This afternoon, sitting on the small deck of Gecko, surrounded by the warm and humid air, hidden in the mild noise, I got myself ready for the long-delayed conversation. Three law professors, Lawrence Lessig, Cass Sunstein, and Yochai Benkler, are together to talk about blogs...through their writings. :)
Here is my record of this conversation. Lessig is L, Sunstein is S, Benkler is B and me is me.
S: Blogs are an unlikely venue for Habermasian public sphere because of fragmentation and polarization.
L: Whether blogs democratize should be examined within the constraint of their codes / architecture.
S: Alright. The codes for blogs are like-minded groups that are isolated from each other.
B: No. It is not true. The architecture of blogs is the power law distribution in general and the long tail distribution within like-minded groups.
Me: What is the power law distribution?
B: You guys should read Science and Nature. It means that most people still visit a few superstar websites. So fragmentation is not a problem.
Me: Even though people go to the same websites such as google.com, they could selectively choose information that echo their opinions. At the level of individual exposure, it is still fragmented.
S: I agree.
Me: But selective exposure itself has to be examined rather than being assumed. The first step of assuming preference for the like-mind might be wrong.
B: I agree. You have to provide empirical data.
Me: How does the long tail distribution help to prevent polarization?
B: It means no superstars can totally dominate a small world. Many low end sites are still connected to each other if you look at a smaller scale cluster.
Me: OK. So it prevents domination or centralization in small clusters. But how does it prevent fragmentation and polarization?
B: Well, it is actually that there is no fragmentation so there is no polarization.
L: The distributions you talked about could be changed, do you know? The codes that determine the dynamics are open to changes.
B: Oh yes. That is why we should pay close attention to how policy regulates the codes.
L: Yes, the constraints of law take advantage of codes to make cyberspace more regulatable. The government can interfere with the formation of the two distributions you mentioned.
B: But so far the government has a harder time to control cyberspace than mass media.
L: Are you sure? The government enjoys controls that they cannot have before. For example, it can even censor private communication.
Me: Probably we should not only use mass media as the benchmark. Other communication modes such as interpersonal comm. should be used as reference point, too.
Nanjing, a medium-size city besides the Yangzi River, recently opened up an online public forum to elicit inputs from citizens on the city's development. This kind of "government-initiated consultation" is nothing new.
When I was an intern reporter for the city newspaper in 1999, I was invited to audit in a public hearing about the raise of taxi fares. We had a representative of taxi drivers, a representative of citizens, a representative of taxi companies and several government officials. The discussion was heated but very polite. The citizen representative listed many concerns to object the raise. The driver had his own arguments. The officials were always referred to with respect and they acted more like a judge rather than a participant whose interest is affected by the discussion. Another instance also happened during my intern. I was notified that a secret meeting would be held between two local real estate companies which had serious business conflicts. The two companies were the largest in the local market and their conflicts threw significant threats to the city's renovation plan. Governmental officials were present again as a judge to settle the thing. This secret meeting was more confrontal than the previous one. I was forced out when they found out that I am a reporter.
The results of the two consultations are quite different. I wrote a story about the taxi fare meeting and soon, the policy was made public: Taxi fares were raised but at a lower rate than the one proposed by drivers and taxi companies. I was not able to write anything about the second meeting because I did not know what they settled on. But in both cases, the city government functioned as a mediator between different parties in the civil society. The mediation in the first case lends legitimacy to the policy-making by showing that the procedure, at lest, looks fair. The second case was not open to the public probably because there was not a policy change that the government has to defend in front of the citizens.
The two cases fit nicely to the concept of Authoritarian Deliberation proposed by Min Jiang from UNC-Charlotte. In her presentation for the 6th Chinese Internet Research Conference, she made an excellent point that deliberation does not have to exist under a premise of liberal democracy. Instead, an authoritarian country like China has already incorporated the deliberation mechanism into their governance.
But what is new in the current case is that the public forum is hosted in a private website which has no official affiliation with the city hall. The call for advices is directed to a large group of citizens rather than a few representatives. The responses are directly from individual citizens rather than being re-presented by some of them. However, the officials still have the final say. As one of the respondents said,
This way of listening to advices is great. But I hope there will be a good end of it. The advices can be put into effect in operation.
I am an Associate Professor at Department of Communication and New Media, National University of Singapore.