CS009: Computers and Human Values
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Notes, November 17th -- Roger B. Blumberg

Cherny II: Democracy, Individual Choice and Media Old & New

Introduction 1: Cherny's Hamilton, Jefferson, Wilson, Reagan and Clinton

Cherny sets up a juxtaposition between "Jeffersonian ends by Hamiltonian means," and "Hamiltonian ends by Jeffersonian means."(139) What do you make of the different values he attributes to Hamilton and Jefferson, and the degree to which these "ends" and "means" promote the most important qualities of democratic politics? What might be the difficulties encountered in a transition from the former to the latter? Do you share his characterization of the views and significance of figures like Jefferson, Hamilton, the Roosevelts, Wilson, Reagan and Clinton; and/or do you feel you know enough about these figures to evaluate his characterizations at all?

Introduction 2: Technology and "Democratic Values"

When we were talking about what was essential to bona fide democracies, different people mentioned: specific sorts of institutions; regular reliable elections; and a certain kind of individual freedom and opportunity necessary for the exercise of choice. One question is whether all of these are both necessary and sufficient for a political system to be considered a democracy. Similarly, this set doesn't include a number of ideas that some people regard as "core democratic values", for example: truth, a certain system of justice, equality, a constitutional government, certain sorts of individual (human) rights, respect and protection of diversity, and some notion of "common good" (to name just a few). Questions:

The Next Deal, Part II

After our discussion of Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian means/ends, we'll turn to the question of whether/how new technology, and specifically the Internet, is said by Cherny to facilitate a new kind of democracy in the US, and whether/why "choice" is a democratic value on par with "liberty, opportunity, and security" (177).

One way to assess the difference new media and/or new technologies make in the contemporary political realm is to read de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, paragraph by paragraph, continually ask yourself whether/how the possibilities and perils he wrote about have become more or less "real" in contemporary life. How would you answer the questions, for example, after reading the following excerpt from Section I, chapter 2:

When the inhabitant of a democratic country compares himself individually with all those about him, he feels with pride that he is the equal of any one of them; but when he comes to survey the totality of his fellows and to place himself in contrast with so huge a body, he is instantly overwhelmed by the sense of his own insignificance and weakness. The same equality that renders him independent of each of his fellow citizens, taken severally, exposes him alone and unprotected to the influence of the greater amber. The public, therefore, among a democratic people, has a singular power, which aristocratic nations cannot conceive; for it does not persuade others to its beliefs, but imposes them and makes them permeate the thinking of everyone by a sort of enormous pressure of the mind of all upon the individual intelligence.

Finally, in the last section of Part II, "Hear the People Rule, Cherny writes:

During the 20th century, Americans had to contend .. with perfecting and providing access to one form of democracy -- the ability of citizens to vote for their leaders. But democracy can be more than this. The Information Age is fundamentally about democratization -- about power to the people.

What is the nature of this new power that the Internet provides, how do we assess whether it is real or imagined, and is there any important distinction to be made between consumer and political power in 21st century America?

A sort of Preface to Lippmann's Public Opinion

As you begin reading Lippmann, you might want to keep in mind the rest of the Democracy in America chapter that I quoted above:

In the United States the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own. Everybody there adopts great numbers of theories, on philosophy, morals, and politics, without inquiry, upon public trust; and if we examine it very closely, it will be perceived that religion itself holds sway there much less as a doctrine of revelation than as a commonly received opinion.

The fact that the political laws of the Americans are such that the majority rules the community with sovereign sway materially increases the power which that majority naturally exercises over the mind. For nothing is more customary in man than to recognize superior wisdom in the person of his oppressor. This political omnipotence of the majority in the United States doubtless augments the influence that public opinion would obtain without it over the minds of each member of the community; but the foundations of that influence do not rest upon it. They must be sought for in the principle of equality itself, not in the more or less popular institutions which men living under that condition may give themselves. The intellectual dominion of the greater number would probably be less absolute among a democratic people governed by a king than in the sphere of a pure democracy, but it will always be extremely absolute; and by whatever political laws men are governed in the ages of equality, it may be foreseen that faith in public opinion will become for them a species of religion, and the majority its ministering prophet.

Thus intellectual authority will be different, but it will not be diminished; and far from thinking that it will disappear, I augur that it may readily acquire too much preponderance and confine the action of private judgment within narrower limits than are suited to either the greatness or the happiness of the human race. In the principle of equality I very clearly discern two tendencies; one leading the mind of every man to untried thoughts, the other prohibiting him from thinking at all. And I perceive how, under the dominion of certain laws, democracy extinguish that of the mind to which a democratic social condition is favorable; so that, after having broken all the bondage once imposed on it by ranks or by men, the human mind would be closely fettered to the general will of the greatest number.

If the absolute power of a majority were to be substituted by democratic nations for all the different powers that checked or retarded overmuch the energy of individual minds, the evil would only have changed character. Men would not have found the means of independent life; they would simply have discovered (no easy task) a new physiognomy of servitude. There is, and I cannot repeat it too often, there is here matter for profound reflection to those who look on freedom of thought as a holy thing and who hate not only the despot, but despotism. For myself, when I feel the hand of power lie heavy on my brow, I care but little to know who oppresses me; and I am not the more disposed to pass beneath the yoke because it is held out to me by the arms of a million men.

For Next Time:: Read Walter Lippmann's Public Opinion, parts 1-3. Papers are due by the end of the day on Wednesday..

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