When the Cold War ended just over twenty years ago, it was convenient to think of it as democracy’s final triumph over tyranny, autocracy and every other form of government. With communism defeated, it seemed pretty obvious that the system left standing was the best one—the one we were always destined for and the one that every country should strive for.
It would be foolish, however, to think that the way we govern ourselves has stopped evolving. Our current system of democracy is by no means the be-all and the end-all of human governance. The same way that the printing press and a newly educated population forced the evolution of monarchies into republics centuries ago, so too is the Internet now forcing governments of all stripes to grow, adapt and change. As people become further connected with advanced technologies, this movement will only accelerate.
But before things get better, they will get worse. The riots in London are only the tip of this iceberg. The Internet has furthered the collective education and consciousness of the public and given us access, literally, to a world of information. It has never been easier for the average person to see just how much of the world’s increasing wealth they’re missing out on, or how much their particular government is screwing them. This, as much as anything, can explain the unrest and riots, which seem to be happening in both developed and developing countries with a growing frequency.
Democracy has been on a downward spiral in many developed nations for decades, with voter turnouts hitting new lows—excepting periodic uptick aberrations—in each successive election (the recent election in Canada saw only 61% of voters turn up, slightly higher than the record low set in 2008). The decline shows more people are either losing faith in the system, or they are fine with the status quo and simply can’t be bothered with it.
Whatever the case, with their mandates shrinking, governments are feeling less beholden to the public and are acting more boldly. Whether it’s stripping away civil rights, detaining people without due process or negotiating legislation and treaties in secret, our democratically elected governments are behaving more and more like the communists they defeated not so long ago.
But democracy is alive and well on the Internet. Indeed, it’s the de facto model that almost every online operation works on; topics trend on Twitter depending on how many people are discussing them, news stories get assigned, ranked and displayed based on similar factors (as opposed to chosen by human editors, like they were in the past) and websites show up in Google searches based on how many links they have pointing to them. Online, the good and popular rises to the top—whether it’s YouTube videos, Apple apps, Amazon books or Digg stories—while the bad or unpopular is ignored or voted down.
Moreover, online democracy is exerting itself as its own form of court system, which some might call vigilantism. When Sony recently sued a hacker who had cracked the PlayStation 3, other hackers took down the company’s online video game network for a month. Conversely, when Microsoft welcomed the hacking of its Kinect games system, it earned kudos and thanks from the online community. The underlying notion behind both being that cracking devices is necessary to learn and thus propel innovation forward. Anyone who stands in the way of that, the online community has ruled, is being a bad netizen.
This is because from its very beginnings, the Internet has been based on the principles of openness and community. The technical protocols on which it runs were made available for free, as was the first web browser. The fundamental principles of the Internet, therefore, are the same as democracy—each user is entitled to freedom and openness, so long as they don’t harm anyone else. Those that do harm in the eyes of the collective are punished, one way or another.
Governments, whether they’re in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada or China, are beginning to understand this and are now trying to extend their reach and control into the online world through various forms of censorship or control (China is obviously further ahead). It’s a struggle they are not likely to win because laws and enforcement take time, despite diminishing democratic controls, whereas new technological circumventions move at lightning speed. The continued survival and success The Pirate Bay, the file-sharing site that authorities have been trying to shut down for the better part of a decade, is just one example of this. Simply put, laws will never catch up to technology.
Indeed, the inverse is more likely. The principles of openness and freedom cultivated on the Internet, which has coincidentally been part of mainstream culture since the end of the Cold War, are more likely to bleed into the real world—literally, through riots. Governments will inevitably have no choice but to acquiesce and adapt to what are ultimately basic human desires: to be open and free. Otherwise, as advanced technologies make living in a virtual online world more realistic and palatable, people will inevitably abandon the real world and move into the ether permanently, leaving governments with no one to govern.