Monday, November 06, 2006

Group 3: Summary and Questions for Bimber's "Information and American Democracy"

Group 3-Part 1
Bruce Bimber’s Information and American Democracy

Chapter 1

Section 1 & 2

The first part of chapter one lays a concise groundwork for Bimber's book. He will focus on the way new technologies and their ability to disseminate information affects the political stage. He makes a number of claims and observations about how technological advancements, the internet in particular, are used in politics, alter people's perception of politics and enhance democracy. He states a strong claim on page 21: "Technological change in the contemporary period should contribute toward information abundance, which in turn contributes toward postbureaucratic forms of politics."However, earlier, he presents some other fundamental research that is important and, at times, seems contrary to this central claim. First, he says "[political leaders] used the Internet to identify interested citizens, distribute information, and solicit participation in the protest." (3) There is great value to politicians in being able to easily do that. Second, he says that the Internet is one of the first media that allows for mobilization of individuals without a central bureaucracy and huge levels of organization behind it (3), another valuable tool. Third, he says the Internet can group together a group of individuals who might not otherwise find each other. Last, and in contrary to his thesis, he says that "information technology does not exert large direct effects on traditional participation and public opinion" (4). Isn't a change in public opinion central to his thesis? True, it might exert a direct effect, but "information abundance," in a democratic world, will lead to public opinion. Either way, he lays out some interesting and sound claims.

Section 3 & 4

After laying out the theoretical agenda of the book, Bimber continues to discuss the empirical evidence for his "information regime model", including quantitative evidence (survey data on individual-level behavior) and qualitative evidence (historical analysis, case studies, public records, and interviews on elite behavior and the organization-level effects). He also points out the normative implications of this model, for example, the tradeoff between political equality and the achievement of a deliberative public good. At the end of this chapter, Bimber claims that his position is neither technological determinism nor social constructionism. His purpose is neither to analyze specific technologies and their specific effects on politics, nor the opposite. Rather, he will focus on the major trend that technological evolution brings information-richness and communication-intensiveness, and seek the relationship between information and the evolution of politics within the information regime model.

Chapter 1 Questions:

1. Do Bimber's positions of non-technological determinism and non-social constructionism imply a position of technological neutralism? If not, how do you understand his position? If it does, do you agree or not? How do you reconcile this position and the positions that we have read in the reader? 2. Bimber argues that the role of information in politics is largely ignored by researchers (P12). Why do you think information has not drawn much attention compared to other factors or constructs (as listed on P20)?

Chapter 2

In chapter two, Bimber separates his theory about the roots of information in America into three “revolutions.” He begins with the example of Alexander Hamilton’s successful publishing of “The Federalist” in early colonial America, one of the first political communications to recognize the importance of information dissemination to government affairs. The problem remained, however, that citizens often fear placing much power in the hands of a government remote from its people. This was true for the earliest American states, and it’s certainly true today. We often don’t believe government at the federal level is accountable or attuned to local concerns.

The Information Theory of the Federalist:
-- Alexander Hamilton posits that the new government would be the center of information for the new nation. There are two major issues at stake - that of distance between gov't and the people, and the idea of the extended republic as a solution to the problem of factions.
-- The ways that political structure affects the disclosure, mediation, and aggregation of political information strongly affect the state of democracy. The Federalist theory suggests a causal relationship between properties of information and qualities of democracy.The First Information Revolution and the Rise of Majoritarianism:
-- From 1789 to 1820, America lacked a national-scale flow of political information, meaning the gov't was cut off from its citizens.-- The rise of the Post Office helped to solve this problem, as well as the rise of "penny papers" - newspapers aimed at a mass audience in both content and price.

--Bimber says people in early America were in effect “quarantined” from the government by the lack of information flow. This didn’t change until the 1830’s/40’s with the creation of a national news media system and the development of the world’s most extensive postal service. Then at last national identities could form, as could political affiliations. The press and the postal service were responsible for the creation of a political party structure over time. Working closely with the media, parties soon dominated info flow, and in many ways they still do today. Hence our strict 2-party system and “majority rule” were spawns of information revolutions.

The Second Info Revolution and the Roots of Pluralism
By the time of the Industrial Revolution, the number of civic, social and public interest groups in America was growing rapidly. There were unions and consumer rights groups and lobbyists and all sorts of communication bodies that never existed before. Bimber calls this a “mania for association formation” This revolution was rooted not in the change of technology, but in the growing complexity. There were simply more subjects being discussed—a plurality of information to digest. This implies the fragmentation of later years…


The Third Info Revolution and the Mass Audience
During the third and most recent info revolution, information is getting faster and cheaper and more accessible. We’ve reached that economizing stage that creates a very egalitarian information model. But what will the effects be for political engagement and democracy? Information is now non-linear (more like circuits that are never-ending). This might, it can be supposed, challenge the normal modes for political action. If everyone can have private and specialized forums online to discuss the information that interests them, what will happen to our holistic sense of current affairs and politics? How will politicians legitimize themselves before the mass audience? Will we really be more active? Bimber thinks not.

Bottom line? Bimber takes a middle of the road stance by saying simply that technologies like the Internet don’t make democracy better, but they surely make it different. More pervasive? More effective? More equal? This has yet to be determined.

Chapter 2 Questions:

Assuming, like Bimber said, that information is now non-linear, how can politicians ensure that their messages are even reaching their intended audiences?
How do you perceive the role of the internet with democracy? Does the increased specialization that the internet offers increase the public’s ability to participate in the government or does it merely isolate others?

Chapter 3

Bimber explains that policy and political influence tend to flow to the best informed and that resources create command over information and communication and command over these things therefore, enhance political influence. Bimber goes on to explain that the foundation of this conclusion has changed as a result of developments is new information technology because communication has become abundant. He goes on to explain 5 main aspects of technology that has changed and affects politics.

low-cost channels for the distribution of information by political elites and organizations
ex. Electronic mail- provides affordable means for every candidate to distribute information.
new technology to allow elites and organizations to acquire highly detailed information at low costs to tailor their messages.
capacity of new technology to allow citizens to communicate directly with one another.
Ex. Online forums
the ability for any news organization to distribute information globally
The ability to archive news and other information.

In the section called The Bureaucratic Concept of Pluralism, Bimber outlined different theorists views on information; such as Tocqueville, Weber, Levy, etc. He explains that Tocqueville was far ahead of his time and believed that Americans possess a habit of association and cooperation but are confronted with the problem if information dissemination, so that people with common interests have a hard time finding each other. And then when they do, the exchange of information is hard do to proximity. Bimber says that his analysis suggests that richer flows of information in society should lead to more numerous and intense associations among citizens. He also says that theories suggest less bureaucratized structures.

In the section of Postbureaucratic Political Organizations, Bimber writes about what collective action and organization structure might look like with an abundance of information. He says that increased opportunities for collective action by organization-poor or organization-less groups might occur; that the nature and boundaries of organizations will change and less rigidly structures, more malleable and more responsive to changes. Also that membership will become less bureaucratized and that organizational structures will not have to fixed around either national or local issues. All of this has the possibility to lead to pluralism. He says that the spread of pluralism will be constrained by the psychology and market dynamics of mass communication and that another powerful constraint to pluralism is the structure of the state apparatus.

Chapter 3 Questions:

1. Since a few years have passed since the publication of Bimber’s book, are there other significant technological advances that could make his list of “main aspects of technology that have changed and affected politics”?

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