The Shape Of Democracy In Internet Age

Random thoughts

by Uday Kumar Varma

Former Secretary,  Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India.

That we are past Industrial Age and already in the new Age of Internet, is a phenomenon and a fact that we have come to recognize and reluctantly accept. The challenge now is how to understand and deal with the requirements of this age and how to harness and utilize its potential for furtherance of the interest of mankind and human existence on this planet. A more formidable and difficult challenge will be to mould and adapt our thinking and attitudes, our ambitions and impulses, our notions of growth and development and progress and equally significantly how to temper and tame our hubris and arrogance and intemperance in disowning and discarding what we have toiled to build over last many centuries with our talent, intellect, sweat and blood. For, detachment from something that we so passionately and painstakingly created, amplified and sustained is rarely uneventful or painless.

One immediate implication of the Internet Age will be on our governance structures and political institutions like democracy. Will democracy get strengthened, will it be fairer, more equitous and mature, and could it indeed become truly representative? Or will it become another instrument to be manipulated for creating narratives and discourses that serve the interests of those who control the use of internet? It’s a very important question and demand urgent attention from all thinking people in the world.

My own understanding of what has come to pass in past over a year and a half, makes me believe that there is no way we are going to turn back to old ways of our living. The society-its mechanics and dynamics, the institutions that so far defined our thoughts, concepts, planning, organizing, working and interacting, the daily chores that structured our personal, family and professional lives- all of these have transformed and this transformation is here not only to stay, but only get intensified.

The new world order will not brook wasteful processes and prolonged debates and deliberations. The representative nature of our collective expression or articulation because one did not have access to everyone else’s attention and information shall become irrelevant and redundant.

Out of over 6 .6 billion people in the world, internet has access to almost half of them. There are countries where this access is reaching a level that can be called universal while there are pockets where it is still in the realm of a distant dream and utopia. We have been calling this the digital divide for some time now. Is this divide narrowing? Is this gap getting bridged? Is the reach of the most advanced and the most backward and the information hiatus between the most primitive and the most advanced amongst the human race likely to continue and sustain for long?

The paradigm shift in the way we have been living and surviving in last year and a half offers enough evidence to suggest that it is just a matter of time when this so called divide may be a thing of past. The most remarkable aspect of our survival in the times of corona is that the world has not seen populations dying of hunger, of want, of lack of food or water or even medicine. And this has happened because we learnt to use the internet to maintain our supply chains, our processes of production and procurements and distribution. We learnt to work from home and to learn and teach and educate on line without the shelter of a class room or university building. We missed the ways we used to work but quickly adapted ourselves.

This then is going to be the ‘new normal’, and no doubt we will feel nostalgic about our former life styles, their pleasures and their advantages, those conveniences and comforts, we are never going to go back to these old ways. All concepts of an era, borne out of our advancement emanating from Industrial Age and its gifts and legacies today stand on their head and shall only be replaced, substituted and supplanted.

Not too far in the future, shall we need a parliament? Why do you need to elect 600 odd people’s representatives paying an astronomical price in terms of money, time, energy and resources, just to debate on policy matters and take a majority view when each one of us can directly express our opinion and views on any issue under the sun with which we are concerned? At a click of a key, we can directly and decisively opine whether we want or need a law, or how a scheme of welfare for children and women should be conceived and created. We can participate directly in telling the government whether we need a law, a regulation, for whom and what should constitute its contents and components? The new Age of Internet will enable us to do so. So do expect in near future abolition of or at least a radical transformation in the way we think and conceive of making laws in this country or for that matter in any other countries and we don’t need MPs and MLAs to decide what law should be framed and enacted for us. These bodies, no doubt, will have some other useful purpose but we will not need them the way they exist today.

But there always exists another possibility- perversity and pessimism, destruction and disorder- being as natural an impulse, choice and fascination as are creation and conception. What if some or many of us consciously decide and choose the technical manipulation of information and data to further consolidate control and authority- a weakness and vulnerability that nature seems to have endowed upon us as generously as it does the spirit of benevolence, altruism and sacrifice. And such a possibility is not merely a fear or apprehension, it is real, palpable and experiential.

Notwithstanding the uncertainties and attendant excitement of understanding the unraveling of imminent possibilities, one is inclined to be convinced on the course of the future democracies of the world set and destined to reinvent and re-engineer themselves. And this will only be a beginning. Institutions after institutions so assiduously and craftily built during the Industrial Era will crumble under their weights as increasingly they will find little utility, little value and no justification for their continuing existence. Be ready instead to embrace and accept and own new order of Institutions- in every sphere and dimension of human life and existence.

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