An influential Thai newspaper, The Nation, ran this unique op-ed, reflecting on the fact that there are now at least 1billion internet users globally. Many of its more hopeful conclusions echo the thoughts I have been writing about in this blog for several months. The hope, for instance, that the Internet will increase democratic participation and that a medium so vast and decentralized must be a naturally democratic tool of free expression and assembly.
Importantly, however, the op-ed is quick to qualify by also stating some of the new problems which global internet usage represents: sexual exploitation, illegal downloads and the slow decline of traditional journalism. (Unfortunately, the article remains conspicuously silent about Thai internet censorship.)
I was thinking about these things this afternoon, particularly the much talked-about demise of journalism. And I began to think that perhaps the more connected we are — the more we produce and consume our own information — the less objective or restrained our national and international debate may ultimately become.
Whether it’s the Internet “echo chambers” (a phrase coined by, I believe, Cass Sunstein) of the partisan American blogosphere or the Israeli and Hamas factions which collided in cyberspace as well as on the ground, the Internet hold at least as much potential to produce the kind of brash and overamplified YouTube message box discourse as substantive discussion and reflection.
This felt quite disappointing, of course, and I might have given in to cynicism when I stumbled on this quotation:
But such things are the cost of this new form of democracy, a “truer” democracy in many people’s view. Opportunities provided by the Internet must simply be taken by all. New knowledge is being grabbed, exchanged, shared and spawning new knowledge. Ideologies are being tested, challenged and questioned, not by those who used to have the power to say “this is right” or “that is wrong”, but by common people searching for their own truths.
I think it sums up in just the right way how the Internet’s pitfalls (and they are real) may matter less in the end than the combinatorial testing of ideologies and beliefs which its cacophanous medium creates. There is and will be a lot of fruitless, narrow and ugly discussion online, but it will also be laid bare to a civil society whose boundaries now eclipse most national borders. Taboos will fall, but so will prejudice. In an open discussion, there is room for revision.