The utopian vision of democracy often relies on the direct or participatory model. It is obvious that this vision can only remain an ideal. The number of issues that even a local council must deal with is daunting for even the most committed citizen.
In a study of voter turnout in America, the US Census Bureau reported that just 60% of citizens in the USA voted (US Census Bureau, 2002).
This compares to 74% of eligible voters in one town in the mid-17th century - but only 60 men in the town were eligible to vote (Schudson in Calhoun, 1993:147).
In countries like Australia, where voting is compulsory, full participation (or close to it) is achieved through threat of fines or even jail terms.
If voter apathy were relatively similar in both countries, how much interest are the remaining 40% taking in their vote? How does this affect the formation of political will?
Interestingly, those who do vote in the USA represent similarly privileged groups as those who tend to be represented on the Internet. They are the people with the "biggest stakes in society: older individuals, homeowners, married couples and people with more schooling, higher incomes,and good jobs." (US Census Bureau).
Before there can be full participation in democracy, individual citizens must see themselves as an important part of political life. They must take the concept of participation in government seriously, and believe that they have a contribution to make and a duty to make it.
As Schneider puts it in the most basic terms,
He proposes that by shifting the focus from communication that is:
"...based on transactions with large, homogenous, undifferentiated and anonymous audiences to communication based on exchange among small, heterogeneous, distinct and identifiable participants, it might be possible to recapture the skills and reclaim the resources necessary to support opportunities for effective political discussion." (Schneider, 1995):
Participation as consumers
One on-line activist group, the Critical Art Ensemble, suggests that most of the first world population will join the electronic public sphere primarily as passive consumers, rather than as active participants:
"They will be playing computer games, watching interactive TV, and shopping in virtual malls. The stratified distribution of education will act as the guardian of the virtual border between the passive and the active user, and prevent those populations participating in multi-directional interactivity from increasing in any significant numbers." (Critical Art Ensemble)
Since this view was proposed in 1995, the use of computer games, interactive TV and shopping has increased significantly. However, the use of niche sites focussing on distinct interests and small numbers of active participants has also increased.
Whether this has resulted in separate groups of passive and interactive users has not yet been established.
This view of the populace is somewhat pessimistic, and is perhaps a class-based assumption. However, voting patterns in countries that have optional voting would seem to support the CAE's assertion to some degree.
Minnesota E-Democracy, a non-profit project, is an example of online voting and participation.
Its goal is "to improve participation in democracy in Minnesota through the use of information networks. It hosts quality online public spaces for citizen interaction on public issues."
It has forums, discussions of state and national policy, legislation study groups, local community discussions, announcements, email lists and lists of links to relevant topics such as candidates for elections, election news, political groups and news sources.
The USA has run several trials to test the viability of online voting. Arizona trialed it in the June 2000 primary elections and found that participation rose by 600%, with 40,000 voters, 80% of the total, voting online (SecurePoll, 2001).
This is seen as a way to avoid the confusion of badly designed poll papers (as in Florida during the 2000 USA Presidential election), and to speed up recounts and postal vote counting.
In Australia, where voting is compulsory, it is likely to represent convenience to those with Internet access, and little more.
In other countries where it is not compulsory, it may mean increased participation by those in groups privileged to have access (see discussion above). However, inconvenience is only one factor that discourages people from voting, so it is unlikley to address the whole issue.
Response to electorate
In the Greek agora, it was possible for every citizen to take part in a dialogue about every issue being debated in parliament.
But in both the English and American parliaments, much of their business was conducted in relative secrecy. In America, it was usually difficult to find out what the parliament was doing, or how one's representative had voted on any issue (Schudson in Calhoun, 1993:154).
In England, parliament had published reports on some deliberations, but these were skimpy, infrequent, and not publicly accessible. In 1738 it prevented publication of its debates between sessions (Habermas, 1989: 61).
It is conceivable that a member of parliament could pose the question to their constituents: "Do you want me to vote in favour of the new gun control Bill or not? Please provide your reasons".
This would allow the MP to represent their constituents in a much more real sense than is possible in the current system. It would be unwieldy to expect every Australian citizen to have this opportunity. The number of issues and the size of the population makes this impractical. Representation seems a practical response to the growth of population and the expansion of the franchise.
A dialogue between representatives and citizens would make politicians far more accountable and responsive, which may mean that such a system would be looked on unfavourably.
On the other hand, the politician would gain a greater knowledge of his or her electorateís wishes, and thus be able to retain a greater proportion of votes by acting in accordance with them.
Access affects dialogue
However, only constituents with computers, modems, language skills, English speaking skills, Internet connections, leisure etc would be able to contribute to the discussion.
Even if connections were made available in shopping centres and libraries, it would not even up the power relations between those with and those without these attributes.
Would this more direct representation mean that excluded groups' influence actually diminish? If politicians had access to so much direct opinion, would they come to believe it actually represented all their constituents' views?
On the other hand, perhaps this is preferable to the current situation where almost no one has direct influence over their representative's views or policy positions.
This transition would not be made easily, since the dominative attitude to communication is still prevalent. (Williams, 1967: 315).
For example, while international management trends in business have been moving towards participative, consultative styles for over a decade, many leaders are afraid of trusting the consensus processes of majority discussion and decision.
This has the potential to lead to a reduction of direct power and influence for the leader, who must find new ways to value their worth. At the least, many leaders may have this perception, whether or not it would be true in reality, and act accordingly.
Governments are historically reluctant to involve citizens in decision making, or even to provide information about their operation to the public, perhaps for similar reasons.
While some features of political life have been transformed, governments are still reluctant to have their innermost workings exposed to public light. They prefer not to let the public have a real, direct impact on individual policies other than through opinion polls and other market research.
Decline in quality
Rheingold argues that in the early years, on-line communities were dominated by "the kind of people that Robert Reich, in The Work of Nations, called 'symbolic analysts': computer programmers, writers, journalists, freelance artistes, editors, etc."
This does not indicate a level of participation that could accurately be called grass roots.
However, as the Internetís participation has moved into the mainstream, middle-income households, this has changed significantly.
Some argue that this has changed the level of discourse, especially on Usenet, many groups ending up with flame wars, trolling (in which people deliberately provoke others in the group), spam (unwanted junk emails), advertising, inanities and off-topic discussions that seriously diminish the effectiveness and attractiveness of the group.
Closed alternatives: tragedy of the commons
As a result, alternatives have sprung up. Web based bulletin boards have been created, many of which require personal invitiation in the manner of a club.
Others simply require registration. An example is Slashdot.org, a web site for "geeks". To take part, one must register, and those who donít contribute in an approved manner can be removed. This is contrary to the early ethos of open participation for all that prevailed up to the mid-to-late 1990s.
Another common trend is for elite groups to set up private, closed email lists, either moderated or with jointly created voluntary rules.
Iversen comments that this follows the well known phenomenon known as the "tragedy of the commons": a useful public area attracts more and more participants, until the space is degraded and it fails to fulfil its original purpose.
This is creating its own set of problems:
"The most chilling danger is that the flight to private mailing lists, moderated newsgroups and closed websites will exclude those not lucky enough to get in on the ground floor.
The Net's public spaces are powerful because they are public, allowing anyone a chance to step up on a soapbox and contribute. But when a forum's best and brightest take their act elsewhere, the original forum's usefulness is greatly diminished."(Iverson, 1999)
Habermas argues that as the public sphere gradually expanded to include more participants, there was a corresponding decline in the quality of discourse (Calhoun, 1993: 3).
Sproull and Kiesler, in the context of their research into businesses, also question whether the increased contribution that lower status individuals have is a good thing.
Higher status groups & reason
This argument has been put forward by many in relation to the ability of various groups to make reasoned decisions, such as women, lower classes, etc.
The assumption that higher-status members are better qualified to make decisions is one rooted in centuries of similar attitudes. These often worked to exclude lower status members of society, such as working class people, women, slaves and non-Caucasians, from taking part.
In a truly circular argument, first certain groups are classified as lower status, then they are assigned a lack of intelligence or ability to contribute, and finally this is used to justify their lower status.
Public sphere as dominating force
Does the public sphere, and the Internet in particular, support dominant forces in society or provide an avenue for societal and political change?
Grab for power
One unappealing but widely held view of the public sphere contends that it has become corrupted by power plays. In this view, competing forces fight for influence and control over communication flows that change behaviour, using both topic selection and actual contributions as weapons (Habermas in Calhoun, 1993: 437).
As I have already discussed, the claims for rational discourse by the 18th century bourgeoisie, using class and gender as exclusion mechanisms, can be seen as a blatant grab for power and influence (McLaughlin, 1993: 606).
While the public sphere defended civil society against excesses of the state, it also helped to maintain a system of domination, by using it to promulgate the views of the dominant classes (male property owners) (Calhoun, 1993: 39).
If one views the struggle for publicity as being equivalent to a struggle for justice, as Benhabib does (Calhoun, 1993: 79), then the question of who has control of the public sphere becomes vitally important.
How many public spheres?
This view of the public sphere minimises the alternative public spheres created by and vigorously supported by other groups in society, such as a working class public sphere.
Working class public sphere
Negt and Kluge posited a working class public sphere to provide a counter-public realm, which would allow working class people to develop awareness and to have a voice, "to avoid being reduced simply to the status of object in the production process".
Trade unions were one of the most important aspects of this counter public sphere (Downing, 1988: 166).
However, for the most part working class views and vehicles have not been integrated into the dominant public sphere (Downing, 1988: 166).
In Habermasís conception of the public sphere, it is operating in favour of Ďthe common goodí. This assumes that:
Subordinate groups must assume the discourse of the dominant group before they can participate in a debate, and this may include disregarding what to them are crucial issues.
This is amplified if there is one comprehensive public sphere.
Many public spheres
Fraser posits the idea that there are many public spheres, all competing for attention and the right to define what is talked about.
Topics that are considered to be of common concern only become so by the process of debate itself, so nothing should be excluded from consideration.
A democratic public sphere means that there must be opportunities for subordinate groups to convince dominant groups that their concerns are legitimate and worthy of debate (Fraser in Calhoun, 1993: 129).
An example of this is the issue of sexual harassment, which was once considered only of interest to some women, but is now firmly in the mainstream public sphere and considered of importance to all.
A socially egalitarian society requires a public sphere that encompasses many different publics, including at least one common public in which participants can negotiate differences about policy that concerns them all (Fraser in Calhoun, 1993: 127).
Expanding points of view
The Internet presents an opportunity to expand the points of view available, and as the demographics of Internet users widens, these points of view have tended to expand.
However, while the range of topics available is wide, there is still a precedence of topics of interest to the dominant forces in Western society.
The Internet holds the promise of a vehicle for dissenting voices, but it is just as difficult to be heard there and to effect significant change on views and actions as it is elsewhere.
Community has traditionally been seen as a collective of kinship, labour and friendship networks which share a common geographic territory, a common history, and a shared value system.
Communities have tended to be homogenous, and rely on the mythic, non-rational aspects of life to constitute their operation.
One of the main benefits of the Internet is the ability to find others with similar interests.
Rheingold comments that while you can't simply pick up a phone and ask to be connected with someone who wants to talk about Islamic art or Californian wine, you can join a newsgroup on any of those topics, and then converse with the people there, either privately or publicly (Rheingold, 1993: 7).
This is probably the most powerful feature of Internet from a social point of view, even more powerful than access to information. It is arguably the basis of most online communities.
Distance and location
Democracy is dependent on citizens' ability to act on the results of their debates and the information they gather.
One problem is that geographic distance means that information is only as useful as the physical location of the participants.
The physical environment shapes the events that have taken place in cyberspace.
For example, a participant who lives in a dictatorship where political dissent is met with execution, torture or imprisonment is much less likely to be successful in implementing the result of a debate about changes to government than someone in a free democracy.
Space separate from place
On the Internet, space is separated from place when people form relationships or communities with people who are physically distant. This means that a physical place can be shaped by influences that originate in distant locations (Dahlgren, 1995:82).
Are communities or debates that are primarily mediated by the Internet equivalent to those that take place in physical space?
Giddens argues that:
For the present, though, a global community (whether through the traditional media or the Internet) is less influential than most people's experience of physical, local community.
As Tomlinson points out, the global is dispersed, and tends to have few effective political, economic, institutional or linguistic factors holding it together (Dahlgren, 1995:89).
Is the Internet a force for change?
The public sphere can function in politics only if citizens can accommodate or generalise their interests together, and to assert these so that "state power is transformed into a fluid medium of society's self-organisation" (Habermas, 1993 in Calhoun, 1993: 431).
There must be a community in which the democratic processes, or the outcomes of the democratic process as decisions occur: this is a prerequisite for democracy.
There must be a community in which the democratic notions can be effected.
Effect in real life
If five strangers meet by chance on a street corner and have a conversation, never to meet again, it does not matter much whether their interaction was conducted democratically.
When a community makes a decision or has a conversation, the type of interaction it has will only matter if the interaction has a resultant effect in real life. There must be shared interests that can be acted on collaboratively.
This is true even if the effect is as apparently small as a feeling.
The outcome of the process and decisions must matter to a particular group of people, or it is meaningless. A democratic public sphere, and a democratic system, cannot exist on the Internet alone.
Requirements for success
In order to achieve outcomes, the following factors are required:
Internet will fail: effects
Traditional mass media like television and newspapers fail to meet these requirements. It is clear that the Internet will similarly fail.
First, everyone who might be affected by a decision does not have access to the Internet, either on a local scale or a national one.
At the least they have differing levels of access (for example, a private connection on a fast computer via permanent high speed broadband connection, versus a one-hour session on a library connection via 56k dial-up modem).
Second, they do not have equal, free interaction on any topic. The issues discussed in the section on access above bear on this.
Internet will succeed: understanding
In its limited fashion, the Internet does allow people who are taking part to share a basis of understanding as common ground from which to mediate consensus.
It allows people to contribute to modifying systems (in the Habermasian sense), using communicative action (Lambert, 1995).
Habermas' theory ties the emergence of the public sphere in bourgeois society to the emergence of the political and economic bourgeois class, leading to the operation of the public sphere as protection of its interests.
Access to information
In an ideal public sphere, citizens must have access to information about the issues before they can contribute to debate.
Rheingold points out that:
Since the Internet began its spread into the general population in 1993, the amount of information available has increased exponentially, including that related to political subjects. (However, it still represents a tiny fraction of human knowledge.)
There are many groups on the Internet who are actively promoting democracy, including groups who:
These types of activities use the capabilities of the Internet to promote democracy in various ways. There is capacity for much more activity of this kind, but much of it is provided by publicly funded groups or volunteers.
This means that their capacity to provide service is limited. For this kind of activity to produce real, lasting effects it requires funding and involvement on a much larger scale. It would require governments to actively seek direct participation from the population, as discussed above.
Role of myth and symbolism
In the present day public sphere that is so strongly dominated by television, the mythical and symbolic aspects that utilise powerful imagery are particularly obvious.
These aspects tap into areas of the human psyche that are not primarily concerned with reason or rationality, but are more to do with primal emotions such as fear, excitement, tribal territorialism, hero worship, and the like.
For example, in a discussion about the TV coverage of the Gulf War, Robins discusses the way that television coverage of the conflict distanced viewers to the real human suffering involved in the "Nintendo-style mode of representation".
The war was presented more like a computer game than a real war, encouraging excitement and voyeurism but not moral consideration or reason.
Robins questions the solely rationalist approach which has informed current ideals of how the public sphere should operate.
Ideal of the rational
The ideal of the rational is a strong force in everyday interactions, both in private and in the public sphere. As Dahlgren points out, the notion of contestability - of claims, of decisions, even of the 'rules of the game' themselves - is immeasurably valuable.
This entails a major shift from the older view that was aligned with a traditional philosophical concept of truth. Meaning is now seen as being constituted by communication, rather than a given (Dahlgren, 1995: 100).
Humans not rational
But Habermas sidesteps the problem that much of human psyche resists rationality. Unconscious drives, desires, fears and conflicts underlie much public communication, although much of it remains unrecognised and inaccessible to conscious, 'rational' examination (Dahlgren, 1995:107).
How rational is much political decision making? In many countries for voters have typically voted for a party based on the party their family and their class voted for. This choice was not made after carefully considering rational arguments for and against each party (Schudson in Calhoun, 1993:155).
For example, rational-critical debate did not play much part in politics in the colonial era, when riots were more common than rational discussion of principles (Schudson in Calhoun, 1993:160).
The central issues of contention in any particular debate can be so divergent and intense that there cannot be agreement. In addition, there can be such as wide gulf between the parties that consensus can only be achieved by suppressing differences (Wilson, 1989: 20).
If we were to hold a television debate between the various stakeholders in the Irish conflict, for example, however much the participants tried to reach rational consensus, it would be extraordinarily difficult to achieve.
Much actual communication is distorted, claims Wilson, in that a speaker tries to manipulate others to sway them to a particular point of view.
But even distorted communication respects the ideal, by giving the appearance of being valid, sincere and morally appropriate. "Public relations handouts, advertising, political policy speeches and the like, use the language of reason even as they abuse it" (Wilson, 1989: 19).
The mythic and rhetorical features in television journalism, political talk and ordinary conversation can be seen as part of an unconscious absent from Habermas' rational ideal.
Dahlgren sees these forces as a site not only for negative forces like fear and conflict, but also as a means for human creativity (Dahlgren, 1995:112).
Unconscious drives, desires, fears and conflicts underlie much public communication, although much of it remains unrecognised and inaccessible to conscious examination.
Emotive, mythic factors should not be excluded from the public sphere and castigated for interfering with its effective functioning.
Instead, we should acknowledge their operation, whether overt or hidden, and concede that the human heart does not shut down during political discussions. We can integrate all aspects of our essence as human beings into our political debate.
Habermas explains that in the coffee house convention, everyone had an equal right to speak, as if they were equals. In England, the coffee house embraced not only the nobility, but "the wider strata of the middle class, including craftsmen and shopkeepers" (Habermas, 1989: 33).
In France, while the aristocracy increased their emphasis on hierarchy in social intercourse, they mingled with the bourgeoisie in the salons.
"In the salons of the fashionable ladies, notables as well as bourgeois, sons of princes and counts associated with sons of watchmakers and shopkeepers. ...Opinion becomes emancipated from the bonds of economic dependence" (Habermas, 1989: 33).
In Germany, the societies that formed the public sphere were open not only to the nobility. "As it is put in one of their founding documents", reports Habermas, "their intent was 'that in such manner an equality and association among persons of unequal social status might be brought about" (Habermas, 1989: 35).
Habermas argues that salons, societies and coffee houses all had certain common features, one of which was to disregard status. The ideal was that attention should be paid to the quality of the argument, not to the status of its proponent.
Were status differences really bracketed in the bourgeois public sphere? Habermas admits that this was only an unrealisable ideal:
"Not that this idea of the public was actually realised in earnest in the coffee houses, the salons and the societies; but as an idea it had become institutionalised and thereby stated as an objective claim" (Habermas, 1989: 35).
The idea of men and women, professors and children acting "as if they were equals" on the Internet is not only unlikely but the ingrained behaviour of these groups tends to disallow it.
These behaviours are so unconscious that people don't even recognise they are doing it.
It is certainly hard to believe that a middle class merchant, however prosperous, would treat an aristocrat as an equal, or vice versa.
Centuries of class and gender conditioning produce certain aspects of behaviour that are most difficult to leave at the coffee house door.
Status through other means
In Usenet groups where the topic is trivial, such as a favourite television program or hobby interest, status is attributed to those who have the most knowledge and the wittiest turn of phrase in the briefest space.
A regular contributor who has shown that they can write tellingly and knowledgably is respected, and their threads are the longest and most avidly read. Status is conferred by the amount of comment a particular posting generates.
A person's email address reveals the country and organisation type of the user, so that while a user can transcend or invent their identity, they must reveal something about themselves. A user with an address ending in 'edu', for example, is very likely to be affiliated with a university in some way.
Many Internet users will use some kind of signifier to indicate their status.
In groups where the topic is more academic, it is usual for participants to signify their status by adding their university, degree and study program.
In this way, participants still confer status on others, either by using signifiers external to the Internet (academic standing, published works etc) or by internal signifiers (worth of contributions, style of expression etc).
Poster argues that "the salient characteristic of Internet community is the diminution of prevailing hierarchies of race, class, age, status and especially gender" (Poster, (1)).
The mere fact that people are communicating via a computer changes many aspects of the mode of communication between them.
Research on computer mediated communication shows that people behave differently when they communicate via computer.
It shows that people who often dominate conversations face to face are less visible in an online situation, while users who would contribute little in a face to face meeting tend to say more in computer mediated communication (Sproull and Kiesler, 1995: 131).
This effect mirrors the way that representative democracy was intended to increase the ability of those of lower status to influence matters of national importance.
Exchanging text online does not substitute for face-to-face meeting, says Poster. It has its own logic, its own ways of forming opinion:
"These attributes will powerfully affect the politics that emerge in our digital era. To understand how our notion of democracy will change - and I believe it will change radically - we need to understand how the Net differs from historical public spheres" (Poster, (1)).
Sproull and Kiesler say that electronic decision making is profoundly affected by the lack of contextual and social cues that normally accompany verbal communication.
The researchers conducted some experiments in which they compared decision making in small groups using computer conferences, email and physical meetings.
They studied 94 groups of subjects in five experiments who were told to reach consensus decisions on several questions.
They found that using a network helped people to talk more frankly (including heated argument).
Also, instead of one or two people dominating as in physical meetings, people had a more equal share of the conversation. Interestingly, they generated more proposals using email than using face to face meetings.
Sproull and Kiesler discovered that electronic communication affects the way participants reacted to the relative status of others in the group, normally a powerful regulator of the way people interact with each other in group situations.
Face to face status
In face to face situations, people tend to defer to higher status members; use more formal language; and tend to agree with their decisions.
Higher status members tend to talk more and take the lead in discussions, influencing the agenda and the decisions reached.
he research confirmed that this situation levelled out using email. Higher status and lower status members had a more equal contribution to make both in terms of the amount of talking they do and their influence on outcomes.
They also express more opinions and ideas, and vent more emotion.
If the results of this research are combined with the fact that most people on the Internet are not normally aware of each others' status, and that certainly there are no visible reminders (such as colour, sex, dress, height, age etc), it means that Internet discussions could result in communication that is both more democratic and open.
Internet is not a community
The Internet is not itself a community; many types of communities exist on computer networks, most of which are nothing more than an extension of the kinds of routine interactions we expect to encounter in capitalism.
On Usenet and the World Wide Web, for example, we encounter thinner and thinner boundaries between personal expression, politics, and advertising.
On the Web, you might click on a word in the middle of an article about progressive politics in Slovenia and find yourself linked to an infoblurb promoting tourism in Eastern Europe. Thus, the Internet reflects the economic and social conditions that underpin it.
While the Internet allows status to diminish as a factor in communication, it does not disappear. In fact, there are attempts to include status signifiers to overcome the lack of overt visual signalling.
The issues surrounding sociological effects are profound, precisely because the Internet does not exist independently of the cultural and political environments in which its users live.
Internet users in society
An Internet user does not become removed from their socio-political underpinnings when they go online.
They are still a person living in a family, a political regime, a society, in an economic situation, a region and so on, interacting with others with different or similar circumstances.
Any examination of the Internetís effects on society must take this into account, or risk a simplistic, naÔve view of its potential, whether positive or negative.