Friday, November 19, 2004

Democracy and the Blogosphere

A couple of nights ago, I attended the Adam Smith Institute's 'Democracy and the Blogosphere' event.

Almost more interesting than attending the event itself was waking up to the blog posts of others who had been there and reading what they thought of the whole debate. Interesting because none of us seem to have taken the same thing away - which tells me that the net was flung a little too widely in respect to the topic of the evening.

Asking someone to succinctly describe how blogs will affect democracy really is a tough call. Blogs, after all, are just tools of communication...of dissemmination of ideas. It’s akin to asking someone in the 15th century to opine on the impact the printing press would have on the world. The obvious answer to us is: "massive and fundamental", but historical events are much clearer in hindsight than when we're living through them.

So the tangents the discussion went on that night were rather wild. Some of the panellists mused as to why on earth people blog in the first place. Two of the speakers were professional journalists and bloggers who seemed somewhat amazed that people do all this blogging and writing for FREE...their own blogs being either a distraction from real work or somewhere to display things that they couldn't get past mainstream media (MSM) editors. They missed the point that most people don't actually have the same powerful avenues for self-expression as they do and that blogging is enjoyable and profitable in ways that aren't usually measured in a state-issued currency.

One of the speakers talked about how effective blogs had been as a tool in communicating and refining e-government strategies to the public. If you ever want to see discomfort shimmy across a room, invite someone who just loves to improve and refine bureaucracy to the distinctly anti-big-government Adam Smith Institute.

One thing, though, became clear to me - none of us was really talking about the same thing when we said 'blog', as the term is so damned generic. There were such disparate bloggers in the room...government bloggers, political bloggers, apolitical bloggers, gastronomic bloggers, musing bloggers, business bloggers, bloggers like me...that we all brought different terms of reference in with us. It's no wonder the discussion devolved to talking about something we all had in common - censorship in comments sections and a strong comments policy.

The question of the influence of blogging on democracy is not unanswerable, though. It just takes a little stepping back and looking at the concept of what a democracy is and what blogging is from a macro viewpoint. So I’m going to try my hand at it in this post.

Democracy.

Any government developed with democratic or (classical) liberal ideas in mind is still heavily reliant on it’s constituents to uphold the tenets on which its power is based.

Take a look at America - founded on freedom, for a long time the greatest nation on earth, wonderful constitution - yet it is the nation that instituted anti-trust laws, that has a nationalized health system, that allowed someone like Janet Reno to act in a manner patently unaligned with its core principles.

I've a feeling that the founding fathers would gasp in horror at some of the things that the state they created has implemented. This is because these men had a firm grasp of the ideas upon which a good government should be based. They codified these ideas in a document and written law – which is, unfortunately, an imperfect device of communication.

It's because law has two facets, it’s 'letter' (literal translation) and its 'spirit' (fundamental meaning). The former can be circumvented by interpretation and reinterpretation of the words used, the latter is immutable - if you can find it and understand it from the words employed.

If the populace doesn't understand the spirit behind a document such as the American constitution, then it won't support the politicians that uphold that spirit or those ideas. If the populace doesn't value freedom more than it does security, then it will not revolt at freedoms taken away. If it doesn't understand the long term implications or the philosophical roots of government policy, then it will not question what is being done by those in power. It is the lack of check and balance from the populace that slowly erodes adherence to the principles of good government.

And here's where I think the point has to be made - democracy isn't a cure-all system for any nation state. It isn't a structure that will rigidly coerce people into a certain mode of thought and behavior. Zimbabwe, ostensibly a democracy, has a president and a parliament after all, yet look at what is happening and what the democratic structure is allowing. Democracy isn't a straitjacket, rather, it is a mirror of society and its ideas, its moralities and its current obsessions. Each populace under democracy, then, has the government that it deserves.

The Blogosphere.

So where does blogging come into all this?

A mature and freedom-embracing democracy requires an educated population, since it is the aggregated opinion of the populace that is enforced in the actions of parliament. This is where I think that blogging steps in to fill a current void in a most interesting way.

I’m going to go out on a limb and state that most people's formal education stops when they are no longer corralled in the penitentiaries created for children by our schooling system. It's no wonder really, as - unless you have a particular passion for knowledge of certain topics - most non-fiction books are a harder slog than fiction or entertainment.

Let's also state that it will be political and musing blogging that will affect democracy. Butterfly effect or no, something that an IBM employee writes about chip manufacturing isn't going to rock the boat come election time. By 'political blogging', I mean blogs that are predominantly focused on world events and their reportage with some analysis. By 'musing blogging' I mean those blogs that discuss, at length, ideas and their roots as well as their impact on the world today.

What you often see in the better blogs is professionals, scholars and well-read, opinionated, eloquent and intelligent people distilling their knowledge into bite sized pieces on a certain topic. These small essays, analyses or opinion pieces are embedded with hyperlinks to primary sources or sources for further information and reading. So blogs can make certain topics easy to read, easy to understand and easy to expand upon should the reader be interested and willing. In other words, they can make complex, non-fiction subjects accessible.

This really hinges on the internet being a legitimatized source of information, though. I remember that the trend to research assignments online started when I was in high school. By the time I was at University, it was expected that some proportion of research was from online sources – to the extent that referencing for just such sources was formalized and standardized. The internet is slowly being recognized as a repository of valuable information.

The advantage that blogs have over static web pages is not just the easygoing tone with which information is imparted and shared – but the conversations that strike up around expressed opinions. Blogs that choose to enable comments add a new dimension to their information dissemination – they become a node for a discussion. The best discussions are the thorough critiques of the post and subsequent defensive arguments by the author or likeminded readers. These discussions can either be reaction to simple political blog reportage, to a blog’s analysis of a situation or to an opinion piece or essay.

Someone coming to such a post can receive a fast and thorough education on a particular topic and then may be able to use hyperlinks (or, let's face it, Google) to conduct further reading at his leisure.

I’ve heard Perry de Havilland of Samizata.net state a few times that one of the great rewards of his blog is the occasional email from someone stating that Samizdata has helped them clarify and crystallize their views.

I don't suggest, by any means, that blogs can replace more formal means of education - but perhaps they can take up a role somewhere between 'nothing' and 'college' for people with some mild interest in a topic.

The other feature of blogs is their tapping into the natural human desire to feel that one isn’t alone in one's opinions. Let's face it – it's nice to meet likeminded people and read their screeds - it's an affirmation, occasionally, that you're not entirely mad to hold some of your views.

And then there is the wonderful-to-see blog phenomenon of fact checking the MSM. What I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall when Dan Rather hears the word 'blog' nowadays.

So given these features – the dissemination of ideas and education of some readers, the sense of community and not being alone in holding a view and the check and balance of a too-long-complacent MSM – how do blogs influence democracy?

Where the twain shall meet.

Well, I think all three interact in an interesting way to change the dynamics of the populace in democracy.

No longer isolated, individuals can affirm that their views are held by others. Empowered to question a once unquestionable media, the populace is free to throw off the MSM's perception of what popular opinion is and ascertain it for themselves. Presented with a rich source of information, analysis and opinion, individuals are beginning to educate themselves – however little – about topics of importance or interest.

I believe that this may help to create a more informed and intelligent voter in the democratic system, one which is less likely to be swayed by propaganda and misinformation because all information presented by the parties will be subjected to the most rigorous review and critique online...which can only be a good thing.

Sure - much of this is mere speculation on my part. I don't think we've seen the full extent of the influence of blogs yet and it's a little early in the game to be making sweeping suppositions. (Like...say...the suppositions I've just made :) )

...but if you asked me to comment about the influence of blogging on democracy, the above would still be my best guess.

M


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