chapter  16
17 Pages

The cost of citizenship in the digital age: on being informed and the commodification of the public sphere


How comforting it would be to see in every technological advance the promise and delivery of social improvement. As scientific and technological achievements have accelerated, and as we have become ever-more accustomed to technical progress providing the means and the challenges for societal development, the notion that new technology might leave us, socially or culturally, no better or even worse, can seem perverse. Communication technologies have provided just such a host of promises and presumptions, and have also been the cause of many such unrealized hopes or realized disappointments. In recent times the phenomenal growth of digital technology and the

communications possibilities that have come with it, especially the exponential growth of the internet and mobile communications, has fed an almost limitless enthusiasm for the social gains that must ensue. In particular it has been expected that new and extended forms of sociability would rapidly develop, that greater, more frequent and more intense social intercourse would foster greater social cohesion, and that barriers to social inclusion erected by problems of physical isolation or limited mobility would be swiftly eroded by the reach and potential of new communication technologies. That this is often and valuably true cannot be denied, though nor can the many negative and disappointing outcomes that such technologies have bequeathed (Golding 2000). This chapter is addressed to one such promise: the expectation that the

growth of digital media would enrich and enhance democracy, by generating wider choice and accessibility of political information, and by providing the means for a more informed and engaged citizenry. The argument is persuasive and important. While effective democracy rests on the presumption that citizens engage with the political process, and do so in an informed and

egalitarian manner, it has long been recognized that opportunities to interact with institutions and processes of power are differentially available to different groups and classes, who remain variably able to turn the wheels of power, or to empower themselves by being informed about issues and information in ways that they are able not just to share with others but to use as the key resource for political mobilization and organization that engaged citizenship requires. Such shared information, in turn, enlarges the opportunities for citizens to act meaningfully, and to participate fully in what becomes, de facto, a digital assembly, constructing in large-scale, complex and populous societies what was once only possible (though only for a fraction of the population, the majority being excluded by status or gender) in the small city state of the Athenian polis. This ideal is of enormous promise, and its potential as an outcome of

qualitative changes in the forms of communication available in a digital society should not be questioned lightly. However, in this chapter, five current and serious reservations about the forms of digital development in major Western countries (with examples mainly provided from the United Kingdom) are discussed. These are the availability and range of political information in the public domain; the growing fragmentation of audiences; the commodification of cultural goods and the ensuing unequal access to relevant information; the limited form of political narrative, especially the presumption of causality in contemporary journalism; and finally the enduring implications of the ‘digital divide’, despite its regular dismissal as a diagnosis.