Once Democracy, No Longer.

For this week’s post, I want to turn back the clock to several weeks ago where the class discussed the innate democratic tendencies of the Internet. Being a major theme of both The HeratigeCrowd Project” & Voss/Young pieces, I figured this would be a nice starting point for today’s session.

Every week I’m drawn to the concept of “shared authority”. Despite the urge to increase the accessibility of my project, I understand that the “general public” truthfully does not exist. Rather as pointed out in the Voss/Young article, we’re exposed to a plethora of specialized sub-populations. In their examination of crowd-sourcing initiatives for the field of public history, Stanford University’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA) determined that “complex and collaborative tasks” would benefit greatly from the inclusion of “small networks”; a contingency of minor groups consisting of professional practitioners & non-professional enthusiasts that are determined to be representative of the larger collective of individuals that could be “systematically organized” to participate in the study at hand.


Before I discuss the relevancy of CESTA’s conclusions to my project, I want to take a step back for a minute and assess the situation from the top-down. Not only are these findings critical to the success of future public history works, they’re representative of the Internet’s changing role in society. In July & August of 2012, the non-profit organization Internet Society (ISOC) conducted an online poll called “The Global Internet Survey“. Of the 10,789 individuals who participated in the event, 86% of the sample population affirmed that “Freedom of Expression” should be a guaranteed right on the Internet. Assuming this data was obtained through randomized sampling, one could conclude that these numbers are statistically representative of the population (McLaughlin).

If people truly believe that the Internet is, and should continue to be, a vessel for democracy, CESTA’s experiment seems contradictory. As stated in “The HeratigeCrowd Project” article, “to digitize is not to democratize.” In the case of Richard White’s “Living with the Railroads”, a highly specialized network of railroad & train enthusiasts provided the majority of metadata, not the greater public. If we refer back to CESTA’s original definition of “small networks”, the term has little to do with democracy; instead it favors a republic. In the creation of public history, the public invests power into the “small networks”, which in turn function as “cultural intermediaries”. However, professional historians still reside at the top of this hierarchy, for they are the ones who control the flow of information. 

Even though the act of digitizing historical works is considered democratic in nature, the source of such information is not (Ayers). This then begs the question; what does the term “public” mean? Are we referring to the broad, undefinable group known as “the general public, where everyone is supposedly accounted for; yet in reality is exclusive to white males? Should we understand “public” to be synonymous with the “small networks” Perhaps the answer is neither, and the term “public” simply references the domain in which information exists— the Internet. 



About tylervp

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