This article was published on March 21, 2014

Is the Internet making us more democratic?

Is the Internet making us more democratic?
Matthew Carpenter-Arevalo
Story by

Matthew Carpenter-Arevalo

Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo is a former Google and Twitter manager. His boutique digital agency, Centrico Digital, is based out of Quito, Ecua Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo is a former Google and Twitter manager. His boutique digital agency, Centrico Digital, is based out of Quito, Ecuador. You can find him on twitter as @ecuamatt.

Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo is a peer at #DemocraciaEnRed, a Latin America-based movement to promote the evolution of democracy through modern tools.

While discontent rooted in the offline world continues to be the source of protests worldwide, few can argue that the lowered cost of communication brought about by the ubiquity of the internet and mobile devices has facilitated the collective expression of that discontent.

In places such as Turkey, Brazil, Ukraine, Venezuela and the Middle East, social media has become both the subject of the discussions around protests and the object that enables them.

Governments of countries that are used to maintaining a monopoly on public conversations, such as China and Saudi Arabia, now find themselves spending more time and resources delicately managing public concerns thanks to the individual empowerment made possible by platforms such as, in the aforementioned cases, Weibo and Twitter.

In addition, in places with strong social media penetration such as Venezuela and Turkey, attempts by governments to cajole or intimidate traditional state-sponsored and private media into ignoring  protests have resulted in a backlash against governments and the complicit media. Indeed, such examples have seemed to fuel protests rather than deter them.

Though it is evident that lower barriers of communication helps organize, galvanize and perpetuate protests, in the midst of mass upheaval the question we must also ask ourselves is are these tools making us more democratic?

The printing press as precedent

Marshall Mcluhan famously wrote that “we form our tools, and then they form us.” Our tools form us because they not only enable new behaviours but they also change our expectations on the one hand and our basic understandings of community on the other.

For example, when Martin Luther pegged his thesis on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, his ability to spark the protestant reformation was due not necessarily to the novelty of his idea, but the speed in which his thesis spread through present-day Germany thanks to the increasingly available printing press.

After the protestant reformation the Christian religion only continued to splinter, as the seed of the original fissure was already planted.

Similarly, before the massification of the printing press the concept of universal literacy and hence universal education and equality of opportunity were not universally shared values. Indeed, many saw rightly them as a threat to caste systems. As the printing press became more ingrained in our lives, so too do our expectations around justice evolve.

The analogue versus the digital

As emerging digital technologies, the Internet, its bi-product social media, and mobile telephony have yet to reach their inflection points in terms of usage.

As such, they battle for attention with traditional media, and herein lies the conflict between two different vehicles of expression and two different sets of assumptions about how the world should work.

In the world where analogue technologies such as print, radio, and television dominate, the massive difference between the cost of producing and consuming information means that as societies we have come to depend on proxies to represent our interests.

Book, newspaper and television editorial boards are proxies for the interests of their audiences.

Political parties are proxies for a particular world view. Voting is a proxy for self-expression.

Ohio Citizens Start To Vote During Early Voting In Presidential Election

In each case, these proxies receive limited inputs from those they are meant to represent, yet hold massive power in informing citizens and making decisions on or behalf.

In the new era of digital technologies, where the cost of producing and consuming information is the same, the cost of giving inputs has decreased substantially, yet we continue to rely on proxies that are not prepared or willing to receive those inputs.

Indeed, in many cases, the proxies have developed interests and agendas of their own which have diverged from the interests and agendas of the people the proxies were meant to represent. Cue the massive protests in countries previously considered to be some degree of ‘democratic’ and hence ‘representative’, including Turkey, Brazil, Ukraine, etc.

Demonstrating the point, the comment by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan that social media is “the curse of society today,” underscores the innate conflict between our chosen representatives and our ability to represent ourselves, a conflict that also plays out in media.

In the world of print, radio and television, the pressure/desire to appeal to the widest possible audience means that information must be delivered in a means by which it appeals to the lowest common denominator.

Whether the limit be 500 words of print or 30-seconds of airtime, messages are simplified into their most broad and basic terms.

In the massification of information there is little room for nuance, and few mechanisms exist to challenge the veracity of the information presented to us through the these mediums.

The changing digital landscape

Digital media, on the other hand, by its very nature embrace personalization and nuance. Because the distribution channels are in fact well distributed rather than controlled by limited sources, each one of us becomes our own media outlet, sharing, curating and filtering information as we see fit.

In the digital world, reach is no longer dependent on the ownership of legacy technology. It is not enough to be a number on a dial or granted a frequency by a government. Instead, reach is distributed more democratically, with followership having to be earned rather than assumed.

When traditional media reports on mass protests, they often lament the lack of a ‘coherent message’ or a ‘leader,’ which traditional media considers necessary in order for a protest movement to be legitimate.

Such comments, however, are more a reflection of how these media outlets prefer to ingest and share information, rather than a reflection of the protest movements themselves.

Analogue media simply does not have the means to comprehend and represent the complexity that is innate in thousands of people taking to the street to express their dissent.

Instead, it prefers to focus its audience’s attention on the individuals embodied with the task of representing a complex mass, rather than the complex mass itself. And we should wonder why we have cults of personality and mundane elections that tend to be about curated images of individuals rather than proposals.

Digital media, on the other hand, embraces this complexity and personalization by providing each individual the opportunity to speak, be heard, and make others heard.

In addition, though it is easy for false information to travel far and wide in digital media, the same tools provide for the means by which that information can be verified, checked, and corrected.

Consequently, as social media develops more and more influence, absolute truth is downgraded and skepticism is assumed, both of which are seemingly positive changes when the goal is to develop cultures more favourable to democracy than dictatorship.

The long-tail of democracy

One of the learnings of the private sector in the age of the Internet is that when confronted with abundance of choice as opposed to scarcity, people begin to make different choices.

As Chris Anderson has famously pointed out, when Blockbuster had to make the most of its limited store space by choosing the movies it thought people would like, it was acting as a proxy for people’s interests.

When Netflix came along and offered an abundance of choices, our understanding of what movies people like changed. No longer limited to new releases and box-office hits, people opted for previously overlooked genres such as documentaries, even prompting the return of television shows cancelled by network TV due to their assumed lack of popular appeal.

Netflix Screenshot

Similarly, as opposed to the false dichotomies endemic in the world of limited choice (left/right: in favour/against), we’re only beginning to understand the complexity of who we are and what we believe because only now are we developing the tools by which to generate and organize the abundance of information that can act as inputs into our governing systems.

As recent protests have demonstrated, when given the chance to express themselves, even people living in ‘democracies’ tend to want more democracy. How do we move though from expressing discontent to proposing solutions?

From protest to proposal

The challenge to achieving the state of being more democratic are two-fold.

On the one hand, we need to modify our governing institutions so that they can manage the new inputs citizens are eager to give.

History has shown us that attempts to break-up monopolies of power are met with both resistance and skepticism. Resistance from those who hold power, and skepticism from those who find it difficult to imagine the accompanying checks and balances.

In other words, we focus on the concept before taking into account the possible design.

Complete direct democracy sounds like the tyranny of the majority, until you consider that even the legislators elected on our behalf have constitutions, dual chambers, supreme courts, etc., to curb their powers.

Developing the tools to enable our governing systems to accept more inputs whilst preventing abuse will require a wave of innovation that will have to come as a result of social demand as opposed to market demand. Because of this, we’ll likely see more Airbnbs, Ubers and Squares before we see new governing systems, but they will indeed come.

Finally, the slowest to change yet possibly the most influential governing system is our culture, and culture often develops well behind the pace by which new tools become ubiquitous.

Just as it has taken time to eliminate drunk-driving after the invention of the car, and just as we’re still defining socially acceptable places to use cell-phones, we can be sure that there will be a lag between the availability of digital tools and their accompanying socially-acceptable behaviours.

Countries that emerge from civil wars, for example, often take time to rid themselves of the past divisions; the presence of tools that promote individual expression will not immediately eliminate collectivist mind-sets of the past.

In many cases, they’ll simply serve to reflect those divisions of the past, bringing to mind The Arcade Fire’s lyrical lament: “I thought I’d found the connector, it’s just a reflektor.”

It goes without saying that the development of digital institutions and cultures is not a given. Whereas traditional analogue media will have to find the means to re-invent themselves in the digital age, governments will not often look kindly on attempts to break up and distribute their concentrations of power.

The backlash against Snowden and Wikileaks as well as NSA spying demonstrate this point plainly. To invoke another Mcluhanism, “politics is the process of solving the problems of today with the tools of yesterday.”

Indeed, it may in fact be wise not to innovate too quickly in government to avoid undermining the hard-won stability many countries are only now coming to enjoy. Furthermore, technological advances often need to be adapted to local contexts in order maintain legitimacy.

The National Security Agency (NSA) headq

To return to the original question then, is the Internet making us more democratic?

The answer would seem to be yes, as protests in supposedly democratic countries continue to show the desire for more democracy and better representation. But without evolving our institutions, culture, and taking into account the more than inevitable backlash, the path towards this democratization is not necessarily clear and the end-point is not necessarily in sight.

If democracy is a means by which we undertake discussions about our co-existence, its enhancement requires that we take on the challenge of increasing our ability to manage inputs whilst still having coherent, representative and constructive outputs.

And just because Churchill quipped that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms” doesn’t mean we should stop trying to figure out how to make it better.

Indeed, if anything, when read correctly Churchill’s dictum would seem to be an invitation to keep trying. We’ve shaped our tools. Now it is time to begin shaping ourselves.

Top image credit: drpnncpptak/Shutterstock

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