Demos or chaos?

The folks over at Data Mining... have posted an interesting note on the problem of using the word "democratization" to describe the increasing ease of participation in a variety of cultural and scientific processes.

"Please! No More Democratization" points out that while tech may be eroding some barriers to participation in some processes, this does not necessarily equate to democratic governance. While I might quibble with the author's characterization of democracy (which focuses on republican forms), many of these experiments are more properly understood as anarchy. The absence of persistent roles and rules, of norms for choosing between alternatives and resolving conflict, means that these protean "societies" are not institutions in any meaningful sense.

Anarchy has benefits, but also costs that severely limit its practical and normative desirability, as anyone who's tried to participate in open-access, free-for-all discussions (or opened their email) must understand in their bones. This is why we increasingly see practices like user profiles and content flagging or screening. True anarchy - especially when paired with anonymity - makes genuine, civil conversation impossible to sustain.

Transparency, responsibility, oversight - these are all concepts traditionally associated with democratic governance. But while there are examples where these concepts have been institutionalized in some online communities, there is no guarantee that such practices will always and honestly reflect anything like a democratic will. The developers and distributors of applications and infrastructure may just as easily create the illusion of freedom and fair play, even as they systematically bias the Internet towards their own agendas.

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