A Must-Read for Gov 2.0 & Digital Democracy Gurus

Illustration: Harry Campbell, for Wall Street Journal

I stumbled across a fantastic article in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal that should be a must-read for those in the Gov 2.0 movement as well as anyone that has ever used the “Iranian Election” example when promoting the growing influence and importance of Twitter and other social networks.

The Digital Dictatorship, written by Georgetown University fellow Evgeny Morozov (@evgenymorozov), throws a bit of cold water on the movement for “Internet freedom” as a cornerstone of American foreign policy, noting that there are “many reasons to be skeptical.”

Contrary to the Utopian rhetoric of social media enthusiasts, the Internet often makes the jump from deliberation to participation even more difficult, thwarting collective action under the heavy pressure of never-ending internal debate. This is what may explain the impotence of recent protests in Iran: Thanks to the sociability and high degree of decentralization afforded by the Internet, Iran’s Green Movement has been split into so many competing debate chambers—some of them composed primarily of net-savvy Iranians in the diaspora—that it couldn’t collect itself on the eve of the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution. The Green Movement may have simply drowned in its own tweets.

The government did its share to obstruct its opponents, too. Not only did it thwart Internet communications, the government (or its plentiful loyalists) also flooded Iranian Web sites with videos of dubious authenticity—one showing a group of protesters burning the portrait of Ali Khamenei—that aimed to provoke and splinter the opposition. In an environment like this—where it’s impossible to distinguish whether your online interlocutors are your next-door neighbors, some hyperactive Iranians in the diaspora, or a government agent masquerading as a member of the Green Movement—who could blame ordinary Iranians for not taking the risks of flooding the streets only to find themselves arrested?

Another insight would seem to apply not just to authoritarian nation-states, but also applies to the U.S. and other governments who are looking to better engage citizens using new online platforms:

We spend so much time thinking about the dissidents and how the Internet has changed their lives, that we have almost completely neglected how it affects the lives of the average, non-politicized users, who would be crucial to any democratic revolution.

Replace “dissidents” with “Internet generation” or similar term, and I think you’ve captured one of the growing issues around open government and Gov 2.0 in general – how do engage the citizenry beyond the political activists or special interest groups. How do we create “Citizen 2.0?”

Anyway, Morozof’s article raises some good points that leave you thinking beyond the rah-rah mentality that many in Gov 2.0 circles typically find themselves (myself included). I found it a fascinating read, and think you will too.

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  • http://openforumfoundation.org/ Wayne Moses Burke

    Thanks for pointing this out, Steve. Good additional perspective and one that deserves more attention in our community.

  • http://www.UStransparency.com Stephen Buckley

    If we are trying to “engage the citizenry”, then perhaps John and Joan Q. Citizen will not appreciate being told that they need to be upgraded (to a Version “2.0”).

    IMHO, people will tire of “2.0” being used as a all-purpose descriptor for anything new or different. Ten years from now, we will say “that is sooo 2009”.

  • http://GovTwit.com Steve Lunceford

    Heh, point taken Stephen but stick by my opinion that a lot of today’s efforts are aimed at too few/the technical elite. As we open gov up, largely on the back of new technologies, we need to figure out how we get “typical” citizens to engage with these new channels.

  • http://twitter.com/johnmccrory John McCrory

    This reminds me of something Jay Rosen recently said in reference to what has been happening in Iran:

    “Open systems released into societies that are not open can be a disaster. When transparency meets fixed ideas, fixed narratives, you don’t get the benefits of transparency, you just get more material for these fixed ideas to work with. In many ways, open systems are more chaotic. They can be more violent, more dangerous. We shouldn’t look at them just as benificent gifts.”

    Rosen pointed to Larry Lessig’s piece in The New Republic last October, “Against Transparency,” http://j.mp/9o1u26 which you may be familiar with and is relevant to the discussion here. Lessig discusses the sometimes unintended consequences of what he calls “naked transparency”: most citizens are not activists. They have busy lives and may not have the time to sort out the subtleties from the “obvious” (cynical) conclusions broadly suggested by tools that allow this naked transparency.

    Lessig believes techno-driven naked transparency will encourage even more cynicism about government. I’m swayed by his argument to an extent and wonder about the ways technology might instead create trust. I suspect those ways will involve making the individuals in government visible to citizens, instead of masking them behind the impersona of an agency.