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Democratic Contagion: Technology Diffusion and Institutional Transparency

Democratic Contagion: Technology Diffusion and Institutional Transparency

While browsing media on the Arab Spring I stumbled upon this short inspirational animation created by a student at UC San Diego that compares the development of the Arab Spring to the growth of a cherry tree. (Take a look below)

This video shows that humans need three basic ingredients, water, sun, and nutrients, to to live, but for human culture to thrive and evolve it also needs to latch onto a network of love and truth to grow. The technological form and placement of this video on YouTube, underscores the way in which individuals all over the world have joined this grass-root network effort to help the Arab nations give birth to revolutionary change. The question is, how can the sharing of these democratic ideals at a global level be harnessed to create stable democratic institutions at a local level?

In his "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Walter Benjamin, notes a collective action among the “oppressed masses” can recognize a “state of emergency,” from which people can fight to create a “real” state of emergency that improves their struggle against Facism” (259). Indeed the Arab nations ability to bring about a “State of Emergency,” has been enhanced by their geographic location, natural resources, and by the instant reproduction of ideas through portable devices (Collier).  However, as Joseph Stiglitz notes, the rise of democracy in the Arab nations must be taken with caution. Democracy is “effective at a local level” but the “fusion of cultures” and the production of ideas in a global world “needs to be controlled so that the process vanquishes neither.” (238) Although Tunisinia and Egypt are undergoing a revolution and have helped overcome human violations, neighboring countries that have caught the “democracy” contagion, such as Libya, Kuwait, Morocco, and now Isreal, are experiencing continued protests and violence. Thus, democracies’ openness to the global world and deregulation can also cause disaster. As Paul Collier would say, now is the time for government policy to establish proper checks and balances that will let this seed of this passioniate revolution to grow into sustainable democracy.

Due to globalization and the diffusion of technology, developing countries are no longer “dependent on foreign countries to obtain information about themselves” (Stigler 16). My question is, how can the diffusion of technology help support the new institutions (democracies)? The decentralization of intelligence in this networked economy can help people express their basic individual rights to connect and share, but to what end? Is there a danger in having all of these countries being partially “open” in a non-linear communication scale? These countries must maintain their fundamental right to connect in the globalized world, but as Stiglitz forewarns, they must also use “policies that deviate in significant ways from the Washington Consensus.” (243) In other words, in a global world, it will be harder for newly established economies to create a democratic check and balances from scratch. How will this be done?


The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) report in 1995 offered a solution to the way in which technology could be used by “democratic” governments in developing countries to support the citizen’s movement towards democracy. The assessment notes, “developing country leaders can, like businessmen, enhance their governing capability by using interactive expert systems and databases…[which] can be networked to let government officials remotely access the global stores of information” (OTA 104-105). It will be important for all citizens to have access to these global stores of information – one way to do this is through transparency. By maintaining an institutional structure based on transparency, including the publishing of budgets and open access to how information is collected, the citizens in the Arab nation will maintain agency and awareness, and make their government accountable. If transparency is not established and newly established institutions in countries in Tunisia and Egypt do not create new economic policies that maintain a balance between governance and the global market, then the rate in which these ideas are spread and diffused, will only lead to further contagion and chaos -- the freedom that these people have fought for will no longer sustain (Stiglitz 256).


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