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Science, Maths & Technology

Which way for digital democracy?

Updated Tuesday 10th June 2008

Ivan Horrocks asks whether social networking has distanced people from real world politics.

The advent of the so called ‘Web 2.0’ and the explosion in social networking that the web sites and ‘mash ups of technology’ that underpin it have enabled has led to a resurgence of interest in electronic or digital democracy. This is the belief that first emerged in the United States in the 1970s that new information and communication technologies (ICTs) can be used to renew democracy. It was argued then, as now, that the interactivity of these new technologies – by which contemporary advocates of digital democracy mean the internet – will deliver new forms of political practice and participation, thereby reinvigorating and reinventing public debate and political accountability.

As with technological development generally much of the literature and debate on the internet and democracy has always been highly technologically determinist and optimistic: it treats technological development as historically inevitable (hence my use of ‘will’ not ‘can’, above), politically neutral, and fully accepts that any drawbacks and risks are outweighed by the benefits. For digital democracy specifically this translates into development, research and policy that is heavily biased towards the input side of democracy. That is, on technologies and their application and operation and not on what impact these have (if any) on outputs such as policy and decision making.

Allied to this entrenched determinism is a long standing tradition that can be traced back to the libertarian beliefs of the early pioneers of the internet: it is an inherently democratic medium. Its decentralised and devolved nature, and the weak forms of control to which it was subject for many years, certainly aided this view, thereby creating a utopian image of the internet as a separate socio technical system. Today we can witness this in much of the discussion of, and activity in, ‘virtual worlds’ such as Second Life, Habbo Hotel, and so on. However, the takeover of social networking sites and rapidly growing colonisation of virtual worlds by multi-national enterprises, allied with the widespread surveillance of cyberspace by government agencies must make even those who subscribe to the separate social system thesis question their position.

The potential for digital democracy has suffered the same fate, I believe. As the power and influence of governments and organisations committed to advancing consumerist forms of managed democracy has grown so the potential of the internet to act as a liberation technology has rapidly decreased. Instead we are witnessing the consolidation of a trend that was observable by 2000, when, working with colleagues from Denmark and Holland, we concluded our review of electronic democracy in Western Europe by reporting that:

The scenario that emerges then, is of a “two-tier democracy”: a “big” democracy, concerned with policy and decision-making at a national and international level…And a “small” democracy where “ordinary” citizens try to make a difference in terms of the quality of everyday life. (Hoff, Horrocks and Tops 2000:187)

Since then the gulf between big and small democracy has grown as more and more people have become disengaged from the terrestrial world via their on-line personas, increasingly losing touch with, and interest in, real world politics and decision making and what they can do to influence and control these. To me, therefore, the main democratic problem of today seems to be how (or if) these two types of democracy can be reconnected.

Further reading

Democratic Governance and New Technology, edited by Ivan Horrocks, Jens Hoff, Pieter Tops, published by Routledge


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