Are you the Person of the Year?
Time's claim that we web surfers have 'changed the world' shows how low our aspirations for change have sunk.
Are you the Person of the Year? You are according to Time magazine, which after 79 years of selecting who or what has most influenced events in the preceding year has this time chosen… everybody in the world. You should be flattered. Previous incumbents include Gandhi, Hitler, Churchill and JF Kennedy as well as a Hungarian freedom fighter and American soldiers.
What have you done to deserve this great honour? Apparently you are part of a ‘revolution’, in which ‘the many’ are ‘wresting power from the few’ to ‘not only change the world, but also change the way the world works’. So what have you done? According to Time you have used the internet to make a movie starring your pet iguana, mashed up 50 Cents’s vocals with Queen’s music and blogged about your state of mind.
I suppose it’s the fate of every new technology to be over-hyped in its early stages. It is only six years since the internet was supposed to create a new economic paradigm, just before the dotcom collapse nearly took the old paradigm down with it. However, the claims for the latest technologies to be revolutionary tell us little about the technology and a lot about the state of the world.
The various new web tools which enable such things as blogging, uploading film clips or mixing up the contents of different websites (mash-ups) are lumped together under the title Web 2.0. It is even a stretch to say these are new technologies as such, as they are based on small developments on what has gone before rather than being groundbreaking.
However it is the mass take-up of these new tools that Time and a lot of others are getting excited about. There is something in this. For the first time all of the citizens of the world are enabled to communicate directly with each other by word, voice or sight (at least if they have access to broadband and a computer of some sort). This does represent a genuine step forward in global communications. But the question then has to be asked, so what? Time’s claim that this is a revolution which will change the world (it is not clear if the revolution has already happened or not by the way) shows just how low aspirations for change have become.
What is missing in all of this is the quality of the content of all this communication and what can be achieved through it. The Web 2.0 hype focuses on one aspect of democracy, free speech, to the exclusion of other important elements. It is excited about User Generated Content but not the content of the content.
Democracy as a political system is important because it creates the potential to draw the mass of the population into political life – the assumption being that once this has happened, then it is more likely that political life will reflect the aspirations of the population. How does it do this? At its most basic level it allows for popular elections of candidates who reflect the wishes of society. Very occasionally, democracy can be more direct and involve sections of society running things for themselves. What democracy does not do is to guarantee change, or even that things will not get worse. That is because while democracy is preferable to more autocratic forms of government, it is the ideas that are put into practice through democracy which really count.
Time also claims that leadership in the sense that Thomas Carlyle described it as ‘the biography of great men’ has been undermined by Web 2.0. While it is always possible to overemphasise the roles of individuals in history, the claim that ‘you’ or ‘me’ are as influential as Hitler or Churchill in shaping events is fanciful. Individual leaders come to the fore as the most dynamic exemplars of the movements or governments they lead. They are the ones that people expect to lead them towards whichever goals they wish to achieve. Of course, leaders need followers. It is the energy, commitment and conviction of the followers which make things happen, not the leaders. The absence of great leaders today is not a step forward for democracy but a reflection of the weakness of political life.
The point is that today’s bloggers are entirely the opposite of past generations of activists and democrats. They are, by definition, sedentary rather than active, individualised rather then collective, and intellectually disparate rather than united.
Where is the evidence that this supposed revolution is changing the world? Have poverty and disease been abolished? Is the political world more enlightened or the economy more dynamic as a result?
If writing to each other defines participation in the democratic process, telling the world your private thoughts makes up a revolution, and filming your iguana is an act of global leadership, then we can expect little improvement in the real world.
Rob Killick is CEO of the digital agency cScape.
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