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Diminishing Hopes?

Doug Schuler

I wish I could say that McChesney's arguments are without merit, that American media faithfully and tirelessly support democratic principles and practices-or, short of that, that things are at least gradually improving. Unfortunately, I must instead admit that McChesney is absolutely right, and here try only to point out a tiny glimmer of hope in the otherwise gloomy picture he presents.

No matter how pivotal it is to the ultimate sustainability of a democratic society, McChesney's message is likely to go unheeded. As George Bernard Shaw noted, "Newspapers can report on a bicycle accident but not on the death of Western civilization." The news media will resist the story for the reason that McChesney reports: they're not particularly interested in providing for legitimate democratic discourse, let alone interested in acknowledging that they are part of the problem. The government, whose primary responsibility ought to be promoting (or preserving) genuine democracy, is doing virtually nothing in the way of reform. Indeed, most of its recent actions (such as the Telecommunications Act of 1996) have made the situation worse, and its Internet policy consists of little more than trumpeting it as an economic engine.

For the past several years I have been involved in efforts to further democracy on the Internet. Despite some admittedly intriguing possibilities and a wave of superficial hyperbole from libertarians and technological utopians, the Internet is profoundly undemocratic in many critical areas. For one thing, virtually none of its millions of users are poor. Thus those with more material resources are given yet another advantage in the economic and political pecking order. Any genuine claim to democracy must begin with access for the poor and to other marginalized groups.

My work has focused on the Internet for several reasons. The first is familiarity: I'm a computer scientist who's used the Internet for years. I witnessed its early development and the rich culture created by its users, and now I am seeing an explosion of commercialism that threatens to overwhelm all other uses. The second reason is that the Internet does have democratic potential: It could be universal and inexpensive; it could support multi-directional conversations between any number of participants; and it could provide access to the political process and to the information that process demands. A third reason is that the Internet is in flux: the technology, applications, and policies are being developed now. The concerns that McChesney and others are raising about democratic uses of the media could not be more timely when thinking about the Internet. As time goes on, the idea of the Internet as a democratic medium may seem like a romantic's idle dream.

Here in Seattle, and all over the world, thousands of people have been developing free public computer systems called "community networks" as one approach to institutionalizing democracy in cyberspace. Although "institutionalization" has ominous and unfashionable connotations, the idea is sound. Democracy in cyberspace is important enough to warrant the development of a coherent model that addresses society's core values in a reliable and sustainable way. Community networks owe a debt to the public library for their basic model of no- or low-cost access, inclusiveness, and free speech. Although computer networks now exist in hundreds of communities throughout the world, the US government has taken very little notice of them. Shouldn't a widespread expression of democracy be encouraged, if not celebrated? Instead, I fear that the government is paralyzed with timidity and is unwilling to brook any competition for the monopolistic model favored by the large corporations.

Why are community networks so important for democracy? To be sure, they are only part of a broad range of media reforms like those advocated by McChesney. But community networks deserve our support. They are not irrelevant or superfluous. In the evolving realm of cyberspace, such networks may be the most viable options for nurturing and sustaining democracy in cyberspace, as they provide not unfettered freedom of speech for the few, but inclusive and free access for entire communities without the usual economic barriers that stifle political expression.

A critical question that rarely gets asked, and even more rarely gets answered, is who-or what-is responsible for ensuring that democracy survives as a vital force. McChesney's suggestion that we should work aggressively for media reform is predicated on a positive answer to the conditional: "If we are serious about democracy . . ." Yet this conditional may be at the heart of the problem. Our society may not be serious enough about democracy to salvage what we have, or to reclaim what we have lost through persistent neglect. The battle for truly democratic media will require courage, creativity, intelligence, and investment of time and money. I'd feel more sanguine about the future of American democracy if I thought that the institutions upon which we rely would provide significant leadership in this struggle.

Originally published in the Summer 1998 issue of Boston Review



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