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Home > Politics

Parliamentary Advisory Committee to meet at Whirl-Y-Gig

Sean Walsh gives a think tank a piece of his mind.

1 October 2003

I've often wondered what Think Tanks actually think. Demos have just released a new paper, "Open Source Democracy: How Online Communication is Changing Offline Politics", and it seemed the ideal opportunity to investigate.

It was written by Douglas Rushkoff, who, for the last ten years, has been bothering the world about the future. His Cyberia is one of the worst books about the dawn of the internet age. The datedness (Smart Drugs! Rave Music! Cyberpunk!) is forgivable, but the thing's stunk up by the overwhelming charmlessness of his writing. It's like having to sit around and listen to a mid-life Acid bore explains the revelations that you could experience were you to take just a few milligrams of a ridiculously dangerous chemical produced in a Dutch shed.

It shocked me that someone in Britain is paying (assuming they pay, and it's not just a prestige and influence deal) for his Wired '94 techno-utopianism. I thought that only Californians believed in it ever, and that even most of them had moved on to the prophet Rael. Or at least, had given up that dream of the online love-in, and moved on to a more engaged and legalistic fight for their right to swap Dead mp3s.

If Demos are paying, they got screwed. Rushkoff did not do a fucking stroke for this. It's just a rehash of everything he's said before, with some of the commonplaces of contemporary blogging attached.

Highlights? Here's one eye-opener he offers: the Media misled people about Iraq in collusion, to a certain extent, with government. But blogs weren't like this, and gave lots of different opinions. There was even one from Baghdad! He was called Salaam Pax.

Another stunner: when you think about it, the world is made up of stories. People use stories to understand the world.

Are we blowing your mind yet? Try this: Interactive media took power out of the hands of the broadcaster and gave it to the people. When video games came out, you could say what was on the telly

The rest is still more irritating. We get the Wired history of the Internet - egalitarian gift economy, self-organising community, the Well (always The Fucking Well.), which will offer us all the model for a brighter future blah blah jetpacks robots food pills.

Then it's on to a History of the Renaissance, which covers the invention of perspective, movable type and calculus (I'm no mathematician, but isn't the last usually seen as being a mid-late seventeenth century thing? It'd mean he'd jumped about two hundred years. It might sound small-minded, but I get the sense that the picture might be a bit more complicated than he's making out.)

Another strange thing is the cliché lag - he's still talking about fractals, and - this one's a doozy - he actually mentions that special species of butterfly in Brazil which causes hurricanes in New York. He manages to get through the paper without mentioning tribalism, piercings and tatoos, though.

The cliches come up-to-date with self-organising systems, slime moulds, and ant hills (if you haven't been keeping up, they're the new Hurricane Butterfly. Complex systems emerging from simple behaviour.)

There's an attitude that people who just decide to commentate often have more interesting ideas than those who actually know something - the 'synthesisers' who bring a 'fresh perspective'. This is horseshit, most of the time. People who know something - who've lived with the ideas, the real research, the long months of thought and writing - care about accuracy, and can be creative with that accuracy. They don't say "the Renaissance was all about opening a new dimension" because they know it's misleading, patronising, and offensive both to the reader and their subject. Cheap ideas.

(See also Mark Steele's article in The Guardian the other day. His heart in the right place, but why, when he's trying to make information more accessible and interesting to people, i.e. to educate them, does he need to parade his own ignorance by mocking the use of the factorial symbol in maths, and trying to get a laugh out of Darwin's late monograph on worms? He clearly doesn't understand why Darwin's attention to detail matters - why we don't get the tenable big theory without the little stuff. Nick Cohen wrote well on the New Labour's cult of anti-elitism in the Observer a couple of weeks ago, and, despite Steel's Old Labourness, it's applicable here.)

Really, Demos, I hope you didn't pay for this, because you can get up-to-date shit of an equivalent or higher grade, for free, by trawling the blogs. Like this. Which means you paid for the Rushkoff name. Dopes.

It isn't just that it lacks any expertise, or real engagement with ideas: it also has no sense of urgency or practice. Right now, we don't need someone telling us about the the way the internet is making ideologies obsolete. We need people to say that if there is no open consultation on the creation of standards for, say, voting machines, and if we cannot scrutinise these standards to be sure of their security, then electronic democracy might be fucked, on a very basic level.

Or am I missing the idea of a think tank? Are they just putting future-facing blue skies ideas out there? Is that the same as bullshit waffling, or am I missing a fine shade of meaning?

Will this be taken seriously because of Demos's name? Do administrators try out tatty old ideas off the back of their rep (or whuffie as the cool kids call it now - if you slip us fifty in cash, D, I'll knock out a report on it for you)? It's a miserable vision - a mid-ranking regional quangocrat, who's good on the bureaucracy, but feels he might be getting left behind. He wants to get a handle on this cyber-stuff, and sees that Demos have something new on the subject. Orders a copy, and some dazzlingly inconsequential chatter about chaos theory (better suited to Dinner Party Science discussions of the early Nineties), or online communities (not that he'll go to the trouble of understanding the ups and many, many downs of Microsoft's recent decision to save the children from chat) rouges up his next report. Oh this shitty age.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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