Internet –> democratizing agent? tool for prosocial change?

Hey folks… have spent most of my writing time the last couple of weeks trying to remember how to write an academic paper… but am back here responding to a call from the network. Alec Couros, who I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting but have spent much more time following lately, has sent out two questions to the community.

1) Is the Internet a democratizing agent?
2) How does/can technology be an tool for prosocial change?

These questions have been at the heart of many a heated debate for me over the past few years. I’ve run into several of the ‘evangelist’ type who will go on at length about how the ‘internet brings democracy to the masses’ how blogging ‘is the first truly democratic tool’ and have seen dozens of people’s faces turn purple in response. I don’t like to think of myself as an evangelist, as if the previous sentence hadn’t made that clear… I also don’t believe that ‘giving someone a computer emancipates them.’

I’m going to mush the answers together… ha! it’s my blog! try and stop me!
These questions always scares me, and my mind is always called back to Gutenburg and his printing press. Is the printing press a democratizing agent? Well… it certainly allowed more people to become literate, it allowed for more information to flow around. It allowed more people to be involved in current events (see Martin Luther, a European Christian Reformist, and his 95 theses, which were apparently printed on broadsheets and circulated widely.) Whether that is ‘democratizing’ or not depends on your point of view. Lets leave aside the content for a second and just look at the situation. My understanding is that Luther didn’t organize the publication of the 95 theses (but later organized other publishing) so someone decided what he had to say was important enough to circulate. Someone had enough money to pay for this. Someone had the right literacies to realize that this method would be effective in spreading their cause. The power is centralized but the effect can be generalized. Similar examples could be made for radio or TV.

The internet, however, changes that paradigm a little. The means of production are more generalized. By percentage there are definitely more people able to produce the kind of thing (and have it circulate) than there was with either of the other three mediums mentioned. Several hundred people are subscribed to this blog, no one tells me (directly) that I can’t say anything. but…

There are several other social issues that bind me here. This article from the Chronicle is the classic example of people saying “yes you ‘could’ say anything, but you’d be crazy if you said anything.” How much of what I’m willing to say is bounded by what I’m allowed to say BECAUSE this can circulate anywhere. There is a sense in which you are much free-er to be open and honest when you are not being recorded. The only people who are able to be honest (and not risk jobs or worse in countries where the repercussions are worse) are people with power, people hiding their identity, or people who are willing to take that risk. The first two are not particularly reliable sources, and the latter is particularly rare. I’m also bounded by my culture and my existing literacies. If I’ve been brought up to believe in a certain creed… having access to the internet is not, in and of itself, going to change that. If someone out there (and you know who you are) are constantly saying the same thing over and over again, in the hopes that people will believe it, the internet simply offers more opportunity not only for them to do it, but for the people who have become convinced to go about trying to convince others. Is this democracy? It can certainly be social change… but ‘prosocial’ change? To whom i wonder?

The pure amount of information on the internet also creates certain problems. In a strict sense of ‘democratic’ the fact that everyone is allowed to have a divergent opinion is probably good. However, the nature of the medium is such that, in many cases, you need some kind of angle if you wish to be successful. I’ve personally finally gotten to the point where i really am just writing what i think… but it took a while, and I’m not trying to make money from this site. I’m really just participating in a community. For many of the things I read my question is constantly “WHY has this person published this thing in this particular way…”

I’m not sure that this has come out right… but here is the short answer.

The internet is not a democratizing agent.
Technology can be a tool for social change in exactly the same way anything else is.

At the risk of oversimplifying… the internet is ‘made up of’ people and corporations. The people, through their memberships in communities and networks can do good or bad things depending on the aims of those people and depending on what one individual might see as good or bad. Corporations, by definition, are responsible to make money for their shareholders. If they make money by, say, making democracy widgets, then their activities will be democratizing.

The tools are, as always, amoral. But there are shadings around this too. A gun can help you get fed, or protect you, but, in my country and in many cases, these arguments are pretty weak… unless you live in the Arctic or in northern Ontario, or, or or… Now, a pen can be used to stab someone in the eye, or it can be used to write death threats… but it can occasionally be used for writing shopping lists, or or or

but really. there’s a difference. Pens, I’m pretty comfortable saying, pose less of a threat and are probably better democratizing agents.

The internet, as a technology, is a better potential democratizing agent overall than a book, traditional radio, or tattoos because it’s easier for anyone to ‘produce’ something.

Anyone who has a problem with me using Marxism to explicate democracy may comment as such below. You have the means to produce your comment too… of course, i control those comments…


Final analysis. Kinda. That’s my answer. It can kinda work. I’m currently very worried about corporations taking over the ‘voice’ of the internet. I currently get 25% of my hits about every other month because i have a post relating to myspace at school in my blog. If I had google ads and I posted about leopard right now, I’d probably make more money. And google is really the first smart company in the internet. Where are we going to be in 5 years?

One last word about social justice. That worries me too. I know what I mean about social justice, and everyone else does when they use it too. The problem is… I don’t think we all agree. I avoided the semantical debate in this post… but in the end, it’s the most important.

Democracy? For whom? Is there democracy when people don’t know how to choose? What set of choices to they have to vote from?

Social change? Social Justice?

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

5 thoughts on “Internet –> democratizing agent? tool for prosocial change?”

  1. Thanks for the link Harold. I hope you’re right. I’ve actually been thinking about finding an email system i can pay for… does anyone know of any?

  2. I have a few questions:
    Who are we talking about democracy for here, and what degree of democracy? Surely we are not talking about global democracy most of the world are still without access. When we pose these questions are we not really talking about Western cultures and democracy, and even then we are really only talking about democracy for the few who are able to use the technology ‘politically’. As for technology as a tool for prosocial change – yes it is, it is also a tool for the rise of the right and other extremism.

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