(image: noticeboard at Newspeak House)
We have been anticipating the internet’s impact on the political process for over two decades now, with talk of ‘the first internet election’ going back to at least 1997 in the UK, a time when political parties and candidates built their first websites and started emailing supporters in the hope of influencing their voting.
We have come a long way from the first online MP’s surgery, which I ran for Cambridge MP Anne Campbell in 1996, or the mailing list and website archive that constituted the Nexus ‘online think tank’, and it’s clear that we now have what we asked for: it is impossible to disentangle the political process from the network, and all politics seems to have an online dimension, even in countries where net access is limited.
However the consequences are clearly not those that early advocates of networked politics might have hoped for. Far from the network ushering in a new age of deliberative democracy fuelled by active and engaged citizens, online activism has become a tool for those who would undo the Enlightenment’s gains and push pack many of the social changes that have characterised open societies.
This lecture builds on my thinking over many years, going back to my essay Damn the Constitution in 2002. It also owes much to research and thinking done for a lunchtime lecture organised by Digital Repository of Ireland in Dublin in September 2013 and a keynote talk I gave at the UKSG conference in Harrogate, April 16 2014 which was subsequently published in the UKSG journal. It’s also indebted to long conversations and arguments and debate with Wendy Hall, Nigel Shadbolt and other luminaries of Web Science.
In the age of electronics an open society, one in which questions can be asked, where critical thinking is not just permitted but encouraged and where investigation rather than ideology is used to seek out the truth about the world – the open society according to Karl Popper – has also to be an open data society because reusable, structured data has become the main machine for doing the heavy lifting of moving knowledge around, just as books move ideas around.
The open Web is the most visible expression of that open data society, but it is increasingly undermined by the efforts of government on one side and commercial interests on the other, squeezing the public space occupied by civil society. Web science, grounded in the study of the open network, offers an opportunity both to study the impact of this shift and to propose countermeasures. In his talk Bill Thompson will argue that we can use the tools of Web science to design and build a better and more resilient Web – but that we must move quickly or there will be nothing left to save.