Democracy in Cyberspace

Hello World! I’ve decided to start a blog / newsletter thing. I first started blogging in 2008, back before social media ate everything. I haven’t really kept up with these “newsletters” (I share Jon Worth’s scepticism about their closed nature).

Still, if I can get away with calling my new blog a newsletter, then I may as well give it a shot (and, hopefully, if I give people the ability to subscribe by email then that will satisfy anyone who finds my retro website theme unreadable).

One Substack newsletter I do enjoy (and whose approach I may somewhat ape) is The Convivial Society by L. M. Sacasas, which applies the ideas of 20th century theorists – such as Ivan Illich, Jacques Ellul, Hannah Arendt, and Marshall McLuhan – to 21st century technologies.

Sacasas recently published a wonderful post on the development of reality from pre-modern “common sense” via mass media’s “consensus reality” to social media’s “bespoke realities”. His basic hypothesis is that:

“1. Pre-modern information environments were locally shared common worlds mediated chiefly by our embodied experience.

2. Modernity offered instead a de-situated public sphere built on a shared institutional and expert knowledge mediated by print and mass media.

3. What we are now living through is the collapse of the modern arrangement and the emergence of virtually shared common worlds mediated chiefly by digital media.”

After reading David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything, I am more sceptical of social evolutionary views of human history (the two Davids argue persuasively, for example, that homo sapiens in Eurasia during the Upper Paleolithic lived in “a large-scale imagined community spanning continents” – and I also suspect many pre-modern societies had a more magical, cosmic view of reality than the local picture Sacasas seems to suggest). Nevertheless, the notion we are living through the collapse of consensus reality strikes a chord.

The idea that digital technologies are fracturing our collective reality is certainly being taken seriously in the United States. For example, in February 2021, New York Times technology columnist Kevin Roose argued that America is facing a “reality crisis”. He wrote:

“I’ve spent the past several years reporting on our national reality crisis, and I worry that unless the Biden administration treats conspiracy theories and disinformation as the urgent threats they are, our parallel universes will only drift further apart, and the potential for violent unrest and civic dysfunction will only grow.”

Roose spoke with a “number of experts” and asked them what the Biden administration should do to prevent the collapse of consensus reality. The most eye-catching suggestion was the appointment of a “reality czar” (i.e. to merge and centralise already-existing federal taskforces under a single director in order to “coordinate a single, strategic response” to the problem of “misinformation”). This immediately became the only idea most commentators glommed onto from Roose’s article (often framing the suggestion as dystopian, crazy, or both).

However, the “most effective” suggestion from Roose’s experts actually had nothing to do with the appointment of czars of reality (or merging taskforces), but rather argued the Biden administration should focus on “very pragmatic and boring” policies to tackle “institutional systemic racism”, “provide jobs” and improve “access to mental health care and education”:

“Most of the experts agreed that the most effective thing the Biden administration could do to fix our national reality crisis, and possibly even de-radicalize some of those who have been lured into extremist groups and conspiracy theory movements, would be to address the underlying problems that drove them there in the first place.”

This raises the question: is technology really causing the disintegration of consensus reality? Or is it rather that technology is exposing “underlying problems”, including growing inequalities of wealth and opportunity?

In other words: maybe meatspace and cyberspace are aligned after all (as Sadie Plant put it in 1994, Western men are obsessed with “getting out of the meat”), and it’s the connective tissue between communities of different socio-political attitudes and / or socio-economic status that is separating. Perhaps technology is not creating different realities for individuals to inhabit tabula rasa, but rather digitally representing different realities that individuals already inhabit.

Joseph Bernstein, a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News, phrases the fundamental question like this:

“Is social media creating new types of people, or simply revealing long-obscured types of people to a segment of the public unaccustomed to seeing them?”

In September 2021, Bernstein wrote an article in Harper’s Magazine arguing against what he sees as the dominant disinformation narrative of “technological determinism” that ignores the “social, cultural, political, and historical context” that technology is embedded in:

“In the United States, that context includes an idiosyncratic electoral process and a two-party system that has asymmetrically polarized toward a nativist, rhetorically anti-elite right wing. It also includes a libertarian social ethic, a ‘paranoid style,’ an ‘indigenous American berserk,’ a deeply irresponsible national broadcast media, disappearing local news, an entertainment industry that glorifies violence, a bloated military, massive income inequality, a history of brutal and intractable racism that has time and again shattered class consciousness, conspiratorial habits of mind, and themes of world-historical declension and redemption. The specific American situation was creating specific kinds of people long before the advent of tech platforms.”

This is a critical question from a European perspective (i.e. the perspective of this newsletter). Could new communication and media technologies polarise and radicalise European societies until they begin to manifest the same political dysfunction evident in the United States? Or is the European context (by which I mean the EU context, as that is the political project I am most interested in) different enough from the “specific American situation” that those of us living in EU member states don’t need to worry?

Put differently: is democratic dysfunction driven by technological forces or by social forces?

What if it’s both? In 1980, political theorist Langdon Winner published an article titled “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” in the academic journal Daedalus. In it, he set out the common criticism of technological determinism:

“Hence, the stern advice commonly given those who flirt with the notion that technical artifacts have political qualities: What matters is not technology itself, but the social or economic system in which it is embedded. This maxim, which in a number of variations is the central premise of a theory that can be called the social determination of technology, has an obvious wisdom. It serves as a needed corrective to those who focus uncritically on such things as ‘the computer and its social impacts’ but who fail to look behind technical things to notice the social circumstances of their development, deployment, and use. This view provides an antidote to naïve technological determinism – the idea that technology develops as the sole result of an internal dynamic, and then, unmediated by any other influence, molds society to fit its patterns. Those who have not recognized the ways in which technologies are shaped by social and economic forces have not gotten very far.”

However, Winner goes on to highlight the weaknesses of the social determination of technology:

“But the corrective has its own shortcomings; taken literally, it suggests that technical things do not matter at all. Once one has done the detective work necessary to reveal the social origins – power holders behind a particular instance of technological change – one will have explained everything of importance. This conclusion offers comfort to social scientists: it validates what they had always suspected, namely, that there is nothing distinctive about the study of technology in the first place. Hence, they can return to their standard models of social power – those of interest group politics, bureaucratic politics, Marxist models of class struggle, and the like – and have everything they need. The social determination of technology is, in this view, essentially no different from the social determination of, say, welfare policy or taxation.”

Winner, and other scholars such as Sheila Jasanoff, try to find a synthesis between technological and social determinism by proposing “co-production” can take place in a feedback loop between technology and society. Which, in a sense, takes us back into the territory of technological determinism (technology is still part of the motor of progress, albeit now in a dialectic with social forces), but at least this time we might have a chance at influencing the direction of acceleration collectively through democratic control.

This will be the focus of my newsletter. How might digital technologies – such as social media, deep learning, and (more speculatively) synthetic media and extended reality – intersect with politics? Can thinking about how we construct, de-construct, and re-construct realities in cyberspace help us negotiate different realities offline? I hope you’ll join me!


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