Democracy & Digital Media

This is a thing I wrote last year and since I’m feeling both lazy and yet compelled to post fresh content on my blog – here it is:


Digital media is more than just a source of news and opinion, it is an extension of the human nervous system and as such is a vital part of any functioning democracy.
Let’s start with some simple definitions:


As defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary media is a plural of medium – “a particular form or system of communication (such as newspapers, radio, or television)”. Interestingly, on those same pages a medium is also defined as “a condition or environment in which something may function or flourish”. (1)


Again, as defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, democracy is “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.” and also as “an organization or situation in which everyone is treated equally and has equal rights”. (2)

Okay. From that common ground, let us proceed.

Just as a hammer or a saw is an extension of our physical reach and grasp (a tool to be used to further our desire to manipulate the world around us) media is an extension of our senses, our ability to perceive and express our experience of this world within which live. The common parlance of the word “media” has changed from a descriptive of a broadcasting device or the act of journalism even as “journalism” itself is redefined to include the opinions and reportage of individuals and organizations operating outside of the traditional role of a “Fourth Estate”. (3)

It behooves us to pay attention to how our media, as an extension of our thinking and sensing selves, is essential for any functioning democracy to function or flourish.

Public oratory, the written word, the printing press, pamphleteers, newspapers, newsreels, radio, television and now the internet are all an extension of the experience of the Agora, the public venue from which democracy was born and within which our voices are heard and shared. As technologies shift and change, providing us with the means to reach ever further with our expressive grasp, the shifting tides of conversely independent and authoritarian control exert themselves to shape and colour the discourse of our body politic.

As each new technological tool for communication emerges and is adopted by a populace (not just as an audience but most importantly as users) the established forces of political and market power cringe at the notion of losing any hold over public discourse. Concerted efforts are made (for both profit and power) to own and control the means by which information is conveyed and received. It has always been thus. The printed word was both celebrated and reviled as it expanded from the hands of Gutenberg to the grasp of clergy, business, scholars, artists and politically motivated pamphleteers. Some countries banned the nefarious printing press in their fruitless efforts to contain and constrain the free flow of unsanctioned information.

The practical burdens of technology itself oft-times dictated how few hands could hold the levers of communication power. “Freedom of the press is guaranteed to those who own one.” (4) is equally applicable to the industries of radio, television and film distribution. The cost of acquiring and using mass media determined who would have access to those tools and thus guaranteed a continuum of a top-down flow of information, regardless of how well intentioned the origin of the source may have been.

The telephone was singled out from this influence since it largely represented singular, one-on-one communication as opposed to any sort of broadcast; however, it is worth noting that in times of unrest, civil conflict and potential governmental overthrow newspapers, radio, television (and now the internet) as well as telephone communications are equally subject to control. The first target of any political coup, on either side of the argument, is the means of communication.

The rise of the internet as a global pipeline of all extant communications media places it at the forefront of interest for both the citizens who seek to be more than mere audience (assuming the mantle of users and content creators) as well as the established inter-connected ranks of governmental and corporate powers who seek to maintain their role as top-down arbitrars of cultural and political discourse.

The net (along with a myriad of other related tech innovations) has leveled the playing field, allowing each individual citizen the power of owning not just their own printing press but also their own radio station, their own television network and the means by which they can speak directly to, listen to and share information with almost each and every human being on the planet.

As Sydette Harry so succinctly said: “The Internet is the greatest communication innovation of our age. The impolite question of every communication innovation is “What do we do when the peasants get access?”.” (5)

The discourse of public and political opinion is now, thanks to the internet, in the hands of the peasants. Us. The people. And that scares the shit out of established powers. The means to exercise political control by virtue of access to media technology is no longer dictated by wealth. The interpersonal paradigm previously contained within the one-to-one experience of telephony has now been extended to a vast and influential conversation amongst a mass audience, fueled by the simultaneous rise in access to archived history and continual flow of updated informational data.

The current state of the internet is one where the social forces of Twitter, Facebook, informational aggregates like and Wikileaks, combine with personal blogs and independent production of news, music and video stand as a direct threat to not only the business enterprises of established journalism and entertainment empires but also the very structures through which we have thus far in this century exercised our democratic political will. We have witnessed the mere beginnings of how these “threats” manifest themselves through everything from Napster, the Pirate Bay, the Arab Spring, the growth of the Occupy Movement, the security revelations of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden and the subsequent responsive shifts in how governments, news and entertainment media industries find themselves forced to engage in order to stay operational let alone relevant.

Chaos is an inevitable result of any disruptive media and chaos is rightly feared since it often results in the arbitrary and sometimes violent overthrow of the seemingly stable operations of government and the marketplace. The natural response from established power in the face of such chaos is first and foremost: “How can we stop or suppress this?” and evolves, as the disruption continues unabated, into: “How do we co-opt this?” Chaos, for the established powers of government and business, is feared because it may result in an outcome which quite simply does not include them.

Throughout this surging interpolation of entertainment, information and civil action on the part of a populace discovering the means by which they can exercise their own senses is also a growing realization that the established structures of governance are not truly reflecting the will of the people. The illusion of democracy is being sheared away by the very force of the new media by which we the people are awakening, with clear eyes, sharpened ears and equally sharpened tongues as the lack of true public influence over the powers which govern our lives becomes readily apparent. We arrive at this awareness because we can speak to each other, hear each other and act together. We have the tools in our hands with which to do all this.

The inevitable course of action for any established power is to either contain, constrain, deny or control the ability of the people to use the media. We see this in the efforts to legislate the use of the internet in ways similar to how efforts were made to ban or license the use of a printing press centuries ago. SOPA, PIPA, CISPA, ACTA and the TPP are but a few of the acronyms applied to corrupt legislation and extra-parliamentary trade deals which harbour the intent to do precisely that: Deny the use of media to those who have not been officially sanctioned by virtue of political or monetary authority. (6)

These efforts on the part of industry and government are not restricted to mere access. Every avenue of law and trade is being applied to control not just the ability to technically connect in order to speak and hear freely but also in how all of these communication and computing tools themselves will be sanctioned for everyday use, resulting in, as Cory Doctorow described it, “A Civil War Over General Purpose Computing”. (7)

The various forces at play in the effort to limit the use of the internet by the “peasants” are driven by differing but interlocked desires. Business and marketplace dominance meshes with political control, colouring not just the most basic laws of free speech but also copyright and patent laws which reach deeper than mere extensions of protecting intellectual property. When such efforts are defeated through public will in the halls of our so-called democracies they re-emerge as the core of secretive trade agreements which lie outside of public knowledge, public discourse or any other form of democratic review. The public use of our media, outside of established journalism, has become the mainstay of transparency and revelation against these anti-democratic efforts.

Journalism alone is not the benchmark by which to judge the influence of media. The internet as an extension of our own senses must be embraced in every consideration of how we expect to govern ourselves as a human beings – locally, nationally and globally.

The internet itself knows no borders neither do the arguments contained herein. In this context, Canada, like every nation, is the world and the survival of our democracy is just as dependent upon these issues as any other nation. From this public space true democracy has the potential to redefine, reinvent and truly exercise itself. The internet is not just a device, a library, a repository of funny cat videos nor just another pipeline through which an endless supply of extant television product can be pumped.
Media is an extension of human thought and action. It has, through force of habit and experience, come to be seen as the entitled voice of business and government; an entertaining distraction. Our continuing technological evolution allows for media to be seen and experienced once again for what it truly is: an extension of human thought and action. Media is no longer a curated flow of information. Media is Us.

If we cede the governance of our ability to see, hear, speak (and thereby think) to any form of corporate governance we will have lost any hope to live in a democratic society. When human thought and action are suppressed, directed, enforced or punished – this is not democracy. We need to exercise ourselves through this media, through this extension of ourselves, so our constantly fragile democracy may function and flourish.

I give the last word to Marshall McLuhan:

“Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left. Leasing our eyes and ears and nerves to commercial interests is like handing over the common speech to a private corporation, or like giving the earth’s atmosphere to a company as a monopoly.” (8)


1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary,
2. Merriam-Webster Dictionary,
3. Yochai Benkler, A Free Irresponsible Press: Wikileaks And The Battle Over The Soul Of The Networked Fourth Estate, March 17, 2011,
4. Abbott Joseph (“A.J.”) Liebling, Do you Belong in Journalism?, The New Yorker May 14, 1960.
5. Sydette Harry,
6. Larson Consulting,
7. Cory Doctorow, The Coming Civil War Over General Purpose Computing, BoingBoing,
8. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions Of Man,


As I was preparing this thing to be used as a blog post I found some other stuff that is also related and worth reading if you’re at all interested in this stuff. The first is Rebecca MacKinnon‘s book Consent Of The Networked where she says such things like:

“As citizens, we now use digital networks and platforms – including Facebook and Google Plus – to defend our physical rights against abuse by whatever physical sovereign power we happen to live under, and to bring about political change. However, our ability to use these platforms effectively depends on several key factors that are controlled most directly by the new digital sovereigns.”

– and a bunch of other really smart stuff.

Also worth reading is Digital Media & Democracy: Tactics In Hard Times and A Private Sphere: Democracy in a Digital Age. Check ’em out.


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