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Beyond the ‘Networked Public Sphere’: Politics, Participation and Technics in Web 2.0

by on August 21, 2012

Link to Week 5’s article.

Dr Ben Roberts crtiques Yochai Benkler‘s book, The Wealth of Networks in this article.

In the 1990’s Web 2.0 sparked great discussion about the democratising nature of the internet. Participant usage was at the core of most debates about politics and technology.

The two biggest reasons for saying this:

  • On the one hand there is a great amount of positivity surrounding the potential of new technologies, in particular the internet, which enables new forms of participation in economic and public life. Web 2.0 has been much to blame for this increase in participant interaction via the internet.
  • On the other side this is the increase in concern about public participation, or lack of it, in modern Western democracies. This having implications for the possible outcomes of politics. This lack of participation usage having impacts on the attendance of citizens at elections.

The article for this week argues that Web 2.0 requires a more critical or sceptical approach to the political promise of Web 2.0. The article also suggests possible ways in which this discussion on participation may have moved on.

This article looks at a number of different writers such as Yochai Benkler, Bernard Stiegler and Marc Crepon.

Web 2.0 Participation

There has been a great shift in internet participation over the years. The internet has evolved dramatically from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 and there has been talk of a future Web 3.0. However, Web 2.0 has increased internet participation worldwide.  There are many different aspects of Web 2.0, all in which users can share ideas, communicate with one another and access information. These forms include social bookmarking, wikis, weblogs, videos, web applications and may more.

The general form of this argument is that the internet, web 2.0 in particular, offers a better platform for the public sphere in which a truly democratic form of political debate can take place. It is here that Benkler’s book The Wealth of Networks offers great insight into this argument. Benkler’s aim is quite explicitly to incorporate the idea of the public sphere within liberal political theory. He argues that a new network information economy, characterised by non-market modes of participation and production, makes possible a public sphere that better serves the exercise of political freedom necessary in a liberal democracy.  This can be done through Facebook comments/messages, Twitter, forums etc. An example of a forum can be seen here.

“A major implication of the networked information economy is the shift it enables from the mass-mediated public sphere to a networked public sphere.”

While the public sphere does give everyone a voice, if everyone can speak at once then no one will be heard. To judge the efficeny of the public sphere it needs to satisfy the following criteria.

  1. Universal intake – it must be open to everyone
  2. It muct be able to filter relevant information
  3. It must have systerms for accrediting information sources.
  4. It must be able to synthesis public opinion
  5. It must be independent from government control.

Benkler believes that the public sphere does meet all of these criteria. However, there are a number of flaws associated with Benkler’s argument concerning the networked public sphere.

Nonmarket production

In Benkler’s book, it is argued that people that contribute to such sites as Wikipedia, social bookmarking sites, and even blog sites are constructing works of economic value, but aren’t participating in an economic market.

This raises questions such as,

“First, why do people participate? What is their motivation when they work for…a project for which they are not paid or directly rewarded? Second, why now, why here? What, if anything, is special about the digitally networked environment…Third, is it efficient to have all these people sharing their computers and donating their time and creative effort?”

Another question that should be asked is, are these people basically being used as free labour? Roberts argues that we should be suspicious of the fact that we have miraculously become producers of the network public sphere, as opposed to being just consumers of mass media. There is a tradition, however, that critiques the idea that we are just consuming mass media.

The social production of the internet content is about social and economic changes as well as changes in network technology. Roberts argues that Benkler’s idea of regarding the transformations in network technology as just social production or free labour is shortsighted and that we need to view these transformations as examples of wider social change.

According to Benkler, the problems facing the functioning of democracy in Western democracies due to mass media can be solved by enabling greater participation.

But what does participation really mean?

Benkler argues that culture and its production is “important to the operation of democracy” and democracy is the “expression of individual freedom”.

The benefit of the networked public sphere is that culture becomes more “transparent”, which minimises the effect that the culture has on “individual agency or autonomy.” ‘Culture’ gets in the way of liberal democracy in the kind of participation that Benkler argues. Roberts argues that Benkler is not interested in “wider questions of participation and democracy, above all not ones that would question the liberal model.”

Benklers argument raises two questions.

  1. What is the relationship between technological change and social and political change?
  2. What role does participation play in democracy?

Participation, Technics and Individuation

Roberts uses arguments from Marc Crépon and Bernard Stiegler‘s “De la démocratie participative” (On Participatory Democracy). These essays were written during the French presidential election and evoke the idea of participatory democracy.

In ‘La démocratie en défaut’ (‘Democracy in default’), Crépon says that the call for participatory democracy has to be analysed in “terms of the coincidence of two phenomena”:

  1. A crisis in representative democracy, which is characterised by declining voter turnouts, dissatisfaction with the political class etc.
  2. The rise of new technological possibilities of the web.

Essentially, what Crépon is stating is that participatory democracy can only be “meaningful if it gives a chance to both the attachment and the desire for democracy as an open possibility”.Without addressing the phenomena, participatory democracy might be worse “than the crisis it seeks to redress.” This risks participatory democracy into descending into a “kind of interactive televised populism.”

Crépon and Stiegler believe that the vision of web participation is dangerous, when it opens a “‘closed’ political establishment” to the public. This opens up debate to people who are not political insiders, it allows anyone to speak whether or not they know much on the subject. This vision could be seen as naïve. “How meaningful is such participation when its terms and vocabulary are decided elsewhere?”

In these kinds of debates, while there may be an engagement with the public, it only really mirrors a certain political establishment. The public may hold the same views, yet express it differently with language that is familiar. The problem is that this could be seen as a tool of political marketing. The danger is that these forms of debate only offer a way for political people to seem more legitimate, or appear more “open and accountable”, but in the meantime “de-legitimising and short circuiting the proper apparatus of representative democracy.”

Crépon invokes C.B. Macpherson’s four models of democracy in order to explore what true participatory democracy means.

  1. Protective democracy
  2. Developmental democracy
  3. Equilibrium democracy – return to values of protective democracy. “Entails no sense of individual or social improvement, but simply a reconciliation of competing interests through the market system of elections”
  4. Participatory democracy

For Crépon, these models are useful “because they help to diagnose the democratic crisis.”

Benkler believes that there isn’t anything wrong with the political system, there is a problem with political communication that can be fixed by “enabling a more transparent form of communication”. Crépon believes, on the other hand, because of the fact that culture is in the heart of democracy that it in the form of mass media poses a problem.

Then we come to symbolic misery. Stiegler defines symbolic misery as a “‘loss of individuation which results from a loss of participation in the production of symbols’.” The loss of participation is fundamental to the production of “culture in the equilibrium model.” It can’t be corrected by then appearance of a communication medium that “harnesses ‘decentralized individual action’.

Individuation definition.

Loss of individuation forms part of the condition Stiegler calls symbolic misery. It relates to the “theorisation of technics”.  Technics, in Stielger’s terms, includes everything from “primitive tools through systems of writing to modern telecommunications.” Technics, to Stiegler, can be something like language. It is inseparable from culture and society then. Culture and society are not organised by technics, but rather organised through it.

Technics is not just instrumental. It shapes “what it means to be human in the first place”, and human in this sense is organised “always already through technics.” If there is a crisis caused by technics, it is not because something human is replaced by something technological. It is because there was a transformation in the “essential technicity that belongs to the human.” Technics support types of cultural, non-genetic memories, but there is a subsection in which “‘one must call mnemotechnics’”, a type of technics that is “‘made for keeping memory’.”

An obvious example of mnemotechnics is writing. In a new transformation in mnemotechnics,  “lies the cultural crisis”. It is because these new forms of recording introducing a “new class of industrial temporal object.” Simondon believes that the rise of the “machine tool” removes the difference between skilled workers and that of other workers.

We may not want to believe, at first, that as an audience of mass media, that we are just passive consumers. Mass media implies an asymmetric relationship between producers and consumers. Stielger uses the example of the relationship involved in language comparing it to the relationship in media. If you understand a language, you are more than likely able to speak it, but, in relation to media, just because you are able to watch TV, doesn’t mean you’re able to make a TV show. Web participation, Stiegler argues, will only be meaningful in relation to politics if it brings forth a new type of environment.

The issue of participation is between those who see the web just as a form of communication, and those who believe it to have wider social and cultural transformations. Benkler all-to-readily accepts that web participation or nonmarket production is simply a consequence of network communications. Participation, like free labour, needs to be understood in the “context of wider social and economic changes and not simply as a network phenomenon.”


Has the internet, for example, a post on a forum, made you question your beliefs on a particular topic?

Do you believe web participation, in relation to politics, is a good or bad thing? Explain.

This blog post was brought to you by:

Alex – alexfc1992


Stef – stefporopat


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