Limited Possibilities of E-democracy

On November 18th members of the Estonian Journalists’ Union debating the role of the Internet (internet portals, mailing lists, blogs) as a contributing factor to Estonia’s democratization and promoter of civil activeness. In the discussion with the journalists Toomas-Henrik Ilves, Estonian member of the European Parliament emphasized the problems of ethics of internet writing. On November 18th members of the Estonian Journalists’ Union debating the role of the Internet (internet portals, mailing lists, blogs) as a contributing factor to Estonia’s democratization and promoter of civil activeness. In the discussion with the journalists Toomas-Henrik Ilves, Estonian member of the European Parliament emphasized the problems of ethics of internet writing.

Limited Possibilities of E-democracy

When in the middle of the 1990s the Internet became a public domain in Estonia it was also expected to bring along an explosive rise in citizen activeness. Unfortunately it soon turned out that there cannot be more democracy in the internet than there is in the society as a whole.
In the middle of the 1990s it was believed that the Internet would bring more openness to Estonia, offering the citizens many new opportunities for freedom of speech and that people will also begin to actively use these opportunities.
But this belief did not meet reality. Let us take a closer look at this phenomenon through the example and experience of a concrete internet movement: a mailing-list dealing with issues of education.

Internet gives a chance to participate

This list has been successful in some sense. It has been active for five and a half years and involves more than 900 people in its discussions. The list has a strong vertical dimension: it includes teachers, parents, pupils and students as well as 7 members of the Parliament (commission for culture and education), 14 employees of the Ministry of Education, 10 members of the State Exam Centre as well as 64 professors of education studies, a number of school headmasters, members of civil associations focussed on education etc.

The list also has a strong horizontal dimension. Among the members there are people from all areas of Estonia including the islands and other peripheral regions. In addition there are Estonian-speaking Russians, Finns, Danes, Irish and Americans. The Internet has given all these people a chance to participate in the debate on education and this is really something new.

What exactly has been under discussion?

The draft of “Estonian Education Strategy” was discussed in great detail. Teachers, professors, students, civil associations as well as members of the Ministry of Education and Parliament were involved. Another weighty theme has been the problematics of teachers’ professionalism and vocational standards. Discussion about the development plan of teachers’ education has also been under attention. Many emails were exchanged on the topic of the development plan of the University of Tartu. The subject of whether a teacher should be considered a partner or a servant of the student (parent) has been debated in depth. Over a lengthy period of time thoughts were exchanged on the new principles of evaluation of students’ knowledge. New solutions for decreasing pupils fall-out from school have been presented repeatedly. It has often come under debate why boys’ results in school are worse than that of girls. Also the formation of the pupils’ sense of “own class” and “own school” has been a topic.

The Soviet paradox

The Soviet Union was known in the west as a collective country. In reality the USSR was a strictly hierarchical society where the pseudo-collectives functioned only at an order or permission of a boss. (The situation changed only in the end of 1980s and brought along the breakdown of the Soviet Union.) The soviet hierarchical system thus estranged people from common civil initiative and turned most of them into determined individualists. Teaching people to cooperate and be active as a collective is a topic often brought up in the education list.

It is rather typical that most of the subjects in the list have been analysed from various paradigms. All main paradigms have been present: Christian conservatives, new liberals as well as social democrats. Somewhat surprisingly a few communists have also been active in the list – as though the experience of the Soviet Union was in vain. What is interesting here is that in the beginning many of the members of the list were not able to understand that all the abovementioned “paradigms” could be tolerated in the list. It was rather naively believed that democracy would be an absence of contradictions. By now one has got accustomed to the fact that every good idea has at least three principal objections. In this sense the list has also functioned as a good training for democracy.

During the five and half year existence over 50.000 e-mails were exchanged. Thus a lot has been accomplished. It is clear on the other hand that democracy and civil society still have plenty of space to develop further in Estonia.

Problems of e-democracy

For example the success of the list is still dependent on the minister of education. During the rule of one minister the list has received judicious responses from the Ministry of Education, during the rule of another the response has been a mere silence. Comments from the Parliament have also been dependent on individual people. Thus we cannot speak of a high level of list culture or developed e-democracy yet.

Tõnis Lukas, member of the Estonian Parliament, is a member of the education list. During his time as the Minister of Education (1999 – 2002) executives of the Ministry of Education were often actively participating in the discussions of the education list.
Quite soon it came apparent that many teachers do not dare to write to the list – they were only reading it. As the grounds for the fears of teachers were discussed in the list four of them were found to prevail:
- Expressing one’s opinions in public is still considered unusual.
- It is not yet understood what civil society is, and there is simply nothing to say.
- It is feared that the employer may not like if employees appear in public (which is indeed often the case!).
- They don’t know how to write down their thoughts briefly and clearly (too big effort!)

And thus many people are not able to use their most valuable civil right – freedom of speech. An explosive development of democracy which was expected from the Internet is not possible in post-soviet countries.

The list reflects the society

During the five and half years of existence a number of convinced conservatives have appeared in the list who are in principle against the list and lists in general. Some of these conservatives claim that discussing is idle chat and can change nothing in Estonian education. They suggest list members to do lobbying in the government and parliament instead of writing to the list. Others are at the opinion that instead of making suggestions to the ministry people in the list should do their own work more diligently (people should be more hierarchy-aware). A third part think that the level of the list is low in general because foolish people can also freely express their opinions. These people long for a wisdom-based hierarchy – only intelligent people should write and not everyone that wants. And so on. . .

At the same time the proponents of the education list say that there is a difference between people thinking about education each on their own or together with others in the list. The radical members even claim that one person cannot invent anything alone as one’s thoughts need to be opposed or affirmed by others. This argument is especially true for the debate on value principles’ that is typical for transforming societies such as Estonia. Value principles are created by agreement and the list is a very suitable place for this. The radicals also call the list a space for thought legalization.

It could be said in conclusion that there cannot be remarkably more democracy on the internet than there is in other areas of a society. The lists simply reflect the general mentality of a society. But at the same time lists do play an important role in helping to build up democracy and citizen initiative. They are preparing the mind for change.

by Raivo Juurak