Doing democracy

Reflections on the 10 year Anniversary of the Publication of "The Net and Netizens"

This is a period marked by serious political dissatisfaction around the world. There is the promise of democratic societies, but the promise too often is far removed from the reality of people’s lives. Yet there is the widespread yearning for a better world, for a society where democracy is practiced, not merely pretended. In this situation the question is raised: "What does democracy look like? How does it function? Are there any operational models to observe and learn from?"

Fortunately, there is a model to be examined, a practice to be investigated. Ten years ago, on July 6, 1993, a student, Michael Hauben, who died two years ago (Death of a Netizen), posted a paper on the Net. The title of the paper was "Common Sense: The Net and Netizens". The first sentences:

Welcome to the 21st Century. You are a Netizen (Net Citizen), and you exist as a citizen of the world thanks to the global connectivity that the Net gives you. You consider everyone as your compatriot. You physically live in one country but you are in contact with much of the world via the global computer network. Virtually you live next door to every other single netizen in the world. Geographical separation is replaced by existence in the same virtual space.

It was a long paper so it was posted in three separate parts: Preface, Paper, Appendix.

The paper introduced a concept, which has since spread around the world, both online and off (see also Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet). This concept can provide a practical operational framework to explore a model for democracy. Describing how he hoped to focus the paper, Michael Hauben wrote:

The Net and Netizens: A Revitalization of People Power, a Strengthening of People Power. Bottom Up is the Principle of this paper.

The interesting aspect of "The Net and Netizens" is that it identifies and describes the important role of the online user in creating the new social treasure that had come to be known as the Net. The net.Citizen, or netizen, as Michael Hauben writes, was the active agent in creating something new, the democratic online content and form of the 1993 network of networks. The netizen contributed information and viewpoints that made it possible to consider an ie or problem and come to a reasoned judgment or decision. Netizens would help other netizens if they deemed it worthwhile.

The initiative that was being developed was from the netizens themselves. Examples included a mailing list by a person in Ireland summarizing the weekly news and sending it out to over 1000 people around the world who wanted to stay current with Irish news; Usenet newsgroups like misc.News.Southasia and soc.Culture.India which made it possible for people from an area to continue contact with what was happening; a mailing list to watch the prices of gas in California to warn against price gouging. There were many other examples that Michael Hauben provided which he had learned from his research online.

The key aspect, however, of this new form of democracy, was that the previously disenfranchised reader could now broadcast to others around the world, news and views from a grassroots perspective. Previously, there had been central control of the mass media. Now the participant himself or herself, could provide information to the online world about an event or an area of knowledge. Netizens also had the ability to be citizen reporters, to offer a more wide ranging set of view points and perspectives on ies or problems, a broader basis from which to form one’s own opinion, than hitherto had been possible.

Netizens could meet online, discuss ies and problems, and from the process decide on the goal or direction to pursue. Michael Hauben saw this process as a way of revitalizing society, as a way that those previously disenfranchised could gain power over both their society and over their personal lives.

In this operating model of democracy, there were no elections or representatives. Rather this embryo of democracy was focused on the active participation and contributions of the many in a manner not hitherto possible. Michael Hauben described some of the broad ranging ages and occupations of the more than 10 million computer users who, by 1993, were connected around the world. At the time the computer networking connections were made possible by gateways between different networks, like the scientific and educational Internet, the academic Bitnet, the technical research Unix UUCP and Usenet network, the Cleveland Freenet for community people, and other networks.

While the netizen was an active contributor to the developing social treasure, Michael Hauben realized the need to make it possible for everyone to have access to this new communication paradigm to realize its potential. He writes:

This complete connection of the body of citizens of the world does not exist as of today, and it will definitely be a fight to make access to the Net open and available to all. However, in the future we might be seeing the possible expansion of what it means to be a social animal. Practically every single individual on the Net today is available to every other person on the Net….International connection coexists on the same level with local connection. Also the computer networks allow a more advanced connection between the people who are communicating.

Although the path was difficult, Michael Hauben also appreciated the importance of the goal. He writes:

Despite the problems, for people of the world, the Net provides a powerful way of peaceful assembly. Peaceful Assembly allows for people to take control over their lives, rather than control being in the hands of others. This power has to be honored and protected. Any medium or tool that helps people to hold or gain power is something special and has to be protected.

The focus of democracy, as described in "The Net and Netizens", is on the people themselves, and on their ability and achievements in determining the nature and development of their society. It is on support for the ever increasing contributions of more of the populace in the process.

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