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The Internet and the Liberation of Public Expression
by Pierre Lévy
May 07, 2002 - The expansion of the Internet is being carried forward by an undercurrent whose breadth and strength has still not been completely measured: the liberation of public expression.

In our home environment or immediate geographical vicinity, if nobody defends a point of view with eloquence, and if that point of view is not clearly expressed on television or radio or in the main newspapers either, the fact that we "live in a democracy" makes us none the less ignorant of the true landscape of ideas, whether those ideas are political, philosophical, scientific or whatever. However, on the Internet, cybercitizens are able to discover a multitude of ideas and propositions which they would never have imagined if they had not logged on. Moreover, on the Web, those ideas are expressed by the very people who create and think them, not by journalists compelled to simplify and caricature them for lack of time or competence or, worse, because they are subjected to an authoritarian political power. This new medium that is the Internet thus particularly encourages us to transcend traditional public space.

But will not this torrent of "public opinion" be stopped, or even reversed, by the current trend towards concentration among communications companies? Certainly that risk exists, but it seems to me to be limited. I ask the reader to base his opinion on investigation and observation, rather than on emotions (fear, in particular) and prejudices. When one connects to the Internet, one can see that financial concentration in the world of communications does not reduce the diversity of information, which continues to increase despite corporate mergers. The first reason for this apparent contradiction is that disseminating texts, images and sound to the entire planet now costs almost nothing, and that this situation is henceforth irreversible. The fact that a person’s or an association’s web page is hosted by a large virtual commercial community does not reduce its poetic or cognitive range, or its ability to denounce.

The second reason, equally obvious, is that the owners of the large communications groups would derive no benefit from broadcasting a monotonous message over all channels. On the contrary, they must ensure that their content is creatively diverse, in order to reach a public which is itself increasingly differentiated, changing, moving, difficult, well-informed and - let us not forget - whose members are in a position to choose between several competing options.

By allowing ourselves to fear capitalist concentration, and by taking the easy option of automatic denunciation rather than the more difficult route of making the effort to understand innovation, it is possible to deny the broadening of the range of ideas and information available on the Internet. But there is another objection one can raise - the theory that the development of the Internet is bringing about a liberation of human expression. This objection no longer consists in denying the fact, but in condemning it in the name of defending "truth" against chaos. As if truth does not flourish better in an atmosphere of freedom! These two objections, though they contradict each other, are often raised by the same forces of conservatism.

The anti-liberation argument can be summarized as follows : "Since competent persons and other specialists such as journalists, teachers, publishers, producers, and those in charge of museums and galleries (i.e. the traditional intermediaries of culture) are no longer there to control the quality of messages in circulation in this new public arena, now you find any old rubbish there. How are we supposed to find our way around the immense quantity of information available, most of which is of dubious quality? Surely the situation has become worse than before? And doesn't it favour the privileged, the rich and educated, who will be always be able to find their way around in this chaos, while the majority of people will be condemned to roaming its excessive expanses of mediocrity and popularity-seeking?"

However, this argument presents the disappearance of the old processes of traditional selection and intermediation as a catastrophe, without portraying the Internet as a set of emerging new ways of hierarchizing and orienting information. If we imagine an isolated individual, lost in the Internet’s immense mass of disordered data, unable to find what he or she is looking for, or satisfied with the first results a search engine comes up with, then we have the feeling that the Internet’s increasing abundance of information and absence of prior sorting represent a loss rather than progress.

But if, on the other hand, we imagine an Internet surfer who is not only able to use the entire range of research techniques available, but who also participates in virtual communities in which his favourite interests are discussed and where people exchange information about the best sites, then perhaps this new form of intermediation, using capillary relationships, distributed processes of collective intelligence and increasing familiarity with the expanding territories of planetary hyperdocumentation, may be more effective and relevant than the old one. A network of people interested in the same subjects works more powerfully not only than any search engine, but more effectively than traditional cultural intermediation, which is only able to sort information in an approximate, a priori way, without detailed knowledge of individuals’ situations or needs.

Internet users do not have to face this ocean of information alone. They gather in virtual communities, often organized around sites or portals which help them to navigate their way around particular areas of semantic space. This space is bigger than that of the old cultural domain, and its modes - constantly improving - of orientation and location are finer, more precise, more alive … provided that one takes time to learn them and to become integrated into the virtual communities which offer access to it.

Whereas the old-style intermediation of the public domain sorted information a priori, the new intermediation selects a posteriori. All publications are authorized (to the extent that the law is respected…) but selection occurs by virtue of the number of links which converge towards a site, by frequency of connections, by mentions made in discussion forums or other sites, by the votes or comments of readers and users, etc. It should be noted that the scientific community has already started to work in this manner. Certain scientific sites, such as that of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the U.S.A., which specializes in nuclear physics, posts all articles submitted (not just an a priori selection), but also counts how often published articles are quoted and readers’ comments are posted (i.e. a posteriori selection).

In the same way, sites which sell books on the Web make it possible for readers to give their opinions and to give a mark to the works they have read. The distribution of advertising spending also functions on the principle of evaluating sites according to their degree of success, as measured by frequency and duration of user connections. It will be noticed that these new forms of selection almost amount to counting votes (numbers of times quoted, links, connections, marks), a state of affairs which represents a projection of democratic practices into sectors of social life where they were not previously predominant.

But, some may say, what is to become of truth in this new way of selecting and evaluating messages? Are we to put to the vote mathematical theorems or other types of information whose authenticity can only be judged by specialists?

Let us observe initially that control of the means of information by a small minority, even though that minority may regard itself as the elite of knowledge and culture, is no guarantee of quality of the information selected. The largest publishers refused manuscripts by Marcel Proust and other great authors, while publishing on a daily basis cultural nonentities which are "commercial".

Under totalitarian regimes the press and other media have told lies for years, and even in democratic regimes errors slip daily into the writings and speeches of journalists. The Church and Universities often resisted new ideas for centuries. Unless one allows oneself to be taken in by authoritarian arguments, a book is not "good" just because it has been published, news is not "true" just because it has been announced on television, knowledge is not "guaranteed" just because it is taught at University (we speak from experience, dear colleagues!) With all due respect to the credulous and the lazy, the truth is not already given (by whom could it be?) but rather it is constantly the subject of open, collective processes of research, construction and criticism.

Now, the pluralism and interconnection which are intrinsic to cyberspace (the first user of which, it should be recalled, was the scientific community) actively favour such processes. Do I hear claims that scientists are capable of curiosity and criticism, and thus able to "read everything" and "see everything", while the common run of people needs simple information, pre-digested and stripped of its contradictions? I answer that these arguments have been used, by turns, against democracy, against universal suffrage and against freedom of the press, and in favour of censorship, and that they ultimately they always amount to treating citizens like children - or worse, like isolated children.

But the project for civilization which, building on that of enlightment, would seek to exploit cyberspace’s greatest potential, is precisely about making citizens associated intelligences, and is thus about recognizing everyone’s particular faculties for intelligence, discernment and criticism. If one is in favour of freedom, one must accept that each time it makes an advance, this implies increased responsibilities for each of us. There is no other way of training oneself for this responsibility than by practising it. If one is against freedom, no argument based on the prospect of emancipation can move us. Perhaps only shame will one day be able to awaken us.

If one wants to, one can find on the Internet plenty of "bad" ideas, expressions of hatred and degrading images, just as these exist in many people’s minds. But the dynamics of the production of knowledge reside in the free and responsible confrontation of information and ideas, not in locking public expression up in chains. Yes, there are websites devoted to hatred, pornography and stupidity. These are the expression of the hateful, pornographic and stupid aspects of the human spirit.

Our collective intelligence, in this case, consists in humanity’s having the courage to look at its own spirit - just as it is - in the mirror of the noosphere, rather than in rubbishing, or becoming angry, or afraid, or in condemning: these are merely as many ways of not learning. For humanity as a whole, intelligence consists in discovering the raw image of its own spirit. Acceptance of human beings as they are now is an essential "moment" in the dialectic of learning - i.e. in the progress - of collective intelligence.

Pierre Lévy is Professor at the University of Quebec; his latest published work is entitled "Cyberdémocratie" (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2002)

Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.