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

Democracy and New Media

Internet Democracy: American Prospects
Speaker: Paul Starr


Throughout the history of human communications, there have been attempts to foster a more participatory media culture. An instructive example would be the amateur radio movement of the 1920s. Is there reason to believe that the Internet and the Web will create permanent changes in our citizenry's use and control of communications media? Or are there signs that the participatory qualities of new media will yield to greater centralization and commercialization? What can we learn from our past that can help us seize and enlarge what is most valuable in contemporary digital culture?

[The following is an edited summary, not a complete transcript.]

Starr: I actually spoke here at a conference a year and a half ago entitled "Democracy and Digital Media." I am not sure why I was invited back since I had a rather discouraging message. I said that although it seemed that there were many ways in which the new digital media could improve the functioning of government, just as it is improving the functioning of other organizations in the marketplace and so forth, I did not see much evidence that it would revitalize democracy. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of discouraging experience with well-meaning experiments intended to engage people and expand participation. The results have repeatedly been disappointing. So the kinds of results that Elaine Kamarck tells us about the Websites in the '98 campaign don't seem all that surprising. This is in a context where there is a lot of discouraging evidence about the state of democracy.

Professor Robert Putnam at Harvard has gathered together an overwhelming amount of data about trends over the last thirty years that suggests a decline in civic engagement, sociability and other things in American culture that is really quite disturbing. A lot of people have seen hope in the Internet, but then party poopers like me come along. I don't quite see it. The question that I was asked for this session was particularly about issues of centralization and decentralization and whether we could expect from the Internet more decentralization as many people have hoped, and therefore more opportunities for participation. I want to talk a little bit about the development of centralization and decentralization in communications and how those patterns have been influenced by political choices and the developments in the economy.

If you go back to the 16th and 17th centuries in England and France, regimes made the deliberate decision to centralize and monopolize printing presses within the capitals. Long after those regimes had ended and licensing laws were eliminated, there was a persistence of centralized control of printing and publishing. London still dominates British communications and Paris dominates France. In each case, this is partly due to the nature of the states with court societies and the way in which culture and communication became focused upon the capitals.

The United States developed in a very different way, with a much more decentralized basis from the founding of the republic. Washington, although it was the political capital, did not also become the center of communications. We set up a postal system that from the beginning gave subsidies to newspapers and actually created a very distinctive kind of information network. Under the original postal legislation of 1792, newspaper editors had the right to exchange copies with other editors at no cost. That is they could send copies of their own newspapers through the mail and get in return a copy of another newspaper. That became the basis of the earliest news network in the United States. If you think about it, the federal government was subsidizing the creation of this news network, but it was not controlling the content of the news from the center. It was a decentralized kind of network. In some ways it bears a resemblance to the Internet, not technologically, but in lacking that kind of centralized control.

If you look through American history at the development of newspapers and book publishing, even the development of telephones, there is a much more decentralized pattern of development in the United States. Look at the early development of the distribution of telephones in the United States versus Europe around 1900, 1910, and 1920. There is a higher density of telephone usage in the United States, but the advantage is not an advantage of New York over Hamburg or Paris, it is an advantage based on small towns and rural areas There is a much higher distribution of telephones in the hinterlands, not in the metropolis. So in all those respects the United States had, from the beginning, a more decentralized system that did provide more opportunities for participation.

On the other hand there is another development that begins in the mid 19th century and extends right up to the present which is another kind of centralization through the marketplace -- the development of Western Union monopoly over the telegraph system which was a joint monopoly with Associated Press which, particularly after the Civil War, created a kind of centralized system for control of information.

The culmination of that development in the 20th century was the emergence of three television networks. If you think about that compared to earlier forms of communication, it was, for the United States, a remarkable degree of centralized control over what had become the dominate form of communication. One of the reasons that people have such high expectations of the Internet is that we constantly compare it to television. The classic network-dominated system of television has been breaking down over the last several decades, but we see the Internet against this backdrop of television which is, at least in the American context, more the exception than the rule, but a formative experience for all of us in our contact with communications.

The question that so many people have asked is will the possibilities evident in these early years of the Internet be sustained or will the Internet repeat the pattern of broadcasting? Will it ultimately become as centralized? There certainly are indications of developments of that kind. The dominance of portals that in effect create new means of marginalization, new means of directing the traffic towards certain dominate sites, certain dominate sources of images and words and so forth versus others that don't have the strategic position in the market place and on the Web. That may repeat the pattern. The development of blocking and filtering software may also become means of marginalization. I think there is no answer to this question in the technology; this is ultimately a political question as to how this new technology is going to be institutionalized -- what the rules are going to be.

This goes back to what Phil was saying earlier, that is, so much of what the conflict is over today are these issues of transparency, of open source, even though they are baffling technical questions for most people, these are all of great political moment because they will be very important in deciding how dominant certain organizations are in the control of the Web. I think if one looks at different societies today, one can already see in places like Singapore and China and so forth, different patterns in the development of the technologies. So I think that this is the lesson of history, that political decisions are crucial in deciding what path of development technology follows and this is a moment when there is still some fluidity. There are enormous economic forces underway here, but there is still some ability for these decisions to be influenced by the kinds of policies that are adopted.

Audience Member: Professor Starr's last few remarks addressed the issues of centralization versus decentralization. Is the Internet going to repeat other media and become very concentrated or will it be the wonderful democratized space that we hope it will be? The way I look at that is: "Yes." It is both simultaneously a wonderful democratized space and also an instrument for Big Brother. In some of the stories we've heard, we can see evidence for that. It is possible that my candidate out in California has a Website that I can go on and ask a question demanding some specification on an issue that was just addressed and I might get some response, but at the same time that candidate might find that, A-ha I had just purchased a copy of the Una-bomber's tract just five minutes before and before that I went to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and I spent x amount of money shopping online over the course of the year and so forth. So the very same interaction in fact can embody both of these antithetical tendencies. So I hope to get some comments here because I think that a lot of the debate has been which side do we go on -- is the Internet going to realize our dream or our nightmare and I think it is going to do both.

As another historical reminder, in the 18th century the French government was very active in censoring all sorts of printed materials and over the course of that century the printing industry in France became decentralized specifically because most people could not get their stuff endorsed by the government. So all sorts of little, clandestine print shops popped up around France and often these printing presses could be carried on someone's back so that they could move from one space to the next, or just over the border.

Over the course of that century for a variety of reasons, that French government was overthrown and many of the revolutionaries who came to power were these same writers who had been condemned before. As they opened up the presses, they celebrated this space which was going to enable a great enlightened citizenry to learn the precepts of democracy and responsibility to government and they imagined this wonderful world that was going to be brought about by printing, but what they found was that people weren't reading political philosophy, they were reading pornography. They were horrified and immediately started their own censoring programs. Just as we know that any time we do a search for anything on the Internet half of the sites we get are exactly that. Those of us here are like those French revolutionaries, we want the Internet to work out and enable great democracy here, yet we are also afraid of what it might become. Would you comment on that?

Kamarck: I'll just tell a simple story that I usually tell in these kind of conversations where people expect human beings to change dramatically because of some kind of technology and then, of course, they don't. Someone was once talking to a famous entrepreneur on Wall Street about the Internet saying, "Isn't New York going to fade away? What do you need a center of finance for when you can move this money with a click of a button and we can teleconference and we can do all these great things?" The entrepreneur responded with, "I still like to do business face to face. I guess it is sort of like the fact that you can make babies in a test tube and a petrie dish, but most people prefer to do it the old fashioned way."

I think there is something about your question which brings us back to reality a little bit which is that there are things about human beings in the way that we like to interact with each other with both our good sides and our bad sides, and I think it is probably a little much to hope that a certain technology will either magnify our good sides or give opportunity for all our bad sides any more than any other technology. Your story about France is very interesting.

Agre: Every new technology opens up an imaginative vacuum. Time and again the same sort of stuff flows into the vacuum, sort of a millenarian "we-are-going-to-be-delivered" notions of a rapture, a vanguard, the same pattern of peace and prosperity and enlightenment and all good things will ensue and then it doesn't happen and then contrarians step forward and say it's not happening and it's the opposite of all good things. I am hoping that with the Internet we can short-circuit that cycle and move beyond is-it-heaven-or-is-it-hell and develop some kind of analytical discernment about the complexity of it.

The whole point of information technology is that it is extremely plastic. It can be appropriated as part of a very wide variety of projects. The Internet is being appropriated as part of ten thousand social projects, many of which are in quite open contradiction with one another that have very different properties and dynamics. My problem with the millenarian language is that it imagines the Internet to be something that either floats free of society or that dissolves society and neither of those is happening. What we are seeing is that the Internet is embedded in society in every institution, in every aspect, in every social project of every sort and I think that real theorization begins when we have names for that embedding. But it is a hard thing to do because of the great diversity of phenomena that the net is part of and part of my purpose in drawing out John Common's language is that it provides some medium-sized concepts for focusing on the dynamics of particular cases.

Starr: I generally agree with what Phil says, but I would just like to enter this modification. There have been utopian visions conjured up with every new technology, but what a technology does do is throw things up for grabs, it de-stabilizes things, it brings open possibilities that may have been closed, and so there is a moment when new rules can be written, new institutions can be created. That is a moment of very considerable opportunity and so there is a positive side to this and it doesn't always have to be cyclical where you just go back to where you were at the beginning. Things do change and amazingly things do improve in some ways, it is not impossible to use these moments to make things go forward. I think the contrasting case to the French Revolution is the American Revolution. The earlier paper that I wrote for the Comparative Media program was called, "The New Media and the Old Regime" which was a reference to De Tocqueville's book, The French Revolution and the Old Regime, and the argument in De Tocqueville's book was about centralization -- that under the monarchy, France had become centralized but the Revolution had not changed that. France continued to be centralized after the Revolution. But that was not the result of the American Revolution. A fundamentally different system of government was established that was in many ways much more decentralized.

Audience Member: I was really struck by the difference in tenor between Adam's comments, looking at Third World media -- it was very hopeful, one example after another was interesting and hopeful -- and Paul's sort of downbeat picture of the same sort of situation in America. I've taken the Communications Decency Act action on the Internet as one of the great positive signs of democracy. People on the Internet really did rise up and they stopped that thing. I think that was a democratic movement. I want to ask whether you agree with that and if you think that that was a good sign of democracy and I also want to know if there has been any comparable action on the basis of access to new media in other countries.

Starr: I do think it is a good example, but ultimately the Supreme Court ruled on the question and I don't think it was the mobilization on the Internet that influenced its decision. There could have been the same mobilization and the court could have ruled the other way.

Powell: I disagree. The world is big enough that you could find examples both ways. Restricting examples to Africa, for every country like South Africa which puts everything online: every draft version of every position paper being considered in their Parliament are online -- it is amazing what they put online, which makes the process easier to follow from other countries. Then you turn around and you see Tunisia -- one of the more inventive countries for using the Internet for deception. They have put up counterfeit Websites for example. If you are in Tunisia where there is one authorized ISP -- things have changed now, but a year ago if you put in, instead of getting Amnesty International, you get something which looks sort of like the Amnesty International Website but you'd see that "human rights are really in pretty good shape in Tunisia and there are a few problems but the government is looking into them and next year..."

So you can see examples either way of some good applications and some things that we would not welcome. You are going to see the best and the worst. CBS and Viacom may be merging up here, but you've got a thousand web-only streaming media sources that pop-up because it costs you the price of a car, not a Lexus, but a good web-casting outfit will cost you about the same as a Camry, and suddenly you have a worldwide radio transmitter. Now it is sort of the golden age of the pamphleteer, but at least its voice is getting out there. Somebody was talking about Paper Tiger Video as a model. We are going to have Paper Tiger audio and video online available worldwide in a form that comes in many voices for better or worse.

Agre: I was one of the organizers of the anti-CDA campaign, and I am here to tell you that our effect on Congress was approximately zero. We lost that vote by an overwhelming margin. Bills of that sort routinely pass Congress by an overwhelming margin. The only Internet civil liberties issue that is even competitive in Congress is Crypto because there is a large corporate lobby around it. We won in the Supreme Court because the bill was unconstitutional. My theory at the time was they deliberately passed an unconstitutional bill to create an organizing issue for the 2000 elections, and that they are probably going to win for about 200 reasons that are just like that one.

Where the Supreme Court's decision came from in a large historical sense was democratic in that the values of civil liberties were built into a substantial social movement over decades such that certain presidents who were elected, appointed certain judges. Judge Dalzell's factoral findings, which constrained the Supreme Court's room for maneuver considerably, was the most important judicial turning point. And I think that Judge Dalzell's values and perhaps his desire to be popular with the press may have been a significant factor, but it was not a social movement that stopped the CDA. All of my fellow campaigners who say otherwise are just wrong. We were a joke on Capital Hill.

Audience Member: The general model of democracy that has been talked about today has been largely an open marketplace of ideas, and rational, political actors if they have adequate information against other people who monopolize or confuse the situation, or have large corporate interests. At least in representative democracy there are a lot of other processes that go on and just three psycho- social issues that come to my mind are questions of trust, affiliation, attention -- all of which would work differently in electronic mediation than they do face to face or as they have come to work in print media. I was wondering whether any of you had thoughts on those kind of issues?

Kamarck: I will make just one comment. We have been looking at rule-making. An enormous amount of our law is actually through regulation and there is a very complicated process for making rules. For ten years the Agriculture Dept. has been trying to make rules on organic farming and they have been very controversial. They just did a rule-making last year that was the first open rule-making that was all on the Web so that everybody could read each other's comments in real time. There is a law that you have to have it all open, but in practicality the way that it worked was that you had to go to a room in Washington DC and go through all the papers to read the comments and obviously that had the effect of decreasing participation. What is interesting about this rule-making is that 275,000 people participated in this rule-making. Now the organic farming community is a very activist community, but what is interesting is that the law was essentially in place, the same processes, but because it was on the Internet the cost of participation went way down.

So it seems to me that in some of these other democratic areas you may see an effect and it may be positive, not because anything changes in the process but just because the cost of basic communication and interaction on the Internet is so much cheaper than the cost of going to Washington, staying in a hotel, and going to the Agriculture Dept.'s reading room. That is one element that I would put in there that might in fact be making some changes to the democratic processes. The interesting thing was that the upshot was that the Agriculture Dept. pulled the rule because they had basically gotten the regs all wrong as far as the organic farming community was concerned so they had to pull the rule and they are putting another rule up there. One of the questions is, did they learn anything that they did not know before because of the open process? I am curious to see when they go to their next rule-making whether they will have gotten it right. It has already taken them 10 years to do this.

Democracy and New Media
Phil Agre, Growing a Democratic Culture
Elaine Kamarck, Citizenship and the Internet
Adam Powell, Global Perspectives
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