The internet is the new “public”

At the Beyond Broadcast conference at Harvard this weekend, my panel’s moderator, Chris Lydon, asked if the internet is the “new public,” and I said yes, absolutely. I assumed he was referring to the word “public” as in the conference theme about “public media,” but apparently this is a loaded concept. It conjures the pejorative “digital divide,” which is referenced by many observers as evidence that the internet is a white, mostly male, gathering place that is shutting the underprivileged, disenfranchised, socioeconomic have-nots out of the conversation that is cyber life.

This is a very touchy, multi-faceted subject that includes disparities between countries as well as subsets of our own culture. New York State Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer told the 2006 Personal Democracy Forum in New York City yesterday that his and other states are falling behind the rest of the world in terms of broadband internet access.

But this isn’t the “divide” to which conference attendees were referring. Andy Carvin is a “digital divide activist” who attended the conference and describes the problem this way:

We digital divide activists have been fighting what’s generally a losing battle as far as policymaking is concerned. Very little attention is ever paid to the digital divide as far as the media is concerned, so there’s little pressure for policymakers to deal with it. As public broadcasters embrace Web 2.0, it makes sense for them to engage the public and policymakers in a frank conversation about the digital divide, media literacy and what it means to be a 21st century citizen. Public broadcasting, at a fundamental level, exists to serve the public interest. Isn’t bridging the digital divide in the public interest?
This is a highly complicated and sensitive minefield that requires thoughtful contemplation, not emotional responses or finger pointing.

There is a remarkable revolution underway that doesn’t get enough respect in this discussion. And it IS a revolution, one that digital divide activists justifiably want everybody to be a part of. That’s all well and good, but interfering with this bottom-up movement is far more dangerous than simply leaving it alone, for the law of unintended consequences awaits those who — regardless of their motives — don’t carefully think through everything. Pleading the cause of the poor and the afflicted is a Godly calling. I believe that, and I’m not trying to discourage those with such intentions. I just want us to look before we lean on old energy and old ways of thinking to get to a righteous end.

Regular readers here will know that I certainly support the notion of a socioeconomic neutral web (I think that’s what it already is), but I think we need to be careful in efforts to “manage” something into the web that doesn’t exist. For if you assume that the web — by nature of its users — is tilted in any way, then you’re setting yourself up for bad strategy in the long run. Moreover, you’re playing right into the hands of the status quo, people who would like nothing more than to “help” the tilting of the web. The Telcos, for example, could easily satisfy the wants of the digital divide activists, but at what price?

We must begin with the assumption that bytes don’t care from whence they come, nor does the structure or nature of the web assume anything other than a level playing field. It is upon that assumption that the Personal Media Revolution is built, and for us to try and turn that into something else — no matter how pure our motives — flies in the face of our belief and support of net neutrality. You cannot be “for” neutrality when it comes to business and “against” neutrality when it comes to society. It’s either neutral or it’s not.

But, Terry, we’re with you on the revolution. We really are. But what’s wrong with working to spread the revolution to underrepresented groups?

Nothing, I suppose, but let’s also consider that the caste system we have in our culture today is there largely due to the failures of our institutions, all of which are self-serving to the max. That we have divided everybody into groups (the vaunted “tapestry” that is replacing the melting pot) is a fundamental necessity of mass market theory and mass marketing practices such as “demographics” and “geo-demographics,” mathematical formulas for segmenting the whole. Everything is a mass or a subset of the mass, and this has gotten us nowhere, because the tapestry is a myth, a necessary illusion to sustain the status quo.

This includes the remnants of social movements. If you’ve ever really looked at movement dynamics, you’ll know that when the energy (discontent) that drives the movement wanes (as it must), the founders will move to institutionalize the concepts and causes that formed the movement in the first place. This produces sad and self-serving reminders but little more. It is the scent of victory that de-energizes social movements, not victory itself. Even the most righteous of causes has to admit that this is true.

But we fight on, because the sense of injustice in some of us is a powerful motivator. And that brings us back to the “digital divide.” I beg you to try and view this with new glasses and not turn to the institutions created by a modernist culture to correct what you view as wrong. For it is against these institutions that technology is energizing an even bigger revolt. Why would we interfere with that?

The open source technology exists right now to provide every social group, church, civic organization or individual in any community in America to create and maintain a blog, and this is where I think “activists” miss the mark. In attempting to influence policy (and pressure public media into the effort), we’re following the top-down roads of the past, instead of turning to the new “top,” which is actually the old bottom. And where does this exist? At the local level. Activists would accomplish more by enabling those they deem as have-nots in one community than by all the lobbying, PR and media coverage that can be gained through conventional means.

A little noise at the bottom — the internet has proven — has a way of being ultimately louder than a lot of noise at the top. This is where we should be concentrating our efforts. Let us not despise the day of small beginnings.

I think media can, should and will play a role in all of this, and I actually believe that for-profit media is more motivated to “bridge the digital divide” than non-profits. Public media — for all its mission statements and altruistic participants — still must appeal to the good intentions of the élite to accomplish anything. Noblesse oblige, nobility obligates, described the role of the French aristocracy. And isn’t the cultural hierarchy precisely what the web challenges anyway?

The for-profit people, however, will always see dollars in adding people to the mix, so let’s encourage that to happen. Hell, let’s encourage everybody to get involved, but let’s not — in our quest to help — interfere with the process that’s already in place (and working, as far as I’m concerned). This is an area where unintended consequences must be considered before we leap too quickly.

BONUS LINK: The intelligent and always curious Jenny (“I’m wearing the red jacket”) Attiyeh of Thoughtcast interviewed several conference participants, including yours truly. My interview includes some comments about the above.

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