Democratic Governance.Com: 5 Challenges

Paper presented on 16 May at the Bloggers Universe Malaysia (BUM) 2009 gathering.

It has been estimated that by 2010 there will be over five hundred million blogs worldwide. Will that be a boon and benefit to the opening space for democracy? Or will that be baneful?

The first flush of enthusiasm now has cautionary note sounded by not only naysayers or Later Day Luddites but even ex-soothsayers of the Silicon Valley; and key political and social thinkers.

My current thinking has been spurred by Cass Sustein’s warning that Internet evangelists’ belief that the Web is the promised land must confuse consumer sovereignty, which is the idea behind free markets with that of political sovereignty, the idea behind free nation. In Sustein’s thesis f[1], this confusion may well sow the seed that will compromise political sovereignty with its polarizing tendencies and that all reform must direct itself to “central democratic goal… to ensure a large measure of social integration, not merely of racial groups, but across multiple lines, in a way that broadens sympathies and enriches human life.”

(i) The Challenge of Authenticity

In a great phrase that sums up this thread Charles Taylor has characterized our present age as exhibiting the malaise of modernity. f[2] This is made up of three major trajectories: (a) the problem of the individual; (b) a Weberian disenchantment of the world; and (c) in the political sphere the growth of soft despotism that accompanies the sense of lack of participatory citizenry. Will we, as C. Taylor cites Nietzsche, be last men clinging onto to the straws of our pitiable comfort expired from all aspirations?

Through the late 20th century, social commentary has lamented that the logic of post-industrial society and its contradictions within the market-based capitalism has engendered a narcissistic society that experienced anomie and loss of community. Nicholas Lasch has characterized modern society as narcissistic and this description is not far from the construct of the 21st century where we ourselves lack moral moorings and ideals. The public square may be abandoned for an individualistic life constructed either around the nuclear family or via the solitary self-conducted through serially loose relationships. Truth claims may be relativized, travestied and even trivialized. Charles Taylor argued that the eclipse of the moral force of the ideal of authenticity in all spheres of life is indeed the expression of malaise of our modernity.

The advent of internet communities do not necessary heal the disease. Often it is exacerbated. The surfeit of information and implosion of knowledge do not equate to the emergence of a deliberative democratic space. In our surfing and sifting between sites we flip through the web without any anchor. In the alternate, we register and read only from sites that reflect our political sensibilities and shun those which are not of our persuasion. Through routine, the tagged cookied site becomes the shaper of our opinion and ideological convictions. This may be putting it too strongly that we have little or no clear conceptual categories upon which to hang and clarify our debates.

(ii) The Challenge of Expertise

Andrew Keen’s polemical text f[3] against the Cult of the Amateur hits home with trenchant force. The Googlization and Wiki-pedia as sources for research and validation amongst many is startling. That free amateur content can substituted for careful verified information that has responsible editorial or expert hand is both symptomatic of the abdication of the intellect. Political extremism can burden the internet sites and if there is no keen editorial or responsibility taken for postings there will be but the noise of an exhibitionistic rabble.

This critique may sound elitist but can be defensible. If the internet becomes or degenerates to a rumour mill then instead of emergent democratic norms we descend into digital navel-gazing that is juvenile and narcissistic.

(iii) The Challenge of In-Depth Analysis and Focus

Jurgen Habermas observed:

The price we pay for growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralized access to unedited stories. In this medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a focus.

Careful measured reflective op pieces may be buried by the avalanche of voices. The Guternberg revolution with a sense of sacrality of the text both spoken or read is substituted by virtual place and space. The disembodied text free float in a flotsam and detritus of fragmented information, without voice, without wisdom and polemic and pastiche subsumes passion and principles. Sound debate and discourse is reduced to twitterings.

Gert Lovink in Eurozine wrote:

A spectre haunts the world’s intellectual elites: information overload. Ordinary people have hijacked strategic resources and are clogging up once carefully policed media channels. Before the Internet, the mandarin classes rested on the idea that they could separate “idle talk” from “knowledge”. With the rise of Internet search engines it is no longer possible to distinguish between patrician insights and plebeian gossip. The distinction between high and low, and their co-mingling on occasions of carnival, belong to a bygone era and should no longer concern us. Nowadays an altogether new phenomenon is causing alarm: search engines rank according to popularity, not truth. f[4]

(iv) The Challenge of Rational Discourse and Deliberative Virtues

Where are they, the islands of reason in the cyber sea? Ways out of the programmed society.

The recent passing of J. Wiezenbaum, the doyen of early computer specialists who was first to caution against excessive zeal of the possibilities of computer knowledge was noted by Geert Lovink in The Society of Query and Googlization of Life: A Tribute to J. Weizenbaum (2008-09-2008 Eurozine) as follows:

Weizenbaum warns against an uncritical use of the word “information”. “The signals inside the computer are not information. They are not more than signals. There is only one way to turn signals into information, through interpretation”. For this we depend on the labour of the human brain. The problem of the Internet, according to Weizenbaum, is that it invites us to see it as a Delphic oracle. The Internet will provide the answer to all our questions and problems. But the Internet is not a vending machine in which you throw a coin and then get what you want. The key, here, is the acquisition of a proper education in order to formulate the right query. It’s all about how one gets to pose the right question. For this, one needs education and expertise. Higher standards of education are not attained by making it easier to publish. Weizenbaum: “The fact that anyone can put anything online does not mean a great deal. Randomly throwing something in achieves just as little as randomly fishing something out.” Communication alone will not lead to useful and sustainable knowledge.”

What is needful is for the Blogsphere to mature and evolve into a space for mature discourse whilst not eschewing provision of alternate information and debates. We need to develop a deliberative democracy. John Rawls, the 20th century foremost liberal political philosopher is worth attending to. In Rawls’ mature formulation of the same, a vision of deliberative democracy is advanced wherein three major elements are put forward: f[5]

  • The idea of public reason.
  • Framework of democratic institutions that enables deliberative legislative bodies.
  • Knowledge and desire on part of the citizenry to follow public reason and to realize its ideal in their political conduct.

(v) The Challenge of Legal Ordering

Dr Peng Hwa Ang entitled his work as Ordering Chaos Regulating the Internet. f[6] This is a wide ranging area which deserves in-depth treatment. Current concerns range from (a) debates on limits and extent of self-regulation; (b) liability for content (including third party content); (c) defamation; (d) sedition and security legislation (e.g. ISA); and (e) privacy.

For bloggers the “chilling effect” of the laws of defamation and regulatory regimes including the infamous Sedition Act has been accompanied by cries of undemocratic practices by the authoritarian state. Whilst such critiques are defensible in many ways (and one can mount many strong apologias for wider freedom given the cowed national media) yet one may pause and ask that if there is complete lack of legal ordering will that be in fact a good thing? Equally the threat of bloggers’ views being ignored or completely marginalized by reasoning citizenry where we have only an internal talking between Balkanized e-communities will not serve the enlargement of genuine democratic discourse and space.

It is significant that the UK Law Commission on Defamation and Internet (2002) observed that the laws on this area are complex and attempts to create greater certainties have added greater ambiguities and reform therefore cannot be made as yet.

Concluding Observations

What is the socialization process for the future of engaging a constructive citizenry? It has been well said that by Roberta Siegel:

Political Socialization refer to the learning process by which the political norm and behaviour acceptable to the ongoing political system are transmitted from one generation to another generation… a well functioning citizen is one who accepts (internalizes) society’s political norms… without a body politic so in harmony with the ongoing political value, a political system will have trouble functioning smoothly.

What then, are the norms and process of our socialization within and without Web 3.0?

As Allan Gibbard cogently observed: f[7]

We choose our communities of judgement, in a sense, and gains and losses bear on the choice. Life is a messy and dangerous world depends on being able to form broad communities of judgment on a restricted range of norms – norms that enable us to live together. To thrive, though we need more intimate communities as well. In these communities we can exercise our normative capacities and try to make sense out of life and its possibilities. There is a complex story to be told here of practices and their costs, of coherent possibilities and the pressures that bear on them…

Yes we have an on-going story to tell of our imagined community. In the meantime all of us ought to give heed to the call for cultivation of virtues by Amy Gutman [Multiculturalism: Examining Politics of Recognition (1994)] without which we cannot even begin to contemplate our future as a nation:

… Respectable moral disagreements… call for deliberation, non denunciation. The willingness to deliberate about our respectable differences is also part of democratic ideal. Multicultural societies and communities that stand for freedom and equality of all people rest upon mutual respect for reasonable intellectual, political and cultural differences… The moral promise of multiculturalism depends on the exercise of… deliberative virtues.

Footnotes:

f[1]. Cass Sustein, Republic.Com, Princeton (2001)

f[2]. Charles Taylor , The Malaise of Modernity (1990) Anansi Press Massey Lectures series University of Toronto, CBC Radio . See further Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition” in Amy Gutman Ed , Multiculturalism: examining the Politics of Recognition (Princeton 1994)

f[3]. Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur: How Blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user -generated media are destroying our economy, our culture , and our values (Nicholas Brealey Publishing 2008)

f[4]. Published 2008-09-05 Original in English First published in Lettre International 81 (2008) (German version) © Geert Lovink © Eurozine)

f[5]. Rawls, “The Idea of Public reason Revisited.” is Samuel Freeman Ed. John Rawls, ” Collected Papers” (Harvard) 573,580.

f[6]. Ordering Chaos Regulating the Internet Thomson (2005 Singapore) Thomson Learning

f[7]. Allan Gibbard “Communities of Judgement” from E Frankel Psul, Fred D Miller, Jr. Jeffrey Paul eds, Foundations of Moral and Political Philosophy (1990) (Basil Blackwell) 175 , 178


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Malaysian lawyer Philip Koh is actually a corporate commercial lawyer who is an interloper into the public law sphere. He co-edited Sheridan & Groves’ The Constitution Of Malaya (5th Edition) and has been involved in a number of landmark public and constitutional cases. Philip is a senior partner in a Klang Valley based firm. In previous incarnations he was in academia and worked for a listed corporation. He has published on a myriad of matters ranging from corporate governance, constitutionalism, book and movie reviews. He sits on various boards, bodies and spacecraft but prefers to read, write and give talks whilst trying to remain sane.

Posted on 10 June 2009. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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