Summary Views - A Conversation with the Audience

Saturday, May 9, 1998

3:30-5:30 pm

Speakers: Roger Hurwitz, Henry Jenkins and Michael Schudson

[These are edited summaries, not complete transcripts.]

Henry Jenkins: I've been stuck by the consistent opposition between entertainment and education, popular culture and democracy, pornography and citizenship, as well as consumption and voting. Speakers at this conference have referred to popular culture as "the enemy" against an informed citizenry must do battle. Such sentiments mask a fundamental distrust of popular taste and politics. What's at stake is who gets to decide what is legitimately political, and whether the definition changes.

I propose the concept of "democracy as culture." If we are going to create a more democratic culture, we should be concerned with how the core concepts of democratic citizenship get woven into the fabric of our daily lives. A focus on popular culture, as registered in various forms of entertainment, represents an important way to monitor larger social changes.

An example will illustrate a few basic propositions about democracy and New Media. Last month, People Magazine held an online poll to determine the fifty most beautiful people in the world. The net community responded to People's predictable agenda of choices with the politics of negation. Hank, the Angry Drunken Dwarf, beat Leonardo DeCaprio in the voting. The magazine's editors ignored the outcome of its own polls, and put Leonardo on the cover. Nobody ever said they were "the people's magazine."



This competition reflects the triviality with which the dominant media engage the democratic potential of the net. As long as the power to frame the agenda remains in the hands of the traditional media establishment, pollsters will frame issues is binary "Yes" and "No" constructions. But on the Internet, flame wars often get resolved with the embrace of a new perspective that emerges from the unrecognized common ground between opposing positions. The real democratic potential of the net will be realized when the choices are meaningful, the agendas framing the questions are encompassing, and citizens feel that voting yields meaningful results.

Hank's victory also reflects the transformative potential of digital democracy, the emergence of effective oppositional politics that can force the political mechanism to respond to a new agenda. We have tasted what it feels like to win an election on a grassroots basis. This was a nation-wide election in which a write-in candidate attracted more than 250,000 votes. If this had been an election instead of a publicity stunt, it would have sent shock waves through the political process. We may soon have an independent candidate using the web with an impact like Ross Perot. Is that candidate going to be more substantive and reflective than those advanced by the major parties?

Neither Hank or Leonardo represent viable alternatives. Leonardo represents the politics of billion-dollar enterprises. Hank represents the politics of anger and resentment, rather than the politics of viable alternatives. We need an infrastructure for democratic participation that integrates democracy and popular culture into the practices of everyday life. We are not better off replacing Leonardo with Hank, but we may be better off replacing what we have now with some alternatives that originate in the more genuinely democratic and thoughtful popular culture that the new media may make possible.

Roger Hurwitz: During these two days, we have been mingling two questions that should be separated. One question is whether the web offers a new venue for a wider, more democratic discourse; the second question is whether the changes portended by the advent of digital technologies also portend changes in the democratic institutions that we might cherish.

According to some of the speakers here, democracy means diversity, being inclusive, allowing many different voices to speak, and it also means the possibility of imagination and innovative space. I think that the fear of the rapid commercialization of the Internet is about the fear of "portalization," - the establishment of portals or gateways to the Web that will control our access to this new realm, creating a closure of imaginative space.

You don't hear what silence is saying. You don't see what is behind the wall. So the imagination is impoverished, and part of imagination is thinking of new ways that people can participate and join together. I think that is the danger that we fear in the commercialization in the Web, and one of the dangers that democracy faces is the filling up of the social, cultural and political space by pre-given choices.



I would like to share my experience of facilitating online policy dialog. Some years ago, I and some colleagues at the Artificial Intelligence Lab created software that could support what we called "wide area collaboration." It let about 4000 government workers discuss reforms that had been proposed by a national performance review. The software supported stylized rules of order that allowed people to tack their views in the discussion onto other peoples' contributions in a meaningful way. It went beyond yes and no, so people could offer examples or qualifications about what others had said. We discovered that the time the experiment lasted was much too short. If you want people to discuss an issue, you need at least six weeks, or maybe six years. You also need facilities to allow people to catch up quickly on substantive issues.

The technology for facilitating democratic or policy discussion is underdeveloped at this point. It is a challenge that is not going to be resolved overnight. It is useful to discuss what we mean by democracy and the dangers in the technology, but there also should be some attention paid to the technology itself. What are the technical and logical choices that will allow the technology to work for us? I think that there has been too much of a division between what some people disdainfully call the chattering class or "digerati" and the "technies."

We need a more dialectical process in which we learn by bringing both ideas and experiments together.

Michael Schudson: I don't think we have agreement about what the best kinds of democracy might be. I've also been told that nobody understands the digital media, but it seems as if there is a lot of knowledge about its potential. Let me focus on the relationship between the various forms of democracy and the potentialities of the digital media. I think we have three broad groups or perspectives.

  • The optimists believe that the new media will help democracy. Communication becoming available to many more people, with lower transaction costs, in all kinds of interesting combinations, could bring a redistribution of power.
  • The pessimists think that democracy could be drowned by some serious dangers in the new technologies. The leading dangers seem to be threats to privacy, the possibilities of monopolies, the threat that some private and unaccountable organizations will control access to information, and the threat of commercialization.
  • For lack of a better term, I will call the third group the "dubiou-ists." This group is dubious, skeptical of exaggerated claims of any sort. They argue that democracy has to do with a great many things besides the spread of information and communication among citizens. The nature of the technology may only be a small part of what is important to defining and maintaining democracy.

There has also been a distinction between citizens and consumers, which I think we need to re-examine. First, the consuming role is not all bad. When people with rare diseases connect with one another through the Internet, and gain information, that's another aspect of consumership. Some recent research on the American revolution and specifically on the Boston tea party reminds us of the importance of consumer issues. Many of the rebels were drawn to the cause not by an interest in political theory, but because of a specific interest in taxes on tea. It was that which brought them to political action. This still happens. Consumership can became citizenship.


Discussion Highlights

Lloyd Morrisett: There has been some discussion about profit vs. non-profit, with non-profit being seen as good and profit being seen as bad. Having spent most of my life in the non-profit sector, I can assure you that efficiency isn't the product of either one. It is the conditions under which those organizations work that determine whether they will be for the public good or not. For-profit organizations can do good and non-profit organizations can do bad.

Also, we're caught in an era where the model we are projecting from is radio and television broadcasting, but the history of those models is inappropriate in envisioning what the Internet is going to be like. In 1929, radio was frozen into a commercial broadcasting medium; then it became television. The Internet had an entirely different birth and an entirely different history. It is not a broadcast medium, although broadcasting may become a part of it. I think it is extremely unlikely that the Internet will follow the model of either radio or television, so we don't know what is going to happen in the future.


Jock Gill: The problem is that our democracy is built around a public where forty-five percent are illiterate and have been trained not to participate in dialogue through the scale, cost, and one-way nature of industrial era communications. Is it any wonder that the voter turnout is fifty percent or less? How can two-way communications media with low transaction costs change this? Maybe the best thing to do is to maximize the speed of the commercialization of the internet. I predict that there is a marketing advantage in two-way relationships, and the commercial sector will rapidly figure out how to extract that advantage. I am proposing that e-commerce contains the seeds of a democratic renaissance, because it creates an infrastructure for two-way communications. It also creates new expectations about the nature of the transactional process. We end up with new expectations and a new infrastructure.

Compiled by Mary Hopper

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