home

introduction


American approach
public sphere
control
access
social issues

political economy
potential
conclusion
bibliography
 
links
your say

 

shim.gif (43 bytes)shim.gif (43

        bytes)

Search this site
 

 

  Does internet create

    democracy?

by Alinta Thornton


Access

Participation

One of the central problems in relation to the ideal of Internet as a force for participatory democracy is that of full participation.

Habermas comments that a discourse centred concept of democracy demands that all parties that might be affected must be included; that they can interact in a free, equal and easy manner; that there be no restrictions on topics; and that the outcomes can be revised.

Male property owner

In the original Greek model of democracy, a condition of participation in the public sphere was to be a male property owner. The citizen would normally be the head of a household which included a wife and slaves who carried on the business of economic production in the household.

These exclusion mechanisms certainly applied to the public sphere in the Enlightenment period. A person participating in the public sphere was usually male, educated and propertied, with the means and leisure to take part.

Top

Habermas describes a normative model that is associated with a specific set of class and general interests and is inaccessible to most citizens (McLaughlin, 1993: 604).

Citizens need both internal resources for participation in political discourse and external resources in order to give voice to their opinions.

Leisure and wealth

The leisure to contribute to debate on matters of concern is a crucial aspect of participation in the public sphere via the Internet. Important here are both wealth and the potential for leisure that flows from wealth.

Greek origins

Habermas recognised that to have the leisure to act in the intense life of the ancient Greek polis a citizen needed private property. Status in the public sphere was based on status as the master of an oikos, or household (Habermas, 1989 in Peters, 1993: 556).

Others did the economic and physical labour of the household, while the master could absorb knowledge and discuss political and philosophical issues of interest to him.

Top

17th and 18th century

In 17th and 18th century bourgeois society the situation had differed little from classical antiquity. Patriarchal rule of the household meant that a man of means could have access to ample leisure, while his wife and servants ran the household.

A man without private income who was required to earn an income had less leisure, but nevertheless Habermas records that merchants (both wealthy and less wealthy) visited the coffee house several times a day.

Means and leisure

A man with means and a wife and servants to perform work in the household had leisure, free from time consuming work in the household and in the work-place, and the freedom to allocate his own time without the permission of another. These were indispensable to participation in the rational discourse of the coffee house (Peters, 1993: 553).

In addition, there were exclusions based on class in the operation of civil society in the form of the voluntary associations that nourished the public sphere.

These were "the training ground, and eventually the power base of a stratum of bourgeois men who were coming to see themselves as a 'universal class' and preparing to assert their fitness to govern" (Fraser in Calhoun, 1993: 114). These were open only to bourgeois men.

As Gouldner puts it, "patriarchal subjugation of women and private property, then, were the unmistakable conditions and limits of the post-Enlightenment development of public rationality in bourgeois society" (Gouldner, 1976: 99 in Peters, 1993: 553).

Top

Modern times

On the Internet in the 1990s, a primary requirement for taking part in the Internet's public sphere is to have access to a computer.

While some people use a computer provided by their university or workplace, most Internet activity takes place after work hours on private computers.

A computer is a relatively expensive item often seen as a luxury. In Australia, a family living on the average weekly wage would probably consider purchasing a computer to be a fairly low priority.

Added to the cost of a computer is the cost of connection fees. While to many Internet users this is so low it is often referred to as 'free', for a struggling family $40 per month can be out of reach.

Top

Only 37% of Australian households have access to the Internet, concentrated in higher income households (Australian Bureau of Statistics, November 2000).

This figure is important because people are more likely to engage in political debate from home rather than in the workplace.

The figure is higher in the US (51%) and much lower in many other countries.

Selling privacy

Rheingold suggests that one answer to equity of access is to sell one's privacy. Some people would be able to afford to pay for services, while others would gain access to them in exchange for information about themselves.

For answering a few questions and allowing some of your transactions to be monitored, for example, you could be granted a certain number of hours of service, or even be paid for the information and the right to use it.

The information poor would become the privacy poor.

Taking part in a democratic online voting system, rational-critical debate or getting to information that underpins opinion formation would cost people money and time - as it always has.

One was obliged to buy coffee in a coffee house, after all.

Top

Gender and rationality

One encouraging statistic is that the previous dominance of the Internet by males is reducing in some places. In Australia, Internet usage is fairly evenly split between men and women. In the US and Canada, home access is slightly higher for women.

In many other countries, though, home access is still higher for men - for example, in Germany 63% of home users are men (Neilsen, 2001). While this imbalance continues, the Internet can hardly be thought of as a place where representative views can be formed.

Ideal speech and gender

In the public sphere of the 17th and 18th centuries, the coffee house convention was that all had the right to speak, that all had the responsibility to listen to others, and that people should respond critically to what was said. If participants disagreed, the discussion should continue until the issue was resolved.

The idea was that if the debate continued in this manner, prejudices and incorrect information would be unearthed. This would allow the better, more rational argument to emerge victorious.

Top

As Wilson puts it:

"The kind of social interaction which exemplifies rationality in this sense.. involves the freedom to express one's views, aspirations and way of life to others, and also a kind of critical openness to the views, aspirations and ways of life of others; 'open' in the sense of a readiness to give others a hearing, and 'critical' in that one is prepared to place one's own views in engagement with the views of others." (Wilson, 1989:20)

The French republican public sphere was constructed in deliberate opposition to the largely female salon society that the republic branded as artificial, effeminate and aristocratic; its definition rests on the notion of rationality. This meant that rational, objective "manly" styles of speech were judged superior to emotive, personal "effeminate" styles (McLaughlin, 1993: 604).

Accordingly, bourgeois men promoted an austere style of public speech and behaviour as rational, virtuous, and manly. Fraser comments that

"in this way masculine gender constructs were built into the very conception of the republican public sphere, as was a logic that led...to the formal exclusion of women from political life" (Fraser, 1993: 115).

Top

Freedom of opinion

In 1859, John Stuart Mill explained why freedom of opinion was good for society.

"First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.

Secondly, though the silenced opinion be in error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of the truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the reminder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds." (Mills in Lewis, 1992: 74).

This notion of the marketplace of ideas battling it out to correct errors and biases (which has strong links to the notion of the free market per se) was said to enable people to make rational collective decisions about alternative courses of action, and like the free market, was seen as self correcting. (Kelley and Donway, 1990: 90 in Curran, 1991: 97).

Many commentators have noted the limitation of the marketplace of ideas: "I can no longer think of open discussion as operating like an electric mixer... Run it a little while and truth will rise to the top with the dregs of error going down to the bottom" (Curran, 1991: 101).

Top

Lack of access

As feminists began to theorise about their secondary status in the 20th century, they argued that women's lack of access to the public sphere was the main factor underpinning it, rather than reproduction or other biological functions (Ryan in Calhoun, 1993: 260).

Habermas has been criticised for envisioning a normative ideal of the public sphere based on an ideology of rationality whose maleness he does not acknowledge. (Habermas, 1985: 118 in Peters, 1993: 553).

Nancy Fraser summarises: "as long as the citizen role is defined to encompass death-dealing soldiering but not life fostering child rearing, as long as it is tied to male dominated modes of dialogue, then it ...remains incapable of fully including women" (Fraser in Calhoun, 1993: 115).

Top

Blending feminine and masculine styles

As women are gradually acknowledged to have rational capacity, this does not tend to function as a means of exclusion from the Internet.

In the twentieth century, first world women are generally educated to be able to use rationality in debate and to acknowledge it as important.

And as men own their capacity to feel the full range of human emotions, including those traditionally seen as "feminine", they will be able to own these feelings, to view them as important, and integrate them more effectively as they discuss important issues of the day.

Gender and equal voices

Gender also raises the question of how equal participants in discussions can be while gender inequalities exist (see "status bracketing", below).

Men have been a dominating presence on the Internet:

"Make no mistake about it, the Internet is male territory. Considering its roots are sunk deep in academia and the military industrial complex, that's hardly surprising." (Spender, 1995: 166).

Top

Masculine discourse style

On the Internet, the absence of gender cues in discussion groups does not eliminate sexism or the usual hierarchies of gender. Dale Spender's book Nattering on the Net (Spender, 1995) sets out in some detail the extent of women's difficulties on the Internet.

For example, men interrupt women more than women interrupt men, men speak more than women, and when women do interrupt they are ignored more than men.

Broadly speaking, women are still a subordinate group, even in priveleged societies such as the USA and Australia. The implications of this for their ability to set the agenda are significant. Mansbridge comments:

"Subordinate groups sometimes cannot find the right voice or words to express their thoughts, and when they do, they discover they are not heard. They are silenced, encouraged to keep their wants inchoate, and heard to say "yes" when what they have said is 'no'" (Mansbridge in Fraser, 1993: 119).

Spender argues that because men have developed Netiquette, the discourse is male and the style adversarial:

"Despite the enormous potential of the net to be a network", says Spender, "to promote egalitarian, cooperative communication exchanges - the virtual reality is one where aggression, intimidation and plain macho-mode prevail" (Spender, 1995: 198).

However, the gender balance on the Internet is changing rapidly and this is having a significant effect on subjects discusssed and the manner in which they are discussed. This trend is encouraging, and may contribute to a more participative arena in future.

Top

First world bias

Any discussion of this issue must account for the extraordinarily first-world bias of the Internet.

NUA estimated in August 2001 that just 8.46% of the world's population had access to the Internet (NUA, 2001), ranging from .01% in poor countries like Chad to 63.55% in countries like Sweden.

Literacy rates and education vary widely across the world, and are minimal or non-existent in many places.

United States dominance

The United States dominates the Internet, with:

  • more than 83 million users in June 2001, more than all other countries put together (NetValue), and
  • 42% of all domain names in July 2000, down from 50% in January 2000, which roughly correlates to the amount of US-generated content (Zook).

While there are an increasing number of country-specific discussion groups and sites, the huge number that are American-centred means that discourse is largely confined to issues of concern to Americans.

Although this factor is gradually lessening it is unlikely to loosen its grip for some considerable time.

Top

Literacy and education

Literacy rates vary widely across the world. In many countries, the literacy rate is as low as it was in Europe in the middle ages.

Literacy

Democracy is often associated with widespread literacy. Carey argues that while literacy can engender democracy, it also makes impossible demands.

"Literacy produces instability and inconsistency because the written tradition is participated in so unevenly. ...Rational agreement and democratic coherence become problematic when so little background is shared in common" (Carey, 1989: 164).

Education

Education is another factor. Internet discussion presumes that participants have a certain basic knowledge of the world. Many people do not attend school, or attend for just a few years, and do not have a knowledge base that allows discussion on an equal basis.

This means that even if citizens of second world or third world countries had computers and phone lines, their literacy and knowledge base would tend to lock them out of discussion, and it would be harder to make their concerns heard. The arguments I outlined in the section on gender apply to the second and third world as "subordinate groups" in this context.

Top

English

International communication is only possible if people are able to converse with one another. Millions of people cannot access the net because their languages are not the net's primary operating language.

There is approximately ten times more English content on the Internet than the proportion of English speakers in the world.

Materials in English represent about 82% of all online content (Radio Free Europe, 1997), compared with an estimated 508 million people (just 8.2% of the world's population of 6.18 billion) who speak English as a first or second language (Ethnologue, 2001).

Top

Cyber-English

Not only does a net participant require English, they require "Cyber-English", a form of English that Lockard sees as dominating other forms.

It is the latest stage in a historical procession of geopolitical domination that uses language as a tool of domination, claims Lockard:

"Learn it or else. Speak so 'we' understand you, or take a hike and be damned. Meaningful net participation requires both advanced semiotic manipulation and substantial economic wherewithal, joint and mutually reinforcing capacities that delineate and inform the concept of 'language/class." (Lockard, 1996)

This term specifies the intersection that creates what Edward Kamau Braithwaite calls "nation language"; or the Caribbean and other Englishes that are not standard imported English, but that of the submerged, surrealist sense and sensibility (Lockard, 1996).

Non-native English speakers struggle to contribute to discussions. They use short sentences with poor grammar and punctuation.

English speakers will insult their English, along with their opinions. They are "permanent clueless newbies, a global class of linguistic peasantry who cannot speak technological Latin" (Lockard, 1996).

English-speaking ability distinguishes between classes of users, their acceptance in net groups, and their ability to participate.

Top

Internet not yet vehicle for participation

In light of the factors I have discussed, it is clear that Internet does not provide a vehicle for global participation in the public sphere or rational-critical debate; in fact it is not yet a vehicle for full participation even within the USA.

While the Internet does not have to be global to be a force for democracy in some countries, the claims being made for global effects seem rather naive and premature.

The many arenas of exclusion from participation in the Internet combine to form a component of the public sphere that has little to distinguish it from the Athenian agora.

This makes the title of Vice-President Gore's article in Intermedia somewhat ironic: Forging a new Athenian Age of democracy (Gore, 1995a: 4).

Top

>>Next: Social issues

 

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