„How the Internet Changes Our Reality“ was the motto for a BarCamp that was hosted by FutureChallenges.org, the Humbold Institut für Internet und Gesellschaft and the Club of Rome. As you might imagine, this title left much room for a variety of sessions (Here you can see a list with notes from the different sessions, some in German and some in English.)
I would like to speak specifically about the session „Internet and Democracy“. The session touched on many topics, but all were related to democratisation in the political sphere. This is a limited view which neglects changes in the economic and societal spheres.
Politics and Democratisation
This is the most obvious aspect of the Internet’s democratisational impact. I will spare you the details of the revolutions in Northern Africa and the role of modern ICTs. We have read so much about it that it even runs risk of becoming a cliché. Even before these uprisings took place, digital revolutions had been successful.
The Orange revolution in Ukraine 2004 for example “may have been the first in history to be organized largely online”, says Michael McFaul. After the presidential elections, state media proclaimed that Leonid Kuchma’s handpicked successor had won whereas several websites did intense reporting on fraudulent elections. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities spent many freezing nights in tent cities. SMS and the Internet played an important part in mobilizing people.
But there are other examples as well. In Iran and Burma, large-scale uprisings might not have been successful in terms of regime overthrows. But activists flooded cyberspace with photos, videos and blogposts covering the demonstrations. The whole world was thus able to get a peek into the events. This may have saved lives. Which regime wants to kill its citizens when the world is watching? (Some months ago I wrote a blogpost on “Digital Revolutions: Beyond Tunisia and Egypt” in which I sketched short and long term democratisational effects of the use of the Internet.)
Economy and Democratisation
Democracy means „rule of the people“. In the economic sphere we could however translate it by „rule of the consumers.“ A prime example of what can happen when companies do not listen to their customers is presented by Jeff Jarvis and his Dell story. Jarvis, a popular pundit on media in America, published some blogposts expressing his anger at the computer manufacturer. The company was soon confronted with a storm of criticism on the Internet. It severely affected Dell’s reputation. As a result Dell tried to more actively attend to its critics and made considerable efforts to better-involve its customers.
Another example these days is the social media storm that Adidas and other sponsors of the European Soccer Championships 2012 in the Ukraine and Poland are facing. In the Ukraine, stray dogs get killed in order to „clean up“ the streets for the tournament. As a result, the social media channels of Adidas and other sponsors have been flooded with furious comments. It remains to be seen how the companies will react, but remaining silent is certainly not the right approach.
Nowadays, companies have to listen to their customers and their needs. If they do not act responsively, they will lose the contest for market share.
I have to admit that this is a one-sided perspective on the economy. The economic sphere is not only about the relationship between businesses and customers, but also about business and politics. And here we see that companies (like big banks) have too much influence on politicians. This is a concern that is expressed by the worldwide Occupy movement which also relies heavily on the Internet to build and mobilize support.
Society and Democratisation
Knowledge is Power. Before the printing press was invented, only a few chosen ones had access to books. They were pretty rare because they were handwritten. The dissemination of books contributed to an explosive spread of literacy.
Martin Luther’s campaign against the Catholic church could not have been successful without the printing press. This machine enabled the wide dissemination of Luther’s ideas and the erosion of the Vatican’s privilege of interpretation.
What we’re witnessing today with the use of the Internet is that information is acessible to nearly everyone with Internet access (see the digital divide). There is wikipedia, there are free (online) universities and so forth. Knowledge is everywhere. It is not limited anymore to a small group of people.
Authority is often the result of an advance in knowledge. But what happens when this advantage in knowledge erodes? I think that there is justified reason to believe that many of our societies’ authorities will erode as well. In this sense, modern societies experience a democratisation as well.