Netizens, schmetizens

The Net and the Future of Politics: The Ascendency of the Commons
Group 2

First of all, it should be mentioned that reading Michael Hauben’s article was like reading a history paper. “The Net and the Future of Politics” was published in 1996 and many of the issues brought forth in this article have not unfolded in the dire manner predicted. This was a time when much of the internet infrastructure was evolving away from a model of federal benevolence, including implementation of a larger commercial presence on the web. It was migrating from a traditional scientific and educational resource into the beast we have today; a hydra of interests including businesses, governments and schools. So bear in mind that some of the issues presented here are a bit dated. But on a larger scale the issues and opportunities discussed still have tremendous implications for the internet as we know it, and the internet of tomorrow.

Democracy is by definition a popular form of government. Today, computer communications networks, such as the Internet, are technical innovations which make moving towards a true participatory democracy more feasible.

In 1825 James Mill found democracy to be impossible to maintain. First, he found it impossible for people to assemble to perform the duties of government. Second, Mill argued that an assembled body of differing interests would find it impossible to come to any agreements. In lieu of participatory democracies, republics have arisen as the actual form of government. Mill wrote that representative bodies need to be overseen so as to not abuse its power.

Christopher Lasch argued that any form of democracy requires discourse and debate to function properly. He was critical of modern journalism failing in its role as a public forum to help raise the needed questions of our society. Even the traditional town meeting has its limitations. For example, everyone should be allowed to speak, as long as they share a common interest in the well-being of the whole community.

Hauben argued that the development of the Internet and of Usenet is an investment in a strong force towards making direct democracy a reality. These new technologies present the chance to overcome the obstacles preventing the implementation of direct democracy. Online communication forums also make possible Lasch’s desire to see the discussion necessary to identify today’s fundamental questions.

Hauben wrote that the “Net allows for a meeting which takes place on each person’s own time, rather than all at one time. Usenet newsgroups are discussion forums where questions are raised, and people can leave comments when convenient, rather than at a particular time and at a particular place.” For me, I kept asking the question, if this is an ideal form of government how long would a conversation take? A town meting is over in a few hours. The model that Hauben proposes could take weeks, or even longer. It would take forever for someone to make a point, have people respond to it, then respond to the responses, and so on ad infinitum. I kept thinking it would make Seattle’s model of no decision without consensus look positively lightning quick. Imagine the recent monorail debate framed on Usenet. We would all be dead from old age before a decision was made. Hauben goes on to say, “As a computer discussion forum, individuals can connect from their own computers, or from publicly accessible computers across the nation to participate in a particular debate.” Remember, this entire article was based on a time when internet access was still predominately limited to 33k dial-up modems, and there were not that many people on the net.

“Mill’s second observation was that people would not be able to communicate peacefully after assembling. Online discussions do not have the same characteristics as in-person meetings. As people connect to the discussion forum when they wish, and when they have time, they can be thoughtful in their responses to the discussion.” With this point I do not disagree, but I reiterate that the structure of debate is still limited by the glacial interaction of participants. Hauben goes on to say, “these new communication technologies hold the potential for the implementation of direct democracy in a country as long as the necessary computer and communications infrastructure are installed.” He sees future advancement towards a more responsible government where “Netizens” act as agents of oversight. In his Pollyanic view, these networks can revitalize the concept of a democratic "Town Meeting" via online communication and discussion. It is a Freedman model of leading from the bottom up, rather than the top down. But I maintain that it requires and engaged and highly participative body politic, something that has been elusive in America for, oh, maybe 250 years. Just because the tools are there does not mean they will be used. I find it highly unlikely that any but a small minority of voters would participate in such a discussion, limited by self-interests that would tend to polarize the discussions. But I digress…

The body of Hauben’s epic article (it printed out at 34 single spaced pages) was a synopsis of a prototypical discussion in November 1994 through the Virtual Conference on Universal Service and Open Access to the Telecommunications Network. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) sponsored this e-mail and newsgroup conference and encouraged public access sites to allow broad-based discussion. This “town meeting” took place online with public access mostly being facilitated through 80 public libraries. Hauben believes this two-week public forum demonstrated:

1) Public debate making it possible for previously unheard voices to be part of the discussion
2) A new form of politics involving the people in the real questions  of society
3) The clarification of a public question
4) The testing of new technological means to make more democracy possible.

He pointed out that these open discussions can be powerful. “The forums on "Availability and Affordability" and "Redefining Universal Service and Open Access" demonstrated that the solution of the so-called "free market" is not a correct solution for the problem of spreading network access to all. Usually unheard voices spoke out loud and clear; there is a strong need for government to assure that online access is equally available to urban, rural, disabled or poor citizens and to everyone else. The government must step in to provide Net access in non-profitable situations that the so-called "free market" would not touch.”

A few of the overarching points made during the discussion include:

A. The Importance of the Internet to our Society
New communications technologies make it possible to have one’s voice presented equally. The Internet and Usenet represent important developments in technology which will have a profound effect on human society and intellectual development.

B. Government as Producer and Disseminator of Information
The U.S. government is a major producer of information in American Society. Having handed over the Internet backbone to commercial entities, the U.S. government no longer has the capability of distributing that information without the increased cost of contributing to some companies’ profit margins.

C. Necessary for Knowledge of Why This is All Important
Early in the "redefining universal service" segment of the virtual conference, people started discussing how to determine access rates. Part of the debate taking place publicly was over a difference in views. One  view was that the USA is a democracy where everyone is equal and should receive equal opportunities versus the understanding that the USA is a nation of individuals and access should only be for those who strive for it.

D. What the Internet Can Do for People
Here the group seemed to have a prescient view of blogging and personal web pages. They wrote about how the Internet makes available an alternative to the corporate owned mass media and allows a grass-roots communication from the many to the many. As it has taken a struggle for an individual to be seen as a information provider, it is not immediately obvious to all that it is possible to speak out and have your voice heard by many people. There were a number of posts where participants expressed a desire in keeping the Internet protected from dominance by commercial interests.

E. Efficiency of Email vs Video, etc.
This thread of discussion was all about the use of bandwidth. There were grave concerns over how video files would hog all the pipes for sending e-mail and that text-based communication was far superior. I was fascinated that no one really touched on the idea that the pipe would get fatter in the next decade as technology moved forward. Pretty much everyone missed the mark here. But the notion of inequality to access (a valid point where those without the resources of wealth can’t really afford a fat pipe) raises issues that continue to plague us: Who gets access and at what price? If you are poor, does that mean you are not connected?

F. Libraries as Points of Public Access?
Again, another point that is a bit dated. Because most of the access points for this discussion were in libraries you can see how the participants were predisposed to raise this issue. As I said before, at the time of this article, there was little ubiquity in access to the net for average Americans. The library was the only point of access for most folks. Certainly public libraries remain important resources for those who cannot afford access, but the emphasis in this article is disproportionate in its importance by contemporary standards.

G. Debate Over the "Free Market"
A debate took place over how Internet access could be best deployed throughout society. Some people argued the "market" would provide the best quality service to most people, while others challenged this notion. Many said that it was important for government to play a strong role in making access available universally. Those encouraging a governmental role understood that the "market" would not work towards providing access to those living in areas where access would be harder to provide, or for those with special needs.

H. NTIA Conference as Prototype for Future Democracy
Some participants understood that the conference they were participating in could be seen as a model of citizen participation in government. They considered the future and how these technologies could be used.

I. Importance of Need for Time to Learn at Own Pace
At time of this article a private user of the internet paid dearly by the minute to access the web. For many, this was frustrating as they tried to master a new technology. As a consequence, it was argued that people would be selective in what they attempted to learn, and how much they would participate. The Internet and Usenet had grown to be a cooperative community because there was no price tag on cooperation. Participants argued, as they expressed fear over a commercialized net, that it would be a step backward to have to pay to access these communities. Individuals should be appreciated for their contributions to the Net, not expected to pay.

J. Need for openness because of development via open and free standards.
Remember, at the time of this article, Netscape had yet to go public, Microsoft had only recently embraced the internet, and AOL limited user’s access to their proprietary content. Participants were terrified of the web developing into little islands of information. They were advocating for standards that were eventually adopted. These were the protocols that were developed by many people over the ARPANET and Internet. Because commercial development is usually proprietary and closed they were concerned that the Internet would develop much slower if the pressure towards commercialism was allowed to overwhelm the open and cooperative culture of the Net.

Finally Hauben ended his article with some odd conclusions. He felt that there were several steps that needed to be taken for the online media to function for direct democracy. First, he felt it would be necessary to make access easily available, including establishing permanent public Internet access computer locations throughout the country along with local phone numbers to allow citizens to connect their personal computers to the Net. Secondly, he felt it was wrong to encourage people to participate in online discussions about government policy, and then ask them to pay for that participation. Rather, it would be important to figure out some system of paying people who participate in their government. I am not sure exactly how he thought that should be done.

Drew Keller, Group 2

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