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The Internet: new architecture of democracy or just flashy websites?

By Martin Stewart-Weeks - posted Thursday, 25 March 2004

The recent OLO piece by Greg Barns and Lance Knobel was both timely and important. Following Howard Dean’s spectacular political self-immolation, there is a tendency to discount the significance of his campaign’s Internet-enabled architecture.

As Barns and Knobel suggest, that would be unfortunate. It would also be misguided, leaving the radical transformation of which this technology is capable dangerously undervalued and less studied than it needs to be.

Despite his stumble, just when the campaign needed to turn its energy into purposive and practical political impact, Dean’s experiment leaves us with an enticing legacy. Its impact will be felt in three distinct dimensions.


One is operational. What Dean and his marauding band of pioneers have proved is the power of the Internet to enable the logistics and linkages of the campaign process like nothing else. From the ferocious success of the online fundraising campaign to new ways of campaign communication and networking, Dean’s embrace of the Internet was sweeping. Here, in stark and daily practice, were being demonstrated all the things we know the Internet can do. In particular, it linked people in ways that make it easier, more convenient and ultimately more effective for them to be engaged and involved and created new communities of interest, commitment and practice among groups of people who would simply never have been able to get together, much less work together, without this new architecture of connection.

The second dimension is motivational. It may be that it is indeed too early to tell the real impact of the Internet in this domain but all of the immediate evidence points to new levels of motivation for people to get involved. And it seems also to be true that those new levels of motivation were significantly fed by the two characteristics on which the power and potential of the Internet is fashioned – interactivity and networking. All of a sudden, it was a relatively simple and convenient proposition to get involved in the conversation. What’s more, it was a conversation that was not being cynically manipulated and controlled and to whose outcomes those involved felt they had a genuine opportunity to influence. That turned out, not surprisingly, to be quite motivating. The Internet provided the architecture of engagement, an enabling platform whose underlying logic (interactive and networked) itself then became an irresistible force for much broader shifts in campaign style and ethics. Strategy, structure and technology happily locked themselves into a tight virtuous circle of motivation, resources and results that kept spiralling up towards new heights of democratic participation.

The third dimension of the Dean legacy is structural. This is the one that carries within it the seeds of genuine transformation. It speaks to the heart of the current obsession, in political campaigns and in the wider endeavour of policy making, with spin and control. Contemporary politics and the work of the wider public sphere are often a dispiriting concoction of top-down and increasingly obsessive control and the cynical window-dressing manipulation of "consultation" and "participation".

The reason people evince such a distaste for, and sometime outright hostility towards, the political process is because it seems clear to them that getting involved is not worthwhile and doesn’t make any difference. The uber-controllers and spinmeisters happily take as further evidence that nobody cares. People don’t have the time or inclination to get involved anyway and are just looking for someone to get on with the job.

What Dean and the Internet experiment he fronted suggest is another way. It does mean less central control (although let’s not get too carried away with the notion that it means none at all). It means creating and then sustaining a network of activity and engagement, the motivating energy and direction for which will come from those in the network, not from a central "brain" that seeks to co-opt the network to the "line of the day". And that means trust, much more communication up, down and across the network and, crucially, the recognition that it now matters as much to connect people to people laterally as it does to connect people to campaign HQ vertically.

In these three dimensions lie the makings of a genuine revolution. In the last of them, especially, crouches the possibility of a dramatic renewal in the rules and conduct of the political game, whose implications are dramatic (and dire for at least some of the interests who feel relaxed and comfortable with the status quo). Here, as with all of the other domains in which its has worked its quiet and steady magic, the Internet will unlock forces for reform and maybe even transformation that won’t be denied and can’t be dismantled. The truth is that, like the experience in e-commerce or e-government, this is technology whose sustained impact bites as it becomes invisible. Strip away the hype, strip away the oratorical fluff and nonsense, and you start to discern the distinct and gritty outline of a quiet, irresistible revolution.


In the Australian context, Mark Latham in this as in many other dimensions is one of the few politicians to see and understand what is happening. His startling surge since December was predictable, given his assiduous analysis of the landscape of political disaffection and civic disengagement (among a lot of other things he got right when it came time to call the real issues animating the life and anxieties of the Australian community). Expectations now are high that he will usher in an era characterised by the very engagement and democratic renewal that sparked the Dean phenomenon.

Two final observations, if only to avoid the accusation of hype and techno-populist babble rightly leveled at some of the more furious exaggerations of the Internet revolution. The first is that the radical opportunity for new forms of engagement and participation unearthed by Dean’s remarkable venture does not deny the reality that political campaigning and prosecuting effective public policy requires direction, structure and leadership.

It’s not that the centre is either not important or even not necessary, it's just that it needs to do a very different job, and do it in very different ways, if it is to harness this new motive force.

And the second observation is a statement of the bleeding obvious. As Barns and Knobel reminded us, Dean lost. His crash reminds us that technology is not the point. Cool and groovy websites and wonderful ideas like MeetUp.Com don’t win or lose campaigns. Neither do they, on their own, guarantee good public policy or great political outcomes.

But what this wonderful and embracing technology does offer, here at the very heart of the democratic conversation whose outcome means such a lot to all of us, a new potential for engagement, for deliberation.

We should be willing to confront the possibility that this technology, used well and wisely, is likely to fuel a democratic renewal which is going to be less spectacular than some early prophets were predicting but much more ultimately radical and fundamental than its more cynical opponents are hoping.

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About the Author

Martin Stewart-Weeks lives in Sydney. Previously, Martin held positions with the Liberal Party of Australia, the NSW Cabinet Office and was Chief of Staff to a Minister in the Fraser Government.

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