Cass Sunstein has done a great service by raising the anti-democratic implications of the emerging wired world. Much of his critique is on target, and I found myself nodding my head vigorously time after time. In two fundamental areas, however, my train of thought diverges from his; one is a matter of contextualization, while the other is a basic disagreement over a core assumption. Both criticisms suggest additional reform measures to augment, though not necessarily replace, the ones that Sunstein proposes—if we are to enhance democracy in the Age of the Internet.
First, while it may be true that people will tend to look for opinions that reinforce what they already believe, I believe the desire to construct a Daily Me that threatens democracy may not be inherent to the species. Nothing in our genetic code makes the bulk of us, especially those among us who are poorer and younger, narrowly self-obsessed and depoliticized. In my view it is fairly clear that since the advent of universal adult suffrage powerful interests have worked tirelessly to promote depoliticization and social demoralization. Sometimes it is dressed in the liberal concerns of a Walter Lippmann or a Harold Lasswell, and at other times in the frankly elitist mode of an Edward Bernays, but the point is always the same: it is best for the unwashed not to have too much interest in politics or too much control over important decisions. To the liberals it will lead to outcomes offensive to the educated; to the conservatives it will lead to outcomes offensive to the wealthy. In either case—and the two groups tend to overlap on core issues—nothing good comes from too much democracy.
As C. B. Macpherson has noted, it is difficult to imagine an inegalitarian social order like the United States surviving as a democracy if the bottom half of the population put as much interest into political affairs as the top 5 or 10 percent. What better example of this than the 2000 presidential election, where exit polls showed that the richest 20 percent of Americans accounted for about one-half of all the voters. How this process of depoliticizing people plays out is of course tremendously complex; my own work has emphasized the role that the commercial media system has played in making a world safe for vibrant capitalism and weak democracy. It does this both through a vapid journalism and a hypercommercial entertainment culture.
In any case, we should not take it as a given that individuals will make anti-democratic actions on the Internet. In a healthier political environment, where people actually felt like politics mattered in their lives, and they could influence important political decisions, I suspect that many—though not all, as there would still be grounds for some concern—of Sunstein’s fears would be alleviated. The task is to determine what sort of social reform would connect the mass of people with politics.
Second, I believe that Sunstein exaggerates the extent of “consumer sovereignty” on the Internet. It is true that anyone can start a website at a nominal expense and that there may well be billions of websites in the coming decades. It is also true that one can access the global media instantaneously on the Web, which breaks down barriers of time and space. These are truly astonishing and world-historical developments, but they do not therefore lead to consumer sovereignty, which requires intense competition among producers. Indeed, in grand irony, the evidence suggests that the effect of the Internet on our media culture may well be, strangely enough, to generate even greater producer sovereignty.
How can this be? Well, recall the countless pronouncements of the 1990s that the rise of the Internet would spell the doom of the media giants, as entrepreneurs would use the Internet to launch commercially viable competitors to the conglomerates. Then, Internet users could pick from billions of choices, and were there any modicum of demand for something that did not exist, a plucky entrepreneur would surely respond. Hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars were invested to seize the opportunity to introduce online competition to the media industries. And guess how many commercially viable Internet content providers this flurry of investment has generated?
Indeed, long before the dot-com frenzy turned south and became the dot-gone bear market, venture capitalists had stopped bankrolling Web media content ventures. The jury’s verdict is in: the Internet is not sufficient to introduce competition to commercial media markets.
Why is that? The principal reason is that the two dozen or so media firms that rule the US media system have spectacular advantages over nascent online competitors. They have digital programming already and need not create something entirely new; they have known brand names; they can advertise their Web activities in their traditional media, a striking advantage over someone who has to pay for that level of promotion; they can bring their advertisers over to their websites; they get pole position from browsers, portals, and search engines. Plus, the media giants have a much longer time horizon with regard to the Web. They will take huge losses every year because they know that by doing so they can make sure no one can use the Internet to destroy their existing empires. An investor without an existing media empire to protect recognizes early on that there are better locations for profitable investment. Indeed, the Internet may well be more likely to increase concentration rather than competition in the media and other industries as they move online. This is the lesson of Amazon.com: whoever gets the jump on an online industry, because the margins are low, requires massive scale to make a profit. Once the scale reaches a certain point, it is virtually impossible for newcomers to invade the market. Just recently, Borders has thrown in the towel as an Internet bookseller. If Borders, with its massive warehouses of books, cannot compete online with Amazon, who can?
So, when individuals are selecting from billions of websites to construct their Daily Me, they will not be exercising consumer sovereignty. More than likely, they will be selecting from a much smaller group of options directed by the largest media firms in the world. While the Internet will permit the occasional Matt Drudge to break a story, and it will change many aspects of political organizing, the journalism that receives funding and attention will do so under the same commercial auspices and terms that offline journalism operates under. In my view, that is bad news for the sort of informed, participatory democracy that both Sunstein and I advocate.
What this means is clear. To have the Internet contribute to a democratization of our society requires that we work to democratize our political economy and reform our media system. If we create a viable nonprofit, noncommercial, media sector, it can provide the basis for an Internet public forum that can contribute to an increase in political interest and activity. Left to the commercial media giants, the Internet will be far less likely to be so pliable. And unless we reinvigorate our political economy so that people actually do think they have the power to alter the course of politics for the better, even creating a viable nonprofit media sector will have only a marginal effect.