Politics 80X: Politics of the Internet


Getting Started

This course is about the Internet as a political field, and the interplay between politics and the Internet. These are three distinct takes:

• the Net and the Web themselves;

• Net and Web altering public life;

• public life impinging upon, shaping, containing, pushing, and defining the Net and Web;

What do we mean by politics and public life? Simply: transactions to choose how life in common is to be conducted, and just which life-in-common is to be enacted. We propose to undertake complementary projects with one another. These are projects we could not accomplish alone. To work this out, we compare judgments about our present situation, how to do things, and what results we imagine from our projects. In a single word we negotiate both our understandings and our projects. The key term is negotiation. All politics, whether in the household or among formal players in the State, centers on negotiation.

It's obvious that the net and web only work because many people in different places have striven to fit pieces into place to form a network. They have negotiated what to do, how to build it, how to connect it, and how to govern access to it.

Where do users fit? When I post a page on the Web, I invite others to read it. Typically, I'm proposing that we enter into a disjoint conversation about the meaning and import of whatever I have written about. [I call the conversation "disjoint" because it lacks so many qualities of face-to-face talk, such as knowing to whom I'm speaking and exchanging remarks consecutively.] In addition, these exchanges are usually truncated: unless I am working with another person over a period of time, I don't actually work out how our understandings of the present situation differ, nor do I propose complementary projects, much less commit to undertake them. Despite this disjoint, abbreviated, incomplete character of transactions, many transactions occur, deserving to be called 'political.'

As a user, I make choices about what I will read. Sometimes I respond. I also call my friends' attention to pages, posting a link: in effect, I say "check this out."

What Are We Looking For?

We can make three kinds of claims about the Net and the Web:

• Claims that somethings is, or has a certain quality: existential claims.

For example, the claim that "The web provided millions of readers with prompt access to the Starr Report."

• Claims that an action, condition or fact brings about, or tends to bring about, another: causal claims.

For example, the claim that "Starr chose to publish the Report in salacious detail because he sought to undermine the political authority of the President."

• Claims that a practice or outcome is, or would be, desirable: normative claims.

For example, the claim that "The Starr Report should not have been written as it was because it includes intimate details of peoples' private lives which they should not have been compelled to reveal."

As you can see, people sometimes make claims about the same thing which are not identical. They may turn on different features of a situation, or adopt different understandings of the same feature. We are very interested in distinct claims, and in contending claims. To hold that "the Web is an instrument of education" and that "the Web is a vehicle for pornography" are distinct claims, quite different from each other but not mutually exclusive. On the other hand, to hold that "commercial transactions on the Web should be taxed" flatly differs with the normative claim that "commercial transactions on the Web should be tax-free". Since politics is so much about how we negotiate understandings of our situation, and about what we should do, we will place emphasis on these claims, distinct claims and contending claims of fact, cause, and norm.