I agree with Rebecca MacKinnon that institutions matter to how effective the Internet will be at improving governance at any particular time. But institutions themselves are endogenous to the cost of accessing information and creating social knowledge. Lowering that cost makes it easier over time for individuals to coordinate and act on encompassing interests. The encompassing interests include creating good institutions, like democracy in nondemocratic nations, and a more experimental politics in democratic ones.
To be sure, the occasions for actual institutional progress turn on the vicissitudes of politics and the preexisting institutions in a nation, but lowering information costs is very good both for allowing individuals to coordinate and for improving the quality of social knowledge. Thus I cannot agree with Ms. MacKinnon’s bottom line that it is unclear whether the Internet is conducive to liberal democracy in particular and better governance in general. My question to her is whether she thinks it remains unclear whether the invention of the printing press was ultimately conducive to liberal democracy and better governance? If it has become clear now that the printing press was beneficial, what is the salient difference between the press and the new medium of the Internet that further reduces information costs?
I disagree with the main thrust of Jason Benlevi’s piece, namely that the Internet is “concentrated, centralized, and controlled.” To the contrary, at least in free nations, it is the most open avenue for mass communication ever devised. In authoritarian nations, like China, it is a force that the authorities struggle to control, with substantial but not complete success. But such attempts at repression show that the Internet is a force for freedom that strikes fear into the hearts of oppressive regimes.
It is true that private companies, like Verizon, provide access to the Internet in democratic nations like ours. But these providers offer individuals access at a fraction of the price it cost to access an audience in previous years, let alone previous centuries. Anyone can start a blog and some who have done so now have audiences in the hundreds of thousands. Innovative policy ideas have never been more numerous. It is certainly true that advocacy on the Internet has not displaced other forms of political activism, but online information exchange helps refine the goals of such activism and coordinate its direction. In short, the Internet permits more minds to reflect on more common ideas and such widespread recombination of thought is indispensable to social progress.
Disruptive technological change is likely to lower information costs still further. Facebook and other networks now facilitate coordination. But if other networks become more effective at coordination, the costs of scaling up to create a better alternative have also never been lower. In short, the Internet makes is easier for anyone to communicate anything that others want to pay attention to. These developments bring us closer to a regime of spontaneous order than centralized control.