New technology has become so closely associated with public engagement, both culturally and politically, that it has been heralded as a new democracy in and of itself. Undoubtedly we are in an era in which people have the freedom to access and create public information like never before, challenging traditional expertise and deference to authority: citizen journalists break stories, bands shoot to No 1 without A&R men from major labels, and presidential candidates connect with their electorate via YouTube.
But how revolutionary is new technology really? Often it is respected off-line institutions that seem to dominate the digital commons, even setting-up shop in Second Life. Add to that 10 Downing Street e-petitions, MPs’ blogs and the mainstream media flocking online, and is the internet not just coming to reflect the existing power structures of real life? Are multinational corporations and political parties simply using new technology for their own traditional ends?
Or are we truly witnessing the birth of the coffee shop of the 21st century – a new space for trading ideas and participating in public life? New technology has certainly opened the door for the majority, rather than the minority, to create and have their say and engage in political activism. Witness the instant mobilisation generated by Live8’s use of text-messaging, or Chinese activists’ ability to communicate beneath the radar of the authorities. But do the masses-on-the-mouse match up to the hyperbole about a UGC-led transformation of politics and culture? Are cultural theorists and political e-warriors correct in arguing that the web is indeed bringing about a new renaissance – even revolution? Or is the parallel universe of the web just that: a space which – despite all the ‘passionate users’ creating and communicating – has little impact on democracy, creativity or participation?
editor, spiked; columnist, Big Issue; contributor, Spectator
chief science officer, BT
co-director, Institute for the Future of the Book
programme manager, Councillor.info; co-founder, Poptel Technology; specialist in promoting web technologies to the labour movement
journalist; editor, CounterPunch; co-author, End Times: The Death of the Fourth Estate?
director, British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)
|Dr Shirley Dent communications specialist (currently working with the British Veterinary Association media team); editor, tlfw.co.uk; author, Radical Blake|
|Alex Hochuli communications consultant and analyst|
|Patrick Hayes director, British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)|
|Sarah Snider PhD student in sociology|