Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, February 14, 2011

Democracy, Consent, Civility Are Not Spontaneous

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot occasioned by a recent post, The Egyptian Revoution Is Not Miraculous.

Friend of Blog "jollyspaniard" wrote (among other things):
Facebook and Twitter are a big help in getting the word out which is one of the biggest logistical challenges in organising protests. Traditionaly this had been done by distributing leaflets which can be a bit tricky in a totalitarian state. Now for a totalitarian state to stop people getting the word out they need to shut off the internet and the phone network which isn't viable. People who think this came from nowhere haven't been reading the news for the past few years. Egypt has been on the verge of boiling over for years according to a lot of reporting. What has happened recently is that Egypt suddenly became un-ignorable.

Needless to say, useful tools are useful, and ingenious humans (some of them tyrants) use them.

I don't agree that Egyptian discontent is the "somewhere" from which the Revolution has come, strictly speaking. Sufficient injustice and discontent to incubate resistance and revolution has existed in Egypt for over a generation, as elsewhere.

Organization met opportunity, discipline responded to distress -- what mattered indispensably was the organization and the awareness and the discipline.

This cannot be stressed enough: In the absence of the organizing, eruptions of perfectly righteous resistance would very likely have been squashed, diverted, assimilated in the usual manner.

Of course, distraction and reaction can still circumvent or domesticate the democratizing force of the ongoing Revolution if the youth movement loses its focus or fails to shift its organizational strategies to meet the rapidly and radically changed circumstances of the post-Mubarak political terrain. I will say that the First People's Communique and news of fledgling dialogue between youth leaders and representatives of the military as well as with El-Barade'i are encouraging in this regard.

Those pundits who now speak of an insurrectionary "trend" that autocratic regimes need to be worried about are no doubt right that sympathetic protests may spring up elsewhere, but in the absence of actual democratic organization those autocratic regimes likely have little to worry about.

Like most people who think "trend-spotting" is an argumentative or deliberative mode (my pet targets, the futurologists, provide the conspicuous illustration), rather than just another debased marketing and promotional mode in a "public realm" entirely reduced to advertising and self-advertising in the service of eating the present, are revealed as usual to be useful idiots in a blaze of flashbulbs.

And those who propose that democratic revolution will crystallize spontaneously wherever enough people have cellphones are exactly as dangerously deluded as those who pretended war could be ended by getting a McDonald's franchise in every nation. Democracy is not a spontaneous order, it is a consensual order, depending for its legitimacy on a scene of consent that must be instituted and maintained by political means in ethical terms not one of which is spontaneous.

On this, Anglo-American parochialism and privilege yields disastrously facile readings of both our histories and hopes -- whether right-wing libertopian fantasies of perfectly efficient perfectly ethical natural markets (markets are of course totally artificial and historical and as readily demand injustice as ameliorate it) or left-wing hippie or technocratic fantasies of post-political massified kindness or pre-political elite design (of course one can be a Nazi and yet kind in one's personal life, and all designers, however smart, however well-intentioned, are individually parochial in ways that no democracy can afford to be).

That the Egyptian Revolution is another profound example of the power of nonviolent secular democratic education, agitation, and organizing but that even most of those who are inspired by Egypt fail to grasp the substance of hope this provides us all or to grasp how vulnerable this misconstrual makes the very achievement that presumably inspires them is, I have to admit, a bit demoralizing.

1 comment:

jollyspaniard said...

I have to confess that I used to subscribe to the belief that digital technology was going to undermine totalitarian regimes. I'm a card carrying member of the 1980s "Information Wants to be Free" crowd.

A lot of us have turned in our cards over the past 10 years. Totalitarian regimes have demonstrated that they're very capable of maintaining and even extending their repression with the new technologies. Many of them were on the back foot at first but they have adapted. China is the perfect example but it isn't the only one.

And in the western countries we see established political interests co-opting digital based movements for their own purposes. Blogs threw them off balance but they've adapted their techniques quite well. The wiki democracy dream has turned into a mirage. These tools can facilitate and help in the organisation process but they aren't a solution in and of itself and never will be.

There's even plenty of evidence to support that these technologies are a net benefit to repressive regimes. And populations living under repressive regimes often spend more time on the internet than the relatively freer counterparts in the west. A lot of this time is spent on escapist activity (such as the virtual worlds which are booming).

The regimes of Egypt and Tunisia seem to have been technicaly incompetent. They could have screened the whole nations Internet traffic through SmartFilter or even created their own firewall. That's not the kind of thing you can implement at the last minute though which is why they took the desperate action of pulling the plug on the Internet.

This could come down to background. A lot of the senior leaders in China for example come from technical backgrounds and they employ large numbers of people with excellent IT skills. Hosni Mubarak on the other hand not so much.

I wouldn't be suprised if senior officials in lots of government aren't sitting in meetings with IT people on how to manage and monitor troublemakers via their internet usage.