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The Internet and the Political Process
Philip E. Agre
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520
This is a draft. Please do not quote from it or cite it.
Version of 16 February 2001.
Footnotes and references to follow.
The Internet is good to think with. Its promise of ubiquitous transport of information makes it a perfect screen for projecting the hopes and fears of a society. Nowhere are these projected hopes and fears more elaborate than with regard to politics. Closely bound to national and thus personal identity, yet also by its nature also a permanent source of disappointment, the political process is being intensively reimagined in the context of new information and communications technologies. But while forms of imagination are always valuable data, they are rarely sufficient guides to analysis. By arraying before us the most prominent ways in which American culture, at least, has imagined the wired political process, and by subjecting these forms of imagination to the somewhat harsher light of social analysis, it will be possible to discern the contours of a structural theory of the Internet's actual and potential role in politics. (For convenience I will allow the meaning of "the Internet" to shift as needed across the whole universe of convergent digital information and communication technologies.)
Let us start right in with brief discussions of ten common proposals, both to clear the ground for alternatives and to gather materials for their construction. (For a broader survey of the literature, see Harrison, Stephen, and Falvey (1999).)
(1) Many theorists, explicitly or not, have equated wired democracy with online discussion fora, for example on Usenet, the Well, or the Web. Some proceed to focus on particularly promising cases of virtual self-governance, and others on the triviality of a forum chosen at random. In each case the online forum is evaluated relative to an idealized model of the public sphere, with its norms of subjectless rational debate. The Internet gets credit for its ability to support a pluralistic diversity of intersecting public spheres (Buchstein 1997: 251), and it is dismissed as yet another site for the silencing of voices through various easy-to-imagine forms of psychological terrorism. The problem in either case is that the public sphere is, and always will be, a much larger phenomenon than an Internet discussion forum. This is true in several ways. First, the debates in online fora interact with goings-on in other media, television for example. Second, different online fora are embedded to various extents, and in different ways, in larger social structures such as professions and social movements, and their dynamics are hard to understand except in terms of this embedding (Wynn and Katz 1997). And third, online discussion fora comprise only a small proportion of the uses of the Internet and other convergent digital media in politics. When the Internet is used to distribute talking points to partisans, press releases to reporters, or administrative memos to the staff of a political organization, that too is a potentially significant "impact" of the Internet on politics.
(2) A related strand of thought judges the Internet by its ability to bring about a condition or unmediated intimacy often known as political community. Again different estimates of this criterion are optimistic or pessimistic, and again the criterion is misguided. The norm of intimacy has different sources in different national political cultures, but in each case it is a form of nostalgia, whether for the religious communitarian city on a hill or for the village community that supposedly predated the upheavals of modernism or capitalism. Unmediated intimacy may well be feasible in a small group; it may even be necessary and beneficial. But modern society, particularly in an era when everything can be connected to everything else, is too big for that. Intimacy is particularistic; it requires an investment of time and effort. Modern societies operate because they have learned to operate, at least for many purposes, in the opposite extreme mode of impersonality (North 1990). The rule of law will not function if judges are deeply embedded in the relational webs of the litigants; that is why judges rotate on circuits. Markets likewise require a taken-for-granted framework of law and custom in order for large numbers of buyers and sellers to transact business with tolerably low overhead. Norms of intimacy may have their place -- lurching entirely to the impersonal opposite extreme is not warranted either. But the hard analytical problem is to understand how the intimate and the impersonal interact.
(3) The Internet is often held to make intermediaries redundant, and this has suggested to many authors that the future of politics lies in referenda -- or, depending on your stance toward them, direct democracy or plebiscites. The arguments has some merit -- to the extent that political parties, legislative representatives, and other political intermediaries serve as communications channels, networking with their constituents with one another, the spread of ubiquitous digital networks should be able to automate them and undermine their gatekeeping power. In a sophisticated polity the increased use of referenda may well be justified. But experience has shown that simple disintermediation scenarios are rarely accurate, and that the reality is more often a reshuffling of the many functions of intermediaries, including the ones that go beyond the mere transport of data (Brown, Duguid, and Haviland 1994; Sarkar, Butler, and Steinfield 1995; Spulber 1999). New information and communication technologies are helpful not least because they compel analysis of such things, thereby making visible phenomena that might have been taken for granted. Political parties and legislatures, for example, do not simply transmit information; they actively process it, especially by synthesizing political opinions and interests into ideologically coherent platforms. They also engage in the discovery process of negotiation. New technologies will not automate these intermediary functions, but they might support them and change their dynamics in ways that can be investigated once the fact of their survival is allowed.
(4) Debates over information technology in politics are hardly new, and a common, almost taken-for-granted proposal during the 1970s has been called managerial democracy: the intensified use of computer decision-making tools by government staffs to rationalize, professionalize, and ultimately depoliticize many of the functions of government. Once the administration of public services is reduced to an operations research problem, it was held, the problematic aspects of the political process would become redundant -- an end to ideology and its irrational conflicts. The reality, as scholars such as the UC Irvine school made clear, is that rational public administration does not live up to its promises (Danziger, Dutton, Kling and Kraemer 1982). For one thing, the politics largely goes underground, with the dominant political coalitions manipulating the technology for their own ends under the guise of rational methods. For another, the technology was simply incapable of living up to its promises. Real-world public management problems are more complex than the models admit, and one is often left to set the valves of hundreds of largely subjective and inevitably political parameters. Of course, rationality and professionalization do have their place in government. But computerized decision-support tools do not eliminate the tension between politics and expertise that is central to all modern government.
(5) Many other proposals focus on the voting process. Voting is a central ritual of democracy, and it is also a process of information capture and aggregation, and so it seems natural to use digital networks to facilitate it. The idea is reasonable enough in the abstract, but the devil is in the details. In particular, proposals to bring voting to the home over the Internet are problematic. Low voter turnout may well be reversed to a degree by making voting easier, but the requirements for a sound voting process are complex. Even supposing that the injustice caused by the unequal distribution of the technology is overcome with time, problems of vote fraud are more serious. Any voting method that can be overseen by others is susceptible to vote-buying and intimidation. Physical isolation of the voter, for example in a voting booth, is the only sure answer, and the rapid spread of absentee voting in the United States, as well as vote-by-mail system such as Oregon's, is a matter of great concern.
(6) Other voting proposals are constitutional in nature; they argue that more advanced technology will support more complex voting methods that allocate representatives or decide referenda in mathematically more advanced ways. The problems here are numerous: the difficult challenges to legitimacy posed by any attempt to revise anything so central to a constitution as its voting methods, the narrowly formalistic concern with mechanisms that only treat the symptoms of a troubled political culture, and the cognitive and information-design problems that complex voting systems entail. Although modified voting systems might be part of a larger picture, they are a small part of the picture and inadvisable until that picture becomes clear.
(7) One libertarian school of thought holds that the Internet largely dictates the content of public policy by creating the conditions for an idealized, decentralized global market. By facilitating capital flight and making operations mobile, for example, the Internet is held to promote regulatory competition among the world's jurisdictions, with capital migrating to wherever it is well treated. This theory certainly has its elements of truth, but it is far from completely accurate. Information exhibits vast economies of scale, which promote economic concentration. Many business activities require geographic proximity, and the use of computer networks to loosen some geographic bonds only increase the forces of aggregation that cause other functions to centralize in world cities like New York or regional innovation centers like Silicon Valley (Mitchell 2000). Furthermore, the conception of market and government as vehemently opposed to one another has always been wrong; the conditions of the modern market were largely brought about by robust intervention by governments (Polanyi 1944), and governments to this day are deeply allied with their domestic industries in using their diplomatic leverage to promote exports. This process has developed for centuries, and has now been internalized beneath a veneer of neoliberal ideology in mechanisms such as the World Trade Organization. Regulation is routinely a competitive weapon. These dynamics are only intensifying as new information technologies make it possible to coordinate industrial and political activities over wide geographical areas.
(8) An opposed school of thought, for example among the followers of Innis (1951), see new communications technologies as inevitably centralizing, precisely because they allow peripheral regions to be integrated more tightly into the systems of economic and political centers (Gillespie and Robins 1989). When the emperor is far away, a degree of de facto regional autonomy remains; but the Internet makes the emperor ubiquitous in the same manner as other technologies of control. This, too, is a partial truth that becomes disastrous when treated as the whole. New information and communication technologies are not inherently technologies of control; after all, they include privacy-enhancing technologies such as cryptography that stand available as one social choice among many. They also facilitate great flexibility in the construction and reconstruction of associations and networks; they facilitate the many forces of disembedding that pull individuals loose from the close-knit orders of communitarian social control. The picture is complex, in short, and social structures are centralizing and decentralizing, both, in different and interacting ways.
(9) E-mail and chat-room interactions arrive tagged not with visible faces but with cryptic addresses, and so many people have held that the Internet is a force for social equality. In the words of a much-reprinted New Yorker cartoon, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog". Conventional markers of social difference (gender, ethnicity, age, rank) are likewise held to be invisible, and consequently it is contended that the ideas in an online message are evaluated without the prejudices that afflict face-to-face interaction. This argument exemplifies the dangers of overgeneralizing from particular uses of the technology. Different forums construct identity in a great variety of ways. Some forums, such as role-playing MUDs, do permit the construction of entirely "virtual" make-believe identities, although even in those forums "real names" are often the norm (Schiano 1999). Other forums authenticate their participants to prevent abuse. In many settings, such as academia and business, it is normal for individuals to construct elaborate public personae, and a someone who receives a message from a stranger can research that person's background much more readily than in the pre-Internet world. So it is not true, as a broad generalization, that the Internet decouples communications from identity. The reverse is often the case. Depending on how the Internet is used, it can even reinforce the conventional constructions of identity, or impose even finer gradations of status.
(10) Finally, it has often been argued that the Internet is a democratizing force because it facilitates open information. There can be no doubt that the Internet and related technologies have played a positive role in opposition movements in several countries, but the picture is more complex. First of all, the Internet has no power to make information open on its own; the political culture has to want it, and in many societies authoritarian habits beyond a narrow stratum of intellectuals run deep. New technologies also serve as instruments of surveillance, commercialization, and propaganda, all of which are entirely capable of negating the benefits of open information in practice (Buchstein 1997). More factors have to be taken into account.
The picture that emerges from these analyses has many elements, but some broad patterns are clear. Political activities on the Internet are embedded in larger social processes, and the Internet itself is only one element of an ecology of different media. The Internet does not intervene de novo to create an entirely new political order; to the contrary, to understand its role requires that we understand much else about the social processes that surround it. Single factors do not suffice, nor do one-sided generalizations. Instead one encounters a pattern of tensions: between centralization and decentralization, between intimacy and impersonality, and between professionalism and politics. Above all one finds complexity: if the Internet has "effects", it has many effects scattered throughout the structures of society, so that it is difficult if not impossible to compute a resultant of the many vectors along which the various effects run.
To make sense of these phenomena, it helps to take an institutional approach (Commons 1970 , Goodin 1996, March and Olsen 1989, North 1990, Powell and DiMaggio 1991). Society is organized by a diversity of institutions, each of which defines social roles and identities, rules and enforcement mechanisms, situations and strategies. Banking is an institution, and so is the newspaper business. The family is an institution, as is the church, the English language, and contract law. The political system is comprised of several institutions -- political parties, legislatures, aspects of the legal system, various types of associations, the customary forms of debate and other communicative interactions, the rules of parliamentary order, the methods of interest group organizing, the profession of news management, and many more. These institutions are centrally concerned with information, but also with power and identity and many of the other central categories of social life.
Institutions persist, and their ways of ordering human relationships can remain relatively unchanged for decades and centuries. The recalcitrance of institutions may be masked during a period of rapid change in information and communications technologies, when a swarm of specific innovations focuses attention on novelty and its opportunities, but even these changes cannot be well understood except against the background of the many dynamics that tend to keep institutions functioning in the way they already do. Institutions shape thought and language, for example, and alternative institutional forms can be hard to imagine -- even at a time when such imagining is fashionable. Participants in an institution must coordinate their activities, and for sheer purposes of compatibility it is often rational to do things in the ways that others are doing them -- the ways that, for that reason among others, they have long been done. Institutions must likewise continue to complement one another, and the transition of several interlocking institutions to new forms is almost impossible to coordinate. Institutions persist because of the bodies of skill that have built up within them; another institutional form might be preferable after a long learning period, but in the short term it is the existing forms that people are good at. Above all, institutions persist because they provide a terrain upon which individuals and groups can pursue their goals -- goals that the institution itself has taught them, to be sure, but goals that inspire people to forgo substantial opportunity costs anyway.
To say that institutions coordinate activity is not to say that they are wholly cooperative; more often the institution provides a relatively stable and predictable framework for segmentary politics that incorporates elements of cooperation and competition, among other things, in shifting combinations. The framework that the institution provides is itself largely political, and it is well understood as a routinized accommodation among the stakeholder groups that comprise it.
When institutions change, it is not because a technology such as the Internet descends and, deus ex machina, reorganizes the institution's constitutive order in its own image. Institutions do often change as a result of the opportunities that a new technology makes available, but it is only through the workings of the institution that the dynamics of the change can be found. Simply put, people use the Internet to do more of what they already want to do. They use the technology to pursue the goals that the institution provides, using the strategies that it suggests, organized by the cognitive and associative forms that it instills. If the technology is incomprehensible within the thought-forms of the institution then it will probably go unused (Orlikowski 1993). If nobody can devise an action-pattern for deploying the technology in ways that mesh with the existing gears of the institution, then likewise no significant effects are likely to be found. It follows that the Internet creates little that is qualitatively new; instead, for the most part, it amplifies existing forces. Social forces are nothing but coordinated human will, and institutions channel that will in some directions more than others. To the extent that institutional actors can pursue existing goals by reinterpreting existing action-patterns in a newly available technology, the forces that their massed actions create will be amplified.
To predict the "impact" of the Internet, therefore, it is necessary to survey the forces at work in the existing institutions. This may be difficult if the institutional forms have long remained in equilibrium; the exact nature of the forces might only become evident as the equilibrium begins to move. The Internet will not amplify all forces equally, and not all of the forces will be headed in the same direction. The Internet is amplifying hundreds if not thousands of forces in scores of institutional fields, each with its own logic and resources, and many of those forces conflict. If we ask what effect the Internet will have on the political process, for example, then the question is ill-posed: the Internet has its effect only in the ways that it is appropriated, and it is appropriated in so many different ways that nobody has enough information to add them up. Some of the changes will take the form of "the same, only more so"; others will be qualitative, as the existing accommodations become untenable. Institutions may implode, or fragment and reconfigure, or their functions may be absorbed by rivals. Each case needs to be evaluated on its own. In an old vocabulary we can safely say that the contradictions are heightened, but past that the dialectic must be sought in its particulars.
This perspective on the Internet's place in society aligns itself neither with the optimists nor the pessimists but with the realists; it is a story neither of continuity or discontinuity but of measured components of both. It is sensitive to the dual roles of institutions as both constraints and enablements, and it is tuned equally to the real workings of the technology and to the workings of the social mechanisms with which the technology interacts. It concerns phenomena that are localized not simply in organizational centers but in the distributed sites of practice where institutions shape action and are thereby reshaped in turn. It seeks neither to escape this enmeshment in social process nor to enclose it. It is impressed by the Internet but sees the Internet as 5% of the story. It lives with tension; it is neither conservative nor revolutionary.
Because the concept of amplification lives in the details of particular cases, it will help to consider some cases here -- a few simple cases to start, and then a couple of larger ones.
(1) One of the handful of people who can claim to have invented the personal computer was Lee Felsenstein (Freiberger and Swaine 1984: 100). A red-diaper activist from Berkeley as well as an electronics geek, Felsenstein wanted a device to automate the work of human volunteers who ran bulletin boards for political movements. Activists would call the volunteer on the phone to report an upcoming event or inquire about events, and the events would be recorded on slips of paper on an actual bulletin board. Their job was generally too much for any individual, and volunteers would often burn out by the time they became well enough known to be useful. Mainframe computers were far too large and costly for this job, and so Felsenstein invented personal computers and bulletin board systems to amplify the existing force toward the centralized posting of notices of events. The technology was then appropriated by others for other purposes.
(2) The Internet also amplifies the routine of issue politics whereby temporary coalitions are pulled together dynamically according to how the various interests sort out (Laumann and Knoke 1989). This process has long been conducted with face-to-face meetings, telephone calls, and other media, but the Web and electronic mail are exceptionally useful for coordinating moderate numbers of parties in moderately complex but largely routinized ways. The force to create such alliances is still present, but now the competitive imperative to do so quickly is even greater.
(5) Among relatively simple cases of amplification is the finding that the people who make extensive use of online political information tend to be the same people who were already strongly interested in politics (Bimber 2000). This finding has disappointed many who have placed naive hopes in the Internet as a force for increased civic involvement. It has also led to denunciations of the Internet and Internet hype by the same logic. But it is altogether natural from the perspective of the amplification theory. It does not follow that the Internet does not promote civic involvement, since civic involvement might in principle be promoted in many other ways, and we will not know the bottom line until a fuller model of the forces influencing civic involvement in politics becomes available.
(3) The political process became much more informationally intensive during the open-government revolution of the 1970s, when legislatures and bureaucrats found themselves increasingly compelled to provide rational-sounding justifications for their decisions (Greider 1992). There arose in response a substantial industry producing justifications to order -- the so-called think tanks. While think tanks were not simply libraries or dispassionate research organizations, nonetheless a history waits to be written of the exploding information infrastructure of politics, particularly at that time and since. The forces encouraging information-intensive politics have only increased, motivated by competitive pressures and the epochal innovation of 24-hour news with CNN. By 1992, then, a very substantial tactical research apparatus had arisen, and the Clinton era consisted largely of a furious, day-by-day war of information -- not just on the part of government and party apparatus, but also on the part of privately funded interests that did nothing but research and publicize alleged scandals (Lieberman 1994). The 24-hour news cycle constantly required these organizations to come up with facts that served specific rhetorical purposes, such as defusing an opponent's accusation by unearthing examples of comparable actions by others.
(5) Computers are themselves the objects of political work. Computing is a malleable technology, and every organization must make its own choices in selecting and configuring it. These choices have consequences in turn for the distribution of power and resources, including information. It is little wonder, then, that a large-scale study of local governments found that choices about computing tended to amplify the political power of whichever coalition within the organization was already dominant (Danziger, Dutton, Kling and Kraemer 1982). This study predated wide use of computer networking, but its hypothesis of "reinforcement politics" bears checking in contemporary settings as well.
For all their diversity, these examples of amplification in the political sphere are analytically simple: no special conceptual innovation is required to name the forces that are amplified. Reinforcement politics, for example, was an important discovery and certainly nonobvious relative to the theories that preceded it, but once discovered it can be explained in plain language. This will not always be the case. Many of the forces that the Internet amplifies cut across the accustomed boundaries of organizational analysis, or else they speak to the architecture of the human person in ways that have gone largely unnamed. Let us consider an example of each.
The Internet can connect anyone and anyone else, but the patterns of interconnection are not random. One pattern is that people exchange information with others with whom they have something in common (Agre 1998). Choose any condition that people find important, and it is nearly certain that a far-flung community will have arisen of people who share that condition. These communities of practice include professions, interest groups, extended families, and people who live with the same disease or share the same recreational interests. Most of the functioning online fora on the Internet are organized around these commonalities, but communities of practice should not be identified analytically with the technologies that support them. Most such communities employ several media, and most of them have some degree of formal organizational existence that is defined in technology-independent terms. It helps to understand these communities in institutional terms: what their members share is a location in some institution, such as employee, patient, student, customer, or kinship. They generally also share certain places or activities, and recurring practical dilemmas within which questions arise and answers make sense. The details will depend a great deal on the workings of the institution: the members of a community might be induced by the institution to compete with one another, or they might have very limited resources to spend on communications or to pay journalists or other professionals to gather information for them. By reducing some of the costs of some kinds of note-sharing, the Internet amplifies the forces that bring communities of practice together (Brown, Duguid, and Haviland 1994). It bears repeating that those forces must already exist; if note-sharing is unimaginable without the Internet, it may still be unimaginable with it. But where the forces are present and the resources are sufficient, the Internet is generally adopted furiously once a critical mass of community members sign on. The effects on society will depend on the nature of the case; diaspora communities can more effectively support their brethren in civil wars if that is what they wish, and human rights campaigners can more easily spread news of the atrocities that result (Kaldor 1999: 208-209).
The pooling of knowledge in communities of practice is generally considered a good thing, and it is certainly central to the collective cognitive processes of a democratic polity, but it is worth considering the consequences. When communications are weak, local communities are relatively isolated. Best practices may not be transferred, but neither are worst delusions. Theories of institutional change such as that of Hayek depend on the existence of these cognitive islands, for only then can institutional experiments proceed relatively uncorrupted by the example of others, much less the forces toward compatibility. Global networking does not necessarily portend global homogeneity if other forces exist to keep subcommunities apart, but arbitrage is a powerful force. These concerns arise, for example, in the development of law. The common law tradition assumes that comparable cases can be tried somewhat independently of one another, so that the appeals courts that are charged with bringing order to the cases in a new area can credibly claim to have discovered that order rather than ratifying a conventional wisdom that influenced each decision along similar lines when other analyses might otherwise have been found. This problem hardly began with the Internet, and surely dates to the origins of the common-law system. Nonetheless, law firms were among the first sectors to take full advantage of the amplifying effects of information technology.
A final and equally complex example of amplification is found in the very category of the human person. Every individual has a social network, and new information and communications technologies make it possible for everyone to stay in touch more continually with everyone they know. In many cases no particular force impels this increased regularity of contact. But technical limits are no longer a great barrier when, for reasons of sentiment or self-interest, those forces do exist. Spouses can talk ten times a day on their cell phones; friends can exchange a steady patter of text messages. Holiday card lists need no longer be pruned because of the costs of postage; people who fall out of touch are easier to find again. Elaborate software enables salespeople to manage their relationships with a multitude of clients. The result is a sort of networked individualism (Wellman in press).
A larger phenomenon here might be called "spacing": drawing out the logic of institutionally organized relationships and making that logic explicit in the workings of technology. An example might be found in commonly observed patterns in relative affluent families in the West. As television sets and telephone lines become cheap, the family home tends to break apart into separate media spheres for each individual -- what Livingstone (1999) calls "bedroom culture". Families that are dispersed into these separate spheres need not fall out of touch; to the contrary, new communications technologies such as cellular telephones and electronic mail permit constant contact, a development that children in particular do not always welcome (English-Lueck 19xx). Extended families can remain constantly in touch as well, perhaps even more than family members who supposedly occupy the same home.
Another example of spacing is found in academic research. To participate in the research community is to construct an elaborate public persona; a research library is, in large part, a warehouse of the public personae of professional researchers. New researchers are socialized into an array of rituals for developing relationships with others based on their personae, including the ritual of defining precisely and publicly the intellectual relationships among the individuals' research topics. The resulting professional network is a central fact of life for numerous purposes, from job-hunting to conference organizing to tenure and promotion.
New information and communication technologies draw out these relationships more explicitly, so that each member of an individual's network can be a continual presence. In addition to the lengthy letters employed by 18th century researchers and the occasional conference interactions of the 20th century, contemporary researchers can exchange a steady stream of relatively brief electronic messages with everyone in their network. Home pages on the World Wide Web make a researcher's vita not only explicit and public but searchable. As research publications become available electronically, the researcher's persona becomes instantly and universally available. Networks of relationships become visible in the bibliographies of these online publications, and are also reified in the alias files that map network members' names to their electronic mail addresses.
In each case -- family and research community -- the institution defines a set of roles and relationships, with their attendant rules, representations, incentives, expectations, and strategies. The individual is embedded not simply in a social network but in a network of institutional locations. New information and communications technologies do not revolutionize these institutional facts; rather, they draw out and amplify their logic. The connection patterns map the institution, and the principal basis of communication shifts from geography to relationships. The various parties become constantly present to one another, but their interactions have a structure -- an architecture -- that is defined by the institution and made explicit in the workings and usage patterns of the technology. The parties are not atomized, but neither are they merged. Rather, the technology reflects and amplifies the spacing among them -- the institutionally structured middle distances that define them each as distinct persons in the social order.
Considered from one perspective, this development in the category of the person is conservative. Oakeshott (1991 ), for example, distinguished between two conceptions of the person as a political being: a merger of the Many into the One, all of them expressing the unifying purposes of the state, and an individuation of personae in the social forms of civil association, each of them contracting their own relationships as they see fit. Civil association, in particular, is not a simple or natural condition of negative freedom. It is an institution; it is constituted by an authority; it must be instilled and legitimated. It does not discover distinct individuals and introduce them to one another; quite the contrary, it produces distinct individuals and organizes the spaces between them. This view of the person contrasts with that implicit in calls for community, intimacy, or solidarity as the basis of politics. Because Oakeshott views political order as flowing from the state, he regards any attempt to collapse the boundaries among individuals as an invitation to tyranny.
Oakeshott's is an especially strong endorsement of spacing as a condition of a virtuous political order. But even if institutional orders flow from more diverse sources than Oakeshott allows, the larger point is clear enough. By drawing out and reifying the informational architecture of relationships, and by making all of a person's relationships constantly present, the Internet amplifies a particular type of social order. This effect, once again, is not intrinsic to the Internet; it arises through the incentives that existing institutions create to take hold of the Internet in familiar ways, along familiar lines. Nor does it follow that the Internet's impact on society is essentially conservative; the tendency toward increasingly explicit spacing among individuals is only one of the many forces that the Internet amplifies, and many of these forces conflict.
Nonetheless, the implications for the political process would seem clear enough. Civil association in the 21st century is a system of interlocking institutions, not a shapeless meeting of individual minds, and the Internet provides allows the relational order of these institutions to be inscribed in the finest details of daily life. Political parties and interest groups routinely maintain databases of individual voters' affiliations and issue positions. Political communications are increasingly targeted, and real-time political mobilization is growing more sophisticated. Once the members of an interest group are indoctrinated and trained, political strategists can call on them in precisely designed ways to communicate specific messages to wavering legislators. Mass political communications retain their economies of scale, but they are increasingly integrated with political strategies on other levels. For those who are interpellated into the political process, the relationships of political combat are increasingly pervasive, increasingly constant. We cannot evaluate this mode of political integration, or the emerging category of the political subject that it entails, until many other forces are mapped. But we can regret it, and we can set off in search of forces to counteract it.
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