Democracy in the Age of Google, Facebook and WikiLeaks

9 March 2011

Communicative Abundance

In the beginning there was the grand spectacle of a worldwide satellite television broadcast, featuring Maria Callas, Pablo Picasso and the Beatles. Then came fax machines, photocopiers, video recorders and personal computers. Now there are electronic books, scanners and smart phones converted into satellite navigators and musical instruments; cloud computing, interactive video technology and speak-to-tweets, used in the current Egyptian uprising, should be added to the list. It is unclear even to the innovators what comes next but these and other media inventions, commercially available only during recent decades, have persuaded more than a few people that we are living in a revolutionary age of communicative abundance.

In the spirit of the revolution, fascination mixed with excitement is fuelling bold talk of the transcendence of television, the disappearance of printed newspapers, the decline of the book, even the end of literacy as we have known it. There is broad recognition that time is up for spectrum scarcity, mass broadcasting and predictable prime-time national audiences. Symbolised by the Internet, the age of communicative abundance is widely seen as a whole new world system of overlapping media devices that integrate texts, sounds and images in compact and reproducible form. The perception is correct: this is indeed a new multi-media world system that enables communication to take place, for the first time in human history, through dispersed user points, in chosen time, either real or delayed, within modularised and ultimately global networks that are affordable and accessible to more than a billion people scattered across the globe.

Communication poverty persists, certainly. A majority of the world's population is still too poor to buy a book; less than half have ever made a phone call in their lives; and only around one-sixth have access to the Internet. Yet in the heartlands of the revolution, growing numbers of people routinely sense sideways motion and forward movement in the way they communicate, even in the little things of life. Gone are the days when children played with makeshift telephones made from jam tins connected by string; or (I recall) the evenings when they were flung into the bath and scrubbed behind the ears, sat down in their dressing gowns and told to listen in silence to radio broadcasts. People no longer own telephone directories, or memorise telephone numbers by heart. Everybody chuckles when mention is made of the wireless. Typewriters belong in curiosity shops. Pagers have almost been forgotten. Even the couch potato seems to be a figure from a distant past.

Few people think twice about the transformation of the word text into a verb. Websites devoted to the pitfalls of working the Web flourish. Journalism proudly committed to fact-based 'objectivity' declines; 'gotcha' journalism gains ground, but so too does blogging, said by some to resemble the work of armies of ants in the nest of what is called public opinion. Then there are the epochal shifts in the ecology of news: savvy young people in cutting-edge countries such as South Korea and Japan are no longer wedded to traditional news outlets. They neither listen to radio bulletins nor watch current affairs and news on television. Digital natives do things differently. Refusing the old habit of mining the morning newspaper for their up-to-date information, as four out of every five American citizens once did (in the early 1960s), Internet portals have become their favoured destination for news. It is not that they are uninterested in news; it is rather that they want lots of it, news on demand, in instant form, delivered in new ways, not merely in the mornings but throughout the day, and night.

As in every previous communications revolution, the age of communicative abundance breeds hyperbole, false claims and illusory hopes. Yet when measured in terms of speed and scope and user-friendly methods of copying and publishing, there is no doubt that the emergent galaxy of communicative abundance has no historical precedent. It is not only that time-space compression has become a reality for growing numbers of people and organisations, for whom the tyranny of distance and slow-time connections is abolished. In contrast to the centralised state-run broadcasting systems of the past, the spider's web linkages among many different nodes within the distributed networks of communication make them intrinsically more resistant to top-down control. Networks function according to the logic of packet switching: acts of communication, so-called information flows, pass through many points en route to their destination. If they meet resistance at any point within the system of nodes then the information flows are diverted automatically, re-routed towards their intended destination. Messages go viral.

It is this networked and viral quality of media-saturated societies that prompts some observers to claim that the powerless, tired of top-down communication, readily find the means through which to take their revenge on the powerful. We live in times, says Clay Shirky, when 'group action just got easier'. Some pundits go further. Networked communications and easy-to-use tools incite grand political visions. There is provocative talk of digital democracy, online publics, cybercitizens, electronic intifadas and wiki-government, even visions of a digital world where 'citizens hold their own governments accountable' and 'all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and power' (the words used by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a January 2010 address at Washington's Newseum).

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