The Internet has the potential to provide the much-needed public sphere in Democracy. McChesney addresses this issue in his book: “The Political Economy of Media.”
Among his reasoning: It is cheap, easy to use, hard to prevent access to and nearly impossible to censor. It seems like these factors have all the mixings to create a forum that is perfect for public debate and free flow of content.
But there are underlying issues with the Internet that may prevent it from reaching its potential as a catalyst for democratic discussion. McChesney outlines several issues:
1. Personal computers are not affordable for many people.
2. Computer literacy is not necessarily certain.
3. Universal access is not something that is guaranteed.
These issues are all centered around one important and crucial issue: The Digital Divide.
Is McChesney putting too much pressure on the Internet to be the saving grace of democratic discussion? Can America overcome the digital divide?
Research and current events in the media are suggesting that the divide is decreasing—at a rate more rapid than many originally thought. In 2002, reporter Sonia Arrison reported on C-NET that more than half of the U.S. population was online—showing an increase of Internet access for 26 million people in just 13 months.
A common criticism with Digital Divide statistics: Most of these statistics show a bias toward higher income areas. What about poorer areas? Arrison cited a report from the Department of Commerce, which showed that Internet use is increasing overall—regardless of income, ethnicity, gender or age.
“Between December 1998 and September 2001, Internet use by individuals in the lowest income households…increased at a 25 percent annual growth rate.”
The full C-NET article can be accessed here.
And those statistics were reported in 2002. As of February 2010, 64 percent of Americans now have broadband Internet access. This number has increased from 51 percent in 2007. (The complete article citing the U.S. Census Bureau survey can be found here.)
Not to mention Google’s recent broadband project. The Internet giant recently announced that it will be experimenting with a fiber network designed to provide “ultra high-speed broadband networks” at 1 GB per second—Internet 100 times faster than many Americans have previously had access to. The company cited the goal of their project as a way to “experiment with new ways to help make Internet access better and faster for everyone.”
With Google planning to provide their trial experiment to between 50,000-500,000 homes at a price comparable to other Internet services, who knows what the implications of this experiment may be in the future? If successful, Internet could be more readily accessible and convenient to more people.
I don’t think that McChesney is wrong in holding the Internet up as a beacon of hope for Democracy in the U.S. On the contrary, I believe that the medium has all the makings to be the knight in shining armor, set to give a voice to the voiceless and provide the opportunity for effective discussion and exchange of opinion in an open forum.
Regardless of the fact that the Digital Divide is still a very real and important issue, I would argue that the Internet is already facilitating more democratic discussion. And it can only get better from here as more Americans are able to gain access to personal computers and the Internet.