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Shaking Hands
A response toThe Daily We

Michael Schudson

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.

Originally published in the Summer 2001 issue of Boston Review



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