Kicking a Nonexisting Dead Horse: Picking apart Cyber-democracy

Cyber-democracy (like other political terms built from the prefix cyber) is neither. Consider Egypt.

Modern communication technologies certainly made protestors more visible than they would otherwise have been, which had some effect on their impact on international public opinion, but it’s far from clear than international public opinion had much or anything to do with actual political developments in Egypt.

The main political actor in Egypt was and still is the military, their main international engagement is with the US military, and the effect of international, or even American, public opinion on the US military is slight at best. Smartphones made the Egyptian protestors a more engaging spectacle for observers abroad, but not a more effective political force. Even a shallow analysis of Egyptian politics will show that the military was spurred not by the protests, but by Mubarak’s dynastic succession plans (or, more precisely, the civilian nature of his dynastic succession plans). The protests provided an internationally palatable excuse to displace a now-problematic President, but an excuse is not a cause.

Considering, as we should, politics in terms of actual power — although not necessarily force — information technologies have affected the balance of power basically through allowing the rise of larger, more profitable, and more effective private enterprises, which in turn has increased their impact on policy, particularly in areas, like global finance, where private actors are able to integrate and apply information orders of magnitude faster than their government counterparts. Private actors, certainly, but not private citizens, or at most a vanishingly small group of them.

For most of the citizenship, even in highly developed countries, access to information technology has not translated into any increased amount of political power. Information technology might have added another tool for communicating with voters and donors, but group cohesion and highly leveraged lobbying are still far more effective affecting policy than anything done online. (And, no, Wikileaks is no counterexample; their actual political influence has been diffuse and small, whereas good old campaign donations and disciplined, uncritical blocks of voters are able to set policy in specific ways.)

The concept of cyber-democracy is tempting, partly because there’s an explicit expectation of information processing capabilities making smarter policies possibly, and partly because there’s an implicit expectation of potentially turning pure technical expertise into political influence, a model that naturally appeals to those who possess the former but not the latter. So far, though, that hasn’t been the case. It’s probably time to reconsider our assumptions about what information technology can do in the political realm, or at least how we’re using it.

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