In past centuries and decades, public debate has been controlled either by governments or by the very few people who controlled a very few media outlets. In America, any successful political family owned several. Even through the latter part of the 20th century, with its attending trend for newspapers and television news to don the clothes of objectivity, the public opinion was shaped by a few representatives chosen by even fewer.
It was merely a glimmer in 1990, when advocates of human rights and libertarianism began to see the power of decentralized communication. The Internet consisted mostly of email, FTP and gopher applications, but the potential was just then becoming apparent. The idea that populations communicating with one another freely, developing tribes of ideas rather than of location or relations, became a utopian ideal potentially realized. It moved this government major to switch tracks, looking to get involved with advertising, in a strange bid to get involved with the medium that could invest so much power in individuals and communities.
Communications and, later, commerce over the Internet put into question the very relevance of authority based on location. It began to seem quite silly for jurisdictions like certain counties in Tennessee to have controlling authority over the morality of the content of websites. And don’t get me started on state sales taxes. This expanding of the horizons forced a lot of localities to become more rational in their rule.
Of course, some – like Iraq, China and Saudi Arabia – responded by placing fetters on the communication. Iraq made the Internet available only to military and other favored people (until recently, when they cut it off altogether). I think the Internet played an important and unsung role in the bringing down of the Berlin Wall. Universities across Eastern Germany allowed students to communicate freely (although with monitoring) to their West German counterparts. In a sad reprise of the famous New Yorker cartoon of the dog saying “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” women in Saudi Arabia find that they can operate almost as though they shared the rights of men when they have anonymous dealings online.
Of course, there was also crazy talk. It’s simply not realistic to think that just because all opinions can be voiced that it will mean the end of war. War, unfortunately, isn’t just the product of conflicting power interests or class differences. War is the threat that backs up diplomacy. Without it, there is no such thing as diplomacy, and the world needs diplomacy in order to organize itself in a rational, efficient and more peaceful manner.
But these grass roots organizations can inform diplomacy. They can cause political consequences for regimes that pursue unpopular diplomacy. They may even, on rare occasions, exert a diplomatic effect in and of themselves, reaching out to the populations of other regimes. There exists an asymmetric influence, however, in this principle, as it is only those most democratic of regimes where this popular influence can find any sway. The more authoritarian the regime, the less effective this mechanism, as the local Caesar can ignore public comment.
And the in this regime-of-the-citizenry, it isn’t so much the elected representative that controls the process, it is the person with the most powerful and effective message. It is, at heart, a struggle of the creatives for the hearts and minds of readers. This puts more power in the hands of more thinkers, and I hope, will eventually tip the political balance in favor of those who would put the interests of the many ahead of their own provincial concerns.