The Western Wide Web

The Most Liberal Form of Interventionism. 

Computerised impression of the net

I was five when the Berlin Wall fell. When I was five, I spent most of my time chasing my cat around my garden in Sheffield and my perception of a serious time (to borrow some Brownite rhetoric) was scraping my knee or getting barked at by my Mum. The terms ‘world wide web,’ ‘liberal democracy’ and ‘freedom of expression’ meant nothing.

As I have grown older and less blissfully ignorant, these terms have assumed more and more significance to me as an individual, and arguably to the world in which I live.

Growing up as part of the post-cold war generation, I have been witness to a golden age of Western values. Democracy has entrenched and spread across the world, the boundaries between both individuals and states have diminished and we can now talk with confidence about ‘the international community’ and ‘the global village’ where the hallowed god of freedom of expression rules over all. There is one overwhelming reason why all this has come about- the incomprehensible growth and influence of the internet.

However, not all is quiet on the Western Front. For a plethora of reasons, many of them self-inflicted, Western values are now under a sustained attack. The dramatic and abject failure of market capitalism, terrorism and our misguided responses to it, the blackmail created by our increasing and impotent reliance on fossil fuels bought from less than friendly states, the rise and rise of capitalist autocracy, encapsulated by the Beijing Olympics and Russia’s invasion of Georgia, and the compromising of the potentials of liberal interventionism through a potent mixture of hubris and complacency have all contributed. Timothy Garton Ash‘s article offers a far better illustration of this.

Either way, as I write this it is clear that, in a way unparalleled with any other period throughout my reasonably short life, the Western world is now facing a serious time.

David Miliband is also young enough to be considered to be a post-cold war person, or at least a post-cold war politician. In a recent interview in Prospect, Dave coins the phrase ‘the civilian surge’ in order to characterise the individual’s relation with both the internet and the state: 

“The civilian surge is the idea that around the world people who have hugely different access to opportunities and wealth nonetheless inhabit an increasingly common universe where mobile phones can tell bloggers in Iran or protestors in Burma or street kids in Nairobi about how life can be- that creates a different context for international politics.”

It is almost a cliché to state that the West has revolutionised the way that we interact globally and that we are barely scratching the surface of what we can achieve through the internet. The internet has, we are told, heralded a new age of meritocracy. An elite dictating to the many is now a thing of the past, to be replaced by a democratic forum made by the people for the people.

However, a basic analysis of statistics expose this as an idealism. According to Bridge the Digital Divide , a UK charity dedicated to spreading I.T to all parts of the globe: 

‘Less than 1 in every 1000 people have access to a computer in the developing world, compared to 600 in every 1000 in the developed world.’ 

Around 5 per cent of Africans can log on, compared to over three quarters of North Americans. The numbers, though, are changing rapidly and there is clear evidence to suggest that the ‘civilian surge’ is well under way.

It seems the inference is clear.  Miliband sees the world wide web as something more akin to the Western Wide Web. A purveyor of Western values to people across the world who may not, in their none-web lives, have the benefit of being able to speak with impunity about their concerns, wishes or convictions.

And anotherA seductress, an ever present temptation to all those who want in, or are at least just curious. ‘Hey check us out,’ the Western Wide Web is saying to the silent majority on the other side of the ideological fence.   ‘Look at our shiny new things. It’s free to log in, it doesn’t ask questions. Anything you need to know is a few clicks away. By the way, fancy a blog? That’s right, you can say anything you want without censorship or fear of retribution. Just don’t tell Putin or Hu Jintao.’

After six years of continuous military conflict in the Middle East, the West has only just begun to understand that the War on Terror is actually about hearts and minds, as the use of hard power results in both an inextricable and unwinnable campaign (assuming the inverse exists) against an elusive and infinitely regenerative enemy.

Recently, I read that the British Army recently undertook Operation Dam Fixer, the most dangerous operation in their history. It consisted of driving a convoy  100 miles through the Taliban controlled heartland of Helmand Province in order to deliver a 200 tonne hydro-generator. The result? Electricity to 2 million Afghans. Maybe they can log on now.

The internet, despite ostensibly being the ‘world wide web’ was created by, is predominantly possessed by, communicates and advertises the Western world. Despite this impression of globalisation, in reality the web communicates an explicit political, sociological and ideological narrative, one that maybe difficult to discern to those of us so accustomed to it.

The internet is a creation by the free world, designed largely for the use of the free world, and inviting those outside of the free world to get involved. It’s cultural liberal interventionism at its most liberal and unobtrusive. Is it surprising that they heavily censor the net in most autocracies? Who can blame them?

So, in this new dialectic, the Russian’s have their tanks and their gas. The Chinese have their factories and their workforce, the terrorists have their training camps and bomb formulas, and the West has the internet.

Without meaning to sound too much like George W, ours is the most potent weapon with the greatest reach and ability to evolve. With it on our side, the future is ours.

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