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  Does internet create









    democracy?

by Alinta Thornton


Conclusion

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:

  • the ability of small interest groups to find and communicate with each other
  • the ability for individuals and smaller groups with fewer resources to present their points of view to a large number of people
  • the easy availability of a much greater range of points of view
  • the longevity of materials on the Internet, from journalistic, academic and private sources, that would otherwise have a short life in print publication or other media. They provide a valuable information resource, since access to these offline would require considerable effort and skill
  • the interactivity that is possible between web sites and their audiences, enabling more two-way communication than has been possible previously, and
  • the formation of online communities.

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.

 

Internet and mobiles - new communication

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:

  • communicate from almost anywhere to anywhere, at any time - changing the information available, the speed with which it is made available, and the number of sources it is possible to obtain them from. This applies to both email and mobile phones.

    One example was on September 11 2001, when passengers on the hijacked United Flight 93 were given information by loved ones on the ground via mobile. This allowed them to make informed decisions about what actions they should take, ultimately leading to the plane crashing into a Pennsylvannian field instead of into the White House or US Capitol building.

    Without mobiles, this information would not have been available and those on board would not have known the scale of the events they were involved in

  • access information that was previously very difficult to obtain, including exchanging controversial, politically sensitive and minority-based information within countries and across international borders

  • conduct international commerce with reduced need for human intervention, 24 hours a day.

    This ranges from local companies dealing with international orders and suppliers they would not have had access to before, to individuals selling their expertise online (from financial advice through to tarot readings)

  • facilitate the flow of money and goods between national borders in an unprecedented way, allowing not just money market brokers and international traders and bankers access to this, but also individuals.

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.

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Alinta Thornton
Masters Thesis
MA in Journalism
University of Technology, Sydney