Friday, June 15, 2007

The transformation of politics?

Jonathan Freedland wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago that I just found. It concerns the effect that Internet may have, long term, on politics. His starting point is advice to politicians offered in a speech by Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, who argued that there were huge potential pitfalls but also clear benefits. The pitfalls are most interesting and may seem obvious anyway. All things ever put on the Internet may come back to haunt someone who later aspires to be elected, so beware any would-be PMs who currently admit to an active and colourful social life via their Facebook or MySpace profiles. More seriously Freedland quotes Schmidt as noting: "The politician of the Internet age has to admit all errors in full and early: they'll only emerge anyway. Factual slips are forbidden, too. Bloggers will find you out and, if they don't, Google hopes its own algorithms will soon be sophisticated enough to detect "falsehoods"." The benefits are the scale of potential audience at a politician's fingertips. But Freedland's later points are of more interest.

He comments that "I can't quite believe that the Internet will transform the mechanics of politics but leave politics itself untouched" suggesting that governments will be increasingly bypassed as active networks form and such a development "risks shattering what was once a collective mass into a thousand shards, not a society at all but a bunch of niches". What collective mass is this. I wondered reading the piece if this collective mass was actually shattered by television and the privation of life as families retreated first to their lounge and now to separate rooms to watch soaps, reality TV or maybe a little bit of news, but fail to ever contribute to the public sphere. Surely the Internet and rise of social networks reverses this trend and creates more social beings.

Five years ago the McCanns may be trying to appear on the media to maintain pressure on the authorities to continue the search for their daughter. Now there are so many social groups around supporting the McCanns, offering prayers as well as actions, that the issue has a life of its own. Equally the discussion of political issues across the boundaries of nations can circumvent governments but shows support for a range of issues. Student groups backing an end to Third World Poverty can make more people globally take notice than a few petitions. More importantly, while everyone does follow the causes they support, this is not a case of two people and a dog subscribing to a blog on "caravanning in Finland" as Freedland suggests, but what is becoming a critical mass of individuals who subscribe to a range of causes and share their interests through widgets and advertising group membership.

So the transformation of politics may be one that is not party, government or state centred, instead it could be personal through a range of self-defined communities that are in a state of constant flux as issues wax and wane. But the Internet facilitates interaction between individuals with shared interests and allows debate on political ideas and issues, and on a much broader level than any other medium. Freedland's commenters seem of mixed opinions and cautious, but they are interacting with him and each other, not quite the parties of one Freedland fears will be created. While there are the big players who operate the software and websites, the posting and access of content largely remains democratic and hard to regulate. That may be a problem for those with a state-centric view of democracy, and who prefer to regulate the flow of information, but for those who want to build wide communities around issues it is a form of power and could bring politics back to the people and away from the elites who make news.
Have a good weekend!!!

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