We live in a revolutionary age of communicative abundance in which many media innovations – from satellite broadcasting to iPhones, electronic books, cloud computing, smart watches and smart glasses – spawn great fascination mixed with excitement. In the field of politics, hopeful talk of digital democracy, web 2.0, cybercitizens and e-government has been flourishing. There are many thrilling ways that communicative abundance is fundamentally altering the landscape of our lives, and our politics, often for the better. Communicative abundance fuels the growth of monitory democracy. New information banks, changes in the public-private relationship and the robust growth of muckraking, unelected representatives and cross-border publics are especially striking trends of our time. But too little attention has been paid to the troubling counter-trends, the decadent media developments that encourage concentrations of cunning power without limit, so weakening the spirit and substance of democracy. Clever new methods of government censorship – the Chinese arts of using the Internet to control the Internet are among the most sophisticated – and the use by governments and corporations of spin tactics and back-channel public relations are the most obvious examples. Echo chambers, rumour storms, Berlusconi-style mass media populism, flat earth news, big political lies, cyber-attacks, online gated communities, publicity bombs and organised media silence in the face of unaccountable power are trends that also bode ill for democracy.
Published in 2013 by Cambridge University Press, Democracy and Media Decadence is a scholar’s guide to understanding and explaining these trends, and how best to deal with them. It explains why media decadence is harmful for the democratic body politic and tackles some tough but fateful questions: which forces are chiefly responsible for media decadence? Should we be cheered by the rise of organised leaking of information, or worried by the growth of new forms of digital surveillance, or by the collapse of newspaper business models and the lingering culture of red-blooded journalism, which hunts in packs, its eyes on bad news, egged on by newsroom rules that include titillation, sensationalism and the excessive concentration on personalities? What (if anything) can be done about the new media decadence? Is improved legal regulation our best hope? How effective are media literacy campaigns, or efforts to redefine public service media for the twenty-first century? And, finally, the really discomposing questions: when judged in terms of the principle of free and open communication, does the age of communicative abundance on balance proffer more risk than promise? Are there developing parallels with the early twentieth century, when print journalism and radio and film broadcasting hastened the widespread collapse of parliamentary democracy? Are the media failures of our age the harbingers of profoundly authoritarian trends that might ultimately result in the birth of ‘phantom democracy’ – polities in which governments claim to represent majorities that are artefacts of media, money, organisation and force of arms? If that happened, what, if anything, would be lost? In plain words: why should anybody care about media decadence?