The day started with a seminar hosted by the RSA-based 2020 Public Services Trust focussing on social media and the ‘post bureaucratic age’. The ‘PBA’ is often talked about as the Conservatives’ big idea: the future lies in strengthening the capacity of individuals and communities to meet their own needs rather than relying on an ever clumsier and more overbearing central state.
Our speakers, one from ‘The Economist’, the other working for the Conservatives, told a compelling story about the strengths of the PBA idea. They then explained why the internet and social media facilitate collective action and invite the state to move from a paternalistic to an enabling way of working.
I chipped in with a question about the relationship between online and real world sociability. Given that online networking has eventually to be supplemented by face to face interaction to lead to sustained social action, how does it overcome the hard problems of voluntary organisation?
For example, if community groups start to take on responsibility for providing public services they will find it hard to maintain their spontaneity and responsiveness in the face of stifling rules of public accountability.
Then there is the simple but grim fact that the bad is more powerful than the good. I mean by this that difficult, aggressive, dull activists drive away creative people quickly and permanently (bright people have lots of alternative ways of spending their time), yet it can take huge amounts of time and energy for a dynamic group to deal with someone who wants only to moan or disrupt. I call this powerful and depressing truth ‘the tragedy of the organisational commons’. Of course, the internet too is full of anti-social people but there it is much, much easier to ignore them.
The problem - I went on (and on) – is that we assume individual and collective empowerment go together when often they don’t. The television and the car have both provided people with huge opportunities and freedoms but their effect on civic life has probably been less benign. There may have been growth recently of people going to concerts, art galleries and lectures but this is ‘being alone in a crowd’. It is completely different to the hard labour and politics of working in groups, making decisions, dealing with differences.
As the internet makes it easier for people to get what they want from each other and the state, they may find there is even less reason to waste their time in the messy business of collective action.
The clever chap from the Conservative Party thought I was being far too gloomy. ‘The internet doesn’t just empower, it changes social norms’ he said. Look at internet dating. The technology is so clever and subtle that people have got over their hang-ups and are more than willing to admit they use the internet to find the perfect mate.
At which point I remembered something I have often heard from Tories: the main reason young people join the Conservative Association in affluent towns and suburbs is to find a future spouse.
So perhaps the rise of internet dating and the continued decline in Tory party membership (despite its greater success at the polls) are linked. By giving them the ability to find exactly the right person, dating sites enable the young and single to dispense with the clumsy sociability of the Conservative Association spring ball.
I was gratified that the most distinguished attendee at the seminar, Stephen Dorrell, concurred. The problem, he said, is that as the state becomes in many ways more powerful (partly as a result of the network effects of digital information), and as more people adopt a purely individualistic and transactional approach to meeting their needs, the collective institutions needed to hold decision makers to account atrophy.
Suddenly, the brave new world of the PBA was looking a little bit less bright and shiny.
In part two of the Our Way Through essay series, Anthony Painter considers whether our current relationships with money, power and technology are helping or hindering society's progress.
A new CEO, a new format and new ideas – Andy Haldane marked his first day as head of the RSA in September with our first virtual Fellowship Townhall.