Monday, September 27, 2004

Internet cafes: the new salon?

In the eighteenth century, the salons of Paris became famous as the hotbeds of political and social debate. There collections of usually wealthy Parisians gathered to discuss, argue, polemicise, interrogate and dispute over a whole range of issues that had previously been reserved for the royal court. The salon did a lot towards democratizing French politics.

It also initiated a more important, albeit informal and indirect, role for women in policy formation. There is a more recent example of a similar phenomenon. In the 1970's Phil Donahue, or rather his audience, revolutionised the American political scene, by broadcasting the opinions of everyday women in suburban USA. Talk-back radio is another example.

Despite the tremendous impact of (almost) universal education, women's suffrogacy, broadcast television and talk-back radio, in the early part of twenty-first century, the greatest political problem we face is political participation. It seems that all these advances have shown us is the size of the gap between the democracy we represent and the democracy we actually have. Policy is not set through participation in the broadcast media, but more often by the owners of those media. Traffic has become one-way, and when the flow is reversed, it tends to take the form of Orwell's one-minute hate.

If the key task before us is to reinvigorate our political environment, then we must recognize that democracy means more than freedom of expression, or access to the means of expression. It must also include the accessibility of means of collaboration.

People often complain about the dumbing-down of the electorate, and long to relinquish authority to an expert elite. Alternatively, they address the electorate as though it were an idyllic community of experts already.

Both approaches are flawed, but we can see a way past them if we recognize what they have in common. Neither view imagines that the electorate can teach itself anything. Both right and left seems to imagine a body politic that is less-than-human, because it is not capable of learning.

Educators have for some time realised that there is a serious distinction to be made between deep learning and surface learning. I would suggest that, where there is an education of the electorate, it takes the form of surface learning. It is entirely passive, there is no emphasis of helping each other understanding, or, for that matter, on employing the knowledge being distributed - through print, radio, television, the web - in any way.

I think that a deep approach to political education - one that emphasizes collaboration, active choice (say about which issues, about what form, about when to consider them etc) and producing something for others - could address both the issue of participation and of education at the same time. A political education directed toward social ownership of the issues - and not solely reactive responses to the issues - is what is required.

How do we do this? There may be too many possible projects to enumerate here, and please add a comment if you think of any, but for starters we could begin by recognizing this:

The web is not solely a space for opinion, or comment. It is also a collaborative space, a space for the collective production of considered responses, among people who need have nothing in common but a concern and a desire to participate (though not necessarily by leading or even speaking).

We have the technology to establish minature political spaces, random and momentary collectives, whose only purpose is to briefly further the debate, and to think through their desires, their differences of opinion, together, for each other and for others (who knows who?).

It's time for us to combine our best learning practices with our varieties of political expression. Society is our assignment. It's time to transform our politicians from arbitrary, power-driven, lecturing decision-makers, into the moderators and facilitators of an interrogating, imagining, collaborating and ultimately learning body politic.

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