Is this digital democracy, or a new tyranny of cyberspace?

Time magazine’s 2006 “Person of the Year” award went not to Ahmadinejad, Chávez, Kim Jong-il, or any other of the usual suspects, but to “you”, that is each and every one of us using or creating content on the world wide web. The cover showed a white keyboard with a mirror for a computer screen where readers can see their own reflection. To justify the choice, Time’s editors cited the shift from institutions to individuals who are said to be emerging as the citizens of a new digital democracy.

If there ever was an ideological choice, this is it: the message – the new cyber-democracy in which millions can directly communicate and organise themselves, by-passing centralised state control – covers up a series of disturbing gaps and tensions. The first point of irony is that everyone who looks at the Time cover doesn’t see others with whom they are supposed to be in direct exchange – what they see is a mirror-image of themselves.

And the “you” who recognises yourself in your online screen-image is divided: I am never simply my screen persona. First, there is the relationship of the real bodily person to my screen persona. Marxists and other critically-disposed thinkers like to point out how cyberspace equality is of course deceptive – it ignores the material disparities (wealth, social position, power or lack of it and so on).

Real-life inertia magically disappears in the frictionless surfing of cyberspace. In today’s market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant properties: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol. Cyberspace’s virtual reality simply generalises this procedure: it provides reality deprived of substance. In the same way that decaffeinated coffee smells and tastes like real coffee without being the real thing, my online screen persona, the “you” that I see there, is a decaffeinated self.

[Extract. Appeared in The Guardian on December 30th 2006.]