Democracy in the Digital Age: Challenges to Political Life in Cyberspace

By Anthony G. Wilhelm | Go to book overview

1

Cyberdemocracy’s

“Troubled and Frothy Surface”

IF EDMUND BURKE HAD BELIEVED the French Revolution was happening at too dizzying a pace for critical reflection, he would never have written what amounts to one of the clearest and most prescient analyses of its deficiencies. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke observes:

When I see the spirit of liberty in action, I see a strong principle at work; and this, for a while, is all I can possibly know of it. The wild gas, the fixed air, is plainly broken loose: but we ought to suspend our judgment until the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface. ([1790] 1987, 8)

This passage strikes the contemporary reader as déjà vu in our experiences with information and communications technology prognostication. Regardless of which way we turn—in policy circles, newspapers, or television—pundits and gurus of cyberspace are lavishly speculating on technology effects, often based on a tenuous grip of empirical evidence. Michael Benedikt suggests a more cautious approach: “before dedicating significant resources to creating cyberspace, we should want to know how might it look, how might we get around in it, and, most importantly, what might we usefully do there” (1991, 119).

Today, both supporters and detractors of the so-called information or communications revolution ignore Burke’s advice to “suspend our judgment” or to proceed cautiously; instead, they read only the “troubled and frothy surface” of cyberspace. The neofuturists, as described in the introduction, champion the brave new world of cyberspace, while ignoring historical precedent or underlying currents that might shed considerable light on where digitally mediated public life is heading. Such neofuturists as Nicholas Negroponte (1995) and Esther Dyson (1997) are more interested in the stupefying consequences of “Web years” or are too smitten

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