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Wednesday 30 May 2007

Democracy doomed, claims Freedland

Jonathan Freedland gives us his take on the impact of the Web on politics for The Guardian.

Title? 'The internet will revolutionise the very meaning of politics'. The 'very meaning'! Conclusion? "The changes now in train could go either way".

It's a wee bit more nuanced. Freedland thinks that "if we're all broken into small units - "parties of one," as a web guru puts it - we will lose [our] combined strength". [I have no idea who he's citing, unless he's confusing Singles Rights].

This is where the Web's driving us, he thinks: "broken up". He disagrees with Google's Eric Schmidt who believes traditional democracy will remain:

I can't quite believe that the internet will transform the mechanics of politics but leave politics itself untouched. Something bigger is afoot here.

Freedland touches on Wikinomics, he calls it "wikipolicy", and he thinks that the Web's role in disaster relief points to "a way the internet can bypass government altogether".

He also "foresee[s] a future in which national diasporas, for example, operate the way territorial societies do now".

Through the growth of endless interest groups:

The internet could be reducing the very idea of a collective society.

I can't believe a Jewish intellectual making that comment about diasporas, there is nothing new in that World, the Web organises it better — it's not creating a new phenomenon. This is also true of any interest group you might name — bar the truly new (few) interest groups which didn't exist before (zoophilia fans?).

Freedland forgets that the Web is not somewhere other than in (and of) the World.

Even Second Life's well publicised 'World' can be physically turned off — 'politics' intrudes on the Web, it's not just one-way. And Eric Schmidt is far less important than Gordon Brown.

The Web and new technology can simply boost traditional politics, whether that's Westminster or that's Chinese authoritarianism.

What else is he saying? That the principle is wrong? Who leads in this horror vision? And how can we vote for them?

He also forgets that Government isn't some minor player, which has no impact on trends and how the Web itself develops — just ask Al Gore about that.

Precisely because government is for 'all the people' it has a special role to intervene and to parse the Web's comment and opinion — look at the context in which everyone sits the Road Pricing petition.

A lot of the new movements he's citing are actually just the Web showing it's efficiencies, better organising pre-existing campaigns — why does 'better organised' automatically translate to 'broken'?

He misses some of the actual impacts and there are more than a few 'buzzfed' moments ...

Current technology gives politicians campaigning tools they never had before: witness the 62,000 Barack Obama supporters gathered on Facebook without the candidate lifting a finger.

62000 in the US is NOTHING. Even the estimated lifetime value is NOTHING. People used to organise phone trees "without the candidate lifting a finger".

When all the candidates are pulling out the same armory, where's Obama's advantage in those 62000? The advantages are not in matching others online marketing but leading it.

Now Freedland (any of the commentariat actually) mulling on how politicians do Search Marketing would be fascinating. If someone's searching on "mexico prescription drugs", do you advertise? Do you do battle in the vector for voter misery?

Meanwhile, a website offers a way to reach limitless numbers of voters with an unfiltered message at virtually no cost.

No cost! What does that make me then? Free! Pa-lease.The unit cost ONCE you've built the bloody thing and maintained it is much lower. ONLY then is it lower ...

Organising is swifter and easier: electronic mobilisation is said to have swung elections in Spain, South Korea and the Philippines.

And France?

Probably not 'swung it' in the Presidential Election but the lack of interest (due to the language differenece, n'est-il pas toujours ainsi ?) in the Web's role there is striking.

Not much buzz in the Valley about Disco Sarko.

Compare official disco-dancing with this and this and this and this. Contrast. What does YouTube do after DiscoSarko?

I don't think the 'revolution' will arrive overnight. For one thing, it needs to evolve as people work out how to use all the new stuff.

Quickly, activists and marketeers do. But the lag in the rest of the real world is enormous and often underestimated or simply ignored.

Pew just found that, at most, 8% of Americans are actively engaged with the Web. Not used it once in a month or occasionally with eBay: engaged. 15 million Brits are totally disengaged. Even with the young, not everyone's engaged.

Don't believe the Hype or the numbers. Claims of Second Life's millions are actually engaged hundreds or thousands. MySpace pages are set up in the millions and abandoned slightly less so, this is because the job they help do for people isn't yet done best on a MySpace or on a PC.

This is not to say that most people aren't using the Web. Most Brits now use it for some sort of important area, like banking. But engaged means much more than doing occasional transactions.

Even with the video, like Makakka and 1984-Hillary, their impact came from being picked up for mainstream TV news. Look at the response numbers for YouTube, the highest is a few thousand responses.

I come back to his actual conclusion, "the changes now in train could go either way". I don't know what will happen. All I know is it's going in one direction, greater engagement by all with technology and 'the Web' (that concept may change).

Who knows the real impact of a DNA database. On politics. Experience teaches me to be humble on the prediction front.

What I do know is that government is far from a bystander. If the commentariat can get annoyed by Blair being flippant about overseas air travel why aren't they barracking them about their attitude to the Web? The pride in their technical uselessness?

Why does Freedland think that government has nothing to do with or could do nothing about all the bad impacts of the Web he cites? That it has no influence?

It isn't 'the internet ... reducing the very idea of a collective society', the internet is what we make of it and what our government allows, disallows and facilitates.

We ain't powerless against Google or anyone else or the Web itself come to that and there are numerous ways - think accessibility - in which that power can be harnessed to fundamentally change the Web through very traditional political means.


Addendum: techPresident on candidates use of search terms, which drew this knowledgeable comment:
'Republicans seem to be latching on to search terms, whereas the Democrats seem to really be focusing on social networking approaches (as indicated by the differential in the number of friends). I wonder if this is indicative of their differing political philosophies?'
The dirtiest it's got so far though is advertising against your opponents names. How naughty.


  1. Back before the mania there was a massive amount of utopian cyberpunky writings pointing to the net as some kind of democratic wonderland where anyone could publish for peanuts and find an audience. If thinking wasn't really 'wrong' about the effect of internet companies, just several years too early and too frantic, the same can be said of the cyberpunks. They were right - it just took a decade or so to filter through.

    Some blogs and forum reach thousands, others millions and the breadth of politcal debate is massive wider than the near indentical policies of the mainstream parties.

    Yes, the blogosphere is making people cyncial of politicians and Westminster democracy. Roughly speaking, in the mainstream press Tony Blair comes across just a nice guy who made mistakes, at the very worst a Shakespearean tragic figure. To much of the forum/blog world he's variously (and sometimes all together) a sociopath, a war criminal, a serial liar, seller-out of the poor, a buddy of global big business, a killer of liberty, poodle of US neocons. I don't, like some, revel in the idea of my PM being something pretty nasty but the blogworld assessment is probably a better assessment than the artificially measured and restrained ones of the mainstream press.

    Journalists are increasingly seeing themselves as 'victims' of the net along with the politicians. Why listen to narrow views when you can get true breadth of opinion? Why, ultimately, pay journalists when millions are seen as doing their job better for free? Maybe there's some of that anxiety in Freedland's article.

    On the other hand, what he says about the privacy aspect of the net is true. If you're some 12 year old kid caught stealing from a newsagent, that news story could be logged on Google forever. An off-the-cuff-remark/ironic statement/said-in-anger-moment/view-no-longer-held could be taped, videod or transcribed and be Googleable - perhaps forever. Celebs, Politicians, leaders and those who've deliberately put themselves in the public eye will see this as just one of the hazards but the same could apply to Joe Bloggs.

    'Careless talk is Googleable' sums it up.

    Say a teacher flips out with rage at a kid (it often happens with teachers on a nervous breakdown knife-edge) while a classmate captures it on a video phone. There it is on YouTube - 'Mr Bloggs of St Cuthberts School the crazy loon' for everyone to see. It could be career-ending stuff.

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  3. Fascinating post, Paul. Freedland's got a lovely review in the current NYRB about the Bush/Blair adventure in Iraq.

  4. thanks LBL/Steve

    there's a video somewhere on youtube of a fat old American teacher being humiliated - well, just filmed but in a humiliating way. she got fired though it's not clear why. I'll try and dig up a link.

    .. makes you think ..

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