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Weblogs and Democracy


The Internet, Broadcast Media, and Democracy.

In this essay I'm going to talk about three things. The Internet, Broadcast Media, and Democracy.

Since the rise of the web logging phenomenon people have been wondering what it all means for the traditional media. The Internet changes everything; a phrase everyone is sick of hearing. So far the Internet hasn't changed anything... and after ALL that work, people are awfully apathetic about the whole deal. But there is a reason...

Its not the Internet. Its what the Internet enables us to do. And you can't figure out what you can do with something until you've got it. All of the work of the past few years has been dedicated to creating the infrastructure. All of the work for the next few years will involve figuring out how to use it.

In the beginning there was a feudal system. There was totalitarianism. Everything worked according to the notions of a few. Its not as if this was merely a product of human evil. It wasn't possible to have a democracy that scaled beyond a small community. Democracy isn't something that these people even considered with respect to their nations. It was beyond imagination because it was beyond realization. People who don't have cars don't imagine gas stations.

Democracy is a product of the printing press. The printing press created literacy... An infrastructure upon which information could be broadcast to an entire nation and consumed. And far more reliably then via oral tradition. The capability to consume information created a demand for it. The news media filled that demand. The consumption of information created knowledge, and knowledge wants to be used. When situations began to emerge where the perspective of the ruled differed significantly from that of the rulers, the ruled demanded the ability to act upon their knowledge. All of the philosophy, all of the conflict, its all just subtext to what was really going on.

People had found a new capability that allowed them to mature, and that maturity created the capacity for responsibility, and that capacity sought to be filled. When we see progress in society, it is this process of maturity that we see.

But as we stand at the end of industrialism our democracy feels limited. We get to choose political candidates based on very general criteria. Special interests, lobbying groups, large organizations all seem to hold much more sway over the society then we do as individuals, and this fact is widely lamented even by those in power. These groups have the resources to develop a deeper understanding of a issue then we might develop through our consumption of bits and scraps through the broadcast media, and the ability to make far more detailed commentary on an issue then we as individuals can in a voting booth. The broadcast media cannot allow us to dig deeply into an issue as individuals because by their very nature they need to appeal to a wide range of people with a wide range of interests. They are not capable of the sort of personalization we would require. The government cannot allow each of us to offer our detailed analysis of every issue because they cannot process all of this input. They rely on us to construct large organizations to reflect our views when they are important to us.

This system, and everyone knows this, is imperfect. These organizations we build perpetuate and protect themselves. We miss important concerns. We act in a matter which is too obtuse and impersonal. We argue over how many fish to distribute where we ought to be teaching fishing. Political discussions of special interests and campaign finance reform... Voter apathy... Corruption... all small cracks...

Discovering how we will reorganize is not the stage at which we find ourselves. We are not ready for this. I am not ready for this. It may in fact be generations before we get to that stage. We have yet to entirely close the book on totalitarianism yet...

I merely observe a pattern.

We are on a obvious trajectory which involves the creation of information systems which promote social maturity which enable social responsibility which grasps hold of greater freedom.

We have just replaced the broadcast mode of communication which dominated the past few centuries with a many to many media which operates in fundamentally new ways. The infrastructure is here. It demands new kinds of information. Web logs have risen to fill that demand. This information will lead to deeper understanding amongst a broader range of people. This understanding will make us more responsible, and this responsibility will ultimately make us free.

Scientia est Potentia.

But people who do not have cars do not imagine gas stations, and I cannot imagine how this course of events will finally unfold. I can only see a pattern. One which we are repeating. A road we've travelled before.

So let us focus in upon the part of the road we travel upon right now. With the pattern in mind we can gain a clearer understanding of the meaning of current events, and the direction they are likely to take us.

The role of broadcast media in democratic society is as the communications medium through which society happens. The broadcast system sweeps up all of the information which is available, culls out that which is valuable, and presents it to everyone in the society, in a format that is intended for general consumption. The broadcast system is the gateway through which all of the knowledge you have about the world must flow. The broadcast system is the arbiter of truth. And that system is seriously threatened.

If you're not aware of this, you're not paying attention. The intellectual property conflicts in recent years are actually some of the most fundamental parts of our system of organization fighting to understand their role in a world that has been turned upside down. There is more to Napster then a bunch of kids trying to get free music. Napster is an example of a new form of distribution of information, which obviously threatens old forms of distribution of information. The media organizations are that old form. They were created BECAUSE that was the only way to communicate. Now there are other ways to communicate, and those ways may be more efficient.

But web logs are not focused on the distribution of music. They are focused on the distribution of news. And they threaten the existing broadcast system in exactly the same way that Napster threatens the music industry. People seem to be only vaguely aware of this because the web logs do not cut the news media off from their primary revenue stream. There is more to Napster then revenue! The web logs don't copy news because they don't have to. If they had to, then they would. Similarly, if the music industry found a way to provide your music efficiently online in an ad supported manner, then people could link this music instead of copying it... This distinction is a matter of business models and only tangental to the change that is really taking place.

The change that is taking place is that the broadcast media system no longer decides what is important. You can distribute any song on Napster, even if it doesn't have a record contract. You can link to any article in your web log, even if it isn't published in a professional publication. You have access to everything. You decide what you want. You communicate information about what you like to others by sharing your decisions. Other people find out about new things because you've told them to take a look. We work together to figure out what is important.

The people are now the arbiters of the truth. And this is as it should be. The only people who are purely interested in the truth are the citizens at large. They are, therefore, the only people who can be trusted to find it.

This has the following implications:

  1. Ideas no longer have to filter through the media before reaching the masses. The masses can pick an idea up and move it themselves. The media is no longer in a position to censor an important idea by ignoring it, but more significantly, the media is no longer in a position to miss an important idea by failing to understand it. In fact, where as the media previously existed as the arbiter of truth, the primary mode of communication, and a check against other power structures, as we learn how to use the new tools their role will become limited to the finance of high budget content. The rest of their work will become the responsibility of the people at large.
  2. You will be exposed to a broader and more diverse range of ideas and media.
  3. You have access to as much depth as you want. You will be able to read original source material instead of the media's interpretation of that material for the benefit of a general audience. You will be able to hear directly from people who make the news rather then from people who report it.
  4. You will have greater personalization. The news you receive will be highly tuned to your interests.
  5. You will have to think. You will have to make decisions. No longer can you be a passive "consumer" of information. Everyone participates in the process of producing the truth every day. Your recommendations matter. You will need to be able to think critically about the range of ideas that you are exposed to and decide which ones make sense.

It is that last part that will really move us forward. Democracy is built out of engaged individuals who think critically about their society and act upon those thoughts in the voting booth.

As we move from being passive consumers of information to being engaged as a part of the media system, our ability to think critically and make decisions will become more and more finely honed. Alvin Toffler referred to this development as the rise of the prosumer. You will produce and consume at the same time, and it is through this process that you will grow.

As you grow, you will gain a better understanding of the world you are in. This understanding will lead to greater maturity, responsibility, and ultimately, freedom.

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