From the telegraph to the internet, almost every new communication technology has promised a more democratic society and been heralded as a tool to promote free speech, equality, social justice, and more.

But it never takes long for someone to provide a more sober view of technology’s democratic potential. The “real beneficiaries of the electronic sublime were the …companies that presided over the new technologies,” warned influential journalist and scholar James Carey about the “electronic revolution” of the early 20th century.

At best, such commentaries help motivate constructive changes in how technologies are used throughout society. Two new books look at the political consequences—intended and unintended, positive and negative—of new technologies, and they suggest new ways in which they can be used to empower individuals, build community, and enhance democracy.
University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein’s 2.0 provides a cautionary tale about the homogenizing effects of the Internet. Marrying legal philosophy with social science, Sunstein decries the hyper-customization of the Internet. He defends the importance of shared public culture—which, in the age of the Internet, might be defined as an online commons, open spaces where strangers come as they are, mix and mingle, and perchance exchange differing viewpoints in a civil manner.

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In Digital Citizenship, political scientists Karen Mossberger, Caroline J. Tolbert, and Ramona S. McNeal provide stark empirical data that complement Sunstein’s more philosophical approach. Their dense yet accessible study of survey data highlights major obstacles to creating a true online commons: Rich and poor enjoy very different levels of access to the Internet, creating formidable disparities between information “haves” and “have-nots.”

In an election year defined by activist bloggers, guerilla YouTube videos, and aggressive online fundraising and campaigning, these books shed light on the impending struggle for digital equality and digital inclusion.

Hall of mirrors

The first edition of Sunstein’s was published in 2001 and is now considered a canonical text in Internet studies. Before economic downturn and the tragedy of 9/11 deflated the techno-utopian dreams of the era, suggested that the Internet and other new media could easily lead individuals to cocoon themselves in like-minded groups. He famously predicted that this would accelerate social fragmentation, crowd out dissenting ideas and opinions, and produce more groupthink.

Seven years later, in 2.0, Sunstein has updated his analysis but only slightly tempered his assessment of new media trends. Sunstein continues to warn consumers and citizens against using new communication technologies to insulate themselves from people who are different from them.

For example, in the chapter on blogs—which builds on an extended investigation and assessment in his 2006 book, Infotopia—Sunstein takes on blog enthusiasts like Arianna Huffington and argues that blogs promote uniformity. Citing one study by the Nielsen Corporation and another by a team of academics at Northwestern University, Sunstein shows how like-minded bloggers cross-reference one another to keep readers within the same ideological orbit rather than having them directly engage with ideological opponents, or build bridges with anyone who doesn’t share their assumptions.

Obviously, Sunstein continues to be skeptical of online utopianism. But, apparently responding to some of the criticism received, he has added stories of the positive potential of new media and the Internet. His most generous praise is reserved for a project called the Online Deliberative Poll. Run by Stanford Professor James Fishkin, the poll-cum-social-science experiment brings together randomly selected individuals to debate civic matters in an online setting. Taking advantage of Internet-based technologies, these polls show ideologically diverse folks gaining political knowledge and voting with greater consistency.

With these more hopeful examples, Sunstein tries to respond to critics of his book’s first edition who suggested that he’d prefer to go back to the days when consumers and citizens had access to fewer channels of communication. In 2.0, he does not argue against new communications technology. Instead, he explicitly says that technology must be made democratic and cannot be assumed to be democratic. He now acknowledges that digital technologies present unique challenges to the usual monitoring and enforcement techniques used by media regulators. But as a complement to government regulation, 2.0 suggests a range of ways for industry to regulate itself and for users to work together to create a new, deliberative digital democracy.

The digital fix

The more academic and empirical Digital Citizenship also advocates making online user interactions more democratic. But the authors take Sunstein’s argument one step further and make the case for much more government intervention. To build digital citizenship, Mossberger, Tolbert, and McNeal argue for state-led directives that support education, in combination with universal Internet access. In their view, municipal broadband development plans and federal technology literacy programs point the way forward to a digital democratic future.

To support these policy prescriptions, the authors carefully document the disparities in Internet access among the American population, and they show how these disparities correlate with political and economic inequalities. Using empirical data from several large-scale research efforts, ranging from their own surveys to the United States census to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, they paint a stark picture.

On the positive side, their study associates daily Internet use with economic gains and political participation: increased income, greater political knowledge and interest, and high voter turnout. Unlike Sunstein’s book, though, their study fails to probe the nature or quality of that participation, such as whether it’s marked by more extremist tendencies toward groupthink. Nevertheless, their results clearly support the potential of the Internet to create informed citizens in a democracy.

On the negative side, their study reveals huge inequalities in digital participation. Groups historically affected by social, political, and economic inequalities experience these problems in the online world as well, with African Americans and Latinos suffering the most. Without home Internet access, with low levels of education, and excluded from technology-intensive jobs, individuals young and old are unable to make effective, meaningful use of the Internet, if they are even able to get online at all. (Mossberger, Tolbert, and McNeal find that only 21 percent of African Americans and 18 percent of Latinos use the internet on a daily basis, as opposed to 35 percent of the overall U.S. population.) Meanwhile, it’s the more affluent, whiter groups that go online at home and at work and enjoy the benefits associated with greater Internet use.

In all, both 2.0 and Digital Citizenship constructively point out when and where the Internet fails to meet society’s need for truth, liberty, and equality. New digital technologies do fragment audiences, polarize political differences, and exacerbate social hierarchies and economic disparities. Yet the authors of both books send an equally optimistic message: The online world can be made democratic. With the right mix of policies—both self-enforced and government-directed—going online can lead users to experience diversity, commonality, opportunity, and fulfillment.

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