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'But, Tony Blair, I sent you an email!'

About the author
William Davies is a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is Director of the Political Economy Research Centre. His weblog is at www.potlatch.org.uk and his new book is The Happiness Industry: How the government & big business sold us wellbeing (published by Verso).

The internet has inspired more than its fair share of idiotic ideas. The “death of distance” claimed that the net would enable us to work where we like and interact with whoever we like. It turned out to be an extrapolation of the experiences of a few global elites and footloose companies, leaving the vast majority of people still making the same journey to work every morning. The “end of the business cycle” promised that the net would allow such efficient distribution of information that markets would price assets perfectly. The world is still waiting.

William Davies’s new report, Proxicommunication: ICT and the local public realm, is launched by iSociety on 29 July 2004 with a debate and reception at London’s Work Foundation

A recent British government initiative, announced in August 2003, is a belated contribution to this register of internet silliness. While governments around the world – from Estonia and Sweden to Singapore – have pioneered experiments in changing the ways that citizens and authorities interact, the office of Britain’s prime minister seemed still in thrall to the heady days of dotcom exuberance, as it breathlessly announced the ability to send Tony Blair an email.

There is nothing wrong with such a public utility in itself. The problem is not the tool, but the inflated claims and expectations that accompany it. Before the event, many had been appalled by the fact that you couldn’t email the prime minister. The opposition Conservative party even “named and shamed” Blair on the issue, joining forces with e–democracy utopians who claimed that new media would revolutionise our relationship with government.

But now that Blair’s email has been available for almost a year, the voices of acclamation are subdued. What next – a campaign to access Tony Blair’s mobile phone number, or to secure the right of a meeting with him? Such demands would receive ridicule; so why was the entitlement to email him taken so seriously?

More is less

When politics move online, the fundamental trade–offs that take place between accountability and interactivity tend to be forgotten. Before the internet, this offline trade–off was understood intuitively – something too obvious to need pointing out.

Two examples illustrate this. A national government is accountable, in the sense that it expends a considerable proportion of its energies explaining and defending its actions to the media, NGOs and opposition parties. What Tony Blair says publicly is said in the knowledge that he can’t later deny it (as much as he may try. But there is little real interaction with the public, except via the ballot box every four or five years.

At the other end of the social spectrum, a dispute with a next–door neighbour (say, over noise) is highly interactive. It may happen through conversation, exchange of letters, and perhaps emails. But in the absence of any public realm witnessing these exchanges, neither party is especially accountable for what it says – which can make this form of “politics” frustrating and difficult to resolve.

Between central government and neighbourhood politics lie a range of bodies, such as local authorities and the Citizens Advice Bureau . These forums enable a useful balance of interactivity and accountability, and can in principle help resolve disputes in a way that mere conversation cannot. This is the obvious, intuitive aspect of the offline trade–off. So what is it about the internet that blinds people to these simple political facts?

The answer lies in its intrinsic flexibility of scale. Never before has there been one single medium that can support one–to–one private interaction, one–to–many publishing, and endless scales of social behaviour in between.

Paper, of course, has flexibility: it can be used to leave a scrawled message on the fridge for one’s friend or spouse, or to create an international newspaper. But the technological devices used to express these different messages – pen and printing press – are very different. In the case of the internet, identical technology can do both.

In political terms, the internet has the technological capacity to enhance both small–scale interaction and accountable government. But it does not magically unite the two. Consider four examples: an email sent to a neighbour, a Yahoo email list, a local BBC discussion board, and a government website.

First, the email sent to a neighbour is effectively a private message, and its content is up to the author to decide. There is interactivity but no public accountability. Second, a Yahoo email list has barely any editorial filter around it: as a private company, Yahoo simply facilitates interaction, but it is not accountable for what results. As a result, white supremacists are perfectly welcome to form a Yahoo group, although they do so in the knowledge that the public could be watching.

Third, the BBC is responsible for what it publishes via its online discussion boards, which requires dispensing with a modicum of interactivity. Its local discussions have to be closely moderated for content, and even its “real time” chat forums are not quite real time, as each comment must be checked.

Fourth, a British government website tends to involve little more than the publication of official information. This does much to improve the accountability and transparency of government by helping the public understand it and follow its activities, but interactivity is often zero.

Thus, the same technology supports a variety of political functions. But it does not in any way eradicate the differences between them. The citizen’s relationship with Tony Blair is made no more intimate; neighbours do not suddenly start to behave any more responsibly. So what is the political function of the internet? Is it simply a mirror of existing political activity and institutions?

Elastic democracy

The answer is: not entirely. The technological flexibility of the net makes possible the ability to “grow” and “shrink” debates. People can feed small–scale interactions into larger and more public forums . These in turn can be channelled into national debates. National issues, meanwhile, can be localised and discussed more intimately.

New middle–grounds are opening up, and new trade–offs between accountability and interactivity are being made. The BBC’s iCan service, for instance, helps citizens connect to each other in a quasi–official public forum, where official information is easily accessible. But in order to uphold the BBC’s public commitment to political neutrality, iCan will have to be suspended during the next British general election campaign.

The big question is: who is to be granted responsibility for overseeing and maintaining these new intermediate tiers? The British government’s current “e–government” policy seeks “intermediaries” from the private and voluntary sector to mediate between central government and internet users. This makes more “transactional” relationships with government possible, brokered by a third party. Automated car taxation, for instance, could potentially be done via the website of the Automobile Association. It remains to be seen how well this policy succeeds, and the extent to which services gain in interactivity at the expense of accountability.

The most significant achievements in e–government to date have been the most simple – publishing official information for the benefit of citizens. The next wave of e–government requires working out who will oversee the various smaller, more interactive tiers. The BBC, “intermediaries”, and a few self–appointed authorities (such as “community portals”) will all play a role.

A single technology enables citizens to read what Tony Blair said to the British parliament (or the United States Senate), to exchange emails with someone in their street, and – perhaps most significantly – to discuss the former via the latter. But the technology does not collapse the distinctions between these entirely different forms of participation.


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