Athene Numphe (athene) wrote,
Athene Numphe
athene

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Lessig and the nature of democracy

I've been reading Lawrence Lessig's book Free Culture and a section from Chapter 2 really popped out at me, especially with this being an election year. It has to do with democracy, what it is in America and how it's changed. More specifically he talks about the idea of public discourse and deliberation and how the blog has revitalized it. Since his book is published under the Creative Commons License, here is the section in the book that I am talking about:

But in the United States, blogs have taken on a very different character. There are some who use the space simply to talk about their private life. But there are many who use the space to engage in public discourse. Discussing matters of public import, criticizing others who are mistaken in their views, criticizing politicians about the decisions they make, offering solutions to problems we all see: blogs create the sense of a virtual public meeting, but one in which we don't all hope to be there at the same time and in which conversations are not necessarily linked. The best of the blog entries are relatively short; they point directly to words used by others, criticizing with or adding to them. They are arguably the most important form of unchoreographed public discourse that we have.

That's a strong statement. Yet it says as much about our democracy as it does about blogs. This is the part of America that is most difficult for those of us who love America to accept: Our democracy has atrophied. Of course we have elections, and most of the time the courts allow those elections to count. A relatively small number of people vote in those elections. The cycle of these elections has become totally professionalized and routinized. Most of us think this is democracy.

But democracy has never just been about elections. Democracy means rule by the people, but rule means something more than mere elections. In our tradition, it also means control through reasoned discourse. This was the idea that captured the imagination of Alexis de Tocqueville, the nineteenth-century French lawyer who wrote the most important account of early “Democracy in America.” It wasn't popular elections that fascinated him—it was the jury, an institution that gave ordinary people the right to choose life or death for other citizens. And most fascinating for him was that the jury didn't just vote about the outcome they would impose. They deliberated. Members argued about the “right” result; they tried to persuade each other of the “right” result, and in criminal cases at least, they had to agree upon a unanimous result for the process to come to an end. [15]

Yet even this institution flags in American life today. And in its place, there is no systematic effort to enable citizen deliberation. Some are pushing to create just such an institution. [16] And in some towns in New England, something close to deliberation remains. But for most of us for most of the time, there is no time or place for “democratic deliberation” to occur.

More bizarrely, there is generally not even permission for it to occur. We, the most powerful democracy in the world, have developed a strong norm against talking about politics. It's fine to talk about politics with people you agree with. But it is rude to argue about politics with people you disagree with. Political discourse becomes isolated, and isolated discourse becomes more extreme. [17] We say what our friends want to hear, and hear very little beyond what our friends say.

Enter the blog. The blog's very architecture solves one part of this problem. People post when they want to post, and people read when they want to read. The most difficult time is synchronous time. Technologies that enable asynchronous communication, such as e-mail, increase the opportunity for communication. Blogs allow for public discourse without the public ever needing to gather in a single public place.

But beyond architecture, blogs also have solved the problem of norms. There's no norm (yet) in blog space not to talk about politics. Indeed, the space is filled with political speech, on both the right and the left. Some of the most popular sites are conservative or libertarian, but there are many of all political stripes. And even blogs that are not political cover political issues when the occasion merits.

The significance of these blogs is tiny now, though not so tiny. The name Howard Dean may well have faded from the 2004 presidential race but for blogs. Yet even if the number of readers is small, the reading is having an effect.

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