Etherializing Democracy in an Age of New Media

(Note: This essay was my [unsuccessful] entry into the 2013 Dalton Camp essay competition on the links between media and democracy in Canada, sponsored by the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. Congratulations to Randy Morse and Whitney Light for their excellent winning essays!)

It is surely one of the ironies of our age that Canadians are all but bathed in information — thanks to our unprecedented and near-ubiquitous access to various and mobile forms of digital technology and media — but at the same time must contend with a political system seemingly incapable of harnessing this information to address our converging challenges effectively. More ironic still, this system is currently being led by a political class for whom information itself is either inconvenient, undesirable, or dangerous. As Chris Turner argues in his new book, The War on Science, Prime MinisterStephen Harper’s single-minded focus on the extraction and selling of natural resources has involved an equally determined effort at stifling, negating or controlling information, and in the process threatens the vitality of Canada’s democracy and our Enlightenment heritage of informed reason[1].

However admittedly malleable and contested the concepts of media and democracy may have always been, I believe that modern democracies — Canada’s included — have, in the digital era, allowed the two to converge, and in a dangerously superficial manner that underscores a neglect of both. This convergence reveals the urgent need to engage more thoughtfully and deeply with the political dimensions of information, and the new media by which it is generated and communicated.

There are few better examples of this than the Conservative government’s June 18th announcement that it had signed the G8 Open Data Charter and launched Canada’s “next generation” Open Data portal, making available to Canadians some 270,000 “high value” data sets, and promising to meet tough international standards on “open government” as agreed upon by the Open Government Partnership[2]. Yet, barely three months later, Canadian scientists and their supporters would make international headlines as they rallied in 17 cities across the country on September 16th, 2013 in “Stand Up for Science” demonstrations, organized by the group Evidence for Democracy, demanding that the Harper government restore funding to basic science, reinstate the long-form census and return to evidence-based policy-making[3]. Then came the damning report to Parliament one month later from Canada’s Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, in which she warned that the “health of Canadian democracy is at risk” because of what she described as the “dramatic” deterioration of the country’s access-to-information system[4].

That a modern democratic government could commit to meeting the highest standards of open government through the use of digital media, and yet still be widely accused of undermining democracy through an assault on the gathering and dissemination of information, should alert us to the fact that digital media have a very different relationship with governments than did traditional, print-based media. Where a free press may have once been an indicator of a healthy democracy, a digital “Open Government” is no guarantee of an actual, open government[5]. Opponents of the present administration may be tempted to seek the source of this paradox wholly within Conservative political ideology, yet I believe that the answer may lie at least in part within the socio-technical conditions of our digital, postmodern age — conditions which the Harper government has used to full advantage.

I suggest that among the most significant of the impacts of new digital media have been the dual processes of the etherialization of our social institutions — including governance — and a corresponding demagnetization of civil society. In his classic book, The City in History, Lewis Mumford meditated on the tension between these forces: the etherialization (as Arnold Toynbee called it) of technologies and the social “magnetization” or strengthening which can result. For Mumford, it was the gradual de-materialization and disappearance of obsolete city walls and the corresponding strengthening of the urban “magnet” in terms of the health and diversity of its functions, which drew together ever more people, purposes and possibilities[6]. Applying this metaphor to digital media and democracy suggests that these processes may also contribute to our present crisis, such that we have etherialized the forms of our democracy without correspondingly strengthening its magnet, which is to say civil society.

It is important to distinguish between the etherialized and the virtual: the former is a process, the latter a state. In other words — as was the case with Mumford’s city walls — the interconnections and boundaries between people and their social institutions have etherialized under the influence of new digital media, with the result that we are becoming disassociated from one another and our governments.

Robert Putnam observed in his 2001 book Bowling Alone that the loss of the bonds of trust and social networks have contributed to a decline in engagement of all sorts, from voting to participation in civic associations. Those who do remain engaged tend to be at the extremes of the political spectrum, and see complex issues in terms of black-and-white solutions, while at the same time demonizing their opponents, often through the anonymity of “electronic town halls”[7]. Writing nearly ten years later, Sherry Turkle warned in her book Alone Together that we are mistaking our assemblage of Facebook “friends” and Twitter “followers” for actual social relationships, to their detriment, and seeking affirmation in online communities where anonymity breeds coarseness and hostility[8].

In concert with this demagnetization of civil society has been the etherialization of democracy, in that both new media and governments have superficially assumed the forms of the other. The former in particular have adopted a patina of democracy through (frequently toxic) “comments”, and voting in the form of “likes,” while governments — such as Canada’s and the United States’ — have clothed themselves in a veneer of new media, launching with much fanfare their e-government and Open Data portals.

If, as Marshall McLuhan observed, media serve as extensions of the self, then we should have expected this convergence of interactive digital social media with the instruments of governance to have profoundly extended our participation into matters of government[9]. To some limited extent this has happened: the Open Data movement has seen citizen activists putting government information to many creative and innovative purposes, such as the ingenious Mapnificent project, which utilizes public transit information to help users plot out travel times in cities around the world[10]. Protest and dissident movements – including the Occupy Movement and Idle No More – have made rapid advances through the use of social media, attracting supporters, sharing news and summoning ”flash mobs”. Smartphones, too, have the potential to turn us all into citizen journalists.

In the process, however, governments and their citizens became something else: Adversaries. While digital media have not on their own caused this alienation between people and their governments, they have served to both exacerbate and disguise it.

In ways inconceivable in an age dominated by print, the Anglo-American democracies have, since 9/11, turned the tools of new media against their own citizens. There are reasonable grounds to suspect that the government of Canada — along with its “Five Eyes” partners (the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand) — has, through Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), been actively gathering telecommunications data on its citizens[11]. Edward Snowdon’s leaks regarding wholesale surveillance on the part of President Barack Obama’s National Security Agency continue to shock the world, particularly recent revelations that the NSA (with whom the CSEC works closely) had secretly infiltrated the servers of Google and Yahoo — in addition to its previously-disclosed, court-approved PRISM program, which allowed it to access data provided by such media giants as Microsoft, Google and Facebook[12],[13].

At risk in these intrusions is what Jurgen Habermas described as the “public sphere”, that dialogical space between governments and the governed, composed as it is of public interactions of private individuals, and which makes possible rational discussion of issues of common concern[14]. According to Habermas, the liberal bourgeois public sphere implied and required a separation between the state, private enterprise and individuals; while he stressed that competing interests complicated these distinctions over the course of the 20th Century, new media have now made possible their outright etherialization. As Jack Balkan explains, the new “National Surveillance State” has dissolved these boundaries, as private telecommunications networks are required to facilitate governmental surveillance — “back doors” which threaten the very integrity of online communications[15],[16]. It doesn’t help that we seem all too willing to make almost every aspect of our personal lives public on social media, despite our awareness that they may be closely monitored for commercial and intelligence purposes.

The effects on democracy are chilling and corrosive. Turkle likens such intrusions into our privacy to Michel Foucault’s panopticon, which was designed to encourage its prisoners to assume that, because they knew they were always under observation, they would police — and therefore, behave — themselves. Yet, she points out, democracies depend upon citizens having both the technical and mental space to dissent; we must be able to feel free to disobey[17].

This spirit of democracy is most powerfully represented in that most significant of political forces opposing Stephen Harper’s resource extraction agenda: Canada’s First Nations, the diverse cultures of which have never forsaken nor forgotten their existential and spiritual interconnections with land, water and air. By contrast, with non-Aboriginal society lacking a shared foundation for seeing or understanding the world around us, beliefs about the natural environment are instead dependent upon one’s political ideology, with the result that the discourse on climate change has become hopelessly corrupted[18]. Perhaps, as developmental psychologist Howard Gardner prescribes, the digital age requires a more determined and relational engagement with information and each other in order to arrive at what can be agreed upon as the truth, and which can then be presented with appropriate authenticity and transparency. Yet — and here is where shallow digital pretense at open government founders — Gardner warns that transparency lacking the actual content of tested truth beneath it can only be self-defeating[19].

Therefore we must, as McLuhan advised, distinguish between the content of media, and the medium itself[20]. As such, we can see that these intersecting etherializations and demagnetizations have not served to extend the self so much as to reflect it. We are increasingly content to reside in mutually exclusive ideological bubbles, adrift in a world beset equally by diminishing resources and an overabundance of extremism.

In such a socio-political environment, then, the Harper government’s systematic dismantling of scientific institutions and the crippling of evidence-based policymaking should not surprise us. With our social contract withering and bordering on antipathy, and lacking both a healthy public sphere in which such could be effectively corrected, as well as a shared knowledge base about the real world against which officially-approved messaging can be weighed, democracy apparently need only wear the face of easily accessible “Open Data” to pass muster in an age of new media.

It may be that, as McLuhan suggested, we “put out” digital media into the world before “thinking them out,” forgetting that we need to shape media in a process akin to co-evolution, rather than letting them shape us[21]. Or worse: as Jerry Mander observed, we thoughtlessly embraced computers on a global scale, ignoring their inherent centralizing tendencies which have enriched and empowered corporations and governments at the expense of local, progressive politics in general, and the interests of Indigenous peoples in particular[22]. Instead, Mander argues, we should have long ago developed tools of governance to aid in evaluating such technologies — which are never “neutral” — before we adopt them, to better understand their potential benefits and impacts.

However that may be, unless and until we can find a way to remagnetize our civil societies, and “think out” the relationship between new media and democracy such that we can aspire to make democracy as much of an extension of the self as are that media, we will be fundamentally crippled in our ability to create the active and participatory forms of governance necessary for addressing the converging challenges of the 21st Century.

[1] Chris Turner, The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada (Vancouver, B.C.: Greystone Books, 2013).
[2] Matthew Conway, “Minister Clement Launches Next Generation Open Data Portal,” Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, (accessed November 10, 2013).

[3] Ivan Semeniuk, “Scientists Push Campaign for Evidence-based Decision Making From Government,” The Globe and Mail, 16 Sept. 2013, (accessed November 10, 2013).

[4] Andrea Janus, Problems with access-to-information system put ‘Canadian democracy at risk’: Legault, CTV News 17 Oct. 2013, (accessed November 12, 2013).

[5] Harlan Yu and David G. Robinson, “The New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government'” (February 28, 2012) 59 UCLA L. Rev. Disc. 178 (2012). or (accessed November 10, 2013).

[6] Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, its Transformations and its Prospects (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961).

[7] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001),341-342.

[8] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

[9] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Critical Edition, ed. W. Terrence Gordon. (Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 2003).

[10] Stefan Wehrmeyer, Mapnificent (accessed November 10th 2013).

[11] Craig Forcese. “10 questions about Canada’s Internet spying,” The Globe and Mail, 11 June 2013, (accessed November 10, 2013).

[12] Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani, “NSA Infiltrates Links to Yahoo, Google Data Centers Worldwide, Snowden Documents Say,” The Washington Post, 30 Oct. 2013, (accessed November 10, 2013).

[13] Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras, “U.S., British Intelligence Mining Data from Nine U.S. Internet Companies in Broad Secret Program,” The Washington Post, 6 June 2013, (accessed November 10, 2013).

[14] Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1991).

[15] Jack M. Balkan, “The Constitution in the National Surveillance State” (2008). Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 225. (accessed November 10, 2013).

[16] Peter Lee, “The NSA War on Internet Integrity”, The Asia Times, 16 Oct. 2013 (accessed November 13 2013).

[17] Turkle, Alone Together, 263-264.

[18] James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore, Climate Cover-up: the Crusade to Deny Global Warming (Vancouver, B.C.: Greystone Books, 2009).

[19] Howard Gardner, Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

[20] McLuhan, Understanding Media.

[21] McLuhan, Understanding Media, 73-74.

[22] Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991), 53-74.