How Will The Internet Influence Democracy?

The way we learn to use the Internet in the next few years (or fail to learn) will influence the way our grandchildren govern themselves. Yet only a tiny fraction of the news stories about the impact of the Net focus attention on the ways many to-many communication technology might be changing democracy — and those few stories that are published center on how traditional political parties are using the Web, not on how grassroots movements might be finding a voice.

Democracy is not just about voting for our leaders. Democracy is about citizens who have the information and freedom of communication the need to govern themselves. Although it would be illogical to say that the printing press created modern democratic nation-states, it would have been impossible to conceive, foment, or implement self-government without the widespread literacy made possible by printing technology. The more we know about the kind of literacy citizens are granted by the Internet, the better our chances of using that literacy to strengthen democracy. And what could be more important? What good is health and wealth and great personal home entertainment media without liberty?

Every communication technology alters governance and political processes. Candidates and issues are packaged and sold on television by the very same professionals who package and sell other commodities. In the age of mass media, the amount of money a candidate can spend on television advertising is the single most important influence on the electoral success. Now that the Internet has transformed every desktop into a printing press, broadcasting station, and place of assembly, will enough people learn to make use of this potential? Or will our lack of news, information, and understanding of the Net as a political tool prove insufficient against the centralization of capital, power, and knowledge that modern media also make possible?

The same tool that affords tremendous power to the grassroots, the broad citizenry, the cacaphony of competing "factions" necessary for healthy democracy, also affords tremendous power to the elites who already have wealth and power. Guess who can best afford to apply the tool to further their ends? What's in it for big media interests to inform us about how we can compete with big media interests?

The political power afforded to citizens by the Web is not a technology issue. Technology makes a great democratization of publishing, journalism, public discourse possible, but does not determine whether or not that potential will be realized. Every computer connected to the Net can publish a manifesto, broadcast audio and video eyewitness reports of events in real time, host a virtual community where people argue about those manifestos and broadcasts. Will only the cranks, the enthusiasts, the fringe groups take advantage of this communication platform? Or will many-to-many communication skills become a broader literacy, the way knowing and arguing about the issues of the day in print was the literacy necessary for the American revolution?

The "public sphere" is what the German political philosopher Habermas called that part of public life where ordinary people exchange information and opinions regarding potholes on main street and national elections, school bonds and foreign policy. Habermas claimed that the democratic revolutions of the 18th century were incubated in the coffee houses and committees of correspondence, informed by the pamphlets and newspaper debates where citizens argued about how to govern themselves without a King. Public governance could only emerge from public opinion. Habermas wrote: "By "public sphere," we mean first of all a domain in our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed." The public sphere is the reason why the modern coup d'etat requires paratroopers to capture television broadcast stations — because those are the places where the power to influence public opinion is concentrated.

The problem with the public sphere during the past sixty years of broadcast communications has been that a small number of people have wielded communication technology to mold the public opinion of entire populations. The means of creating and distributing the kind of media content that could influence public opinion — magazines, newspapers, radio and television stations — were too expensive for any but a few. Just as books were once too expensive for any but a few. The PC and the Internet changed that. Desktop video, desktop radio, desktop debates, digicam journalism, drastically reduced the barriers to publishing and broadcasting. These technological capabilities have emerged only recently, and are evolving rapidly. While much attention is focused on how many-to-many audio technology is threatening the existing music industry, little attention is focused on political portals. While all eyes are on e-commerce, relatively few know about public opinion BBSs, cause-related marketing, web-accessible voting and finance data.

Look at VoxCap, and the Minnesota E-Democracy Project, project, the California Voter's foundation, and scores of other unreported experiments. Imagine what might happen if more people were told that the Web could help them remain free, as well as enhance their shopping experience?