TechPolitics in Scandinavia

Bente Kalsnes has raised the issue of why there aren’t more tech-politics attempts in Scandinavia (despite high levels of broadband penetration, widespread use for a variety of other purposes, etc). I think her overview and question is interesting, but also that it exaggerates the absence and should be supplemented to understand what’s going on.

Since that’s what I research, I’ll write only about how political actors use Internet tools here (and leave aside transparency/oversight efforts and e-government), and suggest just three brief points I think apply to Scandinavia in general though they are based on the case of Denmark:

First, “size matters” in a very general sense–when used well, new information and communication technologies like the Internet can reduce many overhead and transaction costs associated with creating niche media and catering to particular constituencies, and this has made many new and exciting enterprises possible. But in small countries with distinct languages, the “base” may be too small to make it worthwhile (or even possible) for entrepreneurs to cater to them–the absence of a DailyKos in Denmark, a MoveOn, a TPM-style news site, or even of older niche endeavours like news magazines or highly specialized cable channels have, I suspect, more to do with the size of the “market” (or constituency), and in politics with the relative lack of a polarized and aggrieved base, than with technology as such. Comparing Denmark (population 5.5 million) with Wisconsin (pop 5.6m) makes more sense than comparing a lilliputian Scandinavian country with the Gulliver of the United States (pop 306m). (this point has wide implications that need to be thought out, I wonder if for instance  many aspects of the “Wealth of Networks” that Benkler writes about can be realized in small countries)

Secondly, reports of the absence of tech-politics from cold northern Europe are somewhat exaggerated. I would say that political parties in Denmark use tech tools at a level that is roughly comparable to organizations with similar resources in the U.S.–only, one has to keep in mind that those organizations are state parties and smaller state-level campaigns, not the national parties and large federal or state-level campaign organizations. The two largest parties in Denmark (Venstre and Socialdemokraterne) spent, respectively, $6 million (30 million DKK) and $2 million (11 million DKK) on the 2007 national elections, where 3.5 mio people voted. That’s in the region of what a competitive congressional campaign in the U.S. will spend in a district where 350,000 people vote. In the cases where smaller U.S. political actors are clearly more sophisticated than their Danish counterparts (data, fundraising, field), it is usually because they can piggy-back on the infrastructure of tools developed for much more well-financed campaigns (this ties in with critical mass, obviously).

Thirdly, it is important to recognize that political organizations in for instance Denmark have offline means at their disposal that aren’t all that different from what in the U.S. takes the form of online tools. Take the Meetups that generated such excitement during the Dean campaign and were later reincarnated via MyBarackObama. At one level, they really aren’t all that different from what local party committees do on an everyday basis all over a country like Denmark (the difference lies in data capture, where Danish parties certainly have a long way to go, but also less of an interest, since fundraising and field works very differently there). As in other discussions of the use of various tools, it makes sense to start with first principles and wider goals, look at what people are already doing, and only then ask why they aren’t using widget X, instead of simply observing that they aren’t, and then jumping to the conclusion that they are somehow “behind”.

There is certainly room for improvement when it comes to techpolitics in Scandinavia, both in terms of quantity and quality, but I think it would be more useful to try to identify how new tools can solve the particular problems that the Scandinavian countries actually face than compare the efforts there with American efforts to solve American problems, and then find them wanting.

(cross-posted on Personal Democracy Forum)

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2 responses to “TechPolitics in Scandinavia

  1. Thanks for you long and thorough reply, Rasmus. Of course it is unfair to compare tiny Scandinavian countries with the giants US/UK – you can also see this a way to provoke a debate:-) Still, when the Scandinavian populations are so tech savvy, I think we should have high expectations for what is possible to do within techpolitics. The Norwegian election this fall proved that all the politicians have jumped on the Social Media bandwagon and are communicating extensively on new platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, blogs, Twitter, Origo, etc. This kind of digital communication is something lots of Scandinavian politicians are getting comfortable with. But few have taken the step from communicating to collaborating online. And what can we do to encourage more collaborative online efforts – that’s my main point (this comment is also posted on my blog).

    • Thanks Bente, it certainly does provoke a debate and as said, I think your overview was very useful.

      On collaboration in particular, I would add that often, when government agencies or political parties have tried to launch collaborative sites, at least in Denmark, they’ve found that there are currently relatively few people interested in taking part. Danmarksdebatten.dk, for instance, won various prizes, only to disappear into the ether. Look at radikale.net, which is technologically impressive, but seems to have a low level of activity. This is not to recommend against it, but to underline that in Scandinavia as elsewhere, tools alone only foster collaboration in so far as a critical mass of people have an itch to scratch. If not, you have to be very patient and careful in creating and fostering a community.

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