Technology & Democracy : India 2015Saurabh Kumar
I begin my year 2016 by registering my presence on yet another technology platform- Tumblr. I think it is the momentum gained in embracing, utilizing and relishing tools of technology in the year 2015 that has brought me here. Here is how I saw the year 2015, from the perspective of a democracy believer and technology enthusiast.
I have always believed that the only way to enrich democracy is more democracy. Technology is indeed bringing about a disruption in the way we perceived and practiced democracy. I would be optimistic in analyzing this disruption and conclude that in the long run, tools of technology will make us a richer democracy.
The year 2015 saw an unprecedented upsurge of social media in giving a voice to every social media user. It gave them the power to use any language and expression in a totally free and unregulated environment. Unlike social media, every newspaper article or TV news story undergoes editorial regulation. Further, one can make a selection of newspaper or TV channel to one’s liking but one cannot totally regulate the flow of information and views on social media. Thus, media was never as free as it existed now and freedom of expression reached a new high in 2015. This is the first reason for my optimism to see a richer democracy in future.
Technology has already become ubiquitous. Social media has brought before us zillions of reactions, views and opinion. This was often discomforting for many who found themselves to be on the other side of popular perceptions on social media. Trolls, a new species multiplied in great numbers in 2015. If on one hand this ended the elitism of conventional media in shaping opinions then on the other hand it called for a greater degree of maturity on part of the new voices of new media. I am sure, this evolutionary process will eventually bring out equilibrium in the way we voice ourselves in a free democracy. That will further enrich the democracy.
Citizen engagements and government’s responses were redefined by technology in 2015. With 1 billion mobile phone users and 400 million Internet users, citizen-government interaction reached a new high. While individual actors and institutions in governance extensively used social media to reach out to people, the trends in social media became a barometer to gaze the mood of citizens. So in the years ahead, psephologists must factor in the data and trends received from social media before making any predictions about an election. Bihar Assembly election of 2015 just proves this point. Thus technology has offered a new tool to gaze the mood of the people as a continuous process, unlike elections that take place once in five years.
Technology platforms to seek citizen participation started a new trend in governance. While the Government of India used some valuable suggestions received on this portal in policy making, some of state governments too adopted this new means to develop participatory democracy. With nearly 1.7 million users, the MyGov portal is indeed the world’s largest digital democracy platform today. Further, governments extensively used social media for addressing public issues, citizen grievances, disaster management, city management, policing etc. There is no looking back from here and this engagement is only going to increase in future. This is indeed very exciting for democracy as it establishes a channel for dialogue between the governments and citizens.
Indian democracy, which adopted universal adult franchise model of voting way ahead of many developed democracies of world, had a literacy rate of only 12% in 1947. Today in 2015 its literacy rate has touched 74%, while the world average is 85%. Then came the disruptions of technology, which started creating another type of illiteracy- digital illiteracy and hence the problem of digital divide. The choice was- either to wait till the society attains 100% literacy or address the issue of digital literacy along with conventional literacy. The Government decided to launch a Digital Literacy Mission in 2014 to impart basic digital literacy to at least one member of every household in next 5 years. The year 2015 saw, 3.3 million people taking a step towards digital literacy. This effort will go a long way in enriching the democracy. Imagine so many millions in the virtual world expressing themselves using the new media.
During the good old days of newspapers the time for breaking news used to be 24 hours. In the age of TV News, this time came down to 24 minutes. In 2015, social media brought it down to 24 seconds. This redefined the news. Extensive use of social media by the governments led to a point where a mobile phone and Internet connection was sufficient for keeping in tune with the latest. Unlike TV news the new media also gave the freedom to the people to respond to each and every development. Mobile phone screen indeed replaced the TV screens to become the first screen. This added another important dynamics in our democracy and the way we fetched news.
Traditionally we all have heard that any good media in a healthy democracy should be neutral. No one knows what degree of neutrality existed in traditional media. 2015 witnessed a demand across the world for the neutrality of Internet as a medium and this matter is not yet to settled. Governments across the world are trying to find out a perfect answer to the issues associated with net neutrality. 2016 will be a busy year from this perspective. However, I feel that the Internet will be meaningless if it is not neutral. Unrestricted flow of data through the medium is the essence of Internet. Only a neutral Internet can uphold all the benefits that technology has brought for the democracy.
The year that lies ahead is going to be even more exciting for democracy. It will raise more questions than it will answer. Questions relating to privacy, security of data, moral and social values etc. will come under scrutiny by the newer tools of expressing freedom. Democracy does not mean absolute freedom rather it is rationalization of individual freedom. How will the democracies rationalize individual freedom in age of new media and find answers to the questions raised above will define 2016. However, in 2015 technology gave a new meaning to freedom of expression, which is the essence of democracy.
Happy Republic day.