Democracy doesn't scale.

Vint Cerf, one of the founders of the Internet, in an answer to a question posed by Scott Aikens from the Minnesota E-democracy project, at the Internet Conference in 1996.

Chapter 2 Democracy in an information age

2.1 Introduction

This chapter looks at the widest level relevant to the research question, and relates the theoretical perspectives presented in Chapter 1 to the role of interactive technologies in a globalised system. Section 2.2 gives a broad perspective, showing the social shaping of technology, along with the democratic potential of information technology. Section 2.3 examines current technological transformations, the elements and important determiners of the emerging information society, along with consideration of their impact on citizens and emerging forms of governance. Section 2.4 presents a review of the literature on electronic democracy, and some projects which demonstrate electronic democracy in practical settings. Finally, the summary will discuss the dominant patterns, actors and values which are shaping the use of information technology for global governance, and suggest some hypotheses to be tested in the case studies.

2.2 A democratic perspective on technology and society

The relationship between technology and society has long been a topic for analysis, recently stimulated by the rise of the information age. This section will discuss several writers who are particularly relevant to a concept of information technology in forms of governance. Beniger (1986) showed the importance of information in all forms of evolution and control. Feenberg (1991) provided a critical theory of technology, and revealed how the democratising potential of information technology makes it a site for an ongoing power struggles. Sclove (1995) considered the need to embed democratic assumptions in technology design. Zuboff’s (1988) concept of ‘informating’ provides an essential learning element, which has connections to complexity theory and the developmental role of democracy and policy.

Information and control

Beniger (1986) considered the growth of information control mechanisms through technology and bureaucracy in modern society, and placed the rationalisation of information in a wide context. He noted that reproduction of even the simplest life forms is dependent on information exchange and a program of control, or useful direction. This is essential for life forms to defy entropy. The acceleration of inputs of energy and production which accompanied the industrial revolution took these processes beyond immediate management as a local activity, and led to a similar revolution in the means of controlling and processing information. He mapped the concurrent development of bureaucracy as a means of rationalisation and programming along with mechanical methods for controlling and assimilating the flow of information that accompanied these forms of expansion. Both mechanical and administrative innovations, such as the keyboard typewriter, the stock ticker or the press clipping service allowed business to expand beyond regional boundaries. Beniger also noted that innovation in bureaucratic structure had essentially ended by the mid 1920s; not just communism, but also advanced capitalism, has been unable to achieve a new set of human and administrative structures which could keep pace with technological advances (Beniger 1986:392).

These events are difficult for us to understand as they happen, because humans find it difficult to grasp ‘even the most essential dynamics of our lives and our society’, and ‘even recognition of the industrial revolution as a major transformation didn't come until 1881’ (Beniger 1986:1-2). This need for control contributes to the restructuring of interpersonal relationships as well as material items, fragmenting cultures and breaking down norms of behaviour. Beniger saw national economies as open processing systems engaged in the continuous extraction, reorganisation and distribution of environmental inputs to final consumption (1986:427). He said that since the early 1970s all information technologies: mass media, telecommunications and computing, have been converging into a single infrastructure of control at the most macro level. The totality becomes ‘a nervous system of social organisation’ (1986:25). The underlying program or direction is encoded at a every level of operation.

Beniger’s concept of a program of control, and particularly the metaphor of a ‘nervous system’, raises the issue of governance of the global, convergent system: who writes the program? Technological transformations have both instrumental and developmental dimensions. Government agencies can also be considered open systems, that extract resources such as money and data from their environment and output other forms of information and services (Kiel 1994:38). They, too, must have an underlying program of control.

Information technology and democratic potential

Support for the social shaping of technology development is widespread. Bijker and Law (1992) described technology’s complex interactions with many other human practices and institutions. Their case studies of particular technological developments, such as the management of radioactive wastes or a new aircraft, elaborated on socio-technical networks. They also rejected a deterministic view of technology, preferring to see it as just one arena for the struggle between competing actors and outcomes. Lyon (1988) took the position that the social impacts of information technology cannot be treated as separate from it.

Sclove (1995) analysed the collective amnesia about how technology evolves and what its impacts are on other social processes. He believed an inegalitarian model of democracy operates today, which is less concerned with active participation than with periodic elections, representative institutions, and competing power elites (Sclove 1995:26). Sclove asserted that it is not good enough to attempt to reform society and then tackle technology. The democratisation of technology must proceed apace. His arguments and democratic design criteria apply to all forms of technology, and therefore to information technology as well. Significantly, he saw all levels of technology application, and particularly the workplace, as important for democracy. Sclove is perhaps best known for his advocacy of experimentation with citizen participation in technological decision making and community based research. Sclove has been criticised for not making clear how more democratic technologies might be put in place (Slade 1998). However, in complexity terms, his advocacy of thinking about, experimenting with and evaluating more democratic approaches to technology may be considered an important form of stabilising feedback: the iteration of democratic process at the local level becomes a broader lesson in what it means to create democracy at every level. Each variation or transformation of the concept of democracy becomes part of the overall attractor.

Feenberg (1991) had a similar perspective on democracy and technology, but offered a richer account of how the democratisation of technology might be achieved. Feenberg presented a systemic explanation of the ambivalences of technology, and also addressed computerisation directly. He said technology is often viewed as either just an instrumental tool, and therefore apolitical, or as having a substantive impact on culture and society, and thus something that can be rejected by choosing a simpler life. Both theories imply technology is destiny, and beyond human reason to shape (Feenberg 1991: 7-8). This dichotomous no-win approach to technology has also been described as the neo-luddites vs the techno-utopians (Doheny-Farina 1996), or the anti-modernists and the techno-utopians (Margetts 1996). At the core of such debates is a profound ambivalence towards technology. This ambivalence can be seen in concerns about the ‘productivity paradox’ (Attewell 1996, Preissl 1997) along with more general concerns about privacy and security in a totally data-based society.

Like Sclove, Feenberg argued that the degradation of labour, education, and the environment is rooted not in technology per se but in the antidemocratic values that govern technological development. Reforms that ignore this will fail, including popular notions such as simplified lifestyle or spiritual renewal (1991:3). The exclusion of the vast majority from participation in design of technology is the underlying cause of many technology-related problems. He saw technology design as an ontological decision, requiring reflection on norms and principles. His alternative, critical approach recognised both the potential of technology for democratic emancipation and the limits of current political systems. He suggested a requalification of the workforce which would lead to increased control of technology design by workers, and greater public participation in technological decisions, presumably along the lines promoted by Sclove (Feenberg 1991:12). Feenberg saw this as the only way to address the problem of ‘elite and ruling class values and interests being installed in the very design of rational procedures and machines even before these are assigned a goal’ (Feenberg 1991:14). He said there is an underlying ‘economic code’ influencing technology use. This code determines such things as the way individuals perceive their own welfare, what they regard as economic goals, and what they consider to be legitimate or desirable economic means, as well as authority relations on the job, workmanship, savings, leisure, and various occupational expectations (Feenberg 1991:37-38). He maintained that only workers can support an end to control from above, and that this can only occur by challenging the economic code. The political issues thus extend beyond technology, yet Feenberg argued that ‘technological politics is a basic form of resistance that lies at the core of every type of social struggle in advanced societies’ (Feenberg 1991:60). The researcher believes that this overstates the role of technology, and runs counter to the idea that the technologies are socially determined. However, his emphasis on the economic code relates closely to the discussion below on the values which determine information technology use on a global scale.

Feenberg applied his critical perspective to computerisation. He noted that any technology which has communication potential has democratic potential (Feenberg 1991:91-92). He saw two underlying principles in computerisation which highlight its ambivalence. One is the principle of the conservation of hierarchy, which means existing social relations can be built in, for example, through surveillance and record keeping. The second principle is subversive rationalisation: new technology can often be used to undermine or sidestep the existing social hierarchy. This provides the start of an answer to the question of how to democratise information technology. Individuals can manoeuvre in the spaces where specification of computer use is never total. For Feenberg, the ‘social contingency’ of modern technology (1991:16) inevitably revealed gaps in the application of methods of control. Into these gaps flow the potential for day to day subtleties of resistance. Forms of self-organisation can shift the locus of control, and spread beyond the workplace. These social contingencies can be compared to the margins of chaos in complexity theory: a realm of innovation which can lead to destruction as well as creativity. Each actor becomes a point on the attractor which maps the shape of technological use. These influences can happen in the shadow system, or more formally.

Feenberg also drew on Foucault, who considered governmentality as interlinked systems of control. Foucault’s writings on governmentality, gathered together in Burchell, Gordon, and Miller (1991), suggest another way to view attractors as personal patterns of self-governance which influence wider fractal structures. It is only possible to outline here some possible avenues for future exploration. Foucault was an integrator; he was interested in the plurality of systems and the general grammar or rules of formation, the entire field of relationships (Foucault 1991a). These resemble the fractal patterns described throughout this thesis which relate applications of information technology to issues of governance. Foucault’s emphasis on the limits of the ‘sayable’ and the domain of discourse (Foucault 1991a) is important for current industrial relations dialogue, which no longer uses the term ‘industrial democracy’. The ascendancy of economic terminology coincides with the eclipse of discussions about democracy; in the public sector, this term is now rarely used other than as a credo attached to selection criteria. Foucault hypothesised that a progressive politics would recognise historic conditions and specific rules of practice; these have not yet been clearly analysed in relation to the role of information technology in governance. This can not be done in a centric way, but must take into account ‘the different levels and functions which subject can occupy’ (Foucault 1991a). These are not easily uncovered, for it seems that what Foucault discussed as ‘the anaesthetic effect’ (Foucault 1991b) takes hold within disciplines and inhibits recognition of the ‘implacable logic’ which leaves no room for challenge. Foucault provided other indications that an analysis of ‘governmentality’ across scales is important. He noted that the art of government is always characterised by the essential continuity of types, between self-government, family management, and ruling the state. These are related to the particular disciplines of morality, economy and politics respectively (Foucault 1991c). Continuity is established both upwards and downwards. In relation to the current research, this implies that organisational or corporate governance is organically related to both trans-national and local scales. In addition to subtle forms of self-discipline, Foucault was also concerned with discontinuities and transformations, and ‘above all, to define the play of dependencies’ between them (Foucault 1991a). These are the sudden bifurcations of chaos theory, the violation of the Gaussian distribution accepted as dogma by classical physics and its social science cousin, economics (Gleick 1988:93). These, too, are the disjunctures observed by Zuboff (1988) in her study of the introduction of computerisation in a range of companies.

These connections between the personal and other realms of technical control were also considered by Zimmerman (1995). He discussed the concept of technological citizenship in relation to the ethical capacity of the populace to participate democratically in complex technological decision making. He saw the development of personal moral autonomy as problematic in a society dominated by authoritarian technologies whose institutional frameworks lack downward accountability. The resultant shaping of social attitudes and behaviours must be confronted by those who seek to reinforce democratic values and criteria. He argued that the concept of participation has become trivialised, as technological consumption has become a substitute for genuine ethical reflection and a striving for critical consciousness. Given these parameters, democratic direction setting and even informed consent become difficult. He suggested strategies to alter this enervated ethical environment at the macro and micro levels. Some meta-technologies should be declared public trusts, and others need to be dismantled and reconstructed using democratic design criteria, with human development and values foremost. To stimulate moral and social development and develop ethical awareness, role playing and education within institutions was suggested, to help revitalise the notion of civic education. Zimmerman’s analysis is important for the current research for its emphasis on downward accountability to facilitate ethical behaviour, the trivialisation of participation to an instrumental activity, and his implicit recognition that these are linked to technology use at different scales.

Zuboff’s (1988) concern was with the ways computerisation can be applied in the workplace. Like Feenberg, she perceived both opportunity and threat. Her work has influenced many others, particularly through her concept of ‘informating’, or the ability of computer systems to generate a new information stream about the activity being automated. Others had noted the ability of computerised systems to generate new forms of data (Sproull and Kiesler 1986, Steinfield 1986), but Zuboff provided the political and historical context for using this concept to analyse power relations in the workplace. She saw this informating quality of computers as a central point of duality, or rupture. Managers are forced to decide whether to embrace the new forms of power and knowledge, by including staff in the informating process, or to repress this potential, and hold on tight to their own power. This potential for learning in a truly informated organisation ‘produces experiences that encourage a synthesis of members’ interests, and the flow of value-adding knowledge helps legitimate the organisation as a learning community’ (Zuboff 1988:394). None of the organisations she studied fully succeeded in becoming informated (Zuboff 1988:392). Informating is therefore much like the developmental role of policy or democracy, and she described the emergent, self-organising qualities such an organisation would display. It is argued here that her concept of informating applies equally to global applications of interactive technology. Zuboff’s rupture can also be viewed as a bifurcation. In complexity terms, this marks the abrupt transition of a system from one state to another. Figure 6 offers a conceptualisation of how values, assumptions, and individual actions contribute to create a system for information technology use. Variants on this may be applied to several scales at which such systems emerge. Figure 6:

Figure 6: Values, as both specific desired outcomes and preferred states, are key forces behind the design of information systems. Not shown are the complex feedback loops between all parts. In patterns of IT use and interpretation, in particular, individual non-expert actors are most able to influence the systemic behaviour arising from information technology systems.


Are we all going to be working for a smart machine, or will we have smart people around the machine? (manager in a case study, Zuboff 1988:285)

The above review reveals the socially determined nature of technology, and its importance in systems of social control. The communicative, interactive potential of computer technology gives it special potency, and ensures that actors will always exploit it to voice their values. This essentially political characteristic also ensures that technological solutions or systems of control can never be fully realised. The workplace is a key area for the task of democratising both technology and the workplace, but these effects appear at all levels. Thus, the computer as a potentially interactive technology can contribute to the forms of learning and participation which are taken here as the defining properties of democracy and policy formulation, or it can be used to for workplace deskilling. This leads to Hypothesis 1:

The use of computerised technology will reflect the dominant actors and their values.

And Hypothesis 2:

Wherever they apply, interactive technologies will be a site of power struggle to control their communicative and information potential.

2.3 Origins and issues of the information society

The invention of computers was very much caught up in post-World War II military investments in technology, with intense government funding and involvement (Chomsky 1998, Herman and McChesney 1997:117). The early ENIAC computer was ‘intended to assist the aiming of guns and was soon involved in calculations for the bomb’ (Lyon 1988:5). The precursor of the Internet was developed as a decentralised network which would be able to withstand an attack on its nodes (Rosenberg, 1997:84). The shift to an information society preceded the sudden growth of the Internet, and is based on value-adding and trading in information. Information has become a primary asset in itself (Branscomb 1994). This creates both qualitative and quantitative social change. A change in focus from atoms to bits (Negroponte 1996) has implications for the underlying requirements of democracy. The speed of evolution of the new age has largely bypassed considerations of ethics or function (Lyon 1988:10). There have been drastic changes in occupational structures, leading to far fewer jobs at unskilled levels (Thurow 1996). True community becomes threatened by evanescent virtual gatherings (Doheny-Farina 1996), and underemployed youth turn to a computerised world to fulfil their lifestyle yearnings (Turkle 1997). Information overload has become a burden, leaving many gasping in a ‘data smog’ (Shenk 1997). Inequity of access becomes increasingly important, with information haves and have-nots (Haywood 1995). Legal resolution of concerns about privacy, censorship, consumer protection and intellectual property rights lag behind real world events (Branscomb 1994). The prospect of surveillance, whether at work or in leisure activities, inculcates suspicion (Bogard 1996).

The changes and disruptions listed above reinforce Zuboff’s concept of computerisation as a point of rupture. As with the development of computing, governments have been intimately involved in the move towards an information society. The above changes have also coincided with an increase in the concentration of both wealth and ownership, both within and between countries (Thurow 1996, Brown 1998, Martin and Schumann 1997, Bell 1997, Henderson 1997, Haywood 1995), and certainly within Australia (Gregory and Hunter 1995).

Current trends shaping the global information system

The facts of ownership, production, distribution and convergence make computer technology and its associated streams of telecommunications and media the archetypes of globalisation. They are intimately concerned with all forms of information exchange and increasingly, it is argued, the public platforms which shape discourse. The consideration of information technology has become an important area for the analysis of democratic process at every level of social organisation. The following overview of trends in media and public relations will focus on their systemic democratic impacts and the actors and values which shape these developments.

Preissl (1997) said the economic forces influencing information technology tend towards centralised control. She described a lack of democracy in the decision making for the regulatory frameworks for IT, and a failure to examine the power relations in the impact of IT on the workforce. Commodification of information is increased, affecting citizen access to information, and trans-national issues such as copyright, privacy and fraud control illustrate the limits of existing democratic mechanisms. She saw the ambivalence of IT and the massive business interests which are at stake. In calling for more data on social impacts, she noted that the European Community plan for the information society dedicates only a small fraction of its funds to studies of the social consequences.

Haywood (1995) discussed the increasing globalisation of the information and media industries from a librarian’s perspective. He saw information as a public good, possibly as a ‘fourth right of citizenship’ after food, clothing and housing. He also saw threats to democratic process in the tenuous line between advertising and editorial content, the portrayal of diverse opinions as dangerous dissidence and the hidden long-term costs which a relentless pursuit of people-less efficiency creates as part of this corporatisation process (Haywood 1995:84, 95, 211, 213).

Birrer (1997) said the emerging information society shows many characteristics of a self-organising process. The unpredictability of such systems means they are not capable of overt control; rather the underlying system dynamics must be examined to create democratic outcomes. He identified these as globilisation, decentralisation and deregulation. These trends encourage risk avoidance, which he described as an aspect of the prisoner’s dilemma or the tragedy of the commons: both are off-load problems. The tragedy of the commons, initially formulated in relation to environmental issues, is a systemic process whereby individuals maximise their short term personal gain at the expense of longer term viability of the resource being exploited. For example, junk email reduces the sender’s personal risk, while passing the problem to the receiver. On a wide scale, Birrer said liberalisation and deregulation promote these forms of behaviour in policy makers seeking to avoid personal risk by simply facilitating other people’s negotiations. Birrer maintained that these behaviours dominate information society policies, with vague rhetoric, often insufficient study of events and alternative paths, and inadequate concrete goals.

A similar complexity perspective was presented by Hearn, Mandeville and Anthony (1998). Their analysis also considered the ‘communication superhighway’ as a self-organising system, and outlined the steps that must be taken to ensure adequate participation in shaping its future in Australia. There was an implicit recognition of fractal patterns in their analysis, as they argued that ‘the overall impact of the communication superhighway on work and organisations parallels the email case’ (Hearn, Mandeville and Anthony 1998:103).

The current argument builds on these analyses of the information society as a global system, and agrees, with Birrer, that processes such as liberalisation are strong influences. The explicit recognition here of values as shapers of technology use at all scales is used to build a generic model showing the characteristics of a democratic attractor. Figure 7 illustrates how a global system can emerge from a complex nonlinear system.

Figure 7 This model shows global properties emerging from the collective behaviour of individuals, influenced by feedback from the emergent global properties (Lewin 1993:13).

Previous interactive technologies

The history of several other interactive technologies reveals a pattern which does not support informating and participation. Both radio and cable television were originally developed as two-way interactive media, and their potential for fostering public deliberation was recognised by public service groups. However, each was taken over by commercial interests, leading to the predominantly one way models now available. The history of the struggle over these technologies, and the defeat of the public interest component by powerful lobby groups, was described in McChesney (1996), Klein (1996), Surman (1996) and Stevenson (1996). In Australia, the shift towards ‘digital values’ in telecommunications policy has been documented by Spurgeon (1997).

Many screens, one picture

Environmentalist David Suzuki has described globalisation as a monoculture whose effects will be as devastating as single-crop agriculture. Globalisation is here considered to be the process whereby production, ownership, information, wealth and control are increasingly concentrated and geographically integrated. It relies heavily on new communication technologies. The previous discussion on information as a system of control showed that the driving forces for globalisation have been operating for over a century. The development of computerisation and more recently the convergence of computers with telecommunications and media has accelerated this centralisation and coordination of business activity. Examination of developments in media and public relations are a key focus here because of their ubiquitous importance for information provision, participation and agenda setting, key elements of democratic process.

Herman and McChesney (1997) set out to identify the role of the media in the creation of a public sphere. While not the exclusive means of communication, the media is especially important in large societies where personal acquaintance is necessarily limited, as it presents information essential to citizen participation in community life (Herman and McChesney 1997:2-4). While acknowledging some positive effects of media globalisation, such as the dissemination of popular culture, Herman and McChesney believed the primary effect of globalisation is not beneficial. One major effect is the ‘implantation of the commercial model of communication’ and the creation of a culture of entertainment that is ‘incompatible with a democratic order.’ This tailoring of commodified media outputs serves market ends rather than the needs of citizenship (Herman and McChesney 1997:8-9). The emphasis on programming with low political content, such as soap operas, sports, and animated features, conditions the audience into unquestioning passivity. They outlined how economies of scale progressively minimise local or regional input, and the global fare is served up without any indication of true alternatives.

They said accelerated concentration of global media ownership allows it to increasingly shape the direction and content of national media, and therefore citizen information, in much of the world. Loose cartels dominated by about ten mostly US transnational corporations form an indispensable component of the globalising market economy. Herman and McChesney also described the structural flaws that limit this system’s service to democracy. These negative outcomes include minimal public participation, erosion of the public sphere, avoidance of controversy, and the creation of a narrow business elite (Herman and McChesney 1997:189). The core beliefs of the globalising forces were given as: the market allocates resources efficiently and provides the most important means of organising economic (and perhaps all human) life; government intervention and regulation tend to impose unreasonable burdens on business that impede economic growth; the proper objective of economic policy should be sustainable economic growth; and the need for extensive privitisation and deregulation to achieve this (Herman and McChesney 1997:35-36). The effects of this global catechism on participation and democracy can not be easily overcome, largely because the audience’s ability to frame a critical view is limited and shaped by the information available through the media. The result is acceptance of a market economy as the only alternative, and a downgrading of civic virtues (Herman and McChensey 1997:194). The accompanying homogenisation of culture and discussion through a vast mainstream reinforce western hegemony, rather than local diversity.

They listed the values fostered by globalisation as: a stress on consumption as the primary end of life, with individualism and freedom to choose, particularly among goods, as the fundamental desirable social condition; a displacement of the public sphere with entertainment; a strengthening of conservative political forces hostile to organised labour and complacent about the increasing inequality of income and wealth; and the erosion of local cultures (Herman and McChesney 1997:153-155).

Herman and McChesney described how the Internet and other interactive technologies have rapidly been drawn into this global net. The sudden growth of the Internet, and its initial independence from commercial control, arose from several accidents of technological history. The World Wide Web, created only to facilitate communication between physicists, caused an explosion of Internet activity, fuelled by the arrival of browser software in the early 1990s. When the US gave control of the Internet backbone to seven firms, including several telephone companies, the door was opened for commercial use (Herman and McChesney 1997:117). This ran counter to the early development of the Internet, which was collaborative and non-profit, as outlined in the first hand history of Use-net by Hauben and Hauben (1997). Subsequently, the right of the public to have a direct say in the Internet’s future has ‘dropped out of sight’ (Herman and McChesney 1997:133). During 1998, the management of the domain name system for the Internet was turned over to a non-profit corporation, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), sparking controversy over ‘Internet governance’.

Their analysis of the convergent global media parallels other analyses of globalisation more generally. For example, Martin and Schumann (1997) focus on the social outcomes and conclude that a narrow economic framework dominates at the expense of longer term sustainablity. Both approaches agree that current trends tend to diminish democratic process.

Public relations and public disinformation

The impact of globalisation on democratic communication processes is perhaps most evident in the activities of trans-national public relations firms. The writers below presented well-documented evidence of disinformation campaigns launched by major international public relations firms on behalf of their corporate clients. An Australian quotation sets the tone:

The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy (Carey 1995:18).

The father-philosopher of public relations, Bernays, saw corporate ‘engineering of consent’ as a way of eliminating the ‘chaos’ inherent in democratic society (Stauber and Rampton 1995:202). During this century, public relations has become an art. Early techniques included simple manipulations like hired ‘experts’ to promote a product, spurious data to demonstrate safety or effectiveness, establishment of fake grass-roots movements (known as ‘astro turf’ groups) to lobby for a development, and co-opting genuine advocacy groups through funding. More sophisticated approaches rely on technology: telephone patch-throughs direct to politician’s offices, video press releases delivered precisely where and when they are needed, and databases on journalists’ preferences and deadlines, to facilitate targeting them for influence (Stauber and Rampton 1995). As they elaborated the details of numerous public relations campaigns which have damaged the public interest and ability to participate, Stauber and Rampton emphasised the impacts of these activities on democracy. The values which increasingly dominate public debate are corporate values which are often contemptuous of democracy. They did not see democracy functioning well either within government or within the corporations they criticised. The only hope they offered, given the huge imbalance in resources between the corporations and citizen groups, was that ‘a democratic movement… must emerge from the initiatives of individual citizens acting as true participants in the process, not as the products of a top-down PR campaign’ (Stauber and Rampton 1995:206). Their argument was similar to that put forward by Feenberg (1991), which is self-organising and evolutionary, rather than calling for an instant restructure of existing institutions. Even in a megalithic system like the $10 billion per year public relations industry, Stauber and Rampton saw room for movement in the margins, as their work attests.

Beder (1997) reinforced Stauber and Rampton’s position with many Australian examples. Her main focus was on the environment, how corporations misinform and undermine public deliberation about it, and the way these efforts erode the institutions of democracy. She provided additional illustrations of corporate disinformation in education to win young minds and convert them into true market believers. Her list of complaints included: of lack of diversity in news reporting, control of media outlets by corporate interests which are not concerned with negative environmental impacts, and political agenda setting by massive investments in public relations campaigns. The effects are not just in immediate destruction of environmental resources, but in the shifting of values towards a less responsible and more solipsistic society. She described how Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPP suits, further inhibit responsible debate on important civic issues. She said cross ownership of media and other industries also acts as an inhibitor on full disclosure of corporate practices (Beder 1997).

Carey (1995) provided evidence of direct corporate intervention in public policy, and the compliance of government in this project. His perspective was historical, with an emphasis on the derivative nature of Australian theories and practices. He charted the early history of public relations after World War I, which led to intellectuals accommodating an industry focus and the pragmatic values of business. He also showed the connection between the rhetoric espoused on the national level and its impacts on organisational behaviour. He critiqued the human relations school of management, which arose in the 1940s and was influential in Australia, as a technique which promoted the idea that managers were scientific and rational, while workers tended to be influenced by less substantial factors, and thus needed to be led. In the United States, this became the ‘Americanisation’ movement, an anti-union and anti-communist precursor of globalisation which emphasised the need to engineer compliance. Carey believed these efforts have been largely successful in portraying community and public oriented policies as a ‘risk to democracy’ because they hamper free enterprise. He found Australia somewhat more resistant to these views, because of its more egalitarian and collectivist nature. However, Carey said influential actors and networks which have promoted this perspective include the Business Council of Australia, Enterprise Australia, Quadrant magazine and the Business Roundtable. Both Carey and Beder presented ample evidence that Australia does not stand apart from the processes of globalisation, or the earlier doctrines which created its framework.

Overall, the above review shows that globalisation, which has media and communication activities as a key components, has evolved in ways which favour instrumental, economic patterns. They run counter to the forms of information sharing that foster democratic participation, often through the omission of transparency or accountability.

Implications for global governance

Financial structures are another important component of the global system. Financial markets and transactions wield enormous power over national governments, through their vast hidden exchanges which take place with the speed of light. This was vividly described by Martin and Schumann (1997) and Brown (1998). The concealed world of financial governance undermines democracy through its opacity and sheer magnitude, which dwarfs that of the physical economy (Bell 1997). New formal structures for governance are not necessarily providing the new forms of democracy that would address these globalisation issues. The European Union may be considered an experiment in trans-national governance. Several writers expressed concern about a ‘democratic deficit’ in the way in which the European Union is progressing, and the need to develop democratic openness in its policy making (Betten 1998, Habermas 1992). De facto forms of transnational governance seem to be emerging via financial markets and their influence over national policies (Martin and Schumann 1997, Brown 1998). Certainly, institutions with attenuated accountability to national citizens, such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) seem to be increasing their influence on national policies. These issues are entwined with the role of technology in general, making it one of the ‘tectonic plates’ shaping the world in the next millennium (Thurow 1996). At the same time, nation states are losing credibility, partly due to perceptions of increased corruption and illegal activities. Dear (1999) said the rise of ‘gangster nations’ accelerates the decline of participation through representative structures.

A high level business working group at MIT suggested two likely scenarios for organisations in the 21st century. One is small companies which are part of large networks, and the other is virtual countries, as global conglomerates take on the safety net functions of governments (Laubacher and Malone 1997). Liberal concepts of the nation state are being replaced by an implicit faith in the ability of transnational corporations to create long term global balance, if not sustainability (Hart 1997, Magretta 1997). Kanter’s (1995) views on the ‘social entrepreneurship’ of corporations are discussed in Chapter 4. However, the new aristocracy guiding the corporations is unlikely to be more generous or less inward looking and conservative than the one they replace (Haywood 1995:97).

The issue of ethics is never far from concerns about democratic process in the global information society. Brown described how investment performance measures pressure financiers to become more ruthless in competing for inflated returns. Interests of employees or the wider community are subjugated to those of the all-important shareholders, with handsome rewards for compliance (Brown 1998:105). This can be seen as a version of the prisoner’s dilemma: meet the quota or face unemployment. An alternative description is ‘sauve qui peut’ (Martin and Schumann 1997), or roughly, ‘each for themselves’.


The above review shows that computerised technology is an essential component of a globally convergent system of information management and control. The major concern for democracy is the tendency of this system to reflect the instrumental values of a small elite. Citizen participation is restricted by the nature, content and direction of information flow. This limits the developmental potential of interactive technologies, and encourages ignorance and acquiescence to the emerging forms of de facto global governance. In complexity terms, the system is driven by positive, destabilising feedback. The chorus of voices which could be created by strongly interactive technology is squandered on feedback about consumption patterns. These are then amplified by the system, so that voices calling for reflection on the system are further marginalised. This leads to Hypothesis 3:

Patterns for the use of interactive technologies in processes of governance will emerge at all levels.

And Hypothesis 4:

The dominant actors and values determining the use of information technology on a global scale do not favour democratic process.

2.4 A Critical Review of the Literature on Electronic Democracy

Interest in the role of emerging communication technologies in the political process has expanded in the 1990s, with the growth of the Internet. There is now a substantial literature on many aspects of the ways interactive technology can be used to enhance citizen participation. The aims of this review are to provide an overview of the issues and answers of various writers, and relate it to the above analysis of the global information society. Many of the debates about electronic democracy are continuations of older concerns about democracy in general. Other aspects of electronic democracy relate more directly to the new opportunities the technology offers, and invite discussions about global impacts and problems of complexity and scale. Loosely categorised, writing about electronic democracy is either optimistic, pessimistic, or critically ambivalent. A complementary categorisation is given in Barber (1998-99), who outlined three scenarios for the future relationship between technology and democracy: the Pangloss, optimistic scenario and the darker Pandora, characterised by surveillance and privacy abuses. Barber’s preference is for the Jeffersonian scenario, which emphasises ‘strong’ democracy underpinned by slower paced deliberation and responsible decision making based on the public interest.

A useful starting point is Macpherson (1997), who listed the methods used for electronic democracy and their effects. Methods include one to many and many to many systems such as email, Usenet and newsgroups, Internet Relay Chat, and the World Wide Web. Outcomes include ease of access, improved information about candidates and issues, better collaboration on global issues which require local action, helping to alert and inform, facilitating debate, maintaining dialogue between elections, and direct decision making. While not asserting technology as a cure all for the problems of modern democracies, neither did Macpherson go into the factors that will influence whether such methods will spread or become marginalised. However, the summary offered was accurate and the benefits described were based on real examples. Thus, there is diversity of form and function, with access given as a key limiting factor.

Optimists on electronic democracy

Meeks (1997) believed electronic interactivity will rejuvenate both democracy and communities. He presented a technologically-driven ideal world, where the ability for virtual meetings is sufficient to alter the way neighbourhoods and schools communicate. He believed the policy would ‘bubble up’ from the grassroots, displacing the artificial ‘astroturf’ grassroots campaigns of today, which are ‘nothing more than sham events, stage-managed by a public relations or political consulting firm, pimped out to the highest bidder.’ He assumed near universal connectivity at low cost, by no means a foregone conclusion in either the US or Australia. He was also optimistic that transparency and accountability would increase sufficiently to counter the domination of government by corporate interests. While it is encouraging that someone who is Washington correspondent for MSNBC (the Microsoft component of the National Broadcasting Corporation) acknowledged that an elite has taken over policy making, he did not explain how a democratic transformation would occur. One of the roles of a critical approach is to formulate a path between the desirable and the existing. Meeks saw both the desirable and the existing, but was vague about how to bridge the gap, possibly because he overlooked the values which have taken the system to this point.

Tuller and Oblinger (1997), both employees of IBM, were even less critical of information technology. They saw IT as a defining force for society into the next century, but did not question the actors or values influencing its exponential growth. Their faith in the market to shape products led them to a narrow discussion about the transformations of IT from host centric, to client/server models, to the emerging network centric computing. While this might offer a solution to the maddening continual upgrading of software and hardware for users, they seemed unaware of the political implications of a powerless, dumb terminal. They predicted that everyone will become a technology user, without indicating other social priorities as prerequisites. Their technological determinism is apparent in their model of asynchronised, self-paced and customised learning packages as a solution for the more complex task of tertiary education.

An Australian book included an optimistic but thoughtful discussion of the potential for electronic government (Petre and Harrington 1996). They emphasised the need for deliberation as well as information, along with low cost access and education. Although both have been employed by Microsoft, their approach was low key and showed that no one sector has a monopoly on productive approaches to the application of information technology to good government. They encouraged government to ‘pioneer deep democracy’.

Technological pessimists

Nieuwenhuizen (1997) offered a well-informed and sceptical view of the possibilities of technology for reinvigorating political debate, as one of just a few Australians writing about these issues. He provided a refreshing analysis of Bill Gates’ book The Road Ahead, pointing out that one intention seemed to be to make readers fearful of a future unless assisted by information about every detail in their increasingly socially bankrupt and dangerous world. Nieuwenhuizen believed access is probably the most important element of social policy for an information age. His chapter about online democracy described a move towards some form of direct democracy as the most likely outcome, with the possibility that politicians will ‘lead from behind’ and become totally poll-driven (Nieuwenhuizen 1997:84). He said the possibilities for democratic deliberation, with its requirements for high levels of literacy and participation, are unlikely to be realised in the wash of jumbled, contradictory and highly commercialised offerings that are likely to characterise the information superhighway. Much of his pessimism was grounded in a lack of confidence in leaders to take a hard look at the emerging information superhighway and ask how it might be shaped to improve society, rather than just capitulate to corporate demands. Without such a consensus, outcomes are unlikely to serve democratic ends. He perceived the systemic nature of the problem, and the need for some struggle to assert democratic uses of technology. He did not believe that democracy can be as carefree as pressing buttons to vote.

Mander (1996) did not believe computers can empower. He suggested computer technology may be the single most important instrument ever invented for the acceleration of centralised power. Therefore, discussions of electronic democracy really should call it ‘virtual democracy’, because ‘someone forgot to tell the transnational corporations’ that their power had diminished. This position grew from his earlier work on television (Mander 1978), which argued for retention of human scale and a direction connection to the natural world. He also described the current speed and reach of computers as a ‘global nervous system’.

Critical theorists

This group urged a closer look and a more interventionist approach to the ways information technology can contribute to political processes and wider social goals. Street (1997) looked at the prospects for electronic democracy, taking the view that any implementation will depend on the social values shaping both democracy and technological change. He believed technological systems and political values are neither discrete nor extensions of each other, and discussions about electronic democracy must articulate more general assumptions about how technological change can be directed to realise particular goals, and how we go about defining those goals. He reviewed the existing arguments about electronic democracy, and tried to show the underlying beliefs about technological change that they embody. Street described four basic criticisms of electronic democracy: it cannot address conceptual issues such as the structure of the electoral system and processes of agenda; more information does not automatically equate with more democracy; a move towards button pushing and away from deliberation might actually be dysfunctional; and the spectre of surveillance must always be considered. He suggested an emphasis on deliberation would be more useful than one which stresses direct voting, but that all considerations of electronic democracy must start with a recognition of the political nature of such applications.

Calabrese and Borchert (1996) voiced concerns about the commercialisation of the Internet and the media, similar to those of Herman and McChesney (1997). They emphasised the connection between communication policy and social policy. Quite simply, ‘the relationship between citizenship and communication is central to a democratic society…Electronic democracy assumes the possibility of citizens giving life to their views through exchanges in new forms of public space.’ They said control of communication by either commercial interests or a technological elite poses dangers for democracy. They believed productive outcomes in this area will rest on the ability to promote civic competence and address these basic issues of public policy as part of a clear vision of government in a time of technological change.

Shapiro (1998) also rejected the idea that the new technologies are inherently democratising. Cyberspace, like any other social space, is ‘a collection of competing values and contradictory attributes.’ As such, the potential for both democracy and totalitarian or corporate control are always present. Even the most relished features of interactive technology, such as the ability to act without intermediaries, can have a negative impact if they inculcate a sense of personal omnipotence and independence from fellow citizens. Shapiro suggested a set of guiding principles that balance rights and responsibilities, convenience and vision. Interactive technology offered no magic bullet, and no fast solutions. He advocated a clear view about the desirable outcomes and the realities of the current context in which these technologies have been developed.

Schaefer (1995) discussed proposals for a privatised national information infrastructure in the US. He examined the relation between technological development and norms of democracy and culture, and cited many writers who bring attention to the need for interactive, participatory citizen communication to develop and maintain social and cultural norms. He also noted the need for scholars to influence communication policy. The tendency for private commercial mass media interests to diminish the public space in which such communication can occur has been noted throughout this century, yet the developing information infrastructure seems likely to follow this pattern. As part of a comprehensive overview of theories of technology and democracy, he related the analysis of both Feenberg (1991) and Zuboff (1988) to the possibilities of transforming the workplace, as advocated by the largely European ‘participatory design’ groups. He also offered a set of criteria which would ensure this infrastructure aids both democratic participation and public dialogue. These include universal service, full interactivity, participatory design, separation of channels to foster non-commercial communications, and freedom of expression.

Two annotated bibliographies surveyed the ways electronic democracy has been covered. Bertin (1997) summarised 18 items, which included reviews of teledemocracy experiments, benefits of direct democracy and electronic town meetings, and the dangers of an over-reliance on polling. Many of these writers acknowledged that agenda setting is an important issue for direct democracy, and that technology can only enhance some aspects of democratic process in a mass society. None of the them looked toward the organisational level, to make the connection between democratic values in the workplace and their renewal in the community.

London’s (1994) bibliography was more comprehensive and took a longer historical perspective. It included six sections and several hundred items covering various aspects of interactive technologies and electronic democracy. The various authors canvassed specific projects, the pros and cons of direct democracy, the benefits of wider information sharing, and the need for wide access. Some of these included activities at the local level, but again did not consider the organisational level. There was also an article by London, which discussed the influential views of Lippman in the early decades of this century on the limitations of the public to make wise decisions, and the desirability of letting the media set the agenda for the public. These views, London believed, still prevail. He observed that, ‘at bottom, politics is a communicative enterprise.’ He believed that the media have all but replaced traditional forms of political exchange, leading inevitably to trivialisation. London saw hope for the new communication media in generating mass feedback, thus giving voice to a disenchanted public.

Finally, the last word in this survey of the electronic democracy literature is from Agre (1998), about the impacts of technology on the political process. He believed that little research has been done on this, but that the impacts are still small, as television is still the dominant medium. The removal of the representative ‘middle man’, as with direct democracy, would not necessarily improve the process, as new intermediaries will always arise and sometimes add value. Some aspects of the political process, such as legislative analysis, research, agenda formation, and coalition building are not easily automated, and may not be appropriate for mass participation. Agre also rejected the notion that technology can have a unilateral effect on the world, but found it important to observe how it can alter social processes. The groups of networks and actors may shift or enlarge with electronic techniques, but they will not go away. He cited the example of patients banding together over the Internet and becoming a network that engages with a network of doctors. In this sense, interactive technology is changing what it means to be a patient. He thought it useful to look at how technology allows people to do more of what they were already doing through other means. He saw definite possibilities for interactive technology to produce qualitative change in political processes, such as lobbying, although the ability to discuss this objectively or measure it is hampered by the very pervasiveness of the technology. Into the ‘vacuum’ of solid knowledge about its impacts flow the ‘myths and ideas that our society projects onto the technology.’


The above review revealed that the literature on electronic democracy has mostly considered government on a somewhat abstracted general level, at the neglect of either the global or the organisational levels. However, both this literature and the earlier discussion of the information society emphasised the importance of values and clarification of social goals in determining the role of information technology in democratic communication processes. Both groups expressed concerns about the domination of the information infrastructure by elite corporate interests, partly because of their power to obscure deliberation about social uses of technology. They called for a balance between instrumental and developmental approaches, and the writers on electronic democracy set forth many of the characteristics which they believed such a system would have.

In a self-organising system, such as the global information society, dominant patterns are already starting to emerge. Previous hypotheses asserted that the workplace is also a critical area for conflict over how technology is used. These confirm Hypothesis 3, that patterns will emerge in the ways interactive technologies are uses in processes of governance at all levels. Experiments in electronic democracy have been most successful at the middle level of community, as the next section shows.

Electronic democracy projects

Probably the most famous is the Minnesota E-Democracy project, established in 1994. This state level experiment has become a useful mechanism for civic dialogue. The founder of that project, Steven Clift, has gone on to work with other governments and communities in similar ways. He has set up an international Democracies OnLine site and mailing list, and has been deeply involved with the G8 Government On-Line project and publications. The G8 project shows the ambivalence of governments toward technology. The main site is about promoting ‘on-line delivery of government services to citizens and businesses’, implying a one-way model. But the publications sub-project on electronic democracy reveals a more open and diverse approach, reflecting the vision and energy of many individuals in public administration. Clift’s experiences travelling and speaking give him a unique perspective on the progress of electronic democracy initiatives worldwide. Clift (1998) surveyed some of these initiatives, including several in Australia. While noting that one-way communication with government is the most common pattern, he saw the exceptions as leading the way, as ‘evolution toward interaction is essential for full realisation of the potential of existing and future Internet tools to promote greater public participation in government’. He has not observed online public space to generate specific consensus, but it can facilitate better understanding. Noting that commercial goals are driving the development process, the question he posed is essentially the same as that which provokes the current research: ‘If we can engineer the best technical methods to facilitate electronic commerce, how can we best engineer the Internet to ensure that important aspects of democracy remains upheld and cherished?’ His work partly answers this question, and his conceptualisation relates to the actors and attractors proposed here. He described four slightly overlapping circles representing ‘the positive contribution government, advocacy/political interests, media, and the private sector make to democracy online.’ (Figure 8) He overlaid a fifth circle: the citizen participation centre. This politically neutral forum uses multiple technologies to facilitate citizen-to-citizen interaction on important public issues. These interactions extend beyond the local level to potentially include participation on international issues. Thus his model is robust and general enough to operate at many levels, and is independent of specific actors or issues. Clift saw communication between groups and individuals as the essential element of democracy. He is an example of an actor exploring the ‘social contingencies’ of technology, self-organising to assert democratic values. His citizen participation centre may also be seen as the overt use of technology to re-pluralise the public communication process, by providing for unaligned actors to voice their views and values. It allows the mapping of additional points on the attractor of technology use.

Figure 8 How Clift (1998) envisaged democracy online with an interactive and apolitical public commons

An Australian example of activism online fits the general model proposed by Clift. Active Sydney, formally launched in January 1999, is intended to be ‘an electronic information hub for social change’. It offers a web site, a daily unmoderated email list and a weekly moderated email calendar. Anyone can add items or events. It is both a complement to other forms of interaction and an access point for new views and ideas, and blends the elements of social change, collaboration, encouragement of new voices and information sharing.

The postponement of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) by the OECD in 1998 was widely attributed to Internet activism, partly spurred by the perceived secrecy surrounding the process. The Zapistas have also been taking their struggle in Mexico to the world via the Internet with some success (Cleaver 1996). Civil disobedience, just one step removed from malicious damage, is also appearing in the electronic world, with uncertain legal implications. Such activities may be considered self-organising responses, where actors assert countervailing values. Activism does not constitute democratic governance, however. The uses of computer-mediated communication by non-government organisations are also subject to cost and technological constraints that can limit their contribution to democratisation (Gomez 1997).

2. 5 Summary

This chapter has presented technology as socially determined, and therefore influenced by the values and goals of those who design it. Interactive technologies have powerful potential for communication, and will therefore always be used politically. Central trends and issues for the emerging information society arise from the system which is creating it: a convergent, globalised system that increasingly controls not just information content and access, but also the emerging forms of trans-national governance. An important complementary aspect is the powerful way computerisation impacts on the individual, either at home or in the workplace. The ambivalence of interactive technology means that there is always space for assertion of alternative values and practices. Not just citizens, but technologists and professionals of all kinds are, wittingly or not, actors and points of influence in this system.

The literature reviewed above on the relation of technology to society, on the origins and issues of the information society, and on electronic democracy all indicate the central role of social values as key shapers of information technology applications. They help form the patterns described in Chapter 1 as attractors: systemic self-similar forms of behaviour which are unpredictable in detail, but recognisable in their general characteristics. They are sensitive to minute alterations in their conditions. It is this sensitivity, the cliched butterfly’s wings creating a storm in a distant country, that fills in the spaces of Feenberg's ambivalences and social contingencies of technological application. Because actors do not operate on just one level, but influence several spheres of technology use, impacts are never wholly contained at the point of origin. While the dominant patterns of globalisation are primarily instrumental, rather than developmental and participatory, alternative actors and patterns are active at all levels of information technology use. The reassertion of democratic values at any point can shift the entire system towards a slightly different trajectory, and reverberate at all other levels in the fractal field. Accumulation of such shifts could create a bifurcation, and the assertion of a radically different trajectory for the overall system. This gives additional meaning to the power fields of Emery and Trist (1965), described in Chapter 1.

This leads to Hypothesis 5:

The ways in which interactive technologies are used at different levels of application affect each other.

The electronic information infrastructure which communicates these values is increasingly being referred to as a ‘global nervous system’ because it coordinates the vital organs of finance, media, government and industry. This raises the question of where the brain centre or locus of control might be in such a system. Even as an image, it suggests centralisation and unity of purpose. Governments have traditionally been the shapers of technology policy, as was seen in the creation of the Internet. Democratically elected governments are the logical place to look for the assertion of democratic values in the emerging information society. Chapter 3 on public sector reform and information technology looks at national government as actors in the development of an information society, and examines the patterns emerging on the national level. The detailed focus will be Australian.