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The Analog City and the Digital City 

L. M. Sacasas

How online life breaks the old political order

Since the advent of the Internet roughly a half century ago, digital media has been heralded as an agent of empowerment and democratic liberation. Along the Information Superhighway lay peace, progress, and prosperity. There were critics along the way, of course, but their warnings were for the most part dismissed or ignored. As late as 2011, journalists and technologists were praising social media’s emancipatory power in light of the role of Facebook and Twitter in the Arab Spring revolts. But, as has been noted many times, after the U.S. presidential election in 2016, such optimism increasingly appeared naïve and misguided. Now Facebook and Twitter are seen as corrosive forces polluting the public sphere with misinformation, generating vitriol and outrage, and misusing user data for manipulative political ad targeting.

Americans from across the political spectrum have grown wary and weary of how digital technology is shaping political culture. Both Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Republican Senator Josh Hawley have been cheered for skewering Mark Zuckerberg, and calls to regulate Big Tech have taken on an increasingly bipartisan tenor. Global developments have contributed to this growing apprehension, as social media platforms have been implicated in the rise of authoritarian regimes, in the proliferation of massive disinformation operations, and even in genocidal campaigns against minority populations.

The heightened scrutiny of the political uses to which social media has been put is necessary and important. But it tends to miss a critical aspect of our situation. Much of the analysis tacitly assumes that our underlying political structures and values have remained relatively stable, that they will not fundamentally change — even if they must be defended against the usual illiberal suspects, who deploy digital media in their efforts to undermine the legitimacy of democracies. If only Zuck would take more aggressive measures to purge Facebook of fake news, and if only Jack would ban all the Nazis from Twitter, then all would be well and we could proceed with business as usual. Much like the proverbial generals who always fight the last war, however, we will be undone in our efforts to make sense of our moment and to respond productively if we don’t recognize that digital media is reconfiguring our politics at a more fundamental level....

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L. M. Sacasas is associate director of the Christian Study Center of Gainesville, Florida and author of The Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and society. An earlier version of this essay was delivered as the keynote lecture at “American Democracy in the Internet Age,” hosted by The New Atlantis in partnership with the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America and with the Templeton World Charity Foundation.

L. M. Sacasas, "The Analog City and the Digital City," The New Atlantis, Number 61, Winter 2019, pp. 3-18.