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ICTs: Power to the People?

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To what extent do information and communication technologies (ICTs) contribute to the development and political transformation of human societies? How might the implementation and adoption of technologies, such as cell phones and the Internet, affect the political fates of some of the world’s least-included nation-states, peoples, and communities, which desperately invest their time and efforts on democratic development? Technology itself is an important part of nearly everything human, not merely an aid to contemporary human activity. It has powerful effects that reshape human activities and alter their meaning, sometimes without overt perceptibility. Also, the human relationship with technology is forever evolving; through social and political constructs, and also entrepreneurial energies in some cases, the final outcomes of technology in development will have an increasingly multifaceted interaction. Still, can ICTs in particular affect different levels of democracy or political corruption in, say, ‘emerging societies’? Can it play a more decisive role in shaping development? The answer is in the affirmative. The Arab Spring presented the world a moment in time when human action stirred up a great deal of curiosity about the ICT and democratic development issue. After 12 June 2009, when millions of citizens voted in Iran’s 10th presidential election, state-run media announced that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the incumbent candidate, had won reelection to a second four-year term. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians flocked to the streets and public city spaces in the following days to protest what they decried a nationwide election fraud perpetrated by their government. The state swiftly cut service to cell phones and stymied the Internet there. It also ejected most foreign journalists. Nevertheless, many Iranians found their way around state-sponsored communication and information sharing impediments. The world witnessed video footage and news of the historic events as they poured out of Iran’s ICTs systems and into the eyes of the world. Some weeks later, the ruling faction dampened public dissent through violence, fear, and incarceration. Yet, cellular phone video and Internet dialogue proved to the world that many Iranians yearned for change. By the 20th century, scholars had already outspokenly observed that technology, as well as changes in development, exacted more influence on societies and their processes and policies than any other elements of like importance. In a pre-Internet world, some reasoned that technological advances, and the implicit structural changes they portended, would mark society with both organization and deliberate control. They were unsure, though, as to what other political, social, or existential changes the computer age might bring. Many thought technological determinism (or, the powerful impact of machines on the course of history) would be apropos until the public might have far-reaching control over technology. Examining the influence of ICTs—cell phones and the Internet, particularly—does more than suggest that technology affects both the democracy and political corruption in emerging societies now. The extant dynamism between ICTs and the economic, social, and political infrastructures is plainly evident. And, it is more than worth considering as humanity progresses and wrestles with persistent problems in development. Today, nearly all “developing” countries maintain a modern sector. Some of the patterns that living and working create in such countries mirror those of “developed” countries. At the same time, however, there are “non-modern” sectors. Patterns of living and working in these sectors can also be found to decay at an accelerated clip. Yet, if ICTs make for a critical pillar of “modern society,” then understanding why many countries strive for progress in relevant areas is critical. ICTs and their economic and political effects are manifold. Studies show that such technology enhances socio-economic development. Striving for a more inclusive information society also affects what development looks like and how economics and politics factor into preexisting social power structures. Some benefits include gains in productivity or better performance in education—even newer social business models and opportunities. Many countries that invest in ICTs are also moving towards “more intensive” approaches to ICT usage because the benefits of ICTs are not a given; successful implementation remains a key factor in determining results. Moreover, if an economy fails to recognize the advantage of using and investing in these new technologies, then the future effects that such decisions have on economic growth and development will be uncertain for a time. Recognizing the difficulties with development goals and technological advances never ceases to be important. Consider the case of Serbia, which set out to achieve European Union (EU) development goals. Serbia worked on becoming a full member of the EU; however, its ICTs development indicators proved considerably lower than requisite standards. Serbia recognized its need to improve upon this. Despite that the ICT sector was one of Serbia’s most lively and quickly growing, underscored by years of double-digit growth pre-global recession, the country suffered greatly from the global crisis. Consequences were subsequently negative for Serbia’s ICT industry. For some groups or societies that do not determine their technology at all, there exists the possibility that the state will elect to stifle development for its own corrupt agenda. In a different scenario, state intervention can lead to an expedited process of technological advance and modernization, a course of action that might positively alter an economy and social welfare. Ultimately, pursuing relevant ICTs approaches that take the people into consideration is important; it is absolutely not enough to consider the technology all by itself. ICT progress should correspond to those it stands to benefit most and most democratically. Another issue is that democracy does not immunize emerging societies from corruption. This poses a major problem for societies that might benefit from ICTs. Many theories of institutional power connect the distribution of power and influence to information networks within emerging societies. Sociologist Manuel Castells has philosophized that when societies evolve to a point of dependence on knowledge and information, the power within those societies grows ever more decentralized as a result. Then, power redistributes amongst the people who are connected to knowledge and information networks. Even if access to information is not enough to change the power structures of a society, the capacity to share and freely generate information with others does amply the degree of power and influence that those connected to the network enjoy. Within less than two years, the technologies that proved instrumental in Iran’s popular movement took the stage in swell of protests and revolutions throughout North African and Middle Eastern states. Iran’s contentious presidential election, followed by the remarkable ‘Arab Spring’, brought to the fore the power of citizen journalism when mediated through ICTs. Consequently, questions emerged as to the political and democratic power of such technologies on a yet larger scale. Some members of the international community focus their energies specifically on ICTs because of the potential to catalyze and facilitate development and to empower otherwise excluded peoples. Whether to adopt ICTs into the debate on global development policy also garners great attention. Although international interest is robust, arguably few scientific investigations have explored the effects of ICTs on development at the society level. Blogs, social networking, YouTube, Twitter, etc. are the new media, and they have all fundamentally transformed and continue to transform the international political arena. The Arab Spring and surrounding events evidence this well. Yet the hope is that, as information about the government and its activities begins moving freely among the members of a society, then there will also be a reduction in the disparity between peoples and their governments. An increased transparency suggests a decrease in corruption amongst public officials, that is, should they hope to continue their office. Cell phones and the Internet are but two ICTs that promote the free sharing of government policy or activity amongst those connected to information networks within an emerging society. As users increase with time, so, too, should there be a decrease in political corruption: The power increases and concentrates amongst the citizenry, affects different levels of democracy or political corruption in emerging societies, and it shapes democratic development. Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.  

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Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.

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