23 March 2008

Whither democracy, in an information age?

This is a rip off cheat, adapted with little alteration from a comment which I left for Ray Girvan at The Apothecary's Drawer following his March 8th post "Convex/Concave". It seemed relevant after my own post yesterday, referencing Julie Heyward's thesis on PhotoShop and democracy.

Ray's post was about an arts/sciences crossover event in Exeter to which I wasn't, unfortunately, able to go. The ESRC press release for that event quoted Cardiff sociologist Harry Collins as saying that "it is dangerous to allow the general public to make judgements about science , in the way that they do about art". Ray commented in response that he "can't much disagree with that: not because the public are stupid, but because they are primed with misinformation about science". I have been pondering that. Like Ray, I can't disagree that it is dangerous in view of the disinformation with which the public are primed by a press which (for sound commercial reasons) values simplified drama above (often complex) truth. And this is true of many things, in fact. We are fed much misinformation about most subjects. If I do not have the information about those subjects then, be I ever so intelligent and critically thinking, I cannot come to a good decision about it.

Emotive areas like the death penalty, terrorism, pædophilia, and so on, are all submerged in seas of misinformation and emotive response.

Science and terrorism, for very different reasons, are both areas where it is very difficult for the lay public to obtain reliable, disinterested information which they can critically evaluate for themselves. Both are also examples of areas where decisions made on disinformation could be disastrous for everyone. In this they are unlike art, where wrong decisions may be disastrous for those who make their living in the arts, and may lead to unpleasant or dreary output, but are not likely to be widely fatal.

The trouble is ... having said all of that ... where does it leave the ideal of an open liberal democratic society?

If we cannot trust "the public" for whom a society exists unless they are well informed, and if (as seems to be true) an end to misinformation is not likely to evaporate any time soon, where do we go next apart from Plato's oligarchy of elite philosopher rulers?

I don't pretend to have any answers to this conundrum; just worries about the question (friends will recognise this as a variant on something I say all too frequently!).

"Literature, from the very beginning, has had a single enemy, and that is the restriction of the expressed idea ... ... ... but what can be done when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors ... When that voice, though freely resounding, cannot be heard, because the technologies of information have led to a situation in which one can receive best the message of him who shouts the loudest, even when the most falsely?"

(Stanislaw Lem. His Master's Voice.)

No comments: