Challenging the Consensus
June 1, 2001
With Responses From
Jun 1, 2001
9 Min read time
Cyberspace will do more to foster democracy than old media did.
Some years ago, a local bank announced plans to discontinue its "Time and Temperature" service, prompting me to whimsical speculation about how this decision could lead to total anarchy. Without a means of synchronization, our clocks would gain or lose time until we drifted out of sync with each other. Workers would arrive late or leave early; teachers wouldn't know when to end classes; participants in social and professional gatherings would stomp off impatiently when the expected party failed to arrive. Some groups of friends might create their own time zones and ignore everyone else.
Of course, this apocalyptic scenario is unlikely to occur: in practice, we get temporal information from multiple sources. Consistent scheduling is so central to modernity that the breakdown of one such institution would almost certainly give rise to alternative solutions. Citizens would take time into their own hands.
Cass Sustein raises an equally dire scenario. He worries that the narrowing of perspectives brought about the rise of personalized media could generate a Tower of Babel society where we no longer can communicate with each other across our differences. This tendency should worry anyone who cares about democracy. Yet, ultimately, he simplifies a much more complex media environment, exaggerating the degree to which "new media" will displace—rather than operate alongside—old media.
Contemporary media is being shaped by several contradictory and concurrent trends: at the same moment that cyberspace displaces some traditional information and cultural gatekeepers, there is also an unprecedented concentration of power within old media.1 A widening of the discursive environment co-exists with a narrowing of the range of information being transmitted by the most readily available media channels. One side poses the threat of anarchy, the other of totalitarianism. One could argue that the new political culture will reflect the ebb and flow of these two forces.
We can understand the differences between these trends through reference to two significant slogans of the 1960s. The first is Gil Scott Herrin's song, "Will the Revolution Be Televised?" The answer, circa 1968, was clearly no—a narrow pipeline controlled by major media companies was unlikely to transmit ideas that ran counter to dominant institutions and their values. The counterculture communicated primarily through grassroots media—underground newspapers, folk songs, posters, people's radio, and comics. Just as the Net allows individuals to filter out messages they don't want to hear, the networks and newspapers filtered out messages that they didn't want any of us to hear, and the exclusionary practices of these intermediaries fostered the demand for grassroots and participatory media channels.
If, circa 2001, we ask ourselves whether the revolution will be digitized, our answers look very different. The Web's low barriers to entry and many-to-many distribution ensure that we have much greater access to innovative or even revolutionary ideas than ever before. Those silenced by corporate media have been among the first to transform their computer into a printing press. This opportunity has benefited third parties, revolutionaries, reactionaries, and racists alike. It also sparks fear in the hearts of the old intermediaries and their allies. One person's diversity, no doubt, is another person's anarchy.
Now, consider the second slogan, which students in the streets of Chicago chanted at the network news trucks, "The whole world is watching." Whatever the difficulties, if the student protesters got their images and ideas broadcast via ABC, CBS, and NBC, they would reach a significant segment of the population. Network television may be, as George Gilder suggests, a "technology of tyrants,"2 but it was also the technology that enabled Martin Luther King Jr. to transform the hearts and minds of the American public. Is there any place on the Web where the whole world is watching? The Web is a billion people on a billion soapboxes all speaking at once with nobody listening. That's why the dot-coms advertised so heavily on television. We aren't going to see the old intermediaries wither away anytime soon, as long as the networks still command a greater share of our attention and thus remain a more powerful means to deliver commercial messages.
These two media systems—one broadcast and commercial, the other narrowcast and grassroots—will interact in complex ways. New ideas and alternative perspectives are more likely to emerge in the digital environment, but the mainstream media will be monitoring those channels, looking for content to co-opt and circulate. At the same time, the functioning of grassroots media channels will depend on the shared frame of reference created by the traditional intermediaries; much of the most successful "viral" content of the Web has actually commented upon or spoofed content that originated in mainstream media. Broadcasting will provide the common culture, the Web will provide more localized channels for responding to that culture and challenging the "consensus narrative."3 Mainstream culture plays an important role in providing shared fodder for interaction in chat rooms and on discussion lists. Insofar as participating online broadens the range of people with whom we interact on a regular basis, it potentially diversifies our conversations about mass-media content.
Many factors will ensure the continued diversity of digital communications. Sunstein assumes that we join virtual communities primarily on the basis of ideological identifications. Yet, many, if not most, Net discussion groups are not defined along party affiliations but rather around other kinds of shared interests—hobbies or fandoms, for example—which frequently cut across political lines. The fact that you and I both watch "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" may or may not mean that we share the same views on gun control. Many ideological questions may surface in such contexts: aviation buffs debate the naming of an airport after Ronald Reagan, the fans of a particular soap opera debate the moral choices made by a character. Sometimes these exchanges produce flame wars, sometimes mutual understanding. Still, they bring together people who would have had little or no prior contact and thus constitute contexts where more diverse opinions can be heard. We should not underestimate such exchanges by maintaining a crisp separation of political dialogue from other kinds of social interaction.
Sunstein describes communicating groups as if they were hermetically sealed. But, even if we accepted the premise that diversity tends to die out within any given group's exchanges, most people claim membership to more than one identity group. (Joe may be a stamp collector and a free speech advocate and the father of a pre-school age child and a person of mixed race background, etc.) Activist groups actively seek to spread messages beyond the borders of their own community. Sunstein discusses the "White Racial Loyalists" who urge their members to "go to chat rooms and debate and recruit with NEW people, post our URL everywhere, as soon as possible." These bad-will ambassadors will encounter strong opposition to their ideas and increase the diversity of thought on lists where they travel, even if their own goals are to exclude minority perspectives.
All of this is to say that the new digital environment functions as, well, a web. We've all seen remarkable examples of messages that flow from one part of the Web to another, crisscrossing communities. How many Internet users, for example, have gotten that urban legend about the Neiman-Marcus cookie recipe?
I learned first-hand about the political potentials of the new media environment when I testified before the US Senate about youth and media violence following the Columbine shootings. My testimony received no mainstream media coverage, although C-SPAN did air the full hearings. When I got home, I wrote an angry e-mail message about my experiences and sent it to the residents of MIT's Senior House dormitory with a note urging people to cross-post it. Over the next 24 hours, I received hundreds of emails from people who had encountered the message on a wide array of different kinds of discussion lists. I heard from orthodox rabbis and pagans, members of the American Rifle Association and prisoners at Angola, science fiction writers, rock stars, and academics. Many of them asked permission to post the message on their websites or to pass it along to additional groups. Within another day, the messages were coming from international sources and the messages were being picked up by mainstream journalists. The post eventually got reprinted in op-ed sections of major newspapers and in Harper's.4The message's routing cut across traditional ideological and geographical boundaries, reaching people who would agree with each other about very little else other than that Congress was misguided in its current response to popular culture. I only hit the send key once, yet many previously unknown allies took it upon themselves to insure my email's circulation, just as many others hit the delete key or made a conscious decision not to pass it along. Many different individuals mobilized around the message and sent it on to groups to which they belonged.
These experiences suggest a different model for the future workings of democracy—one based on decentralized decision-making, grassroots circulation of information, and temporary and tactical alliances between groups and individuals. Sunstein seems to be drawn toward top-down solutions to problems; he expresses concern that solutions that depend on individual or even volunteer community action can't guarantee outcomes and are therefore unable to respond adequately to the perceived threats to democracy.5 Yet, we are already seeing the emergence of new kinds of grassroots intermediaries—what author and website editor Steven Johnson calls "para-sites." Para-sites pull together information from diverse sources and reframe them for some more narrowly constituted public. Beyond commercial media operators, amateur "bloggers" create sites that consist of links and commentary and are designed to do what Sunstein advocates—ensure a broader circulation of ideas.6 Each of these sites filter or bias the information they provide; few claim to uphold the standards of objective journalism; yet they also cross-pollinate different discursive communities on the Web.
A great deal of important information is likely to fall between the cracks in such a world, and we need to work to create new structures that support diverse views and opinions. Yet, much important, even urgent, information has always fallen through the cracks. Concentrated corporate media has a bad record for ensuring the circulation and visibility of diverse ideas. Maybe it's time to give grassroots media a chance to confront the dual challenges of representing diversity and providing common experiences. On the whole, cyberspace will do more to foster true democracy than the old media did.
1 See Robert W. McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (New York: New Press, 2000).
2 For a view that runs directly counter to Sunstein's, see George Gilder, Telecosm: How Infinite Bandwidth Will Revolutionize Our World (New York: Free Press, 2000).
3 David Thorburn uses the term "consensus narrative" to refer to the political and cultural work of television in "Television Melodrama," in Horace Newcomb, ed., Television: The Critical View (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
4 Henry Jenkins, "Prof. Jenkins Goes to Washington," Harper's, July 1999.
5 Virginia Postrel usefully distinguishes between two contemporary political schools, one that seeks to ensure outcomes and the other that seeks to foster innovation and experimentation outside of top-down structures. See The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress (New York: Touchstone, 1999).
6 For a user overview of the weblog phenomenon, see Heidi Pollock, "Who Let the Blogs Out," Yahoo Internet Life, May 2001
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