Democracy’s Renaissance Online

Posted on 29th November 2004 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior

The invention of the printing press dramatically enhanced the average human being’s intelligence. Suddenly all the great written works of time were made accessible to any literate person regardless of income. Now the World Wide Web brings us all of this and more almost instantaneously. Instead of having to run to a bookstore or contact some bureaucratic institution for a Government report, they are made available free to the public for download.

IRS Statistics, Commission Reports, and transcripts are just some of the resources now just a few clicks away. The same is true of just about any statistical or scientific research by any organization or thinktank. We all now have the ability to check one another’s references. As a result on the blogs or in their comments sections, the most compelling posts are those that allow their readers to read what the author has read. Yet another dimension of openness is revealed.

Bloggers and Freepers and Watchdogs Oh My!

While one dimension of the Internet’s effect on discourse is the reader’s access to authors, the other is the access of authors to readers. Anyone can start a blog, join a discussion group, or volunteer mouse-clicks for an organization of their choosing. Becoming a voice to hundreds or thousands of readers has never been easier, if you have something to say that people want to read.

This populist medium has led the charge for breaking stories such as the Monika Lewinsky scandal and CBS’ forged documents. It has also propagated fabricated stories such as John Kerry’s alleged affair with an intern and organized readers to skew online polls in favor of their position. Partisan Media Watchdogs simultaneously present valid criticisms of popular media coverage and misrepresent the facts themselves.

All of these things, the good and the bad, are good for Democracy because they force us to become aware.

Karassi and Grandfalloons

In his book “Cat’s Cradle,” author Kurt Vonnegut describes a fictional religion called Bokononism, which describes a theory concerning social relations. In this worldview, there are two types of organizations, granfalloons, which are artificially constructed relationships, such as corporations, and karass, which are naturally occurring gatherings of people who work well together. A karass tends to be much more effective at whatever it sets its mind to, something the Corporate world has begun to explore through social-network mapping.

Democrats, Republicans, and our entire Federal Government are examples of granfalloons. They are bureaucratic bodies that force large groups of people together under one ideological roof. Members of these institutions are forced to either fit or rationalize their beliefs with the uberparadigm of the party. These individuals are like square pegs forced into round holes; their personal needs are lost, along with their identity, in the one-size fits all ideology presented by the party or institution.

There are other types of granfalloons, less obvious institutions that are coalitions of what I consider the “willingly manipulated.” These are people who have fallen prey to demagogues, been sucked into a pundit’s paradigm through emotive appeals and easy scapegoating. These people seldom recognize how these ideologies victimize them or engage in denial over how much the demagogues have influenced their ideas. Some of them, when regurgitating a pundit’s arguments, actually think the thoughts are their own and original.

Maintaining such a mental state requires a great deal of aversion behavior on the part of the victim. When confronted with a book filled with ideas that contradict what they have been told, they don’t open it. When they encounter a contrary voice on the radio or television, they turn the channel. If they do allow these alternative perspectives in, they do not listen to them, but quickly and defensively rationalize them away. A diagram of the book-buying habits of liberals and conservatives starkly illustrates the exclusionary mindsets of our political spectrum (The story complimenting this graphic here).

The most important characteristic of the granfalloons is their artificial nature. Television, radio, and print media are far more natural than Political Parties, but they artificially restrict the scope of the Idea Marketplace to only profitable perspectives, often the most controversial. Without the willingness to provide all ideological products to consumers, a true karass will never emerge from the traditional mediums.

On the Internet there are no limits to the spectrum of ideas. Anyone may throw their voice into the ocean of competing memes with a modicum of effort. We are no longer confined to media and party dictated left/right false dichotomy, but may now peruse a smorgasborg of possibilities. More importantly, through the expansion of blogging, ideas are being forced to confront one another through links and cross-references.

Clusters naturally coalesce out of this chaos of information to form karassi. Blogs link to other blogs, communities are formed, but most mimic the structure of ideas already established. Like-minded clusters of liberals and conservatives still try to maintain the old paradigms; yet, this is slowly changing. Clusters are emerging comprised of eclectic individuals, truth seekers. With discourse no longer confined to sound bytes and one-sided commentaries, substantial exploration of ideological nuances are occurring. People of differing viewpoints have come together in the spirit of debate and respect for opposing ideas.

There are dangers along the way, of which we must make ourselves aware.

Mind-Narrowing

The Internet provides its audience a level of customization yet unrealized in any other form of media. Cell phones, laptops, and other IT-age toys remove us from our immediate surroundings, and prevent us from engaging the reality surrounding us.

If liberals and conservatives do not read each others books, then what about blogs? If democracy harvests the power of disputation, then this power dissolves when followers of ideologies are prevented from challenging their ideas in confrontations with others.

The attitudes of the ideological shelters are magnified, through perpetual reinforcement and the lack of confrontational dynamics to temper them. We say things online we would never say in civil face-to-face discourse.

Xenophobic enclaves of like-minded thinkers emerge. These are ideological support groups, where members gather around and engage in “feel-good” rants that contribute nothing to world-debate. In fact, these individuals are often detrimental to world debate. Online discussion boards are very familiar with the “Troll,” an individual who makes one angry, ranting post irrelevant to the current discussion and then vanishes into thin air without reading any responses.

These are serious problems that can seriously harm the emotional growth and cognitive health of an entire generation of web-surfers, namely my own Generation X, who has born the brunt of this emergent technology. Today’s web-surfers are both the benefactors of the Information Revolution’s flood of information and victims of it’s deluge of disinformation.

Engagement is the key to solving this problem. We must engage those who think differently than us. How we accomplish this is by including the feedback dynamic in our online communities that is currently lacking from so many of them.

The Wonks, the Cranks, and the Lurkers

The Web’s free-for-all style of discourse gives equal share to all opinions regardless of quality; however, it usually completely ignores the overwhelming majority of web-surfers who provide very important feedback in real-life discourse. Think of a dinner-party where two of the participants are engaged in a lively discussion over some topic. The other participants are merely watching, but they are also providing positive and negative reactions to the statements being made with their body language. Also consider the audience of a town hall meeting, who is not participating in the debate, but provides sounds of approval or disapproval.

Internet discussion boards, feedbacks, and comments sections chronicle the discussions of our modern day issues. Many people who post to these forums are taking a very thoughtful approach to persuasion. They come from all sides of the debate and are seriously committed to informing their opponents of the facts, providing sources and demonstrating their knowledge of the issue at hand. These are the Wonks, the persuasive posters.

Often holding equal or greater share of the posting content are individuals oblivious to the debate at hand. These are posters often characterized as conspiracy theorists, one theory to explain everything idealists, or “trolls.” Their posts are often irrelevant to the discussion at hand or they will, through spurious logic, try to bend the debate to their singular paradigm. These are the Cranks, and their instances of persuasiveness are remarkably similar to that of blind squirrels finding acorns.

Wonks and Cranks garner equal time on the Internet, but the Wonks are persuasive and truth seeking, while the Cranks are merely looking for a convenient soapbox. Cranks cannot be persuaded online, because they are not listening, but merely waiting to speak. While Wonks are attempting to articulate a finely nuanced issue into an Ideal Mean, their discourse is derailed by the Cranks, whose ignorance must be addressed lest it go unpunished. This is where the real-world community of the unrepresented silent-majority requires taking into consideration.

For every Wonk or Crank there are five to ten Lurkers. In the real world, they are known as the audience, but online they are absolutely nothing, completely absent from the equation. They read the threads, formulate opinions, and move on without any affect on the debate; yet, they are so important to democratic discourse.

Amazon.com is one of many sites to create a system inclusive to the Lurkers. Products listed on their site are provided with user reviews, users are then allowed to review the reviews with a simple yes/no response to each one’s helpfulness. Such a system of simple feedback gives even the Lurkers a voice, and one they obviously exercise effectively observing Amazon, where the most comprehensive and persuasive reviews take center stage based on overall user responses to them. Users who consistently garner high overall approval ratings are given primary listings in the results.

The World Wide Web is quite egalitarian; however, it must factor in the audience who does not choose to broadcast their opinions for all to criticize–which is most of us. It’s easy to add this majority to the equation with a little bit of extra coding and some columns added to the database.

Adopt this meme my fellow Lurkers, and demand your anonymous voice.

Beyond…

My Generation X grew up in a world of established news networks and raised with a faith in the integrity of the written word, but these are issues easily overcome through adapting our minds to the new environment. These problems with the system are the result of the obsolete nature of the minds inhabiting it.

We are adapting more quickly than my skepticism in the human race allowed. I was amazed at how quickly people became aware of e-mail urban legends and learned to fact-check before forwarding them to others. I don’t get urban legends in my inbox anymore. People are growing more and more skilled at detecting scams. We are checking every single thing that comes out of our politician’s mouths against the more trusted watchdogs. We are confronting one another in debates that I have watched evolve in their sophistication. We, as a species and culture, are growing more aware.

I envy the children born today, who will inherit the healthy skepticism of all the information instantly at their fingertips from those of us who first explored it. They will be so incredibly savvy, so familiar with the technologies being pioneered today that they will inevitably amaze me with skills they take for granted. Once the minds inhabiting the system have fully adapted to it, we will begin to see the real potential of the Internet.

Then I think about their children, and how incomprehensible their accomplishments will seem to me in my rocking chair at the old-folk’s home. They will befuddle me with words and concepts I know nothing about except through their enthusiasm for them. I will nod politely and listen patiently.

I won’t need to tell them about my times, because they are all preserved here, waiting to be discovered again and again.


Note: For a much more sophisticated user-feedback system, explore Slashdot’s complex forum system. This site’s discussion boards allow users to filter the discussions to only those posts with high ratings. Even those who rate are given programmatically-determined ratings based on how many users concur with their opinions and are allowed more rating-power as a result.

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