Appropriated hope: capital and hierarchy in the information age

Much has been said about the potential of the Internet to create and foster a culture of freedom, democracy and plurality. Since the original roots of ‘cyber-libertarianism’, an open-source philosophy has been common amongst computing and programming experts. Replaced today in the pioneering mainstream by Silicon Valley’s “disruption” cliché, both creeds share one major invalidity — non-falsifiable optimism. The differences between digital (“new”) media and traditional media may be superficially stark, but it is the deep root of neoliberal power within all spheres of media production and distribution which corrupts any democratic potential the still-emerging technology may offer. I will begin by defining two complex and problematic premises in my argument, then assess to what extent digital communication truly enhances global democracy, given the proliferation of content-selection algorithms and the popular but misleading idea of digital free speech.

We must first assume the axiom of pervasive neoliberalism. As Fitzgerald (2014) discusses, the process of interaction between markets and the state has been accelerated by the overlap between state sociocultural concerns and the economic mandate common between the two. Through various processes of marketisation, privatisation, and deregulation, the neoliberal state is responsible for allowing the creation of a “principal framework for the increased social dominance of corporations more generally.” As the virtually autonomous machinery of neoliberal capitalism moves only to protect and strengthen itself, it does so in tandem with the state. As such, there arises a continuous yet unconscious assertion of the status quo by media corporations who stand only to profit from it, to produce what Noam Chomsky terms “manufactured consent” among the population. Furthermore, this takes place on an international scale, as Western media companies appropriate (abuse) the unprecedented border-agnosticism of the internet arguably in a form of semi-conscious cultural imperialism.

In contrast to this self-perpetuating capital caduceus, working to discourage genuine participation, manufacture consent, and offer only dominant ideology, is a redefined radical democracy which seeks to foster genuine participation and plurality. It should come as no surprise that a centralised and profit-driven media economy, particularly in the United States, has succeeded in redefining ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ as neoliberal capitalism. Any discussion of ‘real democracy’ requires a further redefinition — one which Poster (1997) takes as “…one that opens new positions of speech, empowering excluded groups and enabling new aspects of social life to become part of politics.” It is this definition I will rely on: democracy founded on true equality and representation; a nexus of discussion which necessitates honesty, clarity and perhaps most importantly, careful listening. To achieve this hypothetical ideal in the virtual world, a great number of structural hurdles must yet be overcome in the physical; but it exists as a paradigm against which digital and traditional media will be compared hereafter.

The largest and perhaps most significant difference between digital and traditional media is the inherent two-way nature of digital communication — what Lessig terms “end-to-end communication”. Virtually instantaneous communication is possible between any two points on Earth, given connection to the internet, and the computation needed to encode and decode transmitted data is performed by the computers at each end, rather than the transmitting infrastructure, which carries data impartially (although, importantly, vulnerable to surveillance). More conceptually, the two-way nature is manifest in the existence and popularity of blogs, personal websites and social media, which represent potential contraflow. These web nexuses may be set up by anyone for no cost, and news, opinion, and creative content may be shared immediately. Traditional media, in comparison, involves a heavy dependence on capital to finance distribution, either physical or broadcast, various licence fees, as well as more stringent regulation, particularly in Australia (compared to, say, the United States). Inherently, traditional media is forced to use a passive receiver model, and as such for the most part is a one-way information flow. This arguably fosters a traditional media climate requiring broad appeal; niche traditional media cannot sustain itself as easily as niche digital media, by mere economics.

However, to assume that capital accumulation plays less of a part in digital media as a result is incorrect by definition. In terms of distribution, internet content and infrastructure is still largely centralised, profit-focused and capital-backed, with dominant corporations like AT&T (AT&T, 2016) and Google (Google Finance, 2017) enjoying hundred-billion-dollar revenues. While many ‘new media’ outlets have emerged over the past several years, most major traditional media players still enjoy a dominant position online, most likely due to their former (and still brand-loyal) audiences moving to digital media, particularly millennials and Gen X consumers (Chen, 2013). Money flows to computer and smartphone manufacturers, internet service providers, server hosts, domain owners, and advertising agencies, to say nothing of the actual subscription costs involved in accessing online media: The New York Times at just over $5/mo, Netflix at $9/mo.

Furthermore, the existence of dynamic content-selection algorithms is problematic when considering digital media as a democratic locus. Considering the profit necessity of social media’s virtual infrastructure, the use of content-selection algorithms works to expand revenues by increasing time spent on websites such as Facebook; by enticing the user to engage with content through gamified systems of ‘likes’ and using the resulting large set of data to select similar content which itself is, recursively, appealing for the user to engage with (Dhar & Ghose, 2010, Lampe, 2014). Facebook’s primary responsibility, given the capitalist framework under which it operates, is profit generation for shareholders; rosy press releases and product launches abound celebrating social media platforms as nexuses for opening frontiers of political engagement and disruption to the status quo, bear no mention of the corporate brainstem need that overrides any genuine civil service philosophy and mandates commodification of this user interaction, their only real resource, for exponential capital gain.

A very interesting work to consider in the current climate of digital communications is the late critical theorist Mark Poster’s essay “Cyberdemocracy” (1997). Therein, he suggests the nature of the internet to be not like a tool, as one’s instinct may be in considering communications technologies, but like a place: “The internet is more like a social space than a thing; its effects are more like those of Germany than those of hammers.” A discussion of the internet’s unique properties as a medium requires the conceptualisation of it not as a mere two-way form of communication, but a sphere of connections so numerous as to form a locus; a network of communications that through its density becomes, sociologically, more like a physical space. As in Jürgen Habermas’ ideal public sphere, physical, interactive practice is at the root of constructing representative and fair discussion, and thus democracy.

A key consideration at this point is that of user identification within a given locus. Poster references in his essay the now-esoteric MOOs (“Multi-user dungeon, object-oriented”), a predecessor of sorts to instant messaging services such as AOL, in reference to the notion of self-constructed online identity. Using a deconstructionist approach, Poster observes that communication via digital media such as a MOO “…requires linguistic acts of self-positioning that are much more explicit than [traditional media].” The near-complete anonymity of the internet allowed almost total freedom of user identity, but importantly, Poster notes that the conditions of new communication media do not immediately cancel already-existing power relations. He notes hierarchies managed to naturally form despite the lack of any external reference frame; use of ingroup language as a covert linguistic shibboleth test and greater typing proficiency, indicating a longtime user, both contributed to a higher status. In this important case study, Poster suggests that the mere existence of an otherwise equitable mode of communication does not necessarily automatically lead to non-hierarchical organisation, or, by extension, representative and fair discussion. Importantly, although Poster’s work is no doubt mostly irrelevant to today’s digital media usage, it emphasises from a timeless sociological standpoint that the digital medium does not inherently carry the potential for radically changed social relations — in other words, that cyber-libertarianism and the optimism for a digital Eden are simplistic, technologically determinist perspectives.

Similarly, ten years later, Dahlberg & Siapera (2007) have refuted the proposition that an ideal non-hierarchical network of free information necessarily leads to democracy. The cyber-libertarian philosophy, shared by many in the digital communications industry, was largely supplanted by a liberal-consumer model which sought to commodify the increasing influx of casual internet users as access to the Web became cheaper. Liberal consumerism, naturally driven by capital, is viewed critically as advancing a limited idea of democracy that “fails to provide for meaningful participation and adequate contestation of power.” This liberal consumer model is arguably still the dominant ideology shaping digital culture. Dahlberg and Siapera further note that the mythological idea of the Habermasian ‘marketplace of ideas’ transcending hierarchy leads not necessarily to the creation of democracy, but rather to individual liberty and individual empowerment which itself is determined by a number of extrinsic factors such as physical access, tech-literacy, familiarity with the cyber-locus and the existing social hierarchies mentioned by Poster (1997).

The role of the internet and related two-way digital communication technologies in democracy can be summarised as allowing merely the illusion of a marketplace of ideas: one may, through the great freedoms offered by digital technology, say virtually whatever one wants, but through the same mechanism of choice and individual liberty, or the involuntary mechanism of algorithmic content-selection, selectively include or exclude viewpoints and ideas, and it is here where the idea of the internet as a locus of Habermasian ideals falls apart. It is perhaps not exclusively the freedom to make arguments online that contributes to a genuine, radically representative democracy (Boyd, 2014), but the listening. In the current atmosphere of largely corporatised, algorithmically-driven and user-commodifying information megacorporations, viewpoints are reductively ranked by their most massive (profitable) appeal — and it is not necessarily the most representative and fair balance of opinions that influences the zeitgeist at large, but those chosen to be appropriated for profit by the news aggregators, traditional media outlets, and “new” media businesses with the broadest reach. Digital communication technology has summarily, despite great cultural optimism, failed to make significant strides in opposing dominant paradigms and creating a truly representative democratic locus.

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