Is it really “democratic”?

The Age of Pericles

Nostalgia for that small town meeting vibe?

One often hears that the Internet is democratic. But what does that mean? That “the people govern” it? That they govern through it? Whether or not they actually do, or whether that is possible, it seems that “democratic” is not the correct term for what I believe is the intended meaning.

I submit that when statements are made that the Internet “democractizes” information, the correct phrase should be that the Internet “communizes” information. On it, anyone can access or disseminate information freely–free of charge–if you will. “Information wants to be free”: it is not that anyone thinks information itself “seeks” liberation; the sense is that the ethical spirit of the unlimited exchange of information is that it may be freely used. That is a collectivization of ownership: the abolition of exclusive individual property in favor of utterly equal disposition of that property. It is not democracy. It is communism.

Democracy, and all modes of governing, have to do with making choices: with making collective choices where there are plural interests to be addressed and a scarcity of resources to be deployed. Governance is judged to be good or bad according to whether it elicits choices that themselves are good, or appropriate to the situation or the polity, or bad.

If my alternative term “communism” sounds radical, I intend it to be. The cessation of individual right to certain property–intellectual property–scares many who would also presumably fear the onset of a communist society. If a class of knowledge-handlers, who identify their status and livelihood with their expertise, was a world-historical force beginning at the dawn of commerce and lasting until the present moment in the persons of lawyers, doctors, professors, policymakers, and financial managers, then their ceding of their knowledge to utter, unlimited public ownership would be a radical step indeed in the march of history.

Of course in reality there is not “free” or universal, exchange of information. (For example, the digital divide makes a mockery of the notion of a true collectivization of knowledge). My point is that where information is infinitely available, its exchange value is effectively zero, whatever its use value, which may vary widely. Middle men who once stood between information producers and consumers must find other livelihoods. The same producers must accept that reaching a million, or billion, audience members, will not earn great returns where the same consumers are now truly full owners with unlimited right to dispose of their property. The technological train has left the commercial station: where a recording, for example, may be exchanged infinitely with little or no cost, its exchange value is, or should be, or will be, zero.

Meanwhile, I’m open to contrary arguments or examples but it is not my impression that the Internet has made us any better at reaching viable collective choices among agonistic sets of interests. Yes, crowdsourcing can work where all are pulling the same way in their basic purpose. Yes, speech of all kinds is important to democracy and the Internet gives many speakers a voice. But democracy, if ever more than a will-o’-the-wisp, has functioned as a complex combination of voting, party activities, and legislatures. If computers or their guiding geniuses can find a way to handle the complex path-dependencies there, iinformation and its manipulation will be put to good use.