Why We Need New Models for Understanding Democratic Transformation

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

A few posts ago I proposed what I thought was the crucial question surrounding the relation of the digital network and the future of democracy:

And this is where I think the important debate is: Is the internet as a technology subject to the same analysis as other technological developments? Can it largely be understood within the history and philosophy of technology, itself being shaped by the milieus into which it enters, determined by other forces, economics, politics, or human nature? or Is the internet a heterogenous technology? Is the internet so transformative a technology as to render prior means of understanding the philosophy of technology, if not useless at least making them outmoded? Does the internet act as a force transforming economics, politics, and human nature?

For me this is the place in need of more discussion and deeper analysis. I think there are arguments which suggest that we ought to consider the digital network as a transformative technology, and positions which (although I am not personally persuaded by them) argue that the digital network ought to be understood in a continuum of technological transformation. If you read Deen Freelon’s excellent post sketching out a rough typology of where different people position themselves on the relation of democratic culture to the digital network  (no really take a minute go read, it is a good starting point for mapping out the terrain . . . seriously at least go look at the chart). Notice that the three of us grouped together under the rubric of “net as public sphere platform” would all (I think it is safe to speak for all three in this case) argue that the digital network is a heterogenous technology, radically transformative. Having said that I think there are probably differences within this position that are important to articulate and discuss. I want to start to get at those differences, not by discussing other people in that grouping, but rather articulating why it is I think the digital network is heterogenous (profoundly so) in relation to prior technological moments.

The Digital Network is Radically Transformative

Let me begin by saying to effectively make this argument I think requires more than a moderately lengthy blog post, indeed would take several books, so this will necessarily be brief and generalize. But, I think that can still be useful in helping develop the kind of typology that Freelon lays out, articulating a this is where I am coming from to begin to put our positions into conversation with each other. So for what it is worth:

1. The Digital Network Transforms Printing Press Culture: For roughly 400-500 years we have been in the Gutenberg Parenthesis, a culture of communication in large part determined by the printing press. Indeed as Clay Shirky often argues one of the only ways we can understand how radically transformative the digital network is, is to look to the historical precedence provided by the printing press. The list is long and again we would need books to discuss this matter (many already have been written), but it is hard to overstate the transformation brought about by the invention of the printing press and its adoption across Europe: Protestantism, Bureaucracy, Scientific Method, Liberalism, Capitalism, Nationalism, Intellectual Property, Language Standardization, Salon Culture . . .

Now there are generally two schools of thought about this, one represented by Eisenstein in The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe in which Eisenstein argues (in a more techno-determinist position) that the technology of mechanical type transformed European culture (massive number of books equals social change). The second, represented by Adrian Johns in The Nature of the Book, argues that the technology was by no means determinate that the changes were at the level of cultural institutions developed around the rise of the printing press (think here of how intellectual property and copyright had to be hashed out by various parties). While this debate is important, and I think not surprisingly that both Johns and Eisenstein have useful analytic perspectives, the key is to realize that once you get this mechanical invention there is no going back, as Shirky frequently points out, for the first time in history you can copy a book faster than you can read it. We could argue about the details here but it seems pretty clear that this was a hyperbolic change in the rate of information production and sharing.

The digital network by analogy is another one of these moments, indeed the change is even faster and more substantial than the one brought about by the invention of moveable type. Changing the means by which information and knowledge are produced and shared significantly alters the culture. While inventions such as film and television also mark changes they did little to alter the broadcast structures, even radio I would argue is not nearly as transformative as the printing press or the internet.

As an example here place all the arguments about how the internet transforms journalism, most of these debates take place around how the new means of communication (the internet) transform the practice of journalism, or also consider all the arguments about the death of the book.

2. The Digital Network Represents a Different Mode of Cognition. This one is a bit harder to see, or argue about, but in the same way the invention of writing transformed consciousness, I think the digital network also transforms consciousness. The theoretical precedence for this argument is found in the likes of McLuhan and Ong. Ong famously, and I think persuasively argues that oral cultures are markedly different than cultures with access to writing. For Ong the invention of writing transforms the cultural not only on the level of how people interact with each other but at the level of individual cognition. One of the chapters in Ong’s seminal work is titled “Writing Restructures Consciousness.” One (small) example here that Ong uses is think about how knowledge moves from lasting only a short time (spoken, oral) to having substantial staying power (write it down). Suddenly you don’t need to consult the one person who is the store house of expertise, you consult a written text. For Ong the move from orality to written literacy is one of the most significant moments in culture, and importantly, although he doesn’t really fully develop this point, due to electronic communications we are moving to a secondary orality.

Again lots to discuss here and there is much more nuance to this argument than this post can represent but I think the general arc here is correct. Whereas, Eisenstein and Johns locate the transformative moment in the mechanical means of knowledge and information transmission, Ong argues that the transformative moment happens at the invention of writing because it transforms how we think about the world, not just the rate of communication.

In this bin, as an example place the arguments about how privacy and publicness change on the internet, or how attention changes now that we have the digital network. Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous gets at this as well in the way that the internet allows us to move away from taxonomic classification. Information has for sometime been treated as analog, now that we can treat it as bits, that changes many things.

So here is the thing, the digital network is transformative on both of these levels–It is as if you had the invention of writing and the invention of the printing press at the same time. I think once we understand this we start to understand how transformative this moment is.

We cannot change our technological prosthetics without subsequently also changing ourselves. This is not to make a technological determinist argument, our tools determine who we are (indeed I think this kind of “toolism” is a really dangerous line of thinking), nor to argue that it is simply a matter of how we use the tools (technology is neither good nor bad, but it’s not neutral either). The point I would argue is that technology and our definition of “the human” are co-determinate, they develop together. So, as our technology changes we also alter our definition of the human, what it means to be human. (Want the long and persuasive form of this argument? Read Prosthesis.)

What This Means for Democracy

I would argue that most of our ways of thinking about democracy arise from very specific and historically contingent views about individuals (humans) and how they relate to each other (the social) and subsequently the government. The idea of liberal democracy comes about (it is no coincidence) during the rise of print culture. And, here is I think one of the most crucial points: our notion of the public sphere is based on a very specific idea of rational political individuals which developed at the same time as print culture.

One doesn’t have to go very far to see how this works. Habermas’s arguments about the development of the public sphere are intimately connected with the rise of the printing press and a reading public who would come together to rationally debate matters with each other and reach a consensus. As Habermas points out during this moment there was a transformation of the concept of public and private predicated in part on the existence of a reading public. Again we can quibble over the details (and the details are important) but I think the central point is key here: The notion of public and private that we tend to rely upon for discussing political interaction (liberal democracy) develops at this moment in part because of the techno-socio landscape of the time.

Now many people have argued that Habermas’s understanding of the public sphere is misinformed, and proposed alternate models to explain how the public sphere forms and expresses itself to the government. But, I think the internet necessitates that we take a further step. What if our very notions of public and private are transformed? What if our very notions of individual subjectivity are transformed? What if our notions of what it means to be human are transformed?

This is why I think older models of the public sphere are not adequate to the task, they simply cannot account for the changes brought about by the digital network, which both transforms our speed and ease of connection, and the way we think about the world (cognition). It is not that we need a new model of the public sphere, but rather because our notions of public and private are being irrevocably altered that we need entirely different models for thinking through how publics (not even sure this term works) form, operate, and govern.

None of this suggests that the digital network yields democracy. Indeed those who argue that having the internet brings about democracy might as well be arguing that the internet brings about magical unicorns galloping on rainbows bringing lollipops to everyone. But those that argue it isn’t transformative I think are equally deluded. And to be sure the existence of the digital network does nothing to guarantee that the next moment will be a more socially just one. Indeed there are substantial reasons to be concerned about the digital network (as well as reasons to be hopeful). This is why I would argue it is important to study, investigate, critique discuss these matters, in order to at least try to help insure that the changes brought about by this transformation are ones that yield a more just society.