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A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business.

    -Eric Hoffer, The True Believer

Matthew Hindman's book is written to refute a certain thesis about how the Internet is democratizing American politics, that:
...the Internet is redistributing political influence; it is broadening the public sphere, increasing political participation, involving citizens in political activities that were previously closed to them, and challenging the monopoly of traditional elites.

This...definition of democratization presumes first and foremost that the technology will amplify the political voice of the ordinary citizens.
Over the course of the text he quite convincingly demonstrates that political traffic on the Web is instead dominated traditional news organizations and a very few bloggers who, whatever their partisan differences, bear a remarkable resemblance in terms of race (white), gender (male), and regular profession (lawyers). Rather than "ordinary citizens" then, politics on the Internet is quite similar to politics before the Internet. Politics has been digitized, but not "democratized."

We'll save for another the day the issue of whether democratization would be a good thing. Certainly the Founders, who created a republican system precisely to avoid the perils of too much democracy, would not be disappointed to see that yet another technology has failed to deliver on its promises. It will suffice for now to consider how implausible the promise of democratization was in the first place, going against both human nature and the most basic laws of economics. Note that the myth posits a series of things that reality demonstrates to be unfounded, that all things being equal we would desire a broader public sphere and prefer to be more involved in politics. However, these options are closed to us somehow and, therefore, elites have a monopoly on politics.

Really? Do you know many people who wish our daily lives were more politicized? Who think we get too little politics? Have you been to a local School Board meeting, town meeting, or local party meeting and seen how sparsely attended they were? And was that because they were inaccessible to the unwashed masses or because of genuine lack of interest? Ever volunteered on a political campaign? They didn't turn you away for your ordinariness did they? In fact, if you came for a few days in a row they probably started loading you with responsibilities. The fact of the matter is that our politics is quite open and discussion of it is freely available throughout the various media and in community milieus. We're more likely to be found seeking to escape the sphere than banging to be admitted. A goodly portion of the citizenry seems to have quite enough on their plate just dealing with work, family, church, etc. and to feel rather little need to muck about in politics.

Nor need we wonder why politics is a backburner for many when we recognize how conformist is our society. A prior generation of historians used to speak of the American consensus when trying to fathom why we were so immune to radical political movements. Today there's something more like an Anglospheric consensus, if not an actual End of History. There is such broad agreement that society must organize along liberal democratic, protestant, capitalist lines that there are only occasional backwaters--like a China, Venezuela or a Syria--that buck the trend. Meanwhile, Third Way politics -- the idea that developed economies should provide their citizens with a social safety net but that this should be done through free market means to the greatest extent possible -- is so powerful that--if you ignore the differences over life issues: Darwinism, abortion, homosexuality, etc.--the leaders of the two parties in nearly every country in the English-speaking world are not only interchangeable with one another but across national borders as well. It is entirely fair to say that Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, David Cameron, Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff, John Howard, John Key, Kevin Rudd, etc., are all direct ideological descendants of Margaret Thatcher, with little to choose from among them. With so little at stake in contests between the two major political parties, it's little wonder that folks don't feel a strong compulsion to get involved.

Mr. Hindman's own research supports the idea that politics simply isn't that important to many people. He uses internet traffic and search engine statistics to show that political sites occupy an extraordinarily marginal bit of territory on the Web (0.12 percent of all traffic). Nor can it be plausibly argued that anything is keeping the public from consuming political information online and/or placing their own views online. Websites are free to read or to write yourself and comment systems are generally included on sites. While it is true that the individual citizen who speaks online has no guarantee that others will choose to listen, this is very much a matter of choice. Not listening is democracy in action just as surely as speaking out is. In the marketplace of ideas that the Web represents--as imperfect a market as it may be--demand for political discourse is quite minimal to begin with and demand for discourse outside the broad American mainstream is microscopic. Forgive is if we see nothing wrong with that.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Matthew Hindman Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Matthew Hindman
    -Matthew Hindman, Assistant Professor (Arizona State University)
    -GOOGLE BOOK: Myth of Digital Democracy
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One: The Internet and the ‘‘Democratization’’ of Politics: from Myth of Digital Democracy (Princeton University Press)
    -ESSAY: Not the Digital Democracy We Ordered (Matthew Hindman, December 10, 2008, Publius Project)
    -ESSAY: More News, Less Diversity (MATTHEW HINDMAN and KENNETH NEIL CUKIER, June 2, 2003, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW: Politics in the digital age (Counterpoint, 3/02/09)
    -INTERVIEW: Politics in the digital age (CounterPoint, 3/02/09, ABC AU)
    -INTERVIEW: A brief chat with Matthew Hindman, Professor of Information Technology and Politics, Political Science Department at Arizona State University (Internet and Politics 2008 at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society)
    -REVIEW: Bloggers at the Gate: The Internet hasn't perfected democracy. But it might.: a review of The Myth of Digital Democracy by Matthew Hindman (Matt Bai, Spring 2009, Democracy)
    -REVIEW: of Myth of Digital Democracy (Mark Bahnisch, Inside Story)
    -REVIEW: of Myth of Digital Democracy (Henry Farrell , Times Higher Education Supplement)
    -REVIEW: of Myth of Digital Democracy (Sebastian Waisman , New Atlantis)
    -REVIEW: of Myth of Digital Democracy (Kimberley Isbell, Citizen Media Law Project)
    -REVIEW: of Myth of Digital Democracy (Ranier Fsadni, Times of Malta)
    -REVIEW: of Myth of Digital Democracy (Evgeny Morozov , Foreign Policy)
    -REVIEW: of Myth of Digital Democracy (Mark Bahnisch, Creative Economy)
    -REVIEW: of Myth of Digital Democracy (Michael Duffy, Sydney Morning Herald)
    -REVIEW: of

Book-related and General Links:

-ESSAY: New Media as the Message: Internet videos, news, and citizen-generated media are having an impact, but it’s not certain that they are powerful enough yet to be game-changers. (Alexis Simendinger, Apr. 19, 2008, National Journal)
    -ESSAY: The virtual “democracy” of the Internet ( TAKIS FOTOPOULOS, April 2008, The International Journal of INCLUSIVE DEMOCRACY)
    -ESSAY: Texting Toward Utopia Does the Internet spread democracy? (Evgeny Morozov, MARCH/APRIL 2009, Boston Review)
    -ESSAY: Mirror Me: The Internet: Foe of Democracy? (Jonathan Shaw, April/May 2009, Harvard Magazine)