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Democracy and New Technology
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by Ivan Horrocks, Lawrence Pratchett
07 the future of Countries & Democracies
‘Electronic Democracy: Central Themes and Issues’
ICT and Democracy
New ICTs pose both opportunities and threats for democracy. On the one hand, ICTs offer the promise of an information rich society: one in which citizens have access to a wide range of information from a variety of sources; one in which every issue is extensively debated amongst citizens and policy makers through interactive media; and one in which participation in the political process is greatly increased. On the other hand, ICTs also threaten to undermine democracy by compounding existing biases in the distribution of knowledge and information, by fragmenting discourse between increasingly differentiated policy areas, and by reducing participation to distanced and marginalised votes that occur as knee-jerk reactions to a limited number of ‘soundbite’ options. New ICTs, therefore, have ambiguous but profound consequences for democracy, both now and in the future. Before analysing their significance for specific models of democracy, however, it is necessary to outline the technologies that are of interest, and their general relationships to democracy.
One of the most comprehensive attempts to define the technologies that are im-portant to democratic politics has been that developed by Abramson et al. Whilst their checklist of technologies is interesting, its value here is limited because, as they state themselves, ‘Given the pace of technological change, any attempt to provide a timely list of the new media [technology] is doomed to a short life’. A more valuable product of their work, however, is their identification of six prop-erties which characterise new ICTs, and which make them especially relevant to political activity:
a) They explode all previous limits on the volume of information that can be exchanged.
b) They make it possible to exchange information without regard, for all practical purposes, to real time and space.
c) They increase the control the consumers have over what messages are received and when.
d) They increase the control senders have over which audiences re-ceive which messages.
e) They decentralise control over mass communication.
f) They bring two way or interactive capacities to television.
This identification of characteristics is helpful in that it both defines the broad range of technologies that can have an impact upon democracies, and indicates the ways in which those technologies may influence politics. In particular, it high-lights the importance of telematics (that is the integration and synthesis of com-puting with communication technologies) and its ability to transform traditional democratic processes. The definition is limited, however, in so far as it is unable to distinguish between the influences of different technologies.
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