Friday, 15 January 2010

The internet election? Don't believe the hype

Kerry McCarthy MP, Ellie Gellard, Peter Kellner, James Forsyth and Nick Anstead will debate Twittered Out: Will the new media really change the election? at Saturday's "Causes to fight for" Fabian new year conference.

Here Nick Anstead, co-editor with Will Straw of the Fabian Society's The Change We Need collection on the lessons of the Obama campaign, warns against getting carried away but thinks the internet will do more to transform political institutions in future.

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I think there is a great problem with the discussion of the relationship of internet and politics at the moment. My advice would be: don’t believe the hype. We tend to talk in terms of revolutions or this being the “internet election”. However, it is important to remember that the 2005 general election, staged in the afterglow of Howard Dean’s blog-fuelled run for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2003-2004, was styled in exactly the same way, yet turned out to be a great disappointment.

This is not to suggest that we aren’t living through a communication revolution on a profound scale, because we surely are. However, I think when people talk about “a revolutionary internet election”, they are actually asking the wrong question. They tend to frame their argument in terms of what new technology will do to help existing institutions in their current form. We will see some of this kind of change in the coming election – parties will have better databases, more effective websites, and employ more social modes of communication. But this kind of development is evolutionary, not revolutionary.

Revolutionary change is different though. History teaches us that it invariably creates unpredictability and chaos. The development of the internet and new communication technology is this order of change. If we think of it in these terms, this radically changes the nature of the questions we should be asking. Instead of “how do institutions use this technology?” we should ask “how do we redesign our institutions so as we can harness the potential of these new developments?”

This is a real reason for optimism. The internet is a form of mass communication that has low barriers to participation, and can be used to organise collective participation with very low costs and without the need for top-heavy institutions, as well as democratizing access to information.

The real challenge then, both in the coming election campaign and beyond it, is how we try to reach out for this future.

Post by Nick Anstead

2 comments:

Michael said...

There is always the need for a few caveats on this - the country is not always as 'connected' as you might think. The stereotype of the incredibly well-connected and tech-savvy individual is, in my experience, something of an exaggeration - and noticeably thins out the more you go up the age-scale.

I point this out not to contradict, but only to say that this age of 'mass-communication' risks being ineffective if it leads to a neglect of those who haven't fully embraced the 'digital revolution'. Whilst all this media-ing might be good for some, the traditional ways still work best for many.

Nick Anstead said...

Hi Michael,

Completely agree, and I think digital exclusion is a central social democratic question in the coming years. More than that, it is a multi-facted question. When Al Gore first raised the issue in the 1990s, it was about the binary alternative of being online or offline. Now it is about how we use that technology: passively, or to create content? Research in this area finds huge discrepancies between different groups of people, and what they are doing online (Matthew Hindman's book The Myth of Digitial Democracy offers a great corrective to over optimism on this score).

But I also think we need to look into the future a bit as well, and in particular patterns of convergence - in other words, a point where the capabilities of the internet are built into other devices which the vast majority of the population are familiar with, such as televisions and mobile phones. But that goes back to my point about revolution - we really don't know what the consequences of that will be.