Paper 1: The Democratic Tradition of the Politics of Infrastructure

Joseph Reagle

In the course readings and discussions we have examined the
definitions of political terms like democracy,  and
liberalism; we have discussed the nature of individualism,
community, and civil discourse; and finally, we attempted to
determine how these concepts relate to the digital
infrastructure.  Though such discussions are very important
and enjoyable, I feel their underlying assumptions need to
be examined.

The first assumption is that the democratic tradition is
superior to all others because it ought to be.  That somehow
this superiority is born of a moralistic impulse of its
citizens, and if others were to merely follow our principles
and beliefs they would prosper as we do. I describe this
type of theory as 'mechanistic', in that a citizenry need to
only follow some rules and principles to create a healthy
capitalistic, consumer society.  Another way to observe the
lives of political entities is to step back and view
political development in a broader historical context.
Though at first this may seem reminiscent of Marxism, I do
not attempt anything very grand.  Merely, I state that
instead of thinking that man is controlling the flow of
history, one could see history as the petri-dish of
political evolution.  America was a fortunate political germ
that grew from an environment of vast raw resources,
relative political stability, and relatively free from most
"entangling alliances".  The point of this is to merely warn
of the thinking that America's "success" is solely based on
the original "gumption" of our founding fathers.  It would
seem as if capitalistic, democratic nations fair best in
having the greatest marginal social benefit for its
citizens, and this is because history has shown this to be,
not that it need be.

Given the first assumption, the second assumption follows.
(Strangely, the first assumption was born of the second as I
tried to grapple with various readings.)  Often I am
confused after reading how we need to increase political
participation, but how too much participation through
representation is leading to  "hyper" democracy.  I think
then, "what is the solution?"  And therein lies the second
assumption, that there is a solution:

  The pursuit of the state's happiness through policy or
  politics is as prone -- if not moreso -- to difficulty
  and even failure, as the role of philosophy and religion
  in the promotion of an individual's happiness. [JR]

If there is no "solution", then we have really only been
lucky, and been the ones to find the best path as others
fell to the wayside with much bloodshed, despondency, and
poverty.  Perhaps we can be proud of our success, but it
should not be so much pride in that we accomplished x, y, or
z --as we could be proud of our opposable thumb-- but that
we provide an environment in which flexibility and
adaptation can occur.

How do these considerations affect the debate concerning
individualism, communitarianism, participation, and
democracy?  The above assumptions lead to a libertarian
viewpoint, and are similar to Kenneth Arrow's theories on
developing social welfare functions as an aggregate of
individual utilities:

  His essential results are that:
  1.  The choices a group makes depend on its internal
  rules of decision making; for example, it voting rules.
  2.  No one voting rule or decision making process is
  intrinsically best.
  3.  The choices made by a group are therefore necessarily
  an ambiguous reflection of its preferences, so that we
  cannot rely on a group's choices to construct its social
  welfare function. (Proof omitted.) [deNeufville, "Applied
  Systems Analysis", p. 433]

Hence, I would argue that maximizing the individual's
utility is the "safest" motivation for the goal of society.
This is not to say there should be no concern for a society
or government, for humans are often happier in healthy
communities, and 99.9% of the people can't escape society.
Nor, does this argument necessarily disallow all forms of
governmental paternalism.  As an example, most would
acknowledge that capitalistic markets are not perfect, but
prone to market failures especially in cases of skewed
market power, incomplete market information,
externatilities, and public goods. [Pindyck, Rubinfield,
"MicroEconomics", p. 589]  Government can help lessen such

Given the above, I have identified myself as a bit of a
libertarian with tendencies towards limited
communitarianism, and a "political darwinist."  Society and
government will most likely go where it will, controlled by
forces perhaps we can not completely understand, but
decisions need to be made.  I make those decisions by my own
desires while allowing others to make decisions by theirs.
There is often conflict, but through communication one can
keep society flexible, and a community of "civil debaters"
may develop to provide that flexibility.  I have tried to
provide reasons for why I feel this way, but each point may
be contested, and in the end I can just say it's a priori
or, "well, that's the way I like things."

How does the digital infrastructure impact upon the way I
like things?  In general, I like it a lot.  I have been a
participant of electronic communities since I was 14.  For
me, this way of communicating has been a way to learn and a
way to express myself.  How such an affinity for electronic
communities extends to the possibility of teledemocracy is
difficult to resolve.  I liked Bullock's requirements of
democracy: a) free elections, b) effective choice, and c)
whether the representatives can question, discuss, or
criticize the government without fear of interference or
arrest.  The requirements are simple, and with such a
definition one could argue that by using information
technologies people educate and empower themselves,
increasing the strength of the democracy.

However, if one takes my assumption that there is no
absolute solution to the political and social problems of
the day, democratic enabling information technology may lead
to a different crisis.  Huntington felt that democracy could
be dangerous because, "it had been unable to satisfy the
conflicting claims made upon it." [Berry, "Participation and
Democracy", p. 6]  Hence, people become agitated that there
desires are not implemented,  resulting in factionalization,
fanaticism, uncivil communication, and "hyper democracy."
As people become frustrated, the sense of a general open
community of people who agree to civilly disagree dissolves.
If each feels their position is based on undeniable rights,
little room for discourse is allowed.  A backlash against
previous open mindedness occurs and "absolutism becomes very
attractive again." [Eberly, "Building a Community of
Citizens,  p. xxi]  The end result is "hyper democracy" in
which, "Intensely felt opinion leads to the impulsive
passage of dubious laws."  [Wright, "Hyper Democracy", Time,
p. 16]  Examples of such laws abound, such as the "three
strikes and your out".  Recently, on "This Week with David
Brinkley", David Brinkley mentioned state legislatures
exemplifying this behavior: the "three strikes and your
dead" proposal, and legislation stating if a person cannot
control their vicious dog, their welfare will be taking away-
- this is an attack aimed at welfare recipients, not owners
of unruly dogs!

Some would say this type of behavior is also used on the
Internet in the form of flaming, and mail bombing.  I would
tend to disagree with the Internet argument, as well as the
cataclysmic argument above -- which I acknowledge as a
danger, but not a concern that is overwhelmingly new and
novel.  I feel behavior like flaming is a means by which
people attempt to show disapproval without normal social
cues or context.  Though I rarely participate in such
behavior, and I tend to discount it, it has developed into a
useful linguistic tool as exemplified by the "[flame
on]/[flame off]" constructions in which one brackets the
disparaging comments in the context of a more reasoned
message.  As someone mentioned in class, there is a wide
range of strata in the Internet from nasty war boards and
channels, to lofty, academic email lists.  As long as all
the strata continue to exist I feel the Internet is
providing a useful function to society.

In regards to hyperdemocracy and the new information intense
media, the concern of popular whims affecting policy is not
at all new; it led to the development of our bicameral
Congress.  Furthermore, the exchange of thought through
0information technologies is important to the economic and
social evolution of our society, regardless if people can
cast their votes on the Net or email their representatives.
The truly important thing is that we can email each other.