Democratic Theory and Technological Society

By Richard B. Day; Ronald Beiner et al. | Go to book overview

DAHL, DEMOCRACY, AND TECHNOLOGY

H. D. Forbes

The first task of thought in our era is to think what that technology is: to think it in its determining power over our politics and sexuality, our music and education.

George Grant

If the rapid growth of industrial or technological society is the great fact of the present century, then every contemporary writer, and especially every writer about politics, must somehow respond to that fact. Robert Dahl, one of the most prominent American political scientists of the past generation, is not someone whose name springs to mind, however, in connection with the theme of this anthology. Dahl is known for his writings on democracy, pluralism, and the behavioral approach in political science, not for his writings on technology. Nonetheless his most recent book, Controlling Nuclear Weapons, squarely confronts the complex problem of technology and modern democracy. What he says in that book, though apparently at odds with positions he has argued in earlier writings, represents no radical departure from his earlier principles. What he proposes, in effect, is a technological solution to the problems of technology.

This paper will first briefly describe Dahl's analysis of the problem technology poses for democracy. Then it will explain Dahl's objection to a kind of "participatory democracy" sometimes considered a remedy for the ills of contemporary society. The third section will summarize the various suggestions for democratic reform Dahl has made over the past twenty years, and the fourth will outline his most recent proposals for increasing popular participation in politics and popular influence over government. The last two sections will sketch a possible alternative to Dahl's approach and in the light of that alternative offer some suggestions about the relation of Dahl's thought to technology.

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