Monday, May 23, 2011...11:26 pm

Niall Ferguson: digital communication is not an agent of freedom and democracy

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Niall Ferguson: putting on a brave face

Rock star contrarian historian Niall Ferguson took his Civilisation: The West and The Rest world tour to the genteel folk of Bath this evening at the excellent Topping & Company book shop.

The small but enthusiastic audience of largely white, largely middle aged and relentlessly middle class Bath folk seemed strangely unperturbed by his grim predictions of resource wars and western decline.

But there was more downbeat analysis for media democracy optimists. Unlike many observers in the west, Ferguson does not believe that digital communications technology is inherently democratising.

It’s not self-evident that these technologies are agents of westernisation or democratisation. People observing in the west assume that using the technology means everyone is going to turn into a Californian.

However, he is pessimistic about the possibilities of democratisation in the Middle East, and believes that when it comes to the region’s recent social upheaval, “there may be a less happy outcome than people were predicting”. Disruptive technology tends to be an agent of revolution – not necessarily liberation.

As a telling aside, the spread of digital communications technology in China is not prompting young users to discuss the legacy of Tiananmen Square. Instead, the material being shared on the Chinese equivalent of YouTube is dominated by videos promoting radical Chinese nationalism.

Still everyone enjoyed themselves and he sold a fair few books – which just goes to show how important the live experience is in the age of digital content…

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