Reviewing where we stand – leading up to a senior thesis

Over the last few years there has been a significant body of literature written concerning the role that technology plays in supplementing the existing framework of political participation in the United States. In addition, there has been a tremendous amount of literature by leading figures in the technology community. Many of these writings address the potential that the expanding avenues of web communication have to create and expand communities.

These discussions have largely remained separate from one another. The political writers consider modern technology as an addition to the system while the technologists conceive of it as a paradigm shift that holds the potential to drastically alter the ways in which humans organize and communicate with one another. What has not yet explicitly been done is an attempt to bridge these two discussions and bring greater context to each.

These bodies of literature provide the background for an investigation of the extent to which the greater accessibility of web communication technologies like Twitter, WordPress, and RSS create a radically different definition of political participation and participants in the politics of the United States.

The political basis of this research will investigate various texts concerning political participation in order to create a unified definition of participation and participants. Texts such as Benjamin Barber’s Strong Democracy and Diana Saco’s Cybering Democracy will be central to this portion of the research.

Each of these texts address the role and definition of participatory politics. They focus upon the individual interactions that provide the basis of political society. Barber centers his writing around the way private and public interests come into play through political interactions while Saco uses the new social spaces created by the internet as a means to investigate the ramifications for democracy.

The role of space and social interaction is central to both texts. Barber views the physical location of a citizen as an inherent part of strong democracy. ((Barber, Benjamin R. Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 267)) This physical proximity to other citizens allows for the types of meaningful conversations that he outlines earlier in the book to occur. For Barber strong democracy is, in part, defined by the ability to take private interests and reformulate them as movements for a more communal goal. ((Barber, 119.))

In a similar vein, Saco’s Cybering Democracy investigates the role of the internet in politics through the lense of physical and socially constructed space. Saco relates the difficulties that faced the Founding Fathers to a similar challenge that is facing modern American politics. This problem is one of scale and specifically how to bring worthwhile and meaningful interaction to a geographically and culturally diverse set of citizens. The internet provides a new construction of social space and the challenge is to find a definition of politics that scales to this level.

These two conceptions of space as it relates to politics are important because of the ways in which they acknowledge the role of technology but ultimately priviledge the existing forms of political communication and participation. For example, Barber acknowledges the need for people to connect with others who share similar concerns and political priorities, but he views this as needing to happen on the physically local level where people can have the face-to-face interactions he sees as foundational to democracy. ((Barber, 267-270.))

What neither writer addresses is the role that technology and the internet can play in transforming these physically local interactions into ideologyically local experiences. The technological advancements of the last 18 months (i.e. the rapid rise of Twitter and WordPress) have made helped make it possible for a greater number of people to communicate across geographic boundaries and find and communicate with people who share similar political concerns.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

In part this issue is left unaddressed by Barber and Saco because many of the developments that will be central to my thesis have occurred in the past 18 months. Barber’s Strong Democracy was originally published in the 1980s, when computers were just starting to become devices available to the general public. Even Saco’s far more recent text was published a full seven years ago, before two of the central technologies, WordPress and Twitter, were even invented.

The theoretical concepts of political communities and participation outlined by Barber and Saco can, and arguably should be, applied to the recent advances in web technologies.

The writings of many leaders in the technology industry will help contextualize the theories of Barber and Saco’s works. Central to this literature are texts by software developers, community managers, and journalism professors.

While some politicians have struggled to adapt their grassroots organizations to the internet, software developers in large part have succeeded in creating passionate and thriving communities among the users of their products.

In addition, journalism professors are in a unique position in that they must consider how to adapt journalism to the newest technology while remaining true to some of its fundamentally political elements.

Jono Bacon’s The Art of Community and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody will inform the investigation of communities and organizations that are created by online communication. These are communities that rely heavily upon technologies like Twitter and WordPress. Important to this analysis is the fact that both of these texts were published this year which allows for a more recent investigation of technology and politics to be undertaken.

Bacon was the long time community manager of one of the more successful open source operating systems and inarguably succeeded in helping to stimulate an active and engaged community around a desire to create a better user experience.

Shirky, on the other hand, is a journalism professor at New York University’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program and has written extensively about the power of the web to transform communities and communication. Here Comes Everybody attempts to define how organizations will function in an age when the participants no longer require the complex hierarchical organizational structure that large scale communities in the past have required.

Each author provides a unique perspective on communities created through web communication and will provide important background examples to clarify just how politically active and affective the communities can be.

Finally, James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds provides a perspective on how these communities could be leveraged for specific actions within society. While not expressly political nor technological, Surowiecki’s text nevertheless provides an interesting model onto which these technologies can be grafted.

The central premise to this book is that a crowd of people with a diversity of opinion whose independent and decentralized actions are aggregated together can frequently arrive at conclusions that are better than those of the smartest individual in the group. ((Surowiecki, James. The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Doubleday, 2004. 10)) Surowiecki provides a model that is becoming increasingly relevant as technologies are becoming more widespread and communication shifts more toward a web-first mindset. As more people become engaged with these technologies, Surowiecki’s notion of the wise crowd becomes even more important.

What none of these authors do is expressly discuss the political potentials of these new technologies. Barber and Saco take a very preliminary look at the role of technological communication in relation to politics, but even Saco was writing only four years after the founding of Google and before the invention of such technologies as Gmail, WordPress, and Twitter.

Furthermore, there is currently a gap between the two bodies of literature: the types of political communities that are possible using these technologies have yet to be seriously investigated.

On the one hand, Barber and Saco discuss politics in terms of very general concerns over technology and the internet. While Saco writes of the internet fairly extensively, her book Cybering Democracy was still published when the internet was in its infancy. On the other hand, writers like Shirky and Bacon deal directly with the types of organizations and communities that can be created online but they do not do so from an expressly political standpoint. What is lacking is any substantive discussion concerning what types of political communities can be created by utilizing the communication tools that have matured greatly over the past 18 months.

In addition, if the technology is going to be even remotely useful politically then the leaders of technology need to be brought into an inherently political dicussion. They are ultimately the ones who understand the tools most completely and it is through their writings and observations that the true political potential of the technology can be investigated.

Too often technology is relegated to the sidelines and thought of as something that is purely consumerist and disposable. What must be elucidated is that there is a significant portion of software developers and technology companies that see themselves as changing the world. The millions of users actively engaging with their communication software seem to provide a compelling argument that the developers are stimulating real change.

Furthermore, while they may not explicitly say it, many companies are working on changing the world in a distinctly political manner. Companies like Twitter and Automattic, the parent company behind WordPress, are working to provide a platform that can give voice to millions of people worldwide. This puts the technology and the software at the very center of a potentially powerful political community.

We are at a tipping point in terms of the political potential of these technologies. Past political writings, such as Barber’s and Saco’s, have broadly discussed technology in its role as a supplement to things like traditional community organizing and voter registration drives. There is a potential within these technologies to dramatically redefine political participation and participants that is worth investigating. Ultimately, it is worth researching whether these technologies are providing for a paradigm shift in United States politics or whether they are simply creating new means of communication around the traditional political structures of the American political system.

Update: Jay Rosen thankfully alerted me to an error that I had in the original version of this post. You can see the crossed out correction above and I apologize for not originally stating that Clay Shirky’s role is actually that of an adjunct professor at NYU’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program. I regret the error and thank you to Jay for pointing it out.