Week 7 Readings – From Randi

How does the theory of the commons relate to the Internet, community or politics?

The Tragedy of the Commons, by Garrett Hardin, discusses the concept of the commons and basically how it doesn’t really exist.  I found it interesting to note how the United Nations and its decrees were viewed as being beyond criticism, in light of the United States dismissing its relevance very publicly prior to the invasion of Iraq only 40 years after this piece was written.

It is also interesting to note how the piece is very pro-population control.  In the 60s zero growth population was perceived as a way to decrease the increasing pollution of the planet.  Now, 40 years later, the United States and many other industrialized nations are coming to terms with the economic impact of low birth rates, particularly with respect to social programs like Social Security that are funded by succeding generations for the elder ones.  Guess no one ever ran the numbers back in the 60s to see what would happen if the baby boomers didn’t breed at the same rate as their parents did.

In the theory of the commons Garrett questions whether or not the polluting the commons with respect to the propogation of sound waves into the public sphere without their consent is evil.  Of all the various analogies he uses of the concept of the commons, the one about the proliferation of unwanted and unrequested sound waves most closely resembles the landscape of the Internet.  It certainly does not have the same impact as the industrial pollution dumped into a physical commons, but it has an impact nevertheless.  Are internet pop-up ads pollution?  What effect does it have on our psyche?  Are we polluting our cyber environment with all that unwanted noise?

In Netizens: An Anthology, the Net and the future of politics: The Ascendency of the Commons, Michael Hauben writes about the role of the Internet and government. 

I disagree with one of Hauben’s opening sentences: “Today, computer communications networks, such as the Internet, are technical innovations which make moving towards a true participatory democracy more feasible.”  I believe that the Internet in fact proves to be more of a definer between the haves and the have nots.  Not everyone has access to a computer or the Internet.  And until everyone does, stating that the Internet will prove to make a fully participatory democracy more feasible is just ridiculous.  What it will do is alienate and disenfranchise those without a computer or Internet access even more than they already are.

I agree with his assertion that the Internet does allow for more thorough and thoughtful replies that do not depend upon the ability to think rapidly on ones feet.  The e-forum for political discussion also allows for the more introverted voices to be heard – those people whose natural shyness or apprehension of public speaking would prevent them from being heard in a traditional public forum.

I have had some personal interactions with bureaucratic institutions like Veterans Affairs and Social Security in the past and can attest to those interactions going much easier through the use of the Internet.  Many, many hours I spent in waiting rooms trying to get a problem solved that could have been done via the web if the web had existed back then.  I agree that the Internet has a place in government, but traditional forums for communication and dissemination of information need to continue to exist for those members of society who either do not have, or do not choose to use, a computer.

In Hate and Peace in a Connected World, Noriko Hara and Zilia Estrada talk about the role of the Internet in creating and promoting hate, but because that term is so difficult to define empirically they chose to focus on the Internet and its use in grassroots movements (of which, of course, hate groups could be considered a part of). 

They discuss the efforts of Burmese citizens to promote peace throughout that dictatorship and state that the Internet has had a positive influence in their efforts by connecting the activists via e-mail, listservs, and the Web; by promoting awareness of the situation in Burma and successfully soliciting support from international audiences; and, by advocating boycotts of foreign companies that conduct business in Burma.

They then discuss two different politically motivated websites that were both started by small numbers of private citizens: MoveOn.org and Stormfront.  MoveOn’s mission is stated as being “"… to bring ordinary people back into politics … MoveOn is a catalyst for a new kind of grassroots involvement, supporting busy but concerned citizens in finding their political voice. [They have an] international network of more than 2,000,000 online activists …”.  Although it has been in existence since 1998 MoveOn.org gained a great deal of prominence during the US military buildup preceding the invasion of Iraq.  MoveOn made a point of promoting the UN weapons inspections option as an alternative to going to war.

Stormfront is a grassroots movement of a different sort.  It is the first white supremist group on the web.  While Stormfront was the first and only one online in 1995, by 2002 the number of “problematic” sites had risen to 3,000 according to the Simon Weisenthal Center. 

Both MoveOn and Stormfront want to get people motivated to participate in their causes.  To do so they are successful in framing situations so that it causes readers to want to interact with the site by replying to forum and discussion boards to facilitate discussion among the members.  Obviously, they are going to frame the topic of discussion to appeal to their members.  Stormfront is probably not going to be lauding Rosa Parks during her funeral, nor will MoveOn be supporting President Bush’s assertions that he knew nothing about what is being called Plame-Gate.

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