Masthead CMC Magazine / April 1, 1996
 The Status of the Information Society, by Michel Bauwens

On Internet Democracy vs. Information Poverty

The ^Internet has a tremendous democratic potential and will undermine hierarchical institutions on a grand scale. If the Western countries succeeded in the much more difficult task of achieving mass literacy, we can seriously believe that we will achieve the task of technological literacy. The only condition required is political will.

Within organizations, the Internet destroys traditional pyramidal (hierarchical) networks. This Trojan Horse effect of electronic networks has often been noted by analysts of business practices. It allows new forms of uncontrolled horizontal communication which diminishes the need for bureaucracy. Hence, the Internet (and internal groupware environments) will favor the abandonment of the bureaucratic model, which is based on information control, for the cyberocratic model which is based on the free flow of information. Shumpei Kumon (Glocom Institute, Japan) maintains that the social games responsible for the distribution of power and prestige within society have evolved from the Power Game (based on physical strength and armies) of the agrarian age, through the Wealth Game (based on financial wealth and trade) of the industrial age, towards the Wisdom Game, where prestige is dependent on the degree of knowledge sharing. Indeed, in an information economy and society, power is dependent on influence (mindshare), and this cannot be achieved by retaining information, but only by distributing it.

While this definitely sounds utopian, those practices have already begun to permeate the business world. In some companies, like Memphis-based Buckman Laboratories for example, those employees not taking part in the online knowledge sharing process, are not eligible for promotion and pay raises, while the top 100 network users have their festival where they are hailed as the new heroes of the corporation. Thus, knowledge having becomes the meta-resource leveraging other resources corporations cannot afford to restrain such as the real-time knowledge transfer practices generated by the new cyberspace environments invading corporations (in the form of groupware for instance).

Through its empowering effects, the new technology strengthens democracy. Of course, we realize that technology is embedded in an existing social and political structures which are far from ideal, and could potentially lead to greater control (the Big Brother effect). The democratic effect could also be countered and undermined by social developments outside the networks: in which case, the Internet would definitely raise the stakes of the political struggle. At the same time it would make it more difficult for governments to impose authoritarian measures. But if they succeeded, their degree of control would be immeasurably greater than in the past. On the whole, we have to maintain that the democratic potential of the Internet is far stronger than its undermining effect. Let us not forget what Peter Huber noted in Orwell's Revenge--that the author of 1984 was completely wrong in his predictions because he failed to see the bi-directional nature of the new media.

Given the double-edged sword, can the Internet lead to a new kind of information poverty? Certainly. First, Internet usage is dependent on material well-being and certain minimal technical skills (some positive elements: computers and modems will become cheaper and cheaper; and they will become easier to use). So the natural trend is towards increasing usage by ever larger portions of the population, a similar evolution which happend previously with books.

Second, tools like the Internet give new powers to those social forces emanating from the disadvantaged, enhancing their influence.

Third, the Internet is a great equalizer of knowledge, diffusing it throughout the social body. It will remove physical constraints on information processing activities, giving new opportunities to Third World countries (the so-called delocalization effect). I am not unaware of the social cost this could have on the Western countries, but it is not excluded that a new division of labor would ensue, with new opportunities in the West as well. --

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