Robert George on civic education | Main | religion and politics in the Moslem world and the USA

February 10, 2006

can the Internet democratize institutions?

Yesterday, I heard a talk about whether the Internet can help to democratize institutions such as the World Bank and WTO. Proposals for that purpose include posting internal deliberations online, allowing people to file comments by email, or even allowing anyone to edit draft documents on websites ("wikis"). The main response is that the Internet is just a tool; it doesn't change the basic structure of governance. For instance, there are already lots of interesting and wide-ranging discussions within offices and departments of the World Bank. Outsiders could be enabled to participate in those discussions through online tools. But if real decisions are still made rather opaquely by a few individuals, then the online discussion will just mislead outsiders into believing that they have influence. The Internet itself does not change the incentives to share power.

I agree that the Internet cannot itself change the governance of institutions. However, to a degree, the Internet is changing the institutions that count. Two important examples:

  • Standards have powerful impact on our lives. They are what allow all our computers to interconnect. They can be constructed in such a way as to favor, disfavor, block, conceal, reveal, or otherwise influence all of our online transactions. But standards are not written by the institutions that were considered by political theorists 50 years ago: not by legislatures, courts, diplomats, or regulatory agencies. Sometimes, a person (e.g., Tim Berners-Lee) just writes standards and they proliferate. Perhaps they can be changed by means of political pressure, but not in traditional ways. For instance, no law or government could simply change the standards for email or the Web, which are thoroughly dispersed
  • Ten years ago, what a daily newspaper should do was an important question. Today, it is a less important issue, because newspapers have lost overall market share and clout to various kinds of websites, including blogs. Their market share could drop to zero.
  • [PS: My current grad student Tony Fleming has created a great specialized blog on the competition to be the next UN Secretary General. Tony provides detailed information and news as well as an opportunity to propose questions for the leading candidates. That's a nice use of blog technology to press a major international body to be more transparent.]

    Posted by peterlevine at February 10, 2006 03:05 PM

    Comments

    When you say "democratize," what do you mean? Does it just mean opening up the process? Does it mean equality among participants (or more equality)? Greater participation?

    Posted by: Michael Weiksner [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 10, 2006 06:13 PM

    Mike,

    I agree that "democratization" needs a definition. It might mean (for example) a tighter fit between the opinions of the majority of people and the decisions of institutions; or more opportunities for everyone to exercise influence; or more opportunities for relevant stakeholders to deliberate.

    These goals can conflict. For example, a group (whether it statistically represents the whole population or is chosen for special expertise) may, after deliberating, reach quite different conclusions from the majority of people. Likewise, if we provide opportunities for people to exercise influence voluntarily, we may increase inequality. And so on.

    Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 10, 2006 09:32 PM

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