Democracy in Cyberspace: What Information Technology Can and Cannot Do

Stunning. How can an article like this still be published in 2010 let alone in a peer-reviewed journal? Is the study of digital activism so shallow and superficial? Have we really learned nothing? This article could have been published years ago and even then one wonders what the added value would have been.

I wrote a blog post last year called “Breaking News: Repressive Regimes use Technology to Repress” to poke fun at those who sensationalize stories about digital repression. They make these anecdotes seem surprising and stupefying: “Who would have thought?!” is the general tone. The equivalent in a car magazine would be: “Wow! Cars can be used for Drive By Shootings and Picnics in the Park.” And speaking of anecdotes, articles like this one in Foreign Affairs is why I wrote that data hell and anecdotal heaven series on digital activism a while back. But still the discourse changes little.

Check out these groundbreaking “insights” from the Foreign Affairs article:

  • “… cyberspace is a complex space, and technological advances are not substitute for human wisdom.” Go figure
  • “… the tools of modern communications satisfy as wide a range of ambitions and appetites as their 20th century ancestors did, and many of these ambitions and appetites do not have anything to do with democracy.” Are you sure?
  • “Techno-optimists appear to ignore the fact that these tools [of modern communication] are value neutral; there is nothing inherently pro-democratic about them.’ Never thought of that
  • “[These technologies] are a megaphone, and have a multiplier effect, but they serve both those who want to speed up the cross-border flow of information and those who want to divert or manipulate it.” No way, who would have thought?
  • “If technology has helped citizens pressure authoritarian governments in several countries, it is not because the technology created a demand for that change. That demand must come from public anger at authoritarian rule.” That’s ridiculous
  • “Citizens are not the only ones active in cyberspace. The state is online, too, promoting it’s own ideas and limiting what the average user can see and do. Innovations in communications technology provide people with new sources of information and new opportunities to share ideas, but they also empower governments to manipulate the conversation and to monitor what people are saying.” Since when do governments have access to the Internet?
  • “China, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and other authoritarian states cannot halt the proliferation of weapons of modern communications, but they can try to monitor and manipulate them for their own purposes.” But why would they do that?

There is little depth or analytical rigor to this piece. The contribution to the literature is close to nil. Lets hope this will be the last of its kind. The study of digital activism has got to move beyond sweeping generalizations and vague truisms. We know that governments use technology to repress, enough with broken-record-publications.

What we need is more granular, data-driven analysis and mixed methods research, which is why the Global Digital Activism Dataset (GDADS) project is long overdue. Ethan Zuckerman and Clay Shirky are both advisers to this initiative because they recognize that without more empirically grounded research, articles like this one in Foreign Affairs will continue to be published.

4 responses to “Democracy in Cyberspace: What Information Technology Can and Cannot Do

  1. Pingback: The Digital Disruption: Connectivity and the Diffusion of Power | iRevolution

  2. So true what you say in this post. One problem is that everybody feels like they can talk about new technologies because they are everywhere, as “because I use email everyday, I know what the Internet is about.”

    Anyway, there is one of your comments on Bremmer’s article I am not sure I agree with.

    – “Techno-optimists appear to ignore the fact that these tools [of modern communication] are value neutral; there is nothing inherently pro-democratic about them.’ Never thought of that

    You say “never thought of that” as you somehow agree with the “value neutrality” of “these tools”. But technology is never “value neutral”, Latour or Steve Woolgar, and other social constructivists of science and technology studies, have interesting ideas about how technology is not value neutral, it’s not independent from its environment. Its emergence, dissemination and operation is very much value-laden. The Internet has “inherent” values in it. Not necessarily democratic, but different than the phone or the television. None are “value-neutral tools”. That’s a very naive (and frivolous) view of technology.

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