By: Derrick Gozal
Something is wrong with the Internet. Or at least, that is the impression one often gets from popular media. From foreign manipulation of elections to society’s ever increasing political polarization, all stories point to the internet as the primary culprit. These are all valid points, and yet they all seem to be mere subsets of a larger phenomenon. The frenzy surrounding the popular narratives concerning the Internet offers a multitude of stories. Nonetheless, they seem incomplete, like limbs severed from a greater whole. The problem with a modern phenomenon such as the Internet, and trying to obtain a synthesized understanding of it, is that it is simply “too new.” One can better analyze the effects of the Industrial Revolution from the many years of hindsight and historical evidence on it and its long-term impacts. Analysis of the Internet doesn’t have the same benefits. But while the present may hold few answers, it is perhaps the past that holds the key to some semblance of understanding. Indeed, one sees repeated throughout history several phenomena that bear striking similarities to the Internet. These phenomena, and what they may reveal about the Internet, will be the main focus of this piece.
In the sixth century BCE, a series of reforms were passed in ancient Athens. This was the first of many which would culminate in the birth of one of the world’s first democratic governments. Unlike modern conceptions of democracy, the Athenian system was direct in nature. In other words, citizens did not elect representatives who would make decisions in their name; instead, citizens directly made most of the decisions regarding matters of governance. In the midst of all this was the Agora, a public space in the center of the city. It was here that the Athenian public obtained their information, sometimes from idle chat or gossip, other times from public speeches by those more inclined towards politics. The Agora’s function as a hub where both information and opinion could be readily exchanged gave it a central role in Athens’ socio-political scene, providing its citizenry with the necessary information to participate in matters of governance. One might even say that it was the lifeblood of Athenian democracy.
Fast forward to the 17th century, or more specifically, to its coffeehouses. Coffee is a wonderful commodity, valued for its ability to keep human brains running beyond their mortal limits. The modern world understands this and so did our ancestors three centuries ago. Drinking coffee, however, was not the only thing prevalent in coffeehouses. Indeed, coffeehouses also served as centers of information exchange: ranging from mundane gossip to political and philosophical debates. Much like the Agora, coffeehouses were also public spaces, providing no restrictions on who could enter and participate in discussions. Class distinctions were blurred, and the exchange of information and opinion between those from radically different social strata flowed at a scale that was perhaps unlike any other point in history. The historical ramifications of this phenomenon were enormous. Coffeehouses became havens of political dissent, not just in how it provided a space for mavericks to speak their minds, but also in how it exposed such opinions to increasing numbers of people, enabling the creation of masses who became more and more self-conscious about how they viewed things as a collective. Fearing precisely this, Charles II of England attempted to ban coffeehouses in 1675.
The political discourse in coffeehouses however, would be completely dwarfed by what would happen in France in 1789: where long-simmering social and political discontent would finally explode, culminating in the French Revolution. And it is certainly no coincidence that Camille Desmoulins’ famous rallying call, one of many which galvanized the local Parisians to take up arms against the government, took place at the Cafe de Foy: a coffeehouse.
The Agora of ancient Athens and the coffeehouses of 17th and 18th century Europe are connected by the fact that both were public spaces where information could be freely exchanged. This essentially made them, to use the words of historians Sara Evans and Harry Boyte, “free spaces.” Although each case had decidedly different effects, a unifying theme runs through both. In the absence of free spaces, one’s own thoughts and opinions are restricted to oneself and perhaps a small cadre of family and friends. Free spaces, however, allow for the expression and exchange of such thoughts to a much greater audience. This facilitated the creation of a much broader form of identity and consciousness. The private person, once privy to only his/her own consciousness, is soon inserted into a world where he or she is also exposed to the thoughts of a greater collective. In other words, individuals now have the capability to plug themselves into a swirling vortex of the thoughts and opinions of others, all amalgamated into a collective consciousness. One can even go so far to say that this marked the birth of public opinion. And to return to the present, it is perhaps not too much of a stretch to say that one sees these exact features on the internet.
Much like the Agora and the coffeehouses of old, the Internet shares all the characteristics accorded to free spaces. With very little restriction (excepting perhaps connectivity issues) as to who can access it, the Internet is essentially, for most purposes, a public space open to all. And of course, the most salient feature that comes to mind is its function as a hub of information; where thoughts, opinions, and material of all sorts are regularly exchanged between its users. What perhaps marks the Internet as different to all previous historical examples is its unprecedented reach and size. Two people on opposite sides of the planet can now exchange information with each other. Over three billion people, around 43% of the world’s population, now use the Internet. Granted, some barriers to exchange still exist, the most notable being those of linguistic and technological natures. Nevertheless, the potential of the Internet to create a collective consciousness, at a scale much greater than the free spaces of the past, cannot be discounted. Some effects perhaps reminiscent of this capacity have already occurred, most notably in the populist sentiments sweeping through Europe and the United States, most of which was fueled and propelled through the Internet.
And so comes the looming question: what does this mean? Much of the prevalent commentary regarding the Internet sees it as a dividing force, failing to deliver on its early promise of acting as a great equalizer through the democratization of information. Instead, it is now often seen as a threat to democracy itself, for various reasons ranging from enabling foreign cyber manipulation to increasing political polarization. If the historical precedent has shown anything, however, it is that this is a somewhat problematic view. Like the Athenian Agora and the coffeehouses of 17th and 18th century Europe, the Internet has, at a scale unmatched in history, allowed for the free exchange of information. With regards to the democratization of information, it is difficult to make an argument that the Internet has failed to deliver on its promise. What is less commonly considered, however, is how this democratization of information also strengthens collective consciousness and amplifies public opinion. In the above examples, this strengthening led to the increasing influence and voice of public groups. It is also important to note that while public groups have always existed, free spaces had such an effect that these groups increasingly defined themselves around shared sets of ideas and opinions. In the case of ancient Athens, this strengthening of public opinion was channeled into a direct democracy, which proved to be an extraordinarily resilient system characterized by a relative scarcity of “entrenched interests,” despite its frequent fits of poor governance. In 18th century France, this same amplification of public opinion manifested as revolutionary action, ushering in a period of remarkable chaos while also setting the groundwork for modern liberal democracy.
In all of these cases, one can still find plenty of debate over whether such effects were ultimately beneficial or harmful. This debate is even more complicated for the Internet, the implications of which we still do not fully understand. And so to evaluate the Internet in this manner, as a whole, remains something that is difficult to do. What is perhaps less difficult to see is how the Internet is creating a world where the forces of public opinion and consciousness — for better or worse — are becoming ever more powerful, and that society may ultimately be forced to radically change in order to adapt.