The Media and Government in the USA, Europe and China
Edited By Christ´l De Landtsheer, Russell Farnen and Daniel B. German
14 Democracy and Virtual Politics
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Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina, USA
This chapter examines the impact of digital technologies on the construction of political subjectivity. We examine three models of political agency: the passive agent, the rational actor, and the sovereign subject. Using the 2000 German Green Party convention in Baden-Württemberg, the thesis will challenge the notion that information technologies can create a sovereign subject. Based on Jean Baudrillard’s writings, we will argue that information technologies will do little more than create a simulation of democracy.
Considerable debate has emerged recently over the role and impact of new information technologies for political life. Attitudes range from glowing predictions of the new technology’s ability to open public space for open discourse and a reinvigoration of democratic life to various pessimistic appraisals of the new technologies as the harbinger of a technological police state. In the middle, one finds claims suggesting that information technologies are not likely to change very much in the political culture since they will adapt to the existing structures of society rather than alter them in any wholesale fashion (Resnick, 1998, p. 49). In fact, evidence can be put forward to support each of these claims.
These discussions often overlook the impact of digitization on the subject as political agent. The digitized communications media is usually discussed as if it can transmit a full spectrum of information in any context of communications. Technical limitations are not usually discussed. In fact, where it is discussed at all, the technology is usually applauded as a liberating potential. As stated by Anna Sampaio and Janis Aragon, cyberspace is a place of anonymity, where traditional markers of hierarchy (e.g., age, sex, and race) no longer are tagged to human subjectivity (Sampaio and Aragon, 1998, p. 153). One is free to enter a chat room and take on any identity one wishes.
Without hierarchy and the symbolic tags of human identity, cyberspace is a place where reason can have its domain. It is a place of democratic potential, a public sphere designed for interactivity and participation. As Juliet Roper (1998, p. 69) describes it, cyberspace can provide the Habermasian space for communicative action, free from the influences of domination and subordination.
This chapter explores another aspect of information technology’s impact on political subjectivity. To the extent that the technology is use for organizational/informational purposes, it is a medium of one-way communications. In this ← 303 | 304 → regard, it is little different from television or radio, apart from some additional selectivity afforded by the technology. The subject is still a passive agent. However the optimist’s argument regarding the new technologies is predicated on the idea that it is also used as a means of interactive discourse in which a subject can log onto chat rooms and websites in which there is two-way communication. This interactive process provides not only the chance for political organizing and mobilizing like-minded participants, but also developing ideas and on-going discourse and discussion. In this form, information technologies reinforce the model of the Cartesian rational actor in the world, seeking information to engage in the pursuit of rationally conceived ends. Finally, carried to its political conclusions, the new technologies available via the web have the potential to provide an arena of sovereign interaction. In this use, continuing within Cartesian logic, the subject is assumed to be an autonomous actor capable of making transcendentally arrived at conclusions in a public arena that will direct the exercise of collective power.
This chapter examines the 2000 political convention of Baden-Württemberg’s Green Party as a step toward implementing the sovereign actor model of subjectivity. While still not at the level of state sovereignty, participants in the party meeting were able to vote and make decisions that were binding on the party. After describing some details surrounding this meeting, we analyze the nature of sovereign subjectivity in cyberspace. Lurking in the background of the rational actor view of human subjectivity are concerns regarding the extent to which such a view applies in the post-Cartesian, post-industrial, and postmodern world. Using the insights of the French postmodern thinker Jean Baudrillard, we will argue that the medium is at least partly responsible for shaping the actors engaged in political activity. Baudrillard claims that our social world has lost its connection to a transcendentally grounded notion of reality. What we call reality is an increasingly simulated experience of the world. The digitized politics of the Green Party meeting in Baden-Württemberg was simply a step further toward simulated politics and, more specifically, simulated democracy.
Organization of the Green Party Convention in Baden-Württemberg
The Virtual Party Convention of the Greens took place between November 24 and December 3, 2000. This party convention opened up a new phase of the use of Internet technology by parties and political organizations. For the first time (at least in Germany), a party convention was completely organized using electronic networks. Members, party delegates, and the executive committee of the party made decisions in cyberspace. These decisions were then binding for the entire party within Baden-Württemberg. The party convention debated two issues: shop opening hours and, appropriately, electronic democracy. The online discussions were based on these two topics, with different motions on the two topics being ← 304 | 305 → introduced in the course of the discussions. The process of discussing the issues, changing the wording of motions, and making decisions about these changes, as well as the final party statements, were done via the Internet.
Regarding the organization structure of the meeting, the organizers hoped to mirror the structures and characteristics of a real party convention as completely as possible. This was also necessary to guarantee the legitimacy of the convention and to protect against charges that somehow the results were not consistent with democratic procedures. Access to the activities of the convention was organized on three different levels. 1) Spectators to the party activities. This was essentially open to any interested person with an Internet connection. To gain access; one only had to log onto www.virtueller-parteitag.de. Anyone could listen in to the discussions and learn about the results of the voting process. 2) Green Party members acting as participants. When these members notified the Green Party’s administrative office that they intended to participate, they were sent a password via regular mail. The password enabled this group of participants to enter into the discussions, formulate amendments to the motions, and support amendments of other participants. In this regard, they were able to participate as “rational actors” but not sovereign ones. 3) Green Party delegates. Just as in a traditional party convention, voting was restricted to the party delegates. This group included officially elected party delegates and the members of the executive committee.
The virtual space found at the website was subdivided into various rooms and functional spaces. In the virtual convention office, visitors could gain information about the organization and the highlights of the convention as well as actual news. In the Convention Hall the discussion forums took place using a contentmanagement system for the automatic administration of the participant’s statements and amendments. Finally, there was the voting space with an electronic voting booth that could be accessed by the party delegates. By encrypting the data and the authentication of digital votes via a trust center, a high degree of data security was achieved. The data security issue was dealt with by the company BROKAT, which is a technology leader in this field.
The Participants and Their Experience
The Greens in Baden-Württemberg claim 7,500 members. Only 303 members participated at the party convention. Out of this group, 113 were voting members, as either officially elected delegates or as executive committee members. The other 190 participants were interested party members, who took part in the discussions and wanted to explore the new Internet experiments. Surveys (conducted by the Institute for Technology Assessment in Stuttgart) of the participants indicated, with very few exceptions, that participants had already been very politically active. Most said they had participated in previous party conventions. They were also very computer-literate and were regular Internet users. The participants were further distinguished by their high educational levels. Up to 90% had passed the abitur and ← 305 | 306 → 70% had completed a university degree or were studying at a university. Only one participant had a basic school degree.
Since non-voting party members could participate in the discussions, compared to regular party conventions, a bigger group of simple party members participated. Furthermore, there was a record number of discussion statements: 792. Close to every second official participant made some contribution to the discussion, so participation levels were high. In the end, 62.7% of participants either endorsed or supported an amendment, indicating intense participation.
From this data, it is clear that the obstacles to direct participation were much lower then at a real party convention. Many more people voiced opinions and did so repeatedly. There was no need to stand up in a huge auditorium where people instantly reacted to one’s opinion. The participants also believed that a real party convention would take much more of their time and did not fit as neatly into their daily routines. This made it much easier to combine work, family, and politics.
The data gathered from the delegates indicated two problem areas. Generally, the participants were satisfied with the content of the debate, but not the structure. Many participants had problems with the often unstructured and unmoderated discussions. The party convention had 20 discussion forums running; if one moved about the various forums or disconnected for a period of time, it became difficult to follow the flow of the arguments. The various forums were unsorted and unmoderated and postings were listed only based on temporal criteria. This was a conscious decision on the part of the party to avoid the perception that the executive committee was trying to intervene and manipulate the outcome. In the end, this contributed to an impression by a large number of delegates that the virtual convention was complex and, at times, difficult to follow.
The greatest problem participants cited was lack of personal contacts. One-to-one communication was hardly possible and the informal talks that usually take place at a party convention did not occur at the virtual convention. Because participants were to post their comments to public and semi-public spaces, it was impossible to communicate synchronically or confidentially with specific groups or a single person. The participants were not able to see who was online at the same time they were. At the end, many participants missed the atmosphere of a “real” party convention; the majority claimed that real conventions are much more fun. They missed the emotions, the high-flying speeches, the back room maneuvering, and the opportunity to get to know new people not just as postings on a screen, but as real, complex, multi-dimensional, human beings.
In the end, the data gathered showed that only one person indicated that the virtual convention should replace the real party convention in the future. The virtual meetings were seen as a means to augment the party in its organizing activity or for special issues that arose, but that they should not be a wholesale substitute. ← 306 | 307 →
The questions surrounding the data on the party convention are not the facts themselves, but what interpretive framework should be used to analyze the data. In the following sections, different characterizations of human agency will be developed. The focus will be on the relationship between the use of information technology and the model of human agency enhanced by the use of the technology. A detailed discussion of Jean Baudrillard’s take on information technology and human beings will follow. We will then return to this data for some analysis.
Three Models of Human Agency and the New Information Technology
Optimists regarding the use of the new technology claim that it can expand democratic participation in the Western democracies. From this perspective, the Internet constitutes a new public space in which the citizenry can become informed and organized for rational political activity. Pessimists claim that the Internet is equally compatible with hierarchical rule (Schmidtke, 1998, p. 65). From this perspective, no automatic expansion of democracy should be expected from the new technology. Impossible as it may be to adopt either wholesale optimism or pessimism about the impact of information technology on political life, it is possible to make observations about some of the impacts of this technology.
However, to fully understand these changes, it is necessary to make one assumption: human nature is not static. In the contact with the various forms of information technology, the behavior, norms, and self-understanding of human subjectivity become altered. Following the claims of Marshall McLuhan (1962) (and a position adopted by Jean Baudrillard), we will assert that the human subject is altered by the conditions of communications technology. The new information technologies cannot be seen as simply being adapted to a static conception of subjectivity but are, themselves, part of a cultural milieu that, in turn, shapes the parameters of thought and the expectations of collective action. McLuhan claims that as print caused the alteration of our conception of self, so the information technologies of today are reconstructing our means of thinking about ourselves in a social and political context. Subjectivity is shaped and reoriented based on this new technology. In this context, distance is overcome by speed. Today, scarcity of information is replaced by what Baudrillard refers to as an “obscenity” of information, as information overload. Therefore, no uniform outcome can be expected from the new technology. Outcomes will be reflective of the way in which the subject interacts with the technology itself. Three such models of interaction can be identified: passive agent, rational actor, and sovereign actor.
To the extent that human interaction with information technology constitutes a oneway flow of information from a person, group, or commercial interest to the viewer ← 307 | 308 → of web material, the passive agent model of subjectivity is being reinforced. In this usage, the viewer may be seeking information or be solicited by the person or organization possessing the viewed material. In either case, the viewer is engaged with the material as a passive agent, not interacting or engaging in any discourse with the material, beyond possibly clicking from one subsection to another. In this role, the Internet simply has the character of any other mechanism for mass communications. It hosts the display of prepackaged material, without the possibility of active engagement on the part of the web viewer.
This model has predominated in the commercialization of the web, but it has also been adopted by organized political groups, activist organizations, political parties, and government entities. In this usage, the Internet takes on the character of a sophisticated billboard for advertising purposes. In political terms, this usage has been undertaken by political parties in most of the industrial democracies as well as by government, itself. Examples of government’s use of this model can be found in American cities (e.g., Glendale, Passadena, and Santa Monica in California). However, this model is not what Habermas had in mind as expanding the public sphere. As Oliver Schmidtke (1998, p. 67) puts it, the Internet provides the perfect public relations tool for government because it can disseminate information to rationalize all of its policies. In terms of usage, this model is the most consistent with top-down hierarchical control; it has the effect of reinforcing group identity, without regard for bottom-up political influence.
If the passive agent model can be said to raise concerns about the continuation of hierarchy and control, optimists point to the rational actor model as carrying the potential for a new form of civil democracy. Here, the idea of a newsgroup (in which there is an ongoing question-and-answer format) replaces the Internet as a medium of passive consumption. Individuals can seek special information or organize chat rooms, interest groups, or e-mail lists, all at a very low cost (Resnick, 1998, p. 64). In this usage, the net resembles a pluralistic civil society, egalitarian in terms of each participant’s voice having the same potential, where only the stronger argument will prevail. For this reason, Douglas Kellner (1998, p. 173) stresses the importance of resistance groups to mobilize via the web to counteract the organized economic interests seeking to subjugate the populous.
This raises an interesting question with regard to the web and its content. On this level; the web lends itself equally well to agents of change on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. It is a medium of discourse for both anarchists and fascists. Therefore, regarding political ideology and the Internet, it is necessary to conclude that the web contains no implicit normative bias toward democracy. It contains potential as both a medium of control and a means to encourage more democratic participation. Either potential can be realized. ← 308 | 309 →
What can be claimed is that the Internet used in this mode has a conditioning influence on subjectivity. Here, the Internet reinforces the Cartesian idea of an individual rational subject seeking to grasp the objective environment as part of his/her life experience. As Tim Jordon (1999, p. 96) puts it, from this perspective cyberspace is a “place where individuals can finally wrest control of their being from institutions, governments, corporations, and oppressions.” However, since the Internet contains no necessary normative claims with regard to community and since it reinforces an individualistic conception of subjectivity, some scholars have concluded that the political outcome of the web’s influence on human subjectivity will be one of political fragmentation (Schmidtke, 1998, p. 61).
The sovereign actor model, in its ideal form, seeks to carry the rational actor model to its political conclusion. As a sovereign actor, the individual approaches the Internet both as a medium of information and a venue for participating in binding collective decisions for some administrative unit. In this model, the web is a place to conduct direct or plebiscite democracy. Some see this as the means to overcome the apathy and cynicism increasingly found in Western democracies.
While yet to be implemented in this form, various experiments tilted in this direction. In Athens, the Pericles project was launched in 1992 (Tsagarousianou, 1998). Started by a group of intellectuals and scientists, “Network Pericles” set up a terminal in Athens so citizens could raise issues, gather information, and express opinions by voting. While the results are not binding and constitute more of an ongoing public poll, the framework could be used as a model for expressing collective decisions. Experiments are taking place in other European cities such as Amsterdam, Manchester, and Bologna. In the US 2000 presidential primaries, citizens of Arizona were able to cast their votes online. The party meeting of the Greens in Baden-Württemberg also moves in that direction. Delegates were able to raise issues, exchange ideas, and then cast binding votes for the party.
Critics of the sovereign actor model generally raise the issue of access. Will this be democratic if all people do not have an Internet connection? But on the level of the political impact of the web on human subjectivity, a more complex paradox emerges. Even if one adopts the Cartesian model of the rational subject, it would seem that two features of the Internet operate to inhibit the realization of the online revitalization of community and democracy. As discussed in the previous section, the specialized information that can be provided on the web does not require allegiance to the local institutional authority. Because the web has no territoriality and no boundaries, all notions of geographic boundaries are not generally reinforced as part of socialization on the web. All exists as a simultaneous presence. In other words, there is no necessary reason to engage in a relegitimation of the nation-state. The extra-territorial nature of the Internet does not reinforce the normative components of territorial administration. From this perspective, the ← 309 | 310 → nation-state is nothing but nostalgic fiction (Angell, 1996; Ohmae, 1995). As Kenichi Ohmae (1995, p. 64) describes it, the nation-state is reduced to a protection racket designed to protect the biggest racketeers.
Debate regarding the political role of the Internet generally falls into one of these three categories. But is this all that can be said about the significance of the web for social and political life? In the next section, we will explore the work of Jean Baudrillard. He shifts the focus away from the liberating potential of the Internet and raises questions about how the technology also serves as a system of epistemological constraints on communications. As a result, serious questions are raised about information technologies’ liberating potential.
Baudrillard’s Developmental History and Rise of Simulated Politics
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard has written extensively on the topics of technology, media, and culture, among other interests. His writings represent a synthesis of Marshall McLuhan’s work on media, Max Weber’s concerns about Enlightenment rationality, leftist politics, and postmodern epistemology. To put it mildly, Baudrillard is pessimistic about how the new information technologies are used. In the context of different models discussed previously, optimism regarding the use of these new technologies requires a belief that they will enhance the rational actor or sovereign actor models of political life. Baudrillard does not view the technology that way. For him, the use of information technology reinforces the passive agent model of human subjectivity; thus, it is not a mechanism for political liberation, but a new medium for domination and control.
For Baudrillard, information technology represents a medium that diminishes the value of human subjectivity itself. Meaning is lost within the network of communications. Thought is replaced by stimulation. Deliberation is replaced by immediacy. The real is being “murdered” by the process of rationalization and the virtual world (Baudrillard, 2000, p. 164).
In this context, political life is not just altered; it is destroyed. Political life (which was characterized by the drama of subjects struggling against the alienating components of economic and political repression) now disappears in a digitized universe. In contrast to McLuhan, the medium does not create the global village, but the isolated and alienated subject, a subject now cut off from the public space needed for real political interaction. In its place is a simulation of politics. Using the Internet as a medium of politics furthers the process of estrangement in social life and neutralizes the potentials of political interaction.
Baudrillard and Poststructuralist Epistemology
While at times criticizing other poststructuralists and denying his part in the postmodern movement, Baudrillard’s epistemology clearly aligns him with post-structuralists. ← 310 | 311 → Generally, poststructuralism can be said to incorporate three elements: the rejection of reason’s transcendental character, the historical nature of truth, and the claim that power relations are the basis of social and political life.
To poststructuralists in general, Western philosophy since Plato has been engaged in a misguided enterprise. It sought to create a body of knowledge that can claim to have the status of an ahistorical truth that can survive the vicissitudes of material being. A column of truth is to be erected around which social and political life can be ordered (Derrida, 1981). To do this, some form of dualistic philosophy is necessary in which the faculty of “reason” is said to ascend to this universal form of “knowledge.” For Plato, this is accomplished via the dialectic and the fixed nature of the forms. In Descartes, Kant, and others, a similar process (called “reason”) uncovers the universals that transcend historical change.
Influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s claims, Baudrillard and other post-structuralists assert that all claims to knowledge are historical. Knowledge is created to serve human needs that are historical and material in nature. When identities are assigned to objects and hypotheses are constructed to explain the interaction of those objects, the results are always hypothetical and probabilistic in character. Ethics are constructed to meet immediate human social problems and should not be assigned any universal or transcendent character. Baudrillard (1983, p. 86) assigns the notion of natural law to the medieval period in Western history.
In epistemological terms, “knowledge” reflects the conditions of its own generation. That is, the production of knowledge is circular. What we term knowledge always reflects and reinforces the assumptions of the context out of which it was created. Out of need, we construct a model of the real. We then make the world conform to the model (Baudrillard, 1983, pp. 1-3). The knowledge contained in the model is a simulation of the world, but the simulation is reinforced as if it is real via its own enactment and dissemination. This is not unlike Niklas Luhmann’s (1990) notion of “self-referencing systems.”
If the logocentric tradition in the West is rejected by Baudrillard and the poststructuralists, so too is the Cartesian model of the human subject. There can be no “rational actor” making autonomous decisions about his/her life if the conditions for transcendent choice are not present. For Baudrillard, information technologies are not vehicles for liberation but new sets of constraints in which communications takes place. In contrast to the rational actor model, the new technologies require a further refinement and filtering of the means of communications, thus constraining the character of communications.
Rejecting the model of the rational actor also eliminates the possibility of sovereign actors and the idea that information technologies can enhance democratic practice. In the absence of universal truth around which to organize social and political practice, the idea of democracy itself takes on a historical character. Political life is a struggle for the domination of models and metaphors. Therefore, the real question regarding the new information technologies will be the effect they ← 311 | 312 → have on altering the metaphors and the models to which humans must conform. Baudrillard’s conclusion can best be understood in the context of his claims regarding simulation and what he terms the three orders of appearance.
The Three Orders of Appearance
The central concept in Baudrillard’s middle and later work is simulation. Simulation (which represents the current means of constructing the symbolic order) is actually the third form by which value is generated since the Renaissance. In the simulated order, Baudrillard contends we have lost the ability to distinguish the real from the fabrication. In place of the real are operational models in which the real is replaced by organizations of signs and symbolic reference points that point to other signs within the operational model. All that is not explained by the model must be either ignored or destroyed. Baudrillard claims that in today’s political realm, participation increasingly takes on the character of a simulation
The first “order of appearance” Baudrillard calls the counterfeit. The counterfeit emerges as a reaction to the rigid structure of status represented by the feudal order. The emergence of the Renaissance (with the belief in human equality, transcendent reason, and natural law) required a new distribution of social signs and a new mechanism for generating the signs of value. In order for all classes to use the signs equally, a new mechanism for the production of value was required. Still grounded in a notion of the real, the symbolic value of the real could be copied and distributed to the masses in the system of exchange that characterized the development of the bourgeois order (Baudrillard, 1983, p. 86).
The second order of appearance emerges with the industrial revolution. In what Baudrillard (1983, p. 96) refers to as the “industrial simulacrum,” symbolic value is manufactured on a massive scale. While the counterfeit retained a certain individuality in its reproduction of the real, the development of industrial production was organized to generate a series of identical products. Baudrillard’s interest is not just in the technological aspects of this transformation, but in its cultural impact. The significance of the process is rooted in the fact that organizational principles replace those of representation (Baudrillard, 1983, pp. 93-95). As a result, human beings are subordinated to the machine in the process of production. Natural law is replaced by mercantile value and the calculation of force (Baudrillard 1983, p. 9). It is through the ability to mass produce that money, value, and signs are distributed in the society (Baudrillard, 1983, p. 97).
In political terms, the production of value as a series not only subordinates human beings to the machine and the operational necessities of the production process, it also creates a cultural standard of value. The political order is characterized by conformity, as a series that is also mass-produced. Baudrillard makes it clear that the emergence of industrial production sets up a logic of operations that cause the “liquidation of the real” (Baudrillard, 1983, p. 95). However, it is with the emergence of simulation proper that this process reaches its fruition. ← 312 | 313 →
To Baudrillard, our contemporary age is characterized by simulation. Simulation represents the generation of the “real” without reference to an origin. In other words, the project is to make the real conform to a simulation (Baudrillard, 1983, p. 2). Simulation represents a condition in which the measure of truth, meaning, and value are validated by their correspondence to the prevailing model in which they are constructed (Baudrillard, 1983, p. 32). Today, we live in a hallucination of the real (Baudrillard, 1983, p. 148). Discourse on the metaphysics of being has given way to the metaphysics of the “code,” a projection of an “objective” form of knowledge. As Baudrillard describes this process, the Jesuit drive for unity and certainty has returned to us in the postmodern era in the form of mapping DNA, a task designed to remove any ambiguity about human nature.
To understand the significance of what Baudrillard means by simulation, remember that to the poststructuralists in general, truth, value, and meaning are historical constructions. Therefore, technology and communications play a significant part in the construction and significance of the sign. This means that the mechanisms employed m the process of transmitting signs, value, and meaning circumscribe the limits of what can and cannot be transmitted. Quoting McLuhan, Baudri1lard repeats that the “medium is the message” (Baudrillard, 1983, p. 124).
The medium today is electronic communication, particularly the Internet. The Intenet is a digitized medium, characterized by binary code. Baudrillard’s claim is that there is a parallel process taking place on a cultural level in which the entire realm of social interaction is entering a phase in which the computer’s binary code is being replicated within the forms of human interaction. Today, we have the “mystic elegance of the binary system, of the zero and the one from which all being proceeds” (Baudrillard, 1983, p. 106). Human contact is being replaced by a digitized realm where only that which can lend itself to digitization can be considered as the proper content of communications. This means that political interaction increasingly takes the form of a choice among binary opposites.
Technology, Politics, and the “Code ”
Baudrillard (2000, p. 64) asserts that today, the real has been murdered by the process of rationalization and the virtual world. The significance of this notion for politics cannot be overstated. While Baudrillard views all three orders of appearance as means of control, he focuses most on the plight of freedom within the process of simulation. Baudrillard saw the political process within the Enlightenment as dominated by a particular drama, as the masses struggled against forces that sought to alienate or oppress them. The Enlightenment conception of reason was the tool of liberation, as reason was to enlighten a superstitious mass to the understanding that their acquiescence is what allowed despots to live (Baud-rillard, 1988, p. 217). Today, we are no longer subject or object, alienated, or free. This is so because now, man’s alienation by man is a thing of the past (Baudrillard, 1993, pp. 58-59). Now, we are alienated by machines and the code. ← 313 | 314 →
The “telecomputer man” of the contemporary age is not aware of the condition of his own servitude (Baudrillard, 1993, p. 59). We have been integrated into the machines of communications (Baudrillard, 1993, p. 58). This “prosthesis” displays the spectacle of thought, but is incapable of displaying thought itself (Baudrillard, 1993, pp. 51-52). Freedom is manifested as freedom for virtual interaction rather than real social and political action (Baudrillard, 1994a, p. 30).
The result of this digitized interaction of screens rather than people is that real political interaction is dead (Baudrillard, 1993, p. 41). Today, the value of a political message is not in its meaning, but in its circulation. The idea of human agency (of subjects acting in the world) is replaced by a new metaphor. Human beings now become sending and receiving “satellites” connected in webs of networks, in which being connected and transmitting information becomes an ontological end in itself, a new means of gratification (Baudrillard, 1988b).
This new means of gratification is satisfied by an orgy of superfluous information. Baudrillard calls this the new form of obscenity (Baudrillard, 1988b, p. 24). Within this context, the idea of meaningful public space is disappearing. All is transparent, but all is on the surface. There is no depth and no meaning (Baudrillard, 1988b, p. 12). The use of binary coding for the transmission of information alters the content to fit the technology. With binary coding, the symbolic dimension of language is lost (Baudrillard, 2000, p. 69). Politics (as a struggle to overcome the condition of alienation and oppression) takes on the character of a simulation. Virtual liberation masks the continued expansion of the instruments of oppression. The transpolitical replaces the political and the political game in the world becomes that of seduction (Baudrillard, 1988b, p. 59).
The simulation of politics is coupled with a de-ideologicalization of the masses (Baudrillard, 1993, p. 41). Baudrillard does not view this as a positive development because of the process that has come to replace that of an ideological commitment. In the place of ideology, Baudrillard sees the public opinion poll. The process of opinion polling sits at the nexus of several of Baudrillard’s comments about the political. The opinion poll is part of the orgy of information that obfuscates the struggle against oppression. It covers up the real structure of oppression because the public does not really form independent or transcendent positions anyway. Baudrillard believes that the opinions of the masses are responses shaped by cues received from the political class and from a prepackaged corporate media structure that does not allow space to construct an independently formed opinion (Baudrillard, 1993, p. 41). The real effect of the concept of “public opinion” is to neutralize class antagonisms. It seeks to substitute the idea of a single outcome, a united path, among competing and antagonistic groups.
The de-ideologized mass now becomes “prey to probability theory” (Baudrillard, 1993, p. 41). Opinion polls and statistical analysis now produce “truths” for simulated politics. There can be no rational dissention because “objective data,” probability theory, rational choice ontology, and expanding ← 314 | 315 → consumer consumption now establish the singular path to the future. The unity of humankind is established. All are the same. The power of seduction is such that to think otherwise is to be irrational.
From this perspective, introducing the Internet into the political realm does not open up new areas of public space. Baudrillard’s contention is that public space is disappearing because the virtual space of the web is not real public space (Baudrillard, 1988b, p. 19). Within this framework, the politics on the web is part of the erosion of the political. Political parties represent the compulsion of the game, organizations designed to extend the influence of power. This process requires more than one party since debate between two subgoups of the political class can create the illusion of legitimacy. Therefore, claims Baudrillard (1983, p. 132), political parties position themselves to render a 50/50 split in the voters so election results are simply the product of chance. Election results do not lead to major changes anyway since both political factions tend to represent the conditioning of the corporate interests and the political class as reflected in the media. The Internet is just one more medium for organizing and controlling the masses.
For Baudrillard to draw this type of conclusion, he must reject the idea that media, in general, are mechanisms that further the notions of either rational or sovereign actors. The masses are simply passive agents of manipulation, mesmerized and seduced by the illusion of political choices that appear to them on voting day, whether that voting is to take place in a booth at a fixed location or via the web in cyberspace. Whether represented by the Greens in Baden-Württemberg, the Pericles project in Athens, or the Arizona primary, all extend the conformity of the dominant ontological model of consumption and expansion.
Party in the Simulacrum
Within the framework for analysis suggested by Baudrillard, the virtual party convention in Baden-Württemberg must be seen as reflecting a number of problematic and even contradictory elements. On the one hand, virtual politics has the ability to take the democratic ethos of the Enlightenment project and expand it with the use of the new technology. On the other hand, with virtual interaction replacing human contact, using the web to enhance political sovereignty only produces a simulation of democratic political practice.
Claims about the strength of the technology focus on the level and quality of participation by the delegates. Using the web has the potential to produce high levels of participation. In theory, this is qualitatively different participation than passively watching the event on the screen, the type promoted by TV or other oneway media. Participants can respond, raise questions, and vote via the web. All of these can be seen as having the potential to expand democratic practice.
However, such optimism masks several problems relating directly to the constraints imposed by the technology. Baudrillard, in particular, seems to raise important questions about using information technology, anticipating a number of ← 315 | 316 → the reactions by the participants in the party convention. The data suggest that high levels of participation were exhibited among the participants. But the high amount of participation came at a price. It appears that there was a type of information overload (a more suitable term than “orgy”). Participants in the virtual convention claimed to have too many issues to follow, too much information to digest, too many forums in which to participate. The virtual convention represents a microcosm of what Baudrillard said about the cultural impact of information technologies themselves. The result is a paradox with regard to democracy. The party hierarchy correctly noted the problem that imposing a structure would present for the goal of promoting grass-roots democracy. However, the lack of structure makes it difficult for anything coherent to emerge from the discussion.
As a result, one casualty of the increased numbers and the level of participation is depth in the discourse that occurs. This problem is conveyed in participants’ concern for the lack of personal contact at the meeting. One reason for this is contained in the technology, itself; using binary code removes the depth and subtlety from communication. Human contact can convey the emotion of speech, whether one-to-one or to a large crowd. Web politics removes that dimension from political discourse. It gives preeminence to the march of reason in the world, but at the cost of human contact and a reduction in the value of human emotions as part of social and political life. Charisma (which people like Max Weber saw as the essence of political life) is diminished by binary transmission.
In the end, one could imagine a political arena in which everyone has access, everyone could speak, and no one would care. All is bland. No one wants to participate because no one has any interest. This is the political life of Nietzsche’s “last man.” This is the danger that Baudrillard sees the web posing for political life because the vitality and emotion of real politics is displaced by its simulation. More people can participate, but the reason to care will disappear along with the idea of ideological commitment.
Cut off from the real, the virtual becomes our reality. In that regard, the web constitutes another aspect of the march of reason in the world. The Internet will not become the means to overcome the alienation of human beings but become one more, and very powerful, source of that condition. All that can be digitized will become our reality; all that cannot be digitized will be discarded.
To say that Baudrillard aligns himself with the pessimist on the role of technology would be a gross understatement. He admits that he could be considered a type of nihilist (Baudrillard, 1994a), but only in the sense that he is interested in the disappearance of the real. As he describes it, today’s nihilism is not from destruction but from transparency and simulation. Meaning disappears in a world saturated with stimuli, with an orgy of information. ← 316 | 317 →
Virtual politics is not the answer to a public that is increasingly disenfranchised, cynical, and alienated from real political engagement. In the end, virtual politics will heighten such feelings. It will produce a world in which a technical structure will oversee artificially contrived choices for a public whose opinion has already been shaped by the conditions of their own oppression. This is the nature of simulated politics. Information technologies are not the solution, but the cause of this condition. The Internet simply extends and furthers the conditions already present in the media age that extends back to the 1930s.
Baudrillard rejects positive claims of the rational and sovereign actor models. All are receivers, not actors. The simulation of the political constitutes a system of control. Using information technology to further advance the message of interest groups, political parties, and the state simply enhances a system of domination already in place. Today, it is no longer a question of maintaining the social contract. The contest today is between a totalitarian system of self-reference on the one hand and an infantile mass on the other (Baudrillard, 1993, p. 78). Within this framework, the state feels justified in brutalizing its own populations.
Like other poststructuralist writers, Baudrillard conveys a strong element of philosophic anarchism. One can either accept these assumptions or not, but they cannot be ignored. It has long been recognized that the Internet has a Western bias, owing to both economic factors that limit access and the fact that the ASCII code used on the web is a Western script. What has been less recognized is that technology, itself, constitutes a bias that promotes and extends a particular form of life. We live in an age in which technology has sold itself with promises that it cannot possibly fulfill. The result is a world (of which human beings are a part) that must be reshaped in order to convince us of its own success. That leaves us with a simple truth. Today, we are born to serve the technology.
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