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The limits of e-Democracy: Between Public and Mass

The use of electronic means of communication for expressly political ends is creating a lot of buzz about eDemocracy, Emergent Democracy, eCitizenship or whatever one wants to call it. Opinions about what exactly eDemocracy will engender range from narratives about enhancing the current democratic process with new ways of engagement and participation, to a total reconceptualization of how society should govern itself. In general, most proponents of eDemocracy assume the following:

-eDemocracy will increase participation in politics and will make politics matter again.

-The power of eDemocracy will lie not in its ability to connect average people to their representatives, but in allowing average people to collaborate, organize, and help themselves.

-eDemocracy will work because we finally have access to low-cost tools to manage the volume and complexity of information that we must pay attention to in order to act as well-informed citizens.

-We are just waiting for the next eDemocracy killer app, the Napster of internet politics, to bring it all together.

Now, behind most of these assumptions is the idea that eDemocracy will revolutionize politics because it will re-empower the public. If the public consists of individuals in dialogue with each other, it stands to reason that the internet–which we are discovering is a great tool for communication–can greatly enhance the democratic process.

Unfortunately, rumors of the demise of the public are largely true. C. Wright Mills, in his book The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), analyzed how the ideal of the public–which plays a fundamental role in how U.S. democracy is portrayed–is a waning illusion. The oft-repeated story of how the public works goes something like this:

Innumerable discussion circles are knit together by mobile people who carry opinions from one to another, and struggle for the power of larger command. The public is thus organized into associations and parties, each representing a set of viewpoints, each trying to acquire a place in the Congress, where the discussion continues. Out of the little circles of people talking with one another, the larger forces of social movements and political parties develop; and the discussion of opinion is the important phase in a total act by which public affairs are conducted… The public, so conceived, is the loom of classic, eighteenth-century democracy; discussion is at once the threads and the shuttle tying the discussion circles together. It lies at the root of the conception of authority by discussion, and it is based upon the hope that truth and justice will somehow come out of society as a great apparatus of free discussion. The people are presented with problems. They discuss them. They decide on them. They formulate viewpoints. These viewpoints are organized, and they compete. One viewpoint ‘wins out.’ Then the people act out this view, or their representatives are instructed to act it out, and this they promptly do. (pp. 299-300)

It is easy to see how, for a group of people enchanted with the idea of new online spaces for discussion, this narrative fits perfectly with the project of eDemocracy. To believe that eDemocracy will be actualized by emergent, viral-spreading open access discursive communities is to uphold the illusion that we live in the best democracy in the world (and even if it isn’t the best, it’s still much better than what is out there). However, as Mills argues, there are serious fractures in this model, fractures which began to undermine the power of the public a long time ago; fractures which, almost imperceptibly, facilitated the transformation of the community of publics into a society of masses.

To be fair, the mass and the public are (as Mills argues) extreme ends of a scale. We are neither one nor the other completely. I think it is in reviewing which characteristics eDemocracy (as currently conceptualized) shares with the concepts of the public and the mass that we may begin to explore what might be useful or alienating about it. To do this, I propose examing the main characteristics of the public and the mass that Mills describes, and assessing what they have in common with the internet.

According to Mills (pp. 303-304):

(1) In a public, “virtually as many people express opinions as receive them.” In a mass, “far fewer people express opinions than receive them; for the community of publics becomes an abstract collection of individuals who receive impressions from the mass media.” [At the moment, we've got a very vocal online minority and a majority not interested in listening. Most communication is one-to-many, and intended to reach like-minded people who can tune out what they don't want to hear.]

(2) In a public, “communications are so organized that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back any opinion expressed in public.” In a mass, “the communications that prevail are so organized that it is difficult or impossible for the individual to answer back immediately or with any effect.” [Online communication facilitates dialogue and interactivity, but we have discovered that there is a population threshold beyond which a public of equally-weighed voices becomes a mass where a voice gets lost in the noise. The technology might scale as much as we want it, but the quality of dialogue doesn't.]

(3) In a public, “opinion formed by such discussion [see #2] readily finds an outlet in effective action, even against–if necessary–the prevailing system of authority.” In a mass, “the realization of opinion in action is controlled by authorities who organize and control the channels of such action.” [At the moment, most action engendered online remains trapped in virtuality and does not translate into action upon the world; even when it does, decision-makers can dismiss it easily (such as anti-war protests which, although of an unprecedented magnitude thanks to the internet, were still ignored by those who represent the people).]

(4) In a public, “authoritative institutions do not penetrate the public, which is thus more or less autonomous in its operations.” A mass, on the other hand, “has no autonomy from institutions; on the contrary, agents of authorized institutions penetrate this mass, reducing any autonomy it may have in the formation of opinion by discussion.” [At the moment, this is where the battle is being fought. The internet has allowed us to create spaces for the free discussion of ideas, and these spaces co-exist with the corporate and government sources of information from which the majority of people still receive their news. But even with the alternative news sources found on the internet, the machinery of the mass media has desensitized us to the possibilities and power of dialogue.]

So what do we do in order to ensure that eDemocracy (or whatever we end up calling the application of technology to the realm of politics) is not just merely the virtualization of politics, but a way to support meaningful political involvement? Here are some suggestions, which are open to debate:

-Recognize that participation in eDemocracy needs to go beyond online voting, polling and discussion.

-We need to be aware of which aspects of the internet are characteristic of a mass medium, and which can support the creation of a community of publics. We need to figure out how best to use both.

-We need to acknowlege that tools that allow people to organize themselves are not as important as the agendas that people are supposed to pursue once they organize themselves. We need not just programmers, designers and enterpreneurs, but citizens who are politically conscious and active.

- We need to acknowlege that getting information about the world is not as important as acting upon the world. We have to move away from the idea of defining individuals as intersections of information circuits and back to the idea of individuals as ensembles of social relations, to paraphrase Lorenzo Simpson. We have to ask ourselves honestly to what extent ‘social software’ is not in fact an oxymoron.

-We have to admit that there will be no Napster-like application that will magically fix or improve democracy. This means abondoning the worldview that technological and scientific progress can fix any problem, given enough time, and that we must therefore uncritically support and trust it.

Since the modernization of our society, the challenge has been for people to find ways of ontologically reintegrating themselves into the world (to paraphrase H.S. Bhola), and finding meaningful ways of acting upon it. Technology can play a part in this process, but first we must ensure that we can distinguish between sustainable applications of technology and those applications that merely alienate us even more from the world by creating the illusion that virtual participation in something is just as meaningful as actual involvement.