#9: Digitized Democracy

By | November 7, 2006

The evolution of digital technology is giving consumers more control over media content, according to Princeton University Professor Edward W. Felten.

Whether it is digital music, movies, television shows or news, consumers nowadays can choose what, when and how to watch/listen/read digital content.

Before, if you wanted to watch a particular TV show, the network dictated the time it would be broadcast. Now we have TIVO.

Before, if you wanted to read news about your community, you depended upon your local newspaper to physically deliver it to your home. Now we have the Internet.

Before, if you wanted to hear the new song by Band X, you had to either wait to hear it on the radio or go to the store and buy the album. Now we have ITunes.

The technology has brought about a “great earthquake” in the media world, observed Felten. This technology in the hands of consumer is the ultimate shift in control TO the consumer. And the repercussions are echoing inside media companies, who equate loss of control with loss of revenue.

If through digitized technology consumers can obtain, copy and distribute content produced by media companies free of charge, than how can the media companies survive?

We are constantly asking this question at the newspaper website where I work. If the newspaper is essentially giving away its content for free over the web, than the newspaper is creating a business model that it can’t sustain.

Yes, the newspaper website does sell some online advertising. However, that revenue stream of online ads is not large enough to support the newspaper’s phalanx of reporters, editors and online producers. And if the company can’t afford to pay the people who gather and produce the content, then there will be less content for consumers.

Don’t get me wrong. I really like the idea of consumers being in control. I’m a consumer, too. I like downloading music and carrying it around on my MP3 player. I like being able to TIVO my favorite TV shows and watch them according to my schedule. And I like being able to read all the news I’m interested in on the Internet. It is like another level of democracy.

But realistically, all this media content has to come from somewhere. Producing it and making it available to the public costs money.

Now the question is whether consumers and media companies are willing to share the costs of this “digitized democracy.”

Consumers today aren’t willing to pay much, it seems. Media companies certainly don’t want to give up huge profits.

“Emerging technologies,” Cass R. Sunstein wrote, “hold out at least as much promise as risk, especially because they allow us all to widen our horizons.”

Can this digitized democracy eventually shake out a level playing field for all? Time will tell.


  • Felton, Edward. (2004). Rip, mix, burn, sue: Technology, politics, and the fight to control digital media. Princeton University President’s Lecture Series, no. 1.
  • Sunstein, Cass. (2004). Democracy and filtering. Communications of the ACM, 47(12), 57-59.

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