Sounds unlikely. Did Twitter? Nobody really seems to claim so, though Evgeny Morozov erroneously claims that Andrew Sullivan claims so, though Sullivan actually only raised the question and linked to Ethan Zuckerman, who … wait, back to the fax machine.
I met Marc Plattner yesterday, who edits the Journal of Democracy and is a veteran of both academic and policy discussions around issues of democracy and democratization. He told me about how some people used to claim the fax machine “caused” (or at least played a large part in) the collapse of the Soviet Union. You can imagine all the arguments that could be marshalled. (“Between them, television, the fax machine and word of mouth have banished fear,” writes John Russell in the New York Times in 1991, offering an admirably cross-media if somewhat optimistic analysis of the role of communications in political change.)
It seems we could save a lot of time and energy if we moved beyond this “new technology X caused specific political (or social) event Y” discussion, whether of events in Moldova, Iran, or Tunisia–all cases where complex and predominantly local political events have been taken intellectually hostage by people out to prove a point about this or that amazing new internet site.
I’d suggest that new information and communication technologies, whether fax machines or Twitter, do not have social implications in such a clear fashion, just as they do not seem to have clear moral implications in quite the neat way some would hope (“I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can call their own government to account,” in the words of President Obama–but surely, that depends an awful lot on what information we are talking about?). It seems to me that these claims, reducible to “the internet (or this internet tool) is a singular and powerful causal force that will affect change, and that change will be for the better,” are often driven by the posturing of publicity-seeking pundits and people looking for grants or business opportunities (see the first part of this story on the U.S. State Department)–and the professional pessimists who live to challenge them.
But that new information and communications technologies aren’t all-powerful or irrelevant doesn’t mean that they do not matter–or that their sometimes exaggerated positive sides actually distract us from recognizing their more nefarious aspects, as people like Morozov sometimes come close to arguing, as pointed out by Zeynep Tufekci in her thoughtful review of his book.
Even though new technological infrastructures or individual tools rarely, if ever, change the world in one blow or cause particular events, they still have implications, biases, long-term implications, like the ones discussed by careful, deep thinkers of long-term change like Harold Innis and Elizabeth Eisenstein and more immediate ones for how we live our lives, as studied by social scientists willing to let the chips fall as they may. (This is, since I’m on the topic, is what I’ve tried to do in my own research on political activism in developed democracies…) (See this article from 2009 on internet-assisted activism, my article from 2010 on mundane internet tools in political campaigns, and my chapter on digital politics in Mary Joyce’s edited book).
Tools–new and old–are part of human life, for good and for bad, and permeate everything from everyday life to extraordinary moments like the uprising in Tunisia and elsewhere. And they should be studied and understood as such–parts, tools, elements of larger settings and sets of practices.
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is a post doctoral research fellow currently doing cross-national comparative research on the business of journalism and its role in democracy. He also works on political campaigns and the use of new technologies in politics.
This article was first posted on his blog on 18 January 2011. Politics in Spires is grateful for his permission to reproduce it here.