Francis Bacon’s ‘Meditationes Sacrae’ of 1597 has inscribed in it perhaps one of the world’s greatest truths; that “knowledge itself is power.”
The power to inform, scrutinise, hold accountable and lead are all knowledge-dependent. They all rely on the individual having access to, and being able to mobilise, a whole range of facts and figures as to bring about social change. In a liberal democracy, knowledge is generally dispersed among a large population. As a result, it is the citizens who are often the embodiment, if not also the source, of power. The dispersal of such knowledge, however, very often depends on the technologies one has to hand. In a world in which it has been claimed that the phone is becoming an appendage of the hand
, it would be logical to therefore believe that our digitally-enabled world has unprecedented democratic potential.
It was the one time American Vice President Al Gore who, in 1994, declared that the Global Information Infrastructure (GII) would deliver the new ‘Athenian age’ of democracy
. As an international resource for data and knowledge, the GII committed to freedom of information and aspired to equip individuals with the tools to effectively shape and influence policy making. Notably, as Al Gore’s address to the first World Telecommunication Development Conference came at the very beginning of the ‘Internet Revolution’, it seems as though it has something mysteriously prophetic about it.
With the advent of social media platforms during the last few decades, a new height of global connectivity has been ushered in. Social media not only increases the information flows and knowledge sharing but also becomes a powerful tool for the younger generation to participate in and shape society. The popularisation of instant communication methods such as Skype has torn down geographical barriers and connected the world as never before. With opportunities such as these, however, also come new and unexpected challenges. Ensuring that the international community harnesses the capacity to transform this power into global citizenship remains one of today’s biggest tasks.
Working collaboratively with others so that we use knowledge in ways which enrich and enhance rather than challenge liberal democracy is an essential task confronting this generation.
There are two types of skills to unlock the democratic potential. Firstly, to cultivate this digitally-enabled global citizenship we need to make sure that young adults are being taught technological literacy from an early age. These skills should not just be fostered in schools, but should also be nurtured in wider social environments such as youth clubs and libraries too. Paramount to enhancing digital democracy is ensuring individuals possess a mixture of technical skills as to operate communication systems. At an elementary level, this involves helping individuals to access, work, and utilise basic software, and then are able to diagnose technical problems and come up with effective solutions. Through investing in global digital education, we also unleash significant democratic, social, and economic potential. As more people are able to programme, code, and create digital applications, new solutions can be applied to old problems and innovative developments can help to improve our quality of life on a truly global level.
On a deeper level too, this new form of digital democracy also requires interpersonal skills. As digital technologies seem to lack a distinctive qualitative sense, they also appear impartial to certain political and ethical sensitivities. In this sense, it may be much easier to offend someone online. Creating ways in which individuals can display empathy with each other is crucial to overcoming this. Here, the genius of the emoji steps in. As ‘digitalised expressions’ of feeling and sentiment, emoji’s are very powerful tools. By being able to accompany written comments with a variety of different digital facial expressions, users can engage in a dialogue that has a good level of meaning and common understanding too. Liberal democracies are also inherently participatory political systems. Equipping individuals with interpersonal skills that are tactful in leading online debates and discussions on issues that may at times be politically and ethically sensitive is an essential skill.
Many charitable organisations have already taken to social media platforms such as Twitter to lead debates on issues as diverse as gender politics and the youth vote in the UK. Politicians and policy makers are exploring this digital democratic potential. Social media increases global connectivity and the fast and wide sharing of knowledge. But knowledge on its own is not enough, technological and interpersonal skills should also be deployed tactfully in order to ensure that social change benefits everyone concerned.