Digital Dystopia

Why all the naysaying and doomsday predictions? The digital information revolution has already greatly democratized media and commerce. Why can't it next democratize democracy itself?
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Call me irresponsible -- oh hell, call me a cyber-utopian, throw in celebrant -- but it's undeniably true that I regard the admittedly messy, chaotic, confusing and upsetting digital information revolution as, on balance, a good thing, particularly when it comes to issues of democracy and power. After all, as noted in a recent book on the subject, one result of that revolution has been that "new methods of creating content and new channels to distribute it have become available to everyone and between everyone." As networked technologies proliferate, they rapidly transform "our political, commercial and communications environments" -- including "the very nature of our democracy itself."

Sounds good, don't you think? But two new books about the effects and implications of that ongoing and all-encompassing revolution -- especially with regard to the role of journalistic institutions -- suggest such optimism is increasingly obsolete. Instead, the authors believe, a scary digital dystopia awaits us.

The End of Big, by Internet pioneer Nicco Mele, is about the nature of power in the digital age, and has as its thesis that the radical connectivity of the new information revolution -- "our breathtaking ability to send vast amounts of data instantly, constantly and globally"-- is upsetting traditional big institutions and empowering upstarts. It is "toxic to conventional power structures" such as Big Media, Big Business, Big Government, Big Education, etc, and ipso facto, "the end of big is at hand."

One might think this power shift presents us with what Mele describes as "unprecedented opportunities to reshape our future for the better." But unfortunately, he says, we may rather be "doomed to a future inconsistent with the hard-won democratic values on which our modern society is based... a chaotic, uncontrollable, and potentially even catastrophic future."

Although he concedes that many traditional institutions are flawed and corrupt, and says "they deserve to die," Mele is more concerned about what he calls the "destructive consequences" of radical connectivity, which puts "unprecedented power in the hands of every individual." At first glance this may seem to be "potentially a good thing," but Mele warns, "radical connectivity is altering the exercise of power faster than we can understand it." The consequences are "disruptive, confusing, even dangerous."

Why? "Without realizing it, citizens and elected leaders have abdicated control over our political and economic destinies to a small band of nerds like myself," explains Mele. This "revenge of the nerds" scenario worries him because he fears that technology is outstripping the ability of our institutions to keep pace with it.

The End of Big makes big claims -- sometimes too big. In trying to support an overarching premise, Mele sometimes overreaches; describing what is at stake as "nothing less than the continued progress of the human race" or claiming that the "end of big in business represents one of the greatest hopes for saving our civilization" detracts from his otherwise cogent analysis. Another problem with his "end of big" metaphor is the problem of how to account for the "bigger than big" new tech giants like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple -- which briefly became the world's largest company last year when it passed Exxon in market capitalization until the oil giant regained its premier status a few months ago.

But the biggest flaw in The End of Big may be simply that Mele takes on too much. He offers too many examples from too many sectors, such as Big Media, Big Politics, Big Brands, Big Government, etc. -- many of which have already been considered elsewhere. Mele may have profited instead by biting off far less and chewing more just on technology, education, government and politics, areas where he has ample top-flight, real-world experience and is most insightful. If his book's focus had been narrower -- dare I say smaller? -- he could have drilled deeper as well.

Like Mele, media reformer and scholar Robert W. McChesney fears for the fate of our democracy at the hands of the digital revolution. His new book, Digital Disconnect, also offers some helpful history and a clear, useful analysis, but it too suffers from large claims and sweeping arguments in service of a thesis.

McChesney's concern, per his subtitle, is that "Capitalism is turning the Internet against democracy," and that its "colonization of cyberspace has... made the Internet a disturbingly antidemocratic force." He splits the world of Internet writers into two opposing camps: celebrants and skeptics, bringing to mind earlier divisions between supposed "cyber-utopians" and such self-satisfied "cyber-realists" as Evgeny Morozov and Malcolm Gladwell - who like to deride their opponents as "digital evangelists."

But McChesney finds both camps wanting. Instead, he proposes "to take the best of what each side has to offer and make it part of a far more serious discussion" of democracy and its discontents, which he sees as having been so undermined that "one could logically wish the computer had never been invented."

To McChesney, the celebrants, (which include the likes of Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis and, full disclosure, myself) naively see the Internet as a force for democracy and good worldwide, ending monopolies of information and centralized control over communication." He even quotes from my book Friends, Followers and the Future: "Watch out, Big Media, Big Business, and Big Government - here come our friends, our followers, and out future!" and adds, per Jeff Jarvis, "Resistance is futile."

Other so-called skeptics, including the likes of Jaron Lanier and Eli Pariser, have previously pointed out that technology is as capable of being destructive as it is progressive. Echoing the concerns of Nicco Mele, McChesney approvingly quotes one dystopian thinker, Virginia Eubanks, author of Digital Dead End, as saying "many of us... have engaged in a massive, collective, consensual hallucination about the power of technology" and another, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, as fearing "something very important to being human is being lost."

Both celebrants and skeptics share "a single, deep and often fatal flaw," McChesney believes -- "ignorance about capitalism and how it works." The naive and ignorant celebrants, he says, "often believe digital technology has superpowers over political economy." But anyone who wants "to make big claims about how the digital revolution is fundamentally invigorating democracy...must start from a stronger foundation." His proposed solution? The application of "political economy -- an understanding of capitalism and its relationship to democracy," which McChesney says, "should be the "organizing principle for evaluating the digital revolution."

Like Mele, McChesney spends a good deal of time analyzing the interplay between journalism and democracy. He says that "it is of singular importance in democracies." And like Mele, he worries about the collapse of institutions and the effect on journalism and democracy. But neither is an experienced journalist, and both their analyses suffer from a lack of actual practice in that field.

Mele, for example, extols journalism's "historic role as guardian of the public interest" and says "we need to keep the iron core of journalism vibrant and strong." McChesney, for his part, cites the "glory days of Sixties journalism... the high-water mark for professional journalism" and summarily dismisses most other analyses as "vacuous because of the lack of a political economic critique of journalism."

But both authors fail to offer a truly professional critique of journalism. Each bemoans the passing of the supposed "glory days" of investigative reporting, and is too believing in and reliant on a remembrance of a halcyon era in media and political history that simply never existed. In my experience, which includes several stints as an investigative reporter, such journalistic activity was never popular or much supported by bosses or owners, since it is by definition costly, time-consuming and uncertain in outcome, with no guarantee of success. And even if you do deliver the goods as an investigative journalist, the odds remain high that your reporting will inevitably alienate someone powerful, such as advertisers or the politically well-connected. So no, investigative reporting was never a top priority for journalistic institutions in my experience -- even back in the so-called glory days!

McChesney's book also suffers from a plague of sweeping over-statements. Cavalierly mentioning the "fact" that both the Democratic and Republican parties are "effectively owned by communications corporations" or claiming that "what is emerging veers toward a classic definition of fascism" only undercuts his larger and more salient criticisms.

Still, both Mele and McChesney make valuable points about the need for stronger institutional reactions to our current crisis of media and democracy, and both their books are well worth the read. As McChesney accurately concludes, "the Internet is not the cause of journalism's problems." Like Mele, he believes it is up to us to imagine and build" institutions that will save it. His approach to doing so, however, is to recommend that since journalism is a public good, it receive large public investments in the future -- a view he also espoused in earlier works such as The Death and Life of American Journalism.

But as much as I might favor obtaining more resources for both institutions and journalists themselves (especially his call for "living wages for reporters") I don't see billions of dollars in public subsidies flowing my way any time soon, any more than I do free beer and ice cream....

Instead, I think we must, ironically, look instead to the Internet itself, in all its destabilizing and disruptive glory, to deliver a new and improved journalism. Both Mele and McChesney admit the possibility that, as McChesney puts it, "the Internet could provide the basis for a radically improved democratic journalism." After all, as he also writes, "The Internet is the ultimate public good... and is profoundly disposed toward democracy." Like McChesney, Mele ends on a promising note, saying that although "at first glance, The End of Big does seem dark, maybe even apocalyptic," the future "will belong to those who gaze beyond the chaos of the End of Big, glimpsing one last big that stands unscathed" Big Opportunity."

So why all the naysaying and doomsday predictions? The digital information revolution has already greatly democratized media and commerce. Why can't it next democratize democracy itself?

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