Books, Libraries, the Internet and Democracy

 

In 2011 The New York Times ran five different stories about how the internet has had a positive effect on democratic efforts across the world.  Highlighting countries from China to India and Vietnam, the Times coverage tells basically the same story each time, linking technology with a rapidly expanding democratic values. But one must question such a blanket positive assumption—asking is this always the case?  Does free access to information on the internet always coincide with acceptance and promotion of democratic values?

 

The Best and Wade article conducted a quantitative analysis of data over a ten year period and suggested that there was a little evidence to point toward a positive correlation between internet usage and democracy.   The Best and Wade article also went so far as to say that there was little evidence of a positive correlation between literacy and democracy.  These findings are surprising given that the Maack article focused on the cultural diplomacy connection with libraries and access to information.  Maack’s research indicates that the history of cultural diplomacy really hinged on this viewpoint—that given the opportunity to read and understand the dominate country’s cultural perspective and governing philosophy—subordinate countries would embrace these values.  Both Maack and Best and Wade have demonstrated in their writing that these assumptions are not well founded.

 

While it may be difficult for democratic countries and countrymen to appreciate how anyone could endorse an anti-democratic perspective, both the Maack and the Best/Wade articles reminded readers of the sometimes irregular path to political power—that sometimes the intention of the purpose of the tools does not always equal the anticipated outcome.

 

I nevertheless felt that both articles pointed to this recurring theme about the role of the internet (or information access) and its effects on the political lives of global citizens.  More broadly, I found that at the core of this argument was the binary debate between technological determinism and social constructivism.  The abundance of media coverage, as evidenced by the New York Times, indicates that mainstream media has embraced the point of view that the technological tools link the internet will have a positive impact on the growth of democracy in the world.

 

Conversely, there are a quieter, but equally compelling, cohort of critics to this view point—who caution against this unsophisticated blanket enthusiasm for technology.  This technological argument has manifested itself as the techno-utopian versus techno-pessimist debate.  And part of what I was interested in, when considering the value of these readings for my presentation, was the manner in which this disagreement plays out.  Each side has their opinions supported by thoughtful evidence or at least a good narrative.

 

On the one side—the techno optimist—would argue that social revolts like those we’ve seen in Egypt, Tunisia, and across the Arab world would not have been possible without the vast increase in expressive technology.  Techno pessimists or cybercritcs would lob back that such views are naïve – that the internet is a technology made by man and thus a tool that can be controlled to further entrench dictators as easily as it could be used to unseat them.  To that the utopians would respond that such predictions are shortsighted and that the path forward to democracy is a long one.  They argue that the longer the internet and social media have to take hold on a population, the less willing they will be to live in a society that bans or censors their efforts at communication.  That every nations leaders will have to accept that their choice is rather black and white, either accept that the internet cannot be controlled or close it for good.  The techno optimists therefore believing that no modern country would close its communication borders only to be relegated to a hermit existence.

 

The argument goes around and around, but the articles we focused on for the week of April 9th pretty staunchly upheld the techno pessimist standpoint, that access to information in general may not always result in the advancement of the “freedom agenda” as those who originally created it may have intended or thought.  In stead, both of our writers suggest that despite the political agendas set forth by those in power, what we really have in play here is a system that is a tool—made for the people by the people.

 

My favorite techno-pessimist:  Evgeny Morozov

TED TALK:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hFk6FDrZBc

NET effect BLOG:  http://neteffect.foreignpolicy.com/blog/5386

RSA video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uk8x3V-sUgU

 

Techno-optimists:

The New York Times

Alarmed by Independent Candidates, Chinese Authorities Crack Down. Sharon Lafraniere. The New York Times. (Dec. 5, 2011) News: pA4(L). Word Count: 1118.

 

Free Speech and the Internet. The New York Times. (July 4, 2011) Opinion and Editorial: pA18(L). Word Count: 355.

 

China: censorship suit filed against Web company. J. David Goodman. The New York Times. (May 20, 2011) News: pA8(L). Word Count: 85.

 

Vietnam: Democracy Advocate Jailed. Seth Mydans. The New York Times. (Apr. 5, 2011) News: pA6(L). Word Count: 770.

 

Despite Intimidation, Calls for a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in China Persist. Ian Johnson. The New York Times. (Feb. 24, 2011) News: pA14(L). Word Count: 420.

 

Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in a Revolution. Sheryl Gay Stolberg. The New York Times. (Feb. 17, 2011) News: pA1(L). Word Count: 1453.

 

4 part BBC episode “How Facebook Changed the World” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnPR90dJ3Gk