Lowering the Price of Information

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.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Berin Szoka surveys recent developments in Internet activism. The 2009 Green Revolution in Iran may have failed, but activists in the United States defeated SOPA, a bill that would have imposed significant restrictions on the Internet. Szoka concludes that the Internet helps solve a significant problem in activism: It makes it easier for like-minded people to provide reputational feedback about corporations and governments. Still, we must pay close attention to the fact that governments can and do manipulate the Internet to repress their populations.

Response Essays

  • Jason Benlevi argues that digital activism rarely gets the kind of results that real-world activism can. In any conflict, reality usually beats virtuality. Though he is no Luddite — and though he has a career record to prove it — Benlevi argues that online activism is often a hostage to the medium that carries it. That medium, in turn, exists in the real world, where it is controlled by corporations and governments. Social media activism is at its strongest when it does what the medium was designed to do — provide consumer feedback on corporate products. It’s not so effective at challenging oppressive governments.

  • Rebecca MacKinnon urges a close attention to the particularities of time and place. Protest movements are more and more using social media, but they may stand or fall based on other factors. Laws and Internet architectures may vary, rendering the medium more or less conducive to citizen activism. It becomes increasingly important to pay attention to what makes for good or bad Internet law, because the results in this area may prompt virtuous or vicious cycles throughout society.

  • John O. McGinnis argues that the Internet and associated technologies can and will change the terrain on which policy choices are made. Not only does it become easier for dispersed interests to aggregate, but information technology can also shift the focus of our political culture. Empiricism and evidence will become relatively more important as facts become easier to check; ideology and unsupported intuition will lose a good deal of power. For these reasons, McGinnis is an optimist.