Politics, Participation and Technics in Web 2.0

The issue of participation is the pivot between those who understand the web in the context of wider social and cultural transformations and those who see it primarily as a communication medium. In Benkler the problem of participation is construed negatively: the network is ‘freer’ than previous forms of media and this removal of the barriers of corporate ownership and control allows an organic decentralisation and empowerment of individuals to occur. However, for Stiegler participation to be meaningful must also represent a much more positive social and economic empowerment. More widely, a true participation must mean more than simply new technologies of participation, it is a politico-economic project, not simply a technological one.

The digital culture and politics oriented Australian Fibreculture Journal has a special issue examining the participatory potential (or not) of the Web 2.0, and how it relates and effects ‘events’.

One of the essays is “Beyond the ‘Networked Public Sphere’: Politics, Participation and Technics in Web 2.0” by Dr Ben Roberts.

(it also publishes my own article on peer production and co-creation featuring a new model of platform-based industrial production; we will discuss another important essay, Mapping Commercial Web 2.0 Worlds: Towards a New Critical Ontogenesis, by Ganaele Langlois et al., on a separate occasion)

After setting the stage of the debate with a critique of Yochai Benkler, Roberts points to more interesting directions in French thought, referring to an essay by Bernard Stiegler and Marc Crepon.

Ben Roberts:

“It’s really the question about participation and new technology that is addressed in Marc Crépon and Bernard Stiegler’s De la démocratie participative (On Participatory Democracy) (Crépon and Stiegler, 2007). The essays which comprise this volume were written during the French presidential election and respond particularly to the campaign of Ségolène Royal, which consistently evoked the idea of participatory democracy, as evidenced by the website Desirs d’avenir (Desires for the future) which solicited contributions from the public in the building of her manifesto. Royal’s commitment to participatory democracy, apparently inspired in part by the work of Rancière, is treated with some disdain by Crépon and Stiegler.

In his essay, ‘La démocratie en défaut’ (‘Democracy in default’), Crépon argues that this call for participatory democracy must be analysed in terms of the coincidence of two phenomena: the first is a crisis in representative democracy, characterised by declining voter turnouts, disaffection with the political class and so on; the other is the rise of the new technological possibilities of the web. For Crépon this crisis in representative democracy is itself twofold, divided between what he calls the ‘attachment’, i.e., the attachment to hard-won democratic institutions, and the ‘desire’, i.e., the desire for democracy as a kind of open possibility. This desire is explained by Crépon with reference to Derrida’s concept of a democracy that is always ‘to come’, which makes this desire also, constitutively, a kind of default or lack défaut. As Crépon puts it, this default ‘maintains confidence in the possibilities of untold and unprecedented social, moral and political relations that democracy could or should still harbour’ (Crépon and Stiegler, 2007: 27-28). For Crépon participatory democracy can only be meaningful if it gives a chance to both the attachment (to existing democratic institutions) and the desire for democracy as an open possibility, democracy to come etc.). Without addressing both these poles of the democratic crisis, participatory democracy might be even worse than the crisis it seeks to redress. Crépon says, ‘the risk then would be that, in the call for participatory democracy, the mirror of a direct participation, free from all mediation, a trap (miroir aux alouettes), finishes by effacing democracy itself’.[3] In other words, the risk would be that such a participatory democracy would descend into a kind of interactive televised populism.

Both Crépon and Stiegler see as dangerous the vision of web participation in which it opens a ‘closed’ political establishment to a new exteriority of public. The paradigmatic examples of this would be the televised interactive debates of the Royal campaign. Such participation makes great play of opening up debate to a class of people who are not political insiders, of allowing anyone to speak regardless of knowledge or expertise. But this utopian vision displays a kind of naivety about the nature of political discourse. As Crépon puts it, ‘The words that everyone uses to voice their opinion are rarely theirs. They are tributaries of sources of information that are, for the majority of citizen-televison viwers, televisual information’ (Crépon and Stiegler, 2007: 54). How meaningful is such participation when its terms and vocabulary are decided elsewhere? Indeed what can appear to happen in such debates is a kind of staged engagement with the outside, one which simply mirrors the political establishment. If the aim is to get outside a manipulated media discourse, what one finds at that ‘outside’ is merely a reflection of the inside, using the same language but with the authority of the ordinary and the popular. The problem, on the one hand, is that it can seem that apparently profound shifts in communication really represent nothing more than extension of the existing tools of political marketing or, ‘…a way to channel, identify, catalyse and performatively transform political tendencies…because what is targeted and solicited here is less an opinion than an audience’ (Crêpon and Stiegler, 2007: 106). The danger, on the other hand, is that these forms of debate simply offer a way for the political to appear more legitimate, appear more open and accountable, while all the time de-legitimising and short circuiting the proper apparatus of representative democracy.

In order to explore what true participatory democracy might mean, Crépon invokes C.B. Macpherson’s four models of democracy (which are also presented to some extent in Macpherson as four stages of democracy). These models are protective democracy, developmental democracy, equilibrium democracy and participatory democracy. The protective democracy model, which Macpherson associates with Bentham and James Mill, serves primarily to protect the self-interest of citizens from bad government. In this model, Macpherson argues, ‘there is no enthusiasm for democracy, no idea that it could be a morally transformative force; it is nothing but a logical requirement for the governance of inherently self-interested conflicting individuals’ (Macpherson, 1977: 43). Developmental democracy on the other hand, which Macpherson ascribes to John Stuart Mill, Dewey and others contained within it, ‘a moral vision of possibility of the improvement of mankind, and of a free and equal society not yet achieved’ (Macpherson, 1977: 43). Equilibrium democracy, the system which comes to prevail in the twentieth century, abandons this moral vision and is to a large extent for Macpherson a return to the values of protective democracy: democracy reconciles the competing and diverse interests of citizens through the party system where voters as consumers choose from policies like products offered by the various parties. The equilibrium model entails no sense of individual or social improvement but simply a reconciliation of competing interests through the market system of elections.

For Crépon, Macpherson’s models of democracy are useful because they help to diagnose the democratic crisis. Equilibrium democracy situates the citizen as a consumer of political products of which they have no control of the supply, as Crépon puts it:

In making the citizen-electors hypothetical consumers of political products over which they have no mastery of the supply (and of which it must be analysed by what channels and which technologies they are imposed on them), the equilibrium democracy model only transposes the symbolic and spiritual misery of the market onto the political domain.

Here we can see the difference between Benkler and Crépon in sharp relief. For Benkler the kind of participation empowered by the web is not a move away from what is described here as equilibrium democracy. Indeed, far from it: the best that can be said of Benkler’s ‘network public sphere’ is that it fixes the equilibrium model by empowering consumers and therefore enabling a ‘freer’ market in the consumption of political products. For Benkler there is nothing wrong with the political system per se, there is just a problem with political communication that can be fixed by enabling a more transparent form of communication, one ‘freed’ from the distortions of mass media. For Crépon, on the other hand, it is because culture is right at the heart of democracy that its industrialisation in the form of mass media poses such a problem.

In this description we can also see Crépon moving the debate into distinctively Stieglerian terrain with the concept of ‘symbolic misery’ (as outlined by Stiegler in the two volumes of De La misère symbolique (Stiegler, 2004a, Stiegler, 2005). Stiegler defines symbolic misery as ‘a loss of individuation which results from a loss of participation in the production of symbols’.[5] The loss of participation here is fundamental to the production of culture in the equilibrium model. It cannot be corrected simply by the appearance of a communication medium that harnesses ‘decentralized individual action’. In the first place this is because Crépon and Stiegler have a very different understanding of the relationship between culture and individual or group identity than Benkler’s narrow liberal model allows. This model can be seen in the reworking of the relationship between ‘technics’ and ‘individuation’.

The concept of individuation, which is central to Stiegler’s work, is itself derived from the concept of psychic and collective individuation in the work of Gilbert Simondon. For Simondon the production of the ‘I’, the individual and that of the collective ‘we’, the group are inseparable.(Crépon and Stiegler, 2007: 68n1). Collective individuation is to be understood as a process of transformation within a preindividual milieu and not as the coming together of a set of preexisting individuals. The loss of individuation which forms part of the condition Stiegler calls symbolic misery relates to the theorisation of technics which Stiegler talks about in his early work. For Stiegler philosophy is both founded on and founders on what he calls ‘technics’. What he means by technics is not to be confused with technology in the modern sense. Technics encompasses everything from primitive tools through systems of writing to modern telecommunications. Stiegler even thinks under the terms technics something like language, for example. For him, ‘technics is the condition of culture’ and it would be ‘absurd to oppose technics to culture’ (Stiegler, 2004b: 59). Technics in this sense is therefore inseparable from culture and society and it makes no sense either to talk of technics determining culture and society or vice versa. Culture and society are not constituted by technics as if by cause but rather constituted through it. Nor does technics in Stiegler’s sense represent scientific progress or a deterministic evolution; rather, however strange this may seem, technics a kind of pure accidentality or contingency. Indeed for Stiegler it is because of the exteriorisation of the human into technics, artefacts or inorganic organized matter that culture and society constitute themselves contingently.”

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