Are Digital Technologies Making Politics Impossible?

This article was originally written as part of my unfinished submission to the nine dots prize. Maybe next time I’ll actually submit something. 

“The internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy we’ve ever had.” -Eric Schmidt, Co-Founder and CEO, Google.com

In the year 1947 when John Bardeen and his team at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey were busy inventing the first transistor, Harry S Truman was on the campaign trail with almost every prediction indicating that he would be defeated by Republican Thomas E. Dewey in the elections that would be held the following year. Meanwhile, somewhere in Illinois, Hugh Rodham and Dorothy Howell were celebrating the birth of their first child, a baby girl they named Hillary Diane Rodham and nearly 7000 miles away, 300 million Indians were celebrating their hard-fought independence from over 200 years of British colonial rule.

The invention of the transistor that year ushered in an age of rapid technological progress- one that would have a massive impact on both the new borns- Hillary and the newly born country of India; And though she didn’t know it yet, 7 decades later, Hillary would be part of an election campaign that turned out to be nearly as surprising as the one Truman ran. Only she, was going to be on the wrong side of history. At the same time Great Britain would make world headlines again- this time for exiting the European Union- while India, would become the world’s fastest growing economy and one of the largest beneficiaries of the tech revolution enabled by transistors.

Image Courtesy: Magnascan | Pixabay.com

The invention of the transistor led to the creation of the modern microprocessor and subsequently computers; The most powerful consequence of which was, arguably, the Internet. In recent times there has been a rise of internet-enabled digital technologies. These technologies, especially (but not limited to) Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have changed the landscape of nearly every field they’ve been used in and politics is no exception. President Erdogan addressing the Turkish people using FaceTime during a coup d’état is one of the most interesting cases of the use of digital technologies impacting politics as was the use of the FireChat app by the Iraqi people to communicate after the government shut down the internet there.

Digital technologies have had a multifarious impact on politics. It is important, therefore, to analyze it’s impact starting with election campaigning and voting in democratic nations to its impact on governance and accountability in and dissent of governments around the world. Not to be forgotten, is a component of equal importance in any political analysis- the role of the media and so it is critical to include the impact of digital technologies on news reportage too.

Are digital technologies really making politics impossible? The short answer is no. Contemporary history is evidence of the fact that digital technologies have enabled political campaigns from President Bush and John Kerry in the US in 2004 to Prime Minister Modi in India in 2014. ICTs enabled socio-political movements like the Arab Spring in 2011 and the anti-corruption movement in India that same year. And most importantly digital technologies have enabled a citizen-government interaction in a form and on a scale that has never been seen before. But at the same time, it has also enabled, what some people call, “online echo chambers”- the polarization of opinions on the internet. In other words, digital technologies have enabled every stage of the political process- the good, the bad and the ugly- and we will analyze each of those in chapters ahead. 

To be continued..


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