Internet: R.I.P. Democracy?

One of the hats I wear in grassroots organizing work is that of a facilitator. I’ve facilitated a lot of long strategy and planning meetings for different organizations and movement groups. Facilitators have a lot of little tools and tricks to help structure groups’ time together. One such tool/trick is the “parking lot”. Basically, if someone says something that may be worthy of further conversation but is off-topic (i.e. not related to the current agenda item), you write it up on a big sheet of paper that says “PARKING LOT” at the top. The idea is that the group will get to it later, just as a driver eventually comes back to retrieve the car she parked in the lot. However, more often than not, “later” never comes, and the “parked” contribution gets stuffed into a filing cabinet or sent out in an email that no one ever gets around to reading. This is why some of my friends and collaborators with Iraq Veterans Against the War jokingly renamed the parking lot. They call it the “ideas cemetery” — “where ideas go to die.” This snarky name denotes how savvy facilitators can use the “parking lot” to derail contributions that they disagree with or dislike.

The reason this trick often works is because the derailed contributor feels heard. They can even see the idea they contributed written up at the front of the room, on display before everyone. They may not know exactly how, but it seems like there’s a chance that their idea could eventually be considered; that it may have an impact. If the facilitator were instead to openly oppose the idea, they may find themselves in an outright battle. It’s much more effective to create a visible space where the idea can “live” — without using up any oxygen in the real living world. As such, the “parking lot” can function as a virtual space that makes some sucker feel heard.

Perhaps the same is true of the Internet. The above story is my attempt to illustrate what I see as Jodi Dean’s main point in her must-read article Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics. Dean takes technology enthusiasts to task — particularly those who claim that the Internet is furthering meaningful democratic participation in society. She argues that the Internet de-politicizes more than it politicizes.

According to Dean, it behooves us to recognize the “significant disconnect between politics circulating as content and official politics.” Continue reading