Alf Young: Why cyber babble is calling all the shots

IT was just another Saturday in the Scottish Football League. We were at home to a team we had struggled against in recent seasons.

Within minutes of the kick-off one of their defenders clearly handled in the box, but our penalty claim was denied. Somewhat to our surprise, we continued to dominate the first 45 minutes. The only thing missing? The ball in the back of their net.

After the break, there was a session of mass ping-pong in our goalmouth. Bodies from both sides on the floor. Scrambled clearances. Every clich in the book. To universal consternation where we were standing, the referee pointed to the spot! They scored. Our guys could have crumbled there and then. But they rallied strongly.

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Late on, in a surging move down the right, an inch-perfect cross was bulleted home by one of our strikers. What a header! What poetic justice! Instead the assistant referee on our side, who was well up with play, judged our "equaliser" offside.

We were looking on from the other half of the pitch so how could we judge such a crucial call? A game we had controlled and could have won 2-1, ended in another one-goal defeat. That could have been that.

However, one of our fans, standing in line with that hotly disputed incident, captured the entire move on his mobile phone. Within hours it was on YouTube. Word spread via our fans' website. It was clear for all to see the goal was good. We had been robbed.

"So what?" you might think. That's the vagaries of 90 minutes a week in the middle reaches of Scottish football. You get used to it. You get over it soon enough. It's got nothing to do with the real challenges of life. But in the year of WikiLeaks and the undoing of politicians as diverse as Vince Cable and Tommy Sheridan in covertly recorded encounters with dissembling journalists and an estranged best man respectively, it seems that, thanks to now widely available technology and the onward march of social media - all mediated via the internet - the ground rules for the conduct of more and more aspects of all our lives are in fundamental flux.

Traditional sources of authority - whether expressed by the judgment of a man in shorts with a flag running a line or a Cabinet minister volunteering inner thoughts to complete strangers that conflict with his quasi-judicial duties - are under scrutiny as never before.

When a disaffected junior intelligence officer can, allegedly, download a mountain of secret US diplomatic cables on erased music CDs and place them, via WikiLeaks, on global open access, old verities crumble away.

He couldn't have done it when such communiqus were penned in elegant longhand or typed up by embassy personnel and sent to London in a sealed diplomatic bag, eventually to accumulate in files in some government vault, stamped Top Secret for 30 or even 50 years. Now mainframe computer systems, desktop access and a memory stick are all that's needed for a subversive from the lower orders to spill the beans. While other sports like cricket, tennis and rugby have their Hawk-Eye, Hotspot or instant video replays to help adjudicate on in-play disputes, football still leaves any resolution to after the event, to armchair pundits on Match of the Day or, now, to fans in the right place at the right time with a multi-functional mobile phone. The game can only stick its head in the silicon sands for so long before the paying public, already dwindling even at the top of the Scottish Premier League, refuses to put up with it any longer.

What will do for it - and for many other traditional authority structures besides - is not just having the technical means widely available to reveal what is really happening. It's also the power of internet-based social networks to debate and decide, in the here and now, what meanings to ascribe to whatever the revelations of the moment happen to be.

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Constructing such narratives was once the largely unquestioned preserve of those vested with the power to decide, be they football referees, diplomatic and political elites or even the media commentariat.

Increasingly the stories we tell each other about what is really going on in the world will be shaped by what active participants in shared-interest networks decide they should be.

Of course the WikiLeaks cables were also given momentum by selected newspaper outlets, like the Guardian. It was the Daily Telegraph that did for the UK Business Secretary Vince Cable. And the News of the World waved its well-thumbed cheque book to help convict Tommy Sheridan.

But these print-based associations feel - how can I put it? - distinctly transitional. All sorts of businesses, not just printing and publishing, are struggling to come to terms with the realities of the digital age. The formative challenge of the internet era has been how to make a lot of content - be it tomorrow's online version of a newspaper or a music download - turn a profit.

Ultimately, the more profound challenge, by far, may prove to be the way these new means of mass communication and debate bypass - and in the process, undermine - the power of pre-silicon elites to decide what matters and what doesn't in our lives.

Doctors already face patients who can Google every diagnosis and every prescription.Other traditional professions are also finding it harder to hide behind the mystique of a closed body of insight and knowledge.

The internet is, of course, awash with every conspiracy theory ever floated. Anonymous web abuse is also peddled there, by the venomous bucketload. But compared to its power to engage, empower and inform, these are very much the subsidiary irritations of the digital age. What may well mark us as a species is how we manage this mass interventionist power to better manage all our lives.

Of all the challenges these developments pose, one of the greatest is to the terms under which, in any democracy, citizens are now prepared to sanction the right of others to govern aspects of their lives. We know that participative democracy has been withering away, especially among the young, for decades. We know that, in terms of how existing political elites behave, a spate of silicon-based disclosures, over expenses and much else besides, has further eroded public trust in the old system.

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We don't yet know how a digitally-savvy generation will use technology and electronic networking to rewrite the entire political script.

The raw ingredients are already there. All that is missing is the collective will to make it happen. But given the hand we, in the pre-digital generations, have dealt them, it cannot be long in coming. That may seem a conclusion far removed from a disputed goal at Cappielow. But it's a lot closer than you think.

• For the record, Dundee beat Greenock Morton 1-0 at Cappielow on 11 December in front of 1,568 fans. Stewart Kean scored the disputed goal from a Sean Fitzharris cross. It can be seen at

Thanks to the Great Freeze there has been precious little football to speak of anywhere in the Scottish game since.