Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced last week that his company, along with other technology giants, have formed a coalition to lower the cost of internet services for mobile devices in developing countries. Zuckerberg also hopes to make apps more data-efficient.
This initiative is built on Zuckerberg’s belief, outlined in a blog post, that connectivity is a human right and the foundation of today’s global knowledge economy. "The more things we all know, the better the ideas, products and services we can all offer and the better all of our lives will be," Zuckerberg wrote in the post.
But while connectivity may be vital to the modern economy, is it a crucial necessity in a democratic society? It seems the internet is not essential in establishing a democracy but is critical in maintaining one.
At the core of a democratic society are citizens that have the right to be informed so that they can make better decisions on who they elect as their representatives in government. This means that transparency is indispensable. A system of government is a not a democracy if they hide, distort, or suppress certain ideas and information. The Swedish government even makes its commitment to openness and transparency public. Its citizens have access to official government records, which ensures the people and media outlets have a means of checks and balances on their government.
But publicized government records are useless without a literate population. Therefore, the key element to a truly democratic society is education. Through education, people learn more than just the math and reading skills necessary to help them survive, but are equipped with the knowledge necessary to evaluate their government’s performance and to understand how its policies will impact them. Education makes informed citizens.
Education also ideally allows equal access to equal opportunities. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote in A Vindication of the Rights of Women that education is the solution to breaking the self-fulfilling prophesy that women are incompetent and unintelligent: because men deny women a proper education, women are obtuse; because women are obtuse, they do not deserve to be educated; and so on and so forth. This idea can be similarly applied to African Americans and immigrant groups.
The internet means nothing if people are illiterate. Indeed, without education, how could anyone know how to use the internet to search for those government records and read them at an advanced level in order to scrutinize and question what the government is doing? Bringing in the technology before more pressing social issues are addressed puts the cart before the horse, according to Ohio State professor of sociology Edward Crenshaw.
Of course, some people argue that democracy and personal liberties mean nothing if people don't have access to more basic needs like food, clean water, and healthcare. To that end, Bill Gates criticized connectivity projects in an interview with Bloomberg News. "When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that," he said. But a basic education teaches people basic hygiene skills with which they can avert illnesses and thrive. This allows people to enjoy the personal liberties a democracy guarantees.
There's no question that the internet is crucial in maintaining a democratic society. For the educated, the internet is a tool to scrutinize both the government and the media outlets that deliver information. How many of us have used the internet to prove that Fox News is not, in fact, "fair and balanced?" How many of us stay up-to-date on current events via online news sources such as the Huffington Post (or PolicyMic)? In this sense, the internet allows us to form our own opinions. It gives us an outlet to research events neglected by the mass media because they aren’t "important enough" to be reported on. It lets us vicariously experience different cultures via photos and videos uploaded by ordinary people.
If education creates an informed population, then the internet makes an involved one.
Nonetheless, the idea that the internet is vital in maintaining a democracy is not without its critics. Eli Noam, a Columbia University professor of economics, thinks that the Internet is plain bad for democracy. He argues that it creates clutter, making it hard for the truly important messages to get through.
However, it is still irrefutable that connectivity facilitates the voicing of individual, and often overlooked, ideas. And isn't that exactly what gives PolicyMic its power? That someone like me, an "average Joe" who does not even have a background in journalism, can use this medium to make my opinions and concerns heard?