Effective flow of information builds confidence and curbs corruption
In October 2014, Res Publica together with Google and the Visegrad Fund in cooperation with the Financial Times, will launch the New Europe 100 project – a list of outstanding challengers from Central and Eastern Europe who are changing the world and improving people’s lives with ideas that scale up in the digital world. In the second of three articles, editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight, Wojciech Przybylski, argues that confidence has long been a commodity in shortage, but without it, it is hard to stimulate creativity and innovativeness.
The Internet, like every manifestation of modernization, possesses enormous potential. It fosters growth available to all. The experience of freedom has taught us that without instruments and without strong institutions to guarantee freedom, the liberty once proffered is fake. Without these guarantees the world turns into a jungle navigable only to the fittest. The same is true of progress and the web. Without guaranteeing access to the freedom afforded by the web, the fittest will dominate the meekest. High-tech people dictate terms to people who are behind the times, which is how new kinds of inequality, social division, and sub-class arise. At its core, the future of democracy hinges on whether we are capable of engaging everyone in this process. Let’s take a look at two examples.
The railways relatively recently introduced the possibility of buying tickets via the web, allowing urban residents, who live in areas where the Internet is widely available, to save time and thus money. Outside cities, where the Internet is less available, such functionality accrues even more benefits, but not to all. Elderly and less affluent persons who are unable to use the Internet, and thus to make web payments, have to spend considerably more time organizing their travels. As a consequence, the obstacles some people face mount. There are digitally excluded persons in our midst and their number is not inconsequential. Digital backwardness does not merely fail to produce growth, in today’s world it means that we are penalized. The accountability for altering this rests on our shoulders.
Another example: how are new technologies leveling the playing field in Central Europe? We are all aware of the verve Central European cities have demonstrated in their efforts to renew historical monuments, streets, and edifices. Nowhere else in the world are people so zealously engaged in reconstructing the tangible past. The drawback is that historical obstacles are frequently reproduced as an offshoot of this zeal in parallel with beauty. Take stairs and curbs for instance: beautiful, sturdy, tall, and unreachable as an inaccessible maze to those of us who face mobility-related challenges. How are new technologies altering the face of these difficulties? A Budapest-domiciled association of handicapped people is teaching its members how to use Street View, virtual pictures at street level. That way they can plan their trips ahead of time and bypass obstacles. The Internet helps them participate in real life by creating equal opportunities.
This process therefore applies to individuals and entire groups, nations, and regions. Without access to tools to guarantee freedom we will not be able to engage in creativity, or make our creativity available to the world to the same extent as for those who have web access. Nor do we have access to the wealth of material available to the rest of the world. Whether desirable or not, the Internet is having an impact on economic development and already contributing to lower prices. It will continue to do so to an ever-greater degree. Moreover, whenever it is generally available, it fosters democratization.
In their book entitled Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner explicated, using the radio and the Internet as examples, how progress in communication is capable of eradicating asymmetry and dominant relationships, the heritage of the past. What is striking is that they juxtaposed the history of radical decline in life insurance rates and the causes for the downfall of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The point of connection between these two stories is that quality of life improved thanks to the free flow of information generally available to the public opinion, first through the radio, and subsequently, the Internet.
First, in the 1940s, Stetson Kennedy tapped into the knowledge gained over many decades concerning an ever more threatening and radical racist movement, which took its strength from conspiracy-like methods: passwords, secret meetings, and covert identities. Everyone knew that the KKK existed, and that it not only persecuted people, but also allowed its members to earn decent money thanks to secret connections and informal arrangements. Its mystery and the uncertainty accompanying its presence were what caused it to be even more powerful. Americans who were unaware of the facts were willing to assume that KKK’s tentacles were ubiquitous, with transcended racial boundaries punished by lynchings akin to those that took place in the 19th century.
Meanwhile, Kennedy resolved to publish the amassed body of knowledge in what was an innovative approach at that time: through the radio. He delivered his reports to the editorial board of the Washington Merry-Go-Round program for adults and Adventures of Superman for children. The mass dissemination of information concerning the KKK’s odd codes, pretentious nomenclature, and curious habits simply ridiculed this organization, which lost credibility and members as the radio programs became more popular. When information flows freely and is generally available, public opinion proves to be reasonable and capable of making wise and democratic choices.
The next example is considerably more straightforward. It turned out that in the 1990s life insurance rates plunged radically. This type of insurance involved remitting a certain amount of money to provide insurance to loved ones in the event of death. The only differentiating factor was the price of insurance. Its price plummeted when the first price comparison sites of insurance proposals appeared. As statistics showed, consumers saved a billion dollars a year as a result of this information becoming widespread.
These two stories are unexpectedly connected to Central Europe. The experience of breaking taboos, scrutinizing secret organizations, and unearthing the truth, was a story of removing the shackles of oppression and the self-censorship of communism up to the moment of the advent of free media. Contrary to the U.S., we did not have to wait fifty years for the Internet to produce another democratic revolution similar to the one described by Levitt and Dubner. Monopolies must reckon with the competition released by wide access to information. Corruption is less profitable. One example involves data for court bailiff auctions, which recently became a matter of public knowledge.
It was a public secret that the families and friends of court bailiffs were the major beneficiaries of auctions, which were previously undisclosed, as they were not compelled to announce what they were auctioning off on the Internet and sold debt-encumbered assets for a fraction of their value. The current policy hinders the sale of indebted assets for nothing. The effective flow of information builds confidence in public institutions. Confidence has long been a commodity in shortage and without it, it is hard to stimulate creativity and innovativeness. As psychologists dealing with creativity have observed, a lack of self-assuredness is the gravest adversary of innovation.
This sentiment is not particularly alien to Central Europe, which was formed from feelings of exclusion and shortage. Milan Kundera brought this to life in his article in 1983, not so long ago, less than ten years before the Visegrad Group was formed. He asserted that everything is the same in our part of the world as in the West, albeit a bit different, because it was excluded from circulation and full-fledged access to global culture.
In a mere twenty-five years, Central Europe overcame the obstacles Kundera described. We freed ourselves and we acceded to Europe on equal terms. But the world did not wait for us. It went forward. Today, not just writers and artists insist on greater freedom to create and share with the world. We all want equal rights to participate in global manufacturing, since everyone appreciates that this offers a real opportunity for development. This is what every student, bibliophile, movie, and music lover wants. There is nothing odd in every entrepreneur/manufacturer/author wanting the same thing too. This is what everyone who has a new idea and the energy to implement it wants.
Wojciech Przybylski (@wprzybylski) is the editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight and Res Publica Nowa.