DigitalDemocracy2_700

Drowning in Digital Democracy: Part I

By J.C. Caruso

It’s become commonplace, and maybe even a little passé, to describe our own ongoing digital revolution as analogous the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century.  Indeed, some points of comparison do continue to seem remarkably apt.  For example, the role of printed documents in spreading new ideas during the Reformation looks a lot like activists using Facebook and Twitter to share news and schedule protests during the Arab Spring.  Both show how technology can be a powerful force for democratization.  (Apologies if I’m stepping on any toes by seeming to valorize the Reformation as a positively democratic movement on the blog of a Catholic university, but you know what I mean.)

However, critics like Adam Gopnik in his New Yorker piece “The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us” (Feb. 14, 2011) have been quick to point out that overly enthusiastic interpretations of such revolutionary possibilities not only tend to confuse correlation with causation – that is, did the printing press give rise to the Reformation and the Enlightenment, or did it just help spread the word?  The truth probably rests somewhere in between cause and coincidence, but we should be careful not to ignore the distinction.

Similarly, technology’s vocal cheerleaders seem all too ready to ignore the potential negative aspects of such improved communication technologies – like the inconvenient historical fact that totalitarian regimes have typically printed far more works of propaganda than they’ve destroyed in book burnings.  Dictators figured out quickly that it’s far easier to drown out the voices of opposition than silence them.  Pervasive misinformation can do far more damage than tearing down handbills.

Now, I’m not suggesting that our globalized digital community is a totalitarian regime.  At least on the surface it feels like just the opposite, though Jaron Lanier expresses some dire warnings about what he calls “cybernetic totalism” in his “One-Half of a Manifesto.”  I’ll plan to address Lanier’s thoughts more fully in a future post.  For now, it’s enough to observe that in this brave new world of online culture we’ve adapted to communication being instantaneous, everything being available all the time, and everyone having a voice.  Well, in such an environment, succumbing to the endless seas of unmediated information (and misinformation), the rule of the mob begins to feel like a real possibility.

We’re drowning in digital democracy.

Forgive me if I sound less than perfectly egalitarian here, but when everyone not only has a voice but has the ability to speak in a polyphony of voices masked in anonymity, we’re no longer looking at a lively exchange of ideas.  We’re looking at the well-known horrors of mob rule, and it doesn’t make the stakes any lower or the threats any less real that it’s happening online.

Even in the best of scenarios, when everyone has a voice the quality of the conversation can plummet very quickly.  I’m not talking about those annoying people who use their social media to tell everyone from Boise to Bangladesh that they’re making a batch of chocolate chip cookies.  Those folks are easy enough to avoid and to ignore.

No, my concern is that too many of our students and friends and journalists and politicians and, hell, all of us are relying on Wikipedia and Google.  Not only are we trusting crowd-sourced encyclopedias written by people who may have little or no education or expertise (and some of whom are hoaxers or pranksters), but we’re relying on logarithmically-driven and advertisement-enhanced search engines to provide most (or all) of our information, without pausing to question or to ascertain the authority of what we’re reading.

Not only that, but because of such ready access to information we’re hearing people who are smart enough to know better trumpeting the end of all cultural and social authority.  “The expert is dead,” such digerati claim.  And indeed throughout much of our irreverent, anything-goes society, many people do seem to be acting as if at last the king is dead.

But is it really true that we no longer have any need for cultural, political, and intellectual authority?

No, in fact just the opposite is true.  Greater freedom brings with it greater responsibility.  We now need experts in every field to exert their authority more powerfully than ever.  Reason must lead.  Functional democracies (even digital ones) still need organization and leaders.  Otherwise we’re left with the chaos of a shouting match.

Having a voice is not the same as knowing how to participate a conversation.  Access to information is not the same thing as knowing how to use it.  We didn’t close up schools because every home had a set of encyclopedias.  We didn’t tear down universities because people had access to public libraries.

All those online sources might be fine places to start looking for information, but we need to be constantly vigilant about verifying what we’re accepting as valid and credible.  We also need to get better about documenting and providing links to our sources (as you’ll notice I’m trying to do in these posts).

And finally, we need to make sure we remain very clear about the vital differences between having ready access to information and gaining an education.  Now more than ever, our students need us to teach them how to read, how to research, how to analyze information, and how to participate responsibly in this emerging digital democracy.

Of course, if the Digital Revolution truly lives up to its name, its effects will be further reaching and less predictable than any of us can imagine.  That’s the problem with revolutions – they change everything.

Stay tuned next week for the second part in this mini-series by John Caruso.

 A 19th-century Americanist and textual scholar, John Caruso teaches at Marylhurst University in both the Department of English Literature & Writing and the Department of Culture & Media.