Which Technology and Which Democracy?
by Benjamin R. Barber
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.