Howard Rheingold’s chapter on “Disinformocracy” in his 1993 book The Virtual Community explores the concept of democratic discourse in the Information Age. With a bevy of Information and Computer-mediated Communication (CMC) technologies, the democratic process has inevitably assumed new roles and has changed definitions. For instance, the decision-making process for millions today (when it comes to electing representatives and taking sides on important issues), is less characterized by private discussions (in town halls, coffee shops, libraries, etc.), and is now a much more media-saturated experience, where discussions revolve almost exclusively around “public opinion.” Jürgen Habermas defined public opinion as the popular rhetoric of a public which is large, and where communication requires certain means of dissemination and influence. When he was writing, Habermas was referring to the old media forms: newspapers, periodicals, radio and television. These were technologies that came to define the public sphere, and changed the ways people engaged in the political process. This stood in marked contrast to the book-learned culture of the 17th and 18th centuries (where millions gobbled up books like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense within months after it was published in 1776). Today, the public sphere is less characterized by books of carefully studied knowledge. We now have RSS readers, smart-phones, vines, and tweets that streamline information (most of which is irrelevant and meaningless). With the rapid-fire dissemination of these new media outputs, there seems to be little time to actually consider rational debate.
What happened over the course of two and a half centuries? Generally speaking, the private sphere turned into the public sphere, and the public sphere became commodified. According to Rheingold, even the political process has been turned into a commodity. Just turn on the mainstream news, and you will see tweets streamed from the television screen ticker; or, you will hear political correspondents report on news through a flash-flood of media. This is to say that, essentially, politics has turned into something like a movie, and rational debate has deteriorated into mass hypnotism. Guy Debord called this the “Society of the Spectacle,” where citizens become passive spectators in a politically-syndicated game. This is a new development, born on the tides of new media, as well as advertising companies and viral marketing campaigns. This culture did not exist in the years leading up to the American Revolution; at least not in the same ways as it does today. For instance, when Patriot leaders organized shadow governments and spread ideas in secret, they were risking their lives to the dedication of an ideal. But – contrary to the popular history – they were barraged with disinformation as well, and bought into it for nearly three generations. Indeed, a similar commodification was occurring in the colonies due to the Navigation Acts. Goods that used to be enjoyed by the elite were now available to every provincial in America, and a burgeoning print culture was disseminating influential ideas of brainwashing loyalty to the king and the British empire. However, the growth of an empire usually pushes its “democratical” few to give up their freedoms at the expense of the state, and this did not sit well with American dissidents. Now, is this story really much different from what is going on today?
Rheingold notes that, “Acts of speech and publication that specifically discuss the state are perhaps the most important kind protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and similar civil guarantees elsewhere in the world.” This is a powerful statement in defense of civil liberty, but the right to assembly and free speech becomes tricky when discussed in relation to the Web. There is no guarantee that networks of people discussing politically-transformative ideas in the public ‘CMC’ sphere will enjoy the same liberties as our “networking grandfathers.” The right to free speech still exists, as Internet users are free to discuss whatever they want. But, their written words are stripped of any dynamic power as soon as they are published on the Web. It’s true that the government isn’t controlling the right to content creation, which would seem to indicate that all is well and good in the public ‘CMC’ sphere. However, if we consider the right of assembly to mean a free forum in which groups of like-minded people come together to discuss ideas – exclusive to their group only – then this hallowed right may be in doubt.
I just recently started reading the LibertyHQ forums; an on-line community that caters to my growing political interests. Considering the idea of Panopticism in recent class discussion, my thoughts invariably turn to current events. What grounds are there to be legitimately concerned with government oversight? Should we start withdrawing from the public ‘CMC’ sphere and relegate ourselves to a more rustic lifestyle without technologies? Or, should we engage with new media technology to try and revitalize democracy? With the recent highlighting of security vulnerabilities, it does not hurt to try and rethink the role of the e-denizen on the Web. Most of the population fits this description now of the e-denizen; increasingly inhabiting virtual communities to discuss public, and intentionally private ideas. But whatever one’s political affiliation – whether anarchical or conformist – there’s no need to expect your door to be kicked in just yet. Still, it’s curious to think that maybe our activity is being “reviewed,” artificially or otherwise for national security purposes. That is indeed something both curious and scary. Certainly, the government has the capability to bypass encrypted networks, as one security technologist recently explained: “the NSA has huge capabilities – and if it wants in to your computer, it’s in.” Mass surveillance is obviously an issue in today’s world, and it makes me doubt (based on pure dumb feeling; not hard investigation) the democratizing potential of the Web. I have always been inclined to use social media to follow current events, and to expand my mind by reading what is out there. So, for me, that is democracy enough. But I feel that today’s version of the Committees of Correspondence (those networks of grassroots individuals striving for real change) have but little hope for effecting it. There is no network in the Panopticon that is truly private and free.
(To WRT 232 readers: I understand that this post misses the point entirely, because I didn’t tell my story using social media. That’s because my social media story is pathetic, and I am saving it for Project 1 when I will have no choice but to lay my soul bare and do it…)