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The mighty should quake before the Wiki man

New technology has the power to transform democracy

21 November 2007

8:13 PM

21 November 2007

8:13 PM

As Robert Lindsay demonstrated unforgettably as Wolfie, leader of the Tooting Popular Front in Citizen Smith, anyone who shouts ‘Power to the People!’ can end up looking a prize idiot. So let me throw caution to the wind and say that this is precisely what the web, new media and mobile technology offer us, if we choose to seize the opportunity: democratisation on a new and unprecedented scale.

This, at least, is the conclusion I have drawn making two Radio Four programmes on politics and the internet. First, there is what you might call the direct impact of new media upon political practice: its basic instrumentality.

As D-J Collins, one of the rising stars in the Google firmament, told me: ‘We’re at the cusp of very profound change. The internet is a playground of innovation, and people are playing faster and faster than they’ve ever played before. Facebook wasn’t here three years ago; YouTube wasn’t here two years ago, and it’s amazing to think of a world without YouTube now.

‘And politicians are beginning to embrace it in quite a serious way — whether it’s the US government opening up all its websites to search engines so that people can just search within government websites for information — that’s a profound change — or whether it’s the Lib Dems’ branded channel [on] YouTube, which they use very actively, whether it’s David Cameron answering letters on his Webcameron site or whether it’s the Foreign Secretary speaking to very niche issues because people have raised it on their blog.’

Fine: but what about the ordinary voters operating at the so-called ‘netroots’? In Oxford, the 18-year-old Laurie Pycroft has used blogging to devastating effect in defence of animal testing for scientific research, translating links to other websites into a demonstration of almost a thousand people.

The most exciting example of grassroots web politics I encountered was the campaign led by a young East Londoner, Saif Osmani, who set up a website to save Queen’s Market in Upton Park from redevelopment. A traditional campaign stall had not done the trick: so Saif went online, as he put it, ‘to get a mishmash of different people with different angles’.

That ‘mishmash’ raised a sufficient e-fuss to force Asda, Newham Council and the developer to back down — a testament, as Saif told me, ‘to what local people can do on the ground and what is possible through the internet’.

Or, more specifically, through mobile phones. Howard Rheingold, the American author of the seminal book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (2002), told me that mobile telephony (or, rather, the mass availability of hand-held computers) is already transforming the scope for collective action: witness recent demonstrations in China involving tens of thousands of people outraged about a chemical plant on a river that was laying waste to agricultural land, who organised their action through phone-power.

Rheingold added a cautionary note: ‘Just as the printing press did not guarantee that people would be nice to each other, the democratisation of the ability to organise activity, that empowers terrorists and criminals as well as grass roots democracies.’

That’s true. The web, like any technology, holds a mirror up to humanity. It can be a university for terrorism and a haven for fraudsters and cheats. What’s more striking is how many reasons there are to be cheerful about its impact. Here is an incredibly powerful medium that is more or less unregulated, accessible to all, and free to use. And for every person using it for malicious, exploitative or even murderous ends, there’s another ten who want to use it for legitimate and often benign ends.

The primary function of technology is to make specific practices possible, easier, cheaper or more widely accessible. But technology also operates at a more profound cultural, behavioural and philosophical level. Printing was the basis of the Protestant Reformation and the so-called ‘priesthood of all believers’, just as the internal combustion engine fired up modern economic individualism, and the splitting of the atom defined the soul of the second half of the 20th century. So, too, the web is changing human behaviour in the most fundamental fashion.

Don Tapscott, co-author of the book Wikinomics, described what he calls the ‘net generation’ thus: ‘When they come home, they don’t turn on their TV, they turn on their computer and they’re in three different windows, talking on the phone, listening to MP3 files, playing a video game on the side, they may have their homework going on at the same time. What’s happening is that rather than being the passive recipients of someone else’s broadcast video, they’re spending their time reading, and collaborating, and thinking, and organising information and searching for stuff. And this actually affects brain development and there are several different parts of brain function that are actually different. So this suggests that youth are not different in the way that youth are always different. This is not just a life stage difference. It’s an actual generation difference that will persist and endure as they become adults.’

We’re talking neurology, in other words, and a generation whose brains are literally wired with different software. They take transparency for granted — ‘open source’ — and have contempt for secrecy and confidentiality. They assess political truth collaboratively rather than in deference to authority. They treat hierarchies with scorn. They believe in ‘peer-to-peer’ recommendation, not instructions from on high. They offer trust only to those brands — political or otherwise — which truly earn it.

Tapscott calls them ‘the integrity generation. They’re a generation that wants to see integrity in the institutions that they deal with — whether they’re governments or companies or whatever.’ Their rise as the next cohort of voters should both thrill and terrify our politicians.

I think this is where the real energy in future politics now lies, much of it still latent. When the Prime Minister asked me over the summer what was worth reading, I unhesitatingly recommended Mark Earls’s Herd: How To Change Mass Behaviour By Harnessing our True Nature, a brilliant guide to the new landscape.

This is politics defined not only by the ballot box, spin doctoring, or the face beamed into the sitting-room on a plasma screen but something much bigger, messier and harder to define: millions of people interacting online 24 hours a day, seven days a week, finding common cause and using their collective power to achieve goals that may range from the irritatingly trivial to the deadly serious.

More so than in the case of any such revolution in history, this technological power really is in the hands of the people, if they wish to use it. Everywhere you see green shoots of activity that defy the control freaks and the sceptics. When I look at the netroots that are springing up, I must confess that I feel a bit old; but I also feel very optimistic. A different, decentralised, unformed moral and political economy is emerging all around us. Wolfie Smith would be proud.

Power and the Web, produced by Helen Grady, is broadcast on BBC Radio Four on Sunday 25 November at 10.45 p.m.; the second part can be heard on Sunday 2 December at the same time.

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