Reports of the Close Relationship Between Democracy and the Internet May Have Been Exaggerated: Challenges and Opportunities for Rapprochement
by Douglas Schuler


The media democratic societies employ have profound effects on how democracy is conceptualized and practiced. Any type of communication technology has some malleability and can be made less or more democratic through a variety of means. Many "digerati" seem to believe that the Internet is inherently democratic. Sadly, most signs indicate that the Internet is becoming less, not more democratic. As an unrepentent meliorist, I will offer several concrete suggestions (such as community networks) -- worth considering in the event we as a society decide that democracy deserves more than lip service.

A Platform for Change?

At a recent conference in Germany the question of the Internet as a "platform for change" received top billing. While the rapidly expanding worldwide communication infrastructure may very well become a platform for change, it is far from obvious what the nature of the change will be. Different people say different things. If we listen to cyber-pundits (the so-called digerati) we will learn that in the future things will be really great, really exciting, really cool. We also learn that the Net will be "immensely democratic" and, incidentally, there will be no need for government support, or, for that matter, government at all.

These views are dangerously simplistic... Certainly there is potential for wider democratic participation using the new medium. For the first time in human history, the possibility exists to establish a communication network that spans the globe, is affordable and is open to all comers and points-of-view: in short, a democratic communication infrastructure. Unfortunately, the communication infrastructure of the future may turn out to be almost entirely broadcast where the few (mostly governments and large corporations) will act as gatekeepers for the many; where elites can speak and the rest can only listen. Four years ago, fewer than 2% of web sites were commercial; now over 80% are for financial gain. The future infrastructure will likely focus on entertainment, that which can bring in the most revenue -- sex, violence, special effects -- and devote little attention to services that educate, inspire, or help bring communities together.

Responsive government, at least in theory, is the best ally that communities have in shaping an information and communication infrastructure that effectively meets human needs. This realization, however, may come too late. Government has already ceded nearly all of the leadership role it once had. In the next few years the large telecommunications and media corporations are likely to control nearly all aspects of the Internet and the technologies that arise from it. Unfortunately a proactive government approach in unlikely to develop in the absence of a strong, unified voice from citizens, activist organizations, non-profits, libraries and other groups, and this effort is unlikely to coalesce with the necessary strength and speed.

Humankind is faced with a multitude of critical decisions and communication technology will undoubtedly play a major role in these decisions and in the years to come. Because of the massive resources that corporations can bring to bear, new communication technology will probably be used to reinforce and bolster existing patterns of ownership and control - merely reiterating the historical pattern of we've seen within the US with other media, such as radio and television. On the other hand, the possibility, though remote, that new communication technology could be used to re-orient the fulcrum of control by promoting a more democratic and inclusive dialogue does exist. New communication technology could provide forums for voices that have long been ignored -- women's voices, the poor, minorities, disabled people. And it could be used to enable communities to have a deeper involvement in their own health, education, and civic decisions. Moreover, the new communication technology could help relieve strains on government by unleashing the creativity and civic problem solving capabilities of people and communities. To understand how we might begin to actually realize some of these possibilities let us look more closely at what we mean by democracy.

Democracy is not a commodity like shampoo or dog food. One doesn't buy it at a shopping mall or discover it nicely wrapped under a Christmas tree, a gift from the government or the technology gods. It is more like a philosophy, a way of life, and a lens for addressing social concerns. It is less like a noun and more like a verb.

Democracy is notoriously difficult to define; even among scholars there is no agreement on an exact definition. Nearly everybody, however, agrees on certain elements. One of these attributes is inclusivity. This means that everybody can participate and, in theory, that those with more money than others should not be able to purchase more influence with their money either directly or indirectly. It also means that society needs to closely examine the ways in which people participate in public decision-making (at community meetings, for example) and help ensure that those ways don't favor the privileged. Secondly, there must be ways that citizens can place their concerns on the public agenda. If the public agenda is monopolized and manipulated by corporations, politicians, or the media, for example, democracy is seriously imperiled. Thirdly, democracy requires a deliberative public process. This point contains three critical ideas: deliberative -- adequate time must be allotted for hearing and considering multiple points of view; public -- the discussion takes place in the daylight where it can be observed by all; and process -- the procedures through which concerns are brought up, discussed and acted upon are clear and widely known. Fourthly, there needs to be equality at the decision stage. At some point in the process, the measure under consideration is accepted or rejected by a vote, in which all those who are entitled to vote have equal influence. Finally, representation is usually part of a modern democracy because of the impracticality of involving extremely large numbers of people in a legislative process. Incidentally, in a democracy, this approach can be changed -- by the will of the people -- into a system that is more "direct" or, even, into one that is less direct. The existence of the Internet does little to obviate the need for representation. Imagine the complexity, confusion, and chaos if every citizen of a large country -- or even a small city -- were expected to propose, consider, discuss, and vote on legislation. We'd certainly get a lot more e-mail!

A system of government without active participation from the people is not a democracy no matter how enlightened or benign the de facto guardians may be. If democracy is not championed and exercised by the people it atrophies like a muscle that is never stressed. Moreover, citizen participation must be encouraged -- not merely tolerated -- by the government. Democratic participation in the US, according to most indicators, has been steadily declining for several decades and many observers feel that this is at least partially due to the concentration of media ownership in private hands.

Democracy must be a partnership between the governed and the governors; a partnership with blurred and negotiated lines of responsibility, but a partnership nonetheless. Although many in our government may never have given this matter much thought, all of these observations have important and immediate implications for proactive government involvement in the development and management of new democratic digital networked systems.

Democracy and the Internet

Technological utopians and cyber-libertarian pundits often ascribe near-magical qualities to the Internet. George Gilder, for example, thinks that the Internet is "inherently" democratic (although any government intervention would diminish this). On the other hand Gilder believes that television is inherently undemocratic and there is nothing (especially government action!) that could possibly be done about that. Fantasies aside, even a cursory glance reveals that the Internet is far from democratic given the attributes of democracy discussed in the last section. Unfortunately, the situation seems to be deteriorating. While Internet usage is still wildly accelerating, much of its use is passive -- surfing the web has many of the same connotations of compulsive purposelessness that channel surfing on television has. Moreover, almost all new users still arrive from the upper economic brackets. The use of the Internet among those in the bottom economic fifth has hardly budged in the last decade. People in this quintile do not generally have computers at home, nor have they received the specialized training or free access that business people and university attendees have historically enjoyed.

Currently there are few examples of democratic processes on the Internet: People typically equate and confuse open and undirected discussion with "democracy." Henry Robert took nearly 40 years to devise his "rules of order" which enables people in face to face meetings to raise issues, discuss and debate alternatives, and make decisions collectively in an open, orderly manner. This system, in everyday use by associative bodies both small and great all over the world, by no means guarantees that the decisions will be the best, or that everybody will be happy with the outcome. The process only guarantees that there will be an opportunity for each person present to participate on an even footing.

It is also important to realize that there is nothing inherently democratic about Internet technology; both radio or television could have been shaped into media that was more strongly democratic yet this potential was largely ignored and swept aside as economic and legal policies that favored private use were enacted. (Vocal chords may be the communication technology that comes closest to being equalizing. History has since produced policies, economic and otherwise that have raised some voices to higher platforms, while advanced communication technologies have produced media that enable some voices to travel even farther...) And, finally, it must be pointed out that the American taxpayer who paid for the initial Internet was never consulted on possible directions; all of the major decisions involving the development, deployment or use of the Internet have been done in the almost total absence of public participation. In fact, it almost appears that many of these decisions were made with uncharacteristic speed so as to avoid public input that might in fact raise uncomfortable questions about social uses or public ownership.

Democratic Communication Technology

Currently in the U.S. there is an astonishing number of grassroots projects in the area of democratic communication technology. Not only are these projects evidence of an overdue renewal of interest in democracy but they suggest that now is the time for a concerted effort to weave these projects -- heretofore disconnected -- into a tapestry of compelling community strength and creativity.

Rainy City Projects

In this section I focus on projects in a single city in order to show the richness and popularity of this new type of activism. Seattle may have more of these projects than many other cities but similar projects are being organized all over the U.S and the world. (The recent TIIAP Awards showcase the diversity and creativity of these projects in the states. These projects can track their origins from many sources, including city government, grassroots activism, academia, and libraries, and many are the result of new collaborations and coalitions.

(Although I have listed the projects below according to certain categories, this is not a rigid or exhaustive way to describe these projects. Also many of the projects fall under two or more categories.)

University Collaboration. There is apparently a renewed interest within academia in community collaboration on mutually beneficial projects. The "Civic Capital" project" at the University of Washington, is a good example of this. I've described some of the many important opportunities that I see for increased academia / community collaboration in other essays (Schuler, 1996; Schuler, 1997).

Community Activism. There are a number of community activism projects in Seattle that use communication technology. Community activist Anthony Williams launched Project Compute to establish access to computer equipment, network services, and training programs in a low income neighborhood community center. Roy Sahali, Michael Grant, and others have worked to build a coalition of similar projects, while Madeline Lewis, Lorraine Pozzi, and other activists have organized the Homeless Women's Network that is "dedicated to empowering women and youth to overcome the limitations of homelessness and poverty."

Free Public Networks. Loosely based on the "Free-Net" model which was itself was loosely based on the public library model, the Seattle Community Network (SCN) is the best example of a free public computer network in Seattle. Offering free e-mail, mail lists, web siting, and other Internet services to anybody (currently over 13,000 registered users) and computer training and support to community organizations, SCN, working in conjunction with the Seattle Public Library, is striving to remove barriers to communication technology. SCN, unlike most community networks, has developed a strong set of principles (below) that are intended to institutionalize the democratic objectives upon which it was founded. (Community networks are discussed in more detail in the next section.)

Seattle Community Network


The Seattle Community Network (SCN) is a free public-access computer network for exchanging and accessing information. Beyond that, however, it is a service conceived for community empowerment. Our principles are a series of commitments to help guide the ongoing development and management of the system for both the organizers and participating individuals and organizations.

Commitment to Access

  • Access to the SCN will be free to all.
  • We will provide access to all groups of people particularly those without ready access to information technology.
  • We will provide access to people with diverse needs. This may include special-purpose interfaces.
  • We will make the SCN accessible from public places.

Commitment to Service

  • The SCN will offer reliable and responsive service.
  • We will provide information that is timely and useful to the community.
  • We will provide access to databases and other services.

Commitment to Democracy

  • The SCN will promote participation in government and public dialogue.
  • The community will be actively involved in the ongoing development of the SCN.
  • We will place high value in freedom of speech and expression and in the free exchange of ideas.
  • We will make every effort to ensure privacy of the system users.
  • We will support democratic use of electronic technology.

Commitment to the World Community

  • In addition to serving the local community, we will become part of the regional, national and international community.
  • We will build a system that can serve as a model for other communities.

Commitment to the Future

  • We will continue to evolve and improve the SCN.
  • We will explore the use of innovative applications such as electronic townhalls for community governance, or electronic encyclopedias for enhanced access to information.
  • We will work with information providers and with groups involved in similar projects using other media.
  • We will solicit feedback on the technology as it is used, and make it as accessible and humane as possible.

Government Programs. Although the government needs to be more proactive in this area, it has not been totally inactive. The city government in Seattle, for example, is pushing in several directions. The Seattle Public Library provides public access terminals in all their branch libraries. The city also runs PAN (the "Public Access Network") which provides extensive information on city agencies and city issues. People with the PAN project also work with community groups to help them develop in-house expertise and an electronic presence. (PAN, amidst some controversy, recently dropped its "chat" capability.) The use of electronic media has received more attention from the city recently largely due to City council member Tina Podlodowski who has been promoting the idea of "technology literacy" within the city. It now also appears that several other city council members will weigh in on these issues

Community Research. One of the most intriguing possibilities that the medium offers is community research in which community members develop and implement research projects that they themselves have deemed relevant to their lives. The Sustainable Seattle project developed a set of indicators (including participation in the arts, wild salmon population, voting rates, and many others) that provide useful data regarding Seattle's "sustainability" over time. The project has launched electronic "forums" on SCN and has also put a lot of information available on SCN to help Seattlites (as well as people in other locations -- "Sustainable Penang" in Malaysia, for example) get involved with similar projects.

Independent Media. The web currently is a natural haven for independent media both as an adjunct to existing print media and as the sole publishing medium. Amp Magazine, Real Change, Steelhead, Washington Free Press, and other Seattle-based periodicals are currently using the web in this way.

Public Advisory Boards. The city of Seattle recently established a Citizen's Telecommunications and Technology Advisory Board (CTTAB) to help advise the city on a wide range of communications technology issues including public access television, the city government channel, citizen access to city government and to other electronic services, and to citizen "technology literacy" in general. Although this board is new and the results are not in, the advisory collaboration seems to be working out well.

Internet Cafes and Other Public Technology Centers. The Speakeasy Cafe is probably the most successful Internet cafe in Seattle. Offering an informal atmosphere with food, drink, inexpensive Internet access, poetry readings, and art exhibits, the Speakeasy is a good example of how technology can be integrated with other community functions. There are several other Internet cafes in Seattle and several projects in community centers. There are also several community computer centers set up in subsidized housing as part of HUD's Neighborhood Network program.

Other Public Access Media. There are also other types of access programs such as public access television (channel 29). Radio station KSER in Lynnwood, north of Seattle offers a wide range of community programming. And last but not least, realizing that the telephone may be the easiest and most commonly used two-way communication technology, the Community Voice Mail program helps set up programs in cities all over the US to provide homeless and phoneless clients with free voice mail.

Community Networks

The Seattle Community Network (mentioned above) is just one instance of a larger movement to develop community-oriented computer systems. This section describes the general philosophy behind community networks and how they relate to community work and democratic participation.

Community computer networks, now numbering over 400, worldwide represent one of the most authentically democratic and community-oriented approaches to communication in existence. At a very general level, a community network is a big electronic Bulletin Board System that provides "one-stop shopping" for information and communication about community-related meetings, projects, events, issues, and organizations. Community networks are free to use and free public-access terminals are part of the community network vision. In addition to providing a convenient repository for information these networks offer new participatory opportunities for community dialogue. These dialogues can be used to explore community concerns, debate issues, build support networks, or to discuss cats, dogs, children, parents, sports, computers, or any topic that people care to talk about.

Community networks, like democracy itself, are a complex social phenomenon and, consequently, promote democracy in a number of different ways. These various ways include (1) raising issues about control of technology and access; (2) supporting independent media; (3) supporting civic associations; (4) supporting civic assets (schools and non-profit organizations, for example); (5) educating people about issues and about technology use; (6) sponsoring public forums on civic and other issues; (6) providing access to government, candidate, and referendum information and issues; (7) providing communication channels to government workers (8) engaging in political work (organizing a rally in opposition to the US "Communications Decency Act" for example); (9) providing access to relevant data and other pertinent information and knowledge; (10) promoting computer and network literacy through free-access systems, and (11) providing access to civic "stories" (See Sirianni, Friedman, and Schuler, 1995, and the Civic Practices Network, for example) analogous to "citizen schools" of the civil rights movement. In general, community networks provide an important "existence proof" that demonstrates that democracy in cyberspace is not an oxymoron and that it can be an important civic institution that deserves support.

Community networks provide a good example of Hannah Levin's statement (1980) that the "struggle to save community may create community." In other words, a community network project provides an opportunity for shared work and, hence, helps build community. And whether or not a community network is used by large numbers of people in a community it can help (in conjunction with other efforts) to re-focus attention on the importance and legitimacy of community affairs.

Roles of Government and Community

It is the case, particularly in Western Europe, that government can provide an effective impetus for alleviating social hardships. Now there is increasing evidence that the conditions under which this is true (namely competent and responsive government, adequate resources, and popular support) may not be holding: governments around the world are retreating from many of their previously shouldered social responsibilities. While this trend may be not be as inexorable and inevitable as it is sometimes portrayed it seems prudent to briefly consider the proper roles of government and the citizenry.

It is obvious that even under the benign eye of the hypothetically most concerned and custodial government there are many tasks and enterprises that people and social groups will instigate and carry out on their own. The ability of the citizenry to address social challenges could be referred to as community work or community problem-solving competence.

Community work is any activity that helps strengthen any of community's six core values mentioned above. When U.S. Navy veteran and anti-war activist Country Joe McDonald (with the help of many others) made the names, ranks, and other information of all of Alameda County's military casualties available electronically on Berkeley's "Community Memory" (Farrington & Pine, 1997) community computer bulletin-board system, he was doing community work. When people tutor neighborhood kids, testify to city council on the need for safe streets, publish an alternative newspaper, help paint a day-care center, organize a rent strike, start a farmer's market or neighborhood garden, they're all doing community work.

With some provisos regarding the specific principles and practices it is clear that the stronger the community problem solving competence the less need there would be for government intervention. This does not imply that government competence and community competence sum to a constant, where a decline in one means an increase in the other. On the contrary, some societies will be strong in both, while others, sadly, will be deficient in both. In fact, increasing the effectiveness of community work is important even if government competence is high. (And increasing community competence may even lead to increased government competence.) In any case, a strengthened community competence is necessary -- not just to compensate for diminished government involvement but to guide the future of government involvement. In other words the community should play a substantial part in any change in the role of government even if this means flaunting conventional wisdom of the digerati. Finally it is important to point out that increasing community competence (through supporting community networks, for example) is a critical role of democratic governments, regardless of whether the government is reducing its role in promoting social welfare.

Actions for the Future

Clearly communication is at the heart of any democratic revitalization, and communication in the modern age necessarily implies communication technology. We therefore need to devise and implement projects that integrate democracy and communication technology. Disconnected projects are insufficient, however, as they are likely to remain marginalized and unnoticed. A tapestry of democratic technology projects that is part of a broad social movement is required. Only if large numbers of people are involved in the movement is there any realistic hope for increased democratization. And only if there is a heightened awareness and a sense of necessity and opportunity could any major change and re-orientation occur.

The answer to the issue of democracy and cyberspace is not to cling blindly to simplistic technocratic or libertarian platitudes. While the Internet as "platform for change" may ultimately be dominated by a handful of corporate interests (as is the rest of the media) there are scores of opportunities for communities that want to develop communication systems that are open, equitable, and useful. Communities need to develop these systems and at the same time fight for policies that strengthen public media an diminish the stranglehold of corporate media giants.

The future begins today. We begin with a vision of the future-- of democracy and of community and of increased human actualization -- but also with the reality of the present, which includes people, programs, institutions, policies, and technology. Therefore, of necessity, our work involves new collaborations and coalitions. Community groups must find common cause with many groups including academia, labor, environmental groups, political parties, government, and, where appropriate, business. It will be helpful to look at what people are doing in Seattle and in other places, but these are only the first steps.

The future is not pre-ordained and we know that the shape that a technology ultimately assumes depends on many factors. For that reason, activists for democratic technology must work together if there is any hope of developing democratic space in cyberspace. It won't be easy. For as abolitionist Frederick Douglass reminds us, "Without struggle, there is no progress." I urge you all to enter that struggle. This may be our best and last chance.


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