Musing about the internet and politics

When I spent time studying change management, two aspects of the process intrigued me.

One, there was a lot of talk about “sustaining” the change of the S-curve, making sure that it didn’t decay back into the original position over time. And consultants earned a lot of money advising people how to make the change sustainable.

Two, there was growing evidence that there was a need for people who dealt with the “toxins” that emerged when “systems” (of people, processes, technology and culture) were put under the severe stress of radical change. And, as with most things consultant, a vogue phrase was created for the person who did this: the toxic handler.

Now that dates me, I’m probably using jargon that is at least 20 years old, but then that was the time I learnt about change management. But anyway.

I’m fascinated by the possibility that the internet will really start impacting people’s lives from a governmental perspective, that democracy will finally become participative. Tools alone can’t make this happen, neither can sympathetic regulation. As we found out in the world of finance, wanting individual share ownership to increase may be a laudable aim; yet, if you look at the UK, it would appear that private individual shareholdings actually declined over the last 40 years despite regulation and technology.

Why am I so fascinated by this possibility of internet-enabled democracy? I think part of the answer is because it would sound the death-knell of party politics, and I am not a big fan of party politics. I detest false polarisations, yet I am surrounded by them. And party politics tends to drive people towards these polarisations.

That’s why I was so interested in what Ivo Gormley was doing, why I was keen on supporting Us Now. It is important to discuss the art of the possible in the context of democracy and the internet, and to know what won’t work and why.

Anyway, with all this as background, I was on the lookout for detailed analysis of the Obama campaign from a post-event perspective. Was the campaign the beginning of something, or the end? Were we going to see a less apathetic, more engaged, voter population as Obama enters his presidency? Would the voters expect more from Obama as a result of the engagement they’d already had, and if so what? Would the internet continue to be centre stage amongst Obama volunteers? What would all this mean?

So I was delighted to see this piece of research from Pew Internet: Post-Election Voter Engagement. Here’s the summary:

Voters expect that the level of public engagement they experienced with Barack Obama during the campaign, much of it occurring online, will continue into the early period of his new administration. A majority of Obama voters expect to carry on efforts to support his policies and try to persuade others to back his initiatives in the coming year; a substantial number expect to hear directly from Obama and his team; and a notable cohort say they have followed the transition online.

I think all three of the findings above bode well for the future. One, that the level of engagement, particularly online engagement, will continue into the presidency itself. This is a good thing, a simple leading indicator of the sustainability of the change taking place. Two, that the voters expect to continue to engage directly with Obama. Again a good thing, shows that the democratisation taking place is not transient, has a chance of becoming permanent. And three, that the transition itself is being followed online; the internet will continue to be centre stage.

The signs of sustainability of change are good. Which only leaves me wondering about the toxins that will emerge (there is no doubt about their existence, just about their timing) and where the toxic handlers are going to be found.

In the meantime, I am encouraged. Thank you Pew Internet.

9 thoughts on “Musing about the internet and politics”

  1. JP,

    You should probably take a look at the work by the Oxford Internet Institute (http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/) in this area. Dr Victoria Nash gave a very interesting presentation at the recent Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford Networking Masterclass. She covered a number of internet facilitated citizen engagement models. If I recall correctly (and here’s where I wish I had a copy of the presentation, or took better notes) her position was that the present evidence gave little support for levelling of traditional influence structures, or greater citizen participation in policy formulation, but that the internet was proving to be a significant tool in the use of democracy as a means of removing bad government.

  2. John, Chris, thanks for your comments. I can see how the internet could become a brake on bad government, but I think people are still underestimating how useful it is in good government. People who believe in its possibilities are often classed as Utopian, which seems somewhat unfair.

    I think the democratisation of funding, the potential breakdown of party-organised politics (as opposed to values-driven) and the subsequent weakening of lobbying systems with their inherent corruption, all of this will yield a better political landscape, better government. For one thing the cost of public administration will drop, an appalling level in most countries today.

  3. JP,
    your enthusiasm is refreshing but on this topic my fears are high.
    Obviously the “fluid” Internet makes life simpler for citizens’ teams to work together.
    However:
    1- “direct democracy” just does not scale up. The systems needs a layer or two of representatives.
    2- worse: the Internet just transfers some power to a new intellectual elite (that you are a member of) but there still are many leftovers and people who will:
    a) more easily be fooled by manipulated information on the Net that they currently are by Fox news
    b) just switch from watching TV ads to reading Internet ads

    The real issue in my view is not the medium, it is education in order to:
    1- get people to write well (essential to their participation in the global democracy)
    2- get people to be interested in the life of the city

  4. benoit, nice to see you here. as you say education is key. I agree with you on layering/aggregating, but tend to feel (a) one layer is enough and (b) it must be “local”; there will be some future evolution of what we used to call city-states

    as far as the rest of your points are concerned, there are three answers. education education education

  5. tim, thanks for the link, very interesting. one of my biggest fears about what’s happening since the credit crunch is that private sector jobs are disappearing and reappearing, with some time delay, as public sector jobs. administrative costs are moving from unacceptable to insane.

Let me know what you think