Tag Archives: democracy

Participatory Culture and the Internet of the Masses

Andrea Batista Schlesinger is executive director of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy (a non-partisan, non-profit think tank founded during the Civil Rights Movement that generates ideas that fuel the progressive movement). She is currently working on the forthcoming book The Death of Why, to be released in Spring of 2009. After looking at my blog and reading what I had said in a 2006 panel (the MacArthur Online Discussions on Civic Engagement, PDF transcript here) she contacted me to ask some questions about the role of the Internet in promoting civic participation. Our email exchange, reproduced with her permission, follows:

Andrea Batista Schlesinger: You write that “We should be less concerned about designing technologies that will afford young people ‘satisfying participation opportunities’ and more concerned about ensuring that new generations can challenge and question the opportunities that are ‘offered’ to them. The goal –for young people as well as old– should be the self-critical individual.” Do you think that the Internet — either as a medium, or as an environment — inspires/encourages such self-critique? Do you think that digital natives are more or less likely to be interested in and have the capacity for inquiry and/or self-reflection? Continue reading

“Socialist” Software

Marx
A case can be made that Social Software contributes to the commodification of knowledge and social interactions, or that it is simply a way for companies to make money off your labor/data. But as we know, there’s more to it than that. Social Software can also embody a set of social practices that are downright, well, socialist!

I was thinking of that as I was reading Andrew Feenberg’s essay Democratic Rationalization: Technology, Power, and Freedom (originally published in 1992, before social software and the internet were really mainstream). Feenberg speaks of technology in the context of democracy. A truly democratic society is one where people have a say in determining what technology will produce through their labor, and Feenberg uses Marx’s concept of socialism to refer to a society where political agency is derived from work:

[Marx] claimed that we will remain disenfranchised and alienated so long as we have no say in industrial decision-making. Democracy must be extended from the political domain into the world of work. This is the underlying demand behind the idea of socialism. (p. 652)

How we work is a very political issue, and democracy (in this Marxist view) is the result of a system where workers have control over production processes and the fruits of those processes.

Of course, technology is a part of all aspects of our lives, not just work. Accordingly, Feenberg sees democracy as being enacted in everyday social life through the technologies we use. In other words, democracy is closely tied to how technology is actualized or put into practice. One of the problems of our age is that we tend to see our use of technology as inherently de-politicized. To save democracy, according to Feenberg, we need to stop thinking of it as something that politicians enact in government buildings, and start thinking of it in terms of our everyday technological practices:

The common sense view of technology limits democracy to the state. By contrast, I believe that unless democracy can be extended beyond its traditional bounds into the technically mediated domains of social life, its use value will continue to decline, participation will wither, and the institutions we identify with a free society will gradually disappear. (p. 653, my emphasis)

This point might sound familiar to those who have read Lessig’s (2004) views on free culture, in particular the way he associates the technological practice of ‘re-mixing’ content with a healthy democratic culture, and the way this practice is currently endangered by those who put unreasonable costs on our ability to remix. The irony is that many times those costs can be enforced by the same technologies that allow re-mixing! That is why Feenberg’s rejects views of technology as deterministic or neutral, and instead sees technology as “a scene of social struggle, a “parliament of things,” on which civilizational alternatives contend (p. 656).” To him, technology is not a static given but something that needs to be interpreted:

As a social object, technology ought to be subject to interpretation like any other cultural artifact, but is generally excluded from humanistic study. We are assured that its essence lies in a technically explainable function rather than a hermeneutically interpretable meaning. (p. 656)

Which is why Actor-Network Theory, I guess, sees technology as an actor in a complex network of associations, an actor whose role is open to interpretation depending on where you are standing. When I speak of the open affordances of technology, I refer to this issue: the fact that the same technologies can be used for different purposes according to different political agendas, and evolve accordingly. Feenberg argues that:

…differences in the way social groups interpret and use technical objects are not merely extrinsic but make a difference in the nature of the objects themselves. What the object is for the the groups that ultimately decide its fate determines what it becomes as it is redesigned and improved in over time. If this is true, then we can only understand technological development by studying the sociopolitical situation of the various groups involved in it. (p. 657)

So when people complain that social media undermines final communities and real commitment (Dreyfus, Borgmann), that it commodifies knowledge (Lyotard), or that is sets up a virtual domain that undermines reality (Baudrillard et al.), they are right to the extent that they are describing how technology is being used by a hegemonic authoritarian system. But that doesn’t mean that this ‘machine v. (human) nature’ model is the ONLY way technology can be used:

This is the point of Herbert Marcuse’s important critique of Weber. Marcuse shows that the concept of rationalization confounds the control of labor by management with control of nature by technology. The search for control of nature is generic, but management only arises against a specific social background, the capitalist wage system. Workers have no immediate interest in output in this system, unlike earlier forms of farm and craft labor, since their wage is not essentially linked to the income of the firm. Control of human beings becomes all-important in this context. (p. 657)

Which brings us back to technology, socialism, and democracy. Technological rationalization that puts emphasis on efficiency at the cost of the workers’ freedom is a function of capitalist reasoning, not just any kind of logic. Alternatives exist. Of course, some of those alternatives are now failed experiments (the wise words of Homer Simpson come to mind: “In theory, Communism works. In theory.”). But as Feenberg acknowledges, at least in socialism the democratization of technology was formulated as a goal. Unfortunately, because this point was made by Marx (and anything related to Marx must be evil and why don’t I go back to Russia), the power of this critique has been lost:

Machine design mirrors back the social factors operative in the prevailing rationality. The fact that the argument for the social relativity of modern technology originated in a Marxist context has obscured its most radical implications. We are not dealing here with a mere critique of the property system, but have extended the force of that critique down into the technical “base.” This approach goes well beyond the old economic distinction between capitalism and socialism, market and plan. Instead, one arrives at a different distinction between societies in which power rests on the technical mediation of social activities and those that democratize technical control and, correspondingly, technological design. (p. 658)

What Feenberg describes here (democratizing technological control and design) is starting to sound a lot like (certain applications of) Social Software. But the majority of applications do not aspire to this goal because, as Feenberg argues, hegemonies legitimatize certain applications of technology and not others:

The narrow focus of modern technology meets the needs of a particular hegemony; it is not a metaphysical condition. Under that hegemony technological design is unusually decontextualized and destructive. It is that hegemony that is called to account, not technology per se, when we point out that today technical means form an increasing threatening life environment. It is that hegemony, as it has embodied itself in technology, that must be challenged in the struggle for technological reform. (p. 663)

But how do we challenge the hegemony that has been coded into the technology? How do we set about reforming technology? Is violent revolution necessary or do we need, as Latour would say, to change the way we change?

The legitimating effectiveness of technology depends on unconsciousness of the cultural-political horizon under which it was designed. A recontextualizing critique of technology can uncover that horizon, demystify the illusion of technical necessity, and expose the relativity of the prevailing technical choices. (p. 658)

In other words, we need to un-think the encoded hegemony by becoming conscious of the agendas that motivate a particular application of technology, by questioning the choices embedded in the machine. This is similar to the notion of the digital divide as paralogy I’ve been thinking about recently.

But we must be careful to avoid falling into a chicken-egg trap here: Which comes first, the sociopolitical systems that engender truly democratic technologies, or the technologies that facilitate more democratic societies? Neither. Remember, we are talking about “a scene of social struggle, a “parliament of things,” on which civilizational alternatives contend (Feenberg, p. 656),” not a zero sum game of good v. evil that will be decisively won at some point in the future.

Technology can facilitate more than one type of technological civilization, and each generation must struggle to define which type of civilization it wants, or have someone else’s desires imposed on them. There is no point in waiting for the democratic technologies of the future, because they have always been at our reach. This is certainly true when we look at what is going on in the Open Source, Open Content and Open Learning movements (greatly facilitated by Social Software). And it is also true when we look at other grassroots expressions of democracy that do not require the kind of affordances embodied by Social Software (let’s not assume that only a society with access to these technologies can give expression to democracy!).

The Open Source, Open Content and Open Learning movements might seem like an insignificant contribution in light of the magnitude of the World’s problems, in particular when we take into account the small percentage of people involved in these movements. But as I have noted before, these movements can transform the benefits of Social Software into other kinds of benefits for larger sections of the world. And as far as manifestations of democracy go, I believe they are a worthy challenge to a status quo that revolves around private ownership and profit.

If —by whatever combination of strategies and happy historical accidents— Social Software manages to change the way we produce things (artifacts, knowledge), will these changes in the means of production result in more egalitarian societies? In other words, will Social Software prove Marx was right about the link between democracy and technology?

Reference:
Feenberg, A. (2003). Democratic rationalization: Technology, power and freedom. In R. C. Sharff & V. Dusek (Eds.), Philosophy of technology: The technological condition: An anthology. (pp. 652-665). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers. Accessed on May 5, 2006 from http://dogma.free.fr/txt/AF_democratic-rationalization.htm

Flickr Photo Credit:
Kim Pierro

Tags:
Andrew.Feenberg
Karl.Marx
social.software
democracy

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.