Bloggers at the Gate
The Internet hasn’t perfected democracy. But it might.
It certainly isn’t a given that our political system then will be so much better off and more inclusive then than it is now. Technology by itself isn’t an instrument of political change; the Internet is no more going to automatically deliver us a more perfect union than cable television did, with its corrosive culture of 10-second sound bites and meaningless, cotton-headed debate. It’s up to us to realize the potential of Web-based politics–by making government more transparent and online-accessible, by giving voters the kind of political dialogue that does more than depress them. Most critically, there can be no digital democracy as long as whole swaths of the country–rural and urban, white and nonwhite–lack access to broadband technology. (According to the latest figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperations and Development, about 25 percent of Americans have broadband now, placing us behind 14 other countries globally.) While the recent stimulus package (at press time, the details were being debated in Congress) set aside billions of dollars to increase this number, the nation still has no concrete, overarching plan to ensure that lower-income Americans in both urban and rural areas aren’t left on the other side of what Bill Clinton called his “bridge to the 21st century.” Until then, any talk of the Internet as having created a more inclusive, more bottom-up kind of American politics will be illusory and premature.
Still, we’re a long way from being able to declare digital democracy a shibboleth. The idea that the Web has ultimately fallen short of its potential is a conclusion we might justifiably reach in 2018, when the New York Times has become a blog called FitToWhine.com and my friend Gina Cooper is a powerhouse lobbyist for ExxonMobil. To measure the impact of the Web on politics circa 2007, though, as professor Hindman has admirably done, is a little like having tried to account for the impact of television in 1960. (Imagine having written “The Myth of Broadcast Democracy.”) It’s worth doing, but one can hardly render a final verdict. Digital democracy isn’t necessarily a myth. It’s just not yet a reality, and those are two different things.
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