Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 4 / August 1, 1994 / Page 7

Preserving Democracy in Cyberspace: The Need for a New Literacy

by Don Langham (

Pro-active government involvement is needed to insure from the outset that the emerging National Information Infrastructure (NII) is built with the broad public interest in mind. The advocacy group Computer Professional for Social Responsibility (CPSR) has articulated a set of principles and ideals that the federal government should hold foremost in mind when regulating the development of the NII. These principles include (among others):

But even if the government were able to move quickly enough with adequate foresight (which is unlikely), policies alone will not make the emerging electronic communication networks known as the NII a democratizing forum.
If CMC in the form of a national-global interactive digital network is to enhance democracy in America, if it is to provide truly democratic forums that enhance opportunities for citizen participation at all levels of government, we must broaden our definition of literacy education to match the diversity of communication media available to the average citizen.

What we need, as Lanham (1993) argues, is "digital literacy" education that would teach students to utilize digital media as a tool for critical thinking about the human condition. The goal of this education would be to develop in students the rhetorical and critical skills needed to be fully active members of human society as it exists on interactive digital computer networks.

The central tenant of democracy is that every citizen has a voice in how government carries out its duties. This means that all citizens must have equal access to the public forums in which public policy decisions are made. These forums include not only the voting booth, the legislative assemblies, and the courts, but the "public spaces" in which ordinary people articulate their understanding of the world, a vision of what it should become, and the means by which they will realize that vision. In America, such spaces have been found town halls, public squares, churches, union halls, and shareholder meetings (among other places). They have also found on the pages of newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets, as well as television and movie screens. Digital communication networks provide yet another medium for the creation of public spaces, what Rheingold (1993) calls "virtual communities." Rheingold and others see the current examples of CMC public forums as models of future public spaces that will be truly public (available to all citizens)--virtual communities of citizens from around the world brought together in a public space by their shared interests.

Traditionally, our Constitution has fostered a host of statues and legal opinions that guarantee all citizens-- regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religious affiliation, or physical handicap--equal opportunity of access to the forums of democracy. Like all ideals, the ideal of equal access is only partially realized. Inequities exist, as institutional and social barriers still stand in the way of full participation by all, especially racial minorities and women. But one could argue that over the past 50 years the United States has made remarkable strides toward making this ideal a reality, at least insofar as this can be accomplished through legislation, judicial action, and law enforcement.

Unfortunately, a participatory democracy cannot grow out of constitutional rights and government mandates. A participatory democracy requires a citizenry capable of making and articulating informed decisions. That is why universal access to public education has been seen as vital to the existence of democracy. But there is evidence to suggest that public education in America has failed the cause of democracy. A report released last fall indicates that nearly half of all adult Americans are functionally illiterate, able to read product labeling or simple newspaper stories, but unable either to comprehend or to compose more sophisticated prose. Considering that the US spends more on educating each student than any other industrialized nation, such statistics are obscene, a national scandal. Because illiteracy prevents full participation in a democratic society, it represents a waste of human resources that shows no signs of abating.

There is no shortage of critics who would blame this national tragedy on electronic media, especially television, and who see the NII as hyperactive TV--500 mind-numbing channels of thought control.

Winner (1986), for example, is decidedly skeptical of Rheingold's vision of CMC's democratizing potential, arguing that the utopian claims made for CMC today were made for television fifty years ago.

For Winner, the steady decline in voter turn out during television's ascent can be attributed in part to the fact that as we have become more reliant upon television for our information and entertainment, we have begun to confuse spectating with participating. As the communication networks of the future will be built, maintained, and largely controlled by the entertainment industry responsible for the current state of television, Winner argues that we should not be optimistic about the democratizing potential of CMC via a national "information superhighway."

Winner's criticism (as well as Rheingold's optimism) fails to see a crucial point: As a society we failed to realize the democratizing potential of television, and risk the same failure with CMC, because we have focused literacy education too narrowly on the encoding and decoding of written text. Just as scandalous as the number of print illiterates in our society is the number of presumably "literate" Americans who have no critical understanding of electronic media. As Welch (1990) argues, "Studying the technology of literacy and secondary orality has become a necessity for even a minimally educated population" (32). McClure (1994), conceptualizing the problem in terms of information literacy, argues that "the vast majority of the public has no skills related to using the new communication technologies and many live in fear of a passing thunderstorm that might force them to relearn (again) how to reset the LCD time displays on the VCR or microwave" (137). There is, McClure argues, an "educational disconnect" between the information technology soon to be available and the public's ability to use it that must be addressed, but "while the gulf between these network literate 'cybernauts' and those who are not continues to widen, the education system continues to be largely oblivious" (137).

Education in the skills of "secondary orality" is exactly the education that few Americans, perhaps especially the most literate among us, receive--at least not from schools. What education most of us do receive in electronic media comes from being a passive audience for those media. This curriculum--written mostly by advertisers, public relations specialists, government spin doctors, and electronic journalists--encourages us to think of TV as something that relatively few people actually do. The rest of us are done unto by (and Winner might say, "done in by") television. Winner is correct to worry that this trend will continue in the age of CMC, and that for this reason talk of participatory democracy in electronic media is premature if not unrealistic or insidious. But it would be a mistake to assume that CMC in the form of a national digital network will necessarily replicate the experience of television.

In Marxist terms, CMC has the potential of placing the means of electronic media production (and distribution) in the hands of the masses who, in theory at least, can be free to make of this power what they will.

The federal government, following recommendations like those offered by the CPSR, can see to it that equal access to the NII is guaranteed. But that guarantee is hollow if the masses have no critical understanding of how to use these media to create a vital, democratic public sphere of influence and action.

Works Cited

  1. Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. Serving the Community: A Public Interest Vision of the National Information Infrastructure.
  2. Lanham, R. A. (1993). The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  3. McClure, C. R. (1994). Network Literacy in an Electronic Society: An Educational Disconnect? Annual Review of Institute for Information Studies, 137-177.
  4. Rheingold, H. (1993). The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  5. Welch, K. E. (1990). Electrifying Classical Rhetoric: Ancient Media, Modern Technology, and Contemporary Composition. Journal of Advanced Composition, 10(1), 22-38.
  6. Winner, L. (1986). The Whale and the Reactor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Don Langham is a PhD student in the program in Communication and Rhetoric at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. He is the author of an article on MOO discourse in last month's issue of CMC Magazine.

Copyright © 1994 Don Langham. All Rights Reserved.

[Ed. Note: Maricopa County (Arizona) Community College District's Information Literacy Committee released a report, Ocotillo Report '94--Information Literacy, which presents an outline of critical and anlaytical skills for information literacy.]

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