Part.Public.Part.Lab

Participation, partial, partable, partisan, particular, party

In the Nature of Participation.

All too easily do we identify the need for and importance of participation:  participatory democracy, audience participation, user-participation, participant-observation etc.  Usually, it’s a good thing, though for the darkly minded, it’s akin to exploitation—free labor.  But rarely, if ever, is it simply identified and distinguished.  This lab aims to make its object of study participation in its “natural” settings, the changing ecology of global information and communication. 

Natural is a strong word. But it has the advantage of producing a distinction between first and second order observations of participation. On the one hand, participation as a strategy and problem for those who create, network, market, promote, entice, fund and even research; on the other participation as a problem, as an emblem of democracy, perhaps as a kind of character or trait: “Nothing in democracy makes sense except in the light of participation.” (Apologies to T. Dobzhansky)

The OED suggests that the definition of participation has more than just the immediate connotation of taking part in:

The process or fact of sharing in an action, sentiment, etc.; (now esp.) active involvement in a matter or event, esp. one in which the outcome directly affects those taking part. Freq. with in. Cf. audience participation at AUDIENCE n. 7d.

In this definition, there is a loop: one participates because the outcome directly affects the one participating.  Participatory democracy, by this definition is not representative but direct.  In the nature of participation there are proximate and distant outcomes, and only those whose effects are direct really mean much in the way of participation.

The Internet changes all this, of course, with the proliferation of modes of direct participation.  But how, how long and with what effects?  In what does one participate?  How active is that participation? Who controls or displays the outcomes (be they proximate or distant)? And how do you know when that participation affects you?

But it is not only the participant’s perspective that is at stake here: increasingly, and for obscure reasons, those who provide the capacity for participation expect something as well.  For instance, citizen science creates an expectation not only for participants to become involved and see direct benefit, but it also creates an expectation that science might be done differently, end up with different results.  Similarly, a project like Current TV or Indy Media began not just with the hope that participants would see themselves making media and having an effect, but that the media itself would be transformed (if not destroyed, some fantasized) by this practice of street-level democratizing journalism.  Always we have assumed that more participation makes democracies better, but rarely before now have we been able to so precisely measure, visualize, and form expectations of that participation.

Of course by 2010, the callow fantasies of a liberating cyberspace, of a democratizing web, or of the Internet as a neutral and equalizing force have come to an end, and the future of participation looks messy. The Nature of participation is ever-changing.  And by this we mean, the place, the ecology, the environment within which participation becomes as possible as foraging, dwelling, preening or sleeping for that matter.  There is no return to a 20th century of mass democracy, but nor have we actually seen a revolution, despite it’s frequent announcement.