13 November 2009

Thoughts on the Internet and Ireland's Public Sphere

And so yesterday the NAMA Bill passed all stages in the Dail and is due to be signed into law by the President next week, and Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan expects the €54 Billion worth of bad loans to be transferred from the three participating banks and two building societies to the taxpayers before Christmas.

Merry Christmas everyone.

The above poster has been hanging on the walls of Tripod/the Pod on Harcourt Street for the last few days, an increasingly popular location for political campaigns aiming to target the hip young kids of today. Pretty nice poster, on target with snappy Stiglitz and 'Economist' quotes to add a bit of gravitas and substance to what otherwise might be written off as a bit frivolous. The only problem, and its quite a big one, is that the website it directs you to, enoughisenough.ie, is simply appalling. Maybe it looks nice in IE, being a Mac user I can't tell, but after viewing it in Firefox, Safari, Camino and Chromium its quite simply an unusable dog's dinner.

There is so much information that could be put up on an anti-NAMA site, detailing why it is wrong, what the consequences are and most importantly what a viable alternative would be (for my money nationalistaion of the banks is the only sure-fire way to protect the interests of the tax-payers). The poster by itself is very effective but the whole campaign is let down by the stunningly bad website.

This is what I am coming to think of as "The Obama Effect". In the run up to the local and European elections I met with a number of candidates and groups that all wanted to be on "the Internets". They didn't know what "the Internets" were but by Jaysus they knew they needed to be there. My advice to all and sundry at the time was that you didn't need an online media strategy at this stage in the evolution of our political environment, but if you were to have a presence then you'd better make sure that it's done properly; you have little to gain right now in Ireland from a good web presence, but an awful lot to loose from a bad one.

The ignorance with which our political elites approach the "internets" continues to both embarrass and amuse, with Tánaiste Mary Coughlan exclaiming last week as she officially opened Facebook's new Dublin offices when asked if she had a Facebook account: "You must be joking. Would I trust you guys?".

Hilarious.

I stopped working with politicians shortly before the European elections, disillusioned by the caliber of people I met. I grew increasingly frustrated with the realities of representative democracy, its major flaw being the people we choose to act as our Representatives. In a nation as small as Ireland, the opportunities for true Democracy should be great, and the internet should facilitate the realisation of Habermas' 'Public Sphere', wherein the major issues of the day are debated by knowledgeable and interested citizens and a consensus is reached that has a real and positive effect on the lives of all citizens.

Instead the actions of the current Government show an extreme and blatant disregard for the Public Sphere, the enactment of the NAMA legislation being but the latest and most extreme example. On the other side the reactionary and inflammatory heckling that all too often passes for debate online is an embarrassment for any who actively promote the internet as a form of communication, as explored in the interesting and impromptu point and counterpoint between John Waters and Hugh Linehan in last week's Irish Times Online.

All this leaves me somewhat dispirited. I feel that there is great potential for our democratic processes to be so much better, more inclusive and positive, and the Internet can facilitate this transformation, but I despair that there is something in our national psyche that will prevent this.

All the same, it could be worse; we could have Birthers and tea-parties.

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