The Medium Still Isn’t the Message: Revisiting the Link Between Communication Technologies and Political Liberalization

The following thesis questions the claims presently being made on behalf of the Internet as a unidirectional causal agent in socio-political liberalisation. The study approaches this question both from a theoretical standpoint and a historical one: first examining the assumptions that underlie this claim first by drawing historical parallels to print technology and the various ways in which this was exploited in mid-millennia Europe, and then by applying the conclusions reached in this examination to a contemporary case study, that of Singapore.

In this process I hope to demonstrate that claims concerning the inevitability of Internet-driven liberalization rest on a selective use of history, yet simultaneously reject precedent contending that the Internet differs from any previous technology of communication in a series of profound and qualitative ways (labelling it as a revolutionary change of type rather than an evolutionary one of degree). However, in questioning the truly ‘revolutionary’ nature of the technology it becomes apparent that, as the historical case of print suggests, it could be exploited in a variety of ways. The very traits which make the technology potentially liberalizing, when developed, exploited or even perceived differently, could also render it employable as a more pervasive mechanism of control than any which previously existed (a pattern which can also be clearly recognized in the case of print). Whilst not denying that certain manifestations of communications technologies may well be necessary pre-requisites for political liberalization, I simultaneously venture that they may also be necessary pre-requisites for the effective exercise of authoritarian control in the modern state.

What becomes clearly apparent in both cases is that, in neither instance were authoritarian rules unable (a) to control the technology through censorship, monitoring, and economics co-optation; and (b) utilize the technology effectively toward their own ends. None of the characteristics proffers by the cyber-libertarians (decentralization, interaction or lack of spectrum constrictions) appear to guarantee anything except a purely theoretical proclivity toward ideational pluralism and can just as easily be employed toward the ends of centralized control. Closer theoretical examination of the assumptions which underlie any uni-direction causality also suggest that the connection between the concepts of ideational pluralism, the marketplace of ideas and political liberalization is equally questionable.

In sum, I show that the ‘dictator’s dilemma’ is based on a theoretically and historically selective reading of the role of communications technologies in change. The assertion that technological determinism is of little analytical value is by no means a new contention—indeed scholars have been critiquing and rejection determinism for years. Yet I feel that the importance of this particular project lies in the need to re-stress this critique in the face of its apparent (and I believe ill considered) resurgence in recent years. I argue that instead we would benefit from an acknowledgement of the fluidity of technology, informed by our experiences of both the past and the present, when we make claims on the behalf of the Internet. I believe that technology reflects and mirrors the culture (or cultures) in which it evolves rather than guiding or directing them. I do not assume that all, or even the majority of examples, will fall into my categorization regarding authoritarianism, or that none will conform to counter-examples involving liberalization. Neither of these outcomes is necessary for my rejection of determinism to hold. Rather I hope to demonstrate that one catch-all conception of the relationship between the technology and its context cannot be found, and that this should be kept in mind when investing a technology which the supposed power to drive a directional type of social or political transformation.

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