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A few numbers tell a dramatic story about extreme changes in media fascination with the Internet.
After the 1990s ended, I set out to gauge how news coverage of cyberspace shifted during the last half of the decade. The comprehensive Nexis database yielded some revealing statistics:
- In 1995, media outlets were transfixed with the Internet as an amazing source of knowledge. Major newspapers in the United States and abroad referred to the information superhighway in 4,562 stories. Meanwhile, during the entire year, articles mentioned e-commerce or electronic commerce only 915 times.
- In 1996, coverage of the Internet as an information superhighway fell to 2,370 stories in major newspapers, about half the previous years level. At the same time, coverage of electronic commerce nearly doubled, with mentions in 1,662 articles.
- For the first time, in 1997 the news medias emphasis on the Internet mainly touted it as a commercial avenue. The quantity of articles in major newspapers mentioning the information superhighway dropped sharply, to just 1,314. Meanwhile, the references to e-commerce gained further momentum, jumping to 2,812 articles.
- In 1998, despite an enormous upsurge of people online, the concept of an information superhighway appeared in only 945 articles in major newspapers. Simultaneously, e-commerce became a media obsession, with those newspapers referring to it in 6,403 articles.
- In 1999, while Internet usage continued to grow by leaps and bounds, the news media played down information superhighway imagery (with a mere 842 mentions in major papers). But major newspapers mentioned e-commerce in 20,641 articles.
How did Americas most influential daily papers frame the potentialities of the Internet? During the last five years of the 1990s, the annual number of Washington Post articles mentioning the information superhighway went from 178 to 20, while such New York Times articles went from 100 to 17. But during the same half decade, the yearly total of stories referring to electronic commerce zoomedrising in the Post from 19 to 430 and in the Times from 52 to 731.
In other prominent American newspapers, the pattern was similar. The Los Angeles Times stalled out on the information superhighway, going from 192 stories in 1995 to a measly 33 in 1999; Chicago Tribune articles went from 170 to 22. Meanwhile, the e-com- merce bandwagon went into overdrive: The LA Times accelerated from 24 to 1,243 stories per year. The Chicago Tribune escalated from 8 to 486.
Five years ago, there was tremendous enthusiasm for the emerging World Wide Web. Talk about the information superhighway evoked images of freewheeling, wide-ranging exploration. The phrase suggested that the Web was primarily a resource for learning and communication. Today, according to the prevalent spin, the Web is best understood as a way to make and spend money.
The drastic shift in media coverage mirrors the strip-malling of the Web by investors with deep pockets. But mainstream news outlets have been prescriptive as well as descriptive. They arent merely reporting on the big-bucks transformation of the Internet, theyre also hyping itand often directly participating. Many of the same mega-firms that dominate magazine racks and airwaves are now dominating the Web with extensively promoted sites.
Yes, e-mail can be wonderful. Yes, the Internet has proven invaluable for activists with high ideals and low budgets. Yes, Web searches can locate a lot of information within seconds. But lets get a grip on what has been happening to the World Wide Web overall.
The news medias recalibration of public expectations for the Internet has occurred in tandem with the steady commercialization of cyberspace. More and more, big money is weaving the Web, and the most heavily trafficked websites reflect that reality. Almost all of the Webs largest-volume sites are now owned by huge conglomerates. Even search-engine results are increasingly skewed, with priority placements greased by behind-the- scenes fees.
These days, information superhighway sounds outmoded and vaguely quaint.
The World Wide Web isnt supposed to make sense nearly as much as its supposed to make money. All glory to electronic commerce. As Martha Stewart rejoiced in a December 1998 Newsweek essay: The Web gives us younger, more affluent buyers.
Establishing a pantheon of cyber-heroes, media coverage has cast businesspeople like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Steve Case as great visionaries. If your hopes for the communications future are along the lines of Microsoft, Amazon.com, and America Online, youll be mighty pleased. Z
Norman Solomons latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.
By Michael Albert
In The Politics of Social Ecology (Black Rose, 1998), Janet Biehl and Murray Bookchin report that Libertarian Municipalism (or LM) aims to construct and expand local direct democracy, such that ordinary citizens make decisions for their communities and for their society as a whole through face- to-face processes of deliberation and decision-making at large general meetings in which all the citizens of a given area meet, deliberate, and make decisions on matters of common concern. And the decision-making assemblies must contain everyone in the municipality and meet at regular intervals, perhaps every month at first, and later weekly in an auditorium, theatre, courtyard, hall, park, or even a church...
Insofar as LM envisions a new polity, I wonder why the authors address legislation, but dont discuss mechanisms for adjudicating disputes or handling enforcement and implementation. At any rate, regarding what they do address, Biehl and Bookchin report that in advance of each meeting an agenda would be drawn up, made up of items and issues that citizens have asked the assembly to consider, though we dont learn who draws these agendas up, and according to what criteria, and with what logic guiding the structural choice.
The agenda would be announced at least several days in advance to give citizens the time to marshal whatever contributions they would like to make. But how can a citizen participate in every political debate based on a few days head start, and why is it desirable that everyone participates in every exchange? Perhaps LM assumes the volume of legislative undertakings would hugely diminish in a better society, but pending demonstration of that, the fact that we cant each decide all things all the time suggests a reasonable need to delegate authority sometimes, and thus to figure out how to do so compatibly with our values. Also, what happens in a transition to LM to the various people typically working on assembling information and analyzing it preparatory to making decisions? Does the transfer to LM leave whats called the permanent government basically intact, altering only the voting actors to being whole assemblies of citizens? Or is all the work currently done by non-elected officials no longer needed? If it is needed, who does it and what is their power?
At any rate, assemblies seem to be the only important political institutions envisioned in LM, and another defining aspect that characterizes them is that votes would be taken by majority rule so that if as little as 51% of the citizens favored a measure, it would be passed."
Why does LM take for granted (a) that all decisions should be majority vote, and (b) that the control of each institution in the society, regardless of how wide a constituency it affects, should be in the hands of the assembly for the particular municipality in which it happens to reside? Why should a majority decide aspects of my life that affect only me? And at the opposite extreme, why should a university or the Grand Canyon be totally under the auspices of those who happen to live where it sits?
For big decisions, in a libertarian municipalist polity, the municipalities would form confederations by sending delegates, but the delegates would not be representatives; that is, their purpose would not be to make policies or laws on behalf of their supposedly benighted constituents, in ways that they imagine to be beneficial to them. Instead, the delegates would be mandated by the people in their municipal assemblies to carry out their wishes.
What Biehl urges above is not just that the delegates should learn and then apply their knowledge of the preferences of their constituents so as to try to manifest them which many would claim is how the system we currently have is supposed to workbut that they are supposed to literally convey their constituents votes. Thus, the delegates would be strictly mandated to vote according to the wishes of their home municipalities, which would give them rigorous instructions in writing. But what sense does it make to send a limited number of folks to a federated congress, if they are only carrying a cumulative vote from their municipality regarding each issue to be raised? If the delegates only bring the recorded choices of their constituents, why do we need the congress, much less folks going off to attend it? Just tally the vote. On the other hand, if the delegates are assembling to expand and combine their views and only then apply the desires of their constituents to unfolding problems in light of revealed information and analysis conveyed in the congress, well, that sounds like what current representative institutions claim to do right now.
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LM seeks to give every actor in every municipality one vote about every decision addressed anywhere in the federations above them. Does LM think that if a federation of municipalities decides it wants to tell the municipal assembly in Iowa City that it has to operate differently on matters that dont affect anyone outside Iowa City, that the larger confederation has a right to do so? Shouldnt the folks in Iowa City have more say over political choices inside their community than outsiders, and shouldnt they have this greater say roughly in proportion to how they are more affected by the choices? Thus, my assembly in Iowa City doesnt seek permission from some higher federation about every choice we entertain, so long as the choices impact mostly us.
But if LM accepts as a value that people ought to influence political decisions in proportion as they are affected by them then: (1) Why would LM mechanically urge that all decisions be decided by majority rule? and (2) Why would LM say that institutions that affect a wider constituency, extending beyond the borders of a single municipality, nonetheless be entirely under the purview of the municipality where they happen to be situated?
Presumably, LMers dont believe that a majority of the whole population of a country should decide what I am going to have for breakfast tomorrow, not only on efficiency grounds, but because it would impose the will of others on acts of mine that dont affect them. By the same logic, I bet LMers dont believe a majority of the countrys whole population should be required to undertake or even ratify a decision about our local community that affects only us. Rather we ought to be able to make such decisions locally without oversight by others who arent affected. But if that turns out to be the LM view of political decision-making power, then for purely local matters what libertarian municipalists actually advocate is one-person one-vote inside the local assembly, but zero votes outside it.
Then arent LMers saying true democracy means empowering each actor to influence decisions proportionately to the extent that they are affected by it, as best we can? If so, then LMers shouldnt a priori say that all decisions should be one-person one-vote, nor should a single municipality determine all policies for an institution located in it but that impacts people far and wide. Nor should we say, for example, that a local assembly should pass judgment on decisions about my backyard that dont affect anyone but me by one-person one-vote. I should have dictatorial powers over that. And likewise, we presumably wouldnt say that the people of Washington, DC should oversee the Library of Congress or the Supreme Court with no one else impacting, so why should we allow a local assembly to oversee a museum or university without decision-making input from those who attend it, work in it, or are served by it, but live in other communities?
I like much of the moral and emotional impetus behind LM but I wonder why it ignores political dimensions other than face-to-face votingwhere is some discussion of law, adjudication, enforcement, and implementation, for example? More basic to the underlying logic of libertarian municipalism, I also wonder why 50 percent voting is elevated to a requirement. Instead, why not advocate various decision-making tactics each appropriate in different settings, used in patterns that enable actors to manifest their wills proportionately as they are affected by political outcomes?
The issue in envisioning polity is how do you get the political job done in accord with guiding values and without employing so much time that the rest of life is scuttled? What is a desirable mix of local, regional, and national attention to decisions in light of the reality that some decisions impact overwhelmingly locally, while others do so largely regionally, and still others primarily nationally? How do you deal with disputes, enforcement, execution, and particularly information critical to political matters? How do you avoid creating a fixed hierarchy of elected officials or permanent bureaucrats above the rest of the population, even as you have people preparing and disseminating information or adjudicating disputes, or implementing legislative choices?
I think LM is a very interesting and well meaning start on some of these questions, though too modest in its scope and too rigid in its proclamations. Z
14 Z MAGAZINE FEBRUARY 2000