Internet, the highest stage of democracy
People used to make fun of Speakers' Corner at Hyde Park in London as a symbol of typically British socially harmless free speech. Today's generalized self-managed speech is universally and immediately circulated. Society is getting tougher, with millions of cameras in the streets, ever more precise surveillance and monitoring, biometric control, automatic identification tools, and private and public police as a fast growing sector, and yet the same society is opening the floodgates to freewheeling speech. In the workplace, in the classroom, in a couple, in a family, between professions, between performers and spectators, between cultures, religions, media, among neighbours, everywhere, everything ought to be discussed and all information to be shared, so that power should constantly flow and never crystallize, so no-one can monopolize it. The 1999 Kosovo war was the first with mass Internaut involvement. Everyone of us becomes a self-appointed reporter : Don't hate the media: Be the media !
Needless to say, we're not nostalgic. The book is not better in itself than the web, nor the paper sold in the street more enlightening than cyber rumour. "The daily press and the telegraph, which in a moment spreads inventions over the whole earth, fabricates more myths (and the bourgeois cattle believe and enlarge upon them) in one day more than could have formerly been done in a century." (Marx to Kugelmann, July 27, 1871) Contemporary media like the Internet or the mobile phone only intensify an evolution that started in the mid-19th century and accelerated in the 20th, but they bring about a major change. The modern citizen always complains that politics is run by them, by leaders elected by a people they don't really represent, and he dreams of a democracy that would be run by us. Thanks to the Internet, the dream comes true, up to a point: democracy is given back to us. Everyone is given and gives the right to speak, every reader becomes an author, a critic and a publisher. In the supermarket too, everyone buys what his money allows him to choose but it would be extremely difficult never to use a supermarket.
Contemporary democracy likes to think of itself not as a set of institutions, but as a network of networks. In fact, these networks only exist because there exist institutions, and the strongest institution of all is the might of the State, which acts as the caretaker and safeguard of all other institutions.
To impose on us what to think, democracy tells us what to think about. When J. Habermas extolled the virtues of the "public sphere" in 1962, he also bemoaned its undermining by commercial mass media. The Frankfurt school philosopher might well be more optimistic today, when universal debate seems to revive the "openness" he favours : a citizen is now a person with access to the press, to the media and to the Internet. Yet this new citizenship amounts to the liberty to voice our views on world affairs, i.e. on what is currently being said on world affairs by the press, the media and on the Internet. The public sphere passes off as a reality that can put a check on State power, but when has it really determined the course of major events ? Giving one's opinion is relevant insomuch as opinions are decisive, but they're not decisive, not much. The liberal conservative Tocqueville was more to the point :
"(..) it is an axiom of political science in the United States that the only way to neutralize the impact of newspapers is to multiply them" (Democracy in America,1835)
Most of all, democracy triumphs by telling uswhere to think. The 1900 paper reader could choose to buy a socialist or a rightwing daily, but he had hardly any influence on the structure and evolution of the press. The organization of the Internet is equally beyond the reach of a website browser or writer : for a start, he was never asked about the birth of the web itself.
True, unlike a radio station or a magazine the content of which is influenced by its owners and editors, and (even more) by the advertisers who finance it, on the Internet, content is decided upon by the Internaut : he is free to create his own site, write more or less what he fancies, visit the sites he likes and get in touch with any e-mailer he chooses. If freedom means the absence of leaders, the Internet can be deemed free. But how does this planetary web exist ? Only because it is paid for by an infinity of buyers and sellers (that's for competition) dominated by a few giant corporations (that's for monopolies). Wikipedia needs Google Inc. and other search engines. The Internet is the vehicle of a democracy funded by big business. Easy immediate access to web information and interchange is only possible because of a cross-border market where such strong corporate and national vested interests are at stake that the average Internaut is left with as much or as little power as when he is shopping in a supermarket. Never before have the circulation of money and the circulation of ideas been so closely linked, the former being the condition of the latter.
Saying the Internet was created by (and would not exist without) millions of Internauts, is as relevant as saying that millions of drivers are responsible for the development of the car industry. Granted, there's a difference: motorists do not manufacture the cars they drive, whereas Internauts are the flesh and blood of the Internet. But that only enables them to voice and hear opinions. Making a principle of maximum information and discussion, is inevitably prioritizing the framework where information circulates and discussion takes place. Of course, everyone wishes the channels of communication to be as much "bottom-up" as possible, but how can they be if the whole life of us communicators is "top- down" organized ? Society is not the addition of millions of publicly shared experiences or views.
"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas": this is as much true as in 1845. The difference is that billions of ideas are now being circulated and (nearly) universally available. But who has the power ? The political system is still tuned to general and presidential elections, and the rest is an accessory to the rhyme. In 1900 or 1950, politics was talked about but not decided on in village hall debates. Neither are decisions made today on the Internet. The spectacle-induced passivity analysed by the S.I. has taken the form of a constant show of activity. We're free, virtually free.