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Digital Democracy

The relationship between technology and democracy has varied over time. When technology first developed, accompanying the genesis of civilization as we know it, simple technologies enabled the development of communal democracy. The use of tools permitted challenges to existing power structures by enabling those with the technology to exercise their newfound power. Later, increased mobility extended relationships once limited to the family and the tribe into broader communities. This geographic extension of influence spread democratization influences by further challenging power structures.

Throughout different periods of time, technology both has facilitated the development of democracy and has been an impediment to democracy, and this equally applies today. It could be argued, as Sclove (1995) does, that the power vested in the technological elite by the technologies that they control, such as gasoline-powered automobiles or proprietary Internet tools, undermines any grassroots democratic movements that may develop in opposition to their interests. Such technologies inhibit participation in significant decision making and define social orders that constrain self-actualization and support illegitimate hierarchies. On the other hand, some technologies constitute democratic forms of power sharing, such as broadly accessible web-based technologies with international and pervasive distribution networks, which enable individuals and groups to have a voice and for their voices to count.

Information and social media technologies are an integral aspect of the broader notion of technology, and so their use and understanding must be developed as part of this literacy, which people need in order to exercise their democratic rights and comprehend the nature of global development. The extent to which this literacy is informed determines the dispositions (Williams, 2011) of individuals reacting to this development.

A range of influential information technologists from Negroponte to Gates are predicting that in the near future, access to media will become increasingly personalized. They predict a “Daily Me” newspaper will be delivered that is personally tailored to each individual, only dealing with categories of news and information that have been predetermined by the individual. Similarly, “TV Me” will just show those programs that reflect individual interests.

So there is some danger in promoting Web 2.0 as the means of democratic engagement. Williams (2006) warns that participation in Web 2.0 can be simply a celebration of self, a narcissistic infatuation. It is now possible to go about your day and consume only what you wish to see and hear:

“television networks that already agree with your views, iPods that only play music you know you like, Internet programs ready to filter out all but the news you want to hear” (2006). The problem with this is that there is a lot of information that individuals in an informed democracy need to know, with the consequent danger that “we miss the next great book or the next great idea, or that we fail to meet the next great challenge . . . because we are too busy celebrating ourselves and listening to the same tune we already know by heart” (2006).

A possible corollary of these developments is that personal cognitive systems will become unable to pursue the option of evaluating a range of knowledge and information or make selections and judgments according to certain criteria, which are core skills for democratic citizenship (Sunstein, 2007). The assumption here is that either individuals actually have the resources and power to decide and then access what it is that they need to know, or whether it is global media organizations that make those kinds of important decisions. In the latter scenario, in which the quality of “newsworthy” is ascribed by media organizations, the individual power to bypass these business decisions and access information that “feels” relevant and important through the Web 2.0 system of opportunities would place the individual in a powerful, selfdetermining position, enabling him or her to break away from the media’s tendency to allow people to be only consumers rather than citizens.

Generally, the accumulation of power is accompanied by a level of responsibility, and unless the responsibility is felt and active, the possession of power wanes. For example, in the influential areas of politics, education, or the media, irresponsibility results in implications at the ballot box, in tenure, or in ratings. However, in the case of the power that accompanies participation in Web 2.0, responsibility can be abused without the loss of power. Fiction can parade as fact, respect for others is not an assumption, character assassinations are tolerated, and the unimportant is promoted. Developing fundamentalist groups from neo-Nazis to al-Qaeda provide all too imminent evidence of the negative aspects of the democratization of communication technologies.

The global counterpoints proposed by Barber in 1992, prior to the recognition of Web 2.0, provide an exemplar of opposing tendencies related to democracy, power, and responsibility. In “Jihad vs McWorld,” he explains these forces as having “equal strength in opposite directions, one driven by parochial hatreds, the other by universalizing markets, the one re-creating ancient subnational and ethnic borders from within, the other making national borders porous from without. They have one thing in common: neither offers much hope to citizens looking for practical ways to govern themselves democratically.” Both these forces have found an affinity in Web 2.0: a clear indication that its use is diverse and that an ethically based technological literacy is an important prerequisite for participation.

McClintock (2004) uses an urban political metaphor to argue that the web enables a civilized, sophisticated style of discourse akin to that identified in real (nondigital) metropolitan democratic communities. Joint (2005) points out that there is an underside to urban politics that thrives just as much virtually as it does in reality. The networks provide the opportunities for the development of squalid cyberghettos: “As a result a bastardized form of eLiteracy enables the internet thug to search, locate and colonize these spaces, while expertly circumnavigating both technical filters and moral challenges The most appalling instances of this depraved web virtuosity are internet videos of terrorist slayings, expertly spread across the net in an attempt to amplify the impact of political murder on democratic electorates” (2005, p. 81).

The nature of the democracy that is developed through virtual participation is discussed by Barber (2004) in his book Strong Democracy, which he characterizes as not necessarily always being direct, but always incorporating strong participatory and deliberative elements. Deliberate participation through social media has been evident recently in the popular uprisings that have occurred against a number of regimes across the world. Whether the outcomes constitute strong democracy or are more satisfactory than their precursors remains for history to decide, but there is little doubt that social media technology played a significant role in facilitating individuals’ capacities to exercise what they perceived as their democratic rights.

Aligned with this notion of national development is a dilemma for many countries in which there is a political and economic desire to move ahead technologically, while at the same time centralizing and controlling information. China is probably the most obvious example of this dilemma, but when applied to Cuba, Venegas (2003, p. 192) terms it “the dictators digital dilemma.”

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