. This is my preferred normative alternative,
where citizens are engaged at the local and national levels
in a variety of political activities and regard discourse, debate
and deliberation as essential conditions for reaching common
ground and arbitrating differences between people in a large
multi-cultural society. In strong democracy, citizens actually
participate in governing themselves, if not in all matters,
all of the time, at least in some matters at least some of the
we have complicated the question of whether the new media technologies
serve democracy by problematizing the meaning of democracy.
We can do the same with the overly simplistic construct of "new
media." For to graph the impact of media on democracy,
we need several lines for different kinds of media -- not just
new and old, but traditional print, traditional broadcast, old
cable, new cable (fiber optic), satellite broadcast, low-frequency,
computer-mediated, web-based (point to point) and so on. We
will end up with a complex multi-celled graph that pairs each
of the (at least) three kinds of democracy we have demarcated
with each of four or five media genres -- a graph that will
immediately show that the media both are and are not supportive
of this or that version of democracy. This reading is much less
useful as a rhetorical argument, but probably much more accurate
as a portrait of possible outcomes of technological development.
I think there are very many politicians or policy-makers really
concerned with accuracy in media, which turns out to be little
more sought-after in social science than in newscasting! For
it draws us into a complicated exercise, far more demanding
than Panglossian cyber-enthusiasm or Pandorian cyber-pessimism.
Nonetheless, it is imperative that we problematize simplistic
definitions, by doing so we can pose the generic question of
how technology can impact democracy in specific terms that actually
invite meaningful responses. And so, perhaps, it is an exercise
that you will permit me to pursue.
fill in all the cells in a graph charting types of democracy
and varieties of media technology in this brief exercise, but
I would like to describe at least some of what is in a few cells,
in order to give you a feel for what this debate looks like.
You need not agree with how I characterize the media, or even
on how I interpret their interface with democracy in its several
manifestations, to see that variations will multiply along with
different approaches to and understandings of our two key terms.
I will focus
on new, computer-based digitalized media since they represent
the "newest" forms of media. I want to remark on the
consequences of some key attributes of new media, including
their speed, their reductive simplicity and tendency to (digital)
polarization, the solitariness of their user-interface, their
bias towards images over text, their point-to-point, lateral
immediacy and consequent resistance to hierarchical mediation,
their partiality to raw data rather than informed knowledge,
and their inclination to audience-segmentation rather than to
a single, integrated community of users/viewers.
Reductive Simplicity and Solitude
Let me start
with what is perhaps the primary characteristic of digitalized
media: speed. That is their greatest virtue and, for similar
reasons, their greatest vice. Traditional media, whether print
or broadcast, are not particularly in a hurry. Digital media
are in a rush. The impact of 'fast' varies, however, depending
on the version of democracy we postulate. With representative
democracy, for example, accelerated pace may make little difference,
or even look virtuous, at least for citizens. Where thought
and deliberation are not essential, a speeded-up political process
may simply appear as time-saving, protective of private time,
democracy, speed is a desiratum: for quickness means people
cannot and will not stop and think about what they are doing
or voting on. For a Mussolini or a big-money referendum sponsor
in California, the faster the plebiscite comes and goes the
better. However, in a strong, deliberative democracy, this lickety-split
virtue, the capacity to operate in a hurry, clearly becomes
a defect. In a strong democracy, the primary civic injunction
is "slow down!"
Democracy, I posited the virtues of a multi-reading referendum
procedure that elongated the deliberation process over six months.
In a completely contrary spirit, digital media have as their
primary injunction, "hurry up! and I will help you do it!"
Now there is no reason why we cannot slow down digital media;
but to do so would be contrary to the new technology's most
attractive feature, asking a hare to run a tortoise's race.
In a culture where fast film edits, fast music and fast-food
replicate and reenforce the hustle of computers, we ought to
be seeking the equivalent of civic governors for our political
engines -- devices that slow down and moderate the system's
a consequence of their addiction to speed, digital media are
inclined to a certain reductive simplicity, The binary dualisms
(on/off, 0/1) that define the world of the digital gainsay the
nuanced, complexifying characteristic of political deliberation.
Voting yes or no may ultimately be required by democratic decision-making,
but reducing participation to terminal choices between polarized
alternatives is hardly a useful way to capture democracy's strengths.
On the other hand, plebiscitary democracy is likely to be perfectly
satisfied with bi-polar alternatives since it usually is aiming
at a single outcome and does not wish to have its rational choice
grid problematized by nuance and complexity. Representative
democracy prefers voting to deliberation (for citizens, if not
for professional politicians) and may find digital simplicity
If the new
media favor speed and simplicity, they also encourage a politics
of solitude where privatized individuals can sit at home in
front of electronic screens and view the world and its political
choices as so many 'consumer' alternatives. In the nineteenth
century, J.S. Mill and other critics of the secret ballot suggested
that a vote, not offered and defended in public, is an irrational
and biased vote -- biased precisely because it is private. Democracy,
Mill thought, requires giving public reasons for private choices;
the public reasoning imparts to the choice their publicness.
The privatized and privatizing nature of the new technology
and its privileging of the home as a "political" venue
take the idea of the secret ballot to its logical (illogical)
extreme, leaving citizens as private choosers, exempted from
the responsibility to explain or defend their choices. That
is presumably why champions of civic engagement, such as Harry
Boyte, have nonetheless been critical of home-voting by computer.
counter this criticism by alluding to "virtual communities",
but, for the most part, these turn out to be vicarious conglomerations
lacking the empathy and need for common ground that define real
world communities. Lolling in your underwear in front of an
electronic screen while accessing with dancing fingers the pixels
generated by anonymous strangers across the world is not my
idea of forging a community of concern or establishing common
ground, let alone cementing a trusting friendship. If large-scale
modern societies are already troubled by isolation, civic alienation
and a decline of trust, a cyber-politics rooted in apartness
hardly seems to offer appropriate remedies. The act of going
on-line is in its predominant form, always a privatizing act
of simply solitude. This may serve the pacifying tendencies
of representative democracy and the need of plebiscitary tyranny
for isolated solitaries -- (the sociologists of totalitarianism
have taught us that separating individuals from one another
and stripping away their mediating associations is the first
step towards pervasive control) -- but it undermines the needs
of strong democracy for community and common ground. The controversial
study recently published by The American Psychologist
(September, 1998) suggests that time on the computer may not
only be isolating, but depression-inducing as well. Little wonder.
In any case,
at their most sophisticated, digital media are carriers of images
and sounds, rather than words and thoughts, and whether we consult
them in solitude or in some version of a virtual community,
they are unlikely to do much for failing actual communities,
say, in Kosovo or South Central Los Angeles. To be sure, we
have noted, the new media are currently text-based; but their
promise lies in the pictures. They ,ultimately, are an efficient
surrogate for television and film rather than for books and
newspapers. (I have been astonished, but not surprised, to see
how many computer addicts are now using their traveling laptops
for private film screenings on their new DVD drives!) As they
grow into their most promising potential, new media are then
likely to acquire all of the political defects of a pictorially-based,
image-mongering, feeling-engendering, sentiment-arousing, one-on-one
(one screen per person) civic culture. A succession of fast-moving
images is not conducive to thinking, but it does accommodate
advertising, manipulation and propaganda, and these are the
hallmarks of modern consumer culture and its privatizing political
ideology that displaces governments with markets.
of imagery cannot be overstated: a few years ago, Americans
were treated to a horrific telepicture from the Horn of Africa:
a television image of an American soldier's abused corpse being
dragged across a square in which an American helicopter had
crashed in flames. In a single instant, this image transformed
American foreign policy and brought to an unceremonious and
undeliberated end, American strategic engagement in that part
of the world. Democracy? I don't think so.
of course, also deceive, but the films of a Leni Riefenstahl
are always likely to be more affecting than the texts of a Goebbels.
Steven Spielberg's Looking for Private Ryan can, for
example, (as Edward Rothstein argued in the New York Times),
be understood to reenforce the political cynicism of our time;
for, while Spielberg celebrates quotidian courage on the part
of stubborn, if inglorious, individuals, he simultaneously deconstructs
World War II's global struggle and privatizes the aims and motives
of its protagonists. In doing so, he seems to demean its higher
ends and sign on to the privatization of all things public that
is our epoch's signature.
is an even more obvious case, his films filled with a dark and
anti-democratic skepticism about government and public ideals.
Whether he is deconstructing official explanations of the Kennedy
assassination or of the war in Vietnam, he deploys pictures
to distort history and give conspiracy the aspect of truth.
Spielberg and Stone obviously have a right, even a duty, to
make an argument about how to look at war or the Johnson administration,
but their films are not really instructive provocations to thought
(nor do they claim to be). Rather, they are entertaining prompts
to parochialism, whose messages are inadvertent and unargued
because they come wrapped in a form of manipulation that moving
pictures excel in. Arousing feelings only, and avoiding argumentation
based on reasons (how pedantic that would be!), they undergird
technology enhances such manipulation. As it can morph forms
and shapes to create a world of convincing illusion in studio
films, it can morph feelings and sentiments to create a world
of convincing prejudice on the net. Our civilization has founded
itself on the word, and founding documents, whether secular
(the constitution) or ecclesiastic (the Bible, the Torah, the
Koran), have rooted us in reason, coherence and promise-keeping
(the consistency of words trumping the mutability of personality).
We are anchored
by what Aristotle called logos, the human facility (that facile
humanity) that allows us to impose order and meaning on the
world through language and signs and to provide ourselves with
a common discourse by which we can mediate our essentially contestable
interests and find a means to cooperate in their spite. Democracy
is, by this definition, the government of logos and it is logos
that legitimizes regimes rooted originally only in power and
interest. In the beginning "was" the word, so if in
the end there are only pictures, democracy can only be worse
As we allow
symbols, slogans and trademarks to displace ideas and words
in defining our politics, we distort our politics. New media
are not compelled towards such displacement, but they are disposed
towards it by the traits we have portrayed. When Tony Blair
affects to redefine his New Labor England not with words but
by "rebranding" the nation and cleansing it of its
historical association with red buses, bobbies' helmets and
high teas, he may be updating his nation's image, but he is
not doing British democracy any favors (and British democracy
needs all the favors it can get).
Media? Information or Knowledge?
imagery reenforce the 'point-to-point' character of the new
media and this turns out to be, depending on your perspective,
both a virtue and a vice. Integrated systems of computers and
the world wide web are 'point-to-point' technologies that promise
direct lateral communication among all participants and thus
offer an unmediated horizontal access ("immediacy"),
and entail the elimination of overseers and middlemen, of facilitators
and editors, of and hierarchical, busy-body gatekeepers. The
virtue of immediacy is that it facilitates equality and egalitarian
forms of horizontal communication. Representative democracy
favors vertical communication between "elites and masses,"
but strong democracy (as I argued in my book of that name fifteen
years ago) prefers lateral communication among citizens, who
take precedence over leaders and representatives.
offers a useful alternative to elite-mass communication in that
it permits ordinary citizens to communicate directly round the
world without the mediation of elites -- whether they are editors
filtering information or broadcasters shaping information or
facilitators moderating conversation. By challenging hierarchical
discourse, the new media encourage direct democracy and so,
as I suggested fifteen years ago, can be instruments of strong
At the same
time, as an educator and editor, I know that there is no such
thing as "raw information" pure and simple, that all
of what passes as information either remains unusable in raw,
meaningless clumps of data, or, becoming usable, gets filtered,
selected, edited, imbued with coherence and meaning. This filtering
always involves mediation In some form or other -- either as
a consequence of democratic (consensual) or authoritative (appropriately
knowledgeable) criteria, or via arbitrary criteria rooted in
brute force (it is so because I say it is so, and I have the
gun). The question is not whether or not to facilitate, mediate
and gate-keep. It is WHICH form of facilitation, which mediation,
and which gate-keeper? The pretence that there can be none at
all, that discourse is possible on a wholly unmediated basis,
breeds anarchy rather than liberty and data-overload rather
Rousseau once insisted that our only meaningful political choice
is between not natural liberty and political authority, but
only between "legitimate" authority and "illegitimate"
authority, so our choice is between not unmediated information
and manipulated information, but only between legitimate manipulated
information and illegitimate manipulated information. The virtue
of newspapers and magazines is that they offer authoritative
interpretations of information that we select according to our
own standards, interests and norms. To put it bluntly, this
is the difference between information and knowledge.Slate is
a more democratic form of communication than randomly-accessed
data garnered from data banks, even though it purveys knowledge
by claiming editorial authorship of its contents and thereby
interferes with our personal selection process and interdicts
the kinds of arbitrary access we achieve when we shop for data
point-to-point and without guidance.
technologies are, however, information-based rather than knowledge-based,
and so may well obstruct the growth of knowledge. Defined as
information organized according to values, theories and paradigms,
knowledge is the key to political competence as well as to culture
and civilization. Unmediated, raw information lends itself to
manipulators we do not choose: information organized as knowledge
allows us to choose authoritative "manipulators."
The good teacher, the good editor or the good facilitator represent
trustworthy intermediaries to whom we entrust the initial filtering
of raw data to help educate and inform ourselves -- keeping
them accountable by retaining our right to choose them at will.
To the degree that the Net dispenses with these intermediaries,
even as it creates more egalitarian forms of interaction, it
risks anarchy and/or unreflected (often random) biases in our
we understand these differences between information and knowledge
may be a function of generational factors. For those familiar
with library reference and hard data collections, technology
can expedite research. We already know what we are looking for.
But the mere presence of infinite reams of data means little
for those without research experience, reference book literacy
and library knowledge. Such people may find themselves innundated
and confused -- or worse, lulled into thinking research 'does
itself' while they sit and wait. They receive a flood of unfiltered
information that puts them back into an infantile world where
the senses are overwhelmed with chaotic and meaningless inputs:
noise not sound, color but no patterns, images that never add
up to pictures, all without significant meaning. The Net replicates
this anarchic world and only those with well-developed and literate
minds are likely to be able to draw sense from it or impose
sense upon it. Those less fortunate will be imprinted with its
and gate-keepers, whether we call them editors, teachers, pastors,
novelists, journalists or philosophers, all help us make sense
of the world: in a democracy, they are brought under democratic
controls and are accountable to those they guide. Either we
can select and replace them or we can accept or reject their
guidance at will -- it is never compulsory. But to think democracy
is better served by eliminating mediators is to opt not for
liberty but for anarchy, and the fertile ground it proffers
to the true manipulators.
reasons, I have some doubts about the desirability of government
and civil society efforts aimed at hard-wiring our schools.
If the new "conducts" are dominated by data and commerce,
then we are hard-wiring schools into data and commerce. If the
real deficit in our schools is in THINKING rather than in INFORMATION
ACCESS, then we are hardwiring the kids into an illusion that
the computers will think for them. My students at Rutgers University
have trouble making sense out of and integrating the six readings
or so a semester I assign. Is having access to the Library of
Congress and to raw data files from depositories around the
world really going to make them smarter? more knowledgeable?
wiser? Or more likely to read? Perhaps, before going on-line,
they should learn how to read a single essay; learn how to go
looking for the datum they need, in a library or a laboratory,
rather than gaining easy access to endless streams of data for
which they have no need at all. In an age weak on synthesis,
integration and understanding, multiplying sources is unlikely
to create a generation sufficiently educated to take advantage
of the cornucopia of informational riches promised by universal
access. Since democracy is the governance of knowledge learned
and shared rather than of information stored and accessed, it
is unlikely to prosper in any of its forms by a regimen of data.
and the End of the Common Ground
a final characteristic of digitalization that is corrupting
to democracy -- one that hampers our capacity to harvest knowledge
from the new technologies: that is the technology's tendency
to segment and compartmentalize what we seek to know. Digitalization
is, quite literally, a divisive, even polarizing, epistemological
strategy. It prefers bytes to whole knowledge and opts for spread
sheet presentation rather than integrated knowledge. It creates
knowledge niches for niche markets and customizes data in ways
that can be useful to individuals but does little for common
ground. For plebiscitary democrats, it may help keep individuals
apart from one another so that their commonalty can be monopolized
by a populist tyrant, but for the same reasons it obstructs
the quest for common ground necessary to representative democracy
and indispensable to strong democracy. "Narrow-casting"
of the kind we have become accustomed to on cable television
and in a segmented magazine industry ("fly-fishing for
Catholic Accountants"!) undermines common ground and divides
citizens into groups conducive to marketing but deadly to common
deliberation. A culture of three television networks (or, in
Europe, a couple of state networks) may have had limited variety
but it guaranteed common watching, common concerns and common
ground. It gave us a common vocabulary -- at times, much too
"common" -- that permitted the forging of common values
and common interests. Such community (let alone real communion)
is harder to imagine in a world of 500 cable channels and infinitely
variable raw information sources on a vast, segmented Internet.
How much common experience is possible in a population divided
into specialized, topic-specific, demographically segregated
"chat-rooms" of a dozen people each? The national
hearthside that was once NBC is now a million little homefires
with a couple of you's and me's huddled around narrowly conceived,
but conflicting interests (just tune into to MSNBC to be convinced!).
of national gravity or national tragedy -- the assassination
of a President, a terrorist incident, the end of a war -- we
need common places to gather and common turf on which grieve
or celebrate. The segmented new media lack such pubic places,
much as the suburbs lack sidewalks and public squares. When
in my recent essay on civil society I call for A Place for Us,
I look specifically for civic space on the internet -- and I
come up wanting.
media specialize and niche-market and individuate beautifully,
and this may advantage the politics of special interests and
non-deliberative polling; but it clearly disadvantages deliberation
and the pursuit of common ground and undermines the politics
of democratic participation. It cannot help in the pursuit of
national, common and civic identity and without these forms
of association, democracy itself becomes problematic.
the Media - Destroying Democracy
returns us to the nub of my debate last evening with Ira Magaziner.
Absent the rhetoric, the argument turned on whether the new
technologies -- as envisioned by Magaziner and others who favor
privatization (and its commercializing proclivities) to government
direction (and its market-regulating interventions) -- can create
a genuinely civic and public discourse. I argued that turning
over these technologies to the market, and thus to the consequences
of their privatizing, immediate, segmenting characteristics,
could only imperil the conditions needed for public discourse
and democracy. Now, perhaps, it is more apparent why I make
It is worth
adding, however, that the universal reach of the new technologies
can be useful in forging global institutional forms for civil
society and democracy that would otherwise be difficult to achieve.
International groups like CIVICUS and CIVITAS utilize the universal
communication features of the technology to bring together local
communities that would otherwise remain separate (just as Davos'
World Economic Forum now offers its corporate members a global
web service tailored to their global ambitions).
net creates global economic ties; a civic net can create global
civic ties -- if given the chance. Here we again are witnesses
to the dialectical tendencies of the Web. It can tie together
communities across nations even as it divides two college roommates
sitting side by side but communicating only via their screens!
Young people are in touch with their cousins across the Continent
and the World, but are losing touch with the communities they
actually inhabit. Virtual community is undergirding a kind of
virtual globalism without actually fomenting internationalism
(I have seen no data suggesting the web's world-wide reach has
actually drawn Americans out of their parochialism and isolationism).
Indeed, virtual globalism seems to undermine real community.
nevertheless ways to mediate and direct the new technologies
-- to set its agenda -- that enhance its civic and strong democratic
potential. But that requires precisely that we maintain its
public character and prevent it from slipping into a domain
of privatized choosing, unmediated communication, multiplying
data and commerce-driven solitude. The market may enhance private
choices, but at the expense of control over the public agenda.
Without control of the public agenda, democracy is impossible.
Or, to put it more bluntly, democracy means control over the
public agenda, and privatization condemns democracy to oblivion
-- ironically, in the name of liberty. The technology is not
necessarily privatizing: but in a world of privatizing ideology,
it is likely to become a crucial instrument of the triumph of
why I was so passionate in debating Magaziner about the question
of whether to privatize the new technologies and indulge in
what Senator Robert Dole called (with respect to the donation
of digitalized spectra to those who already own the broadcast
spectra) the "give-away of the century." I do not
believe we can privatize what is essentially a public utility
without grave consequences for democracy in general and strong
democracy in particular. Not everything can pay its own way
in the short term. Education, religion, culture and democracy
itself cannot. To insist they should is to condemn them. If
profit becomes the driving incentive in shaping the development
of the new technologies, we can be sure that democracy will
be a casualty rather than a beneficiary.
is to be A Place for Us (the title of my new book on
civil society) on the Net, if women and men wearing their civic
clothes are to be able to benefit from the new technologies,
the technical and digital agendas must be set publicly and democratically.
Profit cannot be the standard. Technology cannot, in Magaziner's
phrase, be considered as nothing more than the "engine
of global commerce." It is or should be the engine of civilization
and culture. It should serve democracy. And for that to happen,
it must be democratic and its agendas must be subject to democratic
judgement. Political will and political presence must count
as much as market profitability and commercial utility. The
Net must offer a place for us, which means it must in a tangible
sense "belong" to us. Anything else, at least with
respect to democracy, is hypocrisy.