Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Future Is Now...

As instructed by Dr. Parry, I will endeavour to make this post as 'opinion-free' as possible, but it feels rather an odd limitation to put on a blog which is, by it's very nature, a format centered around one's opinion. It would be a reasonable assumption to write, say, a research paper in as neutral a manner as possible, but the very point of a blog is to espouse one's personal views on the subject matter at hand and so it is fairly at odds with that remit. I'll do my best, however.

In reading the three articles assigned for this week (The Public Sphere by Jurgen Habermas, Cyberdemocracy by Mark Poster and Habermas' Heritage by Pieter Boeder) we get a snapshot of a growing concern with the effect of technology upon the 'Public Sphere,' the conceptual foundation of people interacting and exchanging views and ideas as the basis of democratic principles (or more specifically liberal/progressive social welfare mass state democratic principles). Each piece is informed by the technology of the era in which it was written (1964, 1997 and 2002, respectively) but in each case, even the most modern of these seems very outdated as technology is increasing at such a rapid pace that many of the ideas presented about the deconstruction of the 'public sphere' in favor of 'public opinion' and the loss of democractic virtues through commercialization have either not come to pass, or have come to pass, but not in the way the authours envisioned.

Habermas' fear of corporatism turning democracies back into feudal states, where the corporation, whether newspaper, radio or television, controls and dispenses the information as needed to control its subjects while still appearing to provide open information exchange, has been somewhat dulled by the very nature of competition in capitalistic environments. In 1964, there were few stations on the air and Intelstat I, the first commercial communication satellite, had yet to be launched. Today, there are a massive number of channels and communication services available that allow you to see news from around the world, access information from data repositories on every continent and talk in real-time to people on the other side of the world. The ability for people to gather information and compare it with other sources to get a clearer picture of what is actually going on has never been easier and the ability to control information and prevent its dissemination is practically impossible as Wikileaks and the informaiton coming out of Egypt and Libya this year have shown.

If you hate Fox News and think they are the essence of evil mindlessly arrayed against everything good and true and never tell the truth and kill small puppies and feed them to crying children that Rupert Murdoch made cry because he feeds of the pain of innocents, then you have a plethora of other major world news sources to get your information from. If, on the other hand, you think that they are simply another news agency amongst a score of others and that they bring up some good points that are missed by other networks, then you might watch them right alongside BBC News. The number of choices available provide such a massive impediment to even modest control of any message that Habermas might have been pleasantly surprised.

In much the same way, the idea that the internet will turn people from true political activity to 'feel good' political activity that makes them feel involved without actually making any real difference has been contradicted in the last few years by the rise of grass-roots organizations with no firm leadership but a single unifying purpose. The Tea Party, for example, have changed the dynamics of US politics despite disinformation campaigns, attempts to paint them as 'fringe' or unimportant, and a quite panoptic campaign of spies and plants within their ranks to pick out, or in some cases fabricate, any little thing to discredit them as a democratic group. They are the perfect example of Poster's Cyberdemocracy in action: a virtual community that constructs an identity (a minor one that ignores sex and race) for its members based upon the back and forth exchange of ideas and are not controlled directly by any one identifiable leader or entity. They are a decentralized democratic gestalt whose existence is only possible due to the presence of cyberspace.

If anything, the new media has opened up areas of arcane political and economic thought to the common man as people of all walks of life are able to communicate complex ideas back and forth to each other. No single person could have read the 2500+ page healthcare bill and understood it, but many did take the time to read portions of it and explain them to those who had neither the time nor the byzantine political and legal knowledge to decipher it. And you can be sure that whatever side is trying to get the bill passed, the other side will have someone dogging their every footstep and reporting them online. Never before have the voters had so much access and inside knowledge on how our government works and with this knowledge comes the power to make informed decisions and punish those who abuse the system.

This is all happening today, but even these events are simply the seeds of potential for a true democracy that is enhanced, not inhibited, by the technological evolution that the human race is only on the cusp of. In fact, I think I'll write my final paper on how technologies just around the corner could create a sustainable world governing body that would be effective without interfering in the personal lives, cultures and beliefs of its constituent members. That sounds like an interesting paper...

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