Wednesday, December 28, 2005

New Communications Technologies and the ‘Information Society’


“Focusing on the existing and potential opportunities ICTs have to offer protest and political groups, discuss whether such advances indicate a wider democratic revitalisation.”
New Communications Technologies and the ‘Information Society’ –

How significant a role do new technologies play in democracy? Does accessibility hinder their potential? Are they breathing life into protest groups which would otherwise be without a platform?

Sceptics such as Papacharissi and Keane believe the idea of the ‘public sphere’ is outdated, and a more complex situation, riddled with intricate divisions has emerged. In contrast, demonstrators and visionaries such as Don Darling of Salt Lake City, Utah suggest that technology, if accessible and understood by all, has the same democratising potential as the printing press [Rheinhold, 1993, pp279]. However, is talk of an ‘information revolution’ or a new ‘knowledge society’ premature when 50% of the world are yet to make a phone call [Shirky, 2002]? Concentrating on activist and political organisations, we will examine whether ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) are finally allowing democracy to embrace its ancient Greek meaning, ‘government by the people’.

Same old story?
The introduction of earlier technologies often hailed a flurry of similar utopian predictions – air travel, television and radio were all upheld by some as the key to world peace and democracy. In 1941, General Carty foresaw a global telephone system that “will join all the people of earth into one brotherhood” [Sola Pool, 1983]. Even as recently as 1998, Cairncross discussed transformations in time, space, wages, home and office, policing, language and the triumph of global peace. It is easy to describe such suggestions as idle and polemical prophecies, the like of which have a clear history of failure. However, could the sentiment behind some of these predictions be already materialising?

“Community in the information age is elective; we join because we wish to, because we believe. This contrasts with more traditional communities we might belong to because of our class, our race, or where we live and work” [May, 2002, pp84]

May, a sceptic of the ‘knowledge society’, highlights that rather than coming together through personal, practical or geographical coincidence, people are now able to join a borderless community - the internet. All are equal and everyone can communicate in an environment where democratic values can flourish. In the absence of any interference from government (in theory), free communication can flow. Greater political participation is said to follow this phenomena, so what examples already exist?

As early as 1986, New Internationalist [Kazis, issue 162] reported on a cyberactivist movement bought together to prevent the US Navy from clearing the Ikego Forest near Zushi in Japan. As a member of an internet bulletin board, the META network, Izumi Aizu asked other users to write protest letters to the Japanese and US governments. However, the system was already being exploited for less wholesome activities - in the same year, US police broke up a neo-nazi bulletin board and paedophile network which allowed members to exchange stories and information.

Nevertheless, Mimi Maduro, a founder of the Electronic Networking Association, recognised the potential of the new medium...

“People are talking to each other based on interest areas. They don’t know what the other looks like or how much money they make. Class, race and other barriers start to melt away. And that to me will always be exciting.” [cited in Kazis, 1986, New Internationalist 162]

Even in the mid-1980s, Greenpeace was using portable Kaypro computers to link their regional offices. Today, with a membership of over 20,000 promoting resistance to a variety of environmental and political causes, the Greenpeace ‘Cybercentre’ [] has revolutionised the way the NGO conducts its campaigns. Meanwhile, Washbourne found that, in the 1990s, the expansion of ICTs within Friends of the Earth “arose in relation to a widely shared conception that IT could not only help FoE influence public policy and environmental debate but also was congruent with FoE’s globalist values.” [2001, pp141]

One of the most famous and defining examples of cyberactivism is perhaps the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Supporters of the anti-globalisation Mexican rebel group raised international awareness of their cause using satellite phones and the Internet. May argues that the success of the Zapatistas actually stems from their control of the state of Chiapas [2002, pp87]. However, through ICTs, the organisation had effectively networked with other sympathetic political groups and boosted interest from the world’s media. In effect, it became almost impossible for the Mexican president to attend a press conference abroad without being questioned about the ‘Chiapas situation’. Pickerill acknowledges the power Computer Mediated Communications (CMCs) hold...

“Its speed, cheapness, interactivity, and relative freedom from government or corporate control have enabled significant changes in the way campaigns are organised and advertised and goals are achieved.” [Pickerill, 2001, pp164] is another example which acts as a hub for development and activist organisations to call on volunteers from all around the world. GreenNet [] is an ISP which ‘defends and extends’ the rights of those who use the internet for campaigning. It is an NGO that supports and promotes individuals and groups working for the environment, human rights and peace through ICTs. Closer to home, the London May Day protests of 1999 and 2000 and the anti-war march of 2003 were all co-ordinated online to coincide with similar demonstrations across the world. SMS technology was utilised by campaigners to assemble and congregate, just as it was used in 2000 to instigate the fuel tax protest [May, 2002, pp88]. The ‘Chasing Bush’ website invited protestors to use their camera phones to ‘disrupt Bush’s PR campaign’ [BBC News 8, 9], whilst the BBC collected ‘live’ mobile phone images of the demonstration on their news website [BBC News 10].

Development in Action, a small UK NGO, is run by student volunteers and all behind-the-scenes communication is achieved via mass-email. The committee which run the charity often exchange several emails a day, resolving matters through any other medium would be almost impossibly inconvenient. Despite embracing ICTs, the committee still finds it necessary to meet quarterly to discuss wider issues.

e-Democracy in the UK
Citizens in the UK have been bought closer to their MPs with ‘’, ‘’ and ‘’. These websites allow visitors to view and comment on their MP’s recent work and send an email, letter or fax directly to their office. This does not automatically mean, however, that they enrich our democracy. In addition to accessibility issues along the digital divide (to be discussed later), the functions of these online portals are nothing new. The difference is that people are now able to communicate with the government more easily and quickly.

Research shows that, for example, when elections are made more convenient and simple through SMS, interactive TV or internet voting systems, the turn-out increases [BBC News 2, 7, 8]. However, whilst ICTs are seen as a solution to voter apathy, poor turn-outs can also be caused by disillusionment, overall dissatisfaction, a personal protest or simply because it is too ‘inconvenient’. Furthermore, the potential for vote rigging remains - or is magnified (as was demonstrated, some would argue, in the 2004 US election).

According to Dahlgren, the hundreds of NGOs, social groups, lobbyists and activists online make up “multiple mini-public spheres” [2001, pp75]. If ICTs can lead to a political reawakening amongst the electorate, with communities interacting freely in debate and discussion with the state, the nearest Britain has achieved to this would be Blair’s ‘Big Conversation’ []. Launched with great fanfare in 2003, New Labour urged citizens to “give us your priorities” [BBC News 1 – 28/11/03]. Voters were able to SMS ‘txt’ or email in their opinions and ideas on government policy.

When it became clear that contributions (mainly grievances) were being filtered in favour of those praising Blair’s policies, the scheme was dismissed as a gimmick. Coleman warned that such projects are more likely to be cynical ‘public relations exercises’ [1999, pp21] than serious efforts to spark discussion. Within months, the website disappeared and, as wrote Catherine Bennett for The Guardian... “having created what amounts to a giant virtual dustbin and filled it with complaints familiar to every MP's surgery in the land... the Labour party ...moved on [The Guardian 1 - 18/11/04]. As did the media.

Interestingly, an alternative website at offered an independent, unfiltered forum – which perhaps, in contrast with the government led and funded scheme, is more indicative of a true ‘democratic renaissance’. Then again, although open forums designed to support political deliberation sound more democratically advanced than Blair’s ‘consultation’ approach, the problem of moderation remains. Grassroots initiatives like the BBC’s ‘iCan’ website provide an excellent example of a vibrant portal bringing together people, information, advice, guides, campaigns on a wide range of issues – but membership is dependant on adhering to comprehensive list of rules. Moderated forums like ‘iCan’ could potentially be subject to censorship and restriction whilst uncontrolled discussions could drift off-topic, encourage ‘flaming’ and become dominated by individual users. Perhaps a middle ground between open consultation and open discussion has been established in the YouGov website (, where visitors are paid for participating in opinion polls, the results of which are regularly exploited by the media and government. And perhaps a sophisticated, self-policing initiative based on the user-led Wikipedia could be developed. The technology behind this, almost foolproof, encyclopaedia relies on visitors to contribute, debate and moderate its database of over a million articles. [Wikipedia 3]

Overall, ‘e-government’ has enjoyed a number of successes and failures. Achievements include easier access to government documents and more efficient (or indeed, less costly) processing of government forms and functions (e.g. tax returns, driving tests). In spite of this, modernisation of the NHS, intelligence and state benefits computer systems and integration of police systems have been expensive and problematic [BBC News 4, 5, 6].

A democratic reawakening
In the lead up to the 2005 election, a variety of websites spanning several political outlooks were launched. Don Darling allowed voters to research and strategically oust pro-Iraq war MPs (irrespective of their party), whilst ‘’ offered an Orwellian parody of the New Labour campaign. Similar sites such as ‘’ and ‘’ presented a “resource for dismayed Labour voters”.

Meanwhile, political parties themselves embraced practically every new ICT like never before, using SMS, email, TV, radio and internet advertisements [Znet News 1] – often carefully targeted – to win votes. Such technologies also gave a voice to more controversial or smaller parties like the BNP and Respect Coalition.

Even outside of election time, hundreds of advocacy and resistance groups for everything from ID cards (‘’) to fox hunting (‘’) have found a home on the web. A large cluster of online communities are expressing opposition to the G8 meetings in the UK and are likely to play a central role in organising the inevitable demonstrations and rallies.

The Indymedia network invites its visitors to ‘become the media’, encompassing “individuals, independent and alternative media activists and organisations, offering grassroots, non-corporate, non-commercial coverage of important social and political issues” [Indymedia 1]. Their multilingual message is not restricted to cyberspace, but employs TV, radio and DVD. By inviting everyone to contribute they challenge the one-way nature of the media; eliminating the system where by an honoured few dictate the news to a passive audience. The influence of this community was obviously significant enough for the FBI to seize (and promptly return) Indymedia’s UK servers – but critics continue to argue that with no editors, opinion can often be presented as fact on this left-wing, and usually anarchist, resource.

Indeed, whist the medium itself offers no assurance of impartiality or accuracy, the web does provide these organisations with means to campaign, organise, publicise themselves, co-ordinate and recruit members. But would the work of these groups be as effective without an online presence – and what are the myths, realities, advantages and disadvantages surrounding such practices?

Preaching to the choir
Lax [2004, pp220] highlights that “the existence of more information does not in itself mean more democracy”. Few ‘stumble’ across activist material online and convert to a new way of thinking – most visits will be a result of intentional direct ‘hits’ or links from other websites or search engines. One could argue that those searching for minority views online already hold an interest in such issues. May suggests that internet activists “are more likely to be political junkies to begin with” [2002, pp90] and that the medium does not alter the fact that most people are selective in their political interests. The scope of discussion can also be very narrow if community members debate an issue in a focused and isolated group, especially if there is little opposition.

There are numerous examples of where technology has triumphed in the name of democracy. The Daily News in Zimbabwe, a newspaper that often challenged the Mugabe regime, was closed down, but now continues to publish news online [Daily News 1]. Nevertheless, ICTs can also be damaging to democratic values and civil liberties. The Patriot Act in the US allows the state to use digital technology to uncover anything from a person’s health records to their library loans – which is surely, a step in the wrong direction for democracy.

So perhaps the role of ICTs is overstated? Lax goes on to emphasise that the internet was not the only key to the success of the 1999 J18 protests – “posters, leaflets, telephones, words of mouth and graffiti” [2004, pp222] played a role alongside online publicity. Furthermore, online political postings and discussion cannot, arguably, be categorised as constructive, sophisticated political debate. Though the future promises more possibilities in sound and video, the internet is as yet fairly one-dimensional (graphics and text), and perhaps not an ideal arena for mature deliberation. Plus, before we overstress the impact of the internet, Dahlgren reminds us that in cyberspace “political engagement appears to be a minor sideline” when compared to the “massive flows of commerce, trivia, entertainment, chatting, role playing and other games and, not least, of pornography” [2001, pp75].

Although Hamelink [1998] suggests that “increased access to information flows will undermine official censorship and empower movements in civil society”, May argues that ‘being online” is only one step towards participation [2002, pp89], it is not the same as “being connected”. The act of actually contributing to a community or democracy is not sparked automatically by installing your AOL software.

Access denied
By definition, democracy is all-inclusive. However, an ever-widening widening digital divide is dramatically restricting rights of entry to the information age. Access to the digital revolution requires access to electricity – a serious problem in rural parts of the developing world, and demand for ICTs will only increase pressure on the system. Additionally, the infrastructure for standard internet access – i.e. phone lines – is costly and, presently, is not receiving as much investment as mobile networks, which require little infrastructure and now outnumber land lines globally.

Emphasising the restrictive costs of implementing telecom connections in Less Economically Developed Countries (LEDCs), Hamelink concludes that...

“...there is no indication that the current restrictive business practices, the constraints on the ownership of knowledge, and the rules on intellectual property rights that are adverse to developing country interests are radically changing.“ [Hamelink, 1998]

E-health and e-learning initiatives in are undoubtedly a way forward for ICTs in LEDCs, and do indeed incorporate many democratic principles. In 2003, the issue was acknowledged in a world summit organised by the UN, where 170 countries “endorsed what has been called the first constitution for the information age” [BBC News 11]. But reforms in areas such as trade and debt are likely to achieve much more than getting the world online when it comes to filling hungry stomachs.

Divisions are not always drawn along financial and geographical lines – age, literacy and even gender can be an issue. ITU research revealed more complex cultural, social and political barriers to access, highlighting that in Malaysia, 64% of those online are men compared to a more balanced 49% in the US [ITU, 2002].

Access is also unevenly distributed closer to home where, again, it is not only socio-economic obstacles that are proving to be problematic - computer skills and connections speeds are important concerns. Of the UK’s 12.9 million internet households (52%) with internet access [National Statistics, 3rd quarter 2004], 31% of internet users have upgraded to broadband [BBC News 12] and with high-speed features such as video taking a hold online, a new divide is set to open up. Despite this, connection speeds are increasing as prices are falling, and 91% of the UK now has potential access to high-speed services [Ofcom 1, February 2005].

Cautious evolution
With tools becoming faster, smaller and smarter, the opportunities ICTs offer individuals to communicate freely, without restriction, is certainly a step in the right direction. But in a country where more people are members of the RSPB than any political party, more fundamental changes will need to be made to rekindle interest in politics than using new ICTs to bring us closer to the same old system. Just as the telegraph and radio failed to deliver the predicted political revitalisation, we must remember that no technology is inherently democratic.

From the point of view of campaign groups, the fast-moving development of technology will no doubt trigger new forms of protest (particularly in a global sense), whilst such advances are certain to continue bringing the people closer to, and even reducing the influence of, the state. The internet, in particular, is destined to evolve into new multi-media, multi-platform arenas to become as unrecognisable in 10 years time, as it was 10 years ago. But as we hurtle head-first into the supposed ‘information age’, it is all too appealing to make extravagant and utopian forecasts. A degree of restraint should be practiced as the introduction of a technology does not bring inevitable change, the ‘revolution’ may not be all-inclusive and few movements have enjoyed success using the internet alone. ICTs may have the capability to rupture geographical boundaries and fuel democracy, but we must remain stringent in avoiding worldwide cultural homogenisation and should ensure that no-one is left on the wrong side of the digital divide.


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