Policy Papers


The internet and democracy: an historical perspective

Andrew Blick |

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Executive Summary

  • The internet creates a wide range of challenges for policy makers internationally, with specific implications for the operation of the democratic system.
  • Public authorities such as the United Kingdom (UK) Parliament face significant dilemmas over how the internet might be rendered supportive of rather than detrimental to democracy. Historical evidence can help provide new perspectives for policymakers on this important debate.
  • The printing press is often portrayed as historically analogous to the internet. While the two technologies have some clear differences, they both made possible the wider and more rapid dissemination of information and ideas. Each is connected to dramatic political and social changes. But whether they were decisive factors, or whether the events with which they were associated could have happened anyway is difficult to establish with certainty. Both the printing press and the internet should be seen as operating in tandem with rather than immediately and fully supplanting communication technologies that preceded them. The way in which each was used changed over time.
  • The printing press facilitated wider public participation in politics. The internet too creates possibilities for activism, though the extent to and way in which these opportunities have been utilised are matters of debate. Both the printing press and the internet have been available not only to the wider public, enabling the creation of pressure from below, but to the political authorities, who might deploy them in their efforts to exert control.
  • Differences of opinion about the implications of the internet for democracy are longstanding. For some, particularly those associated with the so-called ‘counterculture’ of the 1960s, this technology acts as a vehicle for personal empowerment and for challenge to existing political structures. Others are more pessimistic about its possibilities. They might doubt its capacity to make a positive difference, or even fear it might facilitate authoritarian measures or dangerous populist movements.
  • The internet has changed significantly in its nature already, and can be expected to continue to do so. The precise effect of the internet on democracy is therefore changeable. It may – or may not – become more dramatic in future. However, its impact will be filtered through the wider environment within which it operates.
  • Certain values-based schools of thought continue to exert a powerful influence on perceptions of the internet. Policy makers should avoid reading into it any innate qualities, good or bad, and should focus instead on specific uses of the technology.

Introduction

The internet presents complex dilemmas to policy makers globally. For government, in the United Kingdom (UK) as elsewhere, there are challenges in fields including the economy and finance, industry and commerce, science and innovation, justice and law enforcement, and defence and security. There are deeper implications for the nature of polities and the way in which policy is formulated and delivered. The internet pertains to the nature of democracy itself, impacting upon the way in which people interact with official institutions, and with each other.

Policy makers at Westminster, in Whitehall and beyond have taken a pronounced interest in the democratic applications of the internet. Their goals include enhancing the legitimacy of their own institutions and actions, the stimulation of popular political engagement within their own jurisdictions, and the promotion of reforms in other countries. Examples of activity in some of these areas carried out in Westminster are provided by the Parliamentary Digital Service (PDS). The brief of PDS is ‘to bring together the public, Parliament Members, and Parliamentary staff to inform, engage, support, and communicate through one, unified digital core’. It manages the internal network that is integral to the day-to-day operations of Parliament; and facilitates interactions with the outside world. This external function includes maintaining a website, providing information about the work of the legislature, soliciting evidence from the public for parliamentary inquiries, and engaging through sharing and social media. The parliamentary authorities are committed to continued innovation in this field, a flavour of which can be found in the report of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy, Open Up!published in January 2015.

That policy makers, in the UK Parliament and elsewhere, hope to deploy the internet as a means of public engagement is beyond doubt. But discerning the correct approach in this area is a difficult task. Opinions differ regarding both how significant and how desirable are the democratic implications of the internet. For some it is an important and welcome tool for public empowerment and a means by which government might better take into account the needs and wishes of the people. For others the technology is unlikely to have this kind of impact, and may be potentially a dangerous vehicle for populist prejudice or a means by which those in positions of authority might more effectively assert oppressive control. Sceptics might also fear the potential for outside forces to interfere in democratic processes such as elections, and for the dissemination of false information masquerading as current affairs.

There are historical analogies and contexts available to help us understand these controversies This policy paper considers, first, the significance of the printing press as an analogy. Second, the paper discusses the development of particular perceptions of the political role of the internet and their implications. Finally it draws conclusions for policymakers hoping to formulate policy related to the internet that is supportive of democracy.

The printing press

Discussions of the contemporary significance of the internet often make reference to the printing press. The earlier device is frequently treated as an historic benchmark for transformative communications technology. While the period under consideration in this section predates the era of contemporary democracy, many of the issues raised, involving the relationship between the public and government nonetheless exhibit significant parallels.

How effective an analogy for the internet is the printing press? The most obvious similarity involves usage: the more rapid dissemination of information and ideas, often across territorial boundaries. In the case of printing, it was text and images; with the internet a wider range of content extending to audio and video, executable code, and vast datasets that would previously have occupied substantial physical space. But there are differences. The former technology is a means of reproducing hard copies of publications such as books, but not of circulating them. The internet on the other hand is a network upon which content can be published and shared in a range of forms. In this sense, a more precise analogy for the internet might be the interaction between the printing press and the means by which its output was circulated, such as the European postal system that became established by the early seventeenth century.

This observation reveals a critical point. A technology should not be considered in isolation. It has the potential to interact with prior, parallel and subsequent inventions. Johann Gutenberg introduced his system of printing to Europe in the in the mid-fifteenth century. While there were precursors in China, Korea and Japan, his achievement is credited as the simultaneous attainment of a combination of breakthroughs. Though groundbreaking, printing never fully supplanted earlier forms of communication. The use of speech and handwriting, for instance, continued. The idea of printing as an immediate, isolated and all-embracing change requires qualification. Instead, a blending of media occurred. For example, oratory could be reproduced in printed form; and printed material could be read aloud. Printing was part of a complex continuum; and was itself subject to development. Initially it was deployed to replicate texts that had previously been handwritten. Later, new formats such as pamphlets appeared. The potential of printing has unfolded over a prolonged period, continually changing and developing up to the present.

Despite its interactions with ‘old media’, printing acquired the reputation of being associated with dramatic developments. In 1620 Francis Bacon described printing as, alongside the compass and gunpowder, one of three inventions that had ‘changed the appearance and state of the whole world.’ What was the nature of this impact? One established narrative has been one of disruption; that printing facilitated the spread of ideas and the rise of subversive movements. (Such accounts are echoed by depictions of social media as playing a prominent role in events such as the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011.) Most notably, printing often figures in accounts of the remarkable impact made by Martin Luther from the time of his Ninety Five Theses of 1517 onwards. The technology is portrayed as enabling the dissemination of his views on a scale and at a pace that was unprecedented, and secured for Luther a personal status that protected him from detention and execution by the imperial authorities.

Printing was also connected to specific events in the British Isles. Pamphlets promoting radical ideas were prominent at key stages of the recurring constitutional, political and religious turmoil of the seventeenth century. Efforts to restrain them through prepublication censorship became controversial and were eventually abandoned late in the century under pressure from the House of Commons. Printing enabled the dissemination of texts of petitions that could be used to exert pressure for particular causes. It also facilitated the entry of previously marginalised individuals and groups into the political sphere.

A witness to and participant in the disruption of the seventeenth century was the poet Andrew Marvell. An associate of John Milton, Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax, he presented the view that a communications technology could be source of transformation. In a work first published anonymously in 1672 Marvell issued the mock lament: ‘O Printing! How hast thou disturb’d the Peace of Mankind! that Lead, when moulded into Bullets, is not so mortal as when founded into Letters!’ Further claims that might be made on behalf of printing include that it facilitated the emergence in eighteenth century Europe of a ‘public sphere’ – a realm of engagement and discourse distinct from governmental authority. Furthermore, printing has been seen as having contributed to the ferment of the revolutionary era in France and America in the late eighteenth century.

There is however a danger of overstatement, and a problem of discerning causality. Clearly printing was highly visible in events such as the outset of the Reformation. However, it is difficult to establish the exact substantive contribution of this communications technology, and – crucially – whether it was critical to the outcome. On the one hand, thinkers who were precursors to Luther, such as John Wycliffe and Jan Huss, did not have the benefit of the printing press as Luther did. Their inability to achieve the same rapid impact that he did could be explained by their lack of print’s advantages. On the other hand, forms of printing existed in places such as China long before it was introduced to Europe, without any similar turbulence occurring, suggesting limitations on printing’s capacity to transform.

There are also grounds for questioning the idea of printing as an inclusive technology that was supportive of wider engagement. While printing could facilitate new entrants into political discourse, it might also become a vehicle for their persecution. In England in the 1640s, women were among those who utilised the medium for political purposes. But they were also liable to be attacked in print for daring to assert themselves. Later on, participation in the European ‘public sphere’ tended to skew towards the male and the socio-economically privileged. Printing could be deployed for purposes that might be deemed socially irresponsible – and would be familiar to the observer of the internet today. Authors could hide behind anonymity, and might disseminate false information about current affairs.

Moreover, while printing might be deployed by agitators for change, it was also available to the authorities as an instrument of control. The Church initially greeted the invention as a means of ensuring textual consistency in copies of the Bible. Monarchs could use printing to promulgate more fully their edicts and propaganda. Furthermore, as some observers of seventeenth century England have noted, while censorship before publication was a demanding task and complete suppression of undesirable views was impossible, there is evidence that at times official control could be effective. Even after the expiration of the Licensing Act in 1695, governments had means of influencing the content of printed output through a variety of financial and legal inducements and penalties. Furthermore, printing could be used as an instrument of foreign policy, deployed by governmental forces to undermine enemy regimes. Depending on the perspective one took, such activities might entail the promotion of a just cause, or malicious interference.

Historians’ debates about the nature and extent of the political impact of printing remain live. But certain observations are helpful to today’s policy dilemmas. First, it is important to avoid reading any inherent qualities into printing technology, a point that Evgeny Morozov among others makes forcefully when considering the comparison with the internet. It is preferable instead to focus on the purposes for which it was deployed, which could vary according to the position and intentions of the user. Second, printing cannot be considered in isolation from its social, political and cultural setting, which could change over time, sometimes in response to the phenomenon of printing itself, but also in accordance with other forces. Third, though analytical caution is required, printing could make a substantial difference. It encouraged, for instance, transformations in the public role of the English Parliament. Printing facilitated wide publicity of parliamentary proceedings, despite long traditions of secrecy. Moreover, the technology was connected to the rise of public scrutiny of the actions of individual parliamentarians, another break with previous established practice. This invention had lasting and powerful consequences for the way in which the political system operated.

Conceptions of the internet

While previous inventions such as the printing press can provide analogies, the internet has a history of its own. Within it, there have been two broad, distinct cultural streams. Both have implications for the approach that policy-makers take towards it. A tradition of internet enthusiasm has a long lineage. There is a school of futurist optimism, in which humanity is regarded as able through its ingenuity to improve its condition. Long before the internet was conceived H.G. Wells promoted the idea of a 'World Brain' or 'World Encyclopedia' - a storage device, utilising inventions including microfilm, allowing a network of users to obtain access to the sum of human knowledge. Speaking in 1937 Wells optimistically predicted: ‘The time is close at hand when any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica’. He saw such a breakthrough as critical to the forging of a single international polity. For Wells, this project was the alternative to apocalyptic conflict, brought about by other technological advances, in weaponry.

Following soon after Wells, and a direct inspiration for developers of the internet, was the American engineer Vannevar Bush. In his influential 1945 essay ‘As We May Think’ he proposed a ‘memex’: ‘a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.’ Like Wells, Bush saw this advance as offering benefits to humanity, hoping that ‘man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems.’

The concept of technology as a potentially democratising source of individual empowerment was an important influence on the development and conceptualisation of the internet. A number of observers have noted that both ideas and people connected to the so-called ‘counterculture’ of the 1960s were prominent in the emergence of personal computing the following decade, with both developments having a centre in California. This continuity can be seen partly as a transposition of the rural commune movement that briefly flourished from the mid-1960s. Attention shifted from a physical space to a digital environment offering the potential of a boundless global collective, in which participants could discard established systems and hierarchies. One figure often depicted as embodying this transition is Stewart Brand. He appears in the opening passages of Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; and went on in his varied career to become a pioneering promoter of the countercultural version of computing. Another advocate of networked computing was John Perry Barlow. Previously a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, in 1996 Barlow issued – online, appropriately – a manifesto laden with revolutionary democratic imagery entitled ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.’

Such concepts have proved to possess a lasting attraction. Features of the countercultural utopianism are deployed today, regardless of whether the individuals using it are fully aware of their lineage. In his foreword to the report of his Commission on Digital Democracy in 2015, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, claimed: ‘Over the past 25 years we have lived through a revolution – created by the birth of the world wide web and the rapid development of digital technology. This digital revolution has disrupted old certainties and challenged representative democracy at its very heart.’ He went on: ‘With social media sources such as Twitter, blogs and 24/7 media, the citizen has more sources of information than ever before, yet citizens appear to operate at a considerable distance from their representatives and appear “disengaged” from democratic processes.’ Bercow, then, depicted the internet as of epochal importance, bringing with it individual empowerment and posing a challenge to the existing order. Yet his qualification hints at another tradition of internet history, more sceptical than that promoted by Barlow and others.

This other school too has deep roots. The short story The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster, for example, first appeared in 1909. It depicted a future in which humans live underground in physical isolation from one-another. The machine of the title is in part an audio-visual network through which people interact with one another, and a supply mechanism providing for all their material needs without their having to leave their homes. It is also the centre of an authoritarian system of government and the subject of quasi-religious worship. The dystopian view of communications technology exemplified by Forster, that it might be an instrument of oppression, or even the source of tyranny, has proved persistent, finding notable expressions in literature including 1984 by George Orwell.

This outlook has surfaced in some perceptions of computing. The US political activist Mario Savio became famous as instigator of the ‘free speech’ movement with his attack on ‘the machine’ made at Sproul Hall, Berkeley, in December 1964. Within this metaphor for an oppressively regimented society, computing took on negative connotations. In an interview given the following year Savio complained that as a student at the University of California ‘you’re little more than an IBM card’. Moreover, the scientific advances leading directly to the internet were driven by the requirements and financial support of the ‘military industrial complex’ that protestors found distasteful. The inauguration of this technology is conventionally traced to the activation of the Advance Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) in 1969, a project executed by a research branch of the US Department of Defense.

Differing narratives regarding the nature of the internet, therefore, have been available. It could be regarded as designed at the behest of the elite to serve its control purposes, thus undermining democratic processes and values. While from the 1970s the optimist strand was active in promoting the value of personal computing, leading to advocacy of the internet, dissenting views have been persistent. Concerns are often raised that it can be used as an instrument of intrusive governmental surveillance both in more democratic and more authoritarian societies. In some territories the internet is subject to close official supervision. The idea that the technology might be connected to a concentration rather than dispersal of power is extended to the private sector. Certain corporate players are seen as amassing wealth and influence at the expense of wider society. They are depicted as extracting, hoarding and exploiting personal information from their users; and managing to evade the normal legal and regulatory systems.

Some doubters use the historic linkage between the counterculture and internet advocacy as a basis for further criticism. They argue that, despite its intentions, the commune movement replicated and magnified existing social divisions and hierarchies, and that the internet has had the same effect. ‘Big data’ acquired through the internet can facilitate manipulation by those within and outside government who are able to obtain it, and even undermine the concept of individual free will. Internet skeptics also suggest that it promotes a dangerously unstable populism at the expense of representative democracy.

Conclusions

The analogy of the printing press, and the development of two differing schools regarding the nature of the internet, suggest that it will always be difficult to disentangle cause and effect. We cannot know with certainty whether given events would or would not have transpired, had a particular technology that was available not been in use. It is possible to speculate how Martin Luther might have fared without the printing press; and whether Donald Trump would have succeeded in capturing the US presidency without Twitter. While firm conclusions are difficult to reach, it seems likely that the particular way in which the internet operates will be shaped significantly by the environment within which it functions. Whether in mature democracies or less stable or authoritarian states, its consequences will be filtered through that pre-existing political and cultural framework, rather than simply overturning it. If the internet does make a difference, it may well be through intensifying existing tendencies, rather than creating new trends. With this pattern in mind, efforts at democracy promotion should use the internet as part of a holistic model, rather than as a single isolated tool. The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy captured this position well when it noted that the evidence it had received suggested ‘that digital is only part of the answer. It can help to make democratic processes easier for people to understand and take part in, but other barriers must also be addressed for digital to have a truly transformative effect.’

The internet as a technology has not supplanted all that came before it. Instead, it interacts with other modes of communication, including further inventions yet to come. Moreover, its applications have already developed and changed significantly, for instance with the rise of social media from the early twenty-first century. It is likely to evolve further innovative uses that cannot be predicted, and may have important consequences. Public policy should avoid the assumption of a static model. ‘Future proofing’ is almost by definition impossible.  Both the democratic challenges and problems that the internet seems to present may prove fleeting. In as far as the internet is a motivator of change, the best – or worst – may be yet to come. The tumult that some connect to the printing press took place over a period of centuries. It could be that the internet has passed through an accelerated development and does not have much more that is new to offer; but it might also be that we are presently in its very early stages. Some may welcome the prospect of deep disruption, but all should be aware that the direct experience of it, if it comes, is likely to be uncomfortable.

The internet is likely to continue to impact upon the institutions and practices of representative democracy, including the way in which they are perceived by the public. However, it should be noted that millennial pronouncements regarding the revolutionary consequences of information technology, including the internet, have a long pedigree. Notwithstanding apocalyptic predictions, in the UK at least, key features of the system – such as Parliament – remain intact, though it has altered practices in response to technological change, just as the English Parliament did following the rise of printing.

It is important to focus on the particular use to which the internet is being put in a given instance. Competing narratives about its democratic nature or otherwise, though important, can encourage us mistakenly to ascribe to a technology an innate quality that it lacks.

Finally, policy makers should be aware that, whatever choices they make, the internet is likely to arouse deep feelings, both positive and negative, involving the potential consequences of technology for democracy.

Further Reading


Abbate, Janet, Inventing the Internet (Massachusetts, 2000).

Edgerton, David, Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (London, 2008)

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L., The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (2 vols, Cambridge, 1979).

Johns, Adrian, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago, 2000).

Markoff, John, What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (London, 2005).

Morozov, Evgeny, To save everything, click here: technology, solutionism, and the urge to fix problems that don’t exist (London, 2013).

Peacey, Jason, Print and Public Politics in the English Revolution (Cambridge, 2013).

Raymond, Joad, Pamphlets and Pamphleteering in Early Modern Britain (Cambridge, 2006).

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