Heroic social science – John Keane on media and democracy today

I heard John Keane speak this Friday on “Democracy in the Age of Google, Wikileaks, and Facebook.” His talk represents a genre that divides academics—heroic social science, the attempt to synthesize findings on a range of topics from a range of fields to understand some “big” question, like the one raised by Keane that afternoon—what do changes in our communications environment mean for how we conceive of and practice democracy? Now that’s a big question if there ever was one. Try to think through what you would say in response to it, and how you would support your views, and I think you’ll agree.

Keane basically argued (further truncating what he himself constantly reminded us was a “bowdlerized” version of a much more extensive analysis) that the incipient and growing forms of “monitory democracy”—the permanent public scrutiny of power that supplements formal electoral arrangements around the globe—that he discusses in his book on The Life and Death of Democracy today have to contend with five truly new features of our life

  1. The democratization of information (as it is made more widely and easily accessible on a number of platforms)
  2. The end of privacy (as the boundary between the public and the private shifts and everything is potentially recorded and stored)
  3. A new age of muckraking as a whole host of new actors try to expose elites
  4. The flourishing of unelected representatives on- and offline
  5. The growing importance of cross-border communications and increasingly global politics

I think one can challenge him on each of these five features—whether they represent the dominant trends, whether they are new, whether there are others, and so on, and Keane did not get an easy ride—I got the sense that a third of the room was overwhelmed by all he had thrown at them, a third of the room thought there was little new in what he said, and a third of the room thought he was all wrong about something or other. Both respondents and the audience continually questioned and challenged him.

And rightly so. Keane was making important claims, and claims that he in a sense knew—and said in advance—are virtually impossible to substantiate, especially at this level of generality. He said early on that what he, using a wonderful German term, called a “Gestamtdarstellung”, a comprehensive picture of the phenomenon at hand, is impossible due to the complexities and pace of change involved. And yet he tried—and I think he (again, as he is a serial offender when it comes to trying to pull things together like this) did well enough to be lauded not only for having the courage to try tackle big questions, but also for having inched the debate around them forward.

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