Ralph Nader was in California talking civics with Google employees.
Nader raises the question of whether the information revolution, and Google specifically, made society better? The premise of the question is no. However, the answer to the question is an inconvertible yes. Information technology has led to dramatic rises in worker productivity. It has led to dramatic improvements in information exchange. Citizens now have direct access to government reports and resources, direct access to thinkers who don’t make it through traditional media filters, great works, and huge collaborative efforts at our finger tips. Nader’s own inability to see progress in this arena is more of a result of his willful ignorance than the strength of the case against him. What used to require a research project in a library is now, literally, a few clicks away.
As for translating into civic action, first of all I would like to state that voter turnout in the United States has not been phenomenal in the modern era. It starts out at 63.1% in 1960 and trends downward. In short, 1 in 3 people eligible to vote, do not. In ’88, the general election fell below 50% and mid-terms have never been above 50% since 1960. That is appalling. However, the one sign of encouragement is that it is getting better. However, that significant upward trend only started recently. The 2004 election had the highest percentage turnout since 1968. The 2006 mid-term election had the highest percentage turnout since 1970. Nader also ignores the significance of organizations like MoveOn.org have in organizing people for protests and the power blogs had in shaping the FISA fight. We have had massive protests against the Iraq War, part of that is because of Internet mobilization.
Nader bemoans the fact that we are awash with information. Yes we are awash with information, a small percentage of it good and the vast majority bad. However, coming to universal agreement on what is good and bad is virtually impossible. However, having too much is a much better situation than having to little or not enough. Those that complain about the magnitude are merely deluding themselves. They assume the quality of information was better because there was less of it. While the average quality might be higher, in terms of the quality between the best of the best, the former is clearly the loser because it is drawing from a smaller pool of talent. Only those eager to believe what they are told accept the previous situation. It is precisely the mechanism to achieve higher average information quality which is realized by filtering news through a specialized class that causes the gross distortions of coverage in the mainstream media today. This becomes baldly apparent to all those willing to do the barest modicum of research and capable of independent thought (see Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media).
So the need arises to develop community based tools for filtering that information. That is what sites like Reddit, Digg, Fark, Slashdot, etc. are for, filtering and digesting the mass of information that is out there.
I’m incredibly surprised that Nader brought up the FCC hearings on media consolidation. Although, it is difficult to tell exactly what he is referencing I imagine he was talking about those covered in this Bill Moyers Journal piece called “Massing of the Media.” As a display of civics, the meetings were a complete farce. That type of arrogance requires the removal of those actors from elected office. The Internet is our best hope for making those actions stick and to record the offenses of those officials into the public conscience. Although, I am curious on how Nader thinks people became mobilized to attend those meetings, carrier pigeons?
The most extreme irony had to be Nader complaining about these issues, while telling people to go to his website and sign up on his email list.
So, how about listing things we should agree on.
- Democracy is weak in this country
- Democracy is starting to get stronger
- The Internet has a lot to do with this strengthening
- We still have a long way to go
However, the last thing that I want to point out is that much of the progressive agenda was introduced due to a historical artifact. It was the split of the social conservatives in the South that ushered in the Republican era dominated by the likes of Reagan, Bush and Gingrich. Their legacy will be with us for decades to come. However, what we are seeing today is a re-establishment of a consensus. Unlike the one that came before, this one is poised to be stronger and longer-lasting because it is based on an acceptance of principles, evidence and logic and not just historical accident. I’m not saying that it will be easy, and it far from certain, but the potential is there. And it does begin and end with information. We need to change the media that people consume from a plutocracy to a meritocracy. Make the televised debates irrelevant through innovation, then we will see some meaningful changes take place. However, it is merely an exercise in frustration to complain about the current system without recognizing the merit and possibilities in any of the alternatives.