Each of the telegraph, telephone, radio and television was accompanied by its own heroic rhetoric of democratic transformation and reinvigorated civic engagement. None have delivered fully on this promise, but each has been crucial for the maintenance of a system of political and economic power in which most people are systematically distanced from the practice of citizenship most of the time. For the most part, these technologies have been means of anything but citizenship: spectacular entertainment; docile recreation; habituation to the rhythms of capitalist production and consumption; cultural normalization. The internet, as a radically decentralized medium whose capacity for publication and circulation far surpasses that of its broadcast predecessors, has certainly provided the means by which politically-engaged citizens can access and produce politically-charged information that would never have seen the light of day under the regime of the television and newspaper. This information can be an important resource for political judgment. But the Internet also surpasses its predecessors as an integrated medium of enrolment in the depoliticized economy and culture of consumer capitalism. This is why we should be wary of equating more and better access to information and communication technology with enhanced citizenship.
One Montreal resident deeply influenced by Barney’s critique of the Internet as an enabler of citizenship is Michael Lenczner, whom I interviewed for this week’s ITConversations show. Mike is a co-founder of Île Sans Fil, Montreal’s community wireless network. With over 150 access points and nearly 60,000 users, the project is a huge success, all the more so given that municipal wi-fi projects in other cities have failed to materialize. And yet, Mike questions the value of what’s been accomplished. The project’s goal was not merely to light up hotspots in downtown Montreal, but to enhance the “sociality” of the city and elicit more and better civic engagement. He doubts these goals have been achieved, and asks himself hard questions about how technology can be deployed to these ends.When I met Mike recently in Montreal, I said: “It amazes that you’re asking yourself these questions. He replied: “It amazes me that others don’t.”