Daniel Innerarity: Politics in the era of Networks

Notes from the conference Politics in the era of Networks, by Daniel Innerarity, within the framework of the Sessions Web conference series, organized by Centre d’Estudis Jurídics i Formació Especialitzada, in Barcelona, Spain, 25 January 2012.

Politics in the era of Networks
Daniel Innerarity, lecturer in philosophy at the Universidad de Zaragoza, researcher at Ikerbasque and director at the Democratic Governance Institute.

A democratic tension

When we speak about politics and social networking sites, we’re used to speak about David vs. Goliath: common people fighting against the powerful.

For the first time in many years, we are not facing a strong political power, but a weak political power. A political power disconcerted by the markets, globalization, a smart society. But, is that society that smart? Is it true that the digital revolution has had an impact on politics (and political parties and governments) and not on common people? Why should be common people be spared from that impact?

It is only natural that the political system and what happens out of it (unions, nonprofits, civil associations, etc.) advance in parallel and, in their confrontation, consensus and solutions emerge. This means that it is interaction what makes society advance, and not that it is society that is right despite the opposition of the political system.

Indeed, we do need an articulated civil society, as articulated as political parties and governments. Not a chaotic or disorganized one. Only an organized civic society can face a disorganized, weak political power. But there is a deep difficulty to articulate a general purpose strategy, especially when populisms leverage the fact that no-one seems to be accountable for their decisions.

The utopia of dis-intermediation

We are witnessing times were intermediation is toughly fought against: there seem to be no need for politicians, journalists, teachers, distributing industries, etc.

While there may be a positive side of dis-intermediation (lesser costs, a more straightforward access, increased availability of knowledge, etc.) there is also a dark side of it. The expert becomes a contested institution while the cult of the amateur becomes the norm.

The huge challenge is how to rebuild new mediators, more flexible, more participative, and not getting rid of them. Democracy is about commitment and engagement, and oftentimes this can only be achieved through representation.

Ballot boxes and dreams

A mature democracy is not about setting highest ideals, but about identifying what is the second best and being able to tell whether it is acceptable. If the second best is too far from ideals, society won’t progress; if the second best is too close to ideals, fanaticism takes place.

Our society is deeply de-politicized: not only technocrats are taking the power, but “tea parties” are stepping in the centre of the political debate. Those are parties or groups of people, without second best options, and that fight within the party for it not to agree with anything with the “enemy”. This breaks party-to-party and party-to-society communication. In many senses, the hardcore of the political blogsphere is made of “tea parties”, extremist partisans that radicalise the debate.

Paradoxes of democratic self-determination

Echo chambers (Sunstein) and the Daily Me (Negroponte) have been side effects of democratic self-determination, with the result that the quality of democracy is impoverished. People that thinks different from us protects us from insanity and fanaticism.

We certainly need to keep a certain distance from reality to see other opinions. And representation is just about this, about seeing the whole picture.

Untangling an illusion

The Internet implies a high degree of empowerment for the citizenry. And, historically, every new technology has come along with a utopia: technology will bring a social change or revolution. But, will it?

There is a common believe that a new technology appears in the void, in no social or economic context. But it does. And that is why the same (new) technology has different effects in different places, or “unexpected” or “undesired” changes instead of what we dreamt of.

There is a common believe that social media decentralizes and democratizes power. But the nature of power is not so: there are gatekeepers and mediators in the Internet. The Internet does not removes the relationships of power, but transforms them. E.g. in the top 40 political blogs in the US, there is also one woman, two hispanics, and no afroamericans. The top 40 political blogs in the US are made up by WASPs… as US politics.

Censorship, for instance, is not any more about governments censoring, but about crowds doing it willingly. Search engines are not really neutral, as they redirect traffic, etc.

We have to acknowledge that democracy is about design: social and power hierarchies have their mirror in the online world. Imperialism is not anymore about culture, but about protocols: we are living the imperialism of protocols.

There is a common believe that criticising (or demanding accountability) and building is the same thing, and it is not. Democracy is not only about winning elections, but about governing; or about reporting injustices, but about coming up with a better social design to avoid/correct them.

Digital revolutions have been more focused on accountability and reporting than on building.

The Internet is based on easiness and trust, and that is, precisely, its weakest point.

Discussion

Q: is it possible that the Internet stops us from a critical thinking? Innerarity: It depends. We sometimes need some things to just happen, without us having to think about how their work; but we sometimes need to stop and think. What we are in need of is to be able to turn the switch on or off, so that we are able to stop and think about a given aspect, and without, in the meantime, being dragged around because of the speed of times. Politics has lost its ability to set up, to propose: it’s reactive and not propositive, thinks short term instead of long term.

Q: are we confusing mobilization with engagement? Innerarity: organization is fundamental to perform deep and lasting changes. What organization? Whatever, but organization.

Q: has the Internet been able to engage more participants in politics? Innerarity: the network has sometimes provided an illusory activism, where the activist believes that they are having a deep impact and the truth they are having not.

Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí: so, the Internet is a menace for politicians and they should fight against it? Innerarity: it definitely is not, the Internet can help in doing better politics. The problem with politics and the Internet is usually on the politicians’ side.

Ismael Peña-López: what will be easier: to transform the actual institutions (parliaments, parties, schools and universities, etc.) or to substitute the with brand new ones? Innerarity: renewal is a must, that is out of question. Or parliaments become spaces for reflection, or they will legislate about the past, about past problems. But we’d rather update the institutions we have than try and substitute them with new ones: the cost might be higher and no one says traditional institutions could not be transformed.

More information

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2012) “Daniel Innerarity: Politics in the era of Networks” In ICTlogy, #100, January 2012. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from http://ictlogy.net/review/?p=3889

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