An International Conference
October 8-10, 1999
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Democracy and New Media

Growing a Democratic Culture
Speaker: Phil Agre


Digital media have appealed to political activists in part because the on-line world seems open to diverse social and political experiments, different ways of organizing and interacting within virtual communities. What lessons have we learned from these on-line experiments which can help us think in new ways about real world politics?

Extrapolating from these virtual communities, some have argued that the political impact of the Internet goes far beyond candidates, political parties and elections. These optimists and visionaries claim that the Internet's most profound and long-term consequences involve politics in a broader sense, promising to transform many institutions beyond those of the government. What are the dangers and promise of new media for democratic life in this larger sense?

[Phil Agre's response to these questions took the form of a short essay, entitled "Growing a Democratic Culture: John Commons on the Wiring of Civil Society." The complete text of that paper is available. The discourse below begins with moderator Hal Abelson's response to Agre's paper. It is an edited summary, not a complete transcript.]

Hal Abelson: Phil, this sounds like the "E-Bay" view of government: with lots and lots of individual interactions, we've reached some wonderful, stable kind of equilibrium that maximizes individual participation through collective bargaining and things like that -- what is the place for government in that scenario?

Philip Agre: Government is and always has been a playing field in which contending social forces interact. That is its legitimate role and has always been its legitimate role. The question then unfolds into a hundred separate questions: what is the legitimate role of the government in the structure of the Internet? What is the legitimate role of the government in ensuring fairness in the re-negotiation of the workings of various social institutions? That in turn unfolds into a whole variety of mechanisms. I believe in democracy. I believe that a free people is capable of governing itself in a rational fashion. It's never easy. It never works entirely well. It is simply better than the alternatives. I think that there are an awful lot of institutions that are concerned, for example, with the policy process such as issue advocacy organizations, non-profit groups of non-governmental organizations, foundations of many sorts, that have gotten to the point of understanding that they need a Web page, but haven't gotten to the point of understanding what democracy is in the wired world.

The dynamics of issues are much more global than they used to be. The concept of a government is a lot different in that kind of environment. The government is no longer the one single playing field in which issues unfold. Issues are more likely to unfold on a global stage or in the interaction on several different levels between different domestic stages. So anyone participating in the political process has to be engaged in a number of different forums, or at least allied or in communication with people engaged in a number of different forums. So what government really is, once we take that seriously into account -- what government is in world where there are these hundreds and hundreds of undemocratic and non-transparent global treaty organizations is something we haven't really thought through.

Did you know there was a treaty organization about the preservation of polar bears? It's an organization devoted to the preservation of polar bears with members like Canada, Russia, United States and Norway -- countries like that. And then there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds more that the public doesn't even know about. That is the kind of multiplication of fora that we haven't really taken account of yet, because the notion of state as central to any particular person's world is so deeply ingrained.

Audience Member: Let me pick up on that last bit about different treaty organizations and the new forms of government that are coming down the pike because within the next month, I think we will all have to deal with the WTO meeting in Seattle. My particular feeling is that the most important political thing that has happened recently is that the Red Hat IPO included open systems and copyright.

Agre:A couple of weeks ago, I was in Brazil at the University of Sao Paolo, and I spoke to a physicist who runs the server on which Linux and a wide variety of other free software is provided to people in Brazil. They have been experiencing exponential growth over the last several months, and so they have set up a whole series of institutions to support free software in Brazil. Brazil is a country that cannot afford to be buying an awful lot of expensive software so the attraction of free software is natural. He said that the main obstacle that free software faced in Brazil was that the kind of mutual assistance that it presupposes and requires. That was not congruent with Brazilian culture. It was unfamiliar to the culture. This is in the context of a society that was ruled by military dictatorship for some time. You don't start being ruled by a military dictatorship unless something is wrong with the mechanisms of civil society in the first place. So I was talking to him and to reporters in the b usiness press there about the institutions that they were setting up around the software both within and beyond Brazil. There is not a lot of English spoken, so in Portuguese principally, there were largely domestic institutions that didn't reach over borders. We talked about civil society, and we talked specifically about global civil society. This is an example of the infrastructure having a reciprocal relation to institutions of civil society. It seemed a very hopeful thing, and I tried to sell reporters on the idea of the larger significance of this being a very important story to write about, and I couldn't. I utterly failed to communicate that this was a significant story.

What is hopeful about Linux and open software is that you have a viable economic and institutional model, an organizational model for mutual assistance on a large scale -- not just the exchange of information, but a model for actually constructively building the infrastructure of a society. What remains to be seen is whether that model breaks out of tools that are for specialists, for geeks, for people who have a depth of understanding who do this stuff full time, or whether it can move into the consumer market in a persuasive way and take on a mass character. My friends who do open software are quite persuaded that it can. I personally don't see the evidence and I don't see the logic in their arguments that it can. But of course, I am on their side in hoping that they are right.

Now there is a major problem with the economics of software that we are up against which is that software exhibits vast economies of scale. It is very expensive to write software. But once you produce the first copy, it is very cheap to produce all subsequent copies. This rewards whichever organization has the best distribution system because if it can distribute twice as many copies of its software than its competition then it can afford to charge half as much. And unless the competitor is twice as good, it will lose out completely and a monopoly will arise. This is an acute, serious problem in all mature software markets. And so we really face this fork in the road: one direction leads to monopoly as the basic model of the workings of information in society, from straightforward economic arguments that explain the fine detail of a large number of cases; and in the other direction lies mutual assistance -- the rise of a vigorous civil society as the nature and the basis of an information society, if such a thing can be said to exist. I think the reality will be some of one and some of the other in the interaction between the two models. We are seeing some of the nature that this interaction might have. But I think we are very far from having the answer.

Abelson: I want to bring that discussion of open software a little bit back from economics and monopoly back towards government. In the old days, it was France and not the United States that had the most repressive policies on encryption in the western world. When Netscape was trying to get permission to export Netscape Navigator to France, the French government went to them quietly and said, "Well, we will let you distribute Netscape in France if you agree to put in a back door for the French government to bust the encryption on people in France using Netscape." The people at Netscape had a very simple answer. They said, "We can't do that, it's ridiculous because the code that Netscape is distributing for SSL is open source, so if you put in a back door, everyone will immediately see it."

Code determines how the Internet runs and how much of modern life is constrained. When people talk about an alternative to open source, that means closed and proprietary source. What they are saying is that the part of the regulatory structure -- code that is just as powerful as law in the context of the internet -- will not be open to public scrutiny. Now think about that for a minute. Think about people arguing that you should do so much of your work on closed proprietary software that cannot be inspected by a populace, and then imagine the laws of the United States not being open to public inspection. I think that raising the issue of open source in the context of government is an absolutely crucial question for thinking about how our society is going to evolve.

Nick Sammond: Phil, I'd like you to address the conflation of democracy with equality, particularly around the notion of negotiation between supposedly equal partners. By way of an example, I live in San Francisco which is ground zero of the Internet Goldrush. In San Francisco, if you are a renter it's becoming almost impossible to live there because so much capital is flowing in the Bay area and so many people are going to work with that capital that they are driving the housing market crazy. The city government is responding by catering to them and so those of us who would like to stay in the city, who have been long-time residents of the city, now find ourselves unable to negotiate any kind of terms to remain there. So the Internet is having a tangential effect in which we have no place to negotiate, we have no access to democracy because the government is not interested in us as democratic players anymore.

Agre: First, I'll answer part of what you said the way Commons would probably answer, since I am spending a lot of time speaking in his voice. I said "negotiate." I did not say "equitably negotiate." The changes in working rules of institutions happen through collective bargaining just because everyone who has an interest puts their finger in in some way. Whether the bargaining process is equitable is a whole other question. I write social theory these days which is about questions rather than about answers. And it is about hopes rather than facts. The hope is that the Internet provides a means of association; that it levels playing fields in the mechanism that I described. It still depends upon people to care enough to do that -- to take the time to have the discussion, to have the time to log-in and read their email when their kids are bouncing off the walls. Then there are all the other 15 obstacles to equitable participation in the processes of collective bargaining -- there are still the problems of organization solidarity, there are still free rider problems in running a political organization or in engaging in any kind of social organizing at all. So the Internet doesn't solve the problem it's just sort of another piece to the puzzle. The argument was that the more we can conceive of democracy as something that happens close to the ground in the immediacy of people's lives, the clearer a story we have about the Internet leveling playing fields. Then suddenly, like this train that hits --whoa! what follows from that? There must be a whole book to be written on it. I hope someone writes it.

With regard to the particular case: the level of rent in San Francisco is a measure of how much people in the industry are willing to talk to each other face to face. If anyone should use teleconferencing -- it is these people, they have the technical know-how, they would not be intimidated by it, they already have the money for it and they would use it enough to be willing to spend the money to install it. Well, but teleconferencing just isn't happening -- it is actually a mystery why. And the rents in San Francisco are a precise measure of how deeply teleconferencing is not happening. It is also a phenomenon of positive feedback. I think that something that has become clear in the economics of the "information society" is the large number of positive feedback mechanisms of which that is one. Silicon Valley has become Silicon Valley-er and Route 128 has become Route 128-ier at the other extreme. And there are quite a few of those mechanisms.

In Brazil we actually have long conversations about this. The network effects that promote English as a global language is another example. There are what are called aggregation economies in spatial economics whereby there is a lot of good stuff in one place and more good stuff goes to that place to be close to the other good stuff. And positive feedback loops coming from the increasing integration of the American economy. Silicon Valley is not as typical of the future wave of things as it pretends to be because the kind of software that they write there really is quite a distinctive commodity and calls for a distinctive kind of industrial organization. But the kind of hyper-integration whereby Silicon Valley itself is a unit and the social network of people there are the unit, rather than thinking of the corporation as a unit. That is certainly the way of things and that phenomenon exhibits positive feedback effects as well.

The simplistic ideas of the Internet as equalizer, or the kind of moronic argument like George Gilder's Life After Television -- the fact that people have lots of computer power on their desks means that political power will likewise be decentralized -- are just completely unrelated to real evidence or to serious theory of any sort, including theories produced by people who share George Gilder's politics, but have their brains turned on. So the effects cut multiple ways. I was in a good mood last night so I was emphasizing the happy effects, but you are right to open up some of the others.

Democracy and New Media
Elaine Kamarck, Citizenship and the Internet
Adam Powell, Global Perspectives
Paul Starr, Internet Democracy: American Prospects
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