Can Digital Media Renovate Democratic Culture?

If the digital media are truly harbingers of a new type of participatory culture – think blogs, wikis, social networking, citizen-journalism, amateur video sites, free software, and beyond – then what are the implications for democracy? A few weeks ago, I encountered a terrific essay by Joi Ito, a board member of the Creative Commons and iCommons who has been described as “an intensely hip fringeophiliac investor based in Tokyo and cyberspace.” Ito’s essay, “ Emergent Democracy,” is his meditation on the democratic potential of weblogs. Because the essay was developed in concert with dozens participating on his wiki (natch), the byline reads, “Mostly by Joi Ito.” Although the essay originated more than two years ago – so much has happened in the cyber-world since then! – its insights remain fresh.

Ito asks how we might move “away from the broadcast style of managed consensus to a democratic style of collective consensus derived from ‘many-to-many’ conversations.” The idea is that our collective participation with each other may result in new and higher levels of democratic organization than our current (dysfunctional) order. It could result in “emergent democracy.” Emergence, of course, is a concept used in complexity theory, which forward-thinking scientists regard as the template for understanding all living systems, whether a species, a human economy or Internet culture. Ito writes:

Can citizens self-organize to deliberate on, and to address, complex issues democratically, without any one citizen required to know and comprehend the whole? This is the essence of emergence, the way that ant colonies can “think” and cellular DNA can evolve complex human bodies. If information technology could provide tools for citizens in a democracy to participate and interact in a way that facilitates self-organization and emergent understanding, we can evolve a form of emergent democracy that would resolve complexity and scalability issues associated with democratic governance.

Instead of a system of surveillance by a central government, Ito, citing Steve Mann, suggests that Web culture may provide the basis for sousvillance – “a method for the public to monitor the established centers of power and provide a new level of transparency. Traditionally, this has been the role of the press, but the press is decreasingly critical and vigilant, instead focusing on sensational stories, propaganda and ‘infotainment.’”

Ito’s essay helps make clear the importance of free software, open platforms and net neutrality. If ordinary citizens can be denied access to the tools to create their own public spaces, then all sorts of democratic potential can be smothered in the crib. That’s why tech issues matter so profoundly.

Another worthwhile commentary on this same general topic is Larry Lessig’s brilliant talk about the “read-only” and the “read/write” society. Loosely translated, the 20th-century mass media culture was the read-only society because it was characterized by one-way transmissions from centralized sources: TV stations, film studios, publishers. Lessig calls this culture “weirdly totalitarian” in its ability to standardize creativity and eclipse the normal kinds of participatory folk culture that characterized the 19th Century and, indeed, most of human history.

By contrast, the Internet-based universe that is rapidly rebuilding – but in a different form – the “read/write” culture of the 19th century, in which everyone has the capacity to read what others produce, but also to express themselves in their own personal ways. I saw Lessig give this speech at the Wizards of OS conference in Berlin in September. It’s quite a performance. The interplay between Lessig’s words and the slide show being shown simultaneously on the big screen, is phenomenal.