The explosion of direct participatory democracy that Rheingold hoped for is highly unlikely to eventuate merely as a result of the Internet's existence.
The Internet provides opportunities for limited revitalisation of the public sphere. These are for the most part restricted to relatively privileged groups.
At least it is an increase in the activities of the public sphere, however modest.
As Internet use expands more profoundly into middle-income groups, lower-income groups and non-English speakers, it may yet present a real opportunity for greater participation, democratic communication and a true revitalisation of the public sphere.
However, this may only occur if current power structures such as governments and large corporations are willing to incorporate this process into their standard practices.
Given the history of such things, this seems fairly unlikely, however exciting the possibility might seem.
Most promising aspects
The most promising aspects of the Internet as a site for a revitalised public sphere are:
These do not hold out the promise of a revolutionary change to participatory democracy or a new Athenian age, but they do present an opportunity for more voices to be heard in the public sphere in a new way.
The Internet, combined with easy access to mobile telephones, has fundamentally changed the nature of communication in affluent societies. It has made it possible for people to:
As a result, over the coming decades we are likely to see a significant shift in international relations, in information, journalism, trade and politics.
Because these changes are in their infancy, it is difficult to say how much impact they will have. It may simply represent a more dynamic movement of money, goods and information; or it may produce a fundamental shift in dynamics as profound as the Industrial Revolution.
Either way, I believe that these changes are profound, and combined with the trend towards globalisation that has been going on for many years, they are a powerful force for change.