Robin Good’s website features an interesting article on the democratic potential of Web 2.0. If we agree that Web 2.0 for the purposes of this article refers to a slew of new services and tools on the web that encourage peer to peer communications as well as social networking via the web, the resulting discussion that features responses from a number of well known writers is thought-provoking.
Over the past month, I’ve attended two high level meetings on (new) media development that emphasised time and again the importance of media literacy, even though its importance in strengthening independent media is contested.
As Robin Good notes,
Web 2.0 has revolutionized the panorama of the information society: users have become information producers and the new web platforms have become relationship venues where new knowledge and ideas emerge. Also the new tools of social networking, social tagging, wikis and blogs enable new forms of social interaction, participation and cooperation. But…
- Is this participation really democratic?
- Or is this a democracy paradox, where everyone can interact but the decision making places are all outside the net?
- Is the horizontal leveling of internet communications really an instrument of democracy?
- How would it be possible to transform these emotional and communication-oriented extensions in a real space connected with the physical world of true participation to decision-making?
Howard Rheingold’s answers to these questions are the best of the bunch and articulate better than the others a consensus that Web 2.0 tools alone are no guarantee of stronger democracy. Access, participation and the locale of democratic power (which may reside outside the walled gardens of social networks and the web itself) are significant challenges to the citizen participation in democratic governance, particularly in repressive regimes. Howard also notes that these technologies that are seen to empower citizens are equally if not more powerful in the hands of government that seeks to control dissent and produce propaganda in support of a parochial agenda, such as war.
Howard’s succint responses I think give us much thought for future debate:
Is this participation really democratic?
“Democratizing” means making access (to information, tools, policy-making discussions, elections, etc.) widely available. This, however, does not guarantee a healthy democracy.
What if more people vote, but their picture of political candidates and their policies are distorted by sophisticated public relations tools and strategies? What if their educations are so poor that voters are unable to think critically about partisan claims? I am wary of projecting hopes onto the tools you mention — which truly have the potential to inform and involve more people in democratic decision-making — without paying attention to the less visible parts of the system I mention.
Or is this a democracy paradox, where everyone can interact but the decision making places are all outside the net?
I am also wary of governance by instant voting. This is known as the “plebiscite” and can be very dangerous: a demagogue or a government can propagandize people into starting a war or adopting a policy without a process of deliberation. That’s why modern democracies are generally republics — citizens elect representatives who are expected to deliberate openly and transparently.
Is the horizontal leveling of internet communications really an instrument of democracy?
It CAN be. But more than the technology is required. A healthy public sphere is essential — most people need to have sufficient education, freedom to criticize, well-trained critical faculties, and ample sources of accurate information.
How would it be possible to transform these emotional and communication-oriented extensions in a real space connected with the physical world of true participation to decision-making?