I’m recovering from a bout of food poisoning (my completely inexplicable liking of scotch eggs getting the better of me) so I’m not on top form. But here’s a few initial thoughts of my own on what I highlighted in my last post, which has received some ire from people like Jeff Jarvis.
There is a big confusion between how the Internet is changing political participation in developed countries like the United States, and less developed ones like Laos. In the US, organisations like MoveOn are able to bring together individuals on both local and national levels together – with so many technically literate people, and so many having easy Internet access in their homes then it’s easy to co-ordinate large-scale and movements with the Internet – the shining example of the Howard Dean campaign, where like-minded people in the same town could meet up and join forces, is held up by those who are convinced it’s the future.
The folly of both the author of the article (Joshua Kurlantzick), and many of the knee-jerk responses to it, is that this model is the one to be used in developing countries. Kurlantzick thinks “its the only method and so is doomed to fail”, his detractors that “it worked for us, so why not others?”
But people, and the Internet can adapt to different circumstances. Kurlantzick rightly points out the relative scarcity of Internet connections in developing countries, and how people cannot crowd around a computer in a net cafe and hold local discussion groups, so the Internet doesn’t help much in producing a local political focal point. It is unable to reach through to hundreds of thousands of people, but that doesn’t prevent a few who are able to get online to co-ordinate on a national level, or much more importantly, the international level.
The Internet offers people the chance to make others abroad aware of your plight, to help you co-ordinate with campaign organisations in other countries to lobby their own governments in support for your cause, and they in return can give you advice and support. The political education and inspiration obtainable over the Internet is far more useful and relevant than relying on what is produced broadcast media, if less accessible. And as much as regimes would like to restrict content on the Internet, I think the pervasiveness of information makes it too difficult for governments to totally surpress everything.
The Internet is not a panacea for bringing democracy to all (Jarvis’ closing line of “In this century, the Internet means freedom” is a terrible false soundbite). To mobilise democratic movements in developing countries requires leadership and organisation at local as well as national levels. You need the effort and the bravery to form unions and parties, hand out leaflets, organise demonstrations. The Internet can’t do that. But it can certainly educate and inspire the few, who can in turn help educate and inspire the many.