More on what the Internet means for democracy and association

In First Monday, a sprawling piece by Beth Noveck on the collaboration, deliberation, representation and identity on the internet.

Participating in a group — in whatever form — is also not the same as deliberation. Deliberation — or the public exchange of reasoned ideas through face–to–face conversation — can be one of the central activities of group life. But groups can now engage in “conversation” without talking. Much recent political theory describes experimental forms of idealized deliberation that is perfectly representative or pluralist or equal. These strictures make the institutionalization of deliberation impossible in an imperfect world of busy people. They also constrain our ability to “scale” deliberation into a widespread practice by means of the Internet. This contributes to a perception of deliberation as an elite pastime. This is not to say that there is no place for socially engineered conversations but that the Internet is enabling forms of collective dialogue that produce social interaction without formal deliberation in any technical sense. Members of a group can create a shared map or diagram to represent the state of mind of the group as, if not more, easily than they can have a conversation in real time. Representative politics has co–opted the term deliberation. Not everyone needs to converse face–to–face about every issue every time to achieve collective action. Technology is beginning to replace the vast array of social and visual clues, cues and customs that we depend upon to organize the public exchange of reason. Technology is changing what it means to deliberate.

Groups may be institutionalized or decentralized. They may participate in representative political life or they may just as well be a non–incorporated collection of people committed to a particular issue, such as the Dean Corps or a Meetup. Yet these groups can have real political power, produce real affective loyalty from their members and shape the political culture of a society.