Is the Internet technology or ideology? Is our media culture today really more meritocratic than it’s been in the past? And when we talk about the web fostering democracy, what kind of democracy, actually, are we talking about?
Worthy questions, I’d say. They’re ones that arose last night during a debate at the National Press Club — a debate sponsored by UVA’s Miller Center for Public Affairs, and centered on another question: Is democracy threatened by the unchecked nature of information on the Internet?
Taking the “no” position in the debate were the Personal Democracy Forum‘s Micah Sifry and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Taking the “yes” were Farhad Manjoo, the Slate technology columnist (and author of the homophily-focused True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society), and Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur.
Unsurprisingly, given the topic, much of the discussion tread ground whose trail is, at this point, well defined. (As Sifry noted, “When I was asked to participate in this, I was astounded that there would be anybody who would defend the notion that democracy is threatened by the unchecked nature of information on the Internet.”) Also unsurprisingly, while the participants’ contributions were uniformly smart, the most provocative comments came courtesy of Keen — gadfly, polemicist, “antichrist of Silicon Valley,” and, in this case, the debater who questioned the premise of the debate in the first place. (“I think the resolution is a little dodgy,” the Brit put it, British-ly.)
In that, Keen transformed what could have been an eloquent-but-musty debate — echo chambers, but, then again, diversity! homophily, but, then again, intensity! — into a lively exchange. And whether you agree with his perspective or (vehemently) oppose it, the ideas Keen discussed last night are worth consideration, as a countervailing presence if nothing else, as we navigate between the mass democratization of the web and the insistent particularities of American democracy. With that in mind, here’s a sampling of his commentary.
On the notion that the web can harm democracy:
It depends, of course, what you mean by democracy. Jimmy [Wales]’s definition of democracy was an anti-federalist position, a sort of an idealized, direct-democracy rhetoric which suggests (and I’m quoting him now) that “It’s all about the people deciding.” But of course at the foundation this country is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy, in which the federalists won over the anti-federalists.
The premise of democracy is not about the people deciding; it’s about finding educated, high-quality political figures who will make wise decisions about the community. So I think Jimmy is falling into the old trap of appropriating democracy for his own ends.
On the notion that the Internet is, fundamentally, technology:
One of the mistakes we make about the Internet is that it’s technology. It isn’t; it’s ideology. The Internet was built by people who questioned authority. The Internet is bound up in a fundamental assault on the notion of expertise, on what Jimmy calls “the mainstream media,” which includes shows like this, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal. And the idea that representative democracy, experts — whether in media, in politics, in the arts, in legal affairs, in intellectual affairs — are unreliable and need to be replaced by what Jimmy calls “the people” is deeply dangerous.
What I most fear about the Internet — which…we all use; I’m as addicted as everybody else — is the way we take this technology, which has no center, is flattened, has done away with authority and expertise — we take this technology to prove the ideological, idealized theories of Jimmy Wales. The truth is, we need expertise, we need authority, we need to remind ourselves of the foundations of representative democracy.
On the web’s facilitation of a mass meritocracy:
I think it’s one of the fundamental illusions — or delusions — about this critique of mainstream media: that somehow, before the Internet, it was just the rich, the privileged, who controlled the media — that it was a racket. And then the Internet came along, and suddenly the people had a voice. And that’s simply nonsense. I mean, we’re all — the four of us are all — part of an Internet elite, which is no more or less of an elite than in traditional media. But I am very troubled with this idea of the Internet replacing a flawed meritocracy. It’s simply wrong.
On the Internet’s need of a new social contract:
Many people see the Internet as a right and not a responsibility. Jeff Jarvis, who I think we’re all friendly with, said the Internet is the next society. And he may be right. In the 18th century, when we were figuring out modern industrial society, we came up with social contract theory about rights and responsibilities. I think the same is true of the Internet. It’s a reality, for better or for worse. It is perhaps the central fact of social and political life in the 21st century. And it needs to be understood not only in terms of rights — of taking, of stealing, of getting it for free, and all the other problems associated with the Internet — but also one of responsibility.
On the distinction between democracy and an informed citizenry:
The core question, in my mind, about democracy is whether the Internet culture, this highly democratized media where everyone becomes and author, where we do away with the old structures of power, where we undermine the 20th century meritocracy and we replace it with this 21st century — what I would call, perhaps mob rule, and what you could call democracy — whether that would actually lend itself to the production of a better-informed citizen.