To begin with it is important to recognise digital technology as a political phenomenon. It has long outgrown its character of being just a business governed by the rules and norms of marketplace.
A steady push towards the creation of digital republic of sorts with the same checks and balances as in Democracy can go a long way in mitigate its ill effects. Constraints such as system certification, avenues of appeal against important algorithm determinations, and oversight for high-risk products and platforms are to be in place along with impartial institutions that check the sway of organised special interest and filter ill-informed popular sentiments.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,” wrote Charles Dickens in his seminal work The Tale of Two Cities. The story set in one of the most tumultuous periods of European history is a subtle study of the contrast and contradiction that make up human life. The enduring strength of these words lay in their ability to transcendence time and mold themselves as powerful commentary for any age or political discourse.
The Tale of Two Cities was the age of the French Revolution. It was a time of profound change… of perennial chaos. A churning of emotions …of endless ambiguity. Out of this confusion and incertitude emerged a new social order. An order built on the bedrock of ““Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”. Blood was shed, ideas debated and conventions redefined. A renaissance of thought occurred which located divinity not in some Monarch or a King, but on each individual and their aspiration.
Democracy was reborn, where the say of the people became the say of the divine. Rome was not built in a day, nor was democracy. From a crude beginning, it evolved, bit by bit, assimilating ideas, discarding decadent values, experimenting with institutions and rebuilding structures. A journey of infinite trial and error traversed. The systems that emerged was varied in its appeal and scope, but its core principle as an institution that expressed the will of the people remained intact.
Each building block that makes Democracy, like the separation of power, the system of checks and balance, universal franchise, an independent judiciary, freedom of expression and speech, etc., have evolved in time through a historical process that was not always painless. People had to suffer and at times lay down their lives for those principles to triumph. And it was on those blood-smeared bodies, that a rejuvenated thought emerged and the democratic institutions took shape. In the present age, democracy, with all its glaring defects, is the best hope for humanity. Its resilience and adaptability have proven its utility beyond other systems or ideas of governance.
So in a way, it is imperative that Democracy should be safeguarded and conditions created so that it can thrive and evolve. The concept of Sovereignty is central to the study of politics. In popular democracies, it is said that Sovereignty resides with the people. Rousseau refers to it as the general will. He writes “ The law is the expression of the general will. All citizens have the right to contribute personally, or through their representatives, to its formation….”
This will of the people is expressed through the medium of public opinion. The opinion of the collective masses, as opposed to individualistic attitudes. The ruling authority derives its legitimacy from the strength of public opinion. In an alternate discourse political thinkers Adam Smith and David Hume, go to the extent of disinvesting, the theory of state, from having anything to do with Sovereignty. For them opinion, was the central notion that makes sense why subjects obeyed their government. They write “Lying behind the government there is no final, philosophically identifiable, and stable foundation of sovereign authority but only the constant and contested changing swirl of opinion”
This swirl of opinion is thus fundamental to the health of a functioning Democracy. Public opinion is the aggregate of individual views that represent the feeling of people on an issue at a given point in time. In Democracy public opinion is the core principle of political participation. But where do people's opinions come from? Political commentator Walter Lippmann writes “We see how indirectly we know the environment in which we live” In other words, we acquire most of our information second-hand. There are a myriad of external forces that influence our opinion.
Family, friends, peer groups, religious gatherings, etc., are important agents of political socialisation. But perhaps the most influential of all is the Media: television, newspapers, books etc. Often called the fourth pillar of democracy, media acts as an intermediary between the government and the people. They affirm the attitudes among masses and force them to act. For long they had been the gatekeepers of the democratic tradition by being the sole channel through which information flowed.
But the advent of social media had brought about a sea of change. It has created a vortex, where the right and the wrong, black and white, biases and unbiasedness, prejudice and objectivity, information and disinformation, have blended into one another, blurring the lines and creating a disguised order into which we all are hopelessly drawn. It has become the same world that Charles Dickens had described…the best of times, the worst of times…. the age of wisdom, the age of foolishness.
“Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy” declared Elon Mask. This observation is limited to the extent that it gives primacy to “autonomy of an atomised individual”. But democracy fundamentally is about how individuals relate to each other in a community through the institutions of self-government. And when there is interpersonal relationship there is ethics.
Philosopher Onora O’Neill argues, the truth content and verified trustworthiness of information and sources are equally important in the ethics of communication as freedom to speak. In similar vein another philosopher Byung-Chul Han expresses concern as to how peer to peer social media is deleterious to democracy. He says “Information is spread without forming a public sphere…It is produced in private spaces and distributed to private spaces…The web doesn't create public but only intensifies …communication without community”. In the end what we see is an arms race of ploys and counter ploys in which the whole notion of objectivity is the casualty in the battle of truths. The concept of the general will be eroded and public opinion becomes fractured.
So, what then is the solution? To begin with it is important to recognise digitaltechnology as a political phenomenon. It has long outgrown its character of being just a business governed by the rules and norms of marketplace. A steady push towards the creation of digital republic of sorts with the same checks and balances as in Democracy can go a long way in mitigate its ill effects. Constraints such as system certification, avenues of appeal against important algorithm determinations, and oversight for high-risk products and platforms are to be in place along with impartial institutions that check the sway of organised special interest and filter ill-informed popular sentiments.
One cannot expect the Musk’s and Zukerberg’s of meta space, to alight themselves to this cause. They would have to be compelled and in democracy the best way to do so was through a strong and powerful public opinion or else humanity stands to lose its greatest institution of governance. The saying, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” still rings true.
By Emon Nc.