Habermasian and feminist ideals of rational and empathic debate amongst equals who regard one another with respect have been further challenged by still other current developments. Jodi Dean, for example, has argued that democracy via media technologies is undermined not only by filter bubbles; in addition, what she calls “communicative capitalism” depends on monetizing our online engagements in other ways as well – perhaps most centrally, by various forms of commodification and self-commodification. Whether “friendship” online or, more obviously, efforts to acquire wealth and fame by presenting ourselves online in ways that we hope will attract “likes,” followers, and thereby more revenue (e.g., contemporary “YouTube stars” and “influencers”), our communicative spaces thereby largely reinforce our extant convictions and beliefs.
As a second example: Dal Yong Jin has analyzed what he calls “platform imperialism”. Jin observes how a platform such as Google enables – and constrains – all of our communication, from SNSs, search engines, to smartphone use, etc. Not surprisingly, Google is joined by Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft as the four major transnational corporations (TNCs) that design, implement, and control our platforms. As with the music industries’ efforts to combat illegal copying, the US supports the dominance of these corporations and platforms through its regimes and enforcement of copyright law. Contra hopes for a democratizing internet, Jin argues that “Instead of developing a public sphere, these platforms are enhancing the corporate sphere”. Worse still, contra promises of greater democracy, equality, etc., the primary effects of platform imperialism will be to “intensify the asymmetrical power relationships between countries possessing platforms and countries using platforms invented in the U.S.”.
These developments give us good reason, then, to worry about the future of democratic norms, rights, and processes. Indeed, these are under direct attack on two fronts – one, as noted above, as more and more countries follow the lead of China and its emerging SCS to use the vast surveillance powers of internet-facilitated communications to monitor and control citizens’ behavior. Two, it is by no means clear how far “platform imperialism” (Jin 2015) or “surveillance capitalism” (Zuboff 2019) will be restrained by US laws and regulations – most especially as these corporations and platforms operate beyond the borders of the US. Against these dark backgrounds, there are some bright spots, however. To begin with, as we saw in chapter 2, the European Union continues to increase its data privacy protections, precisely as privacy is recognized as one right among many that are foundational to human dignity, autonomy, and thereby democracy. Indeed, these value commitments are central to emerging development of Artificial and Independent Systems – both within the EU and, more broadly, in the IEEE development of “ethically aligned design”. It may also be that the anti-democratic threats of “fake news” are receding.
Moreover, Merlyna Lim has recently published the results of a longitudinal study of activist movements since 2010 in Tunisia, Egypt, Malaysia, and Hong Kong. Contra the bias of especially Western news sources in highlighting the importance of social media in these movements, Lim shows that successful protests – ones that further lead to enduring political and social change – depend not solely on social media: in addition, “the human body” is “the most essential and central instrument” in what she characterizes as “Hybrid human– communication–information networks that include social media”. In other words, in a post-digital era, we recognize that democracy will not flow automatically from social media and its affiliated infrastructures. On the contrary, as the report on “digital authoritarianism” makes clear, these technologies can be used with equal force to censor, suppress, and control subject populations. If democracy and its attendant norms and values are to be established and preserved, embodied resistance and activism are also required.