Fung on why technology hasn't revolutionized politics

To begin his talk, Archon Fung poses the following question: why is there no "killer" ICT platform in politics? After all, there are highly disruptive platforms in social media, commerce and other realms. These so-called "killer" platforms tend to be characterized by three features: notably that many users adopt the ICT platform and abandon the old way of doing something; the new platform improves users' experience by changing how they do some activity; and the organizations using new killer platforms displace those that do not use them.

Fung proceeds to present explanations for this puzzle, following a brief clarification of the scope of his question. When Fung refers to politics, he is not referring to aspects like partisan mobilization, e-government or the public sphere; instead, he examines the potential for ICT platforms in the realms of decision-making, problem solving and accountability. While the typical level of resolution for discussion is on the macro effects of ICT as a social force, Fung's analysis stems from his narrowing in on ICT platforms (such as Facebook, Wikipedia, Ushahidi, and others) themselves.

The first argument Fung presents in answer to his initial question is that both the suppliers and the demanders are different in politics than in other areas (e.g. commerce). Politics is aggregative, characterized by collective action and results, not focused on "individual benefits and gratification" like commerce and social interaction might be.

Second, while it is possible to have parallel, collaborative production in some types of platforms (e.g. Wikipedia), production in politics is characterized by strategic action. Various examples can help illustrate that there are key differences between commerce and politics on the supply side. In commerce, Amazon's customers want books and Amazon wants to sell books. While citizens want influence in the public sphere, however, politicians and officials typically do not want to give citizens power to influence the public sphere. Although there are counterexamples, as in some cities (such as Belo Horizonte) in Brazil, where 10% of the electorate directly influences public spending online through the Participatory Budgeting process, these cases are few and far between.

Another important factor is that there are much more ambiguous benefits in politics than in other spheres. While it is well understood that amassing more Facebook, Amazon or Google users will result in more money or fame, it is less well know what the benefits of more public deliberation or accountability might be. Since the factors that explain platform success in other areas don't translate to politics, Fung concludes, there is less innovation in the supply side.

In order to understand cases in which ICT platforms have nevertheless become important on the local level, Fung and his colleagues carried out a large case study analysis of specific examples from Brazil, Chile, Kenya, India, and Slovakia. Through analyzing these cases, which include such examples as São Paolo's Cidade Democrática, Santiago's Reclamos, Nairobi's Budget Tracking Tool and others, the researchers arrive at three key conclusions.

  1. ICT platforms that have had success within the realm of politics that Fung is interested in have been characterized by the predominance of professionals and organizations among their users. The main users of Cidade Democratica, for example, are organizations and professionals.
  2. Second, ICTs do not necessarily act independently. Instead, journalism and media play an important role, and even make up the main base of users for platforms like Bratislava's Fair Play Alliance and Mumbai Votes. After all, ICT can help journalists reduce research costs and represents a neutral and credible source.
  3. ICT's do not go around or undermine traditional NGOs and government. Instead, at least in the cases examined, they are typically effective because they operate through these existing organizations. Kiirti in Bangalore is one example.

The bottom line from Fung's case study analysis is that getting context right can be more important for an ICT platform's success than getting the technology right. Typically, the uptake of a platform only occurs once all other pieces are in place.

In the final part of his talk, Fung addressed audience questions, many of which related to Fung's chosen standards for a killer platform. One audience member asked why Facebook could not be considered a killer platform, given its many uses for political purposes. After all, Facebook enables a kind of action to occur that would have occurred before, since it can often be accessed even in countries where public gatherings may be restricted. Another questioned why Wikileaks was not considered a killer platform. Fung replied that while Wikileaks does bring together people and information better, a killer platform would need to transform the nature of politics from group to individuals, which no existing platform has yet achieved.