Monday, July 19, 2010

Does the chatter matter?

Much has been made in the last couple of years of the impact of social networking sites and technologies on political processes (Iran last summer or the most recent election in Colombia being two salient examples) and the State Department is certainly taking note, as that NYT article mentioned in a previous post makes clear. In some cases, these chattering mechanisms can truly reshape the political landscape, but I can't help but feel a little skepticism on a couple of different fronts. First, in spite of the increasing availability of mobile technologies and wider access to the internet, the reality is that most people on this planet do not enjoy such privileges. Think of the stats on the number of people living on roughly $1.25 a day, the sum currently used the World Bank to define extreme poverty. There are apparently some 1.4 billion human beings, again according to the World Bank, who fit into that category, and a whole lot more of the total of about 7 billion of us living on sums not much greater than that buck and a quarter. For most of these people, cell phones and computers don't even exist. Second--and admittedly I may be showing my age here as well as a rather jaded opinion of the individualism inherent in American culture--it's hard not to think on occasion that the younger generation might be ascribing a little too much significance to all the electronic and cyber-chatter, when again, for most people on the planet, political participation is something that you do in a room or on the street with a group of like-minded people. That's not to say that cell phones and computers can't facilitate activism and even become game-changers in political processes but let's not get carried away with their potential impact, or not quite yet anyway.

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