Apr 26, 2010
Both of this weeks readings featured analysis of the Internet’s potential to spread democracy. The article by Zizi Papacharissi discussed how the Internet was a public space, but not necessarily representative or synonymous with the public sphere. For her, the source of the distinction is that the Internet is currently only a space for dialogue, instead of being the impetus for positive democratic change. Papacharissi does feel that the Internet has the ability to facilitate these democratic values. The article by Dahlberg also claims the Internet holds the potential to enhance democracy but that barriers exist which prevent it coming to fruition. Among these barriers are corporate control, restrictions to access, and privatization of interaction.
My initial reaction to this week’s readings was to remember the “Virtual Revolution” documentary, which retraced the Internet’s early days. Back then, the Internet was not yet commercialized and functioned as a miniature public sphere. It was not necessarily representative of the nation as a whole, but very much of a distinct population. As a tool, the Internet fostered dialogue amongst individuals with differing ideals. This inclination towards democratic values seems to be very much in line with Papacharissi’s idea of the Internet serving as a public sphere for this mission. The downfall to the early usage of the Internet was the very thing that both Papacharissi and Dahlberg discuss: commercialization. A wider scale version of the early model is highly problematic because the Internet is ripe with opportunities to make money. Accompanying this practice of corporatization was a necessary decline of the individual power of the Internet user, and a step away from democracy. This is not the say that all commercialization of the Internet is necessarily undemocratic. For example, the Internet is a forum for smaller organizations, whose voices might otherwise be drowned out, to advertise and communicate to large groups of people. My biggest concern is that the nondemocratic aspects of commercialization do and will continue to outweigh the democratic ones. In the spirit of economics, corporations will tend to act in a way that maximizes benefits and minimizes costs. Often those practices are not the most beneficial to society on a case by case basis. The effect of this might be an overshadowing of democratic uses by corporations by less democratic ones in the interest of cost efficiency.
Also addressed by both authors was the limited access to Internet usage. Within this idea there are subcategories such as full access versus limited access versus limitations on access. The lattermost of the three may refer to language or educational barriers that hinder creation of and participation in a new online public sphere. Democracy may never reach its glorious days of ancient Athens because so many inequalities exist that prevent full participation by citizens. However, perhaps the spirit of democracy, albeit not perfect, which is embedded in our constitution and political system may approach an admirable level. What the Internet’s part in the future is may be highly debated, but it is certainly conceivable that it can become an unrivaled equalizing force.