Information Technology's Inbuilt (Progressive) Politics

JUNE 12, 2004

This was a comment posted in response to one of Chris Lightfoot’s (ever interesting) posts:

[Chris wrote] … Technologies may or may not have inbuilt politics. The printing press can be used for printing books, or printing identity cards; `trusted computing’ can be used to enforce digital rights management or to secure peer-to-peer networks. If these technologies do have political values, how can we tell ahead of time what they are? …

I think saying that a technology has ‘inbuilt’ politics may be misleading. However technology does have political effects and these can be predictable.

Technology alters the power balance between groups because it affects them differentially. Lowering the cost of information access will usually assist the poorer members of society more than the richer. Just think of Kahle’s wonderful bookmobile or take the case of the printing press. The PP lowered the cost of information diffusion. Since these effects are to reduce monopoly control of information one would imagine this would have a predictable ‘progressive’ result.

Simlarly the internet reduces the cost of information and organization. This benefit has a differential impact where the less organized, less well-off groups gain more than the organized, well-off groups. The internet can go some way to resolving the free-rider issues and principal agent problems that bedevil government.

This doesn’t mean that technology isn’t a two edged sword and that in most cases it is used for both the good and the bad. Nevertheless in these kinds of cases the overall effect is unambiguous. Take the printing press, for example. Many governments had large bureaucracies dedicated to censorship (see Darnton on France in the 18th C.) and nowadays the Chinese monitor internet access. But the cost of these restrictions grows with new technology and they are less effective than what had previously existed. The French still read lots of banned literature (such as crude satires that mocked the King and his ministers) and the Chinese probably have more access to information than previously.

Technology can be a one-edged sword.