Which Technology and Which Democracy?

by Benjamin R. Barber

6,252 words
posted:  December 6,  1998

[The text below is a complete transcript of Barber's talk at the Democracy and Digital MediaConference held at MIT on May 8-9, 1998.]

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.

In order 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.

Four Caveats:

First, just 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 in Europe.

In other 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.


The second 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, and newspapers.

Indeed, 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!?

The third 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 is missing.

The final 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.

To take 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 text-based civilization!

I suspect 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.

These several 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.



Democracy: What?

What then 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 instrument.

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.

A second 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).

A third 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 time.

New Technologies: Which?

So far, 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.

Not that 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.

I cannot 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.



Speed, 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, efficient.

With plebiscitary 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!"

In Strong 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 hyper-kinetic obsessiveness.

Partly as 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 reenforcing.

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.

Some enthusiasts 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.



Pictures Not Words:

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.

The power 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.

Words can, 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.

Oliver Stone 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 unshakeable prejudice.

Digital 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 off.

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).



Mediated Media? Information or Knowledge?

Speed and 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.

The Net 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 democracy.

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 than knowledge.

As Jean-Jacques 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.

The new 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 knowledge.

Whether 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 anarchy.

Mediators 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.

For these 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.



Segmentation and the End of the Common Ground

There is 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!).

In moments 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.

The new 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.

Privatizing the Media - Destroying Democracy

This criticism 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 this argument.

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).

A commercial 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.



There are 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 privatization.

That is 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.

If there 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.