Over the past couple of years, I have spent a lot (too much) time thinking about the fact that in many ways democracy in the United States is declining. To many this is a ridiculous statement. My friends will cite the fact that they can say anything they want, have 300 choices for their morning cereal, and that the internet is their ultimate guarantor of freedom and transparency. To many the internet is a panacea for everything that stands in the way of absolute freedom. Interestingly, many of these people refuse to use Facebook or Twitter stating that they don’t want everyone to know “their stuff”! Maybe they intuitively know that while the internet may enhance freedom, it also compromizes privacy and could be used against them at some point.
This weeks readings, build upon a theme that we have seen all semester. While many cyber-utopians believe that internet and social media in particular will move the world to a more perfect democracy, in reality the internet is only part of the complicated mosaic of human relations. Yes, the internet was an essential part of motivating and organizing the opposition forces during the Arab Spring. It is also a tool used by the militaries/governments of Egypt, Syria, and Libya to repress, control, and maintain their power. For those of you who think it could never happen here, I beg to differ.
Much like Evgney Morozov in the Net Delusion, I believe that the internet is many things, a conduit, a tool, perhaps most importantly a reflection of where a society is at a moment in time. This is why I chose the title of this blog.
It is my belief that there are a number of factors that represent risks for democracy, particularly in the US. First, we are living in an era of unprecedented corporate power. The forces of free trade and globalization have not only benefitted the large Western Democracies but their corporations. Corporates are larger and more internationally focused than at any time in the past 200 years. There really is no such thing as a national champion any more.
Is it unreasonable to think that corporate loyalties may lie more to themselves than to their respective nations? The internet companies seem to be the ultimate manifestation of this. Firms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter are huge multi-national corporations with mobile employees and operations. Google doesn’t have a $2 billion manufacturing plant ties it to a particular place. No one should believe that these firms have any loyalty to any particular nation. Evidence of this can be found in a recent Wall Street Journal article in which certain Silicon Valley leaders muse about seceding from the United States.
The second risk is that governments are being seen as failing their constituents. The government shutdown of the past month is yet another example of government failing to meet the basic needs of people. The list of government failures is long; failing schools, incomprehensible healthcare, crumbling infrastructure, and a tax code that seems to most to be unfair and inequitable. It is not hard to believe that should this trend continue that the governments in question would face questions around their legitimacy. While I don’t share their views, the Tea Party is already doing this. It is not unreasonable to envisage that there would be other non-federal government actors that would step to the fore. In the case of the US, those actors could be state and local governments, NGO’s, and corporations.
Some of these transitions are occurring. The federal government seeking to push certain mandates to the states, California discussing the possibility of giving legal status to illegal immigrants, and the continuing growth of NGO’s are all examples of power moving away from the existing center. We could argue that all of these are good things. But what happens when individuals threaten the powerbase?
When we think about the internet and its uses, we need to view it in the context of society as a whole. Certainly it is a tool that links people, lets us share, lets us shop, and makes a host of things easier. There are also examples such as during the Arab Spring of social media being an excellent tool for organizing people for action.
There is also plentiful evidence that the internet is used by governments to spy on their citizens, to spy on others and to suppress any threats to their legitimacy. This evidence does not just apply to non-democratic governments. The cases of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are just two examples of the world’s oldest democracy using technology to spy on its citizens and its allies. We also know that governments want to be able to turn off access to the internet and wireless communication at their command. Not too anti-democratic!!
I know that every word I read and write is tracked by someone, somewhere (perhaps you should have clicked away from this long ago). Your clicks are tracked too! Not only is it tracked but it is stored indefinitely. This really concerns me.
Bottom line is this. If you have a government that is dominated by a few, that is failing in its basic obligations to its citizens, eventually its citizens will challenge its authority or at least I believe that they will. If this occurs, do you believe that the internet and social media will be a tool for freedom or for repression? Do you believe that the people with the most to lose will allow the tools that we have to be used against them or will they use those tools to maintain their power at any cost?
I don’t know the answer but I certainly am not a cyber-utopian.
Those of you that don’t think it can happen here need to ask yourselves why.
What do you think?