I agree with much that Cass Sunstein has written here. Principally,
I agree that the ability of individuals to choose the media content
they want—and ignore the rest—is a mixed blessing. I also
agree that a public sphere is important to democracy and requires nurturing,
not only by opposing forms of censorship but by supporting affirmative
policies that help establish a public forum.
But I would qualify these agreements in two ways.
First: common experience, a necessary condition of a vital public sphere,
lies not only in the informational content of the mass media but in
the shared experiences of everyday life. Such shared experiences, generally
speaking, have not been diminishing and may even be growing. If I am
right in this, Sunstein's concern is not misplaced but it is exaggerated.
Second: the value of the Internet for democracy will come not so much
in the ways it makes vast amounts of information more widely available,
but by the ways in which it can be used to enhance personal engagement
in one's community.
On the first point: Whether there are, for example, only three television
networks or dozens of cable stations available certainly has an influence
on whether we have sufficient shared experience for a public sphere.
But in the end the influence of mass media is only modest. What people
share they do not share only from the neck up. We can discuss common
problems, including common policy problems, because we all come to them
as human beings who have bodies and feel pleasure, pain, vulnerability
to disease, and fear of death. Most Americans share the English language;
a sense of being American; some hazy notion that we live under a Constitution
and that we have "rights"; Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Fourth of July,
and the weekend; McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and Blockbuster; a familiarity
with baseball diamonds, football fields, and basketball courts; movement
across space on bikes, cars, and, to a lesser extent, planes, trains,
and buses. For an unusually decentralized system of school governance,
we have a surprisingly unified school curriculum and as widely shared
an experience of school attendance as any society on earth. Despite
enduring differences between "men from Mars" and "women from Venus,"
there is more common discourse across gender today than perhaps at any
other time in our past. There may even be more commonality between blacks
and whites—African Americans during World War II were fighting
a two-front war, for victory over the Axis and for rights at home. And
while blacks and whites continue to view race and American society from
different vantages, there was no "double V" campaign in the Gulf War.
The Internet may very well reduce our common media fare, as Sunstein
fears, but even in our mass-mediated era we do not live very much of
our lives through the media. What makes for common experience is common
experience, and there is arguably more of it, for better and for worse,
than there used to be.
Which brings us to the second point: the value of the Internet for
democracy will likely depend on how it serves as an instrument of bodily,
face-to-face communication and not as an alternative to it.
In relatively intimate circles—a corporate headquarters located
in one building, a university department spread across a couple of adjacent
buildings—sending an email is an alternative to walking down the
hall or picking up a phone. If email usage is anything like well-documented
telephone usage (see Claude Fischer, America Calling), the vast
majority of messages are sent to people within a stone's throw. Email
is in many ways a great convenience for local communication, especially
when there is benefit to speed or to sending the same message to more
than one person. People have learned that it has disadvantages as well
as benefits: it puts confidentiality at risk in new ways; it allows
explosions of anger that the greater interactive intimacy of telephone
or face-to-face communication keep under wraps; and it proves most of
the time hopelessly inadequate for the discussion of complex issues
where clear alternative choices shift and emerge as discussion evolves.
One-to-one or one-to-a-few email is a text-based version of telephone
communication. It begins to be something more powerful when organized
into listservs, local or not. But local listservs are especially rich
in democratic possibility. Let me offer one small example that seems
to offer a larger lesson. Early in 1999, Susan Myrland, a computer consultant
in San Diego, organized a listserv for a variety of community organizations
in the region. I was on the list and noticed a great deal of traffic
about community technology centers (CTCs)—the libraries, public
housing projects, churches, boys and girls clubs, and other organizations
that provide the general public, especially the low-income public, access
to and sometimes instruction in computer use. I was involved in a campus
initiative at the University of California–San Diego (UCSD) to
encourage faculty and students to do research on civic and community
life in our own backyard. The community technology centers struck me
as a set of institutions that UCSD could both help and learn from. So
I contacted Myrland and asked whether the people at these different
CTC's knew one another. She said it was very unlikely. I said that UCSD
could provide the coffee and bagels if Susan would organize a meeting.
In September l999, 35 people attended the first meeting, representing
libraries, nonprofits, corporations, school districts, Internet service
providers, city and county government, and other groups. The enthusiasm
of participants was overwhelming. People were eager to share ideas,
eager to meet again. In fact, the group continues to meet to this day.
Now known as the San Diego Community Technology Group, it helped host
the national CTCNet conference in June. It has been a catalyst for a
variety of collaborations: helping one another with community events,
tracking and promoting new community technology initiatives, providing
a central information source for fast distribution of recycled computers,
stimulating donation of computers, reducing duplication of efforts,
and, importantly, reducing the sense of isolation people felt when they
were less aware of related efforts around the county.
None of this would have happened without the original listserv. But
nor would much of it have happened without the pleasure and efficiency
of face-to-face communication.
I am also now a recipient of the e-newsletter of the Democratic Party
of San Diego County. Thanks to that newsletter, I joined the Democratic
Party Club in my area of the county. I have not yet attended a meeting.
Until I do, I am a member only by virtue of reading a newsletter. On
the other hand, the newsletter is the first and only contact the Democratic
Party has made with me in my twenty years here as a registered Democrat.
I expect I will at some point go to a meeting. Only when I do, will
I become vulnerable to greater political involvement. The newsletter
informs me but has none of the power of persuasion of a smile, a handshake,
or a kind word.
Creating a public sphere, as Sunstein argues, is not a matter of government
stepping aside. It is a matter of public investment and a product of
political architecture. It is only modestly a matter of shared, media-derived
information. In the end, whether that information is more or less shared
than it was, say, a century ago, is hard to measure. Surely the Bible
was more widely known then than it is today, perhaps also the Farmer's
Almanac and the Sears Catalog. But it also was much easier
for Democrats to wall themselves off from Republicans, Protestants from
Catholics, and men from women.
Then why does it seem the public sphere has gone awry? Our public discourse
is changing, yes, but I am not persuaded that it is deteriorating.Television
soundbites are shorter but print news stories are longer than thirty
years ago; journalists in both print and TV are visibly more negative
about politicians—to the point of cynicism—but they are
manifestly more critical in ways we should welcome if eternal vigilance
is the price of liberty. Dangers abound, including worship of the market
that the Reagan administration popularized. This is an idolatry that
begs us to think of public life and of the politicians who inhabit it
as beneath contempt. This is debilitating. The Internet is inherently
neither friend nor enemy of such a vision. It is, or can be, a new means
through which people encounter one another in the flesh. •
Michael Schudson is author of The
Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life and professor
of communication at the University of California–San Diego.
Return to the forum on democracy
and the internet, with Cass Sunstein and responses.