Democracy in the network age: time to WeThink

Published on Open Democracy, by Charles Leadbeater, March 5, 2008.

The new communications technologies are a toolkit for enriching and deepening democracy – and their greatest impact will be in the global south, says Charles Leadbeater.

There are a host of reasons for doubting that the collaborative culture of the web – which I call We Think – will be good for democracy.

More people being able to voice their views does not guarantee better debate. It could just mean more squabbling.

Democracy depends on creating public spaces where people of different minds debate and resolve their differences. Yet when people engage in political debate on the web they often talk to those they already agree with.

Instead of facing hardened, diligent journalists who know how to dig away at a scandal, politicians will lord it over a Lilliputian rabble of ill-equipped amateurs who can be easily ignored.

As more politicians take to the web, with their carefully calculated YouTube channels and social-network profiles, so they will diminish its radical potential. The web will become a tool for “politics as usual”.

Digital technology does not make a society more democratic. The high-speed mobile internet is ubiquitous in Japan yet that has done little to change its pork-barrel politics.

So why argue that We Think culture will be good for democracy? …

… The restrictions imposed by authoritarian regimes are a testimony to how much they fear the internet. In such countries the web will provide the main space in which democratic dissidents will gather. In Vietnam, for example, the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party was founded on the internet in 2005 and is organised online, partly using voice over internet phones. Bloc 8406, a dissident group, launched an online petition in April 2006 signed by 118 democracy activists, which has since been signed by thousands more. Without the internet there would be little or no democratic opposition in places like Vietnam (see Sophie Quinn-Judge, “Vietnam: the necessary voices”, 29 April 2007).

The United States is spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year on a war to bring democracy to Iraq (see Joseph Stiglitz & Linda Bilmes, The Three Trillion War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict [Penguin, 2008]). Yet only 4% of people in the Arab world have broadband access. The most potent way to promote democracy in the middle east would be to get that figure above 50%. The biggest contribution the internet could make to democracy would be to propel an orderly transition away from one-party rule in China.

The best measure of the web’s political significance is not how many friends Barack Obama has on Facebook; it is whether bloggers in Syria and Burma, China and Iran can raise their voices. That is why it is so vital to preserve the internet as an open global commons for the exchange of information and ideas.

So on balance, will the open web be good for democracy? Yes it will: it will slowly add new life to the exhausted democracies of the developed world but far more importantly it could be the platform for democratic advance in authoritarian societies. (full text).

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