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The Democratization Revolution

September 15, 2014

The United States prides itself on its core ideology of democracy. Not only is the government itself based on the ideals of democracy*, its lower-level governing bodies such as state and city governments, as well as schools, clubs, organizations, business, and even small informal gatherings ratify or disapprove decisions on the "majority rule", or the idea of democracy, that the constituent individuals ought to be granted equal power, and thus the ruling of the majority of a community is accepted. This is the democratization of the governing power of a state, and I would argue that this democratization is quite favorable over the alternative**. But democracy does not only apply to this instance -- democratization is the equal distribution of an object or ideology to each individual of a population, and in that sense, the past decades have brought in radical changes in bringing more democracy to the global world. Specifically, I'd like to discuss the democratization of information, manufacturing, and mobility, and how these changes are causing more profound movements towards a more all-around democratic society.

Democratization of information is a term often heard in the context of the Internet. Nancy Gibbs, the managing editor of Time Magazine, wrote on the topic of the Internet in her inaugural issue, "we are living through the most immense transfer of power from institutions to individuals in history." And the power derives naturally from information. Needless to say, the Internet grants nearly any one of the four billion online people in the world (with a collective number of connected devices in the dozens of billions) access to the largest library of human knowledge in history. This democratization of information implies a range of things. Firstly, it makes information easy to find, from where the closest donut shop is to how to solve a third-order differential equation, the ubiquity of information on the Internet makes knowledge more accessible. But more importantly, the democratization of information revolutionizes education and learning. Where previously, a student had to take a course in a brick-and-mortar classroom or lecture hall to understand quantum mechanics, with the Internet, he or she can learn the same material in a much shorter time, without using nearly the same amount of money, time, or loss in efficiency. Education is absolutely critical to autonomy of individuals, and a ubiquitous and near free access*** to information help bring knowledge to almost every one of the individuals in a society. Really, the democratization of knowledge began quite a few centuries ago when movable type was popularized in the eastern (and subsequently the western) nations. The advent of movable type allowed mass printing of books, and this explosion in availability of knowledge helped dilute the powers away from the wealthy. With the internet's unprecedented reach and accessibility, power from knowledge and information is being further diluted away from a relatively small part of the population to everyone else.

Whereas the Internet democratized access to information in the late 20th century, the democratization of manufacturing was not apparent until just a few years ago, when more affordable 3D printing solutions came along. Although not nearly a huge hit as the smartphones, 3D printing technology allows for a much more free manufacturing and prototyping environment for companies, as well as the ability to produce products in unconventionally small quantities. Although not a game-changer in most industries, this represents the potential for a widespread use in the future where the power to cater the design and size of sold goods are not left to larger companies but individuals. This is not one that is particularly oozing with popularity at the moment, but represents a significant potential in the future. Along with 3D printing, another trend that is bringing invention and manufacturing to the masses is crowdfunding, wherein the necessary funds to kickstart a business or project is not found in a single or a couple of investment(s), but from the "crowd" or a group of people who want to support the business or project. Websites like KickStarter and Indiegogo provide ways in which a person with an idea can find financial support for the idea to realize it into a product or a business. Combined with resources available to the masses through the internet, the ability of individuals to reach wide audiences and build a business without seeking large funding means the ability to manufacture and distribute products and services is not as limited to large companies. This is a large shift in power in favor of the majority as well.

Lastly, I'd like to focus on the democratization of mobility, by which I don't mean the ability of individuals to move around physically, but rather their freedom to follow their visions. If the information democratization was exemplified by the Dot Com Bubble, the democratization of mobility can be aptly represented by the Mobile App Bubble in which we find ourselves now.**** With all the resources available to each of us today through the internet and other technologies, a single individual is increasingly likely to be able to do anything he or she finds a reason to pursue. Resources granted to the laymen through technology further equalizes opportunities and power granted to each individual of a society, continuing the pursuit of democracy.

While the policy of the United States and the world is one of democracy, such policies are useless unless equal opportunities are given to each individual in the first place. In reaching that particular goal, I think technology has already played a substantial role. People looking to Twitter instead of the New York Times for news stories or Indigogo instead of investors to kickstart a fundraiser showcases the fact that despite the facts on paper, our society is increasingly becoming less dependent on a few critical points of authority and control, and more dependent upon each other. Our society is ever-evolving to become not a group of people under a government, but individuals working for each other. Continual democratization of power and resources is leading the world towards having, as Thoreau writes, a "government ... which governs not at all". Such a government may never appear, but technology is coming closer than ever to bridging the gap.


*Theoretically speaking, that is. I would argue that the execution on the part of the federal and lower-level governments is not strictly achieving the ends of democracy, but that's a different discussion that I will not address here.

**Although perhaps not entirely desirable over some other alternatives. This will be discussed on Thursday's post.

***So far. We'll see how Net Neutrality pans out.

****And there's no doubt we are in one, when the two most wealthy companies in the nation are the two owners of the largest mobile operating systems, and the vast majority of start-ups in the country are App-focused.