Will this be the ‘internet election’?

The rise and rise of information technology has made cyborgs of us all. But will this phenomenon have a direct impact on the outcome of the upcoming election, TEODOR RELJIC asks?

This kid cannot vote. But his parents can...
This kid cannot vote. But his parents can...

In his November 2012 oration address to University of Malta graduates, philosophy lecturer Claude Mangion thought it timely to tackle the way technology is fused with our everyday lives: so much so that, channelling the influential cultural critic Donna Haraway, he concludes that we may as well consider ourselves to be cyborgs: the half-biological, half-bionic hybrids made familiar in the popular imagination through films like Terminator, Aliens and countless others.

However if we, with our growing dependence on technology, are in fact edging towards becoming more artificial than fleshly as the days tick by, we're less glamorous than the cyborgs we're used to seeing in works of science fiction.

It may be compelling to argue that, over and above our enduring dependence on electricity and other now-basic technological advancements, the ubiquity of computers, mobile phones - especially smartphones - is blurring the line between where the traditional 'human' ends and the technological extension begins.

But as is often the case in matters of human progress, we only notice the changes after they've already happened, and even then, they're difficult to view with an objective eye - so it may just be that we're becoming cyborgs behind our own backs.

But with an election looming on the horizon - the accompanying campaign for which the parties have made full use of every technological advancement available to them - has definitely put our dependence (addiction?) to technology at the forefront.

The two main parties - through mychoice.pn and josephmuscat.com, and their accompanying social networks - have taken the opportunity to channel their image to a younger generation, with a slick, frequently updated digital image being presented on both sides; while Alternattiva Demokratika, the Green Party, has made use of social networks like Facebook to spread their image.

"There is nothing surprising about the two main parties' use of technology in their campaigns," media researcher Alex Grech says. He continues: "The rush to social media started as soon as the divorce referendum results were announced, though the two main parties have chosen different approaches. The PN has positioned its mychoice.pn platform at the core of its election campaign. The closest PL equivalent would be the more rudimentary and low-key josephmuscat.com."

Grech posits that it is "obvious" that the PN are shelling out more money on the online branch of their campaign.

But he is surprised by the fact that a party like AD don't seem to be seizing on the advantages of the largely low-cost platform of social media. "I would have thought that it represented a cost-effective means of reaching out to citizens who have still not decided on how to cast their vote in March..."

Meanwhile, Karen Mugliett - lecturer within the Education Department at the University of Malta who specialises in technology-enhanced learning - takes it as a given that newfangled technological accoutrements have become "part of our lifestyle" and that the political parties could hardly have avoided jumping into the digital fray full bore this time around. But she also notes a crucial difference between the local political scene and, say, the highly-powered Obama/Romney campaigns.

"In Malta, the parties and candidates are physically closer to voters and our television stations are overflowing with political programmes and coverage of political events, so the role of the digital media is probably more of reinforcing messages or targeting a slightly different nor specific audience," Mugliett says, pointing out the importance of new voters to any election campaign... and in this particular case, new voters are bound to be the most tech-savvy.

But it isn't just the intangible digital realm that is being exploited for political capital - the status-symbol nature of the physical gadgets that act as conduits for this ongoing revolution have also been harnessed for their popular - and popularising - potential; most notably, of course, by the two major parties' double-proposal on tablets.

Echoing - and succinctly summarising - concerns expressed by his fellow educators when the proposal to provide children with tablets was first made public by both parties, Prof. Adrian Muscat from the Department of Communications and Computer Engineering at the University of Malta states that while "research shows that the right choice and dose of ICT can have a significant improvement on the average student's performance," the "effectiveness of ICT technology in education remains a "debatable" matter, subject to contingent factors: another reminder of that slippery balance between the human and technological we are made to tiptoe every day.

Questioning whether the tablet debate was "well-timed", Mugliett claims that "the next phase would be to gain confidence and become proficient users of these technologies and plan lessons which would transform the classroom experience" - again suggesting that the trick to taking full advantage of the technology lies in tracking the way it worms its way into everyday life, and making sure that it's used in such a way that remains a useful, constructive tool and not a quick-fix that ends up being used more for its own sake than for any constructive reasons.

Here, Grech pinpoints an important - and somewhat farcical - element to the 'tablet wars': the fact that, while both parties tried to coast on the popularity of the gadgets, the internet - which a tablet is pretty much useless without - gave space for people to aggressively mock the proposal.

"The wonderful memes and Facebook banter that greeted those particular announcements are indicative of how many people associated this with 'cheap electioneering'.  For instance, one Facebook status declared 'I will vote for the party that gives me a Mac Book Pro'. Something got lost in the messages of both parties on that day."

According to Grech, the parties are missing the wood for the trees on this issue. Instead of responding to the interactive nature of the medium, "both [big parties] are pretty much stuck in a one-way, 20th century, top-down marketing paradigm. It's election time, so the parties seem to believe that citizens will visit the party sites and read, listen and watch a 21st century equivalent of the mass meeting".

But though there's something empowering in Grech's idea that the party big-wigs appear to be "uncomfortable when dealing with media that is inherently anarchic and empowers any citizen to have an online soap box," and that "things used to be much simpler in the days of a limited number of paid media" - which suggests that this could be a way for a more democratic voice to eke out during the electoral tug-of-war, he is quick to undercut any renegade optimism.

Suggesting that on some level, it is easy for us to become distracted by the barrage of information, and the dizzying array of digital distractions we live under, Grech makes the parties' use of technology comparable to the behaviour of a lazy and unimaginative parent, who employs technology to keep their offspring entertained, and occupied.

"We love entertainment, particularly if we can now consume it on a screen, and share it with a couple of anecdotes on the social network of our choice. The parties seeking power understand this well. So perhaps they are serving us what we want, after all, while they prepare for the real business of power."