Interactivism

Thanks to the Guardian's digital supremo Emily Bell, direct electronic democracy now has a name. It's called interactivism and it is the story not only of this week, but of many weeks to come in our increasingly on-demand digital plebiscitory world.

As Bell notes, the interactivists have been busy on both sides of the Atlantic this week. In the UK, they've launched a witch hunt against two of the BBC's brightest comic stars, Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, who, on October 16, broadcasted the adolescent radio prank of leaving a sexually vulgar message on an old man's voice mail. Goaded by both old and new media, the humorless digital mob reacted, lodging 37,000 complaints with the BBC which not only triggered Brand's dismissal and Ross' suspension but also to the resignation of BBC's Radio 2 controller, the universally admired Lesley Douglas.

Meanwhile, in America, the interactivists have been busy putting their finishing touches on electing the next President of the United States, Barack Obama. As Bell correctly argues, Obama will be the "first politician" to be swept to office on a wave of interactivist funding and campaigning:

With half of his $500m (£303m) campaign fund coming from donations of less than $200 through internet fundraising, the Obama campaign has harnessed electronic media to devastating effect, and melded the idea of grassroots activism with instant feedback and visible networks.

So what does this tell us about the nature of Obama's presidency?  As Bell notes, his campaign has become expert in the utilization of "lightening speed" viral marketing and email messaging. What she doesn't explain, however, is how Obama's interactivists will use these communications weapons when their political fortunes dip and public opinion and the media turn against the President. I suspect that a highly democratic civil rights movement can quickly be transformed into a undemocratic lynch mob when the political circumstances demand it. As Bell wisely argues:

Technology is amoral and the connectivity which helps a civil rights movement can equally be the platform for a lynch mob. There is no implicit democracy in interactivism - the most organised and connected, the most vociferous and offended can tip the balance.

Exactly. What we've done with the Internet and mobile telephones and the radical democratization of mainstream media is create tools which are as attractive to a civil rights movement as to a lynch mob. The real question is whether our current economic, political and cultural environment is more suited to mass movements for civil rights or for civil wrongs. As a cultural pessimist, I suspect the latter is true; my guess is that the more optimistic Emily Bell would suggest the former.

This certainly isn't my last word on interactivism. This coming Wednesday (November 5) evening at 8.00, I'll be presenting my views about digital democracy on the BBC Radio 4 show Iconoclasts. And Emily Bell will be on a panel critiquing my views. While I don't suppose we'll get up to any Brand/Ross antics, it promises to be a lively conversation between experts which will also, conforming to the BBC's dangerously democratic openness, include email and text commentary from our interactivist audience.