Monday, March 30, 2009

Participation and democracy

John McIntyre at You Don't Say has begun another fascinating thread, which started in response to a blogger "rejoicing in the death of the newspaper." (McIntyre's second post on the subject is here.) David Eaves essentially makes this case:
  • Participation leads to greater democracy.
  • Old media is not participative, it's presented.
  • New media is participative.
  • Therefore, new media is more supportive of democracy.
  • So, we should be happy that new media is replacing old media.
McIntyre does such a good job of dismantling this argument that I should probably leave it alone, but I won't.

He questions the first point, arguing persuasively that it is "accurate information" that leads to greater democracy. This seems right to me; I've never actually believed that mere participation was sufficient for democracy. I'm not one of those who thinks voting should be mandatory, that the votes of those who vote for the Irish name (or whatever criterion they use) should count as much as those who spend time evaluating candidates and issues (not that there should be a test, just that showing up is as close a proxy for knowledge as we're likely to get).

It's almost too easy to point out that participation as measured by blog comments or Wikipedia is a false democracy, as blather (or, all too often, hate) tends to permeate the "discussion":
Look at the news stories on sites that permit comments — a story followed by, say, 157 comments. After the first dozen, the responses become duplicative. Cranks arrive. If the comments are not mediated, there’s an excellent chance that the “conversation” will sink into vulgar abuse and the racists and anti-Semites will crawl out into the sunlight.
The second point above seems slightly more persuasive in an era of Fox News and other overtly partisan outlets. The profit motive has too often replaced judgment, but, and I think McIntyre would agree with me, the solution is not getting rid of old media, it's raising our expectations of it. He effectively argues that the old system has served us quite well, for the most part:
It has been the task of the newspaper to perform the functions necessary to permit such reflection and choice: investigation and reporting, selection of significant information, verification of its accuracy, and publication in a clear and compact form. And despite the sneers at our outdated 19th-century industrial model, with reporters answering to assigning editors and copy editors independently examining the texts, we can still do the job tolerably well.
I'll add one more thing: the argument laid out by Eaves depends on a hidden assumption, that new media and old media are independent, that one can replace the other with no loss. That is nonsense, if old media disappears, new media will have little raw material with which to work.

[I flipped McIntyre's title, Democracy and Participation. I'll leave it to the reader to determine what percentage of that is homage, what percentage laziness.]

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