Below is an essay I wrote for some study that I thought might be fun to share. If you like this, please see the other blog posts tagged as Gov 2.0. Please note, this is a personal essay and not representative of anyone else 🙂
In recent centuries we have seen a dramatic change in the world brought about by the rise of and proliferation of modern democracies. This shift in governance structures gives the common individual a specific role in the power structure, and differs sharply from more traditional top down power structures. This change has instilled in many of the world’s population some common assumptions about the roles, responsibilities and rights of citizens and their governing bodies. Though there will always exist a natural tension between those in power and those governed, modern governments are generally expected to be a benevolent and accountable mechanism that balances this tension for the good of the society as a whole.
In recent decades the Internet has rapidly further evolved the expectations and individual capacity of people around the globe through, for the first time in history, the mass distribution of the traditional bastions of power. With a third of the world online and countries starting to enshrine access to the Internet as a human right, individuals have more power than ever before to influence and shape their lives and the lives of people around them. It is easier that ever for people to congregate, albeit virtually, according to common interests and goals, regardless of their location, beliefs, language, culture or other age old barriers to collaboration. This is having a direct and dramatic impact on governments and traditional power structures everywhere, and is both extending and challenging the principles and foundations of democracy.
This short paper outlines how the Internet has empowered individuals in an unprecedented and prolific way, and how this has changed and continues to change the balance of power in societies around the world, including how governments and democracies work.
Democracy and equality
The concept of an individual having any implicit rights or equality isn’t new, let alone the idea that an individual in a society should have some say over the ruling of the society. Indeed the idea of democracy itself has been around since the ancient Greeks in 500 BCE. The basis for modern democracies lies with the Parliament of England in the 11th century at a time when the laws of the Crown largely relied upon the support of the clergy and nobility, and the Great Council was formed for consultation and to gain consent from power brokers. In subsequent centuries, great concerns about leadership and taxes effectively led to a strongly increased role in administrative power and oversight by the parliament rather than the Crown.
The practical basis for modern government structures with elected official had emerged by the 17th century. This idea was already established in England, but also took root in the United States. This was closely followed by multiple suffrage movements from the 19th and 20th centuries which expanded the right to participate in modern democracies from (typically) adult white property owners to almost all adults in those societies.
It is quite astounding to consider the dramatic change from very hierarchical, largely unaccountable and highly centralised power systems to democratic ones in which those in powers are expected to be held to account. This shift from top down power, to distributed, representative and accountable power is an important step to understand modern expectations.
Democracy itself is sustainable only when the key principle of equality is deeply ingrained in the population at large. This principle has been largely infused into Western culture and democracies, independent of religion, including in largely secular and multicultural democracies such as Australia. This is important because an assumption of equality underpins stability in a system that puts into the hands of its citizens the ability to make a decision. If one component of the society feels another doesn’t have an equal right to a vote, then outcomes other than their own are not accepted as legitimate. This has been an ongoing challenge in some parts of the world more than others.
In many ways there is a huge gap between the fearful sentiments of Thomas Hobbes, who preferred a complete and powerful authority to keep the supposed ‘brutish nature’ of mankind at bay, and the aspirations of John Locke who felt that even governments should be held to account and the role of the government was to secure the natural rights of the individual to life, liberty and property. Yet both of these men and indeed, many political theorists over many years, have started from a premise that all men are equal – either equally capable of taking from and harming others, or equal with regards to their individual rights.
Arguably, the Western notion of individual rights is rooted in religion. The Christian idea that all men are created equal under a deity presents an interesting contrast to traditional power structures that assume one person, family or group have more rights than the rest, although ironically various churches have not treated all people equally either. Christianity has deeply influenced many political thinkers and the forming of modern democracies, many of which which look very similar to the mixed regime system described by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Thelogiae essays:
Some, indeed, say that the best constitution is a combination of all existing forms, and they praise the Lacedemonian because it is made up of oligarchy, monarchy, and democracy, the king forming the monarchy, and the council of elders the oligarchy, while the democratic element is represented by the Ephors: for the Ephors are selected from the people.
The assumption of equality has been enshrined in key influential documents including the United States Declaration of Independence, 1776:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
More recently in the 20th Century, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights goes even further to define and enshrine equality and rights, marking them as important for the entire society:
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world… – 1st sentence of the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. – Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
The evolution of the concepts of equality and “rights” is important to understand as they provide the basis for how the Internet is having such a disruptive impact on traditional power structures, whilst also being a natural extension of an evolution in human thinking that has been hundreds of years in the making.
Although only a third of the world is online, in many countries this means the vast bulk of the population. In Australia over 88% of households are online as of 2012. Constant online access starts to drive a series of new expectations and behaviours in a community, especially one where equality has already been so deeply ingrained as a basic principle.
Over time a series of Internet-based instincts and perspectives have become mainstream, arguably driven by the very nature of the technology and the tools that we use online. For example, the Internet was developed to “route around damage” which means the technology can withstand technical interruption by another hardware or software means. Where damage is interpreted in a social sense, such as perhaps censorship or locking away access to knowledge, individuals instinctively seek and develop a work around and you see something quite profound. A society has emerged that doesn’t blindly accept limitations put upon them. This is quite a challenge for traditional power structures.
The Internet has become both an extension and an enabler of equality and power by massively distributing both to ordinary people around the world. How has power and equality been distributed? When you consider what constitutes power, four elements come to mind: publishing, communications, monitoring and enforcement.
Publishing – in times gone past the ideas that spread beyond a small geographical area either traveled word of mouth via trade routes, or made it into a book. Only the wealthy could afford to print and distribute the written word, so publishing and dissemination of information was a power limited to a small number of people. Today the spreading of ideas is extremely easy, cheap and can be done anonymously. Anyone can start a blog, use social media, and the proliferation of information creation and dissemination is unprecedented. How does this change society? Firstly there is an assumption that an individual can tell their story to a global audience, which means an official story is easily challenged not only by the intended audience, but by the people about whom the story is written. Individuals online expect both to have their say, and to find multiple perspectives that they can weigh up, and determine for themselves what is most credible. This presents significant challenges to traditional powers such as governments in establishing an authoritative voice unless they can establish trust with the citizens they serve.
Communications– individuals have always had some method to communicate with individuals in other communities and countries, but up until recent decades these methods have been quite expensive, slow and oftentimes controlled. This has meant that historically, people have tended to form social and professional relationships with those close by, largely out of convenience. The Internet has made it easy to communicate, collaborate with, and coordinate with individuals and groups all around the world, in real time. This has made massive and global civil responses and movements possible, which has challenged traditional and geographically defined powers substantially. It has also presented a significant challenge for governments to predict and control information flow and relationships within the society. It also created a challenge for how to support the best interests of citizens, given the tension between what is good for a geographically defined nation state doesn’t always align with what is good for an online and trans-nationally focused citizen.
Monitoring – traditional power structures have always had ways to monitor the masses. Monitoring helps maintain rule of law through assisting in the enforcement of laws, and is often upheld through self-reporting as those affected by broken laws will report issues to hold detractors to account. In just the last 50 years, modern technologies like CCTV have made monitoring of the people a trivial task, where video cameras can record what is happening 24 hours a day. Foucault spoke of the panopticon gaol design as a metaphor for a modern surveillance state, where everyone is constantly watched on camera. The panopticon was a gaol design wherein detainees could not tell if they were being observed by gaolers or not, enabling in principle, less gaolers to control a large number of prisoners. In the same way prisoners would theoretically behave better under observation, Foucault was concerned that omnipresent surveillance would lead to all individuals being more conservative and limited in themselves if they knew they could be watched at any time. The Internet has turned this model on its head. Although governments can more easily monitor citizens than ever before, individuals can also monitor each other and indeed, monitor governments for misbehaviour. This has led to individuals, governments, companies and other entities all being held to account publicly, sometimes violently or unfairly so.
Enforcement – enforcement of laws are a key role of a power structure, to ensure the rules of a society are maintained for the benefit of stability and prosperity. Enforcement can take many forms including physical (gaol, punishment) or psychological (pressure, public humiliation). Power structures have many ways of enforcing the rules of a society on individuals, but the Internet gives individuals substantial enforcement tools of their own. Power used to be who had the biggest sword, or gun, or police force. Now that major powers and indeed, economies, rely so heavily upon the Internet, there is a power in the ability to disrupt communications. In taking down a government or corporate website or online service, an individual or small group of individuals can have an impact far greater than in the past on power structures in their society, and can do so anonymously. This becomes quite profound as citizen groups can emerge with their own philosophical premise and the tools to monitor and enforce their perspective.
Property – property has always been a strong basis of law and order and still plays an important part in democracy, though perspectives towards property are arguably starting to shift. Copyright was invented to protect the “intellectual property” of a person against copying at a time when copying was quite a physical business, and when the mode of distributing information was very expensive. Now, digital information is so easy to copy that it has created a change in expectations and a struggle for traditional models of intellectual property. New models of copyright have emerged that explicitly support copying (copyleft) and some have been successful, such as with the Open Source software industry or with remix music culture. 3D printing will change the game again as we will see in the near future the massive distribution of the ability to copy physical goods, not just virtual ones. This is already creating havoc with those who seek to protect traditional approaches to property but it also presents an extraordinary opportunity for mankind to have greater distribution of physical wealth, not just virtual wealth. Particularly if you consider the current use of 3D printing to create transplant organs, or the potential of 3D printing combined with some form of nano technology that could reassemble matter into food or other essential living items. That is starting to step into science fiction, but we should consider the broader potential of these new technologies before we decide to arbitrarily limit them based on traditional views of copyright, as we are already starting to see.
By massively distributing publishing, communications, monitoring and enforcement, and with the coming potential massive distribution of property, technology and the Internet has created an ad hoc, self-determined and grassroots power base that challenges traditional power structures and governments.
With great power…
Individuals online find themselves more empowered and self-determined than ever before, regardless of the socio-political nature of their circumstances. They can share and seek information directly from other individuals, bypassing traditional gatekeepers of knowledge. They can coordinate with like-minded citizens both nationally and internationally and establish communities of interest that transcend geo-politics. They can monitor elected officials, bureaucrats, companies and other individuals, and even hold them all to account.
To leverage these opportunities fully requires a reasonable amount of technical literacy. As such, many technologists are on the front line, playing a special role in supporting, challenging and sometimes overthrowing modern power structures. As technical literacy is permeating mainstream culture more individuals are able to leverage these disrupters, but technologist activists are often the most effective at disrupting power through the use of technology and the Internet.
Of course, whilst the Internet is a threat to traditional centralised power structures, it also presents an unprecedented opportunity to leverage the skills, knowledge and efforts of an entire society in the running of government, for the benefit of all. Citizen engagement in democracy and government beyond the ballot box presents the ability to co-develop, or co-design the future of the society, including the services and rules that support stability and prosperity. Arguably, citizen buy-in and support is now an important part of the stability of a society and success of a policy.
Disrupting the status quo
The combination of improved capacity for self-determination by individuals along with the increasingly pervasive assumptions of equality and rights have led to many examples of traditional power structures being held to account, challenged, and in some cases, overthrown.
Governments are able to be held more strongly to account than ever before. The Open Australia Foundation is a small group of technologists in Australia who create tools to improve transparency and citizen engagement in the Australian democracy. They created Open Australia, a site that made the public parliamentary record more accessible to individuals through making it searchable, subscribable and easy to browse and comment on. They also have projects such as Planning Alerts which notifies citizens of planned development in their area, Election Leaflets where citizens upload political pamphlets for public record and accountability, and Right to Know, a site to assist the general public in pursuing information and public records from the government under Freedom of Information. These are all projects that monitor, engage and inform citizens about government.
Wikileaks is a website and organisation that provides an anonymous way for individuals to anonymously leak sensitive information, often classified government information. Key examples include video and documents from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, about the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, United States diplomatic cables and million of emails from Syrian political and corporate figures. Some of the information revealed by Wikileaks has had quite dramatic consequences with the media and citizens around the world responding to the information. Arguably, many of the Arab Spring uprisings throughout the Middle East from December 2010 were provoked by the release of the US diplomatic cables by Wikileaks, as it demonstrated very clearly the level of corruption in many countries. The Internet also played a vital part in many of these uprisings, some of which saw governments deposed, as social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook provided the mechanism for massive coordination of protests, but importantly also provided a way to get citizen coverage of the protests and police/army brutality, creating global audience, commentary and pressure on the governments and support for the protesters.
Citizen journalism is an interesting challenge to governments because the route to communicate with the general public has traditionally been through the media. The media has presented for many years a reasonably predictable mechanism for governments to communicate an official statement and shape public narrative. But the Internet has facilitated any individual to publish online to a global audience, and this has resulted in a much more robust exchange of ideas and less clear cut public narrative about any particular issue, sometimes directly challenging official statements. A particularly interesting case of this was the Salam Pax blog during the 2003 Iraq invasion by the United States. Official news from the US would largely talk about the success of the campaign to overthrown Suddam Hussein. The Salam Pax blog provided the view of a 29 year old educated Iraqi architect living in Baghdad and experiencing the invasion as a citizen, which contrasted quite significantly at times with official US Government reports. This type of contrast will continue to be a challenge to governments.
On the flip side, the Internet has also provided new ways for governments themselves to support and engage citizens. There has been the growth of a global open government movement, where governments themselves try to improve transparency, public engagement and services delivery using the Internet. Open data is a good example of this, with governments going above and beyond traditional freedom of information obligations to proactively release raw data online for public scrutiny. Digital services allow citizens to interact with their government online rather than the inconvenience of having to physically attend a shopfront. Many governments around the world are making public commitments to improving the transparency, engagement and services for their citizens. We now also see more politicians and bureaucrats engaging directly with citizens online through the use of social media, blogs and sophisticated public consultations tools. Governments have become, in short, more engaged, more responsive and more accountable to more people than ever before.
Only in recent centuries have power structures emerged with a specific role for common individual citizens. The relationship between individuals and power structures has long been about the balance between what the power could enforce and what the population would accept. With the emergence of power structures that support and enshrine the principles of equality and human rights, individuals around the world have come to expect the capacity to determine their own future. The growth of and proliferation of democracy has been a key shift in how individuals relate to power and governance structures.
New technologies and the Internet has gone on to massively distribute the traditionally centralised powers of publishing, communications, monitoring and enforcement (with property on the way). This distribution of power through the means of technology has seen democracy evolve into something of a technocracy, a system which has effectively tipped the balance of power from institutions to individuals.
Hobbes, T. The Leviathan, ed. by R. Tuck, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Aquinas, T. Sum. Theol. i-ii. 105. 1, trans. A. C. Pegis, Whether the old law enjoined fitting precepts concerning rulers?
Uzgalis, William, “John Locke”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2012/entries/locke/.
See additional useful references linked throughout essay.