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The social impact of the web – talk at RSA

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Last Thursday I got up unusually early for my now permanently jet-lagged body and mind to go to an event at the Royal Society of Arts called The Social Impact of the Web on society, government and politics. The main worthy was George Osborne, MP who talked about open source politics. I will blog my opinions on his speech* later but most people present were gushing about it. I wasn’t that enthusiastic but that’s only to be expected with my Samizdata credentials. :)

The Royal Society of ArtsThe Royal Society of Arts

RSA entranceThe social impact of the web

It was good to see familiar faces, Mick Fealty and Ewan McIntosh on the stage and Lloyd Davis, Suw Charman and Guido Fawkes in the audience. Guido as always puts his boot in:


By comparison, my talk was positively tame. I decided to sum up the impact of the web in three levels, touching on democracy, authority, the individual, technology.

Much has been made out of the ‘democratic nature of the web’. Democracy has two meanings – open access and in that sense the web is democratic as anyone can access, publish and distribute information on the web. Then there is democracy as the rule of majority and this is where it does not apply to the web. What I do on the web is not ‘democratic’ in a sense that it is dictated by the majority. Nobody tells me what to put on my blog, there is no vote with results imposed on me.
First level of impact is the individual. We have heard about the power of the individual to do this or that online, all true. Individuals often have more control over the online environment than off-line. Paradoxically, many commentators bemoan the fact that people online are self-obsessed, they talk about the echo chamber. At the same time, they also complain about the lack of awareness, sophistication and professionalism of online interactions. Both may be (and are) true but this points to something else that is going on – people are learning something. They are learning self-determination and unlearning decades of one-way communication and mass broadcasting. The ability to express and respond to things on their own terms and their own way is what this is about. And in some senses, autonomy is a more meaningful definition of freedom as it entail my freedom to do many things essential to my identity.

The second level is what is happening to authority and institutions. Authority based on information asymmetry is shifting as information is freely accessible. I could talk for hours on the meaning of authority in distributed networks and emergence of credibility and reputation but to tie it back to politics – parties are like TV channels. If the party politics doesn’t offer me a forum for debate, the web is more than a viable alternative. On the web I can easily bypass someone else’s platform and debate on my own terms. When we blog on, we do it with the explicit intention to write about things in a way that we don’t find anywhere in MSM. So to address George Osborne’s invitation – why would we want to ‘rejoin’ a political debate in somebody else’s controlled space..?
Technology has been mentioned today, in the context of the web it has shown how to line up resources behind individuals not just institutions.

The web has made mockery of mass communication that is vainly groping for a better form of communication using terms like personalisation. The bottom-line, as they say, is that an institution cannot communicate with individuals as a collective entity. It must do so as a collection of individuals with their own voices. The emergent ‘collectivity’ is predicated on the ability of individual within it to communicated autonomously and freely. This means that on the second level, the web goes some way to redressing the balance between the system and the individual.

The third level and the one that interests me most is looking to the web for new model of organisation/structure/system. The internet can be seen as a Petri dish, with cultures growing free from the existing political and social pressures (at least initially), transplanting and creating its own protocols, rules and etiquette. Some of it is re-discovery of pre-industrial age stuff, some of it is new. For example, in commerce, new business models are emerging, open source, the long tail, VRM, demand side supplying itself, networks and power laws driving more. In communications, we have multi-tasking, attention-span and focus shifting and other behaviours facilitated by technology.

The pre-internet age was the age of mass production that was based on the age of engineering. This was a time when complex problems called for complex solutions. To build a bridge is a feat of complexity. Computing and the internet have brought about another type of complexity, which is based on the realisation that a few simple rules can lead to complexity. For example, the internet is a ’stupid network’ with one simple rule – move packets from one end to another and then some. What we see today was built on one of the simplest architectures around, but with inbuilt flexibility and rules to allow complexity. The same applies to the social aspects of the web.

Back to democracy – as Churchill pointed out, it is the least bad system of government we know, perhaps the internet holds a key to an organisation that establishes the balance between the individual, the society and its institutions. This is essential as for me the knowledge, creativity, innovation, morality and all things social start with the individual.

*text courtesy of Ewan McInstosh who got it from Osborne’s parliamentary aide.

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5 Responses to “The social impact of the web – talk at RSA”

  1. Ziz
    on Mar 11th, 2007
    @ 10:57 am

    “Back to democracy – as Churchill pointed out, it is the least bad system of government we know,”

    No he didn’t.

    He wrote that …
    “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

    “Least bad” is not an expression he would have used, or encouraged, nor should you.

    However if you write (and publish sentences such as, “For example, the internet is a ’stupid network’ with one simple rule – move packets from one end to another and then some.” You are beyond redemption.

  2. Adriana
    on Mar 11th, 2007
    @ 13:38 pm

    Ziz, oh well, I must be doing something if you think such hostility is needed.

    Yes, the above were my notes for an 8 minute talk on a panel and perhaps in blogging it I should have looked up the original quote by Churchill. So here it is:

    Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (from a House of Commons speech on Nov. 11, 1947)

    This actually makes my point about democracy not being what it’s cracked up to be stronger. Beyond Churchill, the founding fathers were also aware of the dangers of democracy. The notion of the tyranny of the majority dates all the way back to Tocqueville.

    As for the stupid network, I do wish it was my idea. I was referring (in very simplified terms due to lack of time) to David Isenberg’s concept of the internet as a stupid network. It is the reason why and how the internet has become the complex and dynamic environment it is today. I have subscribed to this view ever since I came across Isenberg, Doc Searls, David Weinberger and others. So there are quite a few people beyond redemption, see The World of Ends. [emphasis mine]

    The Internet, on the other hand, is stupid. On purpose. Its designers made sure the biggest, most inclusive network of them all was dumb as a box of rocks.

    The Internet doesn’t know lots of things a smart network like the phone system knows: Identities, permissions, priorities, etc. The Internet only knows one thing: this bunch of bits needs to move from one end of the Net to another.

    There are technical reasons why stupidity is a good design. Stupid is sturdy. If a router fails, packets route around it, meaning that the Net stays up. Thanks to its stupidity, the Net welcomes new devices and people, so it grows quickly and in all directions. It’s also easy for architects to incorporate Net access into all kinds of smart devices — camcorders, telephones, sprinkler systems — that live at the Net’s ends.

    That’s because the most important reason Stupid is Good has less to do with technology and everything to do with value…

  3. Hans Fosseng
    on Mar 12th, 2007
    @ 18:34 pm

    The three levels you’re lining out, are definetely interesting perspectives on the social impact of the web. As for the democratic nature of the web, there’s one major problem not mentioned here. Large parts of the world’s population doesn’t have access to the Internet yet, which in some senses can be seen as undemocratic.

  4. Perry de Havilland
    on Mar 13th, 2007
    @ 13:20 pm

    I think defining ‘democratic’ as meaning anything other than a form of government (and government is *nothing* other than we call the way of deciding who will be on the receiving end of a collective means of coercion) is simply wrong (or at best misleading).

    Ergo, the internet is not democratic. The internet is *primarily* a network used for individuals to express themselves, and there is nothing whatsoever democratic about how I choose to express myself. Why? Because you do not get a political vote on it, that’s why… and that is also why the fact large parts of the world’s population not having access to the internet is completely irrelevant: even if they did, it would not make the internet democratic.

  5. alan p
    on Mar 16th, 2007
    @ 16:20 pm

    Adriana…interesting talk…now, to rebut :)

    Unfortunately the physics of building a bridge have not changed, social media or no social media. All the kings horses etc etc……;)

    i.e. Some complex problems still have complex solutions

    Also, what you didn’t address directly imho is that the net / web / blogosphere is extremely heirarchical, in that a small number of nodes have extremely high levels of influence.

    What I put on my blog is up to me, but what Robert Scoble (for example) publishes has a big impact. As the Big Blogs get funded and the amateurs drop out, will we find that we are at risk of merely replacing one dominant set of media publishers for another?

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