Clegg and the Digital Revolution

At the Social Market Foundation on Wednesday, Liberal Democrat Leadership Candidate Nick Clegg began a speech by outlining the technological context of 21st Century politics. It is a good approximation of my own view. He said:

… the innovations and technological advances that are already shaping and defining the 21st century – Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube – are about something very different: they are about creating the tools that will enable people to deliver services to each other.

The old model was about constructing the institutional hardware of the paternalistic state. The new model is about developing the democratic software of the empowered society. The old model was controlled by a professional elite. The new model is operated by ordinary people.

The old model worked from the top down, with service users viewed as passive recipients at the end of the process. The new model works from the bottom up, and views individuals as active participants in the design and development of the services they use.

It would be hard to overstate the disruptive impact of these technological advances. For the way we access information, the way we shop, the way we work, the way we socialise, the way we communicate – all have been transformed, fundamentally and irreversibly. And with these technological changes has come a profound cultural shift that cannot but affect the way in which our society will organise itself in the future.

For young people don’t any longer just aspire to be in control of their lives. They expect it. They’re not waiting to be given the power to decide things for themselves. They’ve already got it. they’re already using it.

And choice isn’t something they hope for. It is something they are conditioned to – something they exercise instinctively, unconsciously, every hour of every day of the year.

Yet – and here’s the crucial point for the political community – this increasingly affluent, well educated, self confident cohort are still treated as supplicants when they knock on the government’s door.

This is true of their political relationship with government, where they feel cut off, shut out and ignored. It is true of their bureaucratic relationship with government, which they rightly view as faceless, unresponsive and deeply dysfunctional. And it is true of their everyday interactions with our public services which, for the most part, are still delivered from on high to an
increasingly dissatisfied public below.

This is the great paradox of our times: in our private and professional lives, we have never been more empowered. But in our relationship with the state, we have never been so powerless.

And make no mistake; it is the poorest and the most vulnerable amongst us who lose out the most.

Mr Clegg’s campaign website has the full text (in which he goes onto propose that LEAs and PCTs be directly elected).

Clegg is often viewed as being on the right of his party, but this introduction looks like a left-wing analysis to me. As I tried to articulate in Graachi’s post (which discussed What Blogging Can and Can’t Achieve), the attraction of blogging and the wider digital revolution, is in its potential to redress the power imbalance, leaking power from the elites to the masses. Does Clegg’s talk of “delivering services to each other” spring from the Right’s affection for the free market and the choices of individuals, or from the Left’s long held belief that we can achieve more through collective action, than we can alone? Given the free and social nature of blogging, YouTube and the political campaigns we see online, I’m inclined towards the latter view.

6 thoughts on “Clegg and the Digital Revolution”

  1. I’m not convinced that the net really will negate established structures. Business and government are busily imposing their structures on it, and you could argue that ownership of the net, in the physical sense, is a perfect model of gloablised monpolistic capitalism (restrictions on software and hardware, creeping censorship, elite dominance etc etc) and there is a tendency to assume that it is a tool of the majority when IIRC only around 30% of the worlds populance have net acess.
    From a sociological perspective the interesting question is whether the net qualitatively changes the social world any more than the printing press, the telegraph, the mail, or the telephone did when they were invented. I’m not convinced that it does.

  2. From a sociological perspective the interesting question is whether the net qualitatively changes the social world any more than the printing press, the telegraph, the mail, or the telephone did when they were invented. I’m not convinced that it does.

    I disagree, in that I think it does… or rather, will. Although at the moment, the net refers mainly to PC use. I don’t think profound changes will take place until other methods of access become widespread too. Have a look at this post about digital technology aiding development in rural Kenya.

  3. Talking about access and digital technology in Africa, I can tell you from first hand experience this year in Uganda, there was coverage for mobile phones even in remote areas of the Murchison Falls National Park and up Mount Elgon in the east of the country. I regularly lose coverage here at home on the road between Fleet and Aldershot!

  4. So glad to have been directed to and read this. My views are identical to those expressed within, i.e. we, the people, now have a greater control over our lives than ever before, accountability of organisations and bodies is immediate and potent, yet the final bastion of inefficiency and quasi-dictatorship is our political structure.

    Great to see someone else has recognised this anomaly. Now, my question is, what can we do to change this?

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