Tuesday 31 May 2011

Spreading ignorance or democracy through the web

If you were passing through Hoxton’s “silicon roundabout” last Friday and wondered why the traffic was a little easier than usual, it could have been because a good number of the folk that may well frequent such parts had cycled over to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Westminster, to attend a debate organised by those good folks at Demos and the Open Society Institute. Billed “Through a web darkly: does the internet spread democracy or ignorance?” the event was chaired by Ben Hammersley (Editor-at-large of Wired UK and founder of the Campus Party,) and featured Evgeny Morozov (author of “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Freedom and the Internet”), Dan Hind and Tom Chatfield.

All of these guys have got pretty extensive internet profiles, so I won’t comment on their credentials. Some of the points raised were very interesting, and ones which I need to think about in some depth. Evgeny made the simple point about behavioural advertising - that, thanks to algorithm techniques, the web becomes more a personalised, we are more frequently directed to information that we agree with, but is this leading to the politicisation of defaults?

He also remarked that the Government’s transparency agenda is somewhat flawed in that we will never be able to get all of the relevant information on the internet, but this is leading to a problem with rise of the conspiracy theorists, who will always be able to point to the absence of some information to establish a convincing narrative that they affirm too, but which may be well off the actual truth.

In terms of the technical ease with which rumours can be translated into fact, it’s now probably far cheaper to hire a team of 100 bloggers to create noise potential America presidential candidates can appear to be doing quite well among the electorate, despite their obvious lack of political gravitas.

Dan Hind supplied my favourite quote of the afternoon though, which was a chant that he had picked up being shouted by the protesters in Tahrir Square in Egypt during the recent civil uprising which led to the demise of former President Mubarak in February. A small group were heard to chant: We are the girls who chat to the boys on Facebook. For them, freedom was being able to admit an activity that was forbidden. The little things we take for granted in the UK, yet freedoms not yet properly won everywhere. And no, that's not them chanting that chant in the image. These girls are obviously protesting about something much more acceptable to whoever is reading this. So there's no need for members of the Egyptian army to arrest them and require them to undergo virginity checks.

Politics even entered sport and the football terraces. (Well, fancy that, I hear you exclaim). At one international match, the Tunisian football supporters were heard to tease their Egyptian counterparts for not getting rid of their dictator fast enough; We’ve got rid of ours, so why haven’t you got rid of yours? was the refrain.

Dan also made the point that the Egyptian authorities made the fatal mistake, during the uprising, of closing down the national broadcasting media - which resulted in people coming out into the streets for their news, and passing on news and current affairs stories in a way that could not be contained - so given similar circumstances in Blighty, I doubt that the BBC Trust will react by pulling the plug on Radio 4. We’ll be allowed to remain indoors to keep up with The Archers and Eastenders. No roaming the streets for us.

Tom Chatfield considered that, given that the internet really is only about 600 weekends old, we still have some way to travel before social mores have fully developed. But my, hasn’t it come far! Wiki leaks and Twitter may be bouncing around like stroppy adolescents, causing a bit of a rumble in the legal jungle, but time will tell. It may not be that long before someone (or something) tames these delinquents.

After all, getting down to the basics, what do we really need from Governments?

Most of us don’t need much more democracy (if that’s what you call it.)

Most of us would be perfectly happy with bread and circuses.

It was good enough for most of the Romans, and I’m sure it will be good enough for the most of us.

Well do Demos for such a thought-provoking session. There may be more in this series- and if so I’ll try and attend them.

Image credit - http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/31/egypt-online-protest-virginity-tests