Governance and the information revolution

With increased use of the Internet, access to, and dissemination of, information has changed drastically. We need to look at the ways in which this revolution has affected society. Excerpts from a paper presented by HUGO YOUNG at the Seventh Indira Gandhi Conference in New Delhi.

THIS discussion paper is written by a journalist who has not become a great student or practitioner of the Internet. My work is the study and reporting of government and public affairs, mainly in the U.K., Europe and the U.S.. This brief survey of what can be a highly technical subject therefore comes from a layman. But it is addressed, I think, to a mostly lay and inexpert audience. This is surely a useful match. It also proposes some themes and questions which do not require deep Internet expertise in order to be discussed: indeed, which it seems important to remove from the exclusive reach of the salesmen and prophets of the electronic world.

* * *

Five propositions

1. There is no way electronic progress will be stopped.

Some people think it can be. The British writer, Charles Leadbeater, an important adviser to Tony Blair, divides society into "knowledge radicals" and "knowledge conservatives". The conservatives look for ways to impede the potential of the Net. They worry about its social effects, and would like to tame it, retard it, and restrain, or even suppress, the access to knowledge which it makes freely available.

The conservatives are controllers ... They see electronic progress as a risk, and a threat to institutions, which bring out the preferences that all conservatives usually favour... They reflect society's deep and understandable instinct to try and reject the kind of upheaval that is implicit in developments as far-reaching as the Net.

Among these interests, additionally, are some very respectable professions: lawyers, doctors, accountants, and everyone else accustomed to controlling access to their own expertise. One feature of the Internet is the breaking-down and democratising of expertise. The Net is the enemy of monopoly. The availability it offers of do-it-yourself skills breaks down the mystique of professionalism. That is another motive for powerful people trying to resist it. These are the knowledge-conservatives or, at any rate, the aspiring and determined knowledge-monopolists, accustomed to claiming the benedictions of history for their exclusive wisdom.

Nobody can deny that the explosion of knowledge confronts society and government with a whole range of issues. But it seems to me the fundamental starting-point is crucial: the explosion cannot be stopped. These protectionist restraints will be swept aside. They will be replaced, of course, by others: above all, by the social and political power of the software gate-keepers. But the personal computer is a universal tool, within the reach of ever more millions of people ... The appetite for it is insatiable, and the power it offers to individuals is irresistible.

* * *

2. The tendency of the Net is to increase, not diminish, inequality.

On the face of it, this should not be so. If I can access U.S. government archives, leap-frog expensive lawyers with online self-help, communicate with the world from my Chinese village, by-pass in cyber-space all the terrestrial impositions of dictatorial governments, I am surely being empowered in ways my ancestors, tugging their forelocks and scratching a subsistence living, could never have dreamed of.

First, however, I need an education. Computer-use may be growing at an exponential rate, especially in the old industrialised world, but so is the premium on knowing how to make sense of it. There is no half-way house between computer literacy and illiteracy. If the First World, at least, is within sight of being dominated by the Net, there will be nothing but the humblest future in it for people who lack the basic skills for dealing with the Net. In the Third World, where the educational gulf is still so massive, the computer haves and have-nots are likely to inhabit different universes.

Second, I need a computer. Notwithstanding the downward spiral of software costs, the equipment is still expensive ...

One facet of the electronic future will therefore undoubtedly be to render the gulf between poor and rich even starker than it now is. This will be true within countries, and between countries ...

* * *

So if the Internet is to be the great equaliser, as some have dreamed, there is preliminary work, of an old-fashioned economic kind, to be done. It may not involve the huge capital investment on which industrialisation was built, but it certainly requires a greater spread of basic individual wealth. Poor countries may have a tiny Internet elite, but will be left far behind. Equally, when its reach does become real, this will pose similar political dilemmas internationally as domestically. ...

3. The possibilities of the Net enhancing democracy are a snare and delusion.

In many western democracies, there is a crisis of participation ... But to watch the indifference of many western electorates to the process that is the foundation of their political freedom is salutary, and perhaps depressing.

It points to a wider, and troubling, disengagement. They do not vote because they do not think it worth voting. Arguably, they do not consider that they, the people, have sufficient say in the workings of democracy and the operations of government to make any difference in their lives ...

The Net offers, technically, an escape from much of this. The physical act of voting could become much easier. The technology for online voting already exists. Those hooked up to the Net could cast their ballot without leaving home. This world, of course, further accentuate the inequalities between the haves and have-nots ...

This, however, is not the biggest issue. The Net offers not only the chance to vote more easily but more often. It is the route towards direct democracy. If the voter feels impotent, and therefore alienated, doesn't the solution lie in more direct participation in decisions?

* * *

The Net supplies the means, at the press of a button, by which millions of Americans and Europeans and Japanese could make or break the programme of a government. They could themselves be the law-makers. This would certainly enhance the feeling of participation, for citizens who were plugged in. It could finally bury the detested trade of politics under the pieties of "the people" and their legitimate power ...

The Net, in other words, could spell the end of representative democracy. This would be the triumph of the techno-freakies, beguiled by the possibilities of the software, and regardless of the real consequences for democracy. It should be emphatically resisted.

Politicians may be unpopular, and are vulnerable to many deforming influences. There may well be a sub-crisis - in an age when ideological conviction has been supplanted by managerialism - of political class. Perhaps the types of intellect and character prepared to apply themselves to the political life are no longer of the highest.

But the more complex government becomes, the more expertise it requires. The idea of several million citizens sitting at home and forming an educated opinion about the budget is utterly unreal. Lawmakers and civil servants need to be doing the job for us. Even more horrifying is the spectre of majoritarian rule on every issue. Protecting the civil liberties and rights of minorities is one of the irreplaceable tasks of representative democracy. Freedom of speech, racial equality, justice for immigrants; these are just three civic values that would be in peril, in many societies, if opinion-poll majorities became the law of the land. Narrow self-interest, defiant ignorance and deep irresponsibility are more probable determinants of Internet democracy than the pure, direct, superior wisdom of the people ....

4. Attempts to control the Net will increase, and should mostly be resisted.

Although the Net is a dubious tool of democracy, it is undoubtedly an instrument of personal liberation. It changes the power-relationships between state and citizen. Information is power, and the Net is the most potent agency of information, both given and taken, ever invented by man. Notwithstanding the inequalities it heightens, it does a lot to equalise power between the state and the individual who happens to be an Internet user. It is therefore a threat to the presumptions of state control in many fields: a control that has historically tended to be regarded as the essential foundation of orderly societies. Computers may be enhancing governments' power - in the fields of automation and surveillance, for example. But they are also a menace. Governments at every level on the democratic/authoritarian spectrum are feeling insecure.

In some part, this fear has to be seriously respected. It is widely said to be possible for nations to attack each other's computer-based information infrastructures, and for terrorist groups to transfer their activities to cyber-space with the same intention. It is certainly possible for a new form of political action to be organised via the Net, challenging the state's own systems of information and control ...

More intelligible, and easier to grasp, are opportunities for freedom of speech - where governments have been more successful in keeping control. The interactivity, speed and global reach of the Net would seem to be the most perfect fulfilment of the aspiration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says in article 19: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers." Though composed in 1948, that formula is surely a prophetic rendering of what, technologically, could only come to pass 50 years later.

Even before the Internet, however, many countries despised these words; and the coming of the Net has not changed their attitude but, rather, deepened it. As a source of knowledge about how the world lives, the Net is a profound threat to authoritarian regimes that depend heavily on keeping their abject people in a state of ignorance about alternatives.

* * *

In politics above all, information is an essential kind of power. The power of the Net is not merely one-to-one communication from behind an iron curtain, but the power to distribute massive quantities of information. Sheer volume is what it can offer. At the press of a button, vast texts can be transmitted, which, for any repressive government, compare menacingly with the occasional bootlegged pamphlet or book.

* * *

All governments, from the freest to the most oppressive, have an interest in control. The working-out of this struggle may be the single most fascinating political spectacle of the first decade of the new century.

5. The people cannot be relied on to want the choices the Net supplies.

A number of websites now offer the opportunity for me to build my own newspaper. Typically, this is called The Daily Me. I can designate my areas of special interest, my personal consumer needs, my sports preferences, my stock market holdings, and, by checking in to CNN, find all these catered for in my custom-built so-called electronic newspaper. It means forgoing the chance encounters, the serendipitous discoveries, that are part of the charm of conventional newspaper reading. But it certainly saves time. Or would do, if I ever went to my Daily Me - which languishes, faithfully updated in case I want to see it, but marooned, sight unseen, in cyber-space. It turns out that I prefer newspapers that I haven't pre-edited myself. I want someone else's choices. These are much more expansive, of course, than The Daily Me. And I am, in any case, a journalist, who needs to read proper newspapers. But ut my experience has a moral: not all the opportunities for personal liberation will be seen that way by the new Internet masses.

The Net offers vastly expanded choice among newspapers that are not The Daily Me. It enables me to navigate from site to site, picking up a special columnist here, a favourite sports writer there, the Los Angeles Times in London, Le Monde in Tierra del Fuego. This is wonderful, and I use such opportunities all the time.

But they impose on me an obligation. I need to know what I want. I have to be my own choice-maker, in the wider sense....

* * *

The role of the editor, in this environment, becomes more important. The sheer scale of information the Net makes available puts a premium on the quality of choice-making that people need to be made from them ... So a paradox presents itself. Though the Net enhances individual freedom, it may make more desperate the public appetite for mediation of that freedom by the forces, if not of control, then certainly of superior wisdom.

The argument spreads wider than journalism and commerce. Outside the world of cyber-romantics, who see the Net as sovereign territory without frontiers or rules, there is surely a perception that government, as the only available representative of the collective populace, has a role to play in muting and channelling the operations of a techno-driven market....

(To be continued)

Hugo Young is the chief political columnist of The Guardian in London. He is the author of The Iron Lady, a biography of Margaret Thatcher.

Extracted from: New Century: Whose Century?, compiled and edited by Manmohan Malhoutra, UBSPD, New Delhi, Rs. 595.