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Internet: R.I.P. Democracy?

One of the hats I wear in grassroots organizing work is that of a facilitator. I’ve facilitated a lot of long strategy and planning meetings for different organizations and movement groups. Facilitators have a lot of little tools and tricks to help structure groups’ time together. One such tool/trick is the “parking lot”. Basically, if someone says something that may be worthy of further conversation but is off-topic (i.e. not related to the current agenda item), you write it up on a big sheet of paper that says “PARKING LOT” at the top. The idea is that the group will get to it later, just as a driver eventually comes back to retrieve the car she parked in the lot. However, more often than not, “later” never comes, and the “parked” contribution gets stuffed into a filing cabinet or sent out in an email that no one ever gets around to reading. This is why some of my friends and collaborators with Iraq Veterans Against the War jokingly renamed the parking lot. They call it the “ideas cemetery” — “where ideas go to die.” This snarky name denotes how savvy facilitators can use the “parking lot” to derail contributions that they disagree with or dislike.

The reason this trick often works is because the derailed contributor feels heard. They can even see the idea they contributed written up at the front of the room, on display before everyone. They may not know exactly how, but it seems like there’s a chance that their idea could eventually be considered; that it may have an impact. If the facilitator were instead to openly oppose the idea, they may find themselves in an outright battle. It’s much more effective to create a visible space where the idea can “live” — without using up any oxygen in the real living world. As such, the “parking lot” can function as a virtual space that makes some sucker feel heard.

Perhaps the same is true of the Internet. The above story is my attempt to illustrate what I see as Jodi Dean’s main point in her must-read article Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics. Dean takes technology enthusiasts to task — particularly those who claim that the Internet is furthering meaningful democratic participation in society. She argues that the Internet de-politicizes more than it politicizes.

According to Dean, it behooves us to recognize the “significant disconnect between politics circulating as content and official politics.”

Today, the circulation of content in the dense, intensive networks of global communications relieves top-level actors (corporate, institutional and governmental) from the obligation to respond. Rather than responding to messages sent by activists and critics, they counter with their own contributions to the circulating flow of communications, hoping that sufficient volume (whether in terms of number of contributions or the spectacular nature of a contribution) will give their contributions dominance or stickiness. Instead of engaged debates, instead of contestations employing common terms, points of reference or demarcated frontiers, we confront a multiplication of resistances and assertions so extensive that it hinders the formation of strong counterhegemonies. The proliferation, distribution, acceleration and intensification of communicative access and opportunity, far from enhancing democratic governance or resistance, results in precisely the opposite – the post-political formation of communicative capitalism.

In other words, the room where everything is decided is not the room that you are in. While this was of course true before the age of “communicative capitalism”, back then (not that long ago!) we didn’t suffer from the illusion that we were somehow at the table. It was clearer then that if we were going to get into the room, we were going to have to muster the strength to bust down the damn door.

But it’s great that you care about issues and post about them on Facebook, and that your friends—and only your friends—can see your opinions. Oh, and you have your own blog? That’s very nice…

“More people than ever before can make their opinions known,” Dean continues:

The convenience of the Web… enables millions not simply to access information but also to register their points of view, to agree or disagree, to vote and to send messages. The sheer abundance of messages, then, is offered as an indication of democratic potential…

The fantasy of abundance covers over the way facts and opinions, images and reactions circulate in a massive stream of content, losing their specificity and merging with and into the data flow. Any given message is thus a contribution to this ever-circulating content. My argument is that a constitutive feature of communicative capitalism is precisely this morphing of message into contribution…

Messages are contributions to circulating content – not actions to elicit responses.

And…

One believes that it matters, that it contributes, that it means something.

Just like the person whose contribution is written up on a big sheet of paper, only to be stuffed into a drawer at the end of the day.

Dean backs up her assertions, adds necessary nuance, and makes some fascinating arguments. I’ll be discussing her article more next week. The full article is available here (PDF).

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Communicative Capitalism, Status Update Psychology, and Filter Bubbles « Devoke the Apocalypse.

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