The education secretary, Alan Johnson makes some very interesting and perceptive remarks on the subject of blogs and electronic engagement in the democratic process, during a speech today to the UK Youth Parliament. Some of it is inevitable ‘playing to the gallery’, of course, but overall it’s a very well-informed set of remarks by a very senior government minister.
He talks about ‘the exodus from collectivism’, which he attributes to two big factors:
First, any institution which grows runs the risk of depersonalisation. There are paradoxes at play here: by expanding its market, it can contract its appeal; through trying to please everyone, it could end up pleasing no-one; and, while the use of technology can open doors to massive new audiences, it can also close them down.
Second, we are all growing more confident and demanding as citizens and consumers. Aided by new technology, we expect instant gratification – such as the EBay ‘Buy it now’ option. We demand a personalised service which, if people can’t access, they just walk away. In many ways, this is the age of individual.
The solutions he proposes: ‘a more local and personal feel’… ‘reach out to people in a more emotional way’… and ‘seize the full potential of modern technologies.’ You can guess where this is going… but he goes well beyond the kind of superficial endorsement of the blogosphere that you might expect.
Some of you might be amongst the 90 million people with sites on MySpace. Virtual communities are increasingly places people we go to make friends, have fun, do business or share knowledge. Something like 100,000 blog sites are created every day; and political blog sites now receive more hits than official party websites.
Blog sites spread seemingly authoritative information without accountability or the need for accuracy, although, to be fair, newspapers have been doing that for years. Political parties should try to emulate the immediacy, interactivity and excitement of blogs. These days dull, standard automatically generated emails are beginning to look as ancient as the telegram.
The challenge for politicians is not to use technology to replace the ‘doorstep experience’, but to replicate it. There’s no reason why dissent and cynicism should be the only messages spread on the internet. We should promote activism and participation to counter apathy and scorn.
It’s a tremendous improvement on the comments by John Prescott in his now notorious Today Programme interview – ‘I think it’s called the internet, isn’t it, or blogs or something, I’ve only just got used to letters, John, I haven’t got into all this new technology.’ It’s easy to see why Alan Johnson might be considered one of the Cabinet’s rising stars, and indeed, a possible replacement for Mr Prescott as deputy prime minister.
But what’s really disappointing is how these comments have been completely ignored by the newspapers, who prefer to cover his ‘pre-emptive attack‘ on those who hark back to a ‘mythical golden age‘ of harder exams and more meaningful results.
(PS: Yes, I’m currently doing some work for Mr Johnson’s department, and I know people who know people who write the speeches. But I can’t claim any direct credit for this one.)