Richard Moore


                     DEMOCRACY AND CYBERSPACE

                Copyright 1997 by Richard K. Moore

[part 2]

Today's Internet: democratized communications
Today's Internet is most remarkable for its cultural aspects.
Technically, Internet is one small episode in the ever-evolving
parade of technology, and soon to be outmoded.  But culturally - and
economically - Internet seems to be a phenomenon nearly unprecedented
in human history.

Internet is a non-monetized communications realm, an open global
commons, a communications marketplace with a very special economics
in both content and transport.

Each physical node (and its connecting hookups) is, in essence,
donated to the network infrastructure by its operator (government
agency, private company, university, ISP) for his own and the common
benefit - a classic case of anarchistic mutual benefit.

Similarly the content of Internet is a voluntary commons: anyone can
be a publisher or can self-publish their own work.  Publications of
all levels of quality and subject matter are available, generally for
free.  The only costs to a user are typically fixed and moderate -
everyone in the globe is a local call away, so to speak, and
communication with groups is as cheap and convenient as communication
with individuals.

Anyone can join the global Internet co-op for a modest fee.  Internet
brings the massification of discourse; it prototypes the
democratization of media.  Individuals voluntarily serve as
"intelligent agents", forwarding on items of interest to various
groups.  Web sites bristle with links to related sites, and an almost
infinite world of information becomes effectively accessible even by

Netizens experience this global commons as a democratic renaissance,
a flowering of public discourse, a finding-of-voice by millions who
might otherwise have become F. Scott Fitzgerald's "men [or women] of
quiet desperation".  Like minded people can virtually gather
together, across national boundaries and without concern for time-
zones.  Information, perhaps published in an obscure leaflet in an
unknown corner of the world, suddenly is brought to the attention of
thousands worldwide - based on its intrinsic interest-value.

The net is especially effective in the coordination of real-world
organizations - enhancing group communication, reducing travel and
meetings, and enabling more rapid decision making.

The real-world political impact of Internet culture, up to now, is
difficult to gauge.  Interesting and powerful ideas are discussed
online - infinitely broader than what occurs in mass-media "public
discourse" - but to a large extent such ideas seem buried in the net
itself, and when the computer is turned off one wonders if it wasn't
all just a dream, confined to the ether.  So far, there seems to be
minimal spillover into the real world.

Ironically, at least from my perspective, it seems to be right-wing
organizations that are making most effective political use of the net
at present - organizing write-in campaigns, mobilizing opinion around
focused issues, etc.  Those of us with more liberal democratic values
seem more divided and less driven to achieving actual concrete
results.  Present company excepted, of course.

One wonders, however, what might happen if a period of popular
activism were to occur, such as we saw in the 1960's, the 1930's,
1900's, 1848 , 1798, 1776, etc.  If a similar episode of unrest were
to recur, the Internet might turn out to be a sleeping political
giant - coordinating protests, facilitating strategy discussions,
mobilizing massive voter turnouts, distributing reports suppressed in
the mass media, etc.  The "people's" mass media could have awesome
effect on the body politic, if some motivating urgency were to
crystallize activism.

Such a scenario is not just idle imagining.  Eruptions of activism do
in fact occur (there have been a few in Germany, France, and
Australia recently, for example).  The net is not widespread enough
yet to have been significant in such events (as far as I know), but
we may be very close to critical mass in some Western countries, and
the power of Internet for real-world group organization has been
tested and proven.

This activist-empowerment potential of Internet is something that
many elements of society would naturally find very threatening.  Some
countries, such as Iran, China, and Malaysia - where "motivating
urgency" exists in the populous - take the threat of "excess
democracy" quite seriously, and have instituted various kinds of
restrictive Internet policies.

I would presume - and this point will be developed a bit later - that
awareness (in ruling circles) of the "subversive" threat from
Internet lends considerable political support to the various net-
censorship initiatives that are underway in Western nations, and that
such awareness may largely explain the mass-media image of Internet
as a land of hackers, terrorists, and pedophiles.

Partly because of this potential activist "threat", and partly
because of economic considerations, there is considerable reason to
suspect that Internet culture will not long continue quite as we know
it. Apart from censorship itself, chilling copyright and libel laws,
and other measures, are in the works which can in various direct and
indirect ways close the damper on the open Internet.  The average Joe
Citizen, spoon-fed by the mass-media, all to often holds the opinion
that Internet is a haven of perverts and terrorists, and thus
Internet restrictions are not met with the same public outcry that
would accompany, for example, newspaper censorship.

Internet offers a prototype demonstration of how cyberspace _could_
be applied to enhance the democratic process - to make it more open
and participatory.  But netizens are not the only ones with their
eyes on the cyberspace prize.  We next examine another potential
cyberspace client - the mass-media industry.

[to be continued]

Posted by Richard K. Moore - •••@••.••• - PO Box 26   Wexford, Ireland
         http://www.iol.ie/~rkmoore/cyberjournal            (USA Citizen)
  * Non-commercial republication encouraged - Please include this sig *