“The prime condition of a democratically organized public is a kind of knowledge and insight which does not yet exist,” the philosopher John Dewey, patron saint of participatory democracy, wrote in The Public and Its Problems.
The highest and most difficult kind of inquiry and a subtle, delicate, vivid and responsive art of communication must take possession of the physical machinery of transmission and circulation and breath life into it. When the machine age has thus perfected its machinery, it will be a means of life and not its despotic master. Democracy will come into its own, for democracy is a name for a life of free and enriching communion. It had its seer in Walt Whitman. It will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.
This, then, is the goal: a system of news that realizes Dewey’s prescient notion—a framework that combines the participatory value of passionate belief with the participatory value of democratic discourse. The Web, after all, has the power to unite people in groups both minute and immense; at its best, it does both.
Cass Sunstein prescribes, as one mechanism of moving forward, an “architecture of serendipity”—an informational infrastructure that facilitates chance encounters with a wide array of knowledge, ensuring that we don’t lose ourselves in the maze of our own idiosyncrasies. Whether that architecture builds itself up from the civic spaces of sites like Wikipedia, or from national news aggregators, or from collaborative networks of outlets, or from the mini-meritocracies of social media, or from a logic of news consumption that plays out, Pareto-like, in the concentration of the long tail…remains to be seen. The point, for now, is that our democracy requires its construction. “It is hardly possible,” Mill had it, “to overstate the value in the present state of human improvement of placing people in contact with others dissimilar to themselves, and in contact too with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar.”
Yes, it’s easy to romanticize the notion of deliberative democracy. But, then, perhaps now is a time when we need to romanticize it. “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve,” the Bernard Shaw line goes. The same may be said of the news.
For a list of suggestions for further reading, click here. For Justin Peters’s companion piece on the uses and purposes of the Internet, click here. To read a conversation between Garber and Peters on the topics covered in their essays, click here.