In 1974 Raymond Williams wrote an essay about the impact of television on society, “Television: Technology and Cultural Form.” In it, he expressed concern that while television had the ability to offer “extreme social choices” and could potentially lead to a “more educated and participatory democracy,” it also has the ability to further limit and regionalize the way we think and interact with one another to the few choices offered to us by large corporations and institutions.
In today’s reading, “The Lo(n)g Revolution: the Blogosphere as an alternative Public Sphere?”, Anna Notaro begins with this excerpt from Williams’ article in order to put her own into context. While Williams’ assertions are seemingly out-of-date, they can be reapplied to the technology of today, which is the Internet. Her goal for this essay is to explore the political implications of the Internet and she wonders whether the Internet will remain a delimited public arena in which intellectual exchange freely flows between ordinary people, or become highly monitored and limited by potentially anti-democratic values. She concentrates on the “blogosphere” in particular (a term coined by William Quick in 2001 to refer to the “intellectual cyperspace” that bloggers inhabit), and its role in relation to “the intersection between technological change and a reformulation of the public sphere.”
Notaro goes on to explain Williams’ idea from his 1961 article “The Long Revolution,” that there are three long, simultaneous revolutions occurring—the democratic revolution, the industrial (technological) revolution, and the cultural revolution. Williams had an optimistic view of these revolutions, arguing that the public’s desire to govern themselves was directly related to the development of industrial organization (or in more modern terms, the development of new technologies), and that the cultural revolution then, reflected the public’s desire to allow everyone to actively learn and participate in culture as opposed to a small group of people. The link between these three revolutions is less obvious today, and Notaro wonders whether it is possible to continue to be optimistic about this relationship. Is this democratic desire still relevant in a time when large companies are all fighting to be the ultimate controllers of our consumption?
Habermas’s Public Sphere
Notaro next explores Jurgen Habermas’s idea of the public sphere, and how much of it has changed or remained the same in today’s technological world. Habermas’s idea, in “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere written in 1962,” was that in 18th century Europe, the public sphere emerged as a forum for critical discussion amongst the public, which would allow for the free sharing of ideas, ultimately serving as a check to state power. In the more modern times of the Internet, the public sphere has evolved. Notaro is skeptical about applying a concept that was formulated in a different media world to the current media environment, especially due to one aspect of Habermas’s idea of the public sphere—discussion strictly as a form of rational debate, ignoring any sort of emotive language that could be used in a free flow of ideas. He believed that everyone should have “a common interest in truth, no matter their status.”
This idea has been critiqued due to its narrow-minded nature. Modern theorists argue that this idea implies a “public” only open to the elite and educated, while more realistically in today’s technological world, there are many publics that include anyone and everyone, in the form of list-servs, chat rooms, blogs, and gaming communities. Many media scholars seek to discard Habermas’s view of the public sphere completely. Others believe that there are still modern implications of his theory. Notaro is hesitant to discard Harbermas’s idea of the public sphere as being completely irrelevant to the modern media world, however she argues that even if it can be applied, Habermas’s public is only a small component of the numerous publics that exist on the Internet today.
Internet and Electronic Democracy
Many scholars believe that computer-mediated communication opens the doors for democratic progress by enabling widespread discussion and the ability to make each and every voice heard. Rheingold, one scholar, among many others, who believes in this newfound democracy, strongly believes that technology, “if properly understood and defended by enough citizens, does have democratizing potential in the way that alphabets and printing presses had democratizing potential.” These scholars see the Internet as a utopian, electronic agora (public forum of ancient Greece). In line, to some extent, with Habermas’s public sphere, blogs and news groups engage people in discussions of public and political relevance, promoting a more widespread democracy.
However, there are also many media scholars who lack this optimistic view of an electronic democracy. Benjamin Barber conjured three different scenarios of what could happen with the relationship between technology and democracy: the Pangloss scenario, the Pandora scenario, and the Jeffersonian scenario. The Pangloss scenario refers to the ability of technology to serve corporate agendas. The Pandora scenario refers to the idea of the government utilizing technologies in order to control the public and create an “invisible tyranny” which takes away freedoms and limits privacy. The Jeffersonian scenario is refreshingly optimistic compared to the first two, and refers to a society in which the government and its citizens use technology in order to promote active participation in democracy online and elsewhere.
Backtracking for a moment, Barber’s Pandora scenario directly ties in to the second reading of the day, “Scroogled” by Cory Doctorow. In this highly imagined story, a Google employee comes back from a long vacation in Mexico to find that the Department of Homeland Security, along with the entire American government, has partnered with Google to gain access to the search histories of citizens in order to monitor their actions online as a way to eliminate any sort of threats to the security of the nation. I won’t get into too many details of the story, but the main character, Greg, is interrogated by the DHS on his way home for some completely innocent, yet seemingly threatening searches he made while he was away. His friend and fellow Google employee, Maya, explains to him exactly what happened while he was gone and informs him that once the government gain access to a person’s Google identity, it monitors it forever. There is no more privacy whatsoever. Maya tells Greg she has created a software capable of completely wiping out and masking online identities so that the government can no longer track them. Chaos ensues, and by the end of the story, the software is used by Google as a form of political corruption, in order to erase the questionable histories of certain political candidates.
This whole scenario seems completely fantastical, but at the same time it is unsettling to realize that this sort of government control is completely possible with today’s technology. This story, combined with many of the ideas I will discuss shortly, brings up my own questions about the democratic value of the Internet as well as ties back to questions of freedom in the use of the computer due to interfaces. But I will come back to that at the end.
Now, back to Barber’s last scenario (Jeffersonian), which envisions a more democratic society. This scenario again reflects people’s tendency to think that new technology allows for some democratic utopia to form. Rheingold, while he advocates this utopia, still realizes that the Internet can be easily commodified and while it seems like the Internet allows the public to break free from traditional media’s monopoly over their attention, in reality it is just another means for companies and the government influence public discourse. Carl Boggs is one scholar who seriously doubts the Internet’s democratic capabilities, saying that it does not in fact “empower ordinary people,” but rather “the global village…operates at the expense of real communities.”
At the end of this section Notaro leaves us with a paradox: the online public sphere will always lack a certain democratic value due to the inequality and irrationality of certain online discourse, but at the same time, the Internet draws in many different people, enables many new connections and allows for democratic discussion. She concludes that our understanding of democracy and the Internet need to be reworked and continuously developed on a “glocal” scale, and that this democracy is worth fighting for in order to protect ourselves from media conglomerates.
Notaro briefly outlines the development of weblogs by referring to Rebecca Blood’s Weblogs: a history and perspective (2000). Blogs began as a way to discuss specific scholarly topics to a more personal diary, that transformed consumers into creators of information.
Blood stresses the importance of blogs today in a world where we are exposed to so much information so frequently that it is difficult to stop and reflect on any given piece of information anymore. She claims that modern blogs are one remedy. Notaro notes that since Blood’s article in 2000, blogs—both directly political in nature and simply reflective—have contributed to national and international political dialogue, especially after September 11th. One example she gives is that of Salam Pax from Baghdad. He wrote a blog about the mood of the city as it awaited the U.S. bombing, which created a buzz around the world. These random, unprofessional blogs have begun to have a real impact on the journalistic world. Notaro argues that bloggers and journalists are all part of the same family of writers, and that all blogs have some journalistic aspect, whether or not they live up to professional standards.
Notaro then defines the blogosphere. She explains how blogs are collective in nature and foster ongoing active participation—through comments—by tons of people anywhere in the world. The computer language is a common one that eliminates certain political and cultural divisions between different regions of the world. She says that this transcendence of physical and cultural borders “presents a case of interactivity in a local/global public sphere that may re-energize democratic values.” Despite this, Notaro questions the novelty of such a public sphere. She thinks that perhaps the idea of ordinary people discussing in the public sphere is old news, and connects it back to Habermas’s idea of the public sphere emerging way back in the 18th century.
Andrew Baoill sets out to find this connection between Habermas and the blogosphere. He identified three factors of Habermas’s theories: inclusivity, disregard of external rank, and rational debate. He claims that while the blogosphere is somewhat inclusive in that anyone can start a blog, it cannot help but favor certain blogs over others, failing to disregard rank. Further, the fact that there are so many blogs out there, very few of them will be given a chance for rational discussion. Therefore, the blogosphere does not live up to Habermas’s ideal public sphere. Notaro concludes that the blogosphere is just a “constellation of intellectual space” where people can freely express themselves, as they feel necessary, without much order to it.
One problem is that because there is so much information out there, people begin to filter out only the things they want to hear without listening to what other people have to say. It creates “echo chambers” where the individual becomes important and the public sphere begins to decline. This divide between the individual and the public is becoming more and more apparent.
Notaro then describes a report done by the Hansard Society, which assessed the state of political blogging in the UK. These are some of the findings:
• Blogging has the potential to significantly impact on political engagement and political processes as they provide an opportunity for alternative informal voices to enter into the political debate without a great deal of cost or effort.
• Blogging breaks down the barriers between public and privates spaces and allows elected representatives to put across their individuality and personality.
• The availability of low-cost, low maintenance authoring software means blogs are far easier to construct and update than conventional websites.
• The most appealing blogs are those which provide genuine debate between bloggers and visitors to the blog. Blogs that do not offer this facility give visitors little reason to return.
• At the moment, political blogging is still regarded as the pursuit of internet connoisseurs rather than ordinary members of the public. While our jury found blogs easy to navigate, they found the tone of content unappealing.
• Blogging has the potential to be of enormous benefit to MPs and other elected representatives who use it as a listening post rather than another tool to broadcast their ideas, achievements or party dogma.
Notaro notes a paradox in these findings: while politicians are needed in order to represent the diversity of the public, blogs wind up eliminating the need of individuals to be spoken for by someone else. This feeling of individualism provides a great sense of democracy in that individuals no longer feel the need to have their opinions represented by others, but instead people want to express their own opinions for themselves. Notaro celebrates the death of one ideology and the birth of a “digital nation” full of individuals. She calls them Digital Citizens.
I would like to connect parts of this reading back to our discussion of the desktop interface. In my last post on the reading by Steven Johnson, I mentioned that the original desktop released by Apple was considered revolutionary in that it enabled the ordinary person to be able to use the computer and “understand” its functions. Apple advertised the interface as providing a sort of freedom, which would allow people to have an equal understanding and ability to use the computer. We discussed, however, that in reality this understanding is false and that while we think we are being given choices and freedom within the interface, we are actually being completely influenced by the designs of the interface designers and only know and understand what they allow us to. This ties back to the skepticism of scholars like Benjamin Barber about the true freedom that the Internet allows us. Perhaps we believe that we have complete freedom on the web, but in reality the Internet is filled with advertisements and agenda of all sorts, so that the content we see is in fact regulated to some extent, whether we realize it or not. Do you think that the Internet is limiting or is it truly free? Further, do you think that something like “Scroogled,” where we literally have no freedom whatsoever, could actually happen? Are we heading in that direction?