Thursday, February 04, 2010

Technology Subverts Democracy? Um, no.

Free speech and the First Amendment are the focus of a lot of controversy lately. First came the Supreme Court's decision two weeks ago that political spending by corporations leading up to elections is indeed a type of free speech that the government could not regulate. Then, in a story far less consequential but nevertheless gaining lots of attention, the popular blog Engadget turned off comments, raising heated debate in the blogosphere about whether anonymous speech is a more positive or negative thing in open debates.

If free speech is indeed coming under renewed scrutiny, Robert Wright of the New York Times has the answer as to why. In a mind-blowing opinion piece, Wright argues that technology, and the internet in particular, is the culprit for Washington's inability to get things done.

It’s no exaggeration to say that technology has subverted the original idea of America. The founders explicitly rejected direct democracy — in which citizens vote on every issue — in favor of representative democracy. The idea was that legislators would convene at a safe remove from voters and, thus insulated from the din of narrow interests and widespread but ephemeral passions, do what was in the long-term interest of their constituents and of the nation. Now information technology has stripped away the insulation that physical distance provided back when information couldn’t travel faster than a horse.

His chief complaint: the internet is "lowering the cost of mobilizing far-flung groups of people who share a political interest".

And, yes, Wright considers this a bad thing.

Call me crazy, but wasn't political participation supposed to be encouraged in a democracy? Wasn't an engaged populace, as opposed to an apathetic one, healthy for civic society?

Wright's reasoning suggests that democracy would function better if people just voted every few years and then shut up. As for citizens expressing their voices... it's a problematic obstacle. And as for technology and innovation... clearly, it is, of all things, the culprit responsible for the downfall of America.

Now I'm reasonable enough to understand that his real beef is with interest groups and their lobbying power in Washington. He should feel free to argue with Alexander Hamilton on that one. However, calling out technology as the scapegoat for our leaders' lack of political will and all else that's wrong with our democratic system? Really?

Only with that kind of logic could Wright possibly want to harken back to the glory days when we "couldn't travel faster than a horse". As for me, I'll take more political speech and civic engagement, not less, and I'll keep my internet access too, thank you very much.


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