Wednesday 16 November 2011

The trouble with digital democracy

This is nice:
24 hours in photos 

This installation by Erik Kessels is on show as part of an exhibition at Foam in Amsterdam that looks at the future of photography. It features print-outs of all the images uploaded to Flickr in a 24-hour period... 
Creative Review, 24 hours in photos
In the discussion we inevitably get the 'D' word
Perhaps sites such as Flickr, and the general ease of use provided by digital cameras, are instead encouraging us to think differently about photography, to see it as a truly democratic artform.
Whenever you see a claim that something is 'democratic', you need to ask two questions:
  1. IS this (whatever is being discussed) democratic, or in what sense is it democratic?  
  2. If it is democratic, is it necessarily 'good'?
The point is, invariably the claim for democracy is taken as a claim to be 'good'.  People are claiming something is democratic in order to show that it is good.

In many cases, the claim of democracy comes merely from something being made cheaper than before.  So cheap flights from the likes of Easyjet and Ryanair have supposedly democratised air travel.  Being cheap is frequently the main basis for claims of the democratising effects of new technology too, but it often goes along with ease of use and the ability to share something widely. This is the case with digital photography in the example above. Digital cameras are cheap (well, you can get digital cameras at low cost), they are easy to use, and by uploading your photos to a site such as flickr they can in principle be shared with millions of people right across the world. So, is this democratic? Or in what sense is it democratic?  I don't know.

In a similar way, blogging is presented as democracy, giving anyone and everyone a platform previously reserved for the great and the good, or to journalists who had access to the media. Again, is this democratic? Or in what sense is it democratic?  But maybe this is another strand of the information inflation story.  Could there be such a thing as democracy-inflation?  Can democracy be devalued?

And as to whether being democratic means being 'good', there's a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but apparently erroneously, that
Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.
Whoever said it, it is a useful reminder that we can't uncritically equate democracy with good.

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