New figures have just been released revealing that two-thirds of Canadian households have internet access and eight out of ten have home computers – all this higher than the OECD average. With that distinct cutting-edge advantage, one would think Canada would enjoy a deeply engaged citizenry. Sadly we don’t. Something is missing at a time when the Internet should be bringing us together for the challenges and opportunities that confront us.
There is a key distinction between an information-based age and a knowledge-based age. It spells the difference between the success and failure of citizenship at so many levels. We are learning that all this access to data has largely insulated us from one another, whereas many dedicated citizens have used it to acquire a kind of knowledge that assists in bringing their communities together.
The Internet opened up a new world of self-adulation and promotion that fit easily with the age of “Self.” It turned most into unrefined critics, but at the same time assisted others with creating and dialoguing in ways that were redemptive. To me, at least, the key to turning the Internet into a truly powerful force for citizen engagement is deliberation – that ability to converse, argue respectively, move ideas forward, and arrive at compromise solutions. But for that to transpire there must be better mediation on the Net. Consider what that means.
Early in the Internet process, some were so bedazzled by its speed and potential that they took to saying that there should be no standards on it – just let it freewheel. This has happened to a certain degree and often spelled Net chaos. If traditional media ran in such a fashion we could never count on it for accuracy or fairness. The Internet needs to discover some way of bringing accountability and accuracy to the mix. Both the Net and traditional media deal in facts; the key distinction is how they handle it. A rogue reporter could carve out a story with a twisting of those facts but wouldn’t be able to get it past the editorial team. It would be seen for what it was – manipulation. But on the Net a vast sea of bloggers get away with that everyday. Many bloggers are fine and disciplined writers relegated to obscurity because of the sheer number of people just desiring to put forward their own personal stuff. Long before citizens could use the Internet to get to deliberate their collective future, they would have to develop standards that could replicate traditional media’s authoritative and fact-confirming practice.
In an information society these mediators have proved essential. Teachers, editors, citizen-monitoring groups, philosophers, and many others help us make sense of all that information out there. But more importantly, they are brought under various kinds of democratic controls that validate their qualifications. Ways must be devised for the Internet to function in a similar matter so that citizens could trust it. In traditional media there are the tabloids and then the serious journalism – a line of demarcation that must be more clearly laid out on the Internet.
An example of this is this Parallel Parliament blog versus the ones I write for the Huffington Post. I can say what I want in this space and I attempt to keep it as ethical as possible. But the Huffington Post personnel continually email me to fact-check what I write. They require authorizations for pictures and verification for statistics. I’m still granted my opinion but guards are put in place in an effort to insure I don’t manipulate their readers with falsehoods. Ironically, information-based technologies can undermine a knowledge-based society.
Conscientious mediators can assist with organizing all that data along the lines of values and theories. This kind of knowledge, and not mounds of information, is the key to political competence, as well as culture and community building.
If we wish to begin the process of pulling together a citizenry from the vast region of this country, the new data reveals that we can actually access most of our people – an important plus in rebuilding democracy. But if all we can produce is information overload we’ll have lots of colour but no pattern. Great effort has been put into creating software for digital town halls and online voting, but deliberation will take much more than that, and as of yet the new technologies are focusing more on consumerism than on citizen coordination.
The Net remains a blunt instrument for building a refined citizenry, but this is what you get when a resource that was supposed to be used for the public good became largely privatized and focused instead on consumerism. It quickly entered the mainstream of products and an opportunity was lost to strengthen our collective public life. Let’s be honest: the Internet has done a better job at liberating millions of voices and opinions than it has in creating one cohesive voice of public will and deliberation. As Mitch Kapor puts it: “Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.” Or as Paul Carvel opined: “The Internet: absolute communication, absolute isolation.” Like the printing press, it is a resource that can enable us to walk collectively into our future, or it can leave us the victim of materialistic forces that have proved so successful in keeping us from getting up off the mat. The choice is ours – it’s just a tool.