What Tocqueville tells us about the web

[Peter Suderman]
One doesn’t typically look to 19th century political science in order to describe the state of the internet, but it strikes me that all the way back in 1835, Tocqueville provided us with as succinct and apt a description of the transition from old media to new as you’re likely to find:

As the noble never suspected that anyone would attempt to deprive him of the privileges which he believed to be legitimate, and as the serf looked upon his own inferiority as a consequence of the immutable order of nature, it is easy to imagine that some mutual exchange of goodwill took place between two classes so differently endowed by fate. Inequality and wretchedness were then to be found in society, but the souls of neither rank of men were degraded.

Men are not corrupted by the exercise of power or debased by the habit of obedience, but by the exercise of a power which they believe to be illegitimate, and by obedience to a rule which they consider to be usurped and oppressive.

On the one side were wealth, strength, and leisure, accompanied by the pursuit of luxury, the refinements of taste, the pleasures of wit, and the cultivation of the arts; on the other were labor, clownishness, and ignorance. But in the midst of this coarse and ignorant multitude it was not uncommon to meet with energetic passions, generous sentiments, profound religious convictions, and wild virtues.

The social state thus organized might boast of its stability, its power, and, above all, its glory.

But the scene is now changed. Gradually the distinctions of rank are done away with; the barriers that once severed mankind are falling; property is divided, power is shared by many, the light of intelligence spreads, and the capacities of all classes tend towards equality.

Replace “noble” with whatever your preferred term is for mainstream media and “serf” with blogger and it’s just about perfect.

After all, isn’t the internet the 21st century’s New World? We no longer have a physical frontier to conquer, at least not in the traditional sense, but we have an infinite supply of undeveloped, undiscovered digital territory. “Land is the basis of an aristocracy,” he wrote, and he argued that the evolution of property ownership from large land holders to a widespread ownership of smaller parcels facilitated the death of the aristocracy. In the same way, the abundance of digital land has radically altered the media (and business) landscape.

Indeed, it seems to me that much of the same frontier spirit that he saw as characterizing the birth of America now characterizes the birth and continual development of the internet. Tocqueville writes about the way Americans created innumerable private organizations and affiliations, about their restlessness and inventiveness, their devotion to the practical over the beautiful, and the way these forces equalized the country’s residents. I don’t think it’s inappropriate to refer to a lot of net-nerds — particularly bloggers — as settlers. Yes, the internet has many regular visitors, but for many of us, it’s more like a home. Megan just wrote with some trepidation that she’s going to attempt to go without the internet for five whole days; I recall reading an interview with a film critic (which I’m unfortunately unable to find) who said that, for all practical purposes, he now considers himself a citizen of the web.

The larger point I’d like to make here is that I think Tocqueville’s careful, thoughtful approach to American democracy suggests a way to approach the changes wrought by the internet on the media in specific and on society at large—a middle way that eschews the zealotry and enthusiasm (to which I admit I am regularly prone) of technologists as well as the resistance of the Susan Jacoby/ Andrew Keen techno-moralist crowd. Tocqueville was not a wild booster of American democracy. Yet neither was he a stingy critic. Instead he saw that democracy was coming, recognized the foolishness of rejecting it outright, and sought to encourage its best tendencies, to make it, as George Pierson noted, “safe for the world.” I suspect discussions of the social effects of the internet would all benefit from a similar mix of acceptance and caution.