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Democracy in the Digital Age: Challenges to Political Life in Cyberspace by Anthony G. Wilhelm

2000; 184 pp. $22.99. Routledge

"Electronic Democracy" was the theme of Whole Earth Review, Summer 1991, an issue I edited. If I could edit the same issue today, I'd include the best of the contemporary critics who see Internet-based communication as a threat as well as a promise. Foremost among them would have to be Anthony Wilhelm, director of the Communications Policy and Practice program at the Benton Foundation.

There certainly is a strain of naive utopianism associated with the phrase "electronic democracy" today, ten years later, but some of the critics seem as removed from reality as the utopian illusions they criticize. Rare is the critic who is adequately self-critical. Wilhelm argues that online discourse lacks the degree of deliberation and inclusiveness that the word "democracy" requires. He examines his own arguments, and unlike almost every other critic, he cites research data. Of all the verbal scourges I've received over what I wrote in the early 1990s, Wilhelm's was one that sent me back to the literature to do more homework.

" These four characteristics of the political public sphere?antecedent resources, universal access, deliberation, and design?will now be explored....When we emerge from this journey, I will provide several remedies for salvaging democracy in the digital age from the threats caused when public-interest values remain in eclipse.

" Rheingold intimates that perhaps we should remind ourselves that "electronic communication has powerful illusory capabilities" and that one of the the technology's entailments is that we will "forever question the reality of our online culture," since we are forsaking "true" community for the virtual. However, Rheingold sidesteps the issue of what constitutes reality in a media environment. Taylor and Saarinen (1994) suggest that in the society of the spectacle, "reality is mediaized and thus becomes virtual." Thus, do not simple oppositions between the true and the apparent, the real and virtual begin to dissolve?"

 

ISBN: 0415924367

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