Just attended a great panel at the AoIR conference Internet Research 12.0 - performance and participation. Three quite distinct papers on politics, discussing norms of behaviour in online forums, the avoidance of news during election campaigns, and the digital divide and why it is so hard to achieve universal service.
Reflecting on the three papers together (Fa Niemei,- http://snurb.info/node/1598 , Ericka Menchen-Trevino – http://snurb.info/node/1599 and Susan Kretcher – http://snurb.info/node/1600 blogged by the excellent Axel Bruns (@snurb_dot_info)), I am reminded that at its heart the Internet is a platform for conversations (diverse, stupid, brilliant, failed,sustained, confusing, enlightening all at once). What emerges from the conteporary use of the mainstream broadcast media is an almost wilful pursuit by opinionaters (that most normal form of contemporary journalism, with some notable exceptions) of communicative irrationality. Rather than the seeking of a communicative moment in which differences are aired and understood so that the differences between people become the basis for their connections with one another (I understand you think diffrently, so therefore I become more at one with you) – which for me is the essence of communcative rationality – the media creates a space which divides people from one another and requires instead allegiance to the opinion of the moment. Our social relations are emptied out and we form instead relations with half-truths masquerading as the truth. It is a form of knowledge fetishism, I guess. The truth object becomes the fetish object of our desire to belong and be heard and be knowledgeable.
Communicative irrationality deliberately excludes the diversity of opinions necessary for the operation of democracy: not because each voice is equally worthy or should be enacted in some policy or plan, but because the multitude of voices speaks the landscape of the polity. Communicative irrationality is quite literally the closing of doors in the faces of those whose opinions deviate from the accepted view. And while contemporary media (such as Fox News) practises this form of exclusion everyday (ref: punk band Bad Religion) it probably commenced with the political leaders such as Bush and Howard who created a closed world of policy and advice drawn from the sources which aligned already with the aims and expectations of the two conservative administrations which have so dominated the polities of the countries I am most familiar with in recent years.
In essence, politics can only now occur through conversations between people, mediated yes, but not by and through the ‘media’ as we might aggregate that social formation of institutional news/information/production/distribution. We hear about the death of the newspaper, and the end of the mass-audience television channel – but what we might hope for is the death of the undebated, opinionated, non-commentable ‘news’ which they tend more and more to circulate, whose primary audience is most likely the politicians whom this ‘news’ institution seeks to depose or retain.
In its place, the online spaces for conversation (which are not an ideal form of course) will proliferate I hope. How do we make sure these spaces – where norms of behaviour are contested and politics is enacted at a micro-level – might become connected to a different form of polity which is conceived in more local terms and is not dependent on the election of one or other political party whose success and operation requires them to continue irrational communication?