The Internet is Not Democratising

Tom James @ 03-06-2008

New ideas are always interesting, and they are the bread and butter of good science fiction.

Here’s one: suppose the Internet is not the democratic, equalising, freedom-enhancing system it has been portrayed as? This network of computer networks has supposedly had the greatest democratising influence on freedom of speech and expression since the invention of the printing press.

But wars are still fought, prisoners are still tortured, dictators still grinding their people into the ground, and the oil price is rocketing. We have the Internet now: why hasn’t all that bad stuff stopped yet?

If you only read one lengthy article this month let it be this essay called The Liberizing Ideology of the Internet by a poet called Jesper Bernes.

Bernes’ basic argument is that the idea that the Internet is democratising and liberalising is wrong. A few controlphrases stand out:

The internet is a screen, a series of screens. It’s true: everyone can have their own blog, can publish their poems online so that the whole world can not read them, can peruse and produce the contents of the internet freely (in all senses of this word). But below this level of freedom, this level of leveling and equalization, the old exclusions and inequalities still obtain—differences in literacy and knowledge, differences in access to free time, differences in positionality with regard to social networks and cultural capital.

The essay is full of high-brow ideological arguments, which are interesting in their own right, but the basic idea is remarkable for the fact that it is not one that is often read or heard. It is that the Internet is just another system of control:

Essentially, with the internet, capitalism gifts the masses with a false commons where people webcan work, off the clock, creating information and relationships that the ruling class can enclose, appropriate, commodify, and sell back to us at a later date.

This isn’t a luddite argument: the Internet is a valuable and necessary tool, and there’s a lot of stuff in Bernes’ article I don’t entirely understand, and of what I do understand there’s some I don’t agree with. I’ve never felt comfortable talking about politics in terms of ideologies like socialism or capitalism, or of economics in terms of class. I prefer to discuss politics in terms of policy and pragmatism.

I’m aware of the irony of suggesting the Internet isn’t a force for freedom of speech in a blog: but it’s always worth bearing contrarian opinions in mind.

What is the reality of the Internet? Is it genuinely revolutionary, or does it “virtualise and disembody resistance” as Bernes suggests? These are perfect questions for science fiction to explore.

[via Jon Taplin’s Blog][link to Little Red’s Recovery Room][images by MR+G and renatotarga]

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5 Responses to “The Internet is Not Democratising”

  1. Michael says:

    Forgive me for not taking the time to read the article linked (I’m behind deadline already and shouldn’t be here at all) but if the author’s point is that the Internet has failed to change everything, and must therefore have changed nothing, then I’m not sure it’s worth the effort to read it in the first place.

    There are a great number of instances of the Internet having made anti-authoritarian communication possible; let me cite one which may not have occurred to many. There is a growing movement of parents of autistic children who have discovered that autism is, under some circumstances and in some cases, linked to diet. They have successfully performed an initial informal clinical trial of proteolytic enzymes to reduce the symptoms of autism — and they met one another, and organized this effort, entirely through mailing lists and newsgroups. This would simply not have been possible before the advent of the Internet; the notion that your doctor may not know everything was easy to come by, but extremely difficult to confirm.

    Today, for those ready to plunge in, many research articles in medicine are available online, and nearly all abstracts are available. There are ways to organize group efforts, and ways to find other people going through the same things you are — even if you live in a village of a few hundred, you still function in a community of millions, and the economies of scale for parents of children with diseases with incidence of a few people per 100,000 mean that millions provide you with others matching your experiences.

    Closer to home, my son has a kidney problem. Current kidney therapy is proving very unhelpful (actually exacerbating his condition), and we’re currently working with a few other parents on a dietary approach. There’s a guy in Hawaii who’s kept his daughter healthy for a few years now, purely by avoiding certain foods. We’ve followed his methods, with some success.

    It’s far too early to know whether our efforts will pay off — but we know a hell of a lot about recent research in kidney disease and digestion, and we can talk about experiences with other people around the world who are in the same boat. The Internet means our son has a chance to live a normal life, and I can’t put it more bluntly than that. Things are different.

    So it’s true, that doesn’t mean that a peasant in Thailand, even given online access, could follow the current research without the education we’ve enjoyed. And you know? I can’t lift three hundred pounds without weight training, either. To say that reveals the inequity of gravity, and that hydraulic lifts are therefore a useless innovation unless everyone has one, well, color me unimpressed.

    Eh. I guess I should read the frickin article already, but I really do have work that isn’t getting done.

  2. TJ says:

    The thing that worries me is that the in some ways the Internet cancel itself out.

    What you’re describing Michael, seems to be an example of where asymmetry of information (between yourself and expert physicians) has been reduced. This is a good thing.

    But the essay is more about the idea that the Internet has made us more free and our society more democratic. Having free access to information is empowering, but (to quote Carl Sagan) not all bits have equal value.

    In his recent novel “The Execution Channel” Ken MacLeod suggests that the Internet could become a channel of solid, mindless propaganda.

    This means that all the empowering scientific and medical stuff would still be there, but real political discourse would be extremely difficult.

  3. JustinP says:

    We have the Internet now: why hasn’t all that bad stuff stopped yet?

    And I call straw man. Because the net isn’t a panacea or a global cure-all. However, this certainly doesn’t mean that it isn’t democratising. Last summer, I did quite a bit of research into how the internet has changed the strategies and manifestations of civic activism, particularly in relation to labour, sweatshops, and textiles manafacturing.

    The current form of international capitalism relies on supply chains. Sweatshops won’t necessarily know who – in terms of companies – they’re producing goods for. From the grassroots, workers can’t campaign for higher wages or better working standards, as the global employers will simply move their activities elsewhere. Unionisation is all but impossible. Change has had to come from activists operating on a global level (armed with technology) and Western consumers.

    Here, the most effective strategies are linked to monitoring and accountability. When the information is out there, the companies can be held directly accountable to activists and the networked public. A lot of this networking and protest is taking place through social networking platforms, email, and so on. The network makes it easier for people to connect with other people of a similar mindset. Certainly, it can be empowering.

    So, the internet isn’t inherantly democratic, but it is certainly something of a leveller. The real problem is the digital divide, which is why I believe projects such the OLPC are so important.

  4. Michael says:

    Haven’t read KM’s book yet, either (I tend to wait for paperback, but lately this has been harder) — but if the information is still there, I don’t really care about the signal-to-noise ratio, do I? Real political discourse will always be difficult; this is why there’s no working utopias to be seen — but as long as it’s possible, then it’s possible.

  5. Brian Carnell says:

    From the linked essay,

    “The freedom of the internet is, in this sense, the freedom of the marketplace. Its democracy the democracy of, well, the U.S. Its equality the equality of money, the general equivalent, through which equivalency buyers and sellers confront each other as equals. Every dollar is equal to every other dollar, stupid. A dollar is a dollar is a dollar.”

    I think Bernes is absolutely right here…I just think this is a feature, not a bug.

    In his essay on the 1968 riots in Paris, Tod Gitlin highlights the “wave of individualism that freed minds, aspirations and libidos” that the riots unleashed. However, I was reading another essay the other day by a participant in the riots who said that his was precisely the downfall of the riots — that they ended up encouraging and priviliging individual action and individualism.

    TJ also wrote:

    “But the essay is more about the idea that the Internet has made us more free and our society more democratic. Having free access to information is empowering, but (to quote Carl Sagan) not all bits have equal value.

    In his recent novel “The Execution Channel” Ken MacLeod suggests that the Internet could become a channel of solid, mindless propaganda.”

    But in many ways, the Internet is *both* this ridiculous channel of mindless propaganda *and* an extremely democratizing medium full of anti-authoritarian/whatever communications (to borrow Michael’s phrase). I’d submit that which you experience is largely up to individual choice. I know people who literally think of the Internet as nothing more than a quicker way to get their celebrity news. I know others who use it for very innovative purposes like Michael does. And many of us use it as a mix of both.