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22 February 2013

Heresy of the week: Actually, the internet isn’t going to transform our democracy into a decentralised techno-utopia

The internet is, of course, a wonderful thing. For a start, there’d be no ConservativeHome without it – and, then, where would we be?

Yet, however powerful and convenient a tool of communication it may be, there is an ever-present tendency among some internet boosters to mistake the medium for the message. It is a point well made (and at some length) by Evgeny Morozov in a book review for the New Republic:

  • “There are two ways to be wrong about the Internet. One is to embrace cyber-utopianism and treat the Internet as inherently democratizing. Just leave it alone, the argument goes, and the Internet will destroy dictatorships, undermine religious fundamentalism, and make up for failures of institutions.
  • “Another, more insidious way is to succumb to Internet-centrism. Internet-centrists happily concede that digital tools do not always work as intended and are often used by enemies of democracy. What the Internet does is only of secondary importance to them; they are most interested in what the Internet means. Its hidden meanings have already been deciphered: decentralization beats centralization, networks are superior to hierarchies, crowds outperform experts.”

The most vociferous advocates of this way of thinking are to be found on the left – the radically un-hierarchical 'Occupy' movement being the most prominent of recent examples. However, there’s also quite a lot a lot of this sort of thing on the right too – people who believe that the internet won’t just modify, but completely overturn the top-down power of conventional party politics and the bureaucratic state.

Morozov responds with a big bucket of cold water, slopping out example after example of how things haven’t worked out this way in practice. Take, for instance, the Pirate Party, which briefly threatened to upset politics-as-usual in Germany, but which is now fading fast:

  • “...the Pirates have self-consciously adopted all the imagery and rhetoric of the Internet; they are the living embodiment of Internet-centrism. Obsessed with process—decentralized and horizontal, of course—they offer little by way of goals and policy positions. Worse, they think that such vacuousness is actually an asset; as the party’s spokesperson declared in 2011, ‘What we’re offering is not a program, but an operating system.’”
  • “...The lack of leadership and basic discipline within the party—some of its members show up at legislative sessions in shorts—has turned them into a national joke.”

But before we laugh too hard at this harmless episode of teutonic eccentricity, let’s not forget that at the last UK general election, the Conservative Party manifesto was entitled Invitation to join the Government of Britain. How’s that for “not offering a program, but an operating system”?

So, does all of this mean that decentralisation is bunk? Not at all. For instance, an example that Morozov gives to demonstrate the virtues of centralisation, in fact does the opposite: 

  • New York’s 311 hotline, where anyone seeking information about some city issue is greeted by a live operator and re-directed to the appropriate resource...allows anyone to use the internet to report a non-emergency neighborhood problem…”

Morozov points out that the 311 hotline was only made possible by Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to centralise into one system forty different call centres and four thousand separate entries in the New York phone directory.

However, Michael Bloomberg was only able to take this initiative because sufficient power was decentralised to his office to allow him to tame the city’s sprawling public sector bureaucracy.

The lesson here is two-fold. Firstly, that empowering ordinary people to get what they’ve paid for from the public sector is a sound conservative instinct; and, secondly, that this won’t just happen through the magical properties of the internet, but through the determined efforts of people in authority who know what they’re doing and who they’re doing it for.


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