I am suspicious of any argument that technology will make us “better.” I am also suspicious of any argument that technology will make us worse. At most, we will do what we have always done, but slightly differently. This week’s topic about political engagement and how it has been affected by the internet is one where there are a lot of extreme statements made on both ends. Accessibility gets equated with democracy, and no one can quite agree about what “democratic” actually means. The first thing that came to mind on this topic for me are the dozens of online petitions I get sent every week.
It started with signing a petition on OpenMedia.ca, which is a site that is devoted protecting Canadians’ online privacy and creating more competition among service providers. They had a petition against a government spying bill, and I signed it; the bill was defeated, at least for now, so perhaps it did some good. They, without my consent though I kind of accepted it, shared my email with peers: SumOfUs, RootAction, DemandProgress, Avaaz… every day I save honey bees, political insurgents, whistleblowers and rainforests by signing my name and email in a box and clicking ‘sign’; actually, these sites know me well enough to fill my name in for me, so that’s even less effort.
I get a little thrill out of these gestures at fixing the world, but I never follow up on what they’ve caused, or do any research beyond reading their initial email pitch before signing. Is something so inactive in any way activism?
Jenkins and Thorburn, paraphrasing from a monograph by Raymond Williams: “Williams’s research suggests that the introduction of a new medium will engender debate about political culture but cannot by itself significantly alter the society in which it appears. Instead, the new medium generates an extended negotiation or contestation among competing forces-some emergent, some well-established; some encouraging change, others resisting it; some publicly visible, others operating covertly. The impact of new media, in Williams’s model, is evolutionary, not revolutionary. ”
Like Jenkins, Thorburn and Williams, I think that the internet has simply put a new frame on the way we interact with a political world that has become too large and impossibly complex for anyone to understand. We feel powerless to influence the world, but if given an easy, low-commitment apparatus to voice our opinion that the world should be better, we feel less guilty about not making it so. As if it could be.
Gibson notes, “A major problem for participation (and democracy generally) is the tendency for accountable political power to diminish within the formal political system under the onslaught of neoliberal versions of societal development, resulting in an expansion of unaccountable power in the private corporate sector” (29). If there is any consolation in this new, limp online activism it is that corporations tend to be more sensitive to being negatively perceived by their customers than governments, who need only care around election times; corporations have fewer legal constraints preventing them from doing harm to the world, but they need at least a veneer of public image. These petitions against corporations like JC Penny and Walmart, spread through social media and email, do battle with the corporate branding these companies spread through the same channels. If they muddy the waters a little for consumers, that is at least a slight way of imposing accountability on the corporations.
Jenkins, H. & D. Thorburn. Introduction: The Digital Revolution, the Informed Citizen, and the Culture of Democracy. in Jenkins, H. & D. Thorburn eds. (2003). Democracy and New Media. Cambridge MA: MIT Press. p1-17.
Dahlgren, P. (2012). Reinventing participation: civic agency and the web environment. Geopolitics, History, and International Relations. 4.2, p27.