Reinventing Democratic Culture in an Age of Electronic Networks

By David Bollier

This text is a slightly revised version of a report to Woodward Wickham at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It was one of many texts upon which the Foundation is drawing in the course of its program development process. It does not constitute the policy of the Foundation, but it is circulated with the Foundation's permission.

David Bollier is an independent journalist, political advisor and consultant specializing in the social performance of business, emerging electronic media, progressive public policy, consumer issues, and citizen action. A long-time collaborator with television writer/producer Norman Lear, Bollier has also worked with Ralph Nader, Public Citizen, People for the American Way, the Aspen Institute's Communications and Society Program, among other organizations. He is the author of five books; lives in Amherst, Massachusetts; and can be reached at or 511 Old Farm Road, Amherst, MA 01002.

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    1. The Need for a Sovereign Citizen Vision
      There is an urgent need for new institutions, resources and leadership that can develop a sovereign citizen vision for the new media environment. It is critical that this vision, in its inception, reflect citizen needs, independent of the commercial priorities and political calculations of others.
    2. The Transforming Effects of Distributed Electronic Networks
      Electronic networks are profoundly transforming the basic structures of commerce, politics, governance, community and culture. If foundations and nonprofits fail to exploit the new networking technologies and revamp their organizational practices, they risk marginalization over the long term.
    3. Creating a Telecommunications Architecture That Supports Community, Democracy and Culture
      In a culture beset by the breakdown of civil connection, we urgently need to find new ways to nurture democratic participation and genuine bonds of community. To do this, we need to understand better the distinct interpersonal and social dynamics of online media, and to press for telecommunications policy frameworks that support citizenship and community.


    1. Developing a More Muscular Policy Advocacy
      An overworked, underfunded corps of public-interest telecom advocates needs to grow in size, intellectual breadth, and grassroots connections if it hopes to prevail in pending policy debates of great significance. The primary goals of the public-interest community should include winning public benefits from new allocations of digital spectrum, limiting concentration of media ownership, ensuring programmer access and diversity on new video delivery systems, ensuring universal and affordable user access, securing a new user-friendly regime of intellectual property law, and assuring strong First Amendment protections in new media environments, among other issues.
    2. Building a Broader, More Organized Constituency
      Public-interest policy advocacy will not make greater headway until it begins to develop stronger, more collaborative linkages with grassroots constituencies. This will require nonprofits to develop new internal networking capacities, activate new niche constituencies, build more effective coalitions, and leverage government information to improve policy advocacy.
    3. Making the Technologies Work for Us
      The new networking technologies are not discretionary extras for nonprofits, but vital tools that can profoundly enhance organizational capacities. Two formidable challenges are getting the nonprofit world to integrate networking technologies into their operations and to develop their own creative applications.
    4. Developing Greater Intellectual and Strategic Depth
      If progressive telecom advocates hope to prevail, they must shed some obsolete policy paradigms and develop more contemporary, sophisticated intellectual critiques. They must also cultivate a keener awareness of the "meta-dynamics" of the new media environment: the new economic/business models, the new taxonomies needed to understand the new environment, the new rhetorical modes of expression, and the new ecology of public knowledge.


    In today's volatile, fast-changing media universe, foundations may need to re-assess their own missions and operations in order to remain effective. Information technologies need to be seen as integral parts of grant programs, and foundations may need to find new ways to show greater flexibility, speedier decisionmaking, and openness to experimentation.


Four years ago, when I examined the convergence of various communications media, I saw great opportunities for reinvigorating public life, democratic participation and a public interest agenda. That promise, if anything, has soared way beyond anyone's imagination by intervening developments. But navigating this new world has also become immensely more complicated by the explosion of the Internet, the tumult in telecom markets and regulation, and by dozens of technological advances. Although nonprofits have launched many worthy ventures in the new media, their impact has been fairly modest and, in the broad perspective, disappointing.

It is urgent that foundations and nonprofits, working together, develop a coherent, operational plan for grappling with the emerging media universe. This is not just a matter of not being "left behind," but equally a matter of seizing rich opportunities to enhance organizational impact and reinvent democratic culture. The failure of nonprofits to develop serious strategic plans for exploiting the new media will only result in their marginalization over the long term. This dynamic has received dramatic demonstrations in the commercial world as innovative companies utterly transform markets and invent new business models by exploiting computer/telecom technologies; non-adopters are shunted to the sidelines or go out of business.

New electronic technologies are, in fact, transforming many basic structures in commercial banking, retailing, advertising, academia, schools and libraries, and dozens of professions. As individuals gain direct access to new information sources and each other, many traditional intermediaries (newspaper editors, the medical profession, book publishers, etc.) are being bypassed. Amidst the uncertainty and upheaval, a grand social re-negotiation of institutional, social and personal relationships is occurring. Even the historic prerogatives of national sovereignty (control of the money supply, the power to enforce national laws) are being subverted by trans-national data flows.

Neither the nonprofit world nor foundations are exempt from the changes being spurred by digital technologies. But to ensure that these institutions do not get locked into a reactive, catch-up mode, I believe that they need to assume a much more assertive, creative role as the computer/telecom revolution proceeds. Despite huge uncertainties, there is compelling evidence that some of the core priorities of the mainline foundations -- social equity, democratic values, equal opportunity, educational achievement -- will be profoundly affected by the new technologies and media marketplaces. The real question is how to proceed intelligently in such a fast-moving realm of peril and opportunity.

This memorandum proposes a framework for answering this question. My analysis derives from conversations between February and May 1996 with more than three dozen people: fourteen previous MacArthur General Program grantees as well as many other policy advocates, academics, technologists, librarians, video and film producers, foundation program officers, community organizers, and others. Despite casting a wide net in my research, I have no illusions about my comprehensiveness; the larger the continent of knowledge, the greater the shoreline of mystery. This project could have fruitfully consumed another six months of inquiry, such is the range of germane developments. That said, I believe the following pages provide the scaffolding for a long-term strategic agenda.

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This document was published in October 1996.