“Cyberspace & Civic Space”

On Saturday I traveled to Boston College for a Mass Humanities program called “Cyberspace & Civic Space: The Influence of the Internet on Our Democracy.” Among the panelists Eli Pariser, the former executive director of MoveOn.org, and Charles Steelfisher who was Deval Patrick’s new media director in the 2006 campaign who went on to perform many of the same functions in President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

While there were interesting tidbits sprinkled throughout the program, the content was skewed towards the decidedly older audience that was in attendance. I’ve been to quite a few programs on new media and the internet and the crowd is typically younger, or at least younger in terms of tech savvy-ness. The audience here was more Mass Humanities fans than internet activists (WBUR was a co-sponsor). The disconnect between the audience and the theme of the event was most evident during the Q&A period that followed the first panel. The organizers throughout had urged attendees to use Twitter to comment on the conference (using hashtag #mh8) and to submit questions to the panelists via Twitter. When time came for the questions, several audience members approached the community microphone to ask away, but a Mass Humanities staffer with some printed-out questions from Twitter stepped in front of them and said she would alternate Twitter questions with live questions. At that the panel moderator, Callie Crossley, the host of a WGBH radio show, said – and I’m heavily paraphrasing here – “don’t waste our time with those dumb Twitter questions when there are real live WGBH contributors standing at the microphone.” So much for new media!

But as I said, the top-quality panelists did share some useful insights. Here’s a sampling: There was much pessimism and suspicion of the amount of data being aggregated about all of us and how it will be used in the future. The current internet, as one panelist put it, is “paradise for the consumer and hell for the democratic activist.” There was also concern that the internet places each of us in a “personal filter bubble.” As Google’s algorithms get better about predicting what we want to see, we are brought into contact only with like-minded individuals, something that insulates of from contrary views. The time-honored tradition of political campaigns in targeting those individuals who are regular voters has risen to new levels of sophistication with computers and digital data. Political messages more and more are directed at those who already participate while those who have not participated continue to be ignored (or are ignored even more intensely, if that’s possible), thereby driving them further away from the realm of political participation. This creates a self-perpetuating system where politicians talk to those who are already engaged and ignore those who don’t vote which makes them even more disengaged. As to whether YouTube and viral video will supplant the influence of big money in politics, the panel didn’t think so. The impact of viral video, however, has been to increase the volatility in politics. Things happen much faster – a candidate can rise in the polls or plummet in the polls in a flash. To a question about the “digital divide” (i.e., not everyone has an internet connection), one panelist said that divide was real, but it is a divide reflected in everything else. The same people who lack internet access also lack decent housing, reliable health care and find access to most necessities of life precarious. It’s a “corporate problem” – if providing these services is left solely to corporations, the services will always go to those with the money to pay for them and those without the money will be neglected. Finally, the internet by itself will not solve our political problems but the internet is a great facilitator for those who do want to solve our political problems.