Can Internet Save Politics (v1.1)?

American democracy is not at its most vibrant today.

Pretty high up on the list of problems: a lack of interest in politics — dissatisfaction that has turned to apathy and, worse, disdain — on the part of young people of all political persuasions. 

At the same moment in history, America finds itself isolated — with few allies and with too little sense of the  cultures and struggles and joys of those in places remote from us — in a world that is otherwise more connected than ever before.

People — ordinary people — have tools at their disposal today that give them the chance to engage in civic life in extraordinary new ways.  Those same tools enable us to learn much more about people living in other parts of the world.  The possibilities for connection across national and cultural boundaries are breathtaking.  And, not least, using these technologies can actually be fun.

I am a member of this apathetic generation and an otherwise proud citizen of this isolated nation.  I spend my time wondering whether information technologies, deployed in the right spirit, might help us reverse these polarities.

I wonder if we’ll be able to make the most of the increasingly powerful information technology tools at the disposal of individuals to participate in civic life to create a more energized form of a modern republic. These tools, to be certain, have their limits.  These tools also might expose their dark side: that they are agnostic as to who is using them, and that they might be used by people we wish wouldn’t use them and in ways we wish they wouldn’t.

The core of the political promise of the net is the cheaper, faster, more interesting, more efficient forms of speech by more people.  The net is enabling a small but growing number of people to go from consumers to creators of information.  It is in this transformation that the promise lies.

But I think we also ought to take a skeptical look at it. How much impact are these technologies really having? And couldn’t bad guys use these tools and not just good guys, much to the detriment of civic engagement?

Two of the core things that are distinctive about the Net: a) it’s interactive/participatory and b) it’s a global, unitary, public network (of networks).

1.0. Draw out the promise. People are using internet technologies to affect politics, on local and global scales alike, through:

– 1.1 Weblogs.  Take Rebecca MacKinnon’s NKZone.  From afar, a former CNN bureau chief is shedding light on the news in the shut-off zone of North Korea.  Blogs make it much cheaper to operate a megaphone with global reach, to publish quickly and in multimedia, and to draw upon the energy of others on the Net.

– 1.2 Fundraising.  First, theMcCain (2000) and Dean (2004) campaigns pointed to the promise of raising money over the internet.  It’s the Kerry Campaign that’s made hay of it: $26.7 MM raised on the net in the first quarter of this year, far outstripping previous records.

– 1.3 Connecting as among activists in nearby and far-flung places alike, sharing best practices, making the case faster and more effectively (labor, anti-globalization, those in terrorist cells?)

– 1.4 SMS: activists in London, at a rally spread out around the City, learned to use broadcast text messaging to coordinate tens of thousands of marchers at nearly zero cost.

– 1.5 Direct democracy (citizens can reach their representatives more quickly; online voting, even global in nature; more direct referendums could be possible, if desirable)

– 1.6 Greater access to government: the SARI project has demonstrated how net technologies can empower citizens in rural areas to fight for their jobs and their families.

– 1.7 Creativity (reference Larry Lessig’s free culture talk. The tradition that has been eroded is a “free culture” — of getting permission first.)  (Who do we care about here?  Is it about the creator, or the listener, or are the two converged more than we think?)

2.0. Objections:

– 2.1 How much of this is actually REAL? Does any of it matter?

* 2.1.1 No one reads blogs except other bloggers (and we know they’re all weirdos, the majority of whom are in this room right now). (Echo chamber, power law, daily me).

* 2.1.2 The other guy can raise money on line, too. (And we don’t really think so much money in politics is a great thing anyway? In any event, that’s hardly changing politics meaningfully).

* 2.1.3 How useful is it to know what people on the other side of the world are doing in politics? You don’t have time to know what everyone else within your campaign office is up to, much less to know what people far away are up to.

* 2.1.4 That’s just about using the phone.

* 2.1.5 We tried that with ICANN in 2000 and it didn’t work. 67 people in all of Africa voted. And we have representatives for good reason: not every topic should be handled as a direct majority vote.

* 2.1.6 Isn’t a telephone all you really need to give people in remote areas access to their government?  And don’t you need telephone, or something like it, to get people net access?

* 2.1.7 Creativity doesn’t affect politics. It’s a side-show.  So what if a few hundred people remix songs or make home movies and post them to the web?

– 2.2 What are the dark sides of use of net to affect politics?

* 2.2.1 A powerful country might restrict the e-mailing and posting to the web of political speech by dissidents

* 2.2.2 A repressive regime might use the net to track the speech of dissidents.

* 2.2.3 A repressive regime might use the net to track the votes of dissidents.

* 2.2.4 A company — powerful (MSFT, google) or not (NetNanny) — might block speech it doesn’t like or think we ought to like. “To speak you have to ask me first” — whether through law (copyright, e.g.) or through technology. Or else: you may try to speak but we may stop you (tech, or threat of law). Or a company might use the net to track the votes of dissidents (get into Diebold story?).

We are living in interesting times.  I think that one of the most important, but quietest, struggles underway is a struggle for the architecture of the Internet.  I think it matters a great deal that the environment remain vibrant and as open to innovation — and as free from propietary control — as we can manage to make it.

It’s important that the internet remain this global, unitary, public, and open network for all manner of reasons.  The most important of those reasons, however, is that the Net, as it’s been conceived in its short history, can help us dig ourselves out of the biggest holes we find ourselves in.  One is that our young citizens are not active citizens.  The other is that our world is a whole lot bigger than those of us living in this astonishingly wealthy superpower seem to think it is.

The net won’t do much of anything by itself.  The net certainly won’t re-energize our republic or build community across national lines on its own.  It’s a mistake to assume that the net is anything other than what we make of it, what we build every day, year after year.

I think the trick, at a tactical level, is to demonstrate the possibilities of using the internet to make a difference without having to be a computer geek.  Lots of people use e-mail instead of the phone, and shop at Amazon instead of the local Border’s.  The net can make politics more efficient, too, and change our relationship to it — to a more engaged relationship — in the process.

We all have too much to do — work hard, eat right, exercise regularly, save for retirement, floss nightly.  Being a “good citizen” probably doesn’t make most people’s top ten lists.  The most that many of us can manage in the way of politics is to vote, and only half of us even do that much.  If we’re smart, we can use internet technologies to re-engage in civ
ic life and expand our horizons — without working quite as hard as we used to, and maybe having some fun in the process. 

Now is the time to be in the mix, to be active in the debate over whether the internet will continue to be more open than closed, or more closed than open — in part, to affect this debate itself, but in larger measure to ensure that the net itself can continue to foster such civic engagement.American democracy is not at its most vibrant today.

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