The Real Digital Divide: Citizens versus Consumers

Oscar H Gandy. Handbook of New Media: Social Shaping and Consequences of ICTs. Editor: Leah A Lievrouw & Sonia Livingstone. Sage Publications. 2002.

The study of new media can be approached from a variety of perspectives. One useful approach frames the new media from within a set of distinct perspectives on the users or audiences for these media. Webster and Phalen (1997) describe three prominent constructions that dominate much contemporary writing about audiences. We are familiar with the somewhat critical notion of the audience as a commodity. This perspective suggests that audiences are ‘produced’ by the media system for sale to advertisers or sponsors of persuasive appeals. A somewhat different construction recognizes that audiences may be consumers of the information and entertainment that media provide. The third perspective, which constructs audiences as ‘victims’ in need of protection, is explored as a focus of attention common to academics and regulators who are concerned about the harms which might be caused by exposure to certain types of content, such as the increasingly explicit sex and violence on television.

What Webster and Phalen seem to have ignored in their review of the dominant perspectives within audience studies is the somewhat faded construction of the audience as citizen who participates actively in the public sphere. This is an audience thought to have been served historically by noncommercial public broadcasters who once provided high-quality public affairs programming as an alternative to commercial fare. This is the same audience that was served to a lesser extent by segments of the commercial press that were governed more by a concern for the public interest than for the bottom line.

The disregard of the needs of the audience as citizen in favour of the desires of the audience as consumer is likely to widen in what we have come to describe as the new media environment. While mainstream discourse tends to describe the new media in terms of digital convergence, I see the new media as widening the distinction between the citizen and the consumer, and for me, this is the ‘real digital divide’.

A Brief History of the Real Digital Divide

The distinction between citizen and consumer is fundamental, although it is often confused or glossed over through an unsatisfactory merger within popular and academic discursive reference to the citizen/consumer. Toby Miller suggests that the citizen is a ‘wizened figure from the past and the consumer is a naive phenomenon, essentially a creature of the nineteenth century’ (1999: 282). Even though he suggests that both are related as shadows are to the figures that walk the earth, it is the consumer who has been given primacy in contemporary policy discourse.

At the heart of the emergent distinctions between citizens and consumers is a continuing debate about the role of the government and the nature of its responsibility for ensuring that the public interest and the public welfare of citizens are well served. The policies and institutions developed during the heyday of the welfare state were explicitly charged with guaranteeing that the public as a whole, as well as the poor and disadvantaged in particular, would have access to the basic requirements of existence. At the present time, when the assumptions underlying the identification of basic human needs essential to citizenship have been challenged, we are no longer certain that access to information will be included in that set. We have been warned that ‘to argue that one or another type of communication activity is necessary to secure competent citizenship, one would have to appeal to other elements of reason than scientific ones’ (Calabrese and Borchert, 1996: 264), and by all signs, most of those elements have been declared ineligible.

The distinctions between the citizen and the consumer are drawn most sharply in the contemporary debates about the nature and function of the public sphere in comparison with the nature and function of the ‘free market’ (Sunstein, 1997). Contemporary thinking about the public sphere has been influenced substantially by contributions from Jürgen Habermas (1989). This discursive environment is valued for its role in the development of public will and its expression as public opinion. The idealized public sphere is thought to be a fundamental resource for the evolution and growth of democracy (Baker, 2001; Curran, 2000).

The interests of the sovereign consumer have come to replace the interests of citizens as a basis for evaluating the performance of a variety of social systems (Kuttner, 1999). Kuttner credits essays published by liberal economists Arthur Okun and Charles Schultz in the mid 1970s with starting the intellectual swing back towards a fundamentalist laissez-faire conception of the ideal. Even though the economists associated with Ronald Reagan’s administration are credited with initiating the dismantling of the welfare state, Kuttner (1999: 37) suggests that the door had been opened quite wide by the liberals who had come before him.

Neoliberal political philosophy has found a comfortable berth in an intellectual stream of postmodern thought that denies the possibility of an institutionalized representation of common or collective interests. This is also a view that is pessimistic regarding the possibility of arriving at a democratic consensus (Villa, 1992). Ironically, despite the obvious inequalities we observe within the marketplace, the market is praised as being more responsive than political systems to individual interests (Pauwels, 1999).

Michael Tracey characterizes this recent shift in the ideological ground as having been nothing short of revolutionary:

Once these intellectual constructs had taken hold, sanctified by the election of numerous right-wing governments, then on the political dais could be placed the individual-as-consumer and the needs and interests of ‘the corporation’. And buried deep beneath the rubble of the old order were such concepts as public good, public interest, community, public culture, citizenship, governance, and, increasingly, the nation-state. (1998: 52)

At the core of this shift was the emergence of the ‘public choice’ school of political economy which made use of sophisticated models to demonstrate the ‘impossibility’ of democratic governance. On the basis of this assumption, public choice theorists argued against attempting to govern in any part of the social realm in which markets might perform at least as well as government. It is clear that the market was usually given the benefit of the doubt in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary (Reder, 1999).

Classical works in this area include Anthony Downs’ Economic Theory of Democracy and Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action. While it may be overreaching to claim that these scholars actively identified with and argued on behalf of those with the most power and resources in society, it seems clear that the laissez-faire policies that reflect this discursive thread ultimately serve those interests. Indeed, as Kuttner argues, ‘much of the degradation of political democracy is the result precisely of market forms and norms taking over the political process’ (1999: 348).

A Technological Wedge

The real digital divide is not the product of an autonomous shift in political philosophy. Instead, it is the product of a complex interaction between forces emerging from dynamically shifting spheres, of which the sphere of technology is of central importance (Best and Kellner, 1991; Webster, 1995). Carlotta Perez (1985) invites us to place historic changes in technical systems within the scope of Joseph Schumpeter’s interpretation of Kondratieff’s long waves of economic expansion and contraction. Among a variety of economic theories that seek to explain the business cycle, long-wave theory is concerned with interpreting the relationships between cycles of economic growth and social and political change (Beniger, 1986; Gordon, 1986; Hall and Preston, 1988).

Perez calls our attention to the relationships between what she identifies as a technoeconomic sphere and a socioinstitutional framework that either facilitates or constrains the emergence of new technical systems (Webster, 1995). Knox and Agnew (1994: 12) illustrate the relationships between long waves and the shorter Kuznet cycles of infrastructural investment. These systems are examined in relation to changes in the nature of capitalist production relations, as well as to critical changes in the relations between the market and the state. It is by examining the complex relations between these systems that we can begin to understand the ways in which new media technology, including the Internet, has been enabled by a process of liberalization and deregulation that has been accompanied by the canonization of the market and its logic (Werbach, 1997). It is this process that has inserted a powerful epistemological wedge between the domains of citizens and consumers.

Schumpeter’s characterization of the waves of technological innovation has been described in terms of the waves of ‘creative destruction’ that they set in motion. Calabrese (1999) cautions us not to assume that the outcomes of such transformations are not always progressive. From his perspective, changes we discuss in terms of globalization are the result of improvements in the position of transnational corporations in relation to those of individual governments. Globalization as a process is dependent upon the spread of telecommunications systems and institutions.

Changes in technical systems are accompanied by changes in social relations. Along these lines, Calabrese identifies the emergence of a new form of ‘global citizenship’ that reserves the traditional benefits of citizenship for ‘the wealthiest members of global society, particularly the corporate-legal person’ (1999: 263). While he takes due note of the role of social movements for global democracy, such as the call for a new world information and communication order (NWICO) and its institutionalization within the McBride Commission of UNESCO, Calabrese is ambivalent about the contributions of this movement at the grassroots level of organization. He concludes that ‘the effort to develop a progressive global cultural agenda poses little threat to the “trade and investment” orientation of global policymaking in media and communication’ (1999: 272).

As Don Lamberton (in this volume) discusses with regard to the economics of information, the movement into what we refer to as an information age has also been shaped in large part by the transformation of information into a commodity. This a fundamental process that heightens the distinction between what economists refer to as public and private goods. Public goods are characterized by several things, the most important of which is the fact that the use of the good ‘by one person does not prevent or diminish its use by others’ (Noll, 1993-4: 29-30). Private goods, on the other hand, are marked by the ability of persons to limit or otherwise control access to and use of those goods. Information is, by its essence, primarily a public good, and it is only by means of technology and aggressive regulatory control that its private nature can be made dominant.

Vincent Mosco (1989) has captured the essence of this process in terms of the ‘pay-per society’ that he sees as emerging in its wake. Access to information in the information age would be determined by ability and willingness to pay, rather than by some determination of need or right associated with one’s status as citizen or ‘member’ of a given society. The ability of computer-based systems to manage distinct transactions in smaller and smaller units helps to facilitate the spread of this logic into more and more areas of social life (Robins and Webster, 1999). Increasingly, social interactions become market transactions: ‘The growth of our ability to use communications and information systems to measure and monitor market activity with logical exactitude, supports those who contend that market rules should replace, as fully as possible, any government or other public intervention’ (Mosco, 1989: 35). It is here that the division between the realm governed by citizens or members of society and the realms governed by consumers in markets is widened by the wedge of information technology.

A Marketplace Logic

Marketization is a term that has been used to characterize the shift in public policy that supports the establishment of a dominant role for private corporations in the management of public culture (Murdock and Golding, 1999). Marketization evolved rapidly along with the adoption of a ‘marketplace standard’ for the regulation of media in the ‘public interest, convenience and necessity’ (Polic and Gandy, 1991). Prior to the development of marketization, the dominant regulatory model in the United States was one of public trusteeship, a system through which private firms would be granted the opportunity to operate what was usually a quite profitable broadcast enterprise as long as that operation was determined to be in the public interest.

The spread of marketization has been hastened by the use of auctions as an ‘efficient’ means of allocating basic communications resources, such as control of segments of the electromagnetic spectrum. The role for citizens in the determination of which provider might gain a ‘licence’ or a franchise to operate a communication service in the public interest was never great. It has virtually disappeared under the current wave of marketization.

The development of marketization has also been accompanied by a much revised approach toward market concentration. Not only have the number of mergers within the media industries increased, but limits on the extent of ownership within markets have been reduced almost to insignificance (McChesney, 1999). The assumption that oligopoly is an efficient level of organization for communications has been accompanied by acceptance of the view that it is not actual competition, but the possibility of competitive entry into a market that will serve to discipline service providers (McNamara, 1991). As supporters of marketization have presented the idea of digital convergence as a marker of technological progress, they suggest that any ‘artificial’ barriers to entry into the communications market would represent a cost to society (Murdock and Golding, 1999).

Supporters of marketization suggest that government intervention in media markets can only be justified when it appears necessary to force markets to do what they would ordinarily do without interference. It should be clear, however, that there never were any markets that were truly self-regulating. The market for information is no different. The rational management of information markets depends upon a complex network of codes and modes of regulatory intervention that are required to manage the massive externalities, rent-seeking and opportunistic actions that are commonplace rather than exceptional (Mansell, 1993). The introduction of information technology and new media systems only increases the need for governance.

New Media and Convergence

The new media may be defined in comparison with earlier versions of communications technology (Bolter and Grusin, 2000). The new media are, for the most part, old media that have been transformed through their reconfiguration into devices capable of managing digital signals. Of special significance is the extent to which these signals can be combined or multiplexed, so that they can be distributed by means of a single cable, wire or waveguide, for storage or display by different devices within a household (Midwinter, 1995). The new media can be highly specialized or optimized for a particular function, or they can be highly flexible, like the multimedia computer that is capable of reproducing high-fidelity sound and brilliant colour images as well as alphanumeric text.

New media systems continue to be added to the mix. They are distinguished primarily by the extent to which they enable greater fidelity, realism, reliability and ease of operation. Of particular importance in the ways in which the new media have developed is the degree of miniaturization that has been enabled by the development of the transistor and the printed circuit, and their incorporation into the microchip. Miniaturization not only enables portability, but more fundamentally supports the privatization of media consumption. The development of the ‘Walkman’ by Sony marked a critical moment in the development of individualized, personal media. The expansion of channels afforded by advances in digital signal processing also contributes to individualized, private consumption of media. The emergence of an endless supply of ‘my’ media for the ‘me’ generation is the logical consequence of a technological move toward the expansion of options through the compression and integration of signals.

The convergence of forms that is enabled by digital signal processing also has implications for a convergence of functions in terms of the times and places where media content will be acquired and consumed. The notion of a ‘seamless web of interconnectivity’ that has emerged as an ideal state for convergent media includes the expectation that devices would be able to ‘tap into’ the global information network by a variety of means, almost without regard to location, and without fear of encountering incompatible technical standards.

Douglas Kellner (1999) reminds us that new communications technologies are more than ‘information technologies’. They are ‘also technologies of entertainment, communication and play, encompassing and restructuring both labor and leisure’ (1999: 243). Kellner’s point is that the new media have emerged to serve new functions within a transformed capitalism, and the new economy seems poised to incorporate work and recreation into the same media systems to an extent more common than in the past.

Kellner suggests that we are ‘too early in the beginnings of this adventure to determine its structure, social relations, cultural forms and effects’ although it is clear enough to him that ‘a technological revolution is going on, that it will have massive effects’ (1999: 253). His is an invitation to develop theories that will support intervention into the stream of development to ensure that the democratic possibilities of the new media are not foreclosed.

Household Demand for New Media

As we are reminded by Robins and Webster (1999), however, changes in technology are not independent of other changes in the environments into which they are introduced, and from which they emerge. The nature of demand for information resources changes as the nature of the organization of social and family life changes. Jorge Schement (1995) invites us to think about information as a resource that is consumed within households, but the nature of households has changed dramatically.

Schement describes a steady decline in the average size of the American household, which began around 1840. This decline reflects a substantial increase in the number of single-person households. Individualization in media technology has therefore been accompanied by individualization in households—a proportion that reached 25 per cent by 1990. The fact that people who live alone also happen to be high users of media should not surprise us.

Schement’s analysis of the rates of penetration of different media in American households identifies several facts worthy of our attention. The availability of radios, televisions and increasingly computers in several rooms of the house enables both an expansion of the time spent with media and an increase in the amount of time spent consuming those media in isolation from others. The decline in movie attendance (Austin, 1989) and other public entertainment also ‘reflects the decline of public life and the dominance of the private sphere’ (Schement, 1995: 149).

This is not without consequence. As people have turned away from the newspaper toward television and radio, they have abandoned a medium characterized by ‘depth for sources of more simplistic information’ (Schement, 1995: 148). In order to manage an increase in the amount and variety of information available to them, people have had to either become more active in filtering this information or, as increasingly appears to be the case, delegate to other ‘trusted agents’ the responsibility for serving this function. As a result of the aura of personalization that surrounds these new media, individuals may actually feel better about knowing less and less about the world around them.

We have traditionally understood media use within the home as serving as a ‘window on the world’ that exists beyond our own direct personal experience. The ‘uses and gratifications’ perspective (Blumler and Katz, 1974) also emphasized the ways in which media are used to provide refuge or escape from the pressures and demands of the outside world. In addition, reliance on advertising as the primary means of financing media consumed in the home has firmly established a link between the home and the marketplace. The ease with which market transactions can be completed through the Internet has only strengthened this link.

Schement (1995) also suggests that new media have increased the amount of work that will be performed at home by telecommuters and others who are continually ‘accessible’ through a variety of networked connections to the home. Schement suggests that as a result of these changes, ‘the themes that once formed the old boundaries—between work and home, between public and private life, between labor and leisure—no longer appear so clear or so fixed’ (1995: 156).

As the functions served by media in the home become integrated and blurred, it becomes difficult to determine the best way to evaluate the performance of those media. From a market perspective, continually increasing demand works well enough. From a public interest perspective, only a few seem concerned enough to ask.

Media Performance and the Public Interest

Denis McQuail (1992) has organized the most comprehensive review of the ways in which the performance of mass media has been evaluated through the lens of a public interest standard. Although McQuail suggests that the meaning of the public interest is difficult to pin down, one would usually find an emphasis on the distinction between the public and the private aspects of communication. He suggests that we use, at least provisionally, ‘the term “public interest” to refer to the complex of supposed informational, cultural and social benefits to the wider society which go beyond the immediate, particular and individual interests of those who participate in public communication, whether as senders or receivers’ (1992: 3).

Because of differences in the definition of the public interest, as well as in the evaluation of the means thought most likely to ensure it, there is no simple way to evaluate the performance of individual media, or the media system as a whole. Because of conflicting ideas about the nature of the public interest, it is impossible even to predict that an increase in source and content diversity would result in a net contribution to the public interest. McChesney (1999) describes this as a massive paradox. There has been an increase in the supply of media, and a subsequent increase in the amount of time devoted to its consumption by individuals. At the same time, an examination of numerous measures of civic well-being in the United States suggest an overall decline. Robert Putnam (1995) has described this in terms of a decline in ‘social capital’ that he sees as a consequence of reduced interaction between people. This reduced interaction is believed to reflect declining interpersonal trust.

McChesney (1999) explains this ‘rich media, poor democracy’ paradox in terms of a decline in the extent to which public service is a principle governing the operation of media. Others emphasize the shift away from engagement with serious topics toward an emphasis on sensationalism and escapist fare. Some of the criticism of mainstream television fare is that it demands little from its audiences, whereas public broadcasting fare has traditionally been more demanding. Indeed, at one point in the history of public broadcasting, the pursuit of qualitative measures of the audience was an attempt to articulate and then quantify the levels of engagement assumed to be beneficial to an active and informed public (Frank and Greenberg, 1982).

There is no longer a well-established and legitimate basis for regulation and control of media. McQuail suggests that ‘in an “information society”, the “public interest”, however defined, is more to lie in securing the benefits of information and communication than in preventing harm from communication’ (1992: 307). At the same time, this reluctance to control the distribution of media considered by some to be harmful is nearly matched by a lack of concern about subsidizing or ensuring broader access to media and information on ‘public interest’ grounds.

McQuail suggests that it is critical to examine not only what is available within the market, but also what actually reaches the public and with what consequences for public welfare. Although his analysis is a bit limited by its engagement with the audience at an aggregate level, Philip Napoli’s (1997) approach to the reassessment of programme diversity seems responsive to McQuail’s concern. Diversity in output needs to be considered in light of diversity of exposure or consumption. Other critics suggest that an increase in the diversity of supply of media may actually be disruptive of the social whole if people tend to become more narrowly specialized in their exposure to this material (Katz, 1996). Whereas Putnam (1995) largely assumed that media exposure led to withdrawal from society, McQuail’s suggestions invite an analysis of the extent to which the consumption of more hours of less diverse, less challenging, and less socially relevant content produces more or less engagement with others in the public sphere.

Evaluating Commercial Media Performance

Part of the concern with the public interest is the extent to which the presumed needs of the citizen for news and public affairs could be expected to be supplied by commercial media. John McManus (1994) provides one of the more detailed explications of the distinction between what a market-driven and a more traditional, socially responsible press would provide. McManus observes a tendency among commercial news media to rely on sensationalism, rather than analysis, because fast-moving action is entertaining rather than challenging to the audience.

Of course, it is important to recognize the contribution that a steady diet of sensationalist, personalized news coverage might make to the development of the tastes and preferences of the next generation of audiences for the news. Contrary to the assumptions of mainstream economists, tastes and preferences are learned over time, and to the extent that competitive pressures lead the producers of news to lower the bar, then we should expect the level of audience expectations to move in the same direction.

In a sense, we can understand this transformation in public expectation and demand as a kind of deskilling. We have traditionally thought about deskilling in relation to the introduction of new technologies that made it unreasonable for people to invest in learning skills that were no longer required. To the extent that people come to depend upon pre-digested news, they can no longer be expected to invest in the development of the analytical skills needed to make sense of more complex arguments and evidence. Some observers suggest that many of ‘the younger generation, with access to an incredible array of entertainment, appear to have given up even the pretense that “being informed” is useful and necessary. US. journalism itself sometimes seems to be giving up the effort to do anything but tell stories and provide spectacle’ for this population (Bird, 2000: 225-6).

A concern with the general decline in the quality of the mass press toward what is characterized as ‘tabloid journalism’ has been explored by a number of authors in a recent collection (Sparks and Tulloch, 2000). Colin Sparks (2000) frames the debates about ‘tabloidization’ as a non-specific concern about a decline in American journalistic standards. Acccording to the critics he reviews, the performance of the mainstream press is seen to suffer from imitation, or from adoption of the standards of this less respectable medium, or as a result of its pursuit of stories that had their origins in the tabloid press. Tracey sees this as part of a ‘dumbing down’ which is to be understood through ‘a sense of the corrosive influence of the main currents of popular culture: linguistic poverty and therefore a mental and moral poverty … the trivialization of public discourse, and evangelism of the ephemeral, the celebration of the insignificant, and the marginalization of the important, [by] cults of empty celebrity’ (1998: 264).

Calabrese (2000) reminds us that, at least within the television mainstream in the United States, concerns about commercial viability have always played a role in the production and distribution of news. Still, it is also clear that in a more recent history of commercial broadcasting, mainstream news organizations have found themselves in more direct competition with so-called tabloid news programmes.

Calabrese associates this move toward the bottom with the changes in the definition of the public responsibilities of commercial broadcasters, and the more general move to the market as the arbiter of the public interest. He cites the assessment in 1982 by FCC Commissioner Mark Fowler that the public interest was whatever the public was most interested in, as the key indicator of this conceptual shift. He argues further that the application of audience ratings to the evaluation of news programmes is the primary indicator of the ‘dictatorship of the market’ (2000: 46).

The Public Interest and Public Service Media

The tensions between the interests that may be most closely identified with those of consumers, which we would expect to be served by the private market, and the interests that we would identify more closely with those of citizens, which would be served by organs of the public sphere, have often been played out in the struggles to shape public or government-supported media systems (Raboy, 1990).

Michael Tracey underscores the differences between commercial and public service broadcasting quite succinctly: ‘In a public system, television producers acquire money to make programmes. In a commercial system they make programmes to acquire money’ (1998: 18).

The concerns expressed by William Hoynes (1999) are also quite clear: ‘In an increasingly commercialized media world, the past decade’s expansion in television channel capacity and the explosion of the world wide web, paradoxically, only reinforce the need for the kind of citizen-oriented, non-commercial media that public broadcasting can be.’ Hoynes suggests that the mission of public broadcasting included a commitment to provide for public exposure to contemporary issues and perspectives that would not gain access to the commercial networks. Unfortunately, of course, it was precisely this kind of content that brought unwanted political pressure to bear on the flow of funding to the public broadcasting system in the United States.

One argument used against funding of public broadcasts is the claim that their function has been absorbed by commercial media. Public broadcasters are no longer a source of alternative fare. By focusing on the programmes classified as culture, civic discourse, education and information more generally, Noam (1998) identified several cable networks that were devoted almost entirely to the production and distribution of these sorts of programmes. On the basis of his assessment of the distribution of these programmes by cable networks and some independent stations, Noam concluded that the amount of public interest programming available to the general public has actually increased substantially. In Noam’s view, the amount of total programme hours ‘increased phenomenally’ at an ‘annual compound growth rate of 10%’ (1998: 38). The amount of what he termed ‘public interest programming’ increased some 365 per cent between 1969 and 1997.

While Noam’s analysis of commercial programme supply was focused on rather broadly defined content categories, important criticism of both commercial and non-commercial broadcast performance emphasizes differences within categories. William Hoynes (1999) provided an analysis of what he describes as ‘the most widely-circulating public affairs programs’ available through the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1998. This sample of 75 programmes included a large number of business reports, in addition to weekly reviews of the news. In addition to a characterization of the different stories, Hoynes took note of the occupational status of those who ‘are granted access to the public airwaves’ through PBS programmes. Not surprisingly, these programmes present a rather narrow range of ‘elite’ voices. Although Hoynes acknowledged the journalistic tradition of reliance on such sources, he suggests that if the public broadcasting service is truly an alternative service, then we should expect a departure from tradition. Not surprisingly, Hoynes found that news about the economy was ‘almost entirely refracted through the views of business people, investors, and reporters who explain what corporate leaders and investors are currently thinking … In sum, the economic coverage is so narrow that the views and the activities of most citizens become irrelevant.’

Hoynes’ conclusion from his analysis of public affairs on PBS (1999; Croteau et al., 1996) is that ‘the public-as-citizens approach is taking a back seat to the public-as-market model at the “new PBS”’. He suggests that

instead of wide-ranging discussions and debates, the kinds that might engage viewers as citizens, not simply as audiences, public television provides programs that are populated by the standard set of elite news sources … and a similar brand of insider discourse, that is featured regularly on commercial television. This insider orientation makes it hard to define what, outside of the one-hour length of the evening news and the documentary format, defines public television as innovative, independent, or alternative.

Ironically, Hoynes would seem to agree with Noam’s conclusion that there is very little that the public broadcasting system in the United States provides that is not already widely available from commercial sources.

B.J. Bullert (1997) argues that both ‘journalistic standards’ and a fear of controversy that might threaten relationships between public broadcasters have served to limit the contribution that social documentaries might make.

The issue is not simply that the views of minority and marginalized groups are worthy of public attention, but that the quality of our political life depends on all of us knowing more about the life experiences of each of us, especially those whose lives are underrepresented in the mass media. The struggle for representation and access to the public television airwaves is a political struggle for legitimacy in the public forum.

Caution in the selection and support of independent production means that ‘public television’s promise as a vital forum in our democracy will remain unrealized’ (1997: 191).

Willard Rowland (1998) identified some of the contradictions faced by the public broadcasters in the United States that he felt were unlike those experienced by other public broadcasters around the globe. But all public broadcasters appear to have been forced to struggle with the need to be different at the same time they were expected to be popular. Rowland suggests that with few exceptions ‘the debate in the US. has never been able to address the linkages among entertainment, popularity and quality so well developed abroad. The notion that there could be a public-service mandate to bring quality into the popular and thereby improve the tenor of a wide range of television, and that to do so would require the establishment of a large-scale, exceedingly well funded noncommercial programming institution, has never been widely understood in the US.’ Tracey suggests that for the BBC at least, it was agreed that ‘the essence of public service broadcasting is to make popular programmes good, and good programmes popular’ (1998: 21).

Other reviews of the continually evolving public broadcasting system are similarly mixed. At one level, Blumler’s (1998) assessment of the status of the commitment by European public broadcasters to meeting the special needs of children was largely positive. In fact, survey data indicated that there had been a marked expansion in the amount of programming designed specifically for children. At the same time, this expansion in the amount of programming was accompanied by a paradoxical reduction in its diversity, reflecting increased reliance upon imported material. A substantial part of that material was animation from the United States. The influence of commercial standards is suggested in the fact that those public broadcasters with higher amounts of commercial income also tended to programme more imported animation. Rather than increasing diversity, as these broadcasters have responded to the market, ‘the range of its children’s programming has narrowed’ (1998: 348).

What we now observe is a belief that there is no special authority, and no automatic assumption that public agencies are any more likely to supply essential cultural materials than any other suppliers. Indeed, in the view of some observers, ‘public interest objectives appear as barriers to the free play of these [market] forces rather than as essential guarantors of access to the communicative and cultural resources required to underwrite citizenship rights’ (Murdock and Golding, 1999: 127). Murdock and Golding find a clear sign in British telecommunications policy reports that references to citizens, and the interests of citizens, have been deleted in favour of references to the interests of consumers.

New Media and the Public Sphere

We are reminded by Nancy Fraser (1993: 2) that the public sphere, in the sense that Habermas (1989; 1996) describes it, is a place in which political participation occurs through discourse. That is, the public sphere is ‘not an arena of market relations but rather one of discursive relations’. The fact that historically there were probably competing public spheres does not eliminate the more basic distinction between these political spheres and that of the market. The fact that there may be ‘subaltern counter-publics’, where differences in power, interests and needs may be reflected in identity terms, ought not invite confusion about whether such distinctions justify differential treatment (Baker, 1997).

Although the public interest ‘burden’ of broadcasters has been lessened quite substantially of late, the introduction of each new technical system provides an opportunity for advocates of explicit guarantees of public benefit to argue their importance. The authorization of digital broadcasting in the United States is among the most recent (Firestone and Garmer, 1998), although much of the discussion has been focused on the status of rationales for regulation, rather than a reconsideration of what sorts of guarantees serve the public interest.

Sara Bentivegna (1998) asks whether it is even possible to use the concept of the public sphere in the age of the Internet. Because of the nature of the Internet and the ways in which it facilitates access to information and communication, it seems to some observers that the Internet environment might be an ideal ‘electronic public square’. Bentivegna and others note that substantial limitations in access have been discussed under the rubric of a digital divide, but they remind us that even the idealized bourgeois public sphere had been marked by numerous divides and exclusions.

Bentivegna suggests that Internet newsgroups come quite close to meeting the requirements of the Athenian agora in that in the best of these groups there is equality among members. In addition, participation involves reference to personal experience, and discussions involve the reformulation and interpretation of information provided by traditional mainstream media. Her analysis of four Italian newsgroups devoted to political discussion in 1997 indicated that there was a high level of active discursive engagement. She also observed a high level of interaction from different individuals that was enabled in part by the absence of participants attempting to monopolize discussion by sending a large number of messages.

While much of the popular media’s attention to newsgroups has been focused on the absence of civility in these discussions, Bentivegna suggests that the ‘prevailing tone of discussion seems to be based on the respect for the speaker—who is only rarely insulted or even attacked—and upon the desire to participate in the discussion, asking and offering information or soliciting opinions’ (1998: 7). Her conclusions regarding the potential for political discourse within virtual communities were actually quite favourable. Because the interaction within newsgroups is akin to conversation, where people both produce and consume information, ‘the asymmetry of the communicative relations activated by the traditional media is, in this case, entirely nullified’. Bentivegna recognizes some of the limitations of her research, including the impossibility of knowing the number of inactive participants (lurkers, who only read, but never contribute to the discussion), or of knowing what kinds of barriers keep other potential participants out of the interaction.

The perspective of Benjamin Barber (1998) is far less sanguine. First, he takes issue with the meaningfulness of virtual communities. He suggests that ‘there may be some new form of community developing among the myriad solitaries perched in front of their screens and connected only by their fingertips to the new web defined by the Internet. But the politics of that “community” has yet to be invented, and it is hardly likely to be as democratic as a result of market imperatives’ (1998: 83). While he grants the existence of sites of the sort Bentivegna examines, he believes that they are in a distinct and declining minority. Barber agrees that technologies can help democracy, ‘but only if they are programmed to do so, and then, only in terms of the paradigms and political theories that inform the program. Left to the market it is likely only to reproduce the vices of politics as usual’ (1998: 91).

Barber’s assessment of the potential of the Internet is based on a survey of the World Wide Web (Barber et al., 1997). Like Bentivegna, Barber and his colleagues sought to include websites that addressed political issues, including those which encouraged civic and political participation. If he had merely sought out the most popular sites on the web, very few sites devoted to political discourse would have been identified. Very few political sites have made it into the lists of ‘top 100 sites’, and Barber et al. suggest that ‘the internet is at present predominantly commercial and is becoming more so by the day, coming to resemble a realm of shopping, play, entertainment, and little else’ (1997: 38).

Barber’s (1984) preference for what he refers to as ‘strong democracy’ led him to seek out sites that were explicitly concerned with ‘engaging citizens in public decision-making’. Although the range of websites included in Barber’s analysis was quite broad, the overwhelming majority appeared to be rather traditional one-way sources of information. ‘Numerous sites that were supposedly dedicated to leading people into a process of civic and political participation merely posted essays or catalogued organizations to contact for further information—an obvious and severe underutilization of the internet’s capacities’ (Barber et al., 1997: 33). Because web page designers tend to provide numerous links to other sites, Barber and his colleagues suggested that the ‘World Wide Web is truly a web, in which users are caught and sometimes trapped’ rather than aided in their search for engagement in the democratic process.

The Markle Foundation funded a number of experiments designed to evaluate the utility of new media as a resource for public discourse (Murray, 1998). However, even when the experiments were conducted within a community of sophisticated elites, it was difficult to sustain interest. This was especially true when there were problems with the technology, or with the quality of the content. Murray suggests that in order for these ‘hyperforums’ to succeed, it will be important to determine who is likely to be in the community of participants, and what their motivations and expectations of the experience are. In the past, this sort of planning has proven to be troublesome even in an experimental context. It seems far from likely that it would be sustainable as a voluntary community service activity.

Calabrese and Borchert (1996) suggest that here, too, the difference between a ‘consumer’ model, and a ‘civic’ model, of network activity will ultimately determine the contribution of the Internet to ‘post-industrial democracy’. They suggest that the network environment will be stratified and segmented, and that a ‘new class of technical and professional intelligentsia’ will be engaged in activities that will be ‘exclusionary, both by default and by design’ (1996: 252). Interestingly, they suggest that the civic activities of this new class will be financed primarily by the revenue generated by the lower social strata who will be involved in the network primarily as consumers, rather than as participants, or sources of argument and analysis.

Although these issues are pursued to some degree by Bentivegna (in this volume), it is also important to consider some of the challenges that the ‘borderless’ character of the Internet poses for notions of citizenship (Kahin and Nesson, 1997). David Johnson and David Post (1998) discuss the problems occasioned by the failure of ‘geographically based governance mechanisms’ to manage the systems of relations that the Internet has made commonplace. Unlike postmodernists who deny the possibility of governability, Johnson and Post have been evaluating a variety of different ways of identifying or dividing up ‘patches’ of territory defined in part by the nature of the interactions or transactions that take place. A similar perspective is explored by Jerry Kang (2000), who suggests that different rules governing racial identification may be established as a function of the nature of the transactions that define the appropriate ‘zoning’ regulations for different ‘cyberspaces’.

Problems of establishing the rights and responsibilities of membership are quite different from those associated with geographically defined domains. Johnson and Post (1998: 46-7) seem to prefer the sorts of constructed identities that are more compatible with markets, rather than polities. Individuals who are dissatisfied with the rules established by system operators (sysops), or by volunteers, are expected to ‘vote with their modems’, relying on exit rather than voice. They recognize, however, that this market-oriented form of governance will ‘play havoc with our notions of the virtues of equality’. They fail to recognize that there will also be important differences in the ability of ‘netizens’ to recognize and respond to threats and opportunities in a dynamic network environment.

Difference and Inequality

The most common references to the digital divide have been those which emphasize the varying gaps in access between social groups defined by race, gender and ethnicity. These varying gaps have been discussed in the context of public policies designed to ensure universal access to information services. The idea of universal service had initially been identified with the development of a regulated monopoly that would ensure that basic telephone service would be available to all at a reasonable cost, and without regard to the substantial differences in the actual cost of supplying that service in low-density rural areas (Wilson, 2000). Universal service in telecommunications had come to be equated with an entitlement, a right to goods and services that have been argued to be essential for participation in society. While a high degree of success may be claimed for the efforts to achieve universal access, the issue remains on the public agenda (Sparks, 2001).

Depending upon how access is defined and measured, differences in access have been characterized as reflecting a digital divide, that over time has narrowed with regard to gender, while widening with regard to race and ethnicity in the United States (Anderson et al., 1995; Benton Foundation, 1998; Garmer, 1998; Hoffman et al., 1998; National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 1998; Neu et al., 1999). Similar disparities have been identified in other nations, and between nations (Dutton, 1999).

Susan Hadden (1991) examined the ways in which different technological systems diffused as a function of the extent to which they were dependent upon the existence of a particular infrastructural base. Technical systems that made use of already existing systems in the home diffused far more rapidly than systems that depended upon the creation of a network. The diffusion of cable television is a prime example in that it has taken far longer than broadcast television to diffuse throughout the population. She argued further that the ways in which a networked interactive technology become woven into the social fabric of a society makes some degree of public decision-making unavoidable. Here she made reference both to network economies and to the fact that the use of public space and resources makes it impossible for the adoption of some technologies to depend solely upon individual decisions.

Telecommunications networks are fundamentally social technologies, and, as a result, it is appropriate to consider the extent to which universal access is both necessary and beneficial for the society as a whole. The extent to which networks are defined by their connectivity and interactivity helps to define their social character. From this perspective, Hadden (1991) argued that universal access means more than availability, but includes widespread use of the technology. Her examination of the substantial inequality in access to basic telephone service led to the conclusion that ‘the seemingly natural and inevitable forces of diffusion’ are not sufficient to ensure that genuinely universal service would be achieved (1991: 68-9).

By focusing on functions, rather than technologies, Hadden suggested that there was a need to establish universal access to ‘essential information’. This is a view that was echoed by Nicholas Garnham (1999) from the perspective of Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach to the evaluation of welfare systems. Sen’s approach to the determination of needs in relation to the quality of life that a social system might be expected to provide takes into account a recognition that people differ in their natural endowments. As a result, they will require different sorts of enhancements to achieve a requisite level of functional capability. Sen’s argument is that there is far less variation in capacities between people, and, as a result, there is a greater possibility of arriving at interpersonal comparisons as the basis for evaluating social policy than of using the notions of utility that have troubled economists for so long.

Garnham and Hadden agree that access is not sufficient as a goal of universalism. Functional utility must be specified as that goal. Garnham argues that the ‘capabilities approach moves us away from the metrics of both money and pleasure toward the ways of being and doing enabled by communication and toward an analysis of the barriers that stand in the way’ (1994: 124).

Eric Fredin’s (2001) discussions regarding the nature of hypertext and the expanded capacity for personalization in the new computer-based media underscore the importance of our recognizing that diversity of exposure will characterize our use of media. He suggests that in order for hypermedia to work, people will continually make choices within rather than merely between news stories. Fredin describes a variety of hypertext formats that seem likely to emerge to help structure the choices that audiences for news might make. It is in the nature of the medium that substantial differences will emerge between individuals in terms of the skill and creativity that navigation through a maze of potential links will invite and reward. Fredin’s futuristic look at the relations between information users and information providers describes a way in which the public interest is served by means of a highly individualized rather than a commonly shared framework of understanding.

Given the shift in philosophy that subordinates interests associated with citizenship to those associated with culture and individualistic consumption, it is not surprising that the existence of a digital divide has come to be understood in terms of a market failure that is expected to decline in importance over time (Garmer, 1998). The fact that specialized content is focused on the upscale consumer can be taken as an explanation for the fact that the digital divide is almost non-existent at higher levels of income (Neu et al., 1999). The absence of content of interest to those from underclass backgrounds, those with low levels of literacy in English, and those with interests in local politics and culture explains the reluctance of such persons to invest in acquiring computers and network services, or even spending much time using Internet-based resources in libraries and community centres (Children’s Partnership, 2000).

What is to be Done?

Tracey (1998: 263) suggests that diversity and the differences among us are indeed social constructions, but he argues further that the particular construction of these differences is shaped in large part by the new systems of communication that have emerged in the past 20 years. The social trajectory enabled by the new media ‘profoundly individualistic and definitely not collective, public, shared, or coherent’. The real digital divide appears likely to widen.

Most critical observers of this unfolding process agree that it is concerted action, rather than some natural self-correcting tendency within complex systems, that will re-establish a balance between the roles, spheres and media of exchange and coordination that Habermas (White, 1988), Perez and others (Webster, 1995) have identified for us.

Robert Kuttner is clear in his recommendations for the future:

If markets are not perfectly correcting, then the only check on their excesses must be extra-market institutions. These reside in values other than market values, and in affiliations that transcend mere hedonism and profit maximization. To temper the market, one must reclaim civil society and government, and make clear that government and civic vitality are allies, not adversaries. That enterprise, in turn, requires a more effective politics, both as the emblem of a free democratic people and as the necessary counterweight to the inflated claims about markets. If we are to balance markets with other social goals, that requires an engaged and informed electorate, as well as healthy, legitimate political institutions. (1999: 362)

The real digital divide has not been produced by some irreversible geological process. Each of the underlying systems that have been involved in shifting our fields of view are still responsive to collective action. The new media can be used to mobilize a social collective in defence of cherished values, including those associated with individual and collective identity. Despite the objections of postmodernists and entrepreneurs as well, a renewed citizens’ movement is likely to emerge to ensure that ‘the people’ will not become extinct, nor will they live out their lives in special preserves or sanctuaries. Instead they will come together to build a new global public sphere. As to when this will occur, only time will tell.