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Stolen Fire: the Future of Democracy in the Age of Network Technology

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Few may have noticed that precisely at the moment when many exhausted left intellectuals were putting away their critical tools for the long winter ahead, cyber-romantics were busy crafting new grand narratives about the hope for democracy in the age of network technology. These dreamers imagined network technology (NT) as the “medium through which a democratic revolution is being, or will be, enacted” (Darin Barney, Prometheus Wired: The hope for democracy in the age of network technology [2000, p. 264]).

While admitting that computer networks ae “not completely without democratic benefits,” Barney is sceptical about NT as harbinger of strong democracy. He argues that NT “fails to live up to its democratic image precisely because of its many non-dialogical applications are un-or anti-democratic, and these eclipse, and even undermine, the democratic potential of applications such as network-mediated civic discussion” (p. 264.

Indeed, Barney wonders why so many of us have become “seduced by a democratic potential that is at best marginal in relation to the predominantly anti-democratic attributes of this technology. Is it simply that, as the children of Prometheus, we have been blinded by hope?” (ibid.).

For Barney, a viable definition of democracy must have three elements: “equality, participation, and a public sphere from which sovereignty emanates” (p. 22). Equality refers to an “equality of ability to participate, rather than simply to an equality of opportunity to do so” (ibid.). His definition also “stipulates that citizen participation must be meaningful in order for it to qualify as democratic” (p. 23). In other words, participation cannot be frivolous or merely symbolic.

He states: “Democratic participation must be clearly and decisively connected to the political decisions that direct the activity of the participants’ community. By this definition, polities in which citizens’ participation is limited to legitimizing deliberations and decisions made without their participation is not a democracy. This, democracy requires that citizen participation be specifically linked to policy outcomes, rather than relegated to the general role of system legitimation” (ibid.).

Barney wants to differentiate strong democracy from liberalism, namely that “democracy is not constituted wholly by freedom of consumer choice in a market or the freedom to do privately whatever one likes. Instead, democracy is about the taking of collective decisions that are to govern the common and public practices of the members of a community” (ibid.).

Barney’s version of the post-political thesis hinges on his belief that our globalized, networked world has closed off political options. “Taken together, capitalism, liberalism, and technology form a trinity of sorts, outside of or beyond which there exists no political options capable of being persuasive in the modern (and even more so the postmodern) world. The modern capitalist, liberal, technological state is thus “a universal and homogenous state [that] is the pinnacle of political striving” (p. 252).

This trinity is the master signifier of our symbolic universe, now so utterly taken for granted that their distinctive ideological character saturates our psyches, the human lifeworld, colonizing our sense of what is good and worthwhile. Thus, liberalism “cannot tolerate a good that flatly prohibits certain activities or ends by deeming them unambiguously harmful. Technology cannot realize its essence if its setting upon the earth and human beings is constrained by the limitations imposed by a transcendent good. Beings committed to the belief that their essential humanity is expressed in their ability to make themselves and their world cannot be obligated to a good emanating from some other conception of their essence” (ibid.).

Like Zygmunt Bauman’s “migration of power” thesis, Barney’s “closure of the political universe” is shocking. Barney illustrates his provocative thesis by arguing that North American, European and some Asian governments have not been able to resist embracing making massive commitments to building network infrastructures. The ethos guiding them all is “animated by liberal notions of progress, capitalist visions of prosperity, and an abiding faith that technological progress is central to both” (p. 260).

Barney thinks that there can be no vital political meaning and life unless we can make choices about the direction of our public life. He states unequivocally: “In a democracy it must be possible for people to allow certain virtues to constrain the untrammelled expression of human freedom, material accumulation or technological advance. In genuine democracies, in other words, citizens must at least have recourse to a good that might impose significant limits on the pursuit of these ends. No such recourse is available in a liberal, capitalist, and technological society, in which a human being’s essence is believed to be his or her freedom, and the fulfilment of that essence is achieved through unlimited acquisition and endless progress” (p. 263).

As long as the universal homogenous state is a liberal, capitalist and technological one, it must, by virtue of its ends and what it truly is, “deny outright the imperatives of the good—in which ‘the people’ as a collectivity cannot effectively choose virtue over liberty, wealth, and progress—it cannot be a democracy….The homogenous state of modern capitalist, technological liberalism denies people this opportunity, and so cannot accommodate genuine democracy. In so far as it contributes substantially to the entrenchment of this state, network technology is an instrument of democracy’s continued impossibility in the modern world” (pp. 263-264).

Barney asserts that many people believe that NT is a revolutionary democratic medium. During the Arab Spring uprisings, many young activists were shouting this maxim out to all who could hear. He thinks that our strong appetite for good self-government and community with our fellows and sisters bewitches us into accepting NT as the “ultimate stand-in, capable not only of satisfying the baser human appetites for material wealth and mastery, but also of gratifying certain nobler human appetites without actually satisfying them” (p. 265).

He maintains that digital networks cannot stand in for the genuine arts of government and democracy. Networks are able to distribute information and facilitate communication. But these attributes “do not encompass the resources necessary for the practice of the genuine arts of self-government, politics, and democracy….In a time of weakened spirit, wherein wisdom and courage are conspicuous by their absence from public life, these surrogates are able to flatter our collective appetite for a more genuine politics. They are, however, ultimately unable to satisfy the appetite, a fact that may account for the residual cynicism, alienation, and dissatisfaction afflicting many of the so-called advanced democracies. This malaise provides fertile soil for claims that network technology can satisfy more substantially our yearning for an authentic democratic politics….Under the sway of these stand-ins, we have become habituated to practising a diminished politics that bears a name it does not deserve. The regime of network technology offers scant hope for the shattered of this ignoble delusion” (p. 268).

In Prometheus Wired Barney thinks that the story of modern technology teaches us that those who do not recognize their limits are dangerous to themselves and to their gods. He explores the human desire for command and creativity in relation to the categories of space, time, matter, biological life and the capacity for consciousness.

Prometheus, who tried to steal fire from the gods, is the archetype for this desire to go beyond limits and proclaim one’s exceptionality to the heavens and the earth.

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Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

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