Digital democracy, Plato, and web 2.0

Far from being the natural and easy remedy to the evil of bureaucratic delegation, digital democracy risks becoming its inconvenient appendix - a deceitful form of participation, which can turn out to be the very contrary of productive dialogue.
Giorgio Fontana
9 June 2011

The triviality of democracy

In his classic study Democracy Ancient and Modern (1973), Moses Finley traced an essential - and not merely formal - distinction between the Athenian democratic experience and the contemporary, representative one. In the 5th-4th centuries BC, the Athenians developed a direct form of government, where the citizens (as part of a narrow élite from which slaves and women were excluded), could participate in person at the ruling Assembly.

Bureaucracy did not exist. Anyone could speak and the decision was elaborated by pure majority voting: and the main point is that anyone was more or less used to handling public affairs with competence  - thus his contribution was effective. On the whole, it was a radically different system, if compared to modern democracies.

If that sounds trivial to you, no problem at all: in fact, the idea of democracy has actually become trivial. From the French revolution onwards, the adjective ‘democratic’ turns out for the first time to be a synonym for something positive: and so it will remain. Thanks to this new value connected to the word itself, the idea of democracy tends to sound unqualifiedly good to us in any form. But this is not a natural connection. It's a historical one.

Digital democracy, the last incarnation of the ideal, now suffers the same fate. It is considered by many the ultimate remedy to the problems of representative democracy: it carries the chance of mass education and mass participation, the exclusion of bureaucratic filters, the fluidity of on-line discussion, and of course the availability of any information.

But, the question on the table is — can we really build a 2.0 Athenian democracy?


Into the nettle field

On a basic, practical level, the main element of digital democracy should be the free sharing of information, and most of all the possibility to discuss it in a constructive way. Shifting from the 1.0 content production to the 2.0 one, the user becomes not only author but also (and that sounds much more important) an opinion-former and a promoter of discussions. He becomes active - free, some enthusiasts would say. Leaving aside some technological problems, including the digital divide, which  prevents web access from being a level playing field -  I want to focus on the social aspect of this practice.

The revolution of commenting on-line has surely been a key one. But anyone who has frequented these corners of discussion for any length of time will surely have experienced that sensation that you have tumbled into a nettle field of gratuitous insults, chaotic adding of contents, and even never-ending duels: you said that, no, you said this, no, you're a prick! Etc. Netiquette is often forgotten. I wonder why?

Suspecting this might just be my impression, I started studying individual comments more deeply in order to elaborate not a phenomenology but something even more interesting. Of course, I limited myself to general blogs and I did research more on Italian ones (being Italian): I invite you to continue this experiment with other websites and forums and social networks.

Now, I came to the conclusion that discussion, as I suspected, only too often degenerates into ad personam accusations. Quite great is also the number of anonymous people leaving useless or misleading content (and to ignore this, we nevertheless have to read it first, or at least notice it!). On-line comments are in general more violent than face-to-face ones  - which is odd, as there should be much more time to mediate one’s self-expression(you think, you write, you push ‘send’...). Moreover, sometimes you can detect what I can only call a general lack of argumentative logic and a lot of incoherent blah blah blah.


The spectacular form of discourse

Any form of discussion implies a social contract. In short here some basic norms that, if breached, lead to the very opposite of the ideal at stake (cooperation in order to access truth, or mutual profit) emerge. On-line debate seems to suffer similar problems to TV debates — and I think that this hides some common roots, which we might want to associate with the ‘spectacularization of discourse’ in Guy Debord's terms.

When a discussion becomes spectacle, there arises this dreadful tendency by which everything superfluous swamps what is important. But more than that -  it is as if the written debate has a sheer peculiarity: because it is accessible to anyone (and on-line anyone can make himself a spectacle, in a Warhol-like more-than-15-minutes-of-fame), and because it hides a dark side.


Plato reloaded

In two classical topics of Plato's work (the Phaedrus and the 7th Letter), the philosopher seems to devalue written text, describing it as deceptive and incapable of transmitting truth. Admittedly, Plato does not consider dialogue as an absolute alternative but just as a relative one: because it is the soul (and not orality) that contains truth. Nevertheless, the practice of dialogue is better than texts, because it is fluid and does not give the illusion of a fixed, ready-made truth.

Certainly Plato was not a democratic thinker. On the contrary: his political system is widely known as founded on a rigid distinction between classes, and on the idea that complete public access to government would be disastrous. Still, his mistrust towards writing seems to sail through the centuries in all its political forms.

Think of it. Writing has done terribly well for millennia – in the spreading, dissemination and defence of knowledge, but it has never been used as a form of conversation in a narrow sense.

Until now. Just in the last few years, this opportunity has arisen.

But Athenian democracy did not use textual communications. There were no documents to hide or to reveal. A Wikileaks case would have been unthinkable: transparency was a natural phenomenon, because it came from direct speech: that is why Plato - an antidemocratic man, and deeply aware of the crisis that his times were suffering - privileged dialogue even in its written form.

What if he was right? What if writing is not suitable for any kind of dialectical exchange? What if spectacularized, purely textual and not face-to-face discussion leads us precisely nowhere except to the illusion that we are really discussing?

It's pretty hard to provide an ultimate answer to this question. But it is at least possible that the great switch from orality to literacy, designed to steal wisdom from a class of people (gurus, sorcerers, and priests) in order to make it available for, virtually, anyone – has finally reached its limit form. The intention was profoundly democratic - knowledge was no more in the hands of those who store it in their memories: that was, and is, the power of writing and reading. But now, in the last ten years, we have witnessed a silent revolution, and still no one has devoted a study to this: with the web 2.0, we discuss through writing with other people: we recreate the atmosphere of a living social exchange, despite the fact that writing as a device was not at all conceived for this.

So the question may be unpacked again this way: is the passage from face-to-face dialogue (the basis of actual direct democracy) to online, written dialogue (the alleged form of digital direct democracy) one to welcome without any reservations?


There's no peace and quiet out there

In my opinion, web 2.0 and digital democracy are sons of a transitional generation. Putting the thing in perspective and steering clear of the more fanatical enthusiasts for social networking, I think that the success of this way of thinking is due to the fact that its adepts and content producers have been trained in a classical, 1.0 manner.

They have studied when attention was directed just to one thing, multitasking did not exist, and the binomial reading-writing did not include the use of both of them to discuss. Was it better? Well, honestly (and being 30 I am certainly not dead yet) I think it was.

I think, moreover, that the digital natives' generation has some problems relating to information of any depth. If we take at face value some influential articles (like The Future of Reading by Motoko Rich or Is Google Making Us Stupid? by Nicholas Carr), we should acknowledge that the problem of online reading – and then of online understanding – is a subject that should not be confined to tech blogs.

While you're reading this article, for example, you have probably your email account open, your Facebook or Twitter page on another tab, and maybe something else. So you flip here and there – alt+tab, alt+tab – skimming fragments. In his seminal study How Little Do Users Read?, Jakob Nielsen showed a worrying result: users read just 20-28% of any website page. Wandering is the norm.

This does not just mean that multitasking has become a reality: it suggests that you are more or less unable to stare at this page. The call of other sirens is an unavoidable spell.

Could people really deepen their encounter with a subject in such an hyper-scrappy world? Could they really create a dialogue, as real as the normal, face-to-face, one? It is, at least, unproven. Maybe people will develop a different relationship to written texts. Maybe they already have. But it is hard to imagine that you could build a thorough-going democratic dialogue in this way: dealing with 400-600 comments per post (some blogs of politics have even greater quantities) you cannot read the entirety. All you can do at best is to simply throw your opinion into the ring, and maybe answer or criticize a couple of other users, and that's it. A big part of your brain is busy with selecting or fending off other information: silence, the basic precondition for reflection and rational decision-making, is quite absent here. You have to switch off, but also to switch off is – as we experience day by day – harder and harder.


Our trial, our apologia

Jaron Lanier states in his manifesto (You are not a gadget): "You have to be somebody before you can share yourself". And behind this fascinating aphorism, there is a simple truth - the crisis of our concept of identity and the immersion in an infosphere which seems harder and harder to control.

Thus: in some ways, digital democracy may be a part of post-democracy (to use Colin Crouch's term). Far from being the natural and easy remedy to the evil of bureaucratic delegation, it risks becoming its inconvenient appendix - a deceitful form of participation, which can turn out to be the very contrary of productive dialogue.

Still, as I have said, digital democracy is indeed an extraordinary revolution. And it has allowed giant steps in terms of diffusion of free speech. And once having entered its tunnel, I do not really know what to propose as an alternative - but the endless search for awareness.

In short, after having tried to unravel the puzzle, I can just offer it to the reader. Does he feel more or less enriched after an on-line discussion? Does she think that this is an effective contribution to her personality or to that of others? Or often is it all just ‘cool’?

I reckon an answer to these perhaps banal or everyday questions might influence the future of western democracy. After all, it was Athenian democracy in its twilight which put Socrates to death. Will we be able to avoid executing Socrates all over again?

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