Friday, January 30, 2009

Government in cyberspace

Over the last week, something significant apparently happened. The government actually responded to an online letter.

To me it is really not a tremendous deal, although I must admit it is something of a milestone. Cyberspace has been in existence for a very long time, and as has been pointed out by other netizens, it by now not really a new technology platform where information is moved around and discussed. The big issue was really about the way government policy makers and bureaucracy/officialdom interacts with (and shapes?) such information dynamics in cyberspace.

Despite the hype about online discussion forums etc, I have been fairly disappointed generally in the level and sophistication of the discussions. Most are dominated by a relatively vocal minority who tend to get quite repetitious (sianz ahh....). Most netizens prefer to just lurk silently. Who knows what they think, and what opinions they hold? Take for instance, the ST online forum where this issue is being this moment the published stats show that 484 have visited the site, but only 18 comments have been sent in by 15 accounts (~3% of total visits?). I think the stats are fairly representative of the cyberspace culture. Most are happy to read, but online opinions are far from being representative of cyberspace, let alone the community at large.

Does this mean that cyberspace discussions and opinions are not to be taken seriously? Clearly not so. Opinions expressed through blogs, discussion boards and chat rooms do get noticed. And they do get repreated and propagated, sometimes in its original state, but often morphed into something else. Good responsible ideas do persist, and i am guessing that these do get noticed by agencies who should take notice.

I am told by reliable sources that big government has already been scanning and eavesdropping cyberspace. It may be that their primary focus may be on politically sensitive issues, but I think as their ability to do so improves and matures, their eavesdropping of cyberspace chatter will also allow them to pick out good ideas that ministries and other agencies can act upon.

There is no doubt the government is already in cyberspace. They'd be pretty incompetent if they do not already have a good ear to the cyberspace ground. How they respond is another thing altogether. That they have responded to an online letter says something of a shift in their mindset, in that they are publicly ackowledging their presence in cyberspace.

For me it is relatively unimportant if the government responds to an online letter, or becomes an active discussant on discussion boards. Commonsense will tell you that it is not easy for them to actually do that. Far more important for me is to know that they are listening to the cyberspace ground. And if and when they do respond to the ebb and flow of ideas and opinions in cyberspace, it is not important for me where and in what form this response comes in. I personally think that many netizens do approach the issue with more than a little bit of ego, i.e. it is important that their letter is answered, the discussions must take place in the forum of their choosing etc etc ... They want to feel that if they press a button someone in 'gahment' must respond etc etc... But I think this is not necessarily a good or even workable model.

I have a different take on this. I am happy to know that the gahment does eavesdrop in cyberspace. I am grateful for a certain space to express opinions and ideas without the intimidation of having to submit nric numbers and addresses etc... and am pleased to know that these ideas, feedback and even whistleblowings will not only get picked up, but will eventually find expression in some form of governmental response.

We do have a responsible and fairly responsive government at the moment.They are still somewhat bureaucratic (as you might expect from governments), and can be quite monolithic in their ideas (as can be expected by the single party dominance of our political scene) but overall still doing a half decent job. That they are listening and beginning to respond to cyberspace is a good sign.

Jia you!

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