Can the Internet help bring about democracy? Yes, but the hard work comes mostly offline.

Commentaries on economics and technology.
May 19 2011 3:07 PM

Change-Is-Hard.com

The Internet can help foment revolutions, but the hard work of democracy takes place mostly offline.

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Egypt protests. Click image to expand.
Egyptian protesters 

The Internet is an extraordinarily powerful tool. It has changed how we do business, how we participate in politics, even how we change leaders—at least some of the time.

But the ease with which we now communicate, the efficiencies we take for granted, can give us a false sense of how easy it is to follow through on some of these changes. Despite the importance of social media in fomenting revolution, and even in deposing deeply unpopular leaders, governing in the real world is not as easy as governing online.

This struck me last week as I listened to one of Egypt's new online generation talking enthusiastically about the future. His thesis was that once people have tasted freedom, once the oppressive leader is gone, they will naturally live as free people and build a new, democratic society without much central oversight. I wish I could believe that it will all be as easy for Egyptians as running a Facebook group was.

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Generally, the Internet is a tool for people whose basic needs are already being met. Members of the upper middle class in any country, including Egypt, often seem to forget that for most people, the value created on the Internet cannot feed, clothe, and house their families.

In centuries past, revolutionaries were farmers or blacksmiths or merchants. Now they are Google executives and Facebook friends. The Internet connects the elite of the world. But it also cuts people off from the past and a sense of history. The exciting things that happen online are not the same as what happened offline in countries such as Romania and Kyrgyzstan, let alone in Libya.

In fact, habits are often stronger and more persistent than either insights or presidents. People may want a world free of corruption, but it's hard to understand how such a world works. When you are starting a new company and you need to get it registered quickly, how can you get the bureaucrat to do his job and move your paperwork along? In many countries the answer is obvious. And, from the bureaucrat's point of view, his or her salary might be pathetic, but it comes with a steady stream of facilitation payments. That bureaucrat does not feel corrupt; he plays by the rules he signed on for when he got his job, and he does not want them changed midgame.

There are many people in this or a similar position, and they all depend on one another to make a corrupt system work. It is difficult for them to understand how it could be any other way. Of course, they know from the media—indeed, from the Internet—about transparency and freedom. But they don't quite understand how it works.

I am often reminded of a Russian tech entrepreneur I talked to many years ago, back when the Soviet Union was falling apart. "It's great!" he said. "Our government is going to set free-market prices just like yours."

I don't want to be gloomy. People in the Middle East and other emerging democracies have definitely changed from their recent experiences, and their expectations have been raised. But they need to understand the challenges they face in building a new society.

The Internet may have made this transition seem too easy. In Internet communities, it's fairly easy to build consensus. Membership is voluntary, and people who don't like the rules can leave (or they can be kicked out: there is no requirement for due process). Moreover, many resources are infinite on the Internet. People aren't fighting over scarce housing or lucrative jobs. They are befriending one another, sharing information, and accumulating status, points, and experiences.

But in the real world, even online, things aren't so easy. Consider eBay, a wonderful and mostly successful melding of the online and offline worlds. It has a huge budget devoted to deterring and detecting fraud, and it can simply ban fraudsters. The company's success makes governance look easy, but that success is misleading. Unlike eBay, a government needs to put its criminals in jail. It can't simply cancel their accounts.

Every society has its bad actors, and it needs an established (and accountable) authority to deal with them. Otherwise, the bad guys will take advantage of the good ones. So the newly freed people of the Middle East must toughen their idealism with hard realism. They need to figure out how to negotiate and work with existing power structures—such as the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Like it or not, they cannot do that as a brigade of flower children; they need to pick leaders who can speak for them. The modernizers need to form a coherent force—and most likely a political party—rather than simply relying on the wisdom (and good behavior) of the crowds to govern the country.

That does not mean that activists should abandon their cause. But it does mean understanding that even democracy has many rules—ideally, rules that a majority has chosen. And these rules generally reflect compromises among elected representatives who can negotiate in person, reflecting the preferences of those who elected them.

That may sound a little too much like the old system. But it doesn't have to be. Online, if you don't like the rules, you can simply leave and form a new community. Offline, you need to stay and help to change the rules for everyone.

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Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings, is an active investor in a variety of start-ups around the world. Her interests include information technology, health care, private aviation, and space travel.  

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