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Report from ‘Online Deliberation’ at How Power Corrupts

June 13, 2011

Originally posted on 13th July 2011 on the Roundhouse Journal website as a report on our public symposium and book launch, ‘How Power Corrupts’

The Online Deliberation discussion featured Tim Hardy, co-developer of the Sukey protest mapping application, Dr Lee Salter, lecturer in Journalism at the University of the West of England, and Dr Ricardo Blaug. Intending to investigate the interrelationships between deliberative public spaces and the internet, the contributors were strikingly unanimous that neither could be understood independently: Dr Salter insisted that ‘we can’t abstract the internet from the social and economic systems in which it is used’. They also agreed that they looked online for practical solutions to the problems facing deliberation.

This aim is evident from the Sukey application, which Mr Hardy described as a response to kettling tactics employed by police with increasing frequency on demonstrations. ‘Historically’, he said, ‘the footsoldier has never had a view of the battle’. Sukey was not written just to provide for a politically-active community of internet users, he argued: instead, it has the possibility to generate ‘swarm consciousness’ which draws on the collective intelligence of protesters. Similarly, Dr Salter described the problems he encountered in helping an east London borough to benefit from public resources. Universities, for example, were unwilling to open up to those living around them when it was not clear how they would benefit as institutions. These colonisation effects – where institutions founded to provide collective goods now operated according to a coldly instrumental rationality – led Dr Salter to turn to the internet.

Tim Hardy’s contribution, however, made clear that the internet has never been a genuinely free space.  Put plainly, he argued that participation online does the work of the surveillance state for it – pointing to how connective technologies such as the social web makes strategic arrests easier. The connection to established political realities is clear: commenting on recent purges of activist pages from Facebook, he said ‘you have no right of access to a shopping mall’.

However, the internet has created a certain paradox. As Dr Salter suggested, the internet was developed to its full potential by corporations, but now it serves to undermine them – creating fatal profitability crises across several industries and even shaking the corporate organisational form to its foundations. Dr Blaug pointed out that in democracies, similarly, what actually educates the masses is the ‘stunning incompetence of elites’. Once the failures of elites become so acute that we come out in the streets as a public, we return with new online resources to the oldest political questions that exist. Chief among these what form of organisation we choose at the moment when any is possible. In such a situation, time-honoured attributes of democracy like collective intelligence can re-emerge – even the straightforward recognition of our ourselves as a plural subject.

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