Internet and the question of democratization

by Olivier Donnat, sociologist in the Département des études, de la prospective et des statistiques (DEPS) at the Ministry of Culture and Communication

Dedicating an entire session to the Internet at a conference on the history of cultural democratization might appear as a bold decision, if not a provocation. Can this contemporary form of media, which appeared only a few decades ago and which continues to expand, already establish a historical narrative? Confronting the discourses on the institutionalization of French cultural policy with those promoting the development of the Internet remains nonetheless a fascinating enterprise. Indeed, these two narratives present numerous similarities, despite being separated by more than fifty years.

Since the creation of the web, the discourses that have accompanied the transmission of the Internet have highlighted the importance of democracy and equal access to culture. The success of blogs, social media and collaborative websites such as Wikipedia are proof of this mission. Many advocates have underlined that this “can do” media has offered all citizens the ability to express one’s opinions and creative potential, in addition to easier access to cultural productions – from the most humble creations to the most renowned works of art. Proponents of democratization promised to fulfill a dual mission: deepen the democratic process (allow citizens to freer and better informed), while participating in the transmission of culture by allaying or even eliminating material obstacles that impede on equal access due to cost or distance from supply sources.

In reality, advocates of democratization from the 1960s and those of the Internet from the 1980s and 1990s shared the conviction that supply creates demand, neglecting the material and cognitive resources required to understand art and its content. These supporters were convinced that the mere fact of making the supply accessible for free or at a low cost would help diversify the public and its tastes, forgetting the symbolic value of the aforementioned obstacles. The ambition expressed by cultural democratization advocates and that of the Internet were fundamentally the same.

Let us remember what André Malraux declared when presenting the Ministry of Cultural affairs’ budget at the National Assembly in 1967: “We must admit that one day we will have done for culture what Jules Ferry did for education: culture will be free”. We could almost say that Google accomplished what Malraux once dreamed of…

However, at the same time, how could we not realize that this new digital age undermines many of the founding principles on which French democratization policies rely? How can we not be astonished by the fractures ensuing from the expansion of technology and the Internet, in practice and in representation? On this subject, I would like to highlight four major points to which we will certainly return during this conference:
– the first significant change pertains to the transition from a national level to a global level. The Internet established itself and further developed on a global scale, while cultural democratization policies were founded on a national level (the idea of democratization is difficult to convey to Anglo-Saxons). This point is crucial, as it has a profound impact on economic models, modes of regulation, but also on consumerist patterns, the establishment of communities (today it is possible to be a fan of an artist or a genre that is unknown in France), without mentioning an impact on French culture.
– militant discourse of the 1960s on democratization relied on the belief of art’s omnipotence, while advocacy pertaining to the Internet emphasizes the omnipotence of technology. French cultural policy strikes a balance between cultural action and socio-cultural integration, which focused on the efficiency of mediators in charge of transmitting cultural codes to those who were raised without. When referring to Philippe Urfalino’s definition, cultural action relies on the myth of revelation: in essence, it suffices to put the public in contact with the artwork to prompt immediate understanding. Nevertheless, in many respects, the Internet has toppled numerous players’ power: that of the mediators, and of the artwork itself. The Internet offers tools to ordinary individuals allowing them to witness and to share artwork, but also to distance themselves from expert perspectives, thus replacing cultural meditation conducted by humans by non-human mediation which imposes insidious constrictions due to their invisibility. In short, algorithms now have all the power.
– democratization policies rely on the valorization of the professional artist. We can remember how the question of amateurs was quickly evacuated in the 1960s, then maintained at a safe distance from the policies of “excellence” in the 1980s. On the contrary, the Internet values the amateur – be it through auto-production, the diffusion of cultural content or various forms of appropriation: in the world of technology, everyone is constantly invited to produce, participate, recommend, judge, etc. This shift is key because it topples intellectual property rights, in addition to placing the Ministry of Culture in a highly uncomfortable position: this governmental institution no longer appears as the logical advocate for the freedom of creation (we can remember Malraux’s position in favor of Jean Genet’s play at the Odéon); it is currently the institution that denies (Hadopi) or limits creativity for all.
– finally, how can we not oppose the verticality of cultural policy in the 1960s to the horizontality of technology and its uses? Since its creation, the Internet has functioned in a horizontal nature, ignoring previous legitimization and encouraging expression in public forums, regardless of status. In this manner, technology challenges the verticality of French cultural policy that rests on a hierarchy between different art forms, but also on the representation of an aristocratic public, as noted by the authors Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet. This marks the transition from the representation of a society dominated by elites, endowed with knowledge and legitimacy, to the representation of connected individuals capable of producing, without intermediaries, what some call the “wisdom of the masses”.

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