BUM09 Speaker Philip Koh on Democratic Governance.com: Five Challeges


By Philip TN Koh

Advocate & Solicitor, High Court Malaya

It has been estimated that by 20 10 there will be over five hundred million blogs world wide . Will that be a boon and benefit to opening space for democracy. Or will that be baneful?

The first flush of enthusiasm has now have cautionary note sounded by not only naysayers or Later Day Luddites but even ex soothsayers of the Silicon valley and key political and social thinkers .

My current thinking ahs been spurred by Cass Sustein’s warning that Internet evangelists that the Web is the promise land must not confused consumer sovereignty , which is the idea behind free markets and that of political sovereignty ,the idea behind free nation . In Sustein thesis1 this confusion may well sow the seed that will compromise political sovereignty with its polarizing tendencies and that all reform must direct itself to “ central democratic goal … to ensure a large measure of social integration –not merely of racial groups , but across multiple lines , in a way that broadens sympathies and enriches human life .”

(i)The Challenge of Authenticity : In a great phrase that sums up this thread Charles Taylor has characterized our present age as exhibiting malaise of modernity 2.This is made up of three major trajectories : a) the problem of the individual ;( b) a weberian disenchantment of the world ;( c)in the political sphere the growth of soft despotism that accompanies the sense of lack of participatory citizenry . Will as C taylor cites Nietzsche be last men clinging onto to the straws of our pitiable comfort expired from all aspirations.

Through the late twenty century social commentary has lamented the logic of post industrial society and its contradictions within the market based capitalism has engendered a narcisstic society that experienced anomie and loss of community Nicholas Lasch has characterized modern society as Narcisstic and this description is not far from teh construct of 21st century where our selves lack moral moorings and ideals . The abandonment of the public square for an individualistic salvific life constructed either around the nuclear family or via the solitary self conducting herself through serial loose relationships. Truth claims are relativised , travestied and even trivialized .Charles Taylor argued that the eclipsed of the moral force of the ideal of authenticity in all spheres of life is indeed the expression of malaise of our modernity

The advent of internet communities do not necessary heals the dis –ease . Often it is exacerbated. The surfeit of information and implosion of knowledge do not equate to the emergence of a deliberative democratic space .In our surfing and sifting between sites we flipped through teh web without any anchor. In the alternate we register and read only from sites that reflect our political sensibilities and shun those which are not of our persuasion . Through routine our simply inertia the tagged cookied site becomes teh shaper of our opinion and ideological convictions. This may be putting it too strongly we have little or no clear conceptual categories upon which to hang and clarify our debates .

( ii)The Challenge of Expertise :

Andrew keen ‘s polemical text 3against the Cult of the Amateur hits home with trenchant force . The Googlization and Wiki-pedia as sources for research and validation amongst many is startling.That Free amateur content can substitute for careful verified information that has responsible editorial or expert hand is both symptomatic of the abdication of the intellect . Political extremism can burden the internet sites and if there is no keen editorial or responsibility taken for postings there will be but the noise of a exhibionistic rabble . This critique may sound elitist but can be defensible.If the internet become or degenerate to rumour mill then instead of emergent democratic norms we descend into Digital navel –gazing that is juvenile and narcisstic .

(iii}The Challenge of In- Depth Analysis and Focus

Jurgen Habermas observed :

The price we pay for growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralized access to unedited stories .In this medium , contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a focus .”

Careful measured reflective op pieces may be buried by the avalanche of voices .The Guternberg revolution with a sense of sacrality of the text both spoken or read is substituted to virtual palce and space .The disembodied text free float in a flotsam and detritus of fragmented information , without voice , without wisdom and polemic and pastiche subsumes passion and principles .Sound debate and discourse is reduced to twitterings .

Gert Lovink in Eurozine wrote,

A spectre haunts the world’s intellectual elites: information overload. Ordinary people have hijacked strategic resources and are clogging up once carefully policed media channels. Before the Internet, the mandarin classes rested on the idea that they could separate “idle talk” from “knowledge”. With the rise of Internet search engines it is no longer possible to distinguish between patrician insights and plebeian gossip. The distinction between high and low, and their co-mingling on occasions of carnival, belong to a bygone era and should no longer concern us. Nowadays an altogether new phenomenon is causing alarm: search engines rank according to popularity, not truth.” (Published 2008-09-05 Original in English First published in Lettre International 81 (2008) (German version) © Geert Lovink © Eurozine)

( iv)The Challenge of rational Discourse And Deliberative virtues

Where are they, the islands of reason in the cyber sea? Ways out of the programmed society

The recent passing of J wiezenbaum , the doyen of early computer specialist who was first to cautioned against excessive zeal of the possibilities of compute knowledge was noted by Geert Lovink ( The society of Query and Googlization of Life : a Tribute to J Weizenbaum ( 2008 -09 -2008 Eurozine) as follows :

Weizenbaum warns against an uncritical use of the word “information”. “The signals inside the computer are not information. They are not more than signals. There is only one way to turn signals into information, throughinterpretation”. For this we depend on the labour of the human brain. Theproblem of the Internet, according to Weizenbaum, is that it invites us to see it as a Delphic oracle. The Internet will provide the answer to all our questions and problems. But the Internet is not a vending machine in which you throw acoin and then get what you want. The key, here, is the acquisition of a proper education in order to formulate the right query. It’s all about how one gets to pose the right question. For this one needs education and expertise. Higher standards of education are not attained by making it easier to publish. Weizenbaum: “The fact that anyone can put anything online does not mean a great deal. Randomly throwing something in achieves just as little as randomly fishing something out.” Communication alone will not lead to useful and sustainable knowledge.”

What is needful is for the Blogsphere to mature and evolve into a space for mature discouse whilst not eschewing provision of alternate information and debates .

We need to develop a deliberative democracy .John Rawls 20th Century foremost liberal political philosopher is worth attending to .

In Rawls mature formulation of the same a vision of deliberative democracy is advanced wherein three major elements are put forward4:

  • The idea of public reason

  • Framework of democratic institutions that enables deliberative legislative bodies

  • Knowledge and desire on part of citizenry to follow public reason and to realize its ideal in their political conduct.

( v) The Challenge of Legal Ordering

Dr Peng Hwa Ang entitled his work as Ordering Chaos Regulating the Internet5 . This is a wide ranging area which deserve in-depth treatment. Current concerns range from ( a) debates on limits and extent of self regulation; ( b) Liability for content ( including third Party content;(c) Defamation ;( d) sedition and security legislation ( eg ISA) ;( e) privacy..

For Bloggers the “ chilling effect” of laws of defamation and regulatory regimes including the infamous Sedition Act has been accompanied by cries of undemocratic practices by the authoritarian state . Whilst such critiques are defensible in many ways( and one can mount many strong apologia for wider freedom given the cowed national media) yet one may pause and ask that if there is complete lack of legal ordering will that be in fact a good thing ? Equally the threat of Bloggers views being ignored or completely marginalized by reasoning citizenry with where we have only an internal talking between Balkanized e –communities will not serve the enlargement of genuine democratic discourse and space .

Its significant that the UK Law Commission on Defamation and Internet ( 2002) observed that the laws on this area is complex and attempts to create greater certainties have added greater ambiguities and reform therefore cannot be made as yet .

Concluding Obsevations

What is the socialization process for the future of engaging a constructive citizenry ? It has been well said that by Roberta Siegel ,

What then are the norms and process of our socialization within and without Web 3.0 ?

A s Allan Gibbard cogently observed6 ,

We choose our communities of judgement , in a sense , and gains and losses bear on the choice .Life is a messy and dangerous world depends on being able to form broad communities of judegment on a restricted range of norms –norms that enable us to live together .To thrive , though we need more intimate communities as well . In theses communities we can exercise our normative capacities and try to make sense out of life and its possibilities .There is a complex story to be told here of practices and their costs , of coherent possibilities and the pressures that bear on them …

Yes we have an on going story to tell of our imagined community

In the meantime we all of us ought to give heed to the call for cultivation of virtues by Amy Gutman without which we cannot even begin to contemplate our future as a nation.

1 Cass Sustein Republic.Com Princeton ( 2001) ; See also Matthew Hndman The Myth of Digital Democracy ( PUB) ( 2008)

2 Charles Taylor , The Malaise of Modernity ( 1990) Anansi Press Massey Lectures series University of Toronto , CBC Radio . See further Charles Taylor, “ The Politics of Recognition “ in Amy Gutman Ed , Multiculturalism: examining the Politics of Recognition ( Princeton )( 1994)

3 Andrew Keen , The Cult of the Amateur : how Blogs , My space , YouTube , and the rest of today’s uswr -generated media are destroying our economy , our culture , and our values ( Nicholas Brealey Publishing ) ( 2008)

4 Rawls, “ The Idea of Public reason Revisited.” is Samuel Freeman Ed. John Rawls, “ Collected Papers” (Harvard) 573,580.

5 Ordering Chaos Regulating the Internet Thomson ( 2005 )( Singapore ) Thomson Learning

6 Allan Gibbard “ Communities of Judgement” from E Frankel Psul , Fred D Miller , Jr. Jeffrey Paul eds , Foundations of Morla and Political Philosophy ( 1990 ) ( Basil Blackwell) 175 , 178


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