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

By Anthony G. Wilhelm | Go to book overview

3

Resource Requirements of Digitally Mediated Political Life

CIVIC AND POLITICAL DISCOURSE in the United States is migrating to new and powerful computer networks through which participants can share voice, video, and text (Miller 1996). The heralded town meeting has been amplified to include computer-mediated communication among and between citizens and officeholders (Guthrie and Dutton 1992; Hacker 1996). William Drake defines the emerging information infrastructure as “the computerized networks, intelligent terminals, and accompanying applications and services people use to access, create, disseminate, and utilize digital information” (1995, 5). Political candidates, parties, interest groups, and citizens with sufficient resources are now online with the realization that computer networks represent one more avenue through which they can make their voices heard and influence the policy process (Bimber 1998a, 1998b; Civille 1995; Davis 1999; R. McChesney 1997b). Resonating to this notion of a digitally enhanced public sphere, the Clinton administration’s Information Infrastructure Task Force (IITF) describes this space as an “electronic commons” in which telecommunications technologies “[c]ould expand a citizen’s capacity for action in local institutions” (1993, 15).

This rather idealized portrait of an electronic commons is subverted both by the resource-intensive nature of political communication and by what Herbert Schiller (1989, 1996) terms the “corporate takeover of public expression.” Ownership and control of the mass media in the hands of a few corporate powers limits greatly the ability of citizens to articulate policy problems and solutions (Bagdikian 1997). As Robert McChesney puts it, “the nature of the U.S. media system undermines all three of the meaningful criteria necessary for self-government” (1997b, 7), including cultivating a sense of community and providing an effective system for political communication. One example of strictures on public speech is that as the marriage of the Internet and broadcasting becomes

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